From the truth of sex to the truth of gender

This is me throwing a brand new idea out there to see if it works. It’s not fully developed and lacks references, but I just wanted to toss it out into the world and see what sticks.

In The History of Sexuality volume 1, Foucault famously argues that the invention of the concept of “sexuality” in the 19th century West was the apex of a centuries long Western will-to-truth regarding sex. “Sex” here is an act and a practice, something one does; this is not “sex” as adjunct to gender. This will-to-truth sought the fundamental core or “truth” of individual subjects’ interior life. Foucault’s point is that the practices designed to fulfill this will-to-truth, such as confession, didn’t discover subjects’ interior reality so much as they produced the feeling and experience of having a interior core that grounds and shapes one’s behaviors, capacities, feelings, and choices. The idea is that one’s sexual practices and preferences were the key that decoded everything else about you.

But this idea of a core interior reality is very…modern (in the sense of Enlightenment modernity). It definitely accords with the logic of classical social identities, which treat externally perceptible traits like hair texture or secondary sex traits as the grounds for inferences about one’s interior characteristics and capacities (see Alcoff’s Visible Identities and Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line). For example, this logic treats the presence or absence of breasts as a predictor of one’s capacity to either nurture or be rational. But as many, many scholars have pointed out, structures of subjectivity and logics of identity are changing as ideologies and technologies evolve. Briefly, probabilistic statistics have changed how we understand subjects’ “truth.” It’s not a core inner reality, but a pattern of outward behavior that can serve as the basis for predicting future patterns of behavior. This idea is central to both Gary Becker’s idea of human capital and John Cheney-Lippold’s concept of algorithmic identity. For Becker, economists don’t need to know the inner reasons or motivations behind people’s choices, just the patterns in the choices. The recommendation systems behind Amazon or Pandora don’t care why you bought or listened to the last thing you clicked on, just what people like you clicked on next after buying or listening to that thing. Similarly, Cheney-Lippold argues that contemporary mathematical tools are re-shaping identity categories into measures of external behavior rather than inner character. The truth of this subject is not who they are inside, but what they do–specifically, the consistent, predictable patterns in their behavior.

As our will-to-truth changes shape, it focuses on a different object. In the era of gender-reveal parties/disasters, TERFs, and the like, we don’t seek our truth in sexual practices but in gender. Early 21st century neoliberalism seeks the truth of gender, not the truth of sex.

As he emphasizes in the last chapter of HSv1, the will-to-truth focused on sex because it was the site where both kinds of biopower intersected, i.e., where the discipline of individual bodies met the normalization of populations. As scholars such as Melinda Cooper have argued, by the late 20th and early 21st centuries, biopolitics has evolved as our mathematical instruments have evolved: Gaussian normalization (what Cooper calls “state biopolitics”) is now supplemented by practices of legitimation. Normalization puts everyone on a mathematical continuum and determines their degree of ab/normality. Legitimacy brings hierarchies back–like normalization, it expands the range of people nominally included in the market or population, but it uses the patriarchal property-transmitting family as the standard against which it measures one’s degree of potential riskiness. The more closely you embody that ideal of legitimacy (e.g., through same-sex marriage), the less ultimately risky you are. As Cooper explains, this is how tranching works in contemporary finance: it includes people traditionally thought to be too (abnormally) risky to be allowed into credit markets by cutting them into ranked tiers of risk, which could then be priced accordingly (i.e., assigned an interest rate at which credit could be extended to them in a profitable way).

As scholars such as C. Riley Snorton and others have argued, gender is a thoroughly racialized category, such that gender abnormality (like sexual abnormality in 19th c race science) is tied to racial blackness. Blackness is a property relation or status that makes a gendered identity or status less legitimate in Cooper’s sense. So when we’re seeking the truth of gender, what we’re asking after is one’s status within the property relations established by evolving, neoliberalizing patriarchal racial capitalism. Despite all the deregulated wildness of your individual identity (gender or otherwise), what relation do you have to the property relation for which “the family” is shorthand? So, as financialization remakes the math used by both neoliberalism and biopolitics, the meeting of individual body and population (i.e., what sex/sexuality is for normalization) becomes less important than the meeting of the private individual fully liberated to the market and the private family, or at least the property relation the private family is designed to ground in the present and transmit into the future. That’s why we are increasingly interested in the truth of gender.