Notes Towards a Femontology, from a Woman with a Penis.


The Dialectic of Gender

Enough skirting around the question: what is gender? Is it an unchanging, essential, fact? Is it a contingent, self-determinant feeling? Is it substance, or is it ether? Is it completely real, or is it completely ideal?

Both of these explanations end in contradiction. If gender is thought of as fact, then it becomes a category of exclusion. We can add corollaries to our definition all day, but we will never add up to a category that encompasses all women. There would always be a woman who is excluded from the category of women, which is a contradiction.

If gender is thought of as feeling, then it becomes a category of inclusion. At first glance this may seem like the right direction to take, but it too ends in contradiction. Because if the category of womanhood is determined by each individual woman, then there would be no distinction between valid and invalid statements about gender. We would have to take everyone at their word, including those acting in bad faith e.g. “I identify as an attack helicopter” or “I identify as trans-racial.” Gender as utterly self-determined would be no gender at all.

Matt Walsh asks us “what is a woman?” and it is obvious which side he falls on – gender as fact – but his question is specifically challenging the latter notion of gender as feeling. What he is saying is “you have no definition of gender at all, you deny that there even is a such thing as a woman!” While his argument is clearly in bad faith, it hits on something important. We must move dialectically from gender-as-fact to gender-as-feeling, but we cannot end here. The contradiction we find means that there is still a further move to make.

Judith Butler’s idea of gender-as-performative collapses the distinction between substance-of-gender and accidence-of-gender, but not in a way that simply replaces substance with accidence. Rather, the accidents of gender prefigure an underlying substance that they in fact constitute. The substance cannot be thought of as primary, for it is only constituted retroactively through its accidents, i.e. it is only realized through its own non-realization. On the other hand, the accidents cannot be thought of as primary either, for they are only spurred into action by the substance they are supposed to be prefiguring.

Performativity, then, says that gender is neither fact nor feeling but failure. The subject-to-gender only fits within the category by failing to embody its limits. The woman is only a woman by virtue of her failure to fill in that category. In a more positive sense, gender can be thought of as a striving. But it is not a striving that meets an end, but one that fails to do so, so that the subject-to-gender endlessly reverts back into itself. The arc described by this movement is gender-as-category qua the collapse of all categories.

Gender as failure is the only definition that encompasses all women (or men, or any other gender) without rendering the category itself invalid. Why is this necessary? Why can’t gender disappear entirely? For the simple fact that there are men and women – and other subjects who belong under a gender category – and any attempt to deny this renders “gender theory” as an empty philosophical project. We cannot give in to our enemies, but must fight back against them. This is not to be accomplished by proposing some new, fixed definition of gender to replace theirs; this will only create further exclusions. Instead, we must embrace gender as failure in order that the word may retain any relevance at all.

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