Kate Bornstein, Gender, and Power

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We’ve started reading / working / journeying through Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarachy and Sex Positivity (Routledge 2013), which is an update of Bornstein’s original My Gender Workbook (Routledge 1998). Of all the books I selected for the course, this one immediately inspired curiosity from my students and from my colleagues in the school’s bookstore. A cutline on the front cover of the book, which appears as a sort-of multicolored composition book, says, “Now with more high theory, quizzes, and SEX. Plus robots and pirates! xox-Kate.” And, yes, judge this book by its cover. It’s fun–but serious fun–fun in the service of social justice, of raising our awareness of our gendered existences.

We’re just two chapters in, and we’ve had good, frank discussions about gender, sex, being trans, and how binaries can be oppressive. Before we started talking about Bornstein’s (work)book, I showed this video of her speaking to Brown University’s Class of ’69 (of which she was a member) at their 40th reunion. Interestingly, she is one of two women to have a Brown diploma from pre-1970. Women, until 1970, took classes and received diplomas from Pembroke College at Brown University (just like Radcliffe was Harvard’s women’s college and Barnard was Columbia’s). Since Bornstein is an MTF (male to female) transsexual (as she identifies in the video and in her writing), she has this rare status of being a woman of her age who has a Brown diploma.

Bornstein makes us comfortable by making us laugh; at ourselves and our assumptions about gender. She leads us through self-reflection in the form of “quizzes.” She humanizes high theory by including tweets from her “twibe” (people who tweeted her and got her thinking about how to update the workbook). Essentially, she queers the way we discuss gender. As she says, ‘Well this whole book is a mix of metaphors, styles, genres, and points of view.” Its polyvocal, multifaceted approach to dealing with gender perfectly performs the idea of defying categorization and essentialism.

While Foucault was speaking to an purely academic audience, Bornstein is speaking to everyone who will listen. Foucault gives us complex definitions of power as it relates to systems, sex, identities, and history. Bornstein, on the other hand, defines power according a social justice perspective: “Power is access to resources.” She then shows how identity, desire, and power are interrelated and how gender sometimes controls identity, desire, and power.

We’re just into the second chapter, and Bornstein has just blown a mighty hole into the notion of sex = gender. She’s commanded us politely by “asking” the reader to use the word “sex” only for “fucking and so on” so that it “robs essentialist thinkers of their gendered biological imperative.” At first, that seems to be such a minor, basic change. But the more I think about the implications, wow…

I’m looking forward to our class’s discussion.

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WTF: What the Foucault?

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We read enough articles that mentioned Michel Foucault’s work that it seemed ridiculous to avoid reading his work (in translation), so I gave my students some sections of The History of Sexuality Volume I.  So far, we’ve discussed “We ‘Other Victorians,'” which I guess you could say is Foucault’s introduction to his introduction on sexuality.  I’ve also selected portions of “Method” and “Domain” (later in the volume) and plan on reading to them a few other key passages.  It’s difficult to gauge how much of this theory the students are ready to parse.  But, early on, I’m still blissfully optimistic that the grappling is going well.  No one has fallen asleep–that’s a good sign.

On Friday, we talked about Foucault’s project in discussing sexuality, knowledge, power, and politics.  We marched through the repressive hypothesis and into his discussion of the controls exerted on sexuality not so incidentally coinciding with the rise of capitalism.  We talked about the limited spaces for and “uses” of sex, and the more we talked about how controlled sex and sexuality are, the more we began to question why.  The students quickly realized that this “history” is unlike any other “historical” text they’ve encountered.  One student made a particularly good observation: I feel like Foucault is better at raising questions than he is at tracing history.  Yes; the more we know, the more we wonder.

Here are some questions that Foucault raises in this section that are particularly useful or maybe a better term here since we’re talking Foucault would be pleasureful:

1. What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?

2. What paths have brought us to the point where we are “at fault” with respect to our own sex?

3. Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it?

4. What were the effects of power generated by what was said?

5. What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them?

Foucault provides us with an excellent set of questions as we look at power, knowledge, and pleasure related to sex and sexualities.  I know that I’ve been thinking quite about what Foucault says about the nature of power, which is “to be repressive, and to be especially careful in repressing useless energies, the intensity of pleasures, and irregular modes of behavior.”  I’m sure that Foucault’s notion of “repressive” power plays into McIntosh’s idea of the “oppressive” nature of privilege. And his idea of “irregular modes of behavior” clearly assumes “regular” modes–or, as we say, “normative.”

On a less serious note: in at least 73% of the photos of Michel Foucault I’ve found, he’s wearing a turtleneck.  As one who sports the turtleneck far too often, I approve.