On Gender, Identity, and Appropriation

The following are some (old, from the summer) provisional notes on a few topics about which I feel that I have some ideas that can hopefully help provide some insight in working towards a Marxist theory of gender, sexuality, and patriarchy.

On Identity

If we want to understand the processes and mechanisms of gender, we need to have an understanding of what an ‘identity’ is and how it fits within the broader structure of gender oppression. Provisionally, I would assert that identification is the process by which a subject situates oneself (and is situated) relative to a given ideological structure. What this means concretely is that sexual identity is a position of relation to the ‘force field’ of heterosexuality as ideology. Gender identity would be defined similarly but in relation to hegemonic genders of a given social formation, generally being the gender binary in Western capitalist formations.

Identification is overdetermined, rather than Hegelian. In other words, identification is a dialectical process with a multitude of moments and determinations. It is not teleological (nor is it metaphysical) because the process of identification does not have have an ‘ending destination’ as an inherent attribute of the subject. Rather, identification has to take place as a process in a concrete material and historical context, and as such cannot be separated from the numerous contradictions interpenetrating said process.

Thus follows my (unpopular) defense of an identification like heteroflexible, to give an illustrative example. It’s not “really bi or gay” (teleology). The way we can conceptualize heteroflexibility would be a relation to straightness in which the subject is heavily interpellated with heterosexual ideology, but in some moments stands in opposition to the ideological structures of straightness. We can extend this example to what some describe as ‘post-modern’ genders. Nobody is ‘inherently’ cis or trans; this either relies on (1) biological essentialism (which stands in opposition to materialism as thoroughly empiricist) or (2) teleology. Specifically, it has to assert either that someone has some physical characteristic (such as a ‘female brain’) in order to be trans, or that they were ‘destined’ to be trans. It follows that anyone can undergo identification processes that position themselves in opposition to cisgender, but then by the same logic it also follows that there are no ‘inherently trans’ people.

But, here we must be very careful. This understanding of identification as a process of positioning oneself relative to a given ideology, however, cannot be mistaken as an assertion that gender can be positioned as a purely Superstructural phenomenon. The process of identification in the ideological plane has relative autonomy to the political economy of gender. To think that gender identification is equivalent to the gendered division of labor would be a very serious error. I must agree with other comrades that, since the process of identification operates on the ideological plane, to attempt to determine Scientifically “who is trans” is impossible; the question cannot but operate in a subjective-idealist problematic. We must avoid both this error and the objective idealist or mechanical materialist (generally the latter folds into the former) error of seeing gender identity as mechanically determined by some factor such as a biological trait, experience of dysphoria, or what have you.

So, now we must step back to “see the bigger picture”. It is very easy to get lost in the fog of being stuck on the process of identification, hyperfocusing on individual subjects, rather than looking at the structural phenomena and material roots of the process of identification. If indeed binarism and heteronormativity are State Ideology, dispersed through the ISAs (particularly the School and the Family, but in reality, all of them), what is the material root, the raison d’etre, of this ideology, given that ideology cannot but in the last instance serve the purpose of the reproduction of definite social relations?

Here, we turn to Vogel, and other comrades have done a great job already of outlining the argument. The State Ideology of patriarchy (binarism, misogyny, heteronormativity) as well as the repression of trans people, non-straight people, and cis women by the RSA, both must protect and maintain some form of exploitation. As we know, class societies reproduce the relations of production (which are also relations of exploitation) primarily through the State, the condensed organ of the reproduction of the conditions of production. The State operates both on repression and ideology. So, once we’ve recognized the State Ideology of patriarchy, as well as have defined the repressive mechanisms of patriarchy (e.g. systemic violence, r*pe, the income gap), we have to uncover the material basis, the exploitation that these mechanisms protect.

This exploitation is found in the social division of labor, in particular its gendered character. The division of subjects into “biological sexes”, conditioned very roughly by who is perceived to be able to bear children, under capitalism serves to delegate women to a reproductive role, to ensure the reproduction of labor-power ‘for free’, at no expense to the capitalist class. This not only entails reproductive labor as domestic work, but also sex work. I will not dive deeply here, as other comrades already have done so. But, the core of the matter is that the ‘kernel’ of patriarchy is this division of labor that forces a portion of the population into reproductive work to ensure the existence of fresh labor-power. Heteronormativity, transantagonism, and misogyny are all meant to condition agents of the labor process to maintain this special relation, this relation without which the capitalist mode of production would be impossible (hence becoming apparent that capitalism cannot but be patriarchal, and that Dual Systems theory is incoherent).

So, I think the moral of our story is that when we speak of gender identity and the identification process, we cannot forget this crucial point. I also think this is why it’s extremely important that when we talk about gender, we need to have clarity on the distinctions between on the one hand, exploitation through the reproduction of labor-power, and on the other hand, the State Ideology and means of repression related to gender.

On Appropriation

Once we have a (for now, schematic) understanding of the process of identification, and its relationship to both gendered repression and exploitation, we can seek an understanding of what it means to appropriate a gender, and whether or not this is possible. Traditionally, appropriation as a concept seems most tied to race/nationality, and the cultural theft of oppressed nations carried out by oppressor nations, specifically within the dynamic of white supremacy.

At this point we should not feel comfortable applying appropriation as a term to gender & sexual identities. There is no reason to graft processes of national oppression onto patriarchy, because these separate special oppressions have different histories, relationships to capitalism, and procedural mechanics. Specifically, the development of nations is characterized by specificity of common territory and culture. Thus, nations can develop their own cultures in entirely separate social formations, making cultural theft a possibility as an oppressive mechanism. However, gender does not have such a history. Genders and sexualities have developed within social formations, such that a single society is interpenetrated with a multitude of genders and sexualities.

Since gender has no such dynamic as nation in relation to culture, we cannot but say that nobody is ‘appropriating’ a gender by claiming to identify with it (save cases of a reach across national lines). If we have settled that identification is overdetermined rather than Hegelian, it necessarily follows that there is no incorrect path, because there is no end result from which one can stray. Thus, any moment within an identification process is a valid one, each definite form of identity simply being a way to express one’s position to gender ideological structures within a complex whole. So, provisionally, we conclude that a gender can be appropriated only to the extent that it can be appropriated along national lines.

I hope this note has been helpful, and I hope I am challenged on points that comrades disagree with.

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