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The (Re)grounding of Sex

In this short blog entry I want to expand and reformulate the question of the meaning of ‘groundwork’ and ‘regrounding’ as Malabou discusses in the interview but in the context of sex. More specifically, I wish to explain the way in which one of our best known contemporary feminist theorists, Judith Butler, ‘regrounds’ feminism and the need to yet again reground this regrounding. This new regrounding, however, needs to be understood, as Malabou states, ‘as something in movement rather than something stable or rigid’.

In her work, Gender Trouble, Butler mainly focuses her critique on the (in-)famous sex/gender distinction. She sets out to “reground” the way in which we think about sex, gender and the relation between these. This critique is twofold. Firstly she argues that the notion of gender fails to take account of the ‘multiplicity of cultural, social and political intersections in which the concrete array of “women: is constructed’. The social concept of “woman” is for Butler not universal, but dependant on a historical and social context. In their attempt to counter biological determinism, sex/gender feminists create supposedly shared characteristics of being a woman and thereby unwittingly define woman in a way that implies that there is a correct way to be a woman. Further, if there is a correct way to be a woman, but one does not exhibit these characteristics correctly, one is not understood to be a member of the group of women and therefore does not qualify for feminist political representation. Butler’s second claim relates to the former. According to Butler, identity categories are never merely descriptive, but always normative and exclusionary, as for example the identity category of woman. According to Butler, the term “woman” can never, and should never, be defined. This is better understood in relation to her theory of gender performativity. Butler states that biological sex has ‘no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitutes its reality’. In fact, Butler sets out to demonstrate that ‘the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all’. There are no essential attributes determining the sex distinction between man and woman, instead the sex distinction is caused by the illusion of gender maintained by repetition of gendered acts. For Butler, gender is a doing, not a being. Gender is not in a “natural” causal relation to the category of sex but rather a political category maintained by prevailing power structures. Individuals have coherent genders if they exhibit these normative gender traits in a correct manner: ‘women’ are understood as females with feminine behavioural traits, their heterosexual desire being directed towards men and men as males with male behavioural traits with a heterosexual desire directed towards women. However, by arguing that sex is performatively enacted, Butler mistakenly concludes that sex therefore cannot be said to “be”. For Butler, ontology is that which we mistakenly take to exist, such as the categories of sex.

Butler was not the first to argue that sex and gender are political categories. Butler herself acknowledges her reliance on Wittig’s ‘brilliant theoretical and fictional writings’ and quotes Wittig several times in her chapter on “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire”. In her essay “The Category of Sex”, Wittig states that ‘the category of sex is the political category that founds society as heterosexual’. For Wittig, there is no recourse to a “natural sex”, rather, “sex” is a category founded on oppression. Wittig, along with Christine Delphy and others, are often described as French materialist feminists. Their theories originally emerged in opposition to both conventional “economic” Marxism and to the feminisms of difference. While difference feminisms insist that men and women are ontologically different, “economic Marxism” reduces ontology to capitalist economic relations. That is, women’s oppression is, often solely, thought to be due to the capitalist mode of production. For the French materialist feminists, however, the object of analysis was primarily patriarchy rather than capitalism. They refused to understand the former as causing or deriving from the latter. Instead, they employed historical materialism as a method of analysing the social rather than natural relations between men and women. For Delphy and Wittig, sex is a very real category. Delphy states that ‘social construction […] is coterminous with being human ‘ as there is no “human nature”[..] beyond (or indeed before) social construction’, but that such an argument does not lead to a ‘false perception that what is socially constructed is somehow shallow, of superimposed, or easily overthrown.’ This is because ‘human arrangements are both social – arbitrary- and material: external to the action of any given individual.’ This particular ontological position is developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels state: ‘as individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of the individual thus depends on the material condition determining their production.’ Humans are what they do, and it is this activity that makes reality. As Nancy Hartsock points out, Marxist ontology ‘[escapes] the duality of observation and action by beginning from a worldview founded on acting and feeling human beings’. According to this ontology the subject is an active participant in the process of the production of knowledge by transforming the everyday conditions that are the effect of a relationship of oppression. A materialist ontology is an “action driven” ontology in which materialism and idealism form a dialectical relationship of knowledge and action. Delphy and Wittig remind us that one of the original strengths of Marx’s materialism is that he did not understand the economic only as an abstract system, but rather as a realm of social relations which is constructed through social activity.

It is here that I wish to point out the way in which Delphy and Wittig can reground Butler’s theory of sex and gender, but reground it in a way in which the ground is in constant movement without having to disclaim the existence of certain structures (in this instance sex). By focusing on the way in which social relations are material, Delphy and Wittig  are able to claim that the category of woman exists as something material whilst simultaneously denying a metaphysical substance of sex. For Delphy and Wittig, however, whilst we can deny that woman exists in accordance with a naturalist-realist ontology, we can affirm her existence in a social ontological framework forever in movement. Woman exists, for Delphy and Wittig, through her lived reality; through oppression.

By Malise


One comment on “The (Re)grounding of Sex

  1. Pingback: Butler – Gender and Writing | Vernon's Learning Journal

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