BY Stan Goff (with substantial and valuable input from Lydia Tolar)
Gender identity and the issue of sexuality has surfaced on several occasions now between comrades and allies in ways that suggest we will have to struggle around this issue a bit longer. This is an important issue, and one that all of us approach with the utmost good will based on our mutual commitment to a politics of resistance and liberation. The issue that seems to serve as a catalyst for this discussion is pornography, and the dimensions of this debate — at least what I can discern in a quick cognitive review — are material, symbolic, cultural, affective, intellectual, and political.
These are not meant as a schema, but as heuristic devices.
Any exploration of any issue in any of these dimensions begins with a point of view, not in the figurative sense of an opinion but relating to the interpretive standpoint from which we are aiming our critical attention. My experience with debates has been that we often argue from these standpoints without acknowledging them — without acknowledging where and how we came by these critical orientations (and sometimes orthodoxies) — and that debates end up being waged like artillery duels, with all the action taking place out of view of the actual guns. So I want to lay my own critical instruments out there in advance, as a gesture of principle and good will, fully exposing the method itself to critical scrutiny — partly because I believe that our divergence beings before the issue-debate begins. We are remarking on the explosions, but the guns that launch them are far away, out of sight.
My first assumption is that the world is real, and that there is an ontological reality that exists independent of — but not impermeable to — the images and ideas that are experienced in the consciousness of individuals. This world is always changing, but that does not mean that it is formless. We can exercise our prerogatives to interpret the world any way we want, but that does not translate into any and all interpretations being equally valid. Validity refers to the degree of correspondence between that ontological reality and our ideational representation of it. Example: If we are trying to help someone who has a genital discharge, painful unrination, and a history of new recent sexual contact, we are perfectly free to interpret this as God’s punishment. But there is greater VALIDITY — correpondence between the idea and the (ontological) fact-independent-of-ideas — in the process of looking through a microscope and finding a gram-negative intracellular diplococci (note all those *categories*), which indicates we can treat this EFFECTIVELY with a variety of antibiotics. (I’m willing to bet than anyone, even those who claim in conversation that reality is reducible to various “discourses,” will drop their “radical skepticism” long enough to have themselves treated if they have gonorrhea.)
My second assumption involves a definition – and that is the definition of power. When I use this term henceforth, I will not be referring to a mental state. I will not be refering to “feeling empowered.” When I refer to power, I am assuming that power consists of the real, structured, material ability to make and carry out decisions against the will of others, and politically, to the legally enforced (which always boils down to physical force as a last resort) entitlement to the materials of nature, the labor of others, and the bodies of others. I’m sure that could be far more thorough, but the main point is that the operational definition of power I am using in this debate is not figurative or psychological. A Haitian peasant woman may feel very powerful in the middle of an intoxicated Gede (a voodoo party — great fun, by the way), where she is experiencing something that feels transcendent, but when the Gede is over and she wakes the next day, her real power is NOT the same as that of the average student at Duke University. She does not have access or entitlement to the appropriation of space and time through technology and money that this student does. She does not have access to the privileges inhering in economic over-development and imperial advantage. She is daily more vulnerable to hunger, disease, accident, weather, and direct unaccountable brutality. Power is real.
My third assumption is that intellectual categories are necessary to understand the world, even though they are always to some degree imperfect. The fact that no category is perfect, and the fact that many categories are just plain wrong, does not in any way mean that all categories can be dispensed with. In formal logic, this is a non sequitur (non follower). A connection is suggested between the premises and the conclusion that “seems” reasonable on first glance, but on examination no causal connection can be established. The conclusion that all categories are equally valid or invalid does not follow from the facts either that some categories are wrong or that all categories are imperfect. Some of the leaves on a tree are badly distorted and non-functional, and none of the leaves on a tree fits the ideal of that leaf (each has its “imperfections”), but the tree has leaves; the leaves function; and it wouldn’t be a tree without them.
My fourth assumption is that ideas are the mental-emotional reflection of lived experience, and that study and work both qualify as forms of that experience. Extending this assumption, experience gives rise to ideas, and ideas in turn shape many of our actions in the ontological (actually existing) world. So there is a relationship between ideas and reality, and it is mutually formative and recursive — that is, ideas and practice develop in an interfused and interacting way. That is NOT to say, however, that reality is subject to incantation. We can bend spoons, but not through telekenesis. We have to pick them up and bend them. This is still a materialist conception.
At the most empirical level, ideas themselves are experienced as a consequence of biochemical and bioelectrical processes in a living body — and using one of those categories, I am talking about humans here so I am talking about a human body. The *experience* of ideas is absolutely individual. (There is a whole world of paradox and mystery here into which we will not dogress concering the nature of ‘conscisousness’, what it is to experience oneself.) But the form and content of ideas is deeply and irrevocably social.
(NOTE: Ideas carry over into the future, past their original context, and carry along practices with them. We still have fathers ‘giving away’ daughters at weddings, eg. But the material reality has more determinative force, because the most durable boundaries to our activity are material. Real power and the real structure of our environments are inescapable in the absence of change.)
I should seg here to a fifth assumption. The fact that we *experience* ideas as individuals is NOT antithetical to the concurrent fact that we are individuals in a species that begins and ends its life in social organizations. There is not now nor has there ever been a single exception to this. We have a very extended infant dependency; we communicate through a social convention called language; and we can become physically ill and even die if human contact is withdrawn for extended periods at any stage of life. We have always cooperated for survival. Always. Not a single *idea* we have is not learned or inferred from learning or reflective of some practice as a social species. So while consciousness resides in the indivudual, the premise of philosophical individualism that individuals walk around making decisions “independently” as autonomous units is absurd bordering on the idiotic (even though it is an organizing principle for almost all bourgeois law). It is an idea that has no connection to anything we do know about humans as simultaneously biological and social (bio-social) creatures.
So there are a few basic assumptions that I am begining with. Now I am going to lay out a few political assumptions, becasue this is a deeply political subject. And when I say “political,” I am talking about *struggles for social power*. When social power is contested… that is my definition of politics.
I said earlier that the question at hand about sexuality has material, symbolic, cultural, affective, intellectual, and political dimensions. I don’t want to suggest that these are separate. On the contrary, I want to show how they are interfused and interactive, but it is often useful to break these things out for analytical purposes as a way of gaining new insights. The real danger here is that we will do what bourgeois science has done, and that is leave everything disaggregated and reduced to discrete catagories and quit studying these inter-relations… that we will study a gall bladder and a pituitary gland and an ovary in a human body, by themselves, and fail to see how each of them interacts with one another in the context of a whole organism. It’s okay to take things apart intellectually, as long as we remember to put them back together.
Political assumption 1: History matters. Even if we can’t see the history of a social phenomenon, it has a history, and it exists as it does on account of that history. Following from that assumption, we can better understand social and political conditions the more we understand their historical development. I have a book by Nancy Cott, called “Public Vows,” about the history of American marriage. We have all sorts of notions about marriage and all sorts of emotional reactions to various aspects of marriage. But in this book, she explains how ideas and practices around race and citizenship and property related to the development of this institution in the US, and after one reads it — at least after I read it — I had a lot more insight into not just my own marriage, but other issues of the day, like gay marriage, inter-racial marriage, marriage ceremonies, and the like. Knowledge of historical development de-mystifies things, and gives us a way to connect what we see to the rest of reality in ways that have greater validity — correspondence between the idea and the fact. But the practice of history is not neutral. Much so-called History is ideology.
Political assumpton 2: Ideology matters. But I again need to lay out an operational definition of what I mean when I use this word — it is understood in vastly different ways by different people. When I use it here, I am talking about a cognitively-affectively coherent set of ideas about life, reality, and society, that is experienced by the individual but socially constructed in ways that conceal social power from the individual. So I am using the term ideology like Marx did, describing a brand of ‘false consciousness,’ not as many other radicals did afterward, as one of a series of cometing ideas systems. The concealment of social power is integral to the definition of ‘ideology’ when I use it for this discussion.
The ideologicial construct of the “rational actor” (favored by libertarians) in society as an abstract equal to all other “rational actors” conceals the very durable and non-abstract socially-structured Inequalities between classes, sexes, and nationalities. It says that a hungry person with no money that steals food is exactly the same (abstractly) as a rich person who steals. Each of them “chooses” to steal, and this “rational actor” is in no way conditioned in that choice by the social circumstances surrounding him. The conditions are “concealed” in the ideological construction of the argument that the act is the same.
Functionally, ideology works like an internal social control mechanism. Steve Biko, a martyr of the South African anti-Apartehid struggle, said, “The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Of course, he also said that once you throw the chains off your mind, you need to fight the enemy that put them there…. the material power still exists.
A secondary assumption I am making is that ideology — thus defined — is socially produced and reflects the interests of those who have more power in society.
I said that ideology is coherent, but that is NOT the same as saying it is valid. It is saying that ideology is coherent within the limits set out by its own terms. It takes itself as the final reference.
Ideology is part of the socialization of every individual. We are raised with a multitude of ideological constructs — gender constructs, religious constructs, class constructs, national constructs, etc. — that often relate to one another, and that are ingrained in us so early, and that are reinforced so regularly by the very systems that are served by these constructs, that before we have even the most rudimentary critical tools available to us we have internalized much ideology as nothing so high-flown as the word “ideology,” but as common-sense.
A subset of ideology is epistemology – that is, HOW we know things. This is deeper than merely ideas. Epistemology refers to the symbols and meanings that form the building blocks of cognitive-affective (because thoughts and emotions are never separated in reality) consciousness, and it refers to the models, or paradigms, that are axiomatic… that is, so basic that we go no deeper in examining them. For example, hunter-gatherer societies tend to view the world in a subject-subject frame, so to speak, seeing plants and animals and even stones as other (non-human) people, while modern society tends to use the subject-object frame. This is an epistemological observation.
Political assumption 3: Transgression of social norms by individuals that in no way challenges the basic stability of systems of real social power are not political interventions.
In fact, in many cases when this kind of expressive INDIVIDUAL action is taken under the guise of being political, it easily becomes a substitute for real solidarity. In some cases, it places individualism before solidarity. It can also be an exercise of privilege. An example, which may be controversial: I saw a young man in a coffee shop recently,and he was wearing a t-shirt that was frankly funny to me. The t-shirt said “Jesus hates George Bush.” That is a very transgressive message. But if he had worn that to an anitwar demonstration where many different kinds of people come together for a singular political purpose – to work in solidarity – I would say that the t-shirt is inappropriate. I would go further. I would say it is self-indulgent and stupid, and that it would alienate many people without achieving anything BUT the transgression of individual expression. It would not only provoke the right-wing Christians who support the war, but many of the Christians who oppose it. If he wore the same shirt to a demonstration of predominantly African Americans who were protesting environmental racism, does anyone doubt he would deeply offend many of the participants.
Transgression for its own sake is not revolutionary; and it is often the opposite of revoutionary. It prioritizes the individual’s desire to express herself/himself OVER the revolutionary requirement for solidarity. This is often a youthful error that combines an element of the “hubris of the young” with delight in rebelliousness. It is unlikely that I would have seen a middle-aged person wearing the “Jesus hates George Bush” t-shirt, just as it is unlikely I’d have seen that t-shirt on an African American.
Political assumption 4: Taking political power from one class and handing it to another, from one nation and giving it to another, or from one sex and giving it to another, means that the dominant group that loses power will of necessity give some things up. Power carries privilege and material advantage. Power includes the ability to appropriate the time, space, energy, and bodies of others.
Now that I have laid out some of my own terms and assumptions, I want to make some more specific assertions about gender.
When I use the word “gender,” I will be refering to a social system of unequal power between men and women. There are other concommitant inequalities (that include homophobia), but I am asserting that structural inequality between men and women is the core dialectic of gendered power — of domination and submission as a unity of opposites. When I refer to sex for this discussion, I am describing a biological phenomenon — in the overwhelming number of cases, and in a scientifically demonstrable way, human beings are almost all either men or women. I don’t think this should be controversial, but it is, and that controversy is at the very center of the debate to which this argument responds.
Gendered power does NOT reside IN biological sex. Therefore, disputing (or disrupting, as the postmodern idiom has it) the very existence of biological sex does NOTHING to “disrupt” gendered power. In fact, as I will explain further along, this kind of solipsism actually reinforces gendered power.
“Solipsism” is described in Wikipedia as: the epistemological belief that one’s self is the only thing that can be known with certainty and verified (sometimes called egoism). Solipsism is also commonly understood to encompass the metaphysical belief that only one’s self exists, and that “existence” just means being a part of one’s own mental states â€” all objects, people, etc, that one experiences are merely parts of one’s own mind. Solipsism is first recorded with the presocratic sophist Gorgias (c. 483-375 BC) who is quoted by Sextus Empiricus as having stated:
1. Nothing exists
2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it, and
3. Even if something could be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others
Solipsism is generally identified with statement 2 and 3 from Gorgias.
Gorgias may have been the first postmodernist.
Postmodernists in the present-day academy have come to dominate many gender studies and queer studies departments. The reason I laid out my own assumptions on the front end of this argument is that I want to use those assumptions to challenge postmodern orthodoxy with regard to gender. It is my belief that the assumptions developed within academic postmodernism are the source of a number of errors in the examination of gender, and that the conclusions predicated on those assumptions are at best disempowering, and at worst reactionary.
One common claim by postmodern gender theorists — and one that is immensely popular among college-educated radicals — is that there is no such thing as biological sex. Not only is there no such thing as biological sex — they say — but if you claim there is, you are being an “essentialist.” (I have posted my critique of anti-essentialism here.) Now this whole trend was in reaction to earlier patriarchal claims to biological sexual superiority; to the naturalization of women as the “weaker” sex, and the naturalization of men’s aggression and violence. I’ll bring homophobia into this discussion further along, and just say for now — as does Suzanne Pharr — that homophobia is a weapon of patriarchy. I refer readers to my short piece on “compulsory heterosexuality,” a notion developed by Adrienne Rich.
Refering back to the leaves on the tree in my assumption that categories are necessary for understanding, there is such a thing as male and female. The exceptions do not in any way disprove the rule. Moreover, the fact of biological maleness and femaleness exists independent of any claim to the contrary, even by the subject making the claim about her/himself. A man claiming to be a woman is making an erroneous claim, and it is an easy matter to prove it. The categories male and female are descriptive, not yet political, and “disputing” these descriptions by trying to erase the meanings fo the terms is merely a semantic evasion. It does nothing to “disrupt” a social system of gendered power, because it does not speak to the social construction of that power. In fact, it denies the very material basis upon which that power is built.
And it is profoundly ideological. It conceals actually existing power, by erasing the category of person who is subjected to male supremacy — women. Maria Mies said:
“Although biological determinism had been criticized quite early in the womenâ€™s movement as a method of explaining manâ€™s patriarchal dominance by the biological difference between the genders, the postmodernists tabooed even the use of such concepts as â€˜womanâ€™, â€˜motherâ€™, â€˜landâ€™, â€˜patriarchyâ€™, â€˜capitalismâ€™, and so on.Â The fact that women have the capacity to bring forth children, that they can become mothers, is totally devalued, de-historicized and dematerialized.Â It is considered to be a mere biological accident which nowadays can be changed by biotechnology.Â The same applies to the category â€˜womanâ€™.Â The fact that most people appear in this world as male or female is not accepted as a given, because it is possible today physically to change oneâ€™s gender or oneâ€™s sexual orientation.Â The gender discourse in particular contributed to the elimination of such categories as â€˜motherâ€™, or â€˜womanâ€™.Â In this discourse â€˜sexâ€™ as supposedly biologically determined and â€˜genderâ€™ as culturally constructed are being separated and contraposed.Â This results in the old schizophrenic situation that â€˜sexâ€™ is again dehistoricized and declared a matter of biology only, which can be left to reproduction and genetic engineers, while â€˜genderâ€™ becomes the â€˜higherâ€™ affair, where culture plays the determining role.Â Old dualism in new garb.”
Gender can not be counterposed to sex. Gender, the system of power, is exercised by actual biolgocial men against actual biological women. These cannot be separated. Note that my definition of gender is different than the one refered to my Mies — who is echoing the postmodern version of gender as a kind of shopping mall of sexual identities and “performances.”
Margaret Dierdre O’Hartigan writes a very good piece on how this postmodern concept of gender actually further benefits men, linked here.
An excerpt: “The ‘postmodern’ supposition that sex is nothing more than a ‘constructed social identity’ threatens the very concept of ‘woman’ while leaving intact the oppression of women. Little wonder that the sophistry of ‘deconstruction’ – primarily developed and promulgated by white men such as Michael Foucault – has found such favor in our sexist society. But whenever ‘off our backs’ publishes a two-page paean to ‘deconstruction’ which cites Colin Powell and Jerry Springer as its only “authorities” (“Identity Politics and Progress”, off our backs, April 1998) it is time for a reality check in a world in which women are routinely discriminated against and murdered because they are women. ‘Deconstruction’ may very well eliminate the perception of such injustice by mutilating the bodies beyond all recognition but the injustice itself will continue unabated.”
Consumer ideology is implicated in much of the postmodern “gender discourse.” Changing brand names does nothing to chage the contents.
Disruption of categories and definitions as a form of “transgression” not only does NOT disrupt power, the disruption itself becomes a concealing ideological construct. if there is no such thing as a woman, then women can not be oppressed. If there is no such thing as an African American, because race is just a construct, then the only offenses against an African American as an African American are individual racism. There is no history, geography, or economic structure that makes an African American an African American. We transgress these categories out of existence.
Solipsism. Ideology. Epistemology.
So I am making the bold and controversial claim that there are such things as men and women, and I am further claiming that the former — as a class — dominates the latter — as a class. Exceptions do NOT disprove the general accuracy of this claim. The tree still has leaves.
It seems slightly crazy to me that I’d even have to defend such a claim, and I blame the male-dominated left for it to a large degree. They have been and still largely are AWOL on the issue of gendered power — except in the most economistic ways — and it is the failure of the left, largely because of its own unexamined patriarchy, to take up the issue of women’s oppression AS WOMEN in a serious way. It was their own marginalization of feminists that created this theoretical vacuum on the left and ceded the whole territory to petit bourgeois academicians. The irony, of course, is that before the issue was abandoned to the petit bourgeois liberals, the male-led left was attacking feminism as petit bourgeois. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, young people who are concerned — and rightly so — about gendered oppression, whether it is perceived as misogyny or homophobia, look for answers that go deeper than unequal wages between men and women, and what they find is the post modern account for gender. Not only does this account actually match their own ideas about gender (post modernism has a ‘rational kernal’ as long as we understand deconstruction to be a method for dissecting discursive conventions), it matches perfectly to their own largely unexamined consumer epistemology… a shopping mall of individual identities.
Here is a second bold and controversial claim that seems pretty self-evident to me, but which I feel compelled to both assert and defend in order to get to the roots of some disagreements on the general left about gender. ALL so-called “sexual identitites” (I will elaborate later why I find this whole notion suspect.) in existence today emerge from a system that can be indexed as global capitalist patriarchy. There are no exceptions, because global capitalist patriarchy is now a system to which not a single corner of the planet is left unaffected. It is a system that shapes most aspects of virtually everyone on earth. All sexual identities are, as Rosemary Hennesy says (paraphrased here), inflected by class, race-and-or-nationality, sex, age, geography, culture, and ability.
I will return to these claims again.
Judith Butler and others who are now called “queer theorists,” a comparatively new academic fraction that is dominated by a postmodern epistemology, have been successful in establishing a niche orthodoxy that says “gender” is performance, and that counter-cultural performances are “destabilizing.” The claim is that these counter-performance disruptions subvert the categories male and female. They further claim that the constraints on the sex of individuals are notional; they are merely powerful discourses. I am reminded here, if I may be a bit flippant, of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” where a man in Roman Palestine circa the year 0 BCE declares himself a woman, renames himself Loretta, and goes on to declare that he wants to have babies. The inability or ability to bear children, I will argue here, is not merely a cultural or discursive constraint.
Alf Hornborg, who actually wants to reconcile postmodernism with materialism (as I do), explained the materialist connection to this kind of solipsism:
“It is not a coincidence that the postmodern paralysis is a condition that mainly afflicts academics, for it is at a distance [eg, cloistered in the academy] that human meanings assume the appearance of ‘constructions’…
“… the ‘postmodern.’ It is a condition where the exhausting attitude of radical skepticism tends to give way to a structurally enforced feigned gullibility. All hope of certainty has vanished, but precisely because no pretense to power or truth can be admitted, any pretense is as good as any other. Signs are once again perceived as indices of identity, but now simply by virtue of positing themselves as such, rather than through assumed correspondences with essences… ‘”
Taking my own claim that men and women exist prior to the operation of social construction — as biological realities — and that the historical development of a sexual division of labor is hugely determinative of how gender (a social system of unequal power between men and women) operates, it seems logical to examine the role of compulsory heterosexuality as a cultural institution consolidating a partcular articulation of family… family constructed as the province of both capitalist economy and male social power. I refer the reader here to the brief explication of it linked here
It is a fairly recent development that compulsory heterosexuality has been combined with notions of the “rational actor” and limitation placed on sexual activity between members of the same sex through medicalized “norms.” Heterosexuality is a political construct, and the most recent expansions of that contsruct into normal and abnormal is an outgrowth of new medical epistemologies that attmepted (and still successfully attempt) to assess behaviors from a “mental health” perspective. There were some religious proscriptions against homosexual behavior, but even these had a moral veneer painted over a deeply political institution — marriage as a property relation. Men have been having sex with men, and women with women, frequently and vigorously, for as long as we have records. Prohibitions against adultery in marriage, remember, did not originally include male behavior within its purview, except to prohibit men from having sex with the wife (as property) of another male. Many men in many societies were fucking each other as part of a repertoire of sexual activity (often reserved for the privileged classes for a number of reasons), even as they maintained a heterosexual marriage relations. Homophobia has taken different forms and intensity in different times and places, just as how we think of BEING heterosexual or homosexual, or sexually ambidextrious, has changed.
With the notion of disembedded, abstract, individual choice (“rational actor,” the epistemological basis for capitalism and its late metropolitan subset — consumerism), combined with the deep sexual objectification of other people as sex has become more and more commodified (and as each person is more an more urged to market themselves as a sexual object and commodity!), we have seen the notion of sexul “oreintation” emerge. As I wrote in “Desire,” the whole notion of heterosexual is required to define the term homosexualâ€¦ or bisexual. But how is it that we arrived at this point in history where we define a sexual â€œidentityâ€ based on a generalized sexual object? Iâ€™m attracted to â€œwomen.â€ (All women?) Iâ€™m attracted to â€œmen.â€ (All men?) And, of course, these selections can become for more specialized and fetishized. But they are still essentially objectificationsâ€¦ the aiming of desire at a particular KIND of object… and more and more a particular KIND of performace.
I point this out only to show the historical contingency of these notions, to de-naturalize them. I have neither the ability nor the inclination here to examine all the roots of desire. The central assertion here is that homophobia serves as an enforcement dynamic to protect the stability of heterosexuality as a POLITICAL category (the paring of a dominant male with a submissive female). The “roles” and “scripts” (if you like this Thespian — performative — metaphor) associated with men and women are designed to police a gender-binary, the socially constructed assignment of power to men over women. Let’s not forget that men in prison who are the agressive “tops” in homosexual pairs or who are successful rapists are NOT considered gay. In this unisex environment, we get a far clearer picture of masculinity — the polarized behaviors expected of biological men that secure and reproduce domination of biological females — where subjugation is the direct equivalent of feminization (to be made LIKE a woman… to be someone’s bitch).
The problem with postmodern interventions is the same as liberal interventions (often the same) to confront both male supremacy and homophobia. They try to — as Audre Lorde cautioned against — “use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” They combine the abstraction of liberalism/libertarianism with the fundamental mysticism of philospohcial idealism. They posit a decontextualized individual in a world that consists only of narratives (and presumably the material world is little more than a Platonic shadow on the cavern wall).
I have posted an excerpt from Joel Kovel’s “The Enemy of Nature,” that does a nice job of summarizing a materialist conception of the history of gender, and I encourage readers to stop and read it over now. This hints at the connection between gender-binary and our late capitalist notions of privacy. Hidden within our liberatory demand to be free of surveillance and afforded spaces for relaxation and imtimacy — encoded in juridical notions of a “right to privacy” — is a poison pill. (Note that I am NOT advocating the abolition of privacy.) That pill is the unexamined duality of public-private, within which we immunize ALL “private” activity from critical review… especially sexual behavior. But gender is a system of power that has in fact been most effectively reproduced IN the so-called private sphere. “A man’s home is his castle,” as they say. It is also where he beats the shit out of his wife. And that dynamic occurs ACROSS (Marxian) class lines. Lumpenproletarian men beat “their” women. Proletarian men beat “their” women. Petit bourgeis men beat “their” women. Bourgeois men beat “their” women. (I didn’t say that ALL of them do so… my point is that gendered oppresson can NOT be neatly packaged as a “seconday contradiction” within the Marxist undestanding of class.) We can scale this model back from open assault to any of the numerous takings-for-granted and humiliations that women suffer from men, irregardless of class.
Denise Tse Shang Tang, writing in “Spaces to be Manoeuvred: Lesbian Identities and Temporality,” says:
“Two binaries are at stake here, namely, public/private and global/local. It is crucial to understand the public/private dichotomy and its practices as gendered. The idea of privacy is a deep-rooted tradition within Western political theories of autonomy, private property, patriarchal family structures and personal freedom. One particular concern surrounding privacy is what constitutes as personal freedom. Modern liberal concepts of individual freedom and rights within familial structures situate an individual within state and private households that are heterosexual and depoliticized in nature. Therefore, being private, in essence, is to abstain not only in the public sphere but to be domesticated in a heterosexual reproductive unit. An ideal private realm would point to notions of domesticity, embodiment, nature, family, property, intimacy, passion, sexuality, emotions, unwaged labour and reproduction. On the contrary, an ideal public sphere encompasses principles of disembodiment, rationality, citizenship, justice, economy, waged labour, the state and valour. As a result, women have been historically treated as belonging to the private realm, and incapable of asserting objectivity through emotional detachment. Applied to spatial dimensions, feminist geographer Nancy Duncan observes somewhat unclear distinctions inherent in the public/private domains…”
“Both private and public spaces are heterogeneous and not all space is clearly private or public. Space is thus subject to various territorializing and deterritorializing processes whereby local control is fixed, claimed, challenged, forfeited and privatized.” (Duncan)
The assertion of a right to BE in a particular space, the occupation of such space AS LGBTQ persons, is more than mere transgression. The establishment of geographical enclaves is more than a cultural intervention. This is space-claiming, the “liberation of territory,” and a genuine political (power struggle) practice. The same applies to the demand for state recognition of non-heterosexual marriage. It is more than performative. But as in any “liberated territory,” the specific content of certain assertions of identity are not immune from critique. In spaces where Black political power has been to some degree established, for example, in majority Black counties, the space-claims that are successfully asserted do not finalize all political struggles. If patriarchy is still a defining characteristic of those spaces, for example, we can acknowledge the success of one aspect of the struggle, and still critique other aspects.
It is a good thing that same-sex couples in parts of Durham and Chapel Hill (I live in Raleigh) can walk unmolested and largely unnoticed in some places, hand in hand. This is something we should fight for as an essential component of the struggle for human liberation, and even more immediately as part of the fight against patriarchy and to remove obstacles to working class and oppressed-national unity.
In response to the attacks of right-wing theocrats against sexual self-determination as a weapon to preserve a retrograde definition of the family, we have seen a variety of defenses constructed. One is based on desire — generically, reified, taken out of history — desire. We assert the right to desire in any way we choose in reaction to the attempt to socially prohibit certain kinds of desire and certain kinds of sexual activity.
Bell hooks, in describing the themes of racially-sexually transgressive films like “The Bodyguard” and and “The Crying Game,” says there is a reactionary message â€œin both these films:Â We donâ€™t need politics.Â We donâ€™t need struggle.Â All we need is desire.Â It is desire that becomes the place of connection.Â This is a very postmodern vision of desire, as the new place of transgression that eliminates the need for radical politics.â€Â Â Isnâ€™t this convenient in a consumerist way? Â Desire and appetite is the intersection where meaning resides…
Once one considers the scope of women’s structural oppression and how desire is variously constructed to reproduce that system, it becames glaringly apparent that these preoccupatons are not only superficial (not seeing below socially-constructed desire to the social organization that thus constucts it) but a blatant act of national and class privilege. In the 1990s, while the US was engaged in a dot-com bubble bacchanalia of consumption, Thrid World debt increased by a factor of eight. This burden fell upon womenin gross dipproprotion to their numbers. An average year now sees (conservatively) 1.2 million women dragooned by dispossesion-economics or naked force into the sex trade.
An excerpt from David Harvey’s newly published “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” (Oxford University Press, 2005) explains:
“Under neoliberalism, the figure of ‘the disposable worker’ emerges as prototypical upon the world stage. Accounts of the appalling conditions of labour and the despotic conditions under which labourers work in the sweatshops of the world abound. In China, the conditions under which migrant young women from rural areas work are nothing short of appalling: ‘unbearably long hours, substandard food, cramped dorms, sadistic managers who beat and sexually abuse them, and pay that arrives months late, or sometimes not at all.’ In Indonesia, two young women recounted theri experiences working for a Singapore-based Levi-Strauss subcontractor as follows:
‘We are rgularly insulted, as a matter of course. When the boss gets angry he calls the women dogs, pigs, sluts, all of which we have to endure patiently without reacting. We work officially from seven in the morning until three (salary less than $2 a day), but there is oft4en compulsory overtime, sometimes — especially if there is an urgent order to be delivered — until nine. However tired we are, we are not allowed to go home. We may get an extra 200 rupiah (10 US cents) … We go on foot to the factory from where we live. Inside it is very hot. The building has ametal roof, and there isnot much space for al the workers. It is very cramped. There are over 200 people working there, mostly women, but there is only one toilet for the whole factory … when we come home from work, we have no energy left to do anything but eat and sleep.’
“Similar tales come from the Mexican maquila factories, the Taiwanes- and Korean-operated manufacturing plants in Honduras, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand. The health hazards, the exposure to a wide range of toxic substances, and death on the job pass by unregulated and unremarked. In Shanghai, the Taiwanese businessmen who ran a textile wharehouse ‘in which workers, locked in the building, died in a fire’ recieved a ‘lenient’ two year suspended sentence because he had ‘showed repentance’ and ‘cooperated in the aftermath of the fire.’
“Women, fo rthe most part, and sometiimes children, bear the brunt of this sort of degrading, debilitating, and dangerous toil. The social consequences of neoliberalization are in fact extreme. Accumulation by dispossesion typically undermines whatever powers women may have had within household production/marketing systems and sithin traditional social structures and relocates everything in male-dominated commodity and credit markets. The paths of women’s liberation from traditional patriarchal controls in developing countries lie either through degrading factory labor or through trading on sexuality, which varies from respectable work as hostesses and waitnresses to the sex trade (one of the most lucrative of all contemporary industires in whihc a good deal of slavery is i nvolved). the loss of social protections in advancedc capitalist countries has had particularly negative effects on lower-class women, and in many of the ex-communist countries of the Soviet bloc the loss of women’s rights through neoliberalization has been nothing short of catastrophic.
:So how, then, do disposable workers — women in particular — survive both socially and affectively in a world of flexible labour markets and short-term ocntracts, chronic job insecurities, lost social protections, and often debilitating labour, amongst the wreckage of collective institutions that once gave them a modicum of dignity and support? … For those [few] who successfully negotiate the labour market there are seemingly abundant rewards in the world of capitalist consumer culture. Unfortunately, that dulture, however spectacular, glamorous, and beguiling, perpetually plays with desires without ever conferring satisfactions beyond the limited identity of the shopping mall and the anxieties of status by way of good looks (in the case of women) or of material possessions. ‘I shop therefore I am’ and possessive individualism together construct a world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.” (end Harvey excerpt)
Desire is not in and of itself a good; rapists experience desire. There can be no genuine political intervention in gender without the thorough critical interrogation of the symbols, forms, and performances of desire.
“For some of us, unlearning the privilege of rallying around our sexual desires may indeed be a loss, but the loss of this privilege does not require that we forfeit critical attention to sexuality. On the contrary, developing critical knowledge of the class dimensions of (sexual) identity and desire could be one of the most fruitful contributions of a new generation of feminists to collective global agenda for transformative change .” (Rosemary Hennessy)
Bearing the real conditions of most of the world’s women in mind, the idea of “transgressive performative gender” as somehow liberating loses its rhetorical luster and stands exposed as a form of detachment that the overwhelinmg majority of the world’s women simply can’t affford. Ideas are the reflection of lived experience. The idea that ‘transgressive performance’ is revolutionary can only take root in the lives of those who are relatively secure in their own survival, and whose daily struggles take place predominantly in symbolic dimensions. That is not said to be disrespectful or devaluing. It is simply pointing out the unexamined privilege that can underwrite a politics of personal expression.
My friend Lydia Tolar wrote to me that “in contemporary 1st world societies there are ‘systems of transgression,’ where individuals’ perceived acts of personal transgression function, however unintentionally, within a larger system that reinforces deep power arrangements. So while individuals, and their critics, might experience and perceive those transgressive desires for self-expression as decidedly apolitical, as ‘prioritizing the individual’s desire to express herself/himself,’ that individual is participating in a powerful discourse that silences more serious subversion (subgression?). Obviously I’m building on Foucault here in pointing out that the supposed norm and its supposed violation are in symbiotic relation, rendering invisible deeper questions about the norm and its presumed opposite from the outset. ‘Sexuality’ seems to be the cardinal example of this phenomenon — I think Foucault thought so, though not from my stance, probably. The cultural and legal concept of ‘obscenity’ was constructed to provide the pole, the standard, against which ‘violation’ had any meaning.
“Maybe I should say that not all transgression directly reinforces what it purports to change — but it often functions as a distraction, a misdirection of energy, and a subconsciousÂ systematic refocusing of hate and otherizing toward another disempowered group.Â I think of the angry ravings of 50s and 60s male artists and the venom with which they ‘transgressed’ at art openings and in interviews with rude comments about the mink-coated upper class ladies and how shallow they were – -that *this* was the great social power that needed subverting, not the mens’ rights to abuse their wives.
“Think Mrs. Robinson in ‘The Graduate,’ for example, or the art museum associate in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ whom Katherine Hepburn fires for questioning the interracial marriage of Hepburn’s daughter, as if the associate is the only racist in a fully racist, sexist play/film. Lots of transgressions, freedoms, always won at the expense of enabling the audience to keep hating an older, upper class woman, just to be sure that social conventions don’t get too out of hand. [by focusing on male power]
“I think another example is some African American males’ focus on the ‘transgression’ of homophobic, violent, sexist rap lyrics and gang culture instead of organizing for more serious political change.
“Because we’ve inherited four centuries of an increasing obsession with technological inventions as well as the American glorification of the transgression of physical, political, human, and cultural frontiers, the narrative of ‘transgressing,’ particularly of the ‘I’m going to challenge the supposed monolith of Puritan sexual repression’ kind, has become commodified and popularized and now saturates our media and mainstream consciousness. It’s even become professionalized in the academy. The supposed transgression of the strawman of repressed sexuality exemplifies the conflation of transgressive discourse with power dynamics.”
Strawman indeed! Consider the machine-medicalization of freudianesque narratives about sex.Â A steam engine that will overheat and explode if it is repressed, or if it is not adequately sublimated.Â But it really is a strawman, isn’t it?Â In fact, the real accomplishment of so-called Victorian or puritan sexual ‘repression’ is precisely to lay down those norms and violations and give sex itself a transgressive (‘nasty’) quality.Â In reality, it doesn’t repress sexuality at all.Â It magnifies its signficance outrageously… makes it the perfect antidote to alienation and the loss of meaning, to boredom — another addictive substance.
Lydia again: “Sexuality in the first world commons has indeed been magnified ‘outrageously,’ which is not to critique the torrential effect of emotional/physical attraction in our individual lives, probably an inextricable (and certainly one of the most rich/tragic) experiences in human existence. Sexual liberals tend to think a critique of mainstream hypersexual obsession is a call to amputate erotic love from human experience. But I’ve been looking for larger existential reasons for this magnification — it could of course be co-driven by genuine economic and reproductive empowerment of many first world women over the past 50 years — as a way to maintain the balance of power by other means. But it’s always struck me as something deeper, something related to the loss of meaning.”
“Many have argued that the central dynamic of sexuality under male dominance is the postulation of chastity (so necessary a pole that it has often been maintained with deadly force) with its binary of violation. (I’m not of the mind that intercourse is inherently violating, like Dworkin used to argue, since a vulva could be conceived of as a voracious enveloping organ in another cultural/political context, and in ours, for those with any imagination.)
“So, male dominant sexuality recreates itself through the dynamic of ‘transgression,’ and sexual liberals get caught up in thinking that one half of the binary is *that which needs to be transgressed* through leatherboy water sports NAMBLA hot teen sluts whathaveyou. But it’s *already* being transgressed, by definition, 24/7.
“It’s the full binary itself that should be transgressed. What lies outside of that binary, well, that’s the $64,000 question, since colonization of women’s bodies is the original colonization, the original domestication of nature, reinforced by the symbolism and material reality of pregnancy and childbirth.”
That binary is imposed on one biological sex by another, but it is socially constructed. And the constellations of polarized behavioral expectations associated with this system of power (gender), and diversified to correspond to class and racial-national “positions” are masculinity-femininity. These expectations are not merely personal expressions, but notions determined and conditioned by the exercise of male power over women.
To speak of these so-called gender expressions (also reworked as butch and femme, top and bottom) as if they were merely individual choices is an act of dehistoricizing and decontextualizing how these polarities developed and how they continue to work in the real world for the vast majority of people — as a system of men’s power over women. Saying that women can have masculine characteristics and men can show their feminine sides is not “disrupting” anything. It’s continuing to gender certain behaviors. It is acepting the implied binary of masculine-feminine as axiomatic. Physical courage is not inherently gendered. It is not inherently “masculine.” Aggression is not inherently masculine. It becomes masculine by virtue of the exercise of male power. In the absence of the exercise of male power, masculinity ceases to exist.
My specific critiques of pornography, which is based on the general episteme laid out here, need not be restated now. They can be found at (1), (2), (3), and (4). These are not all mine, but reflect my orientation to the subject.
I post this in the hope that it will be the stimulus for a thorough discussion of these issues, and look forward to your comments.