the category of gender

this is more of a placeholder than anything else… building off a few scrawled notes from this past spring that i’d been hoping to get back to in a more elaborated way, but i’m not sure when i’ll have the time to do that in a complete way. so this is gonna be partial and not necessarily something i’ll stand by forever, or even for all that long.

and yes, i’m putting this up now because i’m cranky about the current bit of drama around “gender nihilism”, mostly because i see smart people whose analysis i like seeming to miss the ways their positions seem to me to support each other rather than being in contradiction.

so here’s two or so cents, for whatever it’s worth:

talking about “abolishing gender” means completely different things depending on what we mean by “gender”.

mostly i see it used in one of these versions:

– GENDER : a christian/roman european binary structure of power (including “sex”, its biologized form);

– /gender/ : an anthropological categorization structure rooted in GENDER but supposedly expanded and cross-culturally valid;

gender: an individual expressive/aesthetic project using the materials of /gender/.

i’ve encountered (and argued for, about, and against, at various times) a range of analytic projects that talk about “abolishing gender” over the last 20 or so years, meaning radically different things by it. some of the main strains are:

– pre-lapsarian / purification-oriented [transcend the binary] – abolish GENDER, keep /gender/ (and in the versions that think it matters, gender)

– artistic / expressive [every individual their own gender] – abolish GENDER and /gender/, keep gender

– TERF/TWEF version [keep ‘sex’ but eliminate ‘gender’] – abolish gender and /gender/, keep the biologized version of GENDER

and the two i’m most interested in:

– Wittig-style [eliminate the class of ‘man’] – end GENDER and thus /gender/ as structures of power (gender ceasing to be a marked form of expression in the process)

– decolonial [multiplicity of categorization systems] – end GENDER, and thus /gender/, reaffirm or transform the category systems that were distorted to fit within /gender/ (gender more or less dissolving in the process)

what i find valuable about these last two is their focus on the concrete, material ways that structural power is enacted through /gender/ (and thus gender); on GENDER as a historically bounded thing that began and can end; and on the basic lie that /gender/ is a universal, cross-culturally valid, trans-historical structure of categorization.

and the last one, in particular, is quite different from the others because it’s rooted in

(1) the analysis of the inextricable interpenetration of /gender/-ization, racialization, and capitalism that comes from Black and indigenous feminist & womanist thought and practice (especially the lineage running through Claudia Jones’ “triple oppression” and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” frameworks),

and (2) the critique of the categories and categorization structures the christian/roman european tradition uses to divide the world (‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘religion’, ‘human’, &c) that comes from indigenous and Black decolonial & abolitionist thought and practice.

i’m more and more interested in this last element, partly because i’ve been thinking about these category questions a lot in relation to jewishness. it’s very clear, for instance, that a lot of the last 200 years of jewish history are the story of the imposition of (and both embrace of and resistance to) christian/roman european categories of ‘religion’ onto parts of jewish communities’ cultural/legal/ritual practice, and ‘nation’ and/or ‘race’ onto jewish communities’ self-government practices and collective self-understandings. it’s pretty obvious how toxic that’s been; and pretty clear how much the imposition of the categories (through colonial processes) changed pretty much every aspect of previous practices.

in the worlds i move in, we’re used to thinking about these kinds of historical transformations around categories like ‘race’ and ‘nation’, and to some extent ‘religion’. we’re not used to thinking about them around ‘gender’ as a category. we tend – myself very much included – to talk about different /gender/ systems, or changes over time in /gender/ systems. i’m starting to think that (just as we have become clear that ‘nation’ is historically bounded, and can’t properly describe community structures and collective self-understandings across all time) we need to learn to think past /gender/ (and its basis, GENDER) as a way of understanding how people categorized (and categorize) themselves outside of the christian/roman european worldview. not because we can go back, but because we need to go forward.

i see work by a few academics (Afsaneh Najmabadi coming quickest to mind) that opens out towards this kind of direction; but more so, work by tumblr folks who hold indigenous gender positions or live in complex relationships to them.

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