4 minute read

Gender Studies: Anthropology

Redux: Sex, Kinship, And Agency In The Machine Age

Three main strands of thought have dominated the anthropological study of gender and technological modernity. The first of these, already discussed, concerns the organization of labor and the destructive or liberating effects of the commodity form and capitalism (industrial and financial) on the status of women, the organization of families, and the international division of labor. The second concerns the category of modernity itself and what it means for local life-worlds transformed by imperialism, colonialism, and multinational capital. Finally, analyses of gender and modernity have led to an interrogation of the consequences of new technological developments on reproductive possibilities, forms of kinship, the relationship between the pharmaceutical state and individual rights, bodily identity, and the transnational economy of suffering and its amelioration. It is the latter strand of thought—that which directly addresses the material conditions of mechanically dominated societies—that in the mid-1980s returned gender studies to its origins in kinship and the study of primitive society.

Donna Haraway's 1985 essay "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" threw down the gauntlet in this domain with its assertion that the corporeal and therefore sexualized body is not the discrete and encapsulated entity on which the fantasies of autonomous selfhood (and their attendant discourses of possessive individualism) are erected. Rather, they are discursively organized and technologically extended—opened and re-formed, as it were—by everything from drugs to plastic surgery, shoes to artificial joints. This recognition of the human body as a pliant material entity, the boundaries of which cannot be known in advance, resonated with anthropological accounts of ritual reform, such as those that marked gendered maturity or sexual transition through forms of scarification, genital cutting, and tattooing, among other practices.

These insights have been especially fruitful in the feminist study of Western scientific discourse, medical practice in the United States, and of medical representations more generally. Scholars have drawn attention to the violences and objectification that medicalization can entail. They have also revealed how the female form has been made to both figure and legitimate an invasive medical science whose invasiveness exceeds any possible utility.

Other writers have examined the ways in which economic logics enter and determine the conceptualization of bodies. Illustrative here is Emily Martin's (1994) argument that the contemporary concepts of bodily immunity and social epidemiology on which much AIDS research and prevention strategies have been based tends to valorize flexibility in a manner that mirrors contemporaneous economic logics. Bodies, in this sense, reproduce what the economy produces, but at the level of representation. By contrast, Linda Singer (1993) argues that while an intimacy is to be discerned between economy and sexuality in the age of epidemic (mainly but not exclusively the age of AIDS), it lies in the logic of the panic. Such panic, when linked to sexuality, would permit the increased regulation of persons and populations, and it would do so in the very moment that sexuality would be valorized and, indeed, valued in the terms provided by late capitalism. Singer's early insistence that AIDS be conceived as a biopolitical economy and not merely as a disease was paradigmatic for other scholars who, in very different ways, attempted to map the geopolitics of life, illness, death, and healing, in examinations of the pharmaceutical state and the transnational traffic in gendered bodies, prostheses, and drugs.

In the 1990s there also emerged a less dystopic approach to the question of gender and technological modernity, one that manifests a distinctly American conception of private, rights-bearing subjects whose sense of personal agency and entitlement permits them to instrumentalize, if not fully control, the discourses and technologies afforded by contemporary science, especially medical science. Rayna Rapp's 1999 account of amniocentesis, and many of the essays in Faye Ginsburg and Rapp's 1995 collection on reproductive technologies, certainly evince the tendency of women's reproductive functions to be appropriated through new technologies, and they reveal the degree to which a vast medico-technological and pharmaceutical apparatus is brought to bear on women in the interest of securing their reproductive functions (often reducing women to such functions). At the same time, however, their accounts of women who are forced into difficult choices by knowledge about fetal health or viability is supplemented by the sense that these "choices" can also become the ground of new agencies.

A concern with choice is also evident in gay, lesbian, and queer studies, where the problem of kinship continues to provide an orienting point for theoretical explorations of identity formation and social status. In many cases, such as Kath Weston's 1991 study of gay and lesbian families, entitled Families We Choose, sexual alterity becomes the iconic representation of absolute agency and self-determining choice. Although some thinkers have repudiated this model and proposed a genetic basis for homosexuality, anthropological evidence contradicts such efforts, and suggests that the category of homosexuality is not fully translatable across cultures. Same-sex intimacy is variously accommodated in a range of sex/gender systems without ever cohering into a single identity structure. Here again translation emerges as a crucial issue for comparative sexuality studies.

Gay, lesbian, and queer transnational alliances that, like those of earlier humanist feminisms, have arisen in the interest of producing, recognizing, and securing rights for individuals engaged in same-sex intimacy around the world. Violent repudiations of "homosexuality" and the designation of it as a Western perversion have been associated with new assertions of cultural sovereignty throughout the world, although, as in parts of Western Europe and the Americas, such disavowals symptomatize modernity as much as they resist a globalization of sexual cultures. Just as Western labors to solicit gender solidarity were forced to confront the competing demands for sovereignty made by individuals and collectivities (in the name of sexual and individual rights or gender asymmetry and cultural rights), so gay, lesbian, and queer activism faces a comparably agonistic confrontation between the notions of collaboration across difference and solidarity based in identification. The terrain of this conflict is often the idea of family.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies