Monday, May 5, 2008

Beyond Intellection and Cognition

Almost no one reads gender theorists any more. (Which is why most people are pretty much stuck in the late 80s/early 90s in how they think about gender.) & so this passage in Linda Zerilli's book (Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom) struck me as worth quoting:

We should not be deceived by [Monique] Wittig's straightforward account of sex as a politically constructed category. What she calls the "'already there' of the sexes" is an exceedingly complex problem, one inadequately addressed by the feminist commonplace "sex/gender is constructed." Once a radical response to the idea of sex/gender as natural, this commonplace, over the course of time, has led to the mistaken view that sex/gender, being constructed, can be seen as just that and revealed as contingent, usually, as I argued in the previous chapter, through an incredible act of intellection and skeptical doubt. This act turns on the mistaken idea that we could obtain an external standpoint from which to see cultural artifacts and practices like sex and gender as wholly constructed. In addition to highly problematic assumptions about the practice of doubting (for example, that we could doubt all gender at once), the basic fallacy of this approach is to confuse truth with meaning. For feminism, sexual difference concerns meaning, not merely truth or cognition. What is cognizable under rules in a (determinant) judgment is called "sex difference," and it is the proper (and, in principle, knowable) object of the social and biological sciences. The criteria that support judgments of binary sex difference are not grounded in putatively apodictic first principles but rooted in relatively stable modes of human praxis. They are what Wittgenstein calls a prior agreement in judgments in our form of life. These criteria are not beyond question and, in fact, have been questioned by feminists. What persists once binary sex difference as an object of knowledge is destabilized (for example, once we "know" that there are at least five sexes, not two, as Anne Fausto-Sterling reminds us) is difference as a question of meaning. It is a question we do not stop thinking about and a condition we do not eliminate once we know that binary sex difference is a contingent social and historical construct.

To engage sexual difference as a question and condition of meaning, understanding, and action rather than truth or knowledge, then, is to engage not one's cognitive abilities but one's capacity for imagination.

Interestingly, Zerilli argues that Wittig's theory is at odd with what she does in her fiction, & that what she does in her fiction is much more interesting & illuminating than her theory.

In the previous chapter, Zerilli commented:

When we see an intersexed body, for example, we are confronted with what Butler calls the strange, but our tendency, as Fausto-Sterling shows, is to fold that act of seeing into what we have seen all along: sexed bodies. Thus if the exception to the rule rarely disrupts our tendency to subsume all bodies under the rule of sex difference, that may be because what we lack is not an appropriately denaturalized position from which to doubt what we think we see but an alternative figure of the thinkable with which to organize anew the very experience of seeing, that is, of meaning. Figures of the newly thinkable are crucial for a form of feminist critique that resists the lure of epistemology and the twin temptations of dogmatism and skepticism. Such figures are integral to a mode of judgment that is reflective and creative.

A few paragraphs later, continuing to talk about the need for "figures generated by radical imagination," she notes,

The sex/gender distinction that animated second-wave feminist theory, for example, was once a figure of the newly thinkable, though it was (mistakenly, in my view) interpreted as an epistemological category for producing knowledge of what was in any case already given. As such a figure, the sex/gender distinction did much more than produce knowledge; it provided a form, generated by radical imagination, for giving new meaning to women's experience and opened a space for thinking about how that experience could be created otherwise. And, like other such figures of the second wave, the sex/gender distinction, too, eventually hardened into a speculative theory used to discern systematic regularities and objective laws, which third-wave feminists rightly rejected.

Try asking the person sitting next to you to define the word "gender." You probably won't get an answer. My definition, for years, has been that gender is a system for making meaning. Many feminists I know can't get beyond statements about gender being constructed and distinct from sex, or about gender not mattering or needing to be eliminated from human social organization, and feel frustrated by gender's continuing to impact our lives in both obvious and invisible ways. The nonfeminist world at large acts as if gender is a characteristic of women (but not men)-- because, I suppose, they think it affects only women's lives, which is why it doesn't count as a political issue but is simply a symptom that will always be with us. Zerilli's emphasis on the radical imagination for creating political freedom is brilliant. She's absolutely right that we can't see gender as though we were outside of it and detached, that imagination, not cognition, is what feminists need to challenge the status quo.

How does one dismantle a system for making meaning? How do you stop an entire set of associations from carrying any meaning at all?


Cheryl said...

"Many feminists I know can't get beyond statements about gender being constructed and distinct from sex, or about gender not mattering or needing to be eliminated from human social organization..."

Sad, but true. And that's before you ask them the difference between gender identity and gender expression.

Ide Cyan said...

Oh, ghastly online discourse.

Zerilli doesn't make any references to Wittig's colleague Christine Delphy, does she? (Judging by the results of Amazon's Search Inside function, I'd guess not.)

Timmi, let me ask you: how do you define gender as a system for generating meaning? What's the form of that system, exactly? How does it work?

Any ideas?

*goes away, muttering wryly*

Timmi Duchamp said...

And yet, Cheryl, it would seem to be a pretty obvious distinction to be drawn-- in simplistic terms, between what one feels (the internal) & how one presents oneself, how one acts in the world, how one responds socially, both consciously & unconsciously, to others' cues (the external). I suspect that those who don't draw that distinction see gender as one big blur of characteristics-- or perhaps assume that what they feel doesn't bear close examination. (Obviously this is something transgender persons can't help but be aware of.)

Timmi Duchamp said...

Zerilli isn't a gender theorist, Ide, but a political theorist who explores possibilities for breaking out of the perceived impasse in feminist theory following the smashing of the infamous false universalizations of many white second-wave feminists.

As for my characterizion of gender as a system of making meaning: it's no accident, of course, that "gender" was originally used as a term of grammar. It's a "system" in the loosest, self-perpetuating sense, that saturates our language and social relations. The meanings that gender makes vary constantly, as is the case with all social concepts. The gender meanings created by/for a white, working-class family of Lutherans in 1950s Illinois would not be the same as those in a middle-class, mixed-race Capitol Hill household in Seattle in 2008 or in the foreign academic community of Florence, Italy, in 1980. Much less of upper class Britain in 1900 or of black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana in 1850. (Even these fairly specific locations are probably a bit too broad.) The meanings are conveyed through associations, figures, metaphors & other equally pervasive mental structures. Gender is imaginary; it isn't real. But it saturates our imaginations.

The best fictional example I can think of demonstrating is Maureen McHugh's Mission Child. (I've written an essay on the novel that can be found on my website.) The protagonist of the novel, Janna, is the sole survivor of a genocide that wipes out her culture. Her language dies with her, & the system of gender she knows & believes in & understands vanishes. Genocide strips her of her gender identity. Her gender system, in short, no longer works to create the meaning that is gender.

Zerilli's criticism of "The Straight Mind" doesn't, by the way, find fault with Wittig's reasoning. Rather, she argues that it's simply not enough to assert radical doubt:

"We need an alternative to the idea that sex is available to radical skeptical doubt. As already there, as part of what is given, as past, sex has become the necessary condition for my own existence. To think of myself and my actions as outside sex is the equivalent of jumping over my own shadow."

In Les Guerilleres [sorry for the lack of accents, but I don't know how to do them in this editor] Zerilli finds possibilities of radical imagination that break out of the bind. Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom is a fascinating book that is especially appealing for someone like me, whose political activism hasn't always been predicated on previously digested political theory.

Cheryl said...

Timmi: I think you are right about most people not examining their own gender identity. As far as I can see, most people, including most feminists, have a very strong sense of gender identity. That's OK, I do too. But because people's opinions tend to be colored by personal experience, if they have never needed to question their gender identity, they may not understand that other people do.

So for most people (including feminists), gender identity doesn't exist. The first question that generally gets asked about transgender people is, "what gender are you 'really'?" And by that people mean, "what biological sex are you?" It doesn't really matter what trans people say about themselves; for much of the rest of the world they are "really", and will forever be, whatever gender they were assigned when they were born. If they say otherwise, well, at best they are roleplaying, and at worst they are mentally ill: either some sort of sexual pervert, or suffering from a delusion.

As for gender expression, some feminists tend to be a bit hypocritical. If a woman adopts masculine modes of dress and behavior, that's her exerting her right to break out of socially-enforced stereotypes. If a man adopts feminine modes of behavior, that's colonization and is to be deplored. I can understand why such attitudes exist, but it still seems rather inconsistent.