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La fabrique du genre

Claude Le Fustec
Sophie Marret

Première partie. Discours et construction du genre


Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

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1 Xavier Lemoine : You are one of the first thinkers who have articulated the notion of gender and sex in order to find ways out of the many dead-ends encountered in feminism and gay and lesbian theory. Looking back from your first major book, Between Men (1985), to your latest publications, to what extent would you say that this articulation has changed over time ? Would you identify a number of radical shifts or areas of intensities within the collaboration between gender and sex ? Do you feel this analysis could be extended to other identity constructs, such as race or class ? Moreover, could you expand on the political potential of this configuration, especially in the face of politics in general and recent political developments ?

2 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick : In the background of this question is the earlier history of the feminist articulation between sex (in the sense of a person’s biological maleness or femaleness) and gender (in the sense of their acculturated masculinity or femininity). Even though that work has had to be revisited and refined in the succeeding decades, it represented a crucial conceptual move, one that has made so many other, congruent projects possible : to take two terms that had been treated as functionally identical, and show how imprecise and destructive their fusing had been. What I was trying to do in Between Men, and more explicitly in Epistemology of the Closet, was to show how this move would work as applied to the relation between gender and “sex” in another sense : that of sexual orientation.

3After Epistemology of the Closet, I trusted that readers would have assimilated this move, from my book and others, so it was no longer in the foreground of my work. Meanwhile, a similar series of moves–not impelled by my work, I should add in case that’s not obvious–has been similarly productive in all kinds of areas, including many, like race, abledness, class, and nation, that also have central importance for understandings of sexuality. My impression is that the growing edge of queer theory–which is also to say, the most productive challenge to its routines–is occurring in two ways, one of them through exactly such work. The second way, at present, seems to me not to work through this mechanism primarily. Instead it comes through the transgender movement, which, compellingly, articulates embodied sex, cultural gender, and sexual orientation themselves so differently from the consensus formulations of feminism and queer theory.

4 Xavier Lemoine : Could you explain how you use your “Queer Eye” to open up new meanings through literature and the arts ? Would you consider that queer theory emerges mainly from the texts, or rather that textuality has been redefined by queer readings ? In a sense would you say that queer theory is but the vision of the present on artistic and cultural productions ?

5 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick : May I respond to the last of these questions first ? It seems obvious that any critical or theoretical project can’t help being “the vision of the present on artistic and cultural productions.” Who else’s vision would it be ? To deny or suppress how much one’s work represents “the vision of the present” seems like a form of pretense. I don’t think there is any technique for stripping oneself of one’s presentness in order to offer an objective, ahistorical view of cultural productions ; at best (I really mean at worst), there are ways of faking a voice of timeless truth. That particular authority just isn’t available. (Of course, neither is the authority of offering the vision of the present.)

6There’s more plausibility to a different project, currently very dominant in American letters : I mean that of trying to read historically. The attempt there is to see the text or object specifically as an expression of its own time, and to try to reproduce the frameworks of interpretation through which it could have been viewed then. This project does acknowledge that the critic, too, lives somewhere in history, and that that has real implications for how the object is likely to be viewed. The New Historicist project has involved a lot of striking historical exploration, sometimes opening up interesting readings as well. But from the point of view of particular texts–a point of view that’s never lost its motivating power for me–it can be awfully impoverishing. In dealing with a text from the past, it’s a lot easier to ask “What do we know that they didn’t know ?” than to ask, “What did they know that we don’t know ?” At a non-trivial level, the latter question can only be approached through acts of genuine creativity and speculation. For obvious epistemological reasons, there can’t be a standard procedure for approaching it, and the richest answers can’t be empirically or consistently grounded. So most historicizing work displays a disabling reductiveness–or you might say subtractiveness–toward the past, evident in various forms of condescension or idealization.

7To my mind–certainly these days–the question “What does this text know that I don’t know ?” is the most fruitful question to bring to literature, as well as the hardest. It’s always a paradoxical question because (in a familiar hermeneutic circle) if I’m completely unknowing of something the text knows, then I’ll always remain unable to recognize it there. So it needs to be something I almost know–could intuit or pick up clues about, could engage with in the complex feedback processes and gestalt operations that constitute a crystallizing recognition. Wordsworth’s phrase, “What we half create and half perceive,” has to apply–by definition–to any reading that isn’t going to be stupider than the reader.

8Is there anything distinctively queer about the kind of reading I’m talking about ? I’m not sure. At a time when I felt more completely located inside a collective project called queer theory–around the time of writing Epistemology of the Closet and Tendencies, for example–I was already also trying to read like this, but it may have been less visible to many people than other aspects of those books, especially their polemical motives and their practice of critique. No doubt a lot of readers don’t recognize anything especially queer in some of my writings since then, especially the ones that aren’t on sexual subject matter, or where cultural criticism isn’t emphasized. To some other readers they apparently read as queerer and queerer.

9And yet, in an only slightly extended sense, “queer” does seem like a good rubric under which to explore further what it means to represent a particular moment. It sounds simple enough, even self-evident, to say “Any critical or theoretical project can’t help being the vision of the present.” But each reader or viewer or thinker, each person, like each text, is a palimpsest of many different histories (and histories moreover that are busy trying to rewrite one another). I remember hearing a lecture in the late 1980s–I think it was by Richard Lanham–enthusing about the online electronic library of the future, where each of the old books would be constantly, instantaneously updated to convey the very latest findings in every area. This nightmarish vision crystallized my sense of how very precious and indispensable a thing–aesthetically, cognitively, psychologically, in the progress of disciplines, in art, in the construction of reality and in the gene pool of ideas–is anachronism. There’s currently some very interesting work within and around queer theory, by people like Jonathan Goldberg and Lee Edelman, that speculates variously about some distinctively queer ways of relating to temporality. And it does seem to me that the foregrounding, elaboration, and valuation of anachronism may be one of the practices that “queer” is likeliest to attach to, and one of the ways in which queer intertextuality and recognition have long occurred.

10Which, of course, makes it extra queer when queer theory becomes the latest fashion ! Without wanting to see antihomophobic issues demoted in political importance, I must say I’ll be a bit relieved when queer theory is outdated enough to be reanimated by the strange, antiquarian passions of the future.

11Meanwhile, as an aside, “How queer is it ?” hasn’t turned out to be a heuristic of great interest to me. I haven’t had the ambition of ever embodying the word “queer” or “queer theory,” important as each of these projects remains to me–never wanted to be more than one writer trying to unfold and keep faith with one, unavoidably idiosyncratic set of potentials.

12 Xavier Lemoine : At one of your graduate school seminars at the City University of New York, you once asked the class the question of what we are supposed to do when, through a queer criticism, we arrive at the denaturalization of sex, sexuality and gender. Today, I’d like to ask you this very question.

13 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick : To be honest, I can’t remember a particular occasion of asking this question, but of course it’s a set of issues that has concerned me for quite a long time. I’m sure I meant the question rhetorically—that is, I wasn’t seriously asking what strategies should be used once the critical strategy of denaturalization had been carried to a triumphant conclusion. Instead, I was probably asking (skeptically) whether a strategy of denaturalization would effectively make much difference in how people think, feel, and behave, even if scholars were to pursue it forever. I frankly don’t think it would.

14First, though, let me repeat that I’ve learned a great deal from various scholars’work of “denaturalizing” the key concepts around gender and sexuality. I continue to value that, but I’ve also grown to question many of its assumptions. It seems to me that such work–especially when it’s seen as THE defining, overarching task of queer inquiry–often suffers from two areas of confusion : confusion about what “the natural” means, and further, confusion about how ideology works.

15Maybe I could turn around and ask : what do you think it would mean to arrive (in your words), through a queer criticism, at the denaturalization of sex, sexuality, and gender ? One way of answering the question would be basically deconstructive and antiessentialist : concepts such as sex, sexuality, and gender need to be (and can be) exposed as empty of absolute meaning ; they have meaning only relatively, diacritically, within a particular context of utterance. Which is true enough, as Buddhism and other antiessentialist thought systems could equally well demonstrate. But in that case, what’s the point of a distinctively queer criticism ? Why would sex, sexuality, and gender need more denaturalization than other concepts ? But also (and once again, I’m asking this rhetorically and skeptically) : can you think of any example of an active ideology being dismantled on such abstract, basically philosophical grounds ?

16To be more concrete, then : one thing that is distinctive about gender, sex, and sexuality (along with some other categories such as race and disability) is how closely they’re tied to bodies : what bodies are like, things that happen to bodies, things bodies do. So most often, in feminist and queer contexts, “denaturalization” involves a specific, empirical hypothesis or even assumption : that gender, sex, and sexuality have less to do with the natural facts of bodies than with the bodies’historical, social, and discursive contexts. But this leaves open the question of which facts about bodies count as “natural” in the first place. It’s common in such discussions to treat “natural” as pretty much synonymous with all of the following attributes : inborn ; genetically determined ; visible in the body’s morphology ; immutable. But of course, the links that are supposed to make all these terms synonymous get looser all the time, as a result of scientific and medical discoveries as well as postmodern and feminist science studies. The very phrase “genetically determined,” for example, grows less and less meaningful as scientists discover how contingent the effects of actual genes turn out to be–how dependent on the subtlest of environmental cues, both within the organism and around it (if indeed those are distinct). And because these contingencies continue to branch and unfold before, during, and after the individual life span, there’s nothing especially “natural” or determinative about what features may be present at birth. Furthermore, the idea that social facts are malleable while physical facts are immutable is increasingly questionable on both counts : for better or worse, the successes of social engineering have been remarkably few ; while, also for better or worse, the triumphalism of medical intervention (including into genetic processes) seems to increase every day. And one result of the intersex and transgender movements has also been to show that there’s a large proportion of people for whom the categories of chromosomal sex, hormonal development, genital morphology (whether at birth or later in life), and core gender identity never lined up neatly in the first place. Another theoretical development, in which I’ve been intensely involved, has been the increased attention to emotion and affect. Those are now seen as primary motivational systems, deeply rooted in the physical brain and body, and yet at the same time uniquely free in many respects, and sensitively responsive to feedback processes involving ideas, situations, and strategies.

17So instead of removing issues of gender/sex/sexuality from the realm of the physical body, what’s really happened–more interestingly, I think–has been a rearticulation of the idea of the physical body itself. Instead of being the inert, brute matter on which social processes work–and something whose intrinsic importance needs to be minimized by feminist and queer projects–the body now seems more thoroughly leavened with contingency, with radical variation, and with environmental interactions from the very start. I don’t think this is where most of us social-constructionist, feminist and queer scholars expected a project of denaturalization to go. But at the same time, because it has successfully disjoined the binary assumptions and the links of (supposed) inevitability that were part of previous understandings of biological “nature,” this has actually been a wonderfully successful cumulative project of denaturalization.

18And yet, as far as I can tell, its success (so far) has done little or nothing to dismantle the various oppressive ideologies–misogynistic, homophobic, and racist, for example–that had seemed to be so tied to binary and essentialist understandings of “nature.” And that’s probably not surprising. It seems rather naive to have assumed that such ideologies were like a knitted sweater–that if you could just get hold of the right strand, cut it, and pull, the whole thing would unravel. It would be better to compare them to woven cloth, whose substance is made of many distinct crossings of different threads. Or if you prefer the Deleuzian image, they’re rhizomatic–they can’t be killed by pulling up a single root.

19But really, the metaphor for ideology that stays in my mind is something more like a bird’s or wasps’nest. Like a bird’s nest, it can be made of the most heterogeneous materials, picked up from here, there, and everywhere–whatever happens to be handy. Like a nest, too, its structure is very adaptable to the demands of the space where it will be built. It’s hard to frustrate a nest builder for very long. And the nest is shaped directly around the body of the bird or insect that’s built it, which generally uses its own waste products, its own saliva, as a construction material. So the nest really feels like home. It IS home : it’s habitat, it’s habit, it’s habitus. It’s the place where the creature feels at home enough to multiply and be fruitful.

20For example, if you were to ask someone why they were against homosexuality, and they responded, “Because it’s against nature,” they wouldn’t be using a single definition of “nature.” They’d probably support their assertion by some selection from the following set of arguments. (Here I’m referring to homophobic ideology in the U. S., by the way, because that’s what I’m familiar with.)

211) It’s against nature because animals don’t do it.

222) It’s against nature because only an animal would do it.

233) It’s against nature because it’s a misuse of the reproductive organs.

244) It’s against nature because it’s an evolutionary disadvantage.

255) It’s against nature because God says so.

266) It’s against nature because civilizations that have permitted it became decadent and lost their dominance.

277) It’s against nature because every civilization has forbidden it.

288) It’s against nature because the thought of it triggers disgust in normal people.

299) It’s against nature because it destroys the family.

3010) It’s against nature because it transmits a fatal disease. And so on.

31Now obviously, some of these arguments directly contradict each other. But even where they don’t, it’s clear that they depend on a number of radically different, often opposing sets of assumptions, kinds of evidence or experience, definitions of “nature,” etc. Another heterogeneous thing is the level of the person’s investment in each of these points. Some of them will really matter to the person ; maybe they’ll be the product of a lot of struggle with one’s own forbidden inclinations, or with hopes or fears for a beloved child. Other points will seem integral to one’s immediate community and one’s place in it. Others will be snatched from the air. Tautologically, the only thing they have in common is distaste for homosexuality–the conclusion for which they’re being adduced as evidence. But however disparate or even contradictory they are in all these ways, they seem to the person to fit together in a meaningful, very robust, and apparently livable, even enabling ideological structure.

32That’s why there is so little pay-off, politically, to the intellectual process of discrediting any one of these arguments about “nature”– or even exposing the internal contradictions of the ideology itself. In fact, the heterogeneity of its materials and assumptions becomes a source of ideological durability, a kind of strengthening redundancy. It’s a rare person indeed–I don’t think I know any, including intellectuals–whose basic ideological commitments are shaped by a requirement for logical consistency. If you were to ask me why I oppose torture under any circumstances, I don’t think my answer–if I gave you an honest one–would be any more logically coherent. And is that in spite, or because of the fact that the moral imperative seems self-evident ?

33Do you know what’s been shown to have the highest correlation with positive attitudes about homosexuality ? It doesn’t have anything to do with being exposed to a particular kind of argument, never mind scholarship. It’s something much simpler : knowing somebody who’s gay and out. What I understand from this is the potentially tremendous impact of an expansion of someone’s felt sense of what IS–what there already is in their world. And that expansion is an affective experience as much as an informational one. To have one’s relation to the world enriched, or one’s sense of possibility, or the range of people one could identify with (or by whom one would like to be accepted)– those are complex, often disturbing experiences, but some of the emotions they engage are uniquely satisfying. I think it’s processes like that, much more than thoroughgoing theoretical projects such as denaturalization, that have lasting ideological and personal effects.

34I don’t mean for this to sound anti-intellectual. Quite the contrary–especially since I don’t see the intellectual and affective realms as in any sense separable. But to me it suggests the desirability of a much more modest set of assumptions about what humanities work, including feminist and queer theory, is good for. It seems grandiose to assume–or even aim at–any unbroken continuity between theoretical and political projects. At the same time, it risks impoverishing (as grandiosity does) the reservoir of heterogeneous energies on which our work depends.

35 Xavier Lemoine : Would you say that gender and queer theory occupy a specific role in American artistic productions ? When looking at the growing number of gay and lesbian arts and artists since the late 1960s, for instance, would you say that we can talk about a queer production that feeds and furthers reflection on gender and sexuality ? Is artistic creation the space where gender and sexuality can be re-imagined and as such deploy their full potential ? In this light, please describe your own artistic workshops staged at CUNY over the past few years, especially the contributions you feel they have made toward a queering of aesthetics and an aestheticizing of the queer.

36 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick : Unfortunately I can’t answer the first 3/4 of this question, if it refers, as it seems to, primarily to the visual arts. I’m so writing-centered (though also centered on my own practice of making things, what I just think of as “arts and crafts”) that I haven’t followed these scenes with more than a layman’s interest. Or actually, I could answer, but my answer to each of your queries would be “Sure.”

37But then you ask about the workshop I’ve been teaching on–roughly speaking–making artists’books, and that’s very dear to my heart. As I suggested before, its relation to the rubric of queerness per se is not exactly a prominent heuristic. But most of the students, like me, would probably identify themselves as queer, and no doubt that inflects what happens in the class in all kinds of ways.

38This is a small, experimental workshop that I’m currently about to teach for the third time, titled “How to Do Things With Words and Other Materials.” Its object is to think about and practice a variety of ways of combining written text with other media. The most distinctive thing about it is that although essentially a studio art class, it’s aimed at graduate students in an English Ph. D. program. Many of them are quite inexperienced at making things, though others may have experience (sometimes much deeper than mine) in fine arts, design, or crafts. (The fact that the program is in New York City helps a lot here.)

39As the class’s title suggests, the question of what’s a “material,” and what is material about it, is central throughout the semester. Especially : where does the materiality of language lie ? How is it like and unlike other materials, such as papers, textiles, pigments ? How can written words and other materials instantiate and/or evaporate each other’s materiality ? What are our assumptions about materiality and agency, and how are these modified with practice ? Roughly speaking, the “artist’s book” is our subject, but we also consider comics and graphic novels, mail art, graffiti, broadsides, playing cards, and other genres that make unconventional use of the materiality of both the written word and its support. We make use of the New York Public Library’s amazing collection, as well as Printed Matter, a bookstore in Chelsea that specializes in artist books. We get to look at, and reimagine, works that represent different cultures and times, as well as the span of high and popular culture, numinous and ephemeral objects.

40The class’s aesthetic tends to be collage-y, funky and improvisatory–it’s certainly not a class in fine printing and bookbinding. In parallel with historical and theoretical discussions, each student makes a portfolio of works in various formats and materials, each exploring different aspects of the relations among language, materiality, visuality. Weekly “assignments”– really just suggestions–often involve alternatives to the codex book form, and their implications : what can happen with a box of cards, a folded map (what’s a map ?), a wall calendar. We also do altered books–and the experience of doing violence to a physical book can affect literature students in intense ways. We’re interested in how books get infused with meanings of human bodies, like insides and outsides. (Do books have erogenous zones ?) And so on.

41Since I started teaching at the Graduate Center ten years ago, this has consistently been the class that seemed to affect my students most strongly. Of course it’s the most different from other seminars in format–it meets at my studio in Chelsea, very informally, and most of the time is spent working almost silently. No doubt it works differently on different people. But I have a theory about how it works on some of us. I think the strongest psychological effect comes from juxtaposing the materiality (wherever it resides) of writing with that of “materials,” at the intimate level of “doing things” with them. These are extremely smart, verbal people who think and express themselves rapidly and well. The efficacy of thought in general is all but instantaneous, and language almost so : a bright idea can reorganize part of your mental space in a heartbeat. The cumulative effect on many of us, I think, is a rather uncanny sense of omnipotence (like the grandiosity I mentioned before).

42If you believe Melanie Klein about this, and I really do, then the fantasy of omnipotence, while it can be exhilarating, is also dangerously volatile, in that it taps into some formative early experiences that involve a profound dread. For the Kleinian subject (and this is a big difference from Freud), omnipotence is a fear at least as much as it is a wish. The problem is that the infant’s desires are passionately experienced but intrinsically self-contradictory. Instead of the undifferentiatedly blind, pleasure- and power-seeking drives of the Freudian infant, which encounter no obstacle but the originally external ones of prohibition or lack, the Kleinian infant experiences a greed whose inborn, aggressive and envious component seems to pose a mortal threat–both to her loved and needed objects, and also to herself and the things she holds inside. So the perception of oneself as omnipotent is ghastly as much as it is exciting, and in addition, in the black-and-white world of the infant, there is its always-present flip side : the sense of absolute powerlessness.

43In fact, this all-or-nothing understanding of agency is toxic enough that it’s a relief, a relaxation, a source of wonder and energy (as much as it may also be a disappointment) when one can emerge into different reality. And this is a drama that needs to happen over and over in order to really convince–especially for people who focus so intently on their verbal and conceptual lives. That’s where the attention to materiality comes in. The simplest fact with materials–especially when you’re not very practiced in using them–is that they push back ; it’s their nature to put up some resistance. There’s no such thing as personal omnipotence in making a physical thing. If you’re stitching the spine of a book, or trying to paste collage elements so they’ll lie flat just where you want them, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re involved in a very intimate negotiation, over real time (nothing is instantaneous), with the physics of the world. For all your bright ideas–and it’s a wonderfully fertile situation for bright ideas–you’re planted right in the middle range of agency, the range where reality lives. I think that’s the ground where a lot of the progress in this workshop comes from.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008

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