In high school my Social Studies teacher, who also happened to coach the football team, showed us a TV documentary on the 1980 USSR vs. US Olympic hockey championship game. This was the only event that got across “how the Cold War actually felt” he claimed. I don’t remember much of the documentary now, but I do remember the gist of history he got across over that year even if I can’t remember specifically which year of high school it was. He claimed the major racial breakthrough of the 1980s as a decade and the decisive marker that the civil rights movement had triumphed was The Cosby Show‘s extremely high Nielsen numbers.
Even being something like 15 years old, I felt something fishy in these assertions. By then I had figured out the primary function of school was as a series of “scared straight” encounters with the less appetizing dysfunctions of middle aged people who’d decided to become high school teachers. Rooms filled with the many ghosts of innumerable Christmas’ futures.
At the same time, this stands out in my memory as one of my first encounters with the “culture war” notion, the lens through which history is viewed as a long procession of symbolic cultural artifacts clawing each other for prominence, where the battles and famines and tensions and rudiments of existence past are merely the raw material for eventual movies or television programs. Like most ideology, an adherent’s depth of immersion is best measured by the extent to which they’re sure they’re not immersed in it. The bizarre circular justifications and inchoate arguments signal an unspoken (unspeakable?) thing believed in more definitely than the speaker believes in their own words. This has been the defining tone of internet discourse for most of the time I’ve been writing these essays; the proportion and saturation of online outrage seems inversely proportionate to the actual importance of the event being discussed. Much the same as many of the most ludicrous fictional narratives in recent times have made aggressive claims to “realism”, the “real” situates itself as the ultimate vehicle toward the suspension of disbelief.
And so this week we get yet another controversy revolving around a person whose cultural capital has been waning to the point the only time anyone pays attention to her is when there’s a controversy. I’m talking about Germaine Greer and her comments on Caitlyn Jenner and transgender women.
Germaine Greer has been in the cultural eye for some time now but not with any special prominence since the 1970s. That she’d suddenly come to be noteworthy in the news cycle for saying offensive things about transsexuals that she’s been saying for 10 years now says more about the internal logic of the news cycle than Germaine Greer, the place of transsexuals in the world at present, or the schism between second-wave feminism and the queer studies that have come to replace it.
Still, I should probably engage in some man-on-mansplaining for the benefit of our readers on the cishet-dudebro spectrum as to what this whole second-wave vs. queer theory controversy is.
Boiled down, it’s an issue concerning the intersection of theory and praxis. Greer is a second-wave feminist. The broad group of writers and activists who have been labeled as a tendency to be the “second-wave” feminists emerge in the years after WWII and probably peaked in cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s. Like any umbrella term, it covers a lot of texts and figures who don’t necessarily agree with each other on anything besides the broadest of notions; any club that would include both Gloria Steinem and Monique Wittig is going to be more of a convenience for theory writers/historians than anything concrete. But I’m a theory writer and it seems convenient. I’ll take the bait.
The schism between “second wave” and “queer theory” is the problem of structuralism. Structuralism was a popular tendency that attempted to attach the systemization and assertions of super-structural truth that had proven so powerful in the natural sciences and apply them to the social sciences and literary criticism. Structuralism was huge between ~1870-1959 or so but has persisted in pockets up through the present. Structuralist thinking that still has currency now can be seen in dribbled down cliches like “There are really only 10 basic stories” or the Joseph Campbell style analyses of Star Wars and The Matrix you run into so often at college parties. Second-wave feminism was by and large structuralist. The main structuralist assumption running through the literature being: there are men and women, these two categories exist to the exclusion of any other sexes/genders, they are immutable facts.
This seems like a fairly harmless presumption to make. It informed the construction of the historical narratives of oppression that inform how forward action toward the project of liberation should be undertaken in women’s liberation for a long time. Cracks start to show in the literature with the relatively benign domestic orientalism toward “foreign” or “primitive” cultures, a hangover of romanticism (think all those “find your inner (pagan) goddess” type self-help books), but more dangerously toward the divorce of the issues of women from the related issues of race and class. While not all second-wave feminism or even the larger portion of the documentation it’s left behind necessarily marginalizes these issues, the pieces that did were given outsized cultural capital for a time because they were the least threatening; if women’s liberation was a matter of hiring a maid and self-actualizing, then it could sell things and basically recreate the then current hierarchy of power that existed in the world outside the feminist movement within the feminist movement. The current careerist “lean-in” feminism draw its roots from this tendency.
More determinedly anti-capitalist flavors of feminism, of which there were and still are many, are of course not going to be welcomed quite so warmly by a system self-satisfied with its own capitalism. Even these though, in their second-wave incarnation, are still largely unwittingly walking toward the then as-yet unlabeled trapdoor of the thing that came after structuralism, conveniently referred to in most quarters as post-structuralism.
Post-structuralism, in this context, attempts to correct for the sins of structuralist feminism by focusing more on those who had been marginalized by the prior incarnation of feminism, namely those not positioned comfortably within the gender binary. It does this by knocking down the gender binary. “Man” and “woman” become performative roles first as opposed to their prior positioning as “biological realities”. This is not to deny that there are penises and vaginas, but to say that they have no inherent connection to what we’re referring to culturally as being “manly” or “feminine”. This line of thought had overstepped its bounds by making absurd metaphysical claims of essential tendencies in academic literature all the way down to folk sayings that imply an essential gender character like “You pitch like a girl.”
Post-structuralism becomes extremely problematic for the prior theoretical work because it knocks down that structuralist presumption I mentioned earlier, the “there are definitely and only men and women” thing. For our brocialists, this might be easiest explained as being analogous to the issues within Marxist organizing after it became obvious that whole “organize the people in the factories as collective concentrated single class” wasn’t going to bring about political revolution after the class structure splintered away from centralized industrial activity. If there isn’t a category of “woman” or “man” that can be claimed as natural and immutable, if both are in fact performance identities, then that raises a lot of problems for theoretical works that come to their analysis from a starting point of an essential “male” or “female” identity, and does collateral damage to both the Norman Mailers and the Germaine Greers of the world.
Which brings us back, finally, to Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner. In the immortal words of dudebro-laureate Lil Wayne: “Everybody got beef and I just came to eat.”
Put less cryptically, the epoch in which Greer’s theoretical contributions had contemporary relevance has passed her by and for at least the last ten years she’s been making trans-baiting statements. I can’t say what her motivation is. I can speculate that it has to do with a sliding sense of relevance. She may actually be offended by the idea of gender flexibility. She may think of sex/gender as a burden placed upon us all at birth that creates a solidarity that leads to eventual liberation and that the loss of this solidarity by means of externally imposed definition is damaging to feminism. It could be sheer opportunism. Either way it would seem pretty clear by now that she’s on the wrong side of history in this regard. That in and of itself isn’t that interesting.
What’s interesting is the fact that this is being blown up. Not every beef grows legs. This one has grown legs. Lil’ stumpy ones, but legs nonetheless. The reasons I suppose this has taken off are two: 1) internet commentators are not really that much different than my high school social studies teacher and look for symbolic interactions to stand-in for and replace the reality of a situation-this may in fact even be their primary social function, 2) this can be a way of summing up in allegorical (ironically) binary terms the larger more complicated series of disputes that have been taking place since roughly when Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990.
Like most beefs amplified by the internet; it’s the made for TV movie summarizing/replacing the event as it happens; that it’s compiled from things that actually happened allows for the suspension of disbelief the actual TV movie can no longer provide. A well timed beef can narrow the number of characters in the narrative construction of an event in the way that a fictionalization used to; the troll initiating the beef, in this case Greer, provides a valued public service by willingly being the symbolic “wrong” position actualized; the parameters of the melodrama can be trod once again and all the news sites can line up to the trough to imbibe the clicks and controversy.
That the choice of events to be fetishized in a news cycle biases the actual event most given to the symbolic, to the allegorical; that they constitute bed-time stories that sneak by undetected as such because we read them in the morning is hardly a new observation. McLuhan’s first paragraph in The Mechanical Bride, commenting on a reproduced NY Times front page reproduced on the opposite page, draws this analogy quite explicitly:
“…any paper today is a collective work of art, a daily ‘book’ of industrial man, an Arabian Nights’ entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience.”
We read the chaotic mass of texts looking for themes and meaning in the morass; we “make” history. History is no more “what happened” than this is a pipe.
It’s a troll’s market right now. Insofar as gender is a performative creation, so is the news. The principles of performative reification as a theory open up many more cans of worms than just the gender thing, and we’re going to be confronting the implications for a long time to come.