Isn’t my cat a cyborg once it’s vaccinated? Back in 2000-01 I was a member of a lively post-structuralist listserv where this question popped up, and to those somewhat familiar with Donna Haraway it won’t sound as absurd. In Cyborg Manifesto and other of her writings of that time, Haraway emphasizes the ways we are made by our cultures, technologies, and even defence funding (Manifesto was pre-internet but it guessed it) – and puts animals, humans and machines on the same continuum of invention and intervention. As the vaccines reprogram cat (and human) immune system, aren’t those bodies a little bit mechanized and optimized? Some animals are observed within conservation management, another kind are enslaved as raw materials in human-run food industry, and another set are adopted as precious family members and given their own health insurance plans.
Some great conversations took place on those listservs, in classroom, in writing academic and general interest, in art criticism - because ‘post-structuralism’, critique of science and technology, French feminist philosophy of sexual difference, New Musicology etc. were the marginalized punks, relatively speaking, of the Angophone academic world, and for the most part removed from positions of power, heckling the more established schools of thought from their naughty step. Judith Butler was on the up and up, but was not a dominant or popular thinker by any measure, nor was Foucault. Both were extremely anti-identitarian thinkers (Butler has since taken a turn). Here are some things from the Foucaultian toolbox that circulated like contraband among us in the sciences humaines:
- there is no identity behind sexual acts, no ‘orientation’ - only acts (while of course Foucault’s own orientation was solidified and exclusively gay). Us young queers took this to mean a sneaky undermining of heterosexuality, but twenty years later something different happened, as we’ll see. Foucault’s genealogical take on some modern disciplines like criminology questioned the notion of criminal record and saw it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the surveillance-for-service stuff is extremely relevant today: the credit bureaus, or health insurance companies taking intrusive health histories before offering policies – or the Chinese social credit rating – would have Foucault’s attention, if he were alive. The young people in the US who get criminal record early in their lives for marijuana possession would find some Foucaultian tools useful.
- While anti- and reform-psychiatry existed before Foucault looked at the history of ‘madness’ or spent time interning at psy hospitals, his work gave the movement some historical ammunition. While madness as demonic possession – or saintly visions -- couldn’t have been a pleasant framework, the modern era’s benevolent gathering and locking up of the ‘mad’ and the friendly scientific gaze over them resulted in a kind of pervasive micro-management. Psychiatry and medicine do have queasy histories, particularly with women and non-European ethnicities. Feminist histories of science emerged on the scene around the same time as Foucault among the Anglos, and some of the work rhymed. As Kathleen Stock’s book, to which I’ll come in a minute, reminds us, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fifth edition, once had an entry for homosexuality and currently cites as evidence of gender dysphoria in children a tendency to wear clothes or play with toys associated with the opposite sex.
- ‘Sexual liberation’ was no such thing. Here too feminist critics could find an ally: ‘sexual liberation’ came with a whole new set or norms and beauty standards, permeated the culture and commerce, and it certainly meant more freedom for men. It meant emphasis of the visuals, and today it means 24/7 availability of porn which is very precisely scripted, and produces need while pretending to satisfy it (to cite Adorno from memory). Foucault’s “You don’t say No to power when you say Yes to sex” still applies in 2021.
- Modern power isn’t repressive but productive, it incites, proliferates – this is one of the most famous Foucaultisms -- and what it often produces is knowledge. In its rise to the throne of the truth, science got propelled and fed by the rising power of the nation state, industrial revolution, resource extraction in the colonies, etc: power has funded the truth-procedure that is the science, and it’s funded the history-writing. This line of inquiry went to all kinds of directions after Foucault, some less fortunate than others. What would he have made of homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, attempts to ‘indigenize’ physics or medicine? Edward Said’s Orientalism is I think very Foucaultian, but scholars who have gone that way now produce arguments that commenting anything about another culture is colonizing and orientalising, which is a dead end.
“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” This is the ur-Foucaultism of the era: anti-identiterian, anti-any kind of policing, records, titles. The 1990s were perhaps the decadent end of the gender-non-conforming 70s and 80s. Haraway’s poetic philosophy of techne was read across disciplines. Cindy Sherman and Stelarc were the artists of the Zeitgeist, and a few years later, Ryan Trecartin. In the academe, the ‘post-structuralism’ was a minor pursuit in CompLit, art history, sociology, anthropology and similar – and that’s how we liked it. Butler came out with Gender Trouble, and while she argued (as did Anne Fausto-Sterling) that any scientific search for natural and non-negotiable sexual difference is always already gendered, nobody took this to mean biological sex exists only as a set of discursive practices. Butler played with Austin’s perfomative function of utterance – words can create and make things happen, like “I pronounce you husband and wife”, “Verdict: guilty”, or “You are now a citizen of country X”. And that’s what happens with gender/sex, she posited. We reiterate our sex/gender daily, we become it hourly. We can interrupt at any point. IKR, some of us said, and went on to join the drag king scene and adopt the night-time name of Ben Dover.
Nobody ever used the term gender identity. It would have been seen as an incongruent idea.
There’s a ton of great feminist writing from this era in response and criticism of Foucault. Nancy Fraser, Nancy Hartsock, Alice Jardine, Drucilla Cornell, Caroline Ramazanoglu-edited Up Against Foucault: Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism, Seyla Benhabib, Susan Bordo, Sabina Lovibond, Kate Soper, Linda Alcoff. Already in 1994 Rosi Braidotti wrote about pheminism: the new phenomenon of post-stucturalist men (and some, but fewer, women) eager to replace the old feminism with a dissolution of the sexual binary into a joyous explosion of multiplicities that escape stable signification. Women have always been “postmodern” – we’d like to try something more subject-y and stable, if you don’t mind, Braidotti wrote in ‘94. Differently said, “Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. That is the crux of our solitude.” (Hartsock in Feminist Interpretations of Foucault, ’96).
Why are these women’s arguments so little remembered today and why is Butler so dominant? Since then, Butler has taken a turn toward trans studies and gender identity – Undoing Gender is sometimes described as anti-Gender Trouble – and has explicitly distanced herself from feminism whenever it asks any philosophical or political questions around the desire to transition, socially or medically. This once-Foucaultian has no problem now with bureaucrats and police ordering someone’s papers – if they’re affirming the cross-sex gender identity. On Butler & comp’s watch, gender has not been troubled at all -- genders have multiplied, as Rebecca Reilly Cooper shows in her classic piece, and with them, bizarrely, the policing of their validation. Butler these days insists she’s – pardon, they are – non-binary and demands the they pronoun. (I have effectively misgendered her/them throughout. OH WELL.)
What happened in the last two decades to turn some of these originally bolshy post-structuralist ideas into this proliferation of dogmatic slogans, the shaming and snitching and writing open letters and demanding compelled speech in every corner of humanities, media and left and liberal politics, the calling of the manager, the lawyer, the policeman, waving regulations and statutes in everybody’s faces? And that’s just the chattering classes. Today in Canada, US and UK, male convicts are being transferred, on declaration of womanhood, to women’s prisons. Trans-identified boys and males are welcomed in women’s sports and to question this has become beyond the pale hateful (Martina is one of the few female athletes on any level daring to speak out against.) Women’s awards, programs – like the women in conducting one that I wrote about in my first newsletter – are now open to female-identifying people. Women’s rape shelters in Canada are largely accepting everybody now, as long as they declare themselves either women or enbies, whatever their bodies. (That’s performative function of utterance for you, backed up by a powerful institution, and the gaze-averting media.) This is shaping up to be the era of the “trans child”, as one by one clinic and psychotherapy service of the English speaking world adopts the affirmative model to child and adolescent gender dysphoria, and one by one jurisdiction bans any kind of watchful waiting or questioning and exploration of possible psychological causes of dysphoria or the co-morbidities. A lot of the trans activism is also advocating against free speech and free scientific inquiry, as words are seen as literal violence and putting in question trans people’s existence (again, the performative gone wild and institutionally-backed). LGBTQ+ organizations like the Stonewall, GLAAD, queer media like Xtra or Pink News, as well as some civil liberties orgs like ACLU, and international bodies like UN Women, or NGOs like Planned Parenthood, are all prioritizing the T. A few years back we were killing ourselves over same-sex marriage: we want it and we want it now and if you’re against, you’re a bigot. Today? The idea of sex and sexual orientation is outdated. Sex is, as various people have written in popular science magazines like Nature or Scientific American, a spectrum, not a binary, and as evidence cited the under one percent incidence of DSD disorders in humans, and clownfish which can change sex. Males can certainly be lesbians. The no-dick preference is, as the very right-on British academic Amia Srinivasan argues, like specifying no spice, no rice in dating profiles – kinda embarrassing and not far from bigotry.
How did it come to this? Somebody needs to write the intellectual history of the last twenty years and look at how this vulgate of post-structuralism became inflationary, superficial, mediatised, how it won over the research funding bodies in both soft and hard sciences, how it gained power and lost meaning. (Similar happened with Cultural Studies, minus the institutional power – in his later life Stuart Hall couldn’t fathom what happened to the discipline that he and Richard Hoggart pioneered: it became a proliferation of graduate theses on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Sopranos.) But we are now in a situation – in Canada, US, UK and Australia – where we desperately need some people to write books that argue that biological sexes in humans exist, that sex matters for a lot of things, and that to say so is not hate speech. This is where we are at. Factors that led here are many, but philosophy has undoubtedly played its part, and this is where Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism comes in. Professor of philosophy at Sussex University, Stock has been observing what’s been going on her own and adjacent disciplines, and decided to join in the conversation. Which came at a cost. Anybody questioning the forming orthodoxies around gender can expect er trouble these days.
This book by a philosopher is written for general public, and that in itself is a revitalizing political decision. Philosophy, Stock says early on, is not something that only happens in academic seminar rooms: we all deal with philosophical issues in daily lives, and in our social media conversations, whether we know it or not. (In her sources too, Stock is democratic: in addition to scholarly literature, she uses statements on Twitter, statements in judicial reviews, media reports, blogs, memoirs, and excerpts from fiction as instances of philosophical thinking.) We adopt and drop concepts, we are beholden to worldviews. “You and I, and everyone else, have an important inner state called a gender identity” is one such philosophical belief. Further examples: For some people, this identity matches their sex and for some others, it doesn’t. What makes a man or a woman (or neither) is not biological sex, but this inner state.
As major signpost in this genealogy of the rise of ‘gender identity’ Stock cites
- Select philosophical soundbytes from de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex like One is not born, but becomes woman which detached itself from its textual surrounds and circulates like a cultural currency, used by people who’ve never read another sentence from Beauvoir
- John Money and Robert Stoller’s introduction of the concept of gender identity into behaviourist psychology, and Money’s unfortunate experiments with gender
- Anne Fausto Sterling on the intersex disorders, sex being a ‘spectrum’ and the ‘five sexes’
- Judith Butler, gender as a reiterative performative that does things in the world
- Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: gender identity is what makes you a woman or a man
- The Yogyakarta Principles, drafted by an international group of experts in law, health and human rights in 2006, which became influential within international organizations like the UN and authoritative reference point for academic papers, parliamentary bills, resolutions and NGO’s mandates. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to every person’s dignity and humanity”, state the Principles. Most of the document are perfectly standard rights of gay and trans people to live their lives free of discrimination. But then a novelty: gender identity has the “right of recognition before the law”.
- The invention of the concept of the TERF, and its life as a slur, often accompanied by disdain or threats.
- The explosion of new identities
What is sex and do we need it as a concept? The 1) gamete account of sex places humans on one of the two possible developmental pathways for purposes of sexual reproduction; 2) chromosome account emphasizes the XX and XY binary (while taking into account the rare disorders); and 3) is the cluster account, according to which sex is determined by a cluster of sufficient characteristics, the way we form the concept of a species. Like a field botanist, Stock sifts through the available arguments calmly and patiently, and gives the opposing views generous readings. She gives Thomas Laqueur Making Sex: Body and Gender from Greeks to Freud quite some time. Yes the meaning of a word is holistic not atomistic – scientific findings are always embedded in a wider background theory – but that does not mean that women’s wombs have been wandering inside women’s bodies then stopped after the scientific paradigm changed, or that female skeleton emerged in the Enlightenment era. It might as well be the case, as Donna Haraway put it in Primate Visions, that “the history of science appears as a narrative about the history of technical and social means to produce the facts”, but that does not imply that the universe was geocentric before the renaissance. The sexes before the Enlightenment-era science, writes Laqueur, were so much permeated by status, rank, religion, myth, art and decorum that the category of sex was only accessible through the prism of culture – “sex was sociological, not an ontological category.” Yes, isn’t it fascinating then how humans managed to reproduce without any confusion even before the rise of modern science. It’s one of those mysteries. If there are no two stable, pre-given biological sexes, as Butler argues, if this binary is articulated by power (of science, philosophy, criminology, public administration, population control) then, Stock writes, we abandon natural selection too. We declare ourselves mammal-dysphoric and evolution refuseniks.
In ‘Why Does Sex Matter?’ chapter, Stock lists some of the ways sex makes a difference. (I can’t believe I’m writing this, but HERE WE ARE.) It makes difference in medicine, in sport, to sexual orientation, to women’s career trajectories, assault statistics (have a look at the hashtag #notourcrimes on Twitter). In one chapter, Stock goes deeper into the present models of understanding gender identity in individuals, from the ‘innate’ theory, the psychiatric-medical model, the queer theory model and the identification model, which she teases with a lot of care and dare I say understanding. We all have identification phases in life, especially as young people, she argues, and cross-sex identification is a similar meaning-making activity. In a later chapter she also gives a lot of air time to the argument on the importance of immersion in fiction for our lives – which should be allowed freedom but not cross the line into coercing others to share our own vital fictions.
The ‘What Makes a Woman?’ chapter is a conceptual-pragmatic analysis that makes the case for the continued existence of the concept WOMAN.
Stock also examines how a differently inflected concept of woman-as-social-role (WAS) figures in some of the transwomen theorizing and memoirs that essentialize or even eroticize the subordination of women while taking on the role. The Catherine MacKinnon-Andrea Dworkin take on WAS also gets some critical scrutiny. The chapter on some of the least accurate – and extraordinarily influential – bits of trans activist PR is very pertinent. Trans activist organizations share overblown and generalized information on trans murder cases (the numbers tend to be borrowed from Brazil and a few other countries with higher rates of sex worker homicide -- UK for ex had one trans murder in the last two years), and irresponsibly report on suicide statistics (media guidelines urge against speculation on causes of individual suicides).
The last chapter pleads for a more nuanced activism and philosophy. What a lot of gender critical feminists and trans activists have in common is that they are both “strongly motivated to reduce the cultural stigma of sex non-conformity”, while they may disagree on how to get there. And, something that’s often lost in the noise, trans people (like any other group of people) have differing opinions about all of the issues discussed above. The older, transsexual generation tend to be weary of the concept of gender identity and of the pronouns declarations. Nor does the vast majority of trans people believe that ‘sex is not real’, that it’s a modern era invention, or a spectrum rather than binary (cf Buck Angel, Debbie Hayton, Rose of Dawn). Trans activism should not in any shape or form tie trans human rights to the wacko philosophy of the nonexistence of sex. The two are and should be separable. When this particular philosophical fad fizzles out, the trans human rights should continue undiminished.
And what with feminism’s obsession with undercutting its own concepts, worrying if WOMAN is adequate and sufficient and if women can, given their differences, be one political subject? Why is it, asks Stock, that forming concepts as relatively stable albeit with fuzzy borders and exceptions, concepts that perform well in the world, and can be reformed depending on utility – why is the concept-making and concept-using seen as an exclusionary practice, as Judith Butler argues, and why should we be worried about their constitutive outside? Every other liberation project works with similar constraints and constituencies, and none of them self-cancelled for this reason. So how about we just press on.
Material Girls is out on May 6