Is there some easy way to envision the double-sided process that connects the production of gendered knowledge about the body on the one surface to the materialization of gender within the body on the other?90 While no metaphor is perfect, Russian nesting dolls have always fascinated me. As I take apart each outer doll, I wait expectantly to see if there is yet a smaller one within. As the dolls get tinier and tinier, I marvel at the delicacy of the craft that produces successively smaller dolls. But displaying them is a dilemma. Should I leave each doll separate but visible, lined up in an ever-diminishing row? Such a display is pleasing, because it shows each component of the largest doll, but dissatisfying, because each individual doll, while visible, is empty. The complexity of the nesting is gone and, with it, the pleasure, craft, and beauty of the assembled structure. Understanding the system of nesting dolls comes not from seeing each separate doll, but from the process of assembly and disassembly.
I find the Russian nesting doll useful for envisioning the various layers of human sexuality, from the cellular to the social and historical (figure 9.4).91 Academics can take the system apart for display or to study one of the dolls in more detail. But an individual doll is hollow. Only the complete assembly makes sense. Unlike its wooden counterpart, the human nesting doll changes shape with time. Change can happen in any of the layers, but since the entire assembly has to fit together, altering one of the component dolls requires the interlinked system—from the cellular to the institutional—to change.
While social and comparative historians write about the past to help us understand why we frame the present in particular ways (the outermost doll),
figure 9.4: The organism as represented by a system of Russian stacking
dolls. (Source: Erica Warp, for the author) analysts of popular culture, literary critics, anthropologists, and some sociologists tell us about our current culture (the second largest doll). They analyze our aggregate behaviors, think about how individuals and institutions interact, and chronicle social change. Other sociologists and psychologists think about individual relationships and individual development (the third largest doll), while some psychologists write about the mind or psyche (the fourth doll in). As the location (or, as some would prefer, activity) that links events that occur outside the body to those that occur inside the organism (the second smallest doll),92 the mind plays an important and peculiar function. The brain is a key organ in the transfer of information from outside the body in and back again, and neuroscientists of many stripes try not only to understand how the brain works as an integrated organ but also how its individual cells function. Indeed, cells make the final, tiny doll found within the organism.93 In different organs, cells specialize for a variety of functions. They also work as systems, their history and immediate surroundings stimulating signals for particular genes—to contribute (or not) to cellular activities.
Using Russian nesting dolls as a framework suggests that history, culture, relationships, psyche, organism, and cell are each appropriate locations from which to study the formation and meanings of sexuality and gender. Developmental systems theory, whether applied to the assembled doll or to its subunits, provides the scaffolding for thought and experiment. Assembling the smaller dolls into a single large one requires the integration of knowledge derived from very different levels of biological and social organization. The cell, the individual, groups of individuals organized in families, peer groups, cultures, and nations and their histories all provide sources of knowledge about human sexuality. We cannot understand it well unless we consider all of these components. To accomplish such a task, scholars would do well to work in interdisciplinary groups. And while it is not reasonable, for example, to ask all biologists to become proficient in feminist theory or all feminist theorists to be proficient in cell biology, it is reasonable to ask each group of scholars to understand the limitations of knowledge obtained from working within a single discipline. Only nonhierarchical, multidisciplinary teams can devise more complete (or what Sandra Harding calls ‘‘less false’’)94 knowledge about human sexuality.
I do not naively believe that tomorrow everyone will rush out and join interdisciplinary research teams while revising their belief systems about the nature of scientific knowledge. But public controversies about sex differences and sexuality will continue to break out. Can homosexuals change? Were we born that way? Can girls do high-level mathematics and compete well in the physical sciences? Whenever these or related quandaries boil to the surface, I hope that readers can return to this book to find new and better ways to conceptualize the problems at hand.
The feminist theorist Donna Haraway has written that biology is politics by other means.95 This book provides an extended argument for the truth of that claim. We will, I am sure, continue to fight our politics through arguments about biology. I want us never, in the process, to lose sight of the fact that our debates about the body’s biology are always simultaneously moral, ethical, and political debates about social and political equality and the possibilities for change. Nothing less is at stake.