It seems to me that if one is talking about the prime task, since there is no discursive continuity among women, the prime task is situational anti-sexism and the recognition of the heterogeneity of the field, instead of positing some kind of woman’s subject, women’s figure. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

In the meantime, now is then.     Emily Apter and Elaine Freedgood

The “biggest thing” is always a matter of debate and never more than when it involves the apparent death of something or the debut of something new. Gender seems, at the moment, to be a thing that is both old and new, coming to an end and very big, paradoxically attached both to apocalyptic threats and the startlingly utopian. My essay negotiates this uneven terrain by means of five propositions (though one takes an interrogative form), each announcing a section, and all of them formulated in what might be considered an emphatic idiom.[1] These proposals are not as embedded in textual readings as my own disciplinary formation and intellectual temper would ordinarily dictate, but my hope is that the form in which I have cast them here lends them an openness and immediacy that may reveal some fault lines in the broader, always more than disciplinary, discourse on gender, and that these might in turn repay our attention. I should stress that such fault lines do not imply any kind of irrevocable breach or discontinuity; rather, they expose points of contact and movement that have the potential to yield surprise, both for (and even at the cost of) disciplinary assumptions and by means of or through the workings of those assumptions, once they are put into dialogue with other formations, including those seemingly situated firmly “outside” the academy.[2] Feminism and its competing discourses of gender have never been merely disciplinary, but it seems to me, as to many other observers, that the category or concept of gender now has an extra-disciplinary life that in some respects dwarfs both its disciplinary and interdisciplinary modes of existence, and this puts intellectual and political pressure on all of the instantiations of the conflicting figurations of “gender.”[3] Gender explodes.

Gender explodes, is blown up, comes apart, and goes to pieces, but also expands, in the way that a song, a video, or a hash tag blows up, captures attention, and extends its reach in terms of audience and impact. This double sense of explodes resonates with Catherine Malabou’s account of plasticity as that which, like plastique, marks the possibility of both giving and taking form. This capacity signals the transitivity of reading, and it is through the problematic of reading and its relation to form that I will ultimately suggest we can think the contemporary field of gender and gender critique. Not only does the question of reading help us grapple with the dissemination of gender and its astonishing, unforeseen trajectories, but the workings of gender across disciplinary, cultural, and political terrains illuminate the problem of reading itself.[4]  

My account of the terms in which we might begin to sift through the shards of the explosive development of the discourses of genders emerges in relation to the two epigrams that preface my essay. The first is from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “The Problem of Cultural Self-Representation,” an interview that first appeared thirty years ago in Thesis Eleven.[5] Spivak is responding to the following question from Walter Adamson: “In one of your talks in Melbourne, you said that the prime task of feminism would not be to retrace the figure of woman. What did you mean by that?” Spivak answers:

Well, I was trying to say that although Derrida was, in some sense, retracing the figure of woman, that’s not identical with the project of feminism. And I was really talking about “global feminism,” since that seems always to be on the agenda these days when one speaks in the West. It seems to me that if one is talking about the prime task, since there is no discursive continuity among women, the prime task is situational anti-sexism and the recognition of the heterogeneity of the field, instead of positing some kind of woman’s subject, women’s figure, that kind of stuff. (57-58)

An unevenly globalizing feminism, woman and women, and, therefore, the problem of subjectivity; situations, fields, discourse, figures, and, consequently, representation and two of its entailments, the (im)possibility of “continuity” and the play of “heterogeneity”—these are all enormous (and enormously important) abstractions that figure in my reading below. Spivak is speaking here as much in a political as in a theoretical idiom; indeed, she emphasizes, as she does everywhere in her work in post-colonial feminism and beyond, that feminist questions of theory and politics are entangled in ways that cannot be deferred or evaded. “Situational anti-sexism and the recognition of the heterogeneity of the field” in a global frame entail both practical and theoretical projects, each equally concrete, and they must embrace operations of difference across empire, race, sexualities, region, religion, and class. Spivak’s observations resonate for me in the present moment in two particularly pointed ways: first, in her insistence that the “prime task” of global feminism cannot (and need not) be derived from a common identity, a foundation of “discursive continuity” shared by “women,” and second, in her unqualified brief for critique.[6]

The following pages highlight the perhaps unprecedented heterogeneity and fundamental incompatibilities at work in the field(s) occupied by the concept of “gender.” Such conceptual chaos might suggest to some observers that the vicissitudes of gender offer us yet one more instance of the limits or failure of critique, another and perhaps even conclusive spur to a new critical practice more descriptive and modest than that launched under the militant banners of critique. I will argue instead that symptomatic reading, the form of critique that is itself most attuned to the inevitable shifting of political and intellectual terrain and thus is the most plastic of reading practices, is more rather than less crucial in a period of conceptual and practical upheaval, when concepts, representations, and practices of gender are the subject of such radically incompatible claims and revisions, emerging in unequivocally competing problematics. If we view the still relatively short history of the concept of gender as a sequence of upheavals and displacements, fundamentally disruptive and critical, rather than as principally constructive, developmental, or empirically grounding, we may find that its current vicissitudes open onto a rethinking not only of gender but also of the so-called “critique of critique.”[7] I will argue that as a practice, symptomatic reading presses its critique even as it attends “to the letter” of the mutating forms of its object, patiently disclosing what Louis Althusser calls the “play on words itself” (Reading 13, 40) (a play to which gender unfailingly returns). Its supple, intimate reading of the “heterogeneity of the field” poses the question Althusser emphatically urged us to address: what is it to read?

Of course, these characterizations of the state of the concept and critique of gender posit a particular view of the present moment—indeed, they designate it as a “moment,” a gesture that should be considered anything but innocent. My second epigram elegantly addresses the unsettled problem of the present and its apparently paradoxical demands. It also remarks upon a particular disciplinary critical intervention, one that will be quite familiar to some readers, but no doubt less so to others. It comes from the final paragraph of the “Afterword” to a special issue of Representations on current debates around reading practices entitled “The Way We Read Now,” co-edited by Emily Apter, Stephen Best, Elaine Freedgood, and Sharon Marcus. The debate on reading within literary studies is both very lively and heterogeneous, and there are some respects in which it does not translate easily to other contexts; however, the problem of how we (ought to) read is articulated in numerous sites with a broader inquiry in cultural studies generally about the present powers and the future of critique. Apter and Freedgood‘s “Afterword” reflects on the uncertainty around formulations that point to the passing away of particular critical idioms—such as “The Way We Read Now”—and characterizes the pace and direction of change somewhat differently, both in intellectual practice and political life. It proposes “hypersymptomatic reading” as a reading practice alert both to the “symptomal dance” that is characteristic of the modes of critique that are themselves increasingly subject to interrogation and to the new “materialist reading practices” (143, 145) associated with “surface reading,” description, and other “post-critique” interpretative practices. The epigraph I have transported from the end of their text to the beginning of my own is extremely brief, just the first six words of their final sentence: “In the meantime,” Apter and Freedgood conclude, “now is then.”[8] This oxymoronic phrase signals the difficulty of grasping how the passing of time registers in the present and of recognizing either the timeliness of our critical interventions or the risk of being out of step or somehow behind the curve.[9] This is the always already pressing problem of timing, which our conference title figures as “Genders Future Tense.”

I.   Gender as an infinitely useful category of historical analysis (after Joan Scott)

On January 5th, 2015, Judge Sarah Zabel of the Miami-Dade Circuit Court lifted a stay that had temporarily prevented the marriages of same-sex couples in her county; the rest of Florida fell into step the next day, when a ban put in place by a federal judge in Tallahassee expired.[10] To put it very mildly, the response of some Florida state officials, specifically those local officials entrusted with the issuing of marriage licenses and the marrying of those so licensed, was ungracious. In a matter of weeks, their actions were somewhat overshadowed by the rejectionism championed by Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in that state, and, at this point, more than a year later, it is difficult to single out a particular location or individual for censure in the renewed wave of protest and contempt unleashed by the string of federal court decisions clearing the way for marriages in various states, many of which had imagined that their local efforts to block these marriages were beyond challenge.[11] But the behavior—and the critical analysis or alibis—of three Florida counties in response to the expiration of these temporary bans had a particularly Orwellian quality. In these three counties, all courthouse weddings were suspended. Clay Duvall, a clerk in Baker County, explains that this maneuver was necessary for the sake of what he calls fairness. As Duvall puts it, weddings “could cause discriminations down there with those who are uncomfortable. We wanted to eliminate any unfairness” (“Florida Haters,” The Daily Show).[12] In a reversal that has become all too familiar in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the potential victim of “discriminations” here is the county clerk, the government official unfairly compelled to officiate at a civil ceremony that somehow shocks his or her religious conscience. Not for the first time, the charge of “unfairness” has been wrenched away from those who are subject to systematic discrimination and appropriated to figure the perpetrators of injustice as its prime victims. Mr. Duvall’s bizarre yet somehow bland explanation of this naked effort to evade the consequences of the courts’ actions and defy the law makes it clear that we still need to attend to the linguistic forms of bigotry and power.[13]

However, I want to draw our attention at this point to another Florida commentator. Responding in a television interview to the alleged crisis of “unfairness” and religious persecution induced by the courts’ interventions in favor of the equal protection of marriage rights for all, John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council invokes a larger set of consequences than the religious “oppression” allegedly threatening individual county clerks and officials. Commenting on the arrival of same-sex couples at the county courthouses with marriage on their minds, Mr. Stemberger offers a kind of lament for the judgment of the Supreme Court, one that I confess made me shudder when I first heard it: “I think the biggest thing is, it’s the end of gender in society.”[14]

A feminist perspective can only find this turn in the discourse of gender dispiriting. The Florida Family Policy Council believes that gender must be defended, although not in the double sense that Nancy Armstrong gives to that phrase in her essay “Gender Must be Defended.” Armstrong’s ironic claim references Foucault’s posthumous collection, Society Must Be Defended. Her 2012 article represents a return to Foucault that is simultaneously and surprisingly a return to gender, though gender of another order, at work in another scene than the one it dominated and even defined in her own earlier work and in the work of other feminist readers of the nineteenth-century British novel. Armstrong’s reconsideration revises not only earlier feminist readings of texts such as Jane Eyre and East Lynne, but her understanding of the part gender plays in the biopolitical effects of Brontë’s novel and so in the operations of the biopolitical more broadly, pace Foucault’s own often-noted demurrals.[15] Armstrong reanimates a gender critique (that had become in her word “archaic”) to expose what she calls “negative femininity,” an operation that secures and defends both “traditional femininity” and gender hierarchies for those subjects to be protected as individuals by nineteenth-century liberal society and that simultaneously “identifies certain people as those who can be allowed to die” by “biopolitical policies” (546, 545). Her revisionary reading discloses the unpredictability of the concept of gender, more evidence of its afterlife, and its capacity to be rethought in fundamentally unexpected ways. But Mr. Stemberger is a defender of gender in quite another mold. And how are we to defend a concept—the concept of gender—that demonstrates such remarkable “plasticity”? How do we make feminist use of a category of analysis that has apparently become infinitely useful?

Stemberger’s statement might be read in the following way: the category of gender has now been effectively appropriated by the very forces and powers that it was—in all of its earlier formulations, as diverse and even incompatible as they themselves may have been—intended to overturn and dismantle. Once, the concept of gender nurtured a critical capacity to denaturalize and thus disturb, challenge, deconstruct, revise, displace, and revalue the operations of femininity and masculinity—however those operations may have been conceptualized or characterized. From the earliest period of its introduction into feminist discourse, when it was flatly derided as a scandalous misuse (a catachresis) of the grammatical term for the properly linguistic forms of feminine, masculine, and neuter nouns, adjectives, and verbs that appear in some natural languages; through the discrimination of sex from gender in the interests of exposing the “constructed” quality of the latter, the “becoming” that marked woman as a being distinct from the merely female; to the illumination of the “sex/gender system” as foundational to the social formation of patriarchy; to the gendering of sex, that is, to the reading of sex too as the congealed and fleshy effect of processes, social, political, material, and rhetorical, rather than as a substrate or bedrock of gendered differences; to the critique of gender as a (Western) European and imperialist misnomer, inappropriate for the analysis of sexism and sexual asymmetries in both the post-colonial and the post-communist worlds, numerous indigenous cultures, and many historical epochs of the West itself; to the end of gender as that which is both impossible and indeterminate and thus to its “undoing”—throughout this long, uneven, divisive, and sometimes acrimonious history, the category of gender was put into play as a gesture that harbored critical force. Whatever its failures, it was not an instrument easily grasped by those seeking to inscribe, naturalize, and celebrate gendered exclusions.

Now, in this moment, gender is not only directly available, idiomatically to hand, but also apparently potent as a value term for the forces of adamant reaction, those who stand in unambiguous opposition to almost any feminist program one might care to propose. In this terse, urgent, faintly apocalyptic phrase, “the biggest thing is, it’s the end of gender in society,” gender is the latest victim of the gay rights movement and the feminism with which it has (frequently, if eventfully) been allied. Gender is the concept, now seemingly transparent in its meaning, embraced by the defenders of patriarchal familialism, defenders of what we now call traditional marriage, and—I am speculating just a bit here—defenders of the traditional socially (and religiously) mandated postures and powers accorded to “men” in their difference from and opposition to “women.” These gendered men and women are presumed as known, as given quantities or substances, conceived as distinct and binary figures, precisely so as to be partnered properly, partnered in a manner that respects, confirms, and embodies the social work, indeed, the social good, that this (now ominously vulnerable) gender has historically performed. The work of the “social” in constituting gender in this paradigm may have been reduced and indeed appears indistinguishable from anatomical sex, but the strict equation of gender with sex is not a necessary condition for the appropriation at work here. Mr. Stemberger rises—and organizes politically—to defend gender, to bring it to bear as a critique of the claim to marriage equality, and, if failing in that mission, to mourn its “end,” its passing from “society.”

Dispiriting is perhaps too mild a term for this account. I confess to feeling strangely and directly addressed by the Florida Family Policy Council’s spokesman and his intervention in defense of gender and perhaps to being momentarily unnerved and tempted simply to let him have it. Feminism has always had recourse to other terms to wield its critique, and there have long been feminisms openly committed to dismantling gender and celebrating its end in society. Feminisms can do their work by other means. 

At the same time, Stemberger’s appropriation and repurposing of the term gender recall for me Louis Althusser’s insistence in “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon” that philosophy—and by extension all theory, certainly including feminist theory—is a “fight over words.” Althusser argues that

in scientific and philosophical reasoning, the words (concepts, categories) are “instruments” of knowledge. But in political, ideological, and philosophical struggle, the words are also weapons, explosives or tranquillizers and poisons. Occasionally, the whole class struggle may be summed up in the struggle for one word against another word. Certain words struggle amongst themselves as enemies. Other words are the site of an ambiguity: the stake in a decisive but undecided battle.  (21) 

Althusser’s investment in philosophy as such is a topic for another day. But his conviction that even the most “abstract, rigorous, and systematic theoretical work” requires a fight that involves both “very ‘scholarly’ words (concept, theory, dialectic, alienation, etc.)” and, what he perhaps ironically calls, “very simple words (man, masses, people, class struggle)” is made vivid and literal by Stemberger’s striking lament for gender.  In his reading, gender is a word, a concept, a critique, and a practice of social division that he is fighting for, a concept that he finds useful in multiple registers in his political struggle: to rally opposition to marriage equality, to critique the supposed premises of the arguments for equal access to marriage, and to name the value on whose behalf he fights—to prevent “the end of gender in society.” We might conclude from this that gender has evolved well beyond the precincts of a “useful category of historical analysis,” as Joan Scott so memorably named it; its usefulness is now infinitely appropriatable, untethered to any critical problematic that could be aligned with any imaginable feminism. At the same time, this appropriation is far from uncontested or secure; perhaps gender remains critical precisely because it is the stake in an undecided battle, a category that persistently falls on both sides of the increasingly unhelpful divisions between the abstract and the concrete, theory and politics, the “very scholarly” and the not so “simple.”

II.   Gender has not run out of steam (after Bruno Latour)

This proposition is obviously contra-Latour, or at least, contra the particular Latour who has served as an inspiration for the so-called “critique of critique” and the loosely related calls for the replacement of the practice of critique by other figures of textual practice: description, re-enchantment, the uncritical, and even the absolute. The question that provides the title to Latour’s widely influential essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” presumes the “obviousness” of its premise—that critique has indeed run out of steam—and the anecdotal evidence he offers for this view is consistent with the presumption of obviousness. We might almost be forgiven for suggesting that Latour intends a kind of parody of the operation of the unexamined premise or unasked question that critique takes as its target, the “given” that its demystifying attention claims to expose and denaturalize. The “obviousness” of the assertion that critique has run out of steam is no doubt related to the obviousness of ideology that Althusser mocks in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” and it is driven home by Latour’s repeated refrain: “what has become of critique?” This obviousness will come into question below, but at this point we will have to concede that the Florida Family Policy Council and its spokesman can easily be imagined taking a place beside the exemplars of the failure of critique that Latour adduces: Frank Luntz, the GOP spinmeister and pollster, who urges Republican candidates to dismiss climate change on the grounds that there is a “lack of scientific certainty” about its causes (226); the bestselling (lamentably French) author who claims that no planes crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th (228); and the neighbor in the “little Bourbonnais village where [Latour] lives,” who “looks down on [him] as hopelessly naïve because he believes that the United States had been attacked by terrorists” (228). “What has become of critique?” Latour asks again and again. “What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia” (228)?

Latour clearly does not represent all those many scholars who have proposed that the over-attachment of intellectuals to critique has reached a point of not only diminishing returns but positively negative consequences.[16] As Michael Hardt observes in “The Militancy of Theory,” “the term critique, of course, covers a wide variety of practices: relatively generic means of fault finding, methods to question the truth of authority, techniques to reveal the figures of power that operate in dominant discourses or ideologies, and even the specific Kantian procedures of investigating the limits of human understanding, reason, or judgment” (20). But these distinctions are perhaps of more interest to those who are doubtful about the arguments currently directed against critique than those who have pressed them while in pursuit of other modes of critical engagement. There is a general rhetoric of the critique of critique, captured by the broad suggestion that the modes of critique most familiar to students of culture may have “outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible form of critique” (Latour 229-30). Latour rephrases this suggestion as another question: “Do you see why I am worried? Threats may have changed so much that we might still be directing our arsenal east or west while the enemy has now moved to quite a different place” (230). Perhaps. Indeed, the Florida Family Policy Council’s angst at the specter of the end of gender may be evidence of just such a worrisome redeployment of forces. But how is one to make this assessment, to answer Latour queries as though his questions were more than rhetorical?  How do we know we aren’t in Kansas anymore?

Lloyd Pratt has recently argued that “when you’re a critic, one of your main tasks is to get the timing right.”[17] “Antiquation” is his term for gestures that survey the present conjuncture and pronounce certain projects over on the grounds that they are out of date. Offering elegant analyses of Matthew Arnold, Walter Benjamin, and Barbara Christian, critics acutely aware of the “necessary timeliness of an effective criticism,” Pratt observes that “one of the main reasons it is so important to get the timing right is that the critic’s statement of what ails the present determines what comes to be understood as the character of that present” (2). He proposes that we attend to how the gesture of antiquation is undertaken, not least because any diagnosis of the present may be mistaken, and our “unfinished business” may be thrown out with the bathwater. 

Pratt organized a panel for the 2015 Modern Language Association convention to encourage this process; “Unfinished Business” was dedicated to four concepts: strategy, silence, exclusion, and analogy.[18] He argued in his prefatory remarks that the terms the panel considered were chosen “deliberately to recall the political interventionist vocabulary of the recovery and canon expansion movements of the 1960s to the 1980s” (3). He detects a disavowal of these movements “implicit in recent discussions of surface reading, big data, pragmatism, and cognitivism,” especially in those accounts that contrast “one critical idiom [that] presents itself as explicitly politicized and another [that] frames itself at least implicitly as unmotivated by such concerns” (3). Before abandoning any particular project, vocabulary, or concept, he warns, we ought to undertake “a careful consideration of what permits the antiquation of one critical lexicon in favor of another” (3). Such scrutiny

avoids the naturalizing of such waxings and wanings, which are often represented as simply one feature of the normal course of intellectual life. The critical lexicons that we construct, endorse, and then routinely subject to antiquation constitute the main site of memory for the critical-intellectual fields we inhabit. The revisions we make to them determine how we end up deciding what should be the function of criticism at the present time: the choice of lexicon determines what can be said and seen about the present time. (2-3)

The antiquation of lexicons and practices often accompanies the proclamation of the new—the new Americanists, the new eighteenth century, the new materialism, even the new historicism and the new criticism—as both overdue and redemptive. The critical imperative is to be intellectually on the move, to discover a new problematic, a forgotten archive, indeed, to adopt any strategy that justifies the qualifier “new.” Making it new—rather than making it any particular kind of thing—is the imperative. As Pratt argues, what remains unexamined in the routinization of this process is not only the most obviously commodified term—the newness of the new—but the process of displacement by which the not so new is effectively rewritten as completely old hat.[19] 

Antiquation is the stake in debates concerning the future of critique.[20] Pratt’s concept of antiquation is particularly suggestive, in part because he wields it in a manner fully alert to its non-contingency, its potential motivations, and necessary, if not always intentional, effects. He argues that the process by which one critical idiom is antiquated while another is puffed up with newly potent steam is not only a matter of generational conflict or faculty turnover, nor of the intellectual restlessness that dogs every critical fashion, nor even of a predictable (because only human) tendency for the critical pendulum to swing. 

Indeed, rather than being a secondary effect of universal processes, Pratt’s antiquation resembles a tactic in the kind of conceptual-political battles Althusser recounts. And, as Pratt describes it, the issue of timing remains paramount. His view of our “now” is that it has strong and significant ties to the “then” of the not so distant past, ties we should not be too eager to undo. As he puts it: “[R]evision can be generative. … However, sometimes the revision is no more than the willful and self-serving antiquation of someone else’s project. Not only the contents of … our critical lexicons, but also the processes, casual and professional, anecdotal and institutional, that constitute the hidden work of their revision therefore require our attention.”[21] Genders, as Karen Jacobs observes in her charge to the conference, occupy a critical position within a lexicon that is in fact a labile network of allied but also competing categories; the question of the past and possible future tenses of genders, Pratt’s account of antiquation suggests, will not be given to us by historical forces moving inexorably in a predetermined direction toward the new. The future of gender depends upon how we understand its analytical and political successes and failures, and how we engage its remarkable elasticity—and availability to the arguments of Stemberger and his cohort. If it is at best unclear that gender critique has run out of steam, how might we pursue its “unfinished business”?

III.    Gender critique is not critiquey (after Christopher Castiglia)

Let’s return to the “biggest thing,” the looming end of gender in society. The Florida Family Policy Council does not advocate the “antiquation” of gender; on the contrary, the Council insists on gender’s salience as a category of analysis, a positive value, and a kind of fact or given, the lever in a critique of the advocates of marriage equality.  At the same time, if gender now rallies the forces of unqualified reaction, the feminist auto-critiques of gender as a useful concept—which have been with us for as long as the category itself has had salience—seem destined to advance well beyond even the most forceful of the many with which we are familiar. These critiques from within feminist thought, from feminists and activists in the U.S. and around the world, including from those who once did powerful scholarly work by wielding gender as critique, have repeatedly rewritten the meaning of gender and even called for its antiquation. Sometimes gender was displaced by cognate or competing terms (such as sexual difference or trans or femininity); at others, gender was resituated by profound revisions to its intersectional articulation with categories such as race, religion, sexuality, and class. Gender has been pluralized in the manner that our conference references (into three genders or five, in transgenders, or fifty-eight or one hundred genders); gender has been abandoned as merely another trace of the figure of woman and the figures of women and of the essentialisms and universalizations that each harbor and replaced by “situational anti-sexism” in the heterogeneous global field that Gayatri Spivak invokes.[22] 

Such feminist critiques of gender critique, emerging as they do from diverse sites, cannot be summed up as any kind of totality or reduced to a single or even several thematics; and they have long co-existed with attacks on the feminist concept of gender from the political antecedents of the Florida Family Policy Council. But historically, as in the attack on “gender feminists” engineered by Republican congressmen in 1995 in the run up to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing—and eerily echoed this year by Pope Francis’s assault on “gender theory”[23]—the reactionary critiques were powered by the claim that feminists had invented the fiction of gender to express their misbegotten belief that all matter of relations built on and around the differences between supposed anatomically female persons and anatomically male persons “have been socially constructed and are therefore subject to change” (Scott, preface to 2nd edition, ix). While both the older and the contemporary reactionary campaigns present an account of gender intended to block any such change, only the more recent instantiation seeks to appropriate gender as its concept: Stemberger is a “gender anti-feminist” in a way that his counterparts twenty years ago were not (see Butler and Latour). How should we think a situation in which gender now encompasses such incompatible figures, is so thoroughly de-essentialized, that it can be brought to bear precisely against what we have ordinarily understood as a “gender critique”? And it is not only the discontinuities between the historical work of gender critique and a new phase in its deployment that demand analysis. Stemberger’s profoundly anti-feminist gender critique must be juxtaposed to the simultaneous interventions of transgender theory and cultural production, a counter-force that “conceives of gender as yet another global system within which a great many diverse and specific forms of human being were produced, enmeshed, and modified along multiple axes of signification,” as Susan Stryker has described it (8). Are genders now the site of a radically new kind of “ambiguity: the stake in a decisive but undecided battle” (Althusser) that has taken an extremely unexpected turn? Is the vulnerability of gender critique to such diverging appropriations another symptom of the exhaustion of critique?

I have been contrasting the anti-feminist gender analysis Stemberger proposes to the long history of feminist critiques of gender (critique). At the same time, there is an uncanny way in which anti-feminist gender analysis defends the category of gender in precisely the way that certain feminist autocritiques of gender, including transgender critiques, decry when they discover it at work within avowedly feminist analyses. Joan Scott, the author of the powerful “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” is one feminist scholar whose writing about gender follows a trajectory from strong advocacy to radical rethinking and tempered skepticism. In her work as a historian of France and in her theoretical interventions, Scott presents one of the most cogent and consequential arguments on behalf of the value of gender analysis for historians and other feminist scholars. The essential part of her argument for my purposes is the stress it placed on the ways in which the concept of gender enabled feminist scholars to “fundamentally transform disciplinary paradigms” (29). In Scott’s account, rather than simply bringing new subject matter to the attention of the field, gender as a category of historical analysis entailed a rethinking of the historical as such and a reorganization of the interpretative problematics historians traditionally embraced. Scott theorized gender as a term with a profoundly “destabilizing effect” that does “important theoretical work” precisely because it “open[s] rather than close[s] analysis” (xi). Indeed, she reflected that “the word itself—a grammatical reference transposed to the social/cultural arena—was disturbing. As such it demanded explanation; it required that its theoretical premises be discussed” (xi).  To speak the word was to announce a disturbing “ambiguity” that could not be ignored.  Gender was precisely an explosive term that instigated battles and struggles. “Under its aegis, feminists asked how and under what conditions different roles and functions had been defined for each sex; how the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied […] and how issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity....” (xi); the stability and “obviousness” of gender were the first casualties in this struggle. Gender named a social practice in the world precisely in order to put its very grounding into question.

By the time the revised edition of Scott’s book Gender and the Politics of History appears in 2000, her estimation of the intellectual work that gender could do in scholarly projects has shifted considerably. In her preface to the new edition, which I have been citing above, Scott turns to the GOP anti-UN protests in 1995. She narrates the decision by the United Nations itself to investigate the “usage” of the category of gender—looking for subversion of several kinds—as a way of addressing political objections from the U.S. Congress and the Vatican, as well as other national delegations and governments.[24] Of course, critics from various locations around the globe, both in the run up to that conference and since, have interrogated the notion of gender in the pursuit of divergent political ends. Governments and some religious leaders were concerned that United Nations mandates might pressure them to institute unwanted changes in legal systems and social programs—changes unwanted by the defenders of traditional sex-gender systems. (The progenitors of the Florida Family Council thought the term “gender” threatened rather than subtended the power relations they endorsed.) But there have been opponents of sexism and patriarchy, from Peru and Paraguay, Russia and Poland, China and Nigeria, who found that the figure of gender, in the restricted content it frequently embodied in intellectual and political practice; in its equivocation on the distinction between sex and gender, their relation, mutual determinations, and imbrication in other forms of identity and oppression, especially race, class, and sexuality; and in its projection of a particular instance of modernity across global differences, was not the destabilizing, disturbing, or explosive term they needed for their own theory and practice of resistance. It was not these kinds of critiques that motivated the UN inquiry (see Scott, “Feminist Reverberations”).

Having established a “contact group” solely in order to “seek agreement on the commonly understood meaning of ‘gender’ and to convey its conclusions” to the conference, the UN thoroughly embarrassed itself by issuing a report stipulating that “the word gender as used in the Platform for Action [document written for the conference] was intended to be interpreted and understood as it is in ordinary, generally accepted usage” (Scott ix, x).[25] As Scott points out, this strategy goes absolutely nowhere, apparently trying to “settle controversy by denying it exists” (x), and in fact only underscores the increasingly obvious truth that no “ordinary, generally accepted usage” of the term gender exists. In 1995, then, gender was literally without a literal meaning and, no doubt for that reason, unavailable for use by anyone as a merely “descriptive” term. In a rhetorical analysis, a term whose correct usage is in fact an abuse or misuse of a term is a catachresis—the arms of a chair or the legs of a table. Gender was such a catachresis at its origin, and this absence of any ordinary and generally accepted sense, Scott once argued, gave it critical political and theoretical agency and explosively disruptive power. The inescapability of critique at its origin made gender the site of furious interpretative energy. We might say that gender “ended” in this originary moment, the moment at which it became an irretrievably ambiguous figure for feminist and anti-feminist debate, unavailable to anyone as an ordinary description in “generally accepted usage.”

Scott celebrates gender’s failure to have an ordinary and agreed upon meaning as a feature, not a glitch. The very inability of gender to sustain any particular content is one of the concrete means by which it served so fruitfully to stimulate feminist research and thinking.[26] By the year 2000, however, she argues, the way we read gender has caused this valuable feature to atrophy; ironically, various modes of self-described feminist work transformed gender into a substantial entity the end of which Stemberger could bewail. In “Some More Reflections on Gender and Politics,” Scott argues that efforts to “police the precise usage of gender”—for example, to maintain a sex/gender distinction and prevent the collapse of gender into a synonym for sex, that is, anatomy—are futile (200); the critical effects of the distinction are constantly collapsing, and this collapse is not something that can be corrected for or prevented simply through more scrupulous or rigorous research. Worse yet, she suggests that the universalizing impulse of the social sciences, even when qualified by explicit attention “to national and cultural differences,” nonetheless persistently “operates to produce a view of women…as fundamentally homogeneous” (201). In much feminist work and gender studies scholarship that employs the term, Scott finds, “the system of difference is treated as already known,” gender becomes an invariant feature of sociality to be simply described in its empirical facticity, and the “end of gender”—its essential displacement—indeed becomes unthinkable. Ironically, this is the position the Florida Family Policy Council occupies. Gender comes simply to mean “pertaining to differences between men and women”—whether we are speaking the languages of theory; of historical, sociological, or anthropological research; or of the university more broadly; or take up the languages of political protest, theology, or marriage law.  The formal resemblance between a scholarly gender analysis that takes men and women as givens rather than effects and the anti-feminist gender theory of the Florida Family Policy Council is striking. But it is not the last word.

Scott underscores the intellectual and political value of gender’s lack of literal meaning by pointing to the way in which this very absence required (and might require again) constant debate; gender could never simply be described by any analyst because it could never truly appear in any generally accepted usage. Gender entailed critique, the “read[ing] backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself” (Johnson xv). To repeat Scott’s claim: “the word itself—a grammatical reference transposed to the social/cultural arena—was disturbing. As such it demanded explanation; it required that its theoretical premises be discussed.” Autocritique was embedded in the very premise of the term; the theoretical problematic that established its terrain simply could not work all by itself (Althusser, Ideology). The exposure and discussion of the theoretical premises of a concept, of the enabling conditions that establish objects of inquiry, both theoretical and empirical, abstract and concrete, as well as questions to be asked and questions to be deferred, are among the fundamental meanings of critique. Gender in the mode of critique produces—even as it responds to—the impossibility of any pure description of gender and thus undoes both that which “goes without saying” or the simplicity or “obviousness” of the word, as Althusser might say (Ideology), and its theoretical aggrandizement, its unwarranted generalizations, and its tendency to freeze signification and thus to universalize. 

But, as I mentioned at the outset, critique currently faces determined critique—both in specific disciplinary quarters, very much including my own, and in a broader social field dismayed by the contempt for science and facts on display in U.S. political culture. Its critics (and the irony of a critique of critique is not lost on anyone) seek to “antiquate” it (Pratt) by various means, from belittling its political effects or naming it as a fellow traveler of various reactionary tendencies (Latour’s worrying neighbor, as well as Mr. Stemberger) to accusing it of an unearned, ungenerous, suspicious, if not paranoid, and self-satisfied contempt—for literary texts, for authors, for history, for pleasure, for affect, for the body, and ultimately, for the people. Christopher Castiglia has dubbed this stew of critique’s alleged shortcomings (which he describes as “a combination of suspicion, self-confidence, and indignation”) a “disposition” that he calls “critiquiness.”[27] In his view, we do not in fact need to move beyond critique’s method (which he glosses as “digging beneath a text’s surface to discover its depth”) or even its conclusions, per se. Rather, Castiglia argues that we need to acquire a different kind of analytical “frame of mind” or “orientation toward the text” (79), a kind of framing that operates at a level less “self-conscious than method” but is more attuned to historical circumstances and “deliberate practice”—in other words, at a level that is both timely and yet not programmatic. Otherwise, even as we seek to distance ourselves from critique and its negative side effects, we risk “unintentionally replicating some of critique’s least salutary features: the binary logic, the unambiguous and unambivalent conclusions, the lack of historical self-contextualization, the denials of inheritances” (79). Resisting ambiguity, reifying the subject, antiquating the past, the critique of critique itself risks becoming “critiquey.”

I cannot do justice to Castiglia’s argument here, but I want to borrow the notion of a critique that escapes critiquiness.  Gender critique is well-positioned to produce critique without critiquiness. When gender reads symptomatically—that is, when it reads in a way that cannot be assimilated to critique as it is understood on a narrowly philosophical view—it evades the pitfalls of critiquiness. Displacing binary logic, it is unqualifiedly ambivalent, entangled in “inheritances,” unable to evade—or even bracket—its historical and political situation. Gender critique drags its reading subject into its workings in a manner that compromises “indignation” and renders the subject herself a symptom, the trace of a formation that can never simply be antiquated because it frames the reader along with her reading, in tandem with her inscription of the text. This critique is a mode of rereading that embodies and embraces the possibility that “now is then.”   And it need not yield gender to its vehement champions from the Right.

IV.   What is it to read gender?  (after Louis Althusser)

The possibility of gender critique “without critiquiness” returns us to the question of reading, and specifically, to the question of symptomatic reading.[28] In literary and cultural studies, as reading protocols have been more widely debated and explored, scholars have advocated for and against susceptible reading, surface reading, suspicious reading, and symptomatic reading, to name only the possibilities beginning with the letter S. In a way, this proliferation of figurations of reading is precisely what Althusser calls for in Reading Capital in 1965. He argues there that we must consistently address the question “what it is to read?”, never taking our relationship to our own reading to be innocent or transparent, never forgetting our symptomatic emergence in the act of reading itself. Indeed, symptomatic reading, focused as it is on posing the “unasked question” that gives a text its object and its problematic or form, imposes two questions on every reader’s practice: the question that is left unspoken in her text and the question of her own mode of reading, of what it is to read.

In the context of literary and cultural studies, the question of reading or of the critique of critique has spawned a multitude of overlapping, contradictory, and competing debates.  Some focus tightly on the consequences of our over-commitment to critique, its palpably diminishing force and impoverished returns; but questions of affect, of ontologies—flat, object-oriented, and others—of surfaces and depths, paranoia and reparation, big data, computation, thin description, new materialism, and others, have all also found a place in the broader discussion.[29] The return of the problem of form to cultural studies is adjacent to these debates, sometimes competing with the privileging of reading, sometimes its avatar. In specifically feminist inflections of the critique of critique, concepts such as language, representation, and interpretation itself have been cited as the cause of an "impasse" in feminist theory that we have now somehow happily transcended: in this view, we have literally come to our senses—the bodily, the affective, the concrete. We can at last return, with palpable relief, to the safe harbor of a less “discursive” and therefore (somehow) more material world, one that is susceptible to description, an apparently more modest undertaking. (An analysis of this particular critique of critique is the work of another paper.)

In this welter of debates, feminism’s long-standing problematization of reading is among its most fundamental contributions to cultural critique and an essential strategy for the disruption of gender, one that extends of course to the problem of reading gender itself and gendered subjects of all sorts.[30] This disruption can be sustained only insofar as we undertake to read genders in the terms Hazel Carby once proposed for Black feminist criticism, “as a problem, not as a solution, as a sign that should be interrogated, a locus of contradictions” (15), rather than an answer to be enshrined (see also Butler 178 ff). If to read is to pose as a problem what has been given as a solution (Althusser Reading 154), “women read” is the opening gesture of a project that can only be highly contested and interminably so.[31] Given that there is “no discursive continuity among women” or men, gender is always the effect of this reading, rather than its grounding, which is not to say that it is only a matter of words. At the same time, the proliferation of the appropriations of gender from all quarters makes any “ordinary, generally accepted usage” absolutely unreachable. Description gives way to symptomatic reading because the latter undertakes to name the problematic of the text, the structure of presuppositions, blindnesses and unspoken questions that produces its insights, including its insights into the forms of gender.

Gender as a contested practice and effect of symptomatic reading displaces the subject effects -- smugness, distance, and paranoid knowingness -- that undermine our practice of critique precisely insofar as symptomatic reading renders the reader herself symptomatic. When we read, it is not just the text that is revealed as a symptom. Indeed, intimacy with the text is essential to symptomatic reading—think here of Althusser’s relation to Marx’s Capital in Reading Capital—and the reading subject is an effect of this intimate practice. I would argue that symptomatic reading is in this respect not paranoid, but "reparative," in the specific—although not too specific—sense that Eve Sedgwick has given to that term: it unfolds a pleasure in the “surplus beauty, surplus stylistic investment, unexplained upswellings of threat, contempt and longing” that draw us to the text of gender in the first place.[32] And, as she also insists, symptomatic reading enables us to find, even in the most rigorous reading, the possibility of surprise. Sedgwick observes that, while paranoid reading discovers its disasters foretold at every turn, “to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise” (146). She is not speaking here only of an experience of texts in the narrow sense of literary or other cultural objects. Surprise is a relation to history, politics, and the real, as it is for Althusser, who invokes it in his account of the historical “necessity of… contingency,” the impossibility of knowing in advance the trajectory of a text, a science, or a politics. Gender too arrives not as the goal of “a specific theoretical conjuncture … but as its surprise” (Reading 45).

Clearly, on this account, symptomatic reading is a particular idiom of critique—not your doctor vater’s critique.[33] The scene of reading complicates the classical account of critique insofar as it introduces the problems of form and of the surplus, ambivalence, and transitivity that form entails for the reading subject. The problem of form as an effect of reading is thus to my mind integral to rethinking critique, and gender, on this account, is itself a problem of form, form that is “situational, transitive, ultimately incomplete… indeed, no more than provisional” (Rooney, Live 133). The symptomatic reading of gender, gender as symptomatic reading, emerges as a model for rereading critique beyond critiquiness precisely because contestation and contingency – as Mr. Stemberger’s intervention shows – are built into its operation. Althusser’s practice in Reading Capital provides us with a model: there, symptomatic reading proceeds in the most intimate way: reading and writing are confounded. 

On this view, reading is productive and transitive, never a mirroring or miming of what is simply there to be read. Reading is writing, a rewriting that encompasses both the text and the other reader. In this sense, any given reading is always also a counter reading insofar as it entails a shift in the problematic of the text; it asks a previously unasked question—or better, the previously unasked question, hence its entanglement with its immediate precursors and its complex legacy, its engagement with the relation of the now to the then. In “The Anaclitic Critic,” Judith Roof takes up the psychoanalytic term from the Greek anaklino (to lean against, to lean upon) to trace the “anaclitic” character of reading, the way in which “analysis lounges on its object,” the text, and “takes up unspent energy” (95). The textual “object and the subject are codependents” in her account, “object and subject conflated,” and the “catalyst” of criticism is “a question that unties the strings pursing the object” (95).  This question opens the object in a relation with the reader that cannot be known in advance, “whose relation must be parsed” in the very act of reading. This question that undoes the object does not care to be “innocent”—it comes from elsewhere, not from the object’s depths—and so it establishes what Althusser calls the guilt of reading and asks of itself the question what is it to read?

Such a reading never addresses the imaginary “text itself,” whether conceived as an idealized icon or a thing. Reading addresses the other reader, critical history, and the audience to come, “a fantasm conjured out of readings, impressions, reputations, folklore, other critics’ fantasms,” Roof concedes. “But so what?” (95). The other reader invariably surprises, and the other reading draws my own into life. But reading against the other reader is always also reading with the other reader, as reading against the text is always also reading with the text, as its symptom. The model here is play, as Althusser puts it in Reading Capital when he says: "I am interested in the play on words itself.” Playing against is playing with. The other reading, the other reader, persistently recalls me to the knowledge that I am also a symptom, playing and being played.

V.  Gender has a plastic action upon the real (after Monique Wittig)

I have only one additional point to make, and while it cannot be fully formed in these last passages, that circumstance is perhaps appropriate to its content. On the account I have been giving so far, gender, like other (textual) forms, is “plastic.”  Malabou unfolds the concept of plasticity to disclose the simultaneity of the giving and the taking of form, the way in which every attribution of form undoes or reshapes a prior attribution, in a "double movement, contradictory and nonetheless indissociable, of the emergence and the disappearance of form" (70).[34]  Reading gender requires the invention and reinvention of plastic forms, forms whose avatars or structures, whatever their medium (including bodies, matter, and flesh), are legible as the “effects of the relations among the elements rather than the elements themselves determining the character of the structure,” as Elizabeth Wilson has put it (22). Gendered forms emerge as effects of reading, where reading is understood as transitive and thus productive, an ineluctable process that involves every medium and substance (see Rooney, Live 129 and Wiegman 318-19). This reading is not a revelation of a more or less adequate representation of things, a mirroring or description, but an action in the real where signification is a constant, and gendered effects are the product of readings across the social field. 

Monique Wittig argues in “The Mark of Gender” that "there is a plasticity of the real to language: language has a plastic action upon the real" (78). These words acknowledge as well as advocate the mutual determinations of shifting media, bodies, and language, all real. To think gender as a form of this kind entails thinking reading and readers as unceasingly taking and giving form. Reading in this sense includes the problematic of critique but is not limited to it. Rather, gender as symptomatic reading entangles the “critical” and the so-called “uncritical” reading (Warner) through its attentiveness to the way in which it takes form in affective, visceral, figurative, ideological, cultural, political, social, personal, mournful, and playful avatars.[35] The result of this entanglement and its formal productivity is disequilibrium, a contingent but necessary “reading effect” that cannot help but surprise. The most powerful way surprise makes itself felt in reading is through the apprehension of form. Genders are necessarily multiple and inconsistent forms; they persist as forms persist in all of our practices of reading, resting on our guilty pleasures and our inevitable critique: “admitting our love, we lean” (Roof 96).

Gender’s symptomatic reading leans upon the other reader, entangles critique with reading and thus with form, and demonstrates the non-identity of these terms. It refuses both the literalization and the antiquation of gender analysis, the defense of static gender binaries, and the abandonment of gender critiques or gender as critique. Disturbing the collapse of gender into any pre-existing shape, waiting merely to be described or fixed by any singular determination, it repeats the question “what is it to read?” It enacts rather than defines the time and timeliness of reading, the persistence of the “then” in the “now,” and the imperative to read without guarantees, which is what Wittig means by the plastic.[36] This is to say, gender’s symptomatic reading is always both determined and determining and implacably in motion; this is the actual form that gender takes “in society,” gender as disparate social bodies with no hope of keeping time. This is how gender reads, exploding again and again, displaced in our critiques and reconfigured in reparative forms. 

Works Cited

  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 127-86.
  • __________. “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 11-22.
  • Althusser, Louis and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1979.
  • Apter, Emily, and Elaine Freedgood, “Afterword” to The Way We Read Now. Representations 108 (Fall 2009): 145.
  • Berger, Anne Immanuelle. “Paradoxes of Visibility in/and Contemporary Identity Politic.” The Queer Turn in Feminism: Identities, Sexualities, and the Theater of Gender. Trans. Catherine Porter. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.  83-106.
  • Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (Fall 2009): 1-21.
  • Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
  • Brown, Wendy. “Untimeliness and Punctuality: Critical Theory in Dark Times.”   Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 1-16.
  • Burton, Ben and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, eds. The Work of Form. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Butler, Judith. “The End of Sexual Difference.” Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. 174-203.
  • Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Castiglia, Christopher. “Critiquiness.” ELN 51, no. 2 (2013): 79-86.
  • Chanter, Tina. “Gender Aporia.” Signs 25, no. 4 (2000): 1237-1241.
  • Daily Show. “Florida Haters.” 13 January 2015.—1.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Felski, Rita. “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” M/C 15, no. 1 (2012).
  • Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Galloway, Alexander. “Plastic Reading.” Novel 45, no. 1 (2012): 10-12.
  • Hardt, Michael. “The Militancy of Theory,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 110, no. 1 (2011): 19-35.
  • Johnson, Barbara. “Translator’s Introduction.” Dissemination. Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. vii-xxxiii.
  • Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48.
  • Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
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  • Rooney, Ellen. “Better Read Than Dead: Althusser and the Fetish of Ideology.” YFS 88 (1995): 183-200.
  • __________. “Form and Contentment.” Reading for Form. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.  25-48.
  • __________.  “Live Free or Describe: The Reading Effect and the Persistence of Form.”  differences 25, no. 1 (2010): 112-39.
  • Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” and “Some More Reflections on Gender and Politics.” Gender and the Politics of History. Revised Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 28-52; 199-222.
  • __________. “Feminist Reverberations.” The Fantasy of Feminist History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 68-90.
  • __________, ed. Women’s Studies on the Edge. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Sedgwick, Eve. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 123-51.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Problem of Cultural Self-Representation.” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. 50-58.
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[1] I want to extend my deep gratitude to Karen Jacobs, who conceived the “Genders Future Tense” conference that occasioned this essay and included me in its challenging and thought-provoking discussions, and to Megan Strackbein, who has been exceptionally generous throughout the process of turning talk to text, and Brynn Raymond for her editor’s eye. I have retained as much as possible the character of the original talk, and my revisions reflect the rich commentary my fellow conference speakers and the audience developed over the course of our two days together. 

[2] I invoke the word disciplinary here in the sense that Robyn Wiegman gives to it in her Object Lessons: “Here, the routine distinction between traditional disciplines and interdisciplinary fields of study gives way to an understanding of disciplinarity as the ongoing and extensive process by which a field is institutionally formalized and critically governed” (75).

[3] The pervasiveness of the concept of gender and the remarkable range of meanings attached to it outside as well as within the academy is by now widely acknowledged. The proliferation of theorizing, scholarship, and work in popular culture in the idioms of transgender activism and thought is one crucial site of this development. It is also the case that simply to open the newspaper on many days is to discover another reading of gender and/or its critique. A handful of stories in an unscientific sample drawn from The New York Times this past summer range from “With an Eye to Impact, Investing Through a ‘Gender Lens’” (Business, 15 August 2015, p. 5) and “Who Gets to Play the Transgender Part?” (Weekend Arts, 4 September 2015, pp. 1, 5) to “What Makes a Woman?” (Sunday Review, 7 June 2015, pp. 1, 6-7) and “How Changeable is Gender?” (Sunday Review, 23 August 2015, pp. 1,4). The predominance of the interrogative in this work is marked. I should note that these are not primarily stories driven by hard news, of which there are innumerable instances; gender tends not to be pressed conceptually in the same way in those “hard news” items.

[4] Malabou, 70. Malabou’s theorization of plasticity originates in her philosophical archives, but it resonates with the literary notion of form as produced by a mode of reading that entails the eventuality that the text will “bite back”; on this account, which I have pursued elsewhere, “the work of form is revealed only in the act of reading, and just as no theory is ever fully adequate to a textual instance, no subjectivity ever fully realized in an individual, no formal feature stands as the full expression of a text before reading has set it in motion” (Rooney, Form 47, 38). We will return to the question of form below. See also Galloway.

[5] The interview was reprinted in The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990. 50-58.

[6] “Prime,” it is worth noting, refers both to something “of first importance” and to the “first order of time, existence or development,” as well as to the effort “to prepare or make ready for a particular purpose or action” (

[7] See Wiegman and Scott, On the Edge. I don’t think that the characterization of gender’s conceptual movements as a sequence of disruptive upheavals and contestations is in any way incompatible with Wiegman’s account of gender’s inscription into the “progress narrative” of feminism’s “field domain” (36-90).

[8] This issue of Representations is one of the signature statements of the critique of symptomatic reading, though the contributors and editors represent a range of theoretical orientations and do not themselves constitute anything like a single school or unified tendency. The final sentence of the “Afterword” continues beyond my citation: “and the ways we read and can read have already changed their methods and modes, and they cannot, happily, be enumerated” (145).

[9] Questions of temporality and historical inscription, the “habitus of timing” and “chrononormativity,” memory, the politics of futurity, and the affects of backwardness are burgeoning subjects in queer theory and historiography. The intransigent problem of characterizing the present moment and the practice proper to it resonates with this work, implicitly and explicitly, perhaps especially with Elizabeth Freeman’s account of the way in which “time binds” ordinary “existence into a form of mastery.” See also Derrida, Edelman, Love, Kristeva, and Apter.


[11] In the months since I spoke these words in Boulder, various defiant county clerks, most notoriously Kim Davis of Kentucky, have seized the national stage to complain of the legal system’s assaults against their religious freedoms. North Carolina’s legislature, overriding the governor’s veto, has legalized an exemption for public officials who assert a “sincerely held religious objection” to “same-sex unions” from performing this particular duty of their office. The governor of Louisiana is poised to do the same, while the attorney general of Texas has offered government workers who refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples free legal defense teams. The examples multiply, even as it appears that the clerks in the vast majority of counties are simply doing their jobs. The resistance to marriage equality is uneven but seems likely to persist for some time to come, especially as the insistence that religious freedom is imperiled when clerks are required to issue licenses is codified in state law.

[12] See also The New York Times report that “Florida county clerks said they would abide by the law and issue licenses, but some clerks, including for Duval County, home to Jacksonville, announced last week that they would end ceremonial courthouse weddings so as not to force staff members who object to same-sex marriage to participate in such ceremonies. The clerk of courts in Duval County, Ronnie Fussell, told The Florida Times-Union that marriage should be ‘between a man and a woman.’” “Personally, it would go against my belief to perform a ceremony that is other than that,” Mr. Fussell said.

[13] It is part of my argument below that this language itself continues to repay further discussion, which is to say that I am not persuaded that the strategy of exposing the ruses of power has become redundant because they have already been so successfully and thoroughly unveiled or because the gross exercise of power is manifest to all. See Best and Marcus, Sedgwick 145, Latour.

[14] “Florida Haters," The Daily Show, 13 January 2015. The Daily Show lifted the video of Mr. Stemberger’s interview from a local Florida station, and I considered citing that source here rather than Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central television program. But that would obscure the role that Stewart’s show and others like it play in the dissemination of actual news (as fragile as that term may be). I think it likely I would never have heard of Stemberger without the mediation of the so-called “fake news.” 

[15] Armstrong recounts the powerful critique that dismantled the earliest feminist readings of Jane Eyre and the diminished significance of gender as a category in the reading of the Victorian novel generally and then suggests a new feminist intervention enabled by the reconceptualized concept of none other than gender.

[16] The so-called critique of critique has taken numerous and diverging forms, and Latour’s proposal that we turn our (critical) attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern" has distinctive qualities that might be read as qualifying the assertion that critique has run out of steam. I take up this question elsewhere, as it requires a close reading of the latter part of his essay to draw out this distinctiveness. At the same time, Latour’s polemical opening has been widely cited by a range of critics and seems intended to characterize a very general problem.

[17] Lloyd Pratt, “Unfinished Business,” unpublished introduction to panel at the 2015 MLA convention.

[18] The speakers present at the panel were Nicole Brittingham Furlonge, who spoke on silence, and Emily Lordi, whose paper was on strategy; the speakers who were unfortunately unable to attend were Yogita Goyal and Aimee Bahng.

[19] See Wiegman’s discussion of progress narratives, wherein she asks: “What would it mean if we resisted the disciplinary imperative to ‘move on’” (53)?

[20] Timing and the problem of critique have received attention from a number of quite different theorists in recent years. See, for example, Brown, Derrida, and Freeman.

[22] Facebook and the vicissitudes of its gender identification template embody the momentum of proliferation. A search for “gender facebook list” generates a list of news reports that the site has updated its gender settings to “more than fifty,” 51, 56, 58 or 71 options. Tracking down the correct number ceased to be necessary on 26 February 2015, when, under the title “Facebook Diversity,” the company posted the following policy: 

“Last year we were proud to add a custom gender option to help people better express their identities on Facebook. We collaborated with our Network of Support, a group of leading LGBT advocacy organizations, to offer an extensive list of gender identities that many people use to describe themselves. After a year of offering this feature, we have expanded it to include a free-form field.

Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add up to ten gender terms and also have the ability to control the audience with whom you would like to share your custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

The expanded custom gender option is available to everyone who uses Facebook in US English.” 


Time Magazine reported on the new “custom gender option” with a headline and text that underscored both freedom and the “infinite” possibilities the policy underwrites: “Your Facebook Gender Can Now Be Anything You Want: From 58 genders to an infinite selection.” “Facebook added a fill-in-the-blank option for gender on Thursday that lets users describe their gender identity freely.” See

[24] In February 2015, as I was finishing my conference talk, I learned that the Vatican remains peculiarly interested in what the new Pope calls “gender theory.” See The Pope’s declaration that “gender theory” “does not recognize the order of creation” was met with considerable consternation. The entanglement of the Holy See in thinking gender became even more knotted in September 2015, after the Pope’s visit to the U.S., as news of Francis’s meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was leaked, was met with silence, was leaked further and louder, and then was both admitted by the Vatican and (perhaps ambivalently) disavowed.

[25] See the United Nation’s “Statement on the Commonly Understood Meaning of the Term ‘Gender.’” http://www.undp.or/un/habitat/agenda/annex5.html

[26] See Weed, who argues that this statement, absurd on its face, provides “is a stunningly candid glimpse at the aporia that is gender….All the statement can offer is language that stands in for a referent that can’t be named.  And whatever that referent is, it must always depend upon the power of customary usage and the meanings it evokes.  In other words, in lieu of demonstrable truth, language does its work” (289).  See also Chanter.

[27] “Critiquiness,” English Language Notes 51, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013).

[28] I should stress that this is not the trajectory of Castiglia’s argument, which I can’t trace out here today. But my account of symptomatic reading distinguishes it from critique in its more narrowly construed sense. Althusser introduces his philosophical reading of Capital as “quite the opposite of an innocent reading. It is a guilty reading, but not one that absolves its crime on confessing it….It is therefore a special reading which exculpates itself as a reading by posing every guilty reading the very question that unmasks its innocence, the mere question of its innocence: what is it to read? (15).

[29] The debate has numerous subfields that cannot be enumerated here in anything like their entirety. See Best, Marcus, Latour, Ricoeur, Sedgwick, Felski, Love, Moretti, and special issues of Mediations, English Language Notes, and Representations. See also related discussions of the question of reading and form, including the anthologies Reading for Form and The Work of Form, Brinkema, and Mitchell. 

[30] See Berger, who distinguishes between the problematic of visibility and the problematic of reading in relation to sexual differences.

[31] Judith Fetterly’s The Resisting Reader is one of the early works of feminist literary critique that put women readers—as distinct from women writers—unapologetically at the center of its argument. As many historians of feminist literary studies have observed, the moment of critical reading that challenged the misogyny of canonical works and their critical histories preceded that of canon building and the subsequent recovery of women writers’ lost works and the counter traditions of women’s writing.

[32] See Love, “Truth and Consequences,” for a brilliant reading of the relation of paranoid to reparative in Sedgwick.

[33] I take up these questions in greater detail in “I am interested in the play on words itself: Critique, Symptomatic Reading, and the Problem of Form,” Critique and Post-Critique, forthcoming.

[34]  Malabou is here discussing brain plasticity, but also the “plasticity of the self” (71).  I am primarily interested in the place of form in her discussion, which does not touch upon gender.  Malabou addresses plasticity and the feminine in her Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy.

[36] Wittig seeks precisely what Stemberger fears: arguing that “gender is very harmful to women in the exercise of language” and that “gender is ontologically a total impossibility.” She concludes: “Gender then must be destroyed” (80, 81).

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