‘The Purloined Gender’: Piece for E.R.O.S. (2013)


[This is a slightly edited version of a text that appeared in Volume 3 of E.R.O.S. Journal in 2013]

‘The Purloined Gender’

‘The problem, simply stated, is that one must believe in the existence of the person in order to recognize the authenticity of her suffering. Neither men nor women believe in the existence of women as significant beings’ – Andrea Dworkin[1]

‘The wounds, deprivations and suffering women suffer today – as simultaneously lovers, workers, wives, mothers – have crystallized themselves for me in the image of decapitation’ – Julia Kristeva[2]

‘But here we might ask: What is left when the body rendered coherent through the category of sex is disaggregated, rendered chaotic? Can this body be re-membered, be put back together again?’ – Judith Butler[3]

What does it mean to say that more than 50% of the world’s population suffers from a lack of existence? That this majority is – somehow – without a head? That this headless body is itself then further taken apart and its recomposition the object of a pessimistic question? What does the word ‘woman’ mean outside of its purely ‘othering’ qualities – not man, no longer girl? And yet ‘women’ are everywhere, as a shorthand for a visual and structural ‘otherness’ that renders the category split among even (or especially) those who are supposed to inhabit the role: you have to care not only what ‘kind’ of woman you are, but also how this type operates as a relation – one is not born, but typified a woman, and then you still have to ‘become’ one on top of that too. What a ridiculous amount of work required, oscillating between essence and existence, only to fail constantly! Meanwhile, an all-pervasive neutrality operates at the heart of Man, where this identity disappears ever-effortlessly into the purloined letter of gender, written in invisible ink. Hidden in plain sight and that sight itself obscured. But what does it mean to disappear, for the woman, for womanness, to disappear, I mean? To not have to participate in the rigmarole of types and beheading and splitting, of not existing (which anyway is the case) but on terms chosen not by another? But who can possibly escape when even a walk down the road results in multiple forms of interpellation? ‘Hey you, slut!’ The policeman in Althusser’s famous image of hailing generates not just a ‘subject’, any subject, but a subject whose relation to gender and sexuality is utterly central. To abolish gender, we must abolish the policeman, whatever uniform he might be wearing.

The lady vanishes…

The historical fear of separatism contains within it multiple anxieties, but also a narcissistic disbelief: surely they can’t possibly want or be able to live without me? A one-sided account might talk about the capacity of (some) women to give birth being at the root of a negative male reaction to any desire to live without them (I couldn’t be alive without her, how can she want to live without me?). But anti-essentialist and perhaps anti-psychoanalytic accounts might be more interesting here: rather than what focussing on what ‘woman’ might mean to the ‘man’ terrified that his mother might desert him, we could instead think from the standpoint of the non-existent woman that has already been constructed. As C.E. puts it: ‘“Not-man” cannot be understood as shorthand for “women & others.” It is, rather than a collection of non-male identities, a way of referring to the product of gender as a relationship of exploitation.’[4]  If gender is always produced by the purloined letter of male ‘neutrality’, what might it mean to construct instead a positive image of ‘not-man’? Would it even be possible? Isn’t, in fact, the ‘not-man’ what ‘woman’ has always been, his other?  Could there be a production of gender that wasn’t based on exploitation? It seems hard to imagine what this could be, just as it seems hard or even impossible to think about a world without paid and unpaid labour, or a world without violence, or without money,

It is as unreasonable and anti-realistic to dream of a disappearance of ‘woman’ as it is to imagine that clinging onto a set of imposed attributes defines one. Just as feminism is as much strategic as it is descriptive and critical, it may be more politically efficacious to less dream of the disappearance of the myriad multiple constructions of woman, and more pressing to construct ‘man’, precisely because this category seeks to avoid all definitions that might pin it down, indeed to avoid admitting it is indeed a construction like all the others. Because it is always foolish to mimic the tactics of the other when fighting from below, this would not need to be a negative project, despite what ‘man-ness’ might fear. What would it do? If the goal is to make possible the disappearance of negative hailings of the ‘woman’ so as to permit the possibility of believing in their reality to emerge (where reality refers not to some underlying qualities or fundamental essence but to the possibility of self-determination or no determination at all). In other words, if we accept the argument that ‘non-male’ identities refer to the product of gender as a relationship of exploitation, then the the flip-side of this is that ‘male’ identities can be identified as those which generate exploitation, consciously or otherwise. What would it mean for maleness to be explicitly felt as a historical weight? (A similar operation could be performed on ‘whiteness’ critiqued as precisely a construction of exploitative relations in which whiteness ‘hides’ behind its oppression of the other, which it has to simultaneously endlessly invent and limit).

The identification of the contours of ‘patriarchy’ or ‘male privilege’ has long been at the heart of much feminist work, of course. But what would it mean not only for ‘man’ to signal relationships of oppression but for ‘man-ness’ to be understood as fundamentally constituted by its role as the purloined letter-like constructor of gender as such? Here the beginnings of a disconnect can emerge – nothing like the imposed beheadings and discombobulations mentioned by Dworkin and Butler – but between the category ‘man’ and the way in which this category is composed of the ‘right’ to tell women what they are, what to do, by virtue of occupying the role of the architect of gender (all of which is not to say that individual beings occupying the position ‘man’ do so of course, rather that this is what the position allows by virtue of its hidden controlling mechanisms). But there is no doubt that this is real: for every ‘casual’ insult flung from a car window, to more violent actions, the latent desire to tell (verbally, forcefully) those designated ‘women’ exactly what they are, and what is ‘wrong’ with them, and how they can’t escape being interpellated by ‘man-ness’, because one of the central roles of man-ness is to construct and reinforce ‘woman-ness’.

A way out?

Making those who understand themselves as ‘men’ understand the essential role that judgment, fixing and violent insecurity play in this category would be of value, if only so that they too could understand that ‘man-ness’ is just as much of a construction as ‘woman-ness’, and indeed more so, given its need to hide its essential qualities. Yet the urgent desire to escape this imposed pinning down seems to return us again to the spectre of separatism – whatever we mean by that. When people talk of exiting the system, of living off-grid, the cynical will tend to scoff: ‘why, that’s impossible! And besides, even if you do it, it’s only a small-scale solution for the few, don’t be so selfish/utopian!’. Would it be similarly impossible to exit gender? The existentialist terror of being ‘reduced’ to a set of externally-imposed designations appears, from one perspective, like another kind of privilege – who is in a position not to be interpellated by the other? And is the interpellating-other always going to be the same? While this interpellation cannot simply be a question of what is visible, it is clear that the more signs one possesses that takes you further from the purloined subject-who-can-structure, the more likely you are to be multiply unable to escape being told what you ‘are’: the quotidian, though no less bizarre, experience of having someone shout at you (or sometimes more subtly remind you) that you are indeed generally identifiable as a ‘woman’ never ceases to amaze, and can hardly be understood as a genuine piece of information-sharing: ‘what, really? I had no idea! And here I was thinking I was something entirely different! Thanks for the update!’ This common occurrence must be understood in a different way, as part of a set of on-going reminders about who gets to fix identities, to decide categories and to force a situation where agency is removed from the object of the interpellation.

Strategies of reclamation, notably prominent and effective in the case of the term ‘queer’, are double-edged, in that to take back an identity is always partly to accept it, albeit in an affirmative or ironic mode. And there may, in some situations, be little choice but to at least start there. But reclamation is the very opposite of disappearing, assuming we still want to defend some possibility of the latter – to not have to affirm one’s right to exist, but to merely exist quietly without justification of any kind. Would it be selfish to want to disappear? To exist to the degree of reality that one chooses, no more and no less? If ‘man’ means to hide in plain sight, throwing potshots, what would it mean not to have to hide at all … but also not to be seen?

[1] Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (London: The Women’s Press, 1983), p. 21.

[2] Revolt, She Said (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002), pp. 70-71.

[3] Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 172.

[4] ‘Undoing Sex: Against Sexual Optimism’, Lies Journal, Vol.1, 2012, p. 17.