Thursday, March 23, 2017
"Woman Does Not Exist" posted by Richard SeymourChimamanda Adichie is a liberal feminist. She has never claimed to be anything else. Her coordinates are those of an ideology that has already been mainstreamed, viz. that gender socialisation and male privilege represent serious and iniquitous obstacles to the success and achievement of women. Gender, as she put it to Channel 4 News, is about sociology, not biology.
This is all, up to a point, completely unobjectionable. However, the fact that Adichie's terms led her, when queried, to seemingly dispute the status of trans women as women, is not an accident. Indeed, the fact that Adichie clearly has no malice in this, and seemingly has no desire to deny anyone rights, is indicative of how much it is the discourse that is limiting.
But Adichie is also far too good a writer, far too good at smoothing over the cracks that is, to let the discourse's symptoms appear too obviously. It is really her defenders, some of whom were far worse than she on this question, whose slips are most interesting. Just as an example, I want to mention this widely shared Feminist Current piece. If you read it, I don't think I will need to underline the point too much: it is, symptomatically, all over the place, sliding between the uncertain terms of sex and gender. It cannot decide whether the problem is with the idea that transwomen are "literally women" or the idea that they are "female". The strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender, one strongly supported in most transphobic forms of feminism, is seen here to collapse. Indeed, I think it is destined to.
One reason why transphobic forms of feminism gain an exaggerated influence, I want to suggest, is that they insinuate themselves into a serious analytical deadlock of this already mainstreamed feminism that I have referred to. Specifically, the strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender. In this partitioning of the sexed being, sex is the organic, the purely given, while gender is the social, and thus the domain of choice. This separation was, initially, made possible by the innovation of trans technologies and treatments, but it was taken up by feminists in the Second Wave. The problem it seemed to solve was that it made a sharp distinction between the accidents of biology and the huge apparatuses of exploitation and exclusion and violence that are pinned to this contingent facts.
But some radical feminists, like Monica Wittig, never had much respect for or interest in this opposition. Wittig's argument was that sex itself was the problem, the foundation of violence. Sex, she insisted, was more a type of relationship than a type of being. From this point of view, to reduce it to its organic substratum, which is always sedimented with power and discourse, is to participate in the essentialising strategies of sexist domination. But that is not the argument that was successfully mainstreamed, and it is not the argument that began to influence media presentation and policymaking. So, we have inherited a discourse according to which sexism exploits contingent facts of biology and physical reproduction, linking it through socialisation and the allocation of relative privilege, to the production of gender.
The problems with this discourse as a kind of 'common sense' begin with its deployment in a certain kind of 'Lean In' feminism. Both 'socialisation' and 'male privilege' tend to act as reified blob concepts within what I'm short-handedly calling liberal feminism. The problems with 'privilege' as a term are well-rehearsed and I won't go through them here. Suffice to say, it is one that we can only use sous rature, under erasure, while waiting for something more adequate The problems with 'socialisation', though, are less clear and less commonly talked about. Because, one thing that trans politics shows us, is that many many people resist their socialisation. Indeed, isn't that also, in a way, what feminist politics shows us? Would we be capable of talking about liberation at all, if we didn't all in some way resist socialisation?
And that raises the question, of course, of what we mean by socialisation. At most, we gather that somehow the way we are treated leaves an imprint on us. It's clear that social structures get into our souls, as it were. Somehow we are constituted by them, and yet at the same time we reject them. Somehow we are made into girls and boys by them, and yet somehow we never quite fully adapt to those identifications. Somehow we are split subjects, in our relationship to our socialisation. And sometimes, it fails completely. Sometimes, those the system wants to make into boys, and treats as boys, and gives every incentive and warning to be boys, turn out not to be boys; sometimes those assigned as girls, turn out not to be girls. Trans is a type of solution to what one is not, an art of becoming whose starting point is the breakdown of socialisation.
And all of this is to say that between the false oppositions of sex and gender, there is something else, another level of analysis that is missing. That level, I suggest, is unconscious desire.