10/28 Lecture, Toril Moi: "What Does It Mean to Claim that Sex, Gender, and the Body are Socially Constructed?"
Guest Writer: Claire Barber

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On Thursday, October 28, 2010, the Unit for Criticism and Anna Stenport of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures hosted “What Does It Mean to Claim that Sex, Gender, and the Body are Socially Constructed?,” a lecture by Toril Moi of Duke University]

Toril Moi’s “What Does It Mean to Claim that Sex, Gender, and the Body are Socially Constructed?”

Written by Claire Barber (English)

Last Thursday, Toril Moi addressed the question “Does it makes sense to claim sex, gender, and the body are socially constructed?” After playfully warning the group that her talk was “pure theory,” she laid out her analysis of the sex/gender distinction from the first chapter of What is a Woman? And Other Essays(1999). She ended her presentation by applying a theoretical framework from Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999). I will present here the fundamental features of Moi’s argument. Then, I will pose several questions and propose an additional example of the body as situation which may complicate her conclusions.

Moi’s objective is to develop “a theory of the sexually different body” by revisiting Simone de Beauvoir’s proposal in The Second Sex, that we should view the body as a situation (4). This move departs from a trend Moi sees as problematic in feminist theory, which works within the distinction between sex (biological) and gender (social/cultural). In her presentation, Moi sketched out the genealogy of sex and gender difference, beginning with biological models of sex from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and used the work of Beauvoir and Marcel Merleau-Ponty to complicate some later feminist responses to these essentialist models.

One of the main problems Moi sees with feminist theories that work within the sex/gender distinction is that they do “not provide…a good theory of subjectivity or a useful understanding of the body” (114). Moi located the distinction in Gayle Rubin’s 1975 essay “The Traffic in Women” and in Judith Butler’s books Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. Instead of arguing, as Butler does, that biological sex is as much a social construction as gender, Moi proposed that we focus on concrete bodies and the particular lived experiences of being embodied. The body, according to Merleau-Ponty “is fundamentally ambiguous” (qtd. in Moi 117), so only by examining particular bodies situated historically in their process of becoming can we gain any understanding of what it means to be a woman.
This reading runs contrary to the abstract theories of embodiment suggested by poststructuralist feminists like Butler and also what Moi calls “the pervasive picture of sex” in early biological models (6).

Moi introduced new material to critique feminist theories asserting that sex, gender, and the body are socially constructed: what she called “the Hacking test for social construction claims.” (See Hacking 16 and Moi’s handout for additional information.) Moi used this philosophical framework to test the degree of commitment that social constructionists have to different aspects of the sex/gender system. She concluded that we should not reduce “sex” to mere hormones and chromosomes, and instead approach the body as historicists, the lived experience of gender as reformists, and the oppressive social relations of gender as revolutionaries.


That said, the Hacking test did not seem to do much for her argument; I saw the same final points emerge from What is a Woman?, and Moi left me wondering about the ultimate implications of her discussion of sex, gender, and the body. If we view the body through Beauvoir’s theories, then it is constructed partly by “the way in which the individual woman encounters, internalizes, or rejects dominant gender norms” (82). A woman does maintain some level of personal determination because a situation, according to Moi and Beauvoir, is “an irreducible amalgam of the freedom (projects) of [a] subject and the conditions in which that freedom finds itself” (74). Moi’s argument then seems to be that sex, gender, and the body are at some level socially constructed but not entirely. This conclusion shares some similarities with Hacking’s concept of the looping effect in The Social Construction of What?, and Moi’s presentation may have benefited from a discussion of this concept. But I wonder about the usefulness of the way in which Moi and Hacking hedge their conclusions. If we must, according to Moi, look primarily at particular cases of historically situated, lived experience, how or when can we extrapolate general conclusions from these examples?

One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation emerged during the question and answer period when Moi was asked how race factored into her reading of sex, gender, and the body. Moi elaborated an argument from What is a Woman? that relates race to sex as two different kinds of bodily situations (67-69; 79). One could imagine, she claimed, a society where race no longer had any social function, but could society transcend sexual difference in the same way? Moi argued that as long as babies are born helpless, society would have to find a way to organize itself to take care of these creatures. As she describes in the book, “[a]lthough biology places certain limitations on culture, our specific cultural arrangements cannot be read off from our biology” (79). An organization for the care of the young does not have to depend on sex, but it must exist in some form.

As I listened to Moi’s response, two important questions came to my mind: Is disability a situation or social category comparable to sex, race, and class, as discussed by Moi and Merleau-Ponty? And, if a society could exist that had moved past race, could one exist that was past disability? To address these questions, I must first locate the form of disability most appropriate to address here. Physical disabilities fit easily into Moi’s schema. I can certainly imagine a society that had moved past these situations—albeit one with more social services and a different understanding of “productivity” than today’s capitalist societies. Intellectual disabilities also seem like bodily situations society could transcend, with perhaps a greater level of difficulty and additional revision of “productivity” and “success.” Mental health issues or cognitive disabilities, however, may throw a wrench into Moi’s conclusions about the body.

To clarify my argument, let us turn to a particular example of this embodied situation, as Moi suggests. Pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), including autism and Asperger’s syndrome, are diagnosed based on “delays in the development of socialization and communication skills,” according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Society has labeled these disorders “pervasive,” an interesting term when read with Moi’s analysis of biological models of sex in which researchers used physical differences (ovaries versus testes) to justify social differences between men and women. In the case of PDDs, biology, or the way in which the brains of these individuals are wired, does limit the effects of culture on their situations. Therefore, society labels these these bodies as pervaded by this disorder.

The primary characteristics of this disorder, as described by NINDS, lie in the lack of biological investment an individual with a PDD may have in socialization. Some autists, for example, do not recognize other people as significant elements in their attempts to process the environment in which they are situated. This choice is not a conscious one; instead it occurs because of the way autistic brains are wired. Perhaps it is true that “our specific cultural arrangements cannot be read off of biology,” as Moi noted above, but at a biological level, these individuals may not receive the same pleasure from communication as neurologically typical individuals. They may not, therefore, seek out such situations, leading to a breakdown in socialization.

Moi would likely argue that no individual would encounter and respond to social norms in the same way, but her argument about social construction relies on the fact that an encounter will occur. What if it does not? I must then ask, Does socialization ground this diagnosis because these individuals are not as responsive to the typical means of social construction? Does society worry about individuals who lack a desire to participate in it? A society that unconditionally accepted the means of socialization that individuals with PDDs may prefer is difficult for me to imagine. It would be radically different from today’s society and would require a redefinition of what “society” means.

This example of cognitive disability then functions more like sex than race or physical/intellectual disability, in terms of the difficulty that society would have transcending the social functions. Yet, Moi’s conclusion that biology cannot determine cultural arrangements does not seem to apply to this example. Perhaps I have taken Moi’s argument about the social construction of sex, gender, and the body too far, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Philip Guston's, "Sea," 1980

5 comments

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5 comments:

Ariadne said...

What a provocative and useful posting!
These questions are important ones, and they deserve serious responses. I want to ask a question in turn: to what extent does information (or awareness) play a role in how willing society may be to accept someone who doesn't wish to engage with it?

Claire said...

Thanks for your response, Ariadne! You have also asked an important question, and you may want to look to Hacking's looping effect. In addition to The Social Construction of What?, he has written several articles ("Humans, Aliens, & Autism," Daedalus 138.3 [2009]) specifically on the social construction of autism. He looks at the effects popular representations of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have on our understanding of this diagnostic category, and also on our expectations for how individuals with ASDs will behave. I don't always agree with his readings, but he presents much food for thought.

Awareness about a disorder does certainly change a society's response to diagnosed individuals as Hacking discusses), but I’m unsure how much it will change, in this case. You can be aware of the biological basis for a person's unusual behavior, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you can fully understand or anticipate this behavior if your own experience of the environment is so different. I would invoke here arguments against the realizability of emotions like sympathy or empathy (depending on your definition of each). If a person cannot (and appears to lack the desire to) communicate his or her experience using what I would call “neurotypical language,” then society may never be able to accommodate or accept this person’s needs. In fact, society may actively refuse to do so unless the person begins to speak this language. Refer to many of the systems of education for children with PDDs. I think we’re pretty aware that ASDs affect many people (1 in 110 children; 1 in 70 boys have diagnoses), but there can’t ever be a “white paper” for how neurotypicals should engage socially with autists, primarily because (1) we still don’t understand the neurological effects of these disorders; (2) these are “developmental disorders,” which means an individual’s bodily situation is always changing; (3) ASDs vary widely in how they manifest themselves in each diagnosed individual. All of these factors can be used as excuses for not accommodating individuals with ASDs. How can we accept individuals whose experiences of the body diverge so greatly from our own?

Anonymous said...

"The primary characteristics of this disorder, as described by NINDS, lie in the lack of biological investment an individual with a PDD may have in socialization. Some autists, for example, do not recognize other people as significant elements in their attempts to process the environment in which they are situated. This choice is not a conscious one; instead it occurs because of the way autistic brains are wired. Perhaps it is true that “our specific cultural arrangements cannot be read off of biology,” as Moi noted above, but at a biological level, these individuals may not receive the same pleasure from communication as neurologically typical individuals. They may not, therefore, seek out such situations, leading to a breakdown in socialization."

This is a wonderful post, Claire, that poses a situation at odds with Moi's idea of the fundamental implications of the social situation as such. It reminds us that insofar as normativity is a thoroughly social construct the autist, in being constructed as a-, mal, or dyssocial, is cast as not just non-normative but outside the dialogue of normativity in which Moi's social negotiations must inevitably occur.
But, while I don't need to remind you, I do think it worth reminding your readers, that the autist has been diagnosed as indifferent to social interaction, which is not at all the same thing as being indifferent to social interaction. That is to say, the question of the limits of social constructivism themselves come into play not just in society's reaction to the autist, but in society's construction of an autist to whom they will react. When you construct a group of peeople as outside the social, by reason of their indifference or their incapacity, you have effectively foreclosed their ability to perform their social construction in such a way as to resist or subvert it. Why? because you have deprived them of an audience (as opposed to an observer). Unlike an observer, an audience might be defined as a group of people gathered to witness a socially intentionalized act or set of acts (whether conscious or unconscious). Without an audience--and a socially indifferent or impervious actor cannot by definition interpellate one--there can be no performance, in the strong Butlerian sense of the term. Once the NINDS and their fellow travellers define the autist as outside the socio-symbolic order and shape public reactions along those lines, they have taken a huge step to depriving autists of that MINIMAL MARGIN of ALTERITY to the dynamics of social construction (call it nature, call it the inherent, call it spirit etc) without which there can be no subjectivity, without which, that is, social construction is simply objectification.

If the autist is indiffferent or impervious to the social, as NINDS claims, that poses a set of problems for Moi's argument. But far deeper problems, for Moi and all of us, subsist in the presumptousness of this diagnosis itself, this willing identification of a mysterious, queer, radically non-normative sociality and hence subjectivity with the virtual or outright absence of sociality and hence subjectivity.

I know this was kind of a long comment. Thank you for indulging it.

Claire said...

Anonymous, thanks also for your valuable comments. You have clarified the distinction that I wanted to make between being "diagnosed as indifferent to social interaction...[and] being indifferent to social interaction." Your discussion of the difference between an audience and an observer also seems very productive. I wonder if there's a relation here between the dramatic "fourth wall" and the threshold that separates zoe and bios in Agamben's Homo Sacer?

Anonymous said...

Could you elaborate on the analogy to zoe and bios in Homo Sacer, Claire? I'm intrigued but but uncertain I grasp the implications. Thanks.

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