Category Archives: Genderings

Comments about the processes that produce “gender” and its associations and properties in any particular culture

Fearing the social deconstruction of the body

Those who follow this blog will notice that the last posting was more than a year ago. They may correctly surmise, given the pre-text for that last post (the need for a “next of kin” to make decisions for a “significant other”), that the lapse has to do with the suffering of that “other,” my wife of 47 years who died on May 26, a month before her 77th birthday.

A year ago, scared but hopeful, I wondered how to learn to ask what I kept discovering I did not know and from whom. I wondered about the ignorance revealed by having to act at a moment I had never experienced. This happened to be the theme of the book on which I had been working and which is now available (Educating in life. Routledge, 2019). My experiences in the neurological floor of Columbia Presbyterian hospital, and then the Wartbug Rehabilitation Center, White Plains Hospital, etc. could have become another ethnography of a very challenging new normal (the sub-title to the book). But the last two months pushed these concerns to the background. The then new normal has become moot. In the past two months, what became salient is the power of the body to resist all social and cultural attempts to reconstruct it as a living body. While watching the impressive efforts of the medical professionals, and the spiritual and emotional turmoil of all other bodies affected, I remembered Robert Murphy’s powerful tale of such a struggle told by an anthropologist experiencing his, and all others’, impotence as they confronted what Murphy called, in his book a “body silent” (1987). At the same time, I had to read several student papers struggling with queer and gender theory. Looking at my pile of unread books, I noticed Judith Butler’s Bodies that matter (1993) and started reading it for this blog—expecting to be provoked.

I was not disappointed. First, is the fact that “I” “am” an “anthropologist,” not a “philosopher” (the scare quotes are actually citations to linguistic forms Butler “critiques” as “ontologizing” such social categories as “being” “anthropologist” and “I”). Butler is not an anthropologist but she directly challenges what I do and what I teach anthropologists must do. And she challenges it from a reading of anthropological work she inherits and expands from one now quite traditional reading of their early work, particularly those of the Saussurian (through Lévi-Strauss) and Boasian traditions. This reading is grounded in Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure, and particularly of Saussure on the arbitrariness of the sign, and on the social conventions that link signifier to signified, and arguably (as many in this tradition have done) thereby arbitrarily (in the political sense) constitute this signified. Thus the word ‘sex’ (always surrounded by scare quotes in Butler’s writing) “functions as norms” and is “part of regulatory practices” (Butler 1993: xii). That may be true in the many political activities within which the word appears. But there is no evidence that this function exhausts what the word may also do for those who use it. When teaching this, I first mention another philosopher, Merleau-Ponty who, when facing Saussure, went in a different direction from Derrida’s. It is not that there is “nothing at the center” but that the center 1) cannot be reached and 2) all attempts to reach it must proceed through words (symbols, discourses, practices) that will, not so paradoxically, succeed in giving a glimpse of the center through the silences between the words. And then, when teaching all this to ethnographically inclined anthropologist, I invoke the act of ☞ (indexing) that I learned from Garfinkel.

That is, words like ‘sex’, the ‘body’, ‘death’ are very much “part of regulatory practices” that … fail to capture and dominate that which they do desperately attempt to control. More graphically, when a body is captured by a hospital, it immediately (as in the first seconds of approaching an emergency room) becomes an object for an immense network of practices (in laboratories, universities, state regulatory agencies, insurance companies, etc.) embodied by the highly differentiated, controlled, regulated, bodies who are the medical staff one encounters from the moment when an attendant tells you to park not here but there, to the time when a physician “pronounces” one dead (itself quite a moment of cultural hubris as if the body had waited for the pronouncement to die). This process is well summarized in what should be required reading for all anthropologists of the body, the paper by Barney Glaser and Anself Strauss “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage” (1965). This is powerful ethnography even if it fails to state the obvious: the ongoing re-identification of a body by the professionals, the changes in their demeanor, or the formal transfers from some professionals to other (e.g. from oncologists to hospice doctors) is occasioned by bodily processes over which the hospital has no ultimate power.

In brief that which words like ‘body’ (sex, death) index is NOT a (social) construction, even though it always is, by every evidence we have ethnographically and experientially, a trigger for constructions (such as words, norms, and regulatory practices) that are essential to human life even though they will always fail to capture it. Dismissing the struggle of all when confronting the ever mysterious and ineffable that some humans index as ‘the body’ is the ultimate act of disrespect towards the human.

References

References

Butler, Judith   1993     Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.. Publisher

Glaser, Barney and Anselm Strauss   1965     “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage.” American Journal of Sociology 71: 48-59.

Murphy, Robert   1987     The body silent. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

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constructing the gender of human bodies, literally

In the epoch of the clinic (as per Foucault, and not to challenge readers by writing about “Euro-American culture”) many human beings (we) have learned a lot about the peculiarities of sexual dimorphism (“males” without male genitalia; “females” with same; other chromosomal oddities, etc.) compounded by the mysteries concerning the origin and experiences of sexual attraction (not to mention sexual practices).  How this knowledge became facts in textbooks, the media, the law, and how it spread across miscellaneous populations, is a problem for historians.  Who knows what about all this, practically, at this particular moment in the life of a polity submitted to the regime of the clinic, is a problem for sociologists and anthropologists.  A version of the problem concerns the tracing of what is being done about it and what challenges are then faced given the possibilities that the epoch of the clinic have opened.

This brings me to the surgeons who perform “sex change” operations (search Google for “gender change” operations and find out all references are to “sex change”–another proof of Schneider’s conjecture about American kinship, 1980 [1968]).  It brings me particularly to one set of surgeons who, sometimes in the 1960s, performed the operation on “Agnes” who was made famous by Garfinkel (1967: Chapter V), and particularly on a few lines in a few notes about post-operative issues:

Immediately postoperatively, [Agnes] developed bilateral thrombophlebitis of the legs, cystitis, contracture of the urethral meatus, and despite the plastic mold which was inserted into the vagina at the time of surgery, a tendency for the vagina outlet to contract. She also required postoperatively several minor surgical procedures for modification of these complications and also to trim the former scrotal tissue to make the external labia appear more normal. Despite the plastic mold, the newly-made vagina canal had a tendency to close and heal, which required intermittent manipulations of the mold and daily dilatations. Not only were all of these conditions painful or otherwise uncomfortable but also, although minor, since they were frequent, they produced increasing worry that the surgical procedure would not end up with the desired result of a normal functioning and appearing set of female genitalia. Although these distressing conditions were carefully (and ultimately successfully) treated, at the time that she was well enough to go home these complications were still not fully resolved (Footnote 6)

 Sculpting new genitalia into a human body may be the ultimate in the (social) construction of new realities, the making of cyborgs, and the radical embodiment of a cultural arbitrary (in the service, some say, of making visible the ‘true nature’ of the subject body).  Historically, sculpting the live body (including all forms of plastic and reconstructive surgery), would not be possible in the absence of a host of well-organized people in hospitals, universities, government offices, etc.  And yet, at the moment of the surgery, the body as live object or thing (in Latour’s sense) resists.  Internal mechanisms attempt to heal what any number of cells, glands, and primitive parts of the brain, might interpret as a “wound” to be “healed” by any means necessary–if cells had access to meta-communicational discourses (remember that various parts of the body communicate with each other through many different channels).  Surgeons and nurses are well aware of this and organize themselves to resist the resistance as they use the body’s affordances “against” themselves, so to speak.

At the end, a block of marble, under Michelangelo’s hammers, yields a new David and “we” humans may say that we have won against the world and built a new reality.  But the marble, in its peculiar affordances, remains: what about the missing hormones?  The marble crumbles and museums curators fret.  Wounds heal; surgeons worry; they manipulate and dilate.

So, in effect, can “we” (those who care about such matters) tell David from the marble, Agnes from her body, the raw from the cooked?


Garfinkel, Harold 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schneider, David 1980 American kinship: A cultural account.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  [first published in 1968]

on gender and “distracting associations” in America

Justice Ginsburg also discussed her career as an advocate, one that included six Supreme Court arguments and a role in shaping the language of the law. She helped introduce the term “gender discrimination” as a synonym for “sex discrimination,” she said, explaining that her secretary had proposed the idea while typing a brief to be submitted to male judges.

“ ‘The first association of those men with the word “sex” is not what you’re talking about,’ ” the secretary said, Justice Ginsburg recalled. “ ‘Why don’t you use a grammar-book term? Use gender. It has a neutral sound, and it will ward off distracting associations.’ ” (New York Times, April 12, 2009)

When I teach “gender” I make it a major point that the cultural transformation of sexual dimorphism into labels, cautionary tales, practices, rituals, etc., that is, precisely “associations” must mean that there must be an indefinite number of genders in any culture. Thus gender and sex are not homonyms within the same paradigm. The word “gender” as it had started to be used even before Ginsburg can refer to much more than “sex without ‘male’ fantasies about sexual activity.” For Ginsburg, and for American law as it is enforced by Congress and the Supreme Court, that is for American culture at its most hegemonic, there can be only two genders, like there kind be only two sexes. For those of us in anthropology who have been trying to model “America,” from David Schneider (1968) onwards, this makes complete sense. I have moved far from Schneider’s view of culture as purely as “system of symbols.” “Culture” is a matter of enforced historical constructions that become inevitable for those who encounter them (rather than a matter of enculturation), and it is an ongoing “immortal” process (Garfinkel 2002) constituted by the instructions people give each other about what to do next so that an order can be maintained. But Schneider was on to something for there is evidence that the American a-constituting order on the matter of sex should insist on the possibility of only two genders directly. This is the reality we all encounter when we enter the worlds ruled by America.

Given this reality, it makes sense that behavioral science research, when it attempts to demonstrate that it pay attention to “gender,” and particularly in “policy relevant” research—including research that might be quoted in the Supreme Court and might transform laws and regulations—, would be required to distinguish only two genders and assume that the respondents will respond in terms of their identity as imposed by those who first identified them as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth (or after a judicial process of re-naturalization as the other in cases of “sex change” surgery). As Schneider first noticed, this is a matter of genitalia, reinterpreted, if necessary, by biologists as experts in sexual dimorphism.

This makes American sense, and by almost any theory of culture, it makes no human sense to the extent that it erases a whole range of possibilities even as it further inscribes one possibility. Not only does it make it more difficult to understand “other cultures,” but it also makes it difficult to notice what happens in the areas ruled by America (mostly in the United States but also almost anywhere else in the world given the imperial reach of American hegemony). That point was made recently by educational researchers (Glasser and Smith 2008). By stratifying samples purely in terms of ‘gender’ (as polite ‘sex’), much differentiations is erased. Aspects of “queer theory” make the same point.

I would go further. The problem with moving from simple “gender” to “gender orientation” is that it reinstates sexuality as the core as if the main issue was the nature of sexual pleasure and the defense of the public affirmation of all types of means for achieving it. But the cultural transformation of sex into gender, as any other such transformations, is going to make something that will make much more than sex. It will introduce the arbitrary in all sorts of way. Think for example of the association of color and sex for American infants (blue vs. pink) and then for adult males. These classificatory associations are what culture is all about Lévi-Strauss taught us a long time ago. ‘Pink’ is not gendered, but sex is multiply and differentially gendered when it becomes associated with colors—or legal argumentation.

References
Glasser, Howard, and John P. Smith
2008 “On the vague meaning of ‘gender’ in education research: The problem, its sources, and recommendations for practice. Educational Researcher, 37, 6, 343-350.