Playing with Categories

Day 15: Challenging the categories of "gender" and "sex"
Joan Wallach Scott. "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis." (1996)
Sherry Ortner. "The Problem of 'Women' as an Analytic Category." (1996)

For Wednesday's class, Butler and Rubin have become optional.
Read two chapters from Wendy Chapkis's book on Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor

7:30 Wed night, TGH: Becky Thompson (Department of Sociology, Simmons College),
"A Thousand Hungers: A Multiracial View of Eating Problems and Recovery"
This community lecture and conversation offers a multiracial perspective on eating problems. Despite the media's persistence in portraying eating problems as largely a "white girl's issue," African American, Latina, Asian, and mixed race women as well as men across race also struggle with eating problems. The lecture expands the range of traumas that may contribute to the onset of anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating and identifies the creative and original methods people often develop to heal. There will be time for discussion and dialogue during our time together.

8:00 Wed night, Multicultural Center,
Paul Grobstein, "Beyond Post-Modernism: Evaluating Stories" (Universe Bar)

Starting with your postings about transvestism (etc)

Kat: paul's explanation leads me to believe there is no way to categorize accurately because people are all so innately different. so how am i supposed to get along in this world ...?... im so frustrated...!

Kelsey: Dr. Grobstein was simply trying to defend biology and its "percieved" constructs against those who deem this area of academic study to be the cause or "perpetrator" of gendering in society. If this professor was a female transvestite, or a female lesbion, would our reactions have been different?

Samantha: we should always question the information or ideas that are presented to us especially with regard to a subject that is so complex, and whether it is a "man" or "woman" espousing their ideas is irrelevant....the "stories" being told are not the ones I want to tell about sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. ...academics and others are so ready to follow a "scientism" that is not natural... an essence...that is not necessarily just a biological function in some nether region of the brain mass....genetics can provide information about parts of me, but not about who I will become....this play was not about gender/sexuality.... it really shied away from making a strong statement about "transvestism". I guess I was expecting some type of angst on the part of Charlotte over his choice to live as a woman....we do not have a sense of alienation on the part of Charlotte.

Patricia : I think that the beauty of the play came from how gender was such a non-issue and that relates to us in that we've been so frustrated with trying to get gender less emphasized and possibly thrown away...and the play presents us with a circumstance where that is pretty much the case... It was just so interesting to be privy to a character where it was hard to place whether or not she was a "monster" or good person....Can we not take characters/people for their "face value"--do we have to try and identify their core identity? you think that Charlotte could ever be played by a woman??

Elle: The beauty of the play for me, was that it put all these catagories that we're trying to brake down, expand, simplify, brake down, and build up again in perspective....Sure catagories still existed around her, but the fact that she didn't fit into them didn't matter. GREAT! so let's stop freaking out about people's identities and way they tranverse catagories and look at the places from where they stem.

Sarah: You know, I really enjoyed the makes a sexuality/gender/etc that the regular world sees as "atypical" something that simply exists. The play didn't feel the need to say, "Look she's a transvestite, isn't that awesome, look at this, look at this." Instead, dealt with a transvestite. Coolbeans. And then we went to the discussion. And, man, here's where I had a problem....What bothers me is this desire to deny: to say, "Well, it wasn't really about ___.".... I'd be okay if I had heard, "This play is about many things. And the star just happens to be transvestite." But I didn't hear that. I heard a denial instead. And so instead of leaving the theater thinking about the play and the wonderful things that happened, I was thinking about that denial. And that bothers me.

Samantha: Sarah, I also left the play feeling a combination of satisfaction from watching a well-acted play, and then the terrible feeling of the denial that I keep seeing when gay/lesbian/transgender/anyone other than heterosexuals feel the need to qualify their creative piece while denying the importance of it being produced by a queer person about a "non-heterosexual", in this case, a gender-bender.... I donšt think you need to apologize for being troubled. It is very troubling indeed.

??: However, part of what we do as category-makers is to label things such and such....maybe it's where we don't categorize that really shows what's up.

Orah: the fragmenting of the single actor demonstrates the non-cohesive nature of the parts that make up what we perceive to be a unit: a self: an individual. what inclines us to perceive others (and ourselves?) as units?...the SOLE unifier of the self is the body: there is no coherence to self other than body....i am ... thinking of the body as... that which makes a certain sense which is the self. the body orders fragments WITHIN... the body is the operating actor is he who plays with the body's unification function....the actor lives a strange coherence.

Paul: Yes, the biology says that male/female categories are inadequate. And yes, if you come right down to it, everyone is different from everyone any given time there are benefits to be gained from using categories (two? sixteen? millions? different numbers for different purposes?). The trick isn't to give up categories but rather to bear in mind, when using them, that they are being used for a particular purpose and not as assertions that they (or the criteria used to create them) are "real".... we need to be willing/able to allow/encourage individuals to ... both make use of and ignore categories, as appropriate in different contexts. Perhaps a key to doing this is looking inward, at our own uses of categories, both for ourselves and for others?

Alex: i really liked the play....charlotte ...seemed to really get by and not really have any qualms about her gender identity....taking what could hurt her with a brave/careless grin seemed to be a key element in her life....i feel like most of the stuff we've read about intersex people describes them as sufferers, who are confused and feel "guilty" about the way they are. it seemed that charlotte never had any shame about the way she felt...

Kelsey : What struck me so much concerning the play (which...i will use my grandmother's words was "absolutely fabulous!") was that...we, as an audience, did not view this character as a transvesite...."I am my own Wife" sucessfully humanized a transvesite instead of de-humanizing her as a "spectical" by presenting a transgendered character through a performance that focused on her history as a female survivor of war as well as a survivor of gendered prejudice....i am going to borrow [my grandmother's] words..."I dont understand how even today we care whether a person is gay, strait, black, white, german, jewish, or poka dot....i see the same damn idiots and their prejudices today that I saw growing up in the segrated 50' kids do need to start changing the world....youngsters like your class will work to change it." So, I would like to make this proposal to anyone who is actually reading this... a field trip....

Saw play less as a "love story" than as a cultural conflict between two basic approaches to making sense of and negotiating the world:
accepting the multiplicity/complexity/complicity of life, vs. wanting to get it "clear"
(being a "schmuck" and "knowing what is right"?)

Cf. Floyd on this version (performed by two characters) being "clearer"

Cf. EmJ's last paper, Under the Covers with Foucault, Ozick and Fuss: The Nightmare of a Common Language:
if humans kept cluttering their living spaces, there would be no more room, and room is essential if we are to grow and evolve. I believe this is the room Foucault is referring to when he speaks of using thought as freedom: the room to step back and examine the thought-artifacts that litter this dorm room, this campus, the highways and drawing rooms of America. This flotsam and jetsam is always shifting and piling up and draining away. How can we ever presume to name what is constantly changing?

Cf. Charlotte, the collector who preserved everything (even old, cracked finishes on her furniture)

Cf. final scene: just the voice (and the earlier one, the image of running the needle across the old table, picking up the voices around it...):
what have we preserved, when we have preserved the trace? the possibility of another, alternative story?

Cf. fundamentalism and relativism

Cf. category-making: the inevitability of exclusion, using a "shorthand" that will always "shortchange" difference?

Here's where Joan Scott can help us:
normative statements depend on the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities...the word "gender" has emerged at a moment of great epistemological turmoil that takes the form...of a shift from scientific to literary paradigms among social scientists (from an emphasis on cause to one on meaning, blurring genres of inquiry)....Instead of a search for single origins, we have to conceive of processes so interconnected that they cannot be disentangled....We must...pursue not universal, general causality but meaningful explanation...

(w/ attention to Foucaultian power: dispersed constellations of unequal relationships

agency: attempt to construct an identity/life/set of relationships

This work is field-specific
(any historians/history majors among us?)
(Scott's "ovular" essay on "Experience," 1992)
most historians describers, not theorizers (woefully undertheorized...)
aiming here for a new history-theory w/ gender as the new category of analysis
using gender to organize historical knowledge/perception:
how to reconcile universal theory w/ contextual specific history?

(losing battle to try and codify meanings of words: all in flux)
gender: social organization of system of relationship between sexes (agreed-upon system of distinctions)
rejects biological determinism/functionalism:
social category imposed on sexed bodies, defined in terms of one another

insists that study of one gender is study of another: rejects separate spheres
inequalties of power organized along 3 axes: race/class/gender

in cf. w/ feminist commitments to change,
most historians look for universal causal explanations
2 approaches: descriptive and causal
1) "gender" neutral term:
no political edge/no statement about inequality/power/no naming of aggrieved party-->
no critical threat (=academic legitimacy)
2) 3 theoretical positions regarding "cause":
explain origins of patriarchy

(male attempts to transcend alienation from means of reproduction/
inherent inequality of the sexual relation/physical difference/ahistorical)
Marxian/material explanation for gender system, outside sexual division
(no direct determination/by-product)
psychoanalytic production/reproduction of gendered identity of subject
(Chodorow, Gullinga, Lacan: focus on early stages of child development
feminine connected/masculine separate ways of knowing
familial basis; disconnected from larger social systems
doesn't address inequality (vs. asymmetry)
language central; conflict between apparent wholeness and imprecise
terminology: fictional constructs

2 (troubling) aspects to such descriptions of sexual antagonism:
timeless quality and fixed polarity
need to criticize our categories, refuse hierarchial construction of male/female relation

gender defined as primary way of signifying relations of power
constitutive of social relations based on perceived differences
(need broader view than kin; include labor market, etc.)
need to intervene in political history (legitimizing war: appeal to manhood)

The point of new historical investigation is to distrupt the notion of fixity, to discover the nature of the debate or repression that leads to the appearance of timeless permanence in binary gender repesentation.

direct challenge to earlier anthropology work, in search of explanation for the universals...?
Ortner et. al. also in process of revision?
how much social action embedded in this new work?

Jen on Ortner, "Gender as a Category of Analysis"

Case of Devuche nunnery: founding of nunnery appears to happen under different conditions, to different ends, than founding of monastery. Does this illustrate differences in men's "public" concerns, women's "domestic" ones?

On the face of it, yes. But a closer look at the interests of men and women in participating in religious life this way, and at how both men and women are positioned with respect to family and status politics, finally suggest that the interests these elite women share with upper-class men may be much more important in explaining their choices than their differing gender roles and experiences. The contradiction of these women's being both "low status" (because official gender ideology devalues women) and "high status" (as members of elite class - and as members of a society that is in fact equitably organized with respect to gender in some ways) leads to certain tensions in their life experience and expectations. Joining a nunnery, it turns out, is a relatively attractive option for them given that amalgam of privileges they expect and constraints they suffer as women of the elite class. The monks experience some analogous tensions (e.g., as middle sons without inheritance) that set them on a similar route.

In short, shared class status emerges as more determinative than gender in these decisions. In any case, "gender" as a cause makes sense only in relation to those other factors. over-emphasis on gender can lead to what Ortner calls a "mystification" of what is really happening here. In other words, just because we should take gender seriously, we shouldn't assume that "gender" is the answer to any given question.

We tend to slip, she says, from an "as if" posture - that isolates "gender" in order to usefully think about it as an aspect of the organization of power - to the assumption that gender is a REAL category, i.e., a natural class of objects. (Remember Foucault on "The Order of Things...")

[Compare to Scott on "man" and "woman" as at once empty and overflowing categories. "Empty because they have no ultimate, transcendent meaning. Overflowing because even when they appear to be fixed, they still contain within them alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions" (174). She tells us that one of the problems with how gender has been treated as a factor to consider in history is that history may be written as though social norms were a product of social consensus rather than conflict.]

So...what does this mean for feminist/gender studies? When is focusing on gender not the right thing to do? Or is it simply that we have to remember that "gender" is only one of the balls we need always to keep in the air of our analyses? Or is there something wrong with these "balls" themselves (OK, sort of an unfortunate metaphor)- isn't it hard not to forget that the "as if" is only an "as if" if we keep on talking about it?

How does this help us think about "I Am My Own Wife?"
One of our discussion threads has been about whether this play is "about" gender/sexuality, or not.

Patricia: I think that the beauty of the play came from how gender was such a non-issue and that relates to us in that we've been so frustrated with trying to get gender less emphasized and possibly thrown away...and the play presents us with a circumstance where that is pretty much the case. As Elle pointed out, gender did seem to take a very back seat to the play, but I think that is very noteworthy. A transvestite being overlooked in Berlin? How could that be? Could that ever be the case for us now? I don't know.

Samantha: I do believe Elle was correct in her assertion that this play was not about gender/sexuality. While I do feel the play was well acted and interesting as a "historical" piece, it really shied away from making a strong statement about "transvestism"

What does it even mean to say that the play is or isn't "about" these things? Is it a matter of foregrounding and backgrounding, as Thorne might have it? Are we looking for some kind of causality that explains Charlotte's life choices (as in the task Ortner pursues), or some driving force of the play's narrative? Could we have (almost) the same play without the transvestitism?

And some of you asked...what are the political stakes in declaring this "aboutness?"

Sarah: I liked how the main character (and reason for the story) was a transvestite, and that certainly played a role, but the history, the moral implications, the world of Soviet Russia, what it means to be human, etc, etc all had just as important roles in the play. I think that's great when this happens: it makes a sexuality/gender/etc that the regular world sees as "atypical" something that simply exists....

[But] in every single movie/book/whatever that deals with issues not considered in the mainstream, it seems you hear, at some point, the author/director/starring actor/etc utter the phrase, "Well, this play wasn't really about ___, it was about human loneliness." Or, "This book wasn't about ___, it was about love."...What bothers me is this desire to deny: to say, "Well, it wasn't really about ___."

Samantha: Sarah, I also left the play feeling a combination of satisfaction from watching a well-acted play, and then the terrible feeling of the denial... I really think the panelist who said "[This play]'s not about her sexuality, per se." did this because then the play would not be seen as a "gay play" and rather something that was "acceptable" for all audiences. I don't think you need to apologize for being troubled. It is very troubling indeed.

So, our conflict: when "deviant" gender/sexuality is present but not focused upon, this can be seen as normalizing and thus positive. But such backgrounding can also be understood as a denial. I don't have an answer for this, but I think it speaks to the issues with which Scott and Ortner were trying to grapple: looking for gender - as causality, as oppression, as social norm, or whatever - clearly isnšt enough. We need to think about gender as a dynamic that is in interrelation with other social dynamics...and to remember that its "itness" is really only "as-if-ness." Charlotte's story is difficult to carve up into the "gender part," the "German part," the "spy part"...and maybe that is what Ortner and Scott would like to find better ways to talk about?

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