Rosalind C Morris. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Gender studies in anthropology has a relatively short history, dating to the latter half of the twentieth century, but its prehistory can be discerned in the discipline’s early concern with kinship and social reproduction. At the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists focused their attentions mainly on small-scale societies in which kinship appeared to provide the organizing structure for production. What kinship studies revealed is that production and reproduction (both social and material) are mutually implicated processes, and that the relationship between these processes is sustained by principles of difference.
The evidence suggests that among the most powerful symbolic vehicles for both structuring and legitimating such differentiation around the world has been the representation of persons in gendered terms. Accordingly it has been the long and arduous project of gender studies to examine and explicate the ways in which gender difference is produced and subsequently naturalized, rendered in terms of iconic ideals, and incorporated in the bodily unconscious of human subjects. This not only has entailed considerations of the mechanisms for materializing sexual and gendered difference in ritual and other cultural practices, it has also required analyses of the political and economic structures of production within which they operate, the historical transformations to which they have been subject, and the relationships between gender and other discourses of difference at all levels, from household to state. More recently it has entailed recognition of the violences and excesses generated in and by systems of gendered difference, the possibilities for resistance that they facilitate, and the myriad forms in which desire, disavowal, attraction and revulsion, procreative energies and amity can appear across time and space.
Kinship and/or Gender?
In 1987 Jane Fishburne Collier and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako described their goal as putting gender “at the theoretical core of anthropology” by “calling into question the boundary between [the] two fields” of gender and kinship (p. 1). That kinship studies should have appeared as an autonomous field, distinct and perhaps even resistant to the analysis of gender, was attributed largely to the particular conception of society espoused by the structural functionalists, led by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Like many feminist anthropologists, Collier and Yanagisako questioned the degree to which discussions of women’s lives were relegated to considerations of the domestic sphere and to reproductive function. They repudiated assumptions (explicit or implicit) that the maternal-child relation is invariant across time and space, and they cast suspicion on the tendency to see historical change as a factor relevant only to political and economic systems in the public domain, while familial life was presumed to be constant and unchanging. Finally, they discerned in structural-functionalist writings an erroneous presumption that all societies have institutional functions that are comparable, even when the forms of theirs institutions differ.
Many of the questions articulated by Collier and Yanagisako generated productive new approaches to ethnography. In a companion essay in the same volume, they went on to pose another question which resurrected and refined one of Margaret Mead’s (1901-1978) earlier challenges—namely, “What social and cultural processes cause men and women toappear different from each other?” (p. 15). In Male and Female (1949), Mead had observed that anatomical differences provide only the first point of identification for boys and girls, and noted that, from that moment on, children would compare themselves to others and in this fashion acquire a socially mediated sense of sexual selfhood based on traits and characteristics privileged or denigrated by their elders. Her own conception of sexual difference was indebted to Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) analysis of sexuality in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and retained his binary conception of sexual difference as based on biological antinomy. However, Mead disagreed with Freud’s students and with his own postulation of a universally phallic stage in female development.
Against the backdrop of the Cold War and a burgeoning arms race, Mead’s contribution to the ongoing tradition of gender studies is rooted in the denaturalizing comparativism that she embraced as the ground of critical anthropology: “If we recognize that we need every human gift and cannot afford to neglect any gift because of artificial barriers of sex or race or class or national origin, then one of the things we must know is where the assumed differences between the sexes are mere elaborations of unimportant differences that can be dealt with easily in this invention-conscious world” (p. 15). To this end Mead emphasized the extraordinary diversity of conceptions of ideal maleness and femaleness across cultures, and on this basis hypothesized the possibility that children might even disavow some of their “biological inheritance” in order to achieve a social ideal of masculinity or femininity (pp. 136-138). She thereby introduced a conception of maleness and femaleness as a social construction irreducible to the physiological basis in which it grounds itself. Nonetheless, the question of gender remained secondary to that of kinship, where it constituted an assumption rather than object of inquiry for several more decades.
Kinship theory in anthropology can be traced to Lewis Henry Morgan’s treatise, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870), a work that would considerably influence Friedrich Engels, as well as both structuralist and Marxist anthropologists. Morgan argued that the family as an institution emerged only after a period of promiscuity and then incestuous cohabitation, and that it depended on the creation of a law of exogamy. Nearly a century later, Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) revived and revised Morgan’s argument when he claimed that the incest taboo constituted the archetypal form of all law, and that it marked the threshold between nature and culture. Although he asserted that sexuality was the origin of sociality, insofar as sexual desire is an instinct that requires another person, it was the incest taboo that transformed consanguinity into alliance by rendering women as “the supreme gift” in his analysis.
Rituals of Becoming: The Making of Sexual Difference
One of the primary assumptions of contemporary gender theory is the social construction of gender, but although this core idea is closely linked to the recognition that kinship and even parentage is not a biological matter but a social one and that descent is a mode of recognizing children rather than transmitting genetic material, the connection between the theorization of gender and kinship was not immediately obvious to anthropologists of the early twentieth century. Even Bronislaw Malinowski, who claimed that sex must be understood as but one moment in a vast system comprising love, eroticism, mythology, courtship, kinship, family life, economic and religious practices, and tribal structure, devoted little time to a consideration of how boys and girls come to assume the qualities that make them socially recognizable as such. For him, sexual and social maturation were inimitably linked, but his attention was narrowly focused on the transformation of willful desire between two persons—expressed most purely and freely by adolescents—into a relation capable of self-negation in parenting. Malinowski’s most profound insight may have come in his argument that kinship is not so much a matter of sexual intercourse as it is a sublation of dyadic relations into triadic ones, of interpersonal intimacies into intergenerational dependencies. Yet, because his concern lay with the functional appropriation of individual facts for social ends and because his concept of function was so immediate, Malinowski never seems to have considered the difficulty of achieving what Margaret Mead would later term ideal maleness or femaleness.
For the majority of early writers on kinship, gender was the axiomatically binary ground on which kinship and marital exchange could be erected. In Western theoretical traditions, this axiomatic quality of binary gender differences naturalizes itself in biological metaphors to such an extent that gender difference collapses into sexual difference and appears as anatomically and/or genetically determined. Two main sources of critique inform the development of the social constructivist analysis of gender per se. The first is the vast literature on ritual and corporeal practice, from the archive of which anthropologists have assembled their cases for the relativity of somaticization and sexualization. The second is to be found in the reconsideration of earlier theoretical arguments about such practice, especially as developed in the 1970s and 1980s under the influence and in the context of new social movements, especially feminism. This discussion begins with the consequences and potentialities of ritual theory for gender analysis.
In 1909 Arnold van Gennep undertook to formalize a theory of the rites associated with transitional stages of life and offered a tripartite model consisting of separation, liminality, and re-aggregation to explain their operations. Later elaborated by Victor Turner (1969) in a manner that highlighted the ambiguity and potential subversiveness of the interstitial phase, the notion of the ritual production of social status entailed a recognition that the bodily identity of a person is an inadequate determinant of her or his social identity. Indeed, Van Gennep made the brilliant observation that initiation rites work by overcoming the enormous chasm between biological puberty and what he termed “social puberty.” Even more radically, he suggested that these rites do not so much mark puberty as they produce sexuality, removing people from an asexual state and birthing them as either male or female sexual subjects, who can then enter into legitimate sexual and especially reproductive relations with other adults. Van Gennep’s radicalism has been mainly forgotten, but feminist anthropology has reclaimed his constructivist insight following a rapprochement with linguistic theory and dialectical materialism, the invention of “gender” as a category, and the emergence of a political project that has made the pursuit of resistance and other forms of counter-hegemonic practice the goal of much comparativist work.
Feminist Interventions: The Legacy of the Seventies
The first intervention of feminist anthropologists into the field of kinship studies and, thence, into anthropology more generally, consisted in the creation of a discursive object that would permit the simultaneous critique of existing theories and the reassessment of its empirical claims. That category was “gender,” understood as “the constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes” and as “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott, p. 42). Indeed “power and difference” became the crucial axes of gender analysis from the 1980s onward.
Feminists began by accusing early social theorists, but perhaps especially Claude Lévi-Strauss, of mistaking an ideological justification for the oppression of women with an ontology of the social. Because women are treated as commodities does not imply that their functioning as commodities is logically intrinsic to social life everywhere. Because women are frequently relegated to private or domestic domains does not mean that the social world is logically bifurcated along the axis of public and private or that these domains would have to be gendered when they were. And because sexual difference is the primary structure for differentiation of labor and structuring power in small-scale societies that lack a public sphere does not mean that, logically, gender must be a salient structural principle only in domestic spheres when these are encompassed by larger public ones. From these logical arguments emerged a series of questions regarding the universality and extremity of male dominance, the organization of domestic and public or political life, the relationship between political complexity and the status of women, the range of property systems through which women do or do not gain access to economic resources, and the more subterranean forms of power, value, renown, and influence that women exercise even in those contexts where formal authority is vested in male subjects. In essence, these questions and the energetic research that they spurred were driven by the pursuit of a counterexample. Evidence of equality or a different organizational imperative in one society would undermine claims for the universal virtue, necessity, or naturalness of particular inequalities everywhere else. Or so a generation of feminist scholars hoped. Their project was empiricist and comparativist, collaborative and emphatically political. Its result can be seen in the series of volumes they generated, including those edited by Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (1974), Rayna Reiter (1975), Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (1980), Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock (1980), and Sherry Ortner and Harriett Whitehead (1981).
The contributors to these volumes arrived at various and oftentimes contradictory conclusions. Some of the writers included in Rosaldo and Lamphere’s collection, notably Rosaldo, Nancy Chodorow, and Ortner, concluded that male dominance is universal, with Rosaldo attributing it to the division of labor and the distribution of authority across a violently enforced private/public divide, Chodorow locating women’s exclusion from the public in their maternal function and the socialization of girls, and Ortner revising Lévi-Strauss’s argument to claim that women are universally perceived as relatively close to nature and therefore thought to be in need of more vigorous regulatory oversight. Other writers, however, especially those influenced by Marxist thought and Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, differed. Karen Sacks and, later, Eleanor Leacock (1981) argued that not all societies are dominated by men and that egalitarianism prevails in those where private property, and the particular construction of women as private property, has not yet developed. In this case male dominance is a function of history and a relatively recent emergence. Still others, such as Peggy Sanday, asserted that male dominance is vitiated over time as technology and the transformation of production attenuates the advantages conferred by physical strength.
Such arguments stood or failed according to the persuasiveness with which the ethnographic evidence was adduced, and many of the writers later recanted or were persuaded by competing positions. One of the most lucid and sustained theoretical critiques to emerge from Rosaldo and Lamphere’s 1974 volume was penned by Gayle Rubin under the title “The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Rubin’s essay commenced with a new category, that of the “sex/gender system.” It was intended to overcome the prevalent dichotomy between sexual and economic systems and to prevent sexual relations from being reduced to reproductive function. As a formally empty category, the idea of a sex/gender system demanded ethnographic specification of the same sort that would distinguish between socialist or capitalist production. Rubin took Lévi-Strauss to task precisely for his lack of such differentiation, especially on the question of the traffic in women. Failing to differentiate between historically actual cases of women who are “given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favors, sent as tribute, traded, bought and sold” rendered the notion vacuous for Rubin, and she observed that men are also trafficked—for different purposes (p. 175). Michael Peletz would corroborate this assertion in 1996 with descriptions of the traffic in men by women in nineteenth-century Malay communities. It is, however, in her deconstruction of the concept of gender, as assumed in Lévi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship, that Rubin made her most incisive intervention. Observing that the incest taboo as described by Lévi-Strauss is not merely a prohibition on incest but also on homosexuality and on sameness, one that orchestrates desire in terms of sexual difference, Rubin offered as counterexamples those instances in which same-sex relations are considered necessary for the production of adult gender (as in some parts of New Guinea) and those in which same-sex marriage is permitted (as among the Azande or the Dahomey), or where institutionalized transvestism is practiced (such as Native North America or India). Given these facts, she asserted, the taboo is not universal but merely the representation of a particular, if commonplace, ideology—for which, she admits, both Freud and Lévi-Strauss offer refined descriptions and unapologetic but illegitimate justifications.
Materialism and Dialectical Analysis
Rubin began her essay by asserting that “there is no theory which accounts for the oppression of women … with anything like the explanatory power of the Marxist theory of class oppression” (p. 160). She concluded by calling for a new version of Engels’s The Origin of the Family. Efforts to integrate gender analysis with class analysis and with more generally materialist concerns have taken a number of forms since Rubin’s article was published. In general these have concerned the relationship between unremunerated housework and the reproduction of labor, the impact of colonialism and capitalist penetration on gender relations in local cultures, the new international division of labor, and the feminization of geopolitical regions.
Historically concerned with small-scale societies and under-girded by the assumption that the most elementary form of any social phenomenon reveals an essence that carries across other manifestations, Marxist anthropologists imagined the division of labor between men and women to be identical to the division between productive and reproductive functions. However, during the 1980s and beyond, questions of production and reproduction and of the status of women were increasingly reframed in terms of the colonial encompassment of indigenous economies and the new international distribution of labor. This led to studies of new logics of power, such as those by which class has displaced status as a rubric of social stratification in some places. It also generated analyses of new competitive relations between men and women as economic power became unified in a single (generalized) commodity form where previously it had been divided among regimes of value. In these contexts gender became the contested mechanism for regulating access to economic resources. A vast literature also developed in response to the emergence of transnational labor networks and the establishment of new manufacturing zones in the digitizing global economy of multinational finance. By attending to the gendered organization of value, and not merely the symbolic value (or lack thereof) accorded women (Weiner), it has become possible to speak of a “feminization of the global economy.”
Materialist analyses of these latter processes, which take place in a transnational realm that exists both above and below the level of the nation-state, have perhaps inevitably privileged economic questions, but they have often stopped short of economic determinism. Dialectical analysis has been summoned here as a means of recognizing the degree to which indigenous forms of familial and social organization remain resilient or resistant in the face of encompassment by multinational capital, global finance, and other transnational forces. But a dialectical approach to the transformation of gender (or the sex/gender system) must actually redouble itself. For it not only entails the recognition that local life-worlds are transformed without being destroyed in the modern moment (hence it must examine the dialectics between the local, the global, and the emergence of transnationally comparable values like locality), it also requires a reading practice that seeks to comprehend, from two distinct locations or perspectives, the facts of these historical processes. Reading for resistance became a primary objective of much work in the field of gender studies during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Promising in many regards, it has nonetheless been weakened by a tendency to conflate the fact of social and structural specificity with an intentionalized and often strategic, or at least tactical, opposition to the forces of both foreignness and new inequity.
Resistance was the term by which gender studies sought to rescue itself from the absolutist pessimism of structuralist universalism as well as economic and cultural determinism. Under the influence of Clifford Geertz, American anthropological analysis of culture had tended to represent culture as a system of shared signs or symbols. Conceived as a theoretical refutation of the economic determinism that cruder forms of Marxism espoused, culturalism nonetheless reproduced its problematic negation of agency while also eviscerating any recognition of structural contradiction. Resistance conceived within the culturalist tradition thus came to be imagined as a possibility originating in the critical reading and interpretation of those signs and symbols that comprised cultural totalities. Ironically, the language of resistance permitted two distinct theoretical traditions to converge, those of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and the French libertine philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984). It was a thematically and methodologically driven reading of Foucault’s later writings on sexuality that informed the genealogical turn in gender studies and in anthropology more generally.
Foucault and the Genealogy of Sexuality
Although Foucault’s early writings attempted to excavate the sedimented structures of thought in a particular moment (and the discontinuous relations between moments), it was his development of a retrospective historiographical mode that made his writings on sexuality appear exemplary for historicist anthropologies concerned with the emergence of particular sex/gender systems. The first volume of The History of Sexuality, in particular, was quickly hailed for its demonstration of what the genealogical method could offer gender studies—although many theorists mistook a mere reversal of chronology for Foucault’s more radical demand that ontological thought be surrendered in favor of a negative concept of becoming.
Two main contributions were recognized. Firstly, Foucault argued that prohibition does not work to contain or repress that which it outlaws but rather cultivates its sanctioned objects in a new mode. The sexual repression of the Victorians, for example, did not so much eliminate an interest in sex as it permitted the extension of erotic pleasures into the domain of language, such that talking about sex—even in the form of denunciation—could be seen as one more incitement of sex, while making speech itself a scene of excitement. The second contribution lay in its analysis of the relationship between sexuality and political power in Western cultures.
At the end of History of Sexuality, Foucault described the emergence of a new political technology, one marked by power’s investment in life, in the control and management of human beings as productive entities whose health and well-being it assiduously cultivated. Discourses on sexuality, and on so-called healthy sexuality, were coterminous for him with the displacement of centralized power by diffuse forms of discipline and control that saturated all dimensions of the life-world. Foucault described this new technology as one that entailed a “power over life” rather than a “right of death” and designated it as “biopower.” From Europe’s eighteenth century onward, biopower worked through the surveillance of sexual practice and by placing same-sex intimacies under increasingly violent prohibitions, as the demand for total productivity and intentionalized reproductivity intensified in the modern industrial era. In other contexts, he admitted, the organization of power over life might take other forms, and might structure subjectivity in terms other than those of sexuality, but his primary focus was the more familiar history of European modernity.
In Europe and elsewhere, Foucault’s claim that homosexuality was a modern invention, the product of discourses upon normalcy and sexual health, scandalized many scholars and was initially misunderstood by many to imply the relatively recent appearance of same-sex intimacy. Foucault made no such claim; he was instead identifying a moment in which practice and identity were merged by virtue of new representational logics. This merging produced not same-sex intimacies but the figure, and henceforth, the felt experience, of the homosexual.
Although his exemplary case study came from the archives and entailed the story of an ambivalently sexed figure, Herculine Barbin, who was forced to assume a male identity by French medical and police authorities, feminists quickly observed that Foucault’s analysis failed to distinguish between sexuality as it came to be configured for women and men. In other words, they argued that sexuality without consideration of gender could only reproduce the relative claim that the figure of maleness has on universality in Western philosophical discourse. Feminist writers were quick to observe, for example, that the prerogative of transvestism is often limited to members of one gender and suggested that the distribution of this prerogative might itself be indicative of power in the organization of local sex/gender systems. At the same time, however, many anthropologists, influenced by the burgeoning phenomenon of gay and lesbian studies, also saw in the tale of Barbin an exemplary ur-figure of modernity’s sexualizing violence. A vast array of cross-cultural studies were devoted to excavating eras in other places where sex and gender was (or continues to be) organized according to less rigorously binary structures. And older reports of female husbands, institutionalized transvestism and androgyny, and legitimate same-sex intimacy were revisited with avidity.
The best of such work is assiduously historical, grounding itself in the meticulous scrutiny and translation of evidence from diverse archives and unofficial sources. However, much of the more ethnological comparativism has ignored Foucault’s suggestion that biopower might be differently structured elsewhere and has sought analogues to European historical developments instead. As a result, it has borne a not inconsiderable resemblance to the oftentimes prurient studies of earlier sexology, especially when anthologized in collections devoted to the category of “third sex,” “third gender,” or comparative homosexualities. Historians, by contrast, have generated a series of supplementary histories that augment, clarify, or refute the suggestions made in Foucault’s more programmatic moments, often bringing the same kind of analytic lens to the history of heterosexuality as he brought to homosexuality. And some anthropologists have attempted to understand the implications of Foucault’s project for an analysis of institutional and discursive histories in the colonial context, paying particular attention to the organization of populations, institution of new educational systems, juridical rationalization, and forms of both public morality and sentiment that colonial regimes implemented.
Feminist critique of the masculinist bias in early Foucaultian analyses of sexuality has been followed by a bifurcation in the field and a proliferation of studies devoted to the analysis of masculinity and its relationship to systems of power, both within households and at the level of the state. These studies, whether overtly Foucaultian or not, consider the corporeal tactics and the ideological representations and values (such as machismo, honor, and valor) by which masculinity is cultivated in men, emphasizing the disjuncture between merely anatomical sex and social gender even when the two are conflated in local discourse (a 1998 study by Judith Halberstam extends this analysis in a consideration of what she terms “female masculinities”). The Foucaultian turn might thus be read as the process by which the feminist political slogan “the personal is the political” gets inverted, such that the political is understood as that which generates embodied persons. In any case, it generated a renewed theory of the importance of ritual in the constitution of sexual and gendered difference.
Repeating Ritual: The Idea of Performativity
Feminism and gay studies, Foucault and the study of ritual, came together in the work of Judith Butler. In an eclectic theoretical blending of Foucault’s discourse analysis, J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1962) linguistic pragmatics, and Hegelian dialectics tempered by Louis Althusser’s notion of interpolation, Butler demonstrated that the principle of reiteration (etymologically linked to rite and ritual) can be seen in the myriad gestures of daily life. Although her early work implied a degree of voluntarism not present in Austin’s theory, Butler’s later writings recognize that these gestures or “repeated acts” take place “within a highly rigid regulatory frame,” and they produce, for Butler, gendered bodies not only as representations but as materialized and sensuously experienced entities. They do so in two senses. Repetition generates habitual forms that are recognized within the social world; and they subject persons to ideals but in a manner that leaves them relentlessly deficient. Transforming Althusser’s notion of ideological hailing as that gesture by which power names and thereby summons a person in the terms that power confers, Butler suggests that all individuals are both hailed and made to bear the unconscious knowledge that they cannot, by definition, achieve the image that power gives to them as ideal. Compulsively enacting the forms that would demonstrate comformity to gender ideals, most train their bodies to become sexually legible. For some, however, a consciousness of the gap between ideal gender and materially actual difference can become the basis for resistance to the sex/gender system.
Butler’s work reached anthropology in the wake of Pierre Bourdieu’s “practice theory” (1977; see also Morris, 1995; Ortner, 1984) and was often read as the politically radical version of the French sociologist’s reinvigorated structuralism. Bourdieu had analyzed what he termed the “doxa” of everyday life and suggested that architectural forms shape and constrain bodily gesture, inculcating dispositions that then cause people to act in ways that exteriorize the social structure. His description of this process in Kabyle villages suggested a necessary complementarity between men’s and women’s acts as the instruments for realizing a whole world otherwise divided between public and private domains. Bourdieu’s notion of practice gave new life to Marcel Mauss’s original assertion in 1968 that no bodily act, not even sex, is natural, and that the ideational or symbolic order of a given culture is something that exists in the body. This corporeal unconscious is never fully amenable to objectification in language and is actually dissipated in the moment that it becomes articulate. Unlike Bourdieu’s vision of practice, which seemed incapable of explaining change, however, Butler provided a theory of how unconscious bodily sensitivities could become the basis of conscious opposition to the predominating sex/gender system.
Whether in response to Bourdieu or to Butler, the result was a proliferation of works broadly construed as anthropologies of the body. Many of these attempted to examine corporeal practices that appeared to be conspicuously implicated in the unequal distribution of power and the material constraint of women’s sexual and sensual capacities. Many were also driven by the ambition to discover the different ways in which women interpreted these practices, so as to discover in them unexpected freedoms or self-experiences that differed from, and perhaps contradicted, the ideological representations of dominant discourse. Here the anthropology of the body met a globalizing feminist consciousness and a new politics of representation.
Power, Representation, and Resistance: Lending Ears and Voices
Finding resistance in the interpretation of genital cutting—as, for example, freedom from desire, or in the experiences of factory workers possessed by spirits—as liberation from the monotonies of the assembly line may seem odd. Are these painful and debilitating experiences the ground of resistance? Or the symptoms of a system that makes women the handmaids of their own oppression? Can resistance be unconscious? And if so, is resistance a sign of agency?
In direct counterpoint to these readings of the subjectivityless women in whose bodies the social world demonstrated its own violence and limitations there emerged in the 1980s another body of literature whose aims were to give expression to the conscious agencies of dominated women and other minorities, especially in the Global South.
Giving voice, or facilitating the self-expression of others—often through narrative forms that included biography and autobiography, fiction, poetry, and tokens of other expressive culture—became the commonplace gestures of well-intentioned anthropologists. These self-consciously feminist writers introduced a salutary counterbalance to those older texts in which the words of women, never mind their thoughts and experiences, were obliterated in generalizing and ostensibly genderless statements about “the way things are.” The felicitous result: the textured life-worlds of soap-opera-watching housewives in Egypt, of ambitious but marginalized poor women healers and middle-class merchants on the Indonesian periphery, of devout Pentecostals in South Africa and proudly political mothers in Argentina, all entered the canon of ethnography, irrevocably transforming it in a humanist direction.
Works in this oeuvre share a certain descriptive quality. They also share an ambition to translate, both literally and figuratively, the experiences of others. Ironically, perhaps, the instruments of that translation have been the concepts of gender—including men and women—and experience. For this new anthropology has made its claim on the basis of a presumptive capacity for readers to recognize, as the experience of women (or men), the representations provided by anthropologists.
In light of all the anthropological evidence that being female or male differs between cultural contexts, and after all the theoretical labor aimed at debunking the universalist presuppositions of structural functionalism and then structuralism, there remains in feminist anthropology an indissoluble commitment to the transcultural and transhistorical viability of woman as a category of infinite translatability. The same can be said of gender, which appears to be an empty category but which nonetheless works through the presumption that the social difference organized through reference to sexual difference is distinct from all other kinds of difference.
This presumption has been called into question by a number of minority writers from the Global South. They have insisted that there is no material referent for the abstract category of “woman,” and that, to the contrary, those named as women are subjects whose lives are determined by complex webs of politico-economic and therefore discursive forces, whether these be ones of race, class, location, or other principles. The implications of these claims for comparative gender studies have been enormous and deeply sobering, insofar as they suggest that there are not comparable communities of women whose experiences can be described and then compared. If some anthropologists ceded this point by advocating the self-representation of indigenous women (or by reading indigenous expressive forms as inherently self-representational), they did so in the face of an even more radical critique. The most acute proponent of that critique, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, argues that “subaltern women” cannot simply be ascribed or asked to inhabit the same kind of subjectivity that defines the position of white males in the European metropole. They cannot make themselves heard, except through a self-translation that rends them from their original location of invisibility and transforms them, through an ironically “enabling violence,” into the kinds of beings whose speech is heard and recognized but only to the degree that it resembles that of its listeners.
Spivak’s intervention made translation a question not only of technique but one determining the very possibility of gender studies. To be sure, translation had always been a question for comparative gender studies in anthropology, but it was defined much more narrowly. Originally it was recognized mainly in the comparative lexicons that anthropologists produced to demonstrate the relativity of kin terms (in places where men and women use different pronouns and kin terms). Since then it has been addressed through a variety of idioms, with silence and indirection often standing for women’s incapacity to achieve or command a language of universal legibility. Conversely, silence and indirection have been read as indices of intentional resistance to dominant modes of communication (Gal). In a particularly innovative study of domestic intimacy in Sumatra, James T. Siegel demonstrated in 1969 how mistranslation, of the kind that lets women comprehend their treatment of men as patronizing indulgence (and hence indicative of their power) while also permitting men to read the same gestures as ones of deference (and hence testimony to their relative importance), actually facilitates gendered inequity and an odd kind of stability in Atchenese households. Siegel’s writings offer an alternative theory of translation, one in which incommensurabilities in language and interpretation do not so much prohibit communication as they facilitate incompletely comprehended social relations, ones infused by power, which is dissimulated in the gaps between interlocutors. This does not make mistranslation a scene of resistance, any more than the translation of a subaltern woman’s experiences into the representation of subalternity (for Western women readers) makes her an equal collaborator in global feminism. In very different ways, then, Siegel’s and Spivak’s insistence that power dissimulates itself in language and in claims to translational adequacy reveals the need for reflection upon the situation of speaking and reading. This problem is not mitigated by a recognition that globalization has brought about an increasing traffic in the terms and discourses emanating from the Anglo-American and European West.
Lexicalization and the transportation of idioms and concepts from one location to another—especially those concerning gender and sexuality, women’s rights and human rights—do not guarantee that their meanings will be constant or comparable. Reflecting on the instability of the category “woman” across continents, languages, and power divides, and recognizing that anatomy does not obviate translational problems, contemporary writers have also reflected on the history and intensification of instabilities in the so-called biological being of women in the context of technological modernity.
Redux: Sex, Kinship, and Agency in the Machine Age
Three main strands of thought have dominated the anthropological study of gender and technological modernity. The first of these, already discussed, concerns the organization of labor and the destructive or liberating effects of the commodity form and capitalism (industrial and financial) on the status of women, the organization of families, and the international division of labor. The second concerns the category of modernity itself and what it means for local life-worlds transformed by imperialism, colonialism, and multinational capital. Finally, analyses of gender and modernity have led to an interrogation of the consequences of new technological developments on reproductive possibilities, forms of kinship, the relationship between the pharmaceutical state and individual rights, bodily identity, and the transnational economy of suffering and its amelioration. It is the latter strand of thought—that which directly addresses the material conditions of mechanically dominated societies—that in the mid-1980s returned gender studies to its origins in kinship and the study of primitive society.
Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” threw down the gauntlet in this domain with its assertion that the corporeal and therefore sexualized body is not the discrete and encapsulated entity on which the fantasies of autonomous selfhood (and their attendant discourses of possessive individualism) are erected. Rather, they are discursively organized and technologically extended—opened and re-formed, as it were—by everything from drugs to plastic surgery, shoes to artificial joints. This recognition of the human body as a pliant material entity, the boundaries of which cannot be known in advance, resonated with anthropological accounts of ritual reform, such as those that marked gendered maturity or sexual transition through forms of scarification, genital cutting, and tattooing, among other practices.
These insights have been especially fruitful in the feminist study of Western scientific discourse, medical practice in the United States, and of medical representations more generally. Scholars have drawn attention to the violences and objectification that medicalization can entail. They have also revealed how the female form has been made to both figure and legitimate an invasive medical science whose invasiveness exceeds any possible utility.
Other writers have examined the ways in which economic logics enter and determine the conceptualization of bodies. Illustrative here is Emily Martin’s (1994) argument that the contemporary concepts of bodily immunity and social epidemiology on which much AIDS research and prevention strategies have been based tends to valorize flexibility in a manner that mirrors contemporaneous economic logics. Bodies, in this sense, reproduce what the economy produces, but at the level of representation. By contrast, Linda Singer (1993) argues that while an intimacy is to be discerned between economy and sexuality in the age of epidemic (mainly but not exclusively the age of AIDS), it lies in the logic of the panic. Such panic, when linked to sexuality, would permit the increased regulation of persons and populations, and it would do so in the very moment that sexuality would be valorized and, indeed, valued in the terms provided by late capitalism. Singer’s early insistence that AIDS be conceived as a biopolitical economy and not merely as a disease was paradigmatic for other scholars who, in very different ways, attempted to map the geopolitics of life, illness, death, and healing, in examinations of the pharmaceutical state and the transnational traffic in gendered bodies, prostheses, and drugs.
In the 1990s there also emerged a less dystopic approach to the question of gender and technological modernity, one that manifests a distinctly American conception of private, rights-bearing subjects whose sense of personal agency and entitlement permits them to instrumentalize, if not fully control, the discourses and technologies afforded by contemporary science, especially medical science. Rayna Rapp’s 1999 account of amniocentesis, and many of the essays in Faye Ginsburg and Rapp’s 1995 collection on reproductive technologies, certainly evince the tendency of women’s reproductive functions to be appropriated through new technologies, and they reveal the degree to which a vast medico-technological and pharmaceutical apparatus is brought to bear on women in the interest of securing their reproductive functions (often reducing women to such functions). At the same time, however, their accounts of women who are forced into difficult choices by knowledge about fetal health or viability is supplemented by the sense that these “choices” can also become the ground of new agencies.
A concern with choice is also evident in gay, lesbian, and queer studies, where the problem of kinship continues to provide an orienting point for theoretical explorations of identity formation and social status. In many cases, such as Kath Weston’s 1991 study of gay and lesbian families, entitled Families We Choose, sexual alterity becomes the iconic representation of absolute agency and self-determining choice. Although some thinkers have repudiated this model and proposed a genetic basis for homosexuality, anthropological evidence contradicts such efforts, and suggests that the category of homosexuality is not fully translatable across cultures. Same-sex intimacy is variously accommodated in a range of sex/gender systems without ever cohering into a single identity structure. Here again translation emerges as a crucial issue for comparative sexuality studies.
Gay, lesbian, and queer transnational alliances that, like those of earlier humanist feminisms, have arisen in the interest of producing, recognizing, and securing rights for individuals engaged in same-sex intimacy around the world. Violent repudiations of “homosexuality” and the designation of it as a Western perversion have been associated with new assertions of cultural sovereignty throughout the world, although, as in parts of Western Europe and the Americas, such disavowals symptomatize modernity as much as they resist a globalization of sexual cultures. Just as Western labors to solicit gender solidarity were forced to confront the competing demands for sovereignty made by individuals and collectivities (in the name of sexual and individual rights or gender asymmetry and cultural rights), so gay, lesbian, and queer activism faces a comparably agonistic confrontation between the notions of collaboration across difference and solidarity based in identification. The terrain of this conflict is often the idea of family.
It is important to recognize that kinship (and the family), as reconstrued by feminist gender studies since the 1970s, is not merely the particular locus of social production and reproduction. It is the symbol of sociality: an iconic form that stands for something else, just as the body can stand for anything else, as Margaret Mead recognized so many years ago. Similarly, it has been the project of gender studies to demonstrate how gender stands for and structures something else—namely, power and, therefore, difference.
In retrospect, then, it is necessary to understand gender studies not only as a discipline premised upon this fundamental axiom—that gender represents, and performatively constitutes, relations of power—but as a field whose own interests have been structured by other questions. Particularly in the United States but in the West more generally, gender studies has par-taken of a general problematic, namely the opposition between choice and determination—a problematic central to the constitution of liberal democratic polities and their self-representation. Anthropologists, following Margaret Mead, referred to this opposition in terms of the “nature/nurture” binary, with “nature” being variously understood as comprised of anatomy, genetics, or mental structures. “Nurture” was the term applied to socially variable factors and has been widely equated with “environment.” In culturalist discourse, this has lent an aura of voluntarism to social practice, which, because it is not natural, has appeared to be something to which individuals choose to accede. Notwithstanding structuralist efforts to demonstrate that the arbitrariness of social forms is precisely overcome by habit, convention, and history, a tendency to valorize individual choice has been omnipresent in gender studies and especially feminist anthropology. In this regard, studies of resistance can be seen as continuous with culturalism, albeit only insofar as they make social disadvantage or abjection a source of alienation from what history gives individuals as the natural form of society. The question of choice was, of course, differently conceived by Marxists, for whom history and the organization of production, rather than biology, constituted the primary sources of social determination.
Elizabeth Povinelli asserted in 2002 that sexuality is the discourse through which choice becomes the means of claiming Western subjecthood—compared to, for example, cultural descent, which makes a lack of choice, or submission to cultural law, the means of asserting subjecthood in many non-Western cultures, at least as they are represented to and for the West. This observation can be extended to include gender, sex, and sexuality. However, if conceptions of queer kinship privilege choice, many other analyses of gender and sexuality, and especially those grounding themselves in biologism, do not. The question is not whether sexuality is (always already) a discourse of choice, but how and when gender or sexuality become the concept metaphors through which the questions of individual choice and social or natural determination get posed. A reflexive analysis of the conditions of possibility within which these questions emerge is, as Foucault rightly argued, prerequisite for any progress in the study of sociality.