Transcendence and Negation
To speak of‘transcendence’ is to imply the production of something qualitatively different. The social is radically unnatural. (‘Non – natural’ might be a more neutral term but I think the stronger overtones are correct.) Its structure can never be deduced from natural structures. What undergoes transformation is genuinely trans-formed.
But this unnaturalness does not mean disconnection, a radical separation from nature. On the contrary, the unnaturalness of society is sustained by a particular kind of connection with nature – a connection through practice. In the practice of labour, the natural world is appropriated by human beings and transformed, both physically and in terms of meaning. In the practices of sexuality and power, as well as certain kinds of labour (for example nursing), the human body itself is an object of practice.
The natural or pre-social qualities of objects are of course important to the practices that deal with them. We do not offer coffee to a tree, nor try to paint with sawdust. Nor should we expect someone who is chromosomally male to give birth to a child. Where~-rediuctionism goes wrong is in taking these qualities
я я H etermi n я n ts of the practice. This~ gets things precisely the
wrong way round. .Practice issues from thelhuman ащі-шсіаі sid^-* of the transaction; it deals with the natural qualities of its objects, including the biological characteristics of bodies. It gives them a social determination. The connection between (social and natural structures is one of practical relevance, not of causation.
Thus a person with a chromosomally male body can be treated as a woman in social practice, and sometimes is. The person concerned will still not give birth to a child. Kessler and McKenna’s demonstration of the primacy of ‘gender attribution’ can be seen as a particular case of the concept of practical relevance. It describes specifically the incorporation and transformation of certain aspects of bodies by cognitive and interpretive practices.
‘Dealing with’ is not a neutral term. What practice produces is not what it began with. The qualities of objects are changed, whether they are bits of wood or human beings. The bits of wood become a chair; the human being becomes a lover, or angry, or better educated:!^A transforming practice in a basic sense negates what it starts wffiTTrr^rdo~lxT–pn*odm^~something new. і nis
negation and supersession is the basis of historicity. For the outcomes of practice do not sit around outside time, but themselves become the grounds of new practice. As the Czech philosopher Karel Kosfk puts it, practice has durability through its products and effects.
We are now in a position to formulate the non-reductionist strong connection between biology and the social. The social practices that construct gender relations^do not express natural terfts, nor dotKey ignore natural patterns; rather, they negate them in a.^pr^Gtical_transformation. This practical transformation is a continuing historical procesT"Tfs materials are the social as well as the biological products of previous practice – new situations and new people.
We might say that reproductive biology is historicized in gender. This is true so far as it goes, but is a weak formulation suggesting an additive conception. More precisely, reproductive biology is so£*aUv dealt with in the historical process we call gender; a history that negates its biological materials as well as its social ones.
This is not an exotic or original idea. Gayle Rubin, for instance, observes of the kinship structures which are taken by reductionists to express biological imperatives: ‘A kinship system is not a list of biological relatives. It is a system of categories and statuses which often contradict actual genetic relationships.’ She observes >f the cultural emphasis on difference between the sexes:
Men and women are, of course, different. But they are not as different as day and night, earth and sky, yin and yang, life and death. In fact, from the standpoint of nature, men and women are closer to each other than either is to anything else — for instance, mountains, kangaroos, or coconut palms. Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities.
The same goes for gender relations in our society. Texts on sex roles almost always contain a party-piece on sex-typed adornment – make-up, clothing, hair-style and accessories. Erving Goffman’s Gender Advertisements adds positioning and posture to the catalogue. In the additive framework of sex role theory this is interpreted as a social marking of the natural difference: we put girls in frilly dresses, boys in running shorts and so on. But there is something odd about this. jlfiTedifference is natural why cloes it need to be marked so heavily? For the sex-typing of clothes and adornment really is obsessive. At some moments it reaches quite fantastic levels. No one is likely to doubt the femaleness of a nursing mother. Yet the front-opening dresses and dressing-gowns marketed to nursing mothers (in shops like the British ‘Mothercare’ chain) are an absolute mass of‘feminine’ frills, tucks, bows, lace, ribbons and such like. When you think of the mess created by a nursing baby, it is clear there is nothing functional about this.
In fact the social practices are not reflecting natural differences with these diacritical marks of gender. (Г1іеу are weaving a structure of symbol and interpretation around them, and often vastly~~iexagp’erating or distorting them. As Rubin observes, social emphasis on difference negates natural similarity. When we push further into the detail of the social arrangements about gender, it is striking how regularly denials, transformations and contradictions appear. Homosexual men are socially defined as effeminate, homosexual women as mannish; in fact there are no physical or physiological differences between homosexual and heterosexual people. Employment practices that discriminate against women because of presumed childcare obligations define all women as mothers of young children; in Jact^mm&t-are—»qt. Girls in early adolescence are generally bigger and stronger than the boys in their own school classes; yet it is just at this age that enormous pressure is applied to make them dependent and fearful in relation to males.(To sustain patriarchal power on the large scale requires the consmTCTTHTf ™>T я byperm ascnline ideal of toughness and dominance: the physical image of masculinity this produces is grotesquely unlike the actual physique of most men. The corresponding point has often been made about images of physical beauty in women.
At the same time another negation is taking place. The members of either sex vary tremendously in height, strength, endurance, dexterity and so on^As noted already, the distributions in the two sexes overlap to a great extent. Social practices that construct women and men as distinct categories by converting an average difference into a categorical difference – ‘men are stronger than хуогдеп’ – neg^te^the major pattern of difference that occurs within ^sexes_raiher-.lharr-between them.
In grasping these apparently paradoxical processes, the kind of distinction between levels of practice that Jean-Paul Sartre makes
in the Critique of Dialectical Reason is helpful. The biological differentiation of sex in reproduction is a passively suffered condition: men cannot bear children, infants require suckling and so on. To these conditions correspond a limited range of practices and consequences (of a type Sartre calls the ‘practico-inert’). People can be lumped together in logically primitive categories through an external logic, a logic imposed on them that places them in parallel situations (Sartre calls this ‘seriality’) — like a queue of people waiting for a bus, or the audience for a radio broadcast.
These however are not the gender categories as we encounter them in social life. Indeed the practices of sexual reproduction are often quite remote aspects of the social encounters in which gender is constructed and sustained. This is obvious in the key case of children, who have gender forms vehemently imposed on them long before they are capable of reproducing, or even have much understanding of the business of reproduction. There are other, more sophisticated, levels of practice involved. To move to these levels requires negation of the previous level of practice. Thus^to OOmtcuct the social category of‘man’ or.‘woman’, with a common identity and interest, requires negation of the serial dispersion characteristic of the array of parallel situations constructed by the biological categories. This is done in practices that create and assert the solidarity of the sex (or group within it).
This social solidarity is a new fact, in no way implied by the biological category. It can therefore be constructed, historically, in a variety of ways. Thus it is possible for a new type of solidarity, a new organization of the gender, to emerge. Masculinities and femininities can be re-constructed historically, new forms can become dominant. It is even possible for a whole new gender catggoryjjxb^-cotistructed, as with the emergpnrp nf ‘the homosex – ual’ in the iate-nineteentti century, anHperhaps ‘the transsexual’ now. Such a development does not make sense in any theory of natural difference as the basis of gender. It does make sense when the significance of contradiction is grasped.
There is, therefore, a logic to such paradoxes as the gross exaggeration of difference by the social practices of dress, adornment and the like. They are part of a continuing effort to sustain the social definition of gender, an effort that is necessary. precisely becauseJhe. Мріодкаї logic, and the inert practice that responds to it, cannntjpctntn the gender categories….
he shift to a second level of practice is also found in the
psychodynamics of gender, according to some classical formulations. Alfred Adler’s account of the ‘masculine protest’ as a key structure of motivation, for instance, is based on the small child’s discovery of a physical fact about its body, its organic inferiority to others. This perception of the body is, however, transcended in the psychological process that constructs, in over-compensation, a desire to dominate, a striving for power. That a real transcendence has occurred is shown by the fact that as the child grows up the psychological structure outlives the physical conditions in which it was produced. The same is true for ‘castration anxiety’ in Freud’s psychodynamic theory, which outlives the originally extreme disparity of force between child and parent.
The creation of the ‘new fact’ in transcendent practice in no sense excludes the body, the biology of reproduction, bodily difference or physical experience. To lose this connection would be to make the kind of suppression made by patriarchal ideology when it defines menstruation as embarrassing and unmentionable, and thus eliminates part of women’s experience from the language. The point is that we do not need to fall back on reductionism to keep the body and its ways in view. In practical transcendence the body is carried forward, so to speak, into the next transaction. It remains a presence, indeed a ferment, in the order of things constructed by more complex social processes. Even when the physical conditions of some social process change – as when the psychoanalytic baby grows up – the body remains the screen on which the well-launched dramas of power and anxiety are projected. ‘Hysterical’ symptoms like the paralyzed limb are the classic case, but depression and dissociation are also experienced in the flesh.
Contradiction between the body and a developing practice is a continuing fact in sexuality itself. In sexual intercourse, nobody but the most inexperienced, insensitive or frightened person always follows the simple bodily logic of arousal to climax. There is tension and pleasure in working against immediate bodily demand, holding back, creating rhythms, exploring. You can communicate pleasure to a partner by working against your own desire in favour of hers or his; you learn the ways of another body which does not contain your own desire or need. In this way the immensely complex practical edifice of a sexual relationship is built as a structure of tensions and contradictions. That is the meaning of a union of two people as distinct from a rubbing-together of two bodies.