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?