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Andrea Long Chu and Jordy Rosenberg in conversation

A conversation between Andrea Long Chu and Jordy Rosenberg on gender and fetish, theories of desire, and gender differentiated from other social constructions.

Verso Books20 December 2019

Andrea Long Chu and Jordy Rosenberg in conversation

Andrea Long Chu and Jordy Rosenberg discuss Andrea's book Females at McNally Jackson on November 6th.

Females is 50% off as part of our end of year sale!

Jordy Rosenberg: Ok, so here is my first question. Andrea, from what I can tell you surround yourself with socialists. Are you secretly a socialist, part one, and if so, would you tell us?

Andrea Long Chu: Wow, that is a real gotcha.

Jordy Rosenberg: We’ll just let that question hang in the air, and maybe we’ll come back to it later. Maybe instead of tackling that right away, we can instead talk about your trajectory. What has happened to you since “On Liking Women”?

Andrea Long Chu: I've been extremely lucky and overwhelmed. That essay was kind of an accident. I met someone at the editorial meeting of an academic journal, and they said that they had a friend at N+1 who was looking for a piece about trans people and feminism, and so I sort of fell into it backwards. I had no intention of not being an academic. I was still very invested in that. And it's taken a long time to disinvest myself from that fantasy. And so I wrote the piece and worried that it was too theoretical, maybe a little too insider baseball. Also I'd never written anything for a public audience before. But then it came out and everything happened so suddenly. I was getting emails from agents, and people asking, like, who is this person and where did she come from. So I said to myself, I’ll just be an academic and a writer at the same time, because people do both things right? But then I thought, wait, I was writing for no money. I was writing so that like five other people would be like, “Oh, what an interesting article.” But the whole thing has been overwhelming, and it's not something that I was prepared for, and I'm still kind of unprepared for it. It’s been crazy, but what else could it have been?

JR: So, I just reread everything that you've ever written, preparing for this. And now I'm developing this idea that you're actually mapping a vast terrain in small doses, and that you have some hidden totalizing argument. Is that true?

ALC: Oh, absolutely. I'm a systematic philosopher. I totally have a system.

JR: Do you feel that it has been revealed yet?

ALC: I think it’s being revealed in bits and pieces. It's sort of banal, but every writer probably feels like they are just writing the same thing over and over. It's a source of insecurity. But obviously there are ontological arguments in the book. There was some stuff about Descartes, for instance, that I cut from the book because it was just too embarrassing. And it’s not even a question of time. I think I can probably outline the system in a short period. It is more like I have a version of reality that I believe is the true version, and everyone else is wrong. And in the grand old fashion it starts ontologically and moves through anthropology and then to a theory of the social, and so yeah, I have a whole thing.

JR: Is gender a fetish for you? In the book you say, “When I talk about females, I am not referring to biological sex, though I'm not referring to gender, either. I'm referring instead to something that might as well be sex, the way that reactionaries describe it (permanent, unchanging, etc.), but whose nature is ontological, not biological.” That seems to conform to the Marxian category of the fetish, that we act as if we don't know, but we know. This I feel is one of the more inflammatory statements of the book. You're not referring to biological sex, and you're not referring to gender. You're referring to a thing that might as well be sex. So it’s something that functions as a kind of concrete abstraction. It has social force. What you seem to be saying is that we react to this thing that is not sex and not gender, as if it were sex. Does that mean it is a fetish?

ALC: The answer to the question of whether gender is a fetish for me, I think you meant it in a philosophical sense, but it also sounded like a personal question. So for the personal side of the question, I think we all know that the answer is yes. But as a general question about gender? I’d also say yes to that.

However, in the part that you're reading from I don’t mean to say that it's a fetish in the sense that we're pretending that it's a thing. It's not reified. It is a reality, according to me. So when I say that it might as well be sex, what I mean is that sex is sort of the abjected category of gender theory as it has been practiced since the 80s. I want to come up with a theory of gender that would be different than an answer to the question of what it would mean to be a biological sex, so that we can account for womanhood and manhood and variations therein without having to refer ultimately to a system of biological sex that we as feminists distrust. This is what Judith Butler is doing in Gender Trouble. Sex is the category that you don't want to get stuck with. So when I say I think it might as well be a sex I mean it has the unshakeability and the incontrovertibility that sex as a kind of bugaboo of gender studies has had, but instead of running away from it I’m running towards it.  But in the same passage, I also say that I think there's only one sex. And on this I’m not so different from Freud. Freud basically said that there is one sex. He just thought it was male. And he just sort of misread the tea leaves on that one.

Now to the fetish question. I think gender is something different from femaleness. I do think gender is a fetish, but I don't think it's a fetish in a Marxian sense. I think it's a fetish in a Freudian sense, or rather, the exact opposite of a fetish in the Freudian sense. So the classical definition of the fetish in Freud is that you have to have an object that's going to protect you from castration. And it could be all kinds of different things. Castration anxiety comes when you glimpse your mother's chasm introitus, and you realize, “Oh no! Someone took her penis. What if someone takes my penis?” Like, you know, I need to make plans for this. And so the fetish is a sort of witness protection program for the penis. I actually had to change this language in the book. So instead of worrying about losing my penis, I'm going to send the penis into hiding as like a foot, or as a piece of velvet, or as, you know, a particular shine on the nose. And those get invested with erotic energy, so that, in case castration should come about, I have this sort of backup strategy. And all this occurs for the “I” of the little boy, the little boy who is everyone. Freud says we have to admit the little girl is a little man.

So I buy all of this, except that my reading is the opposite. I would say that instead of the fetish ensuring that you won't be castrated, the fetish is a way to enjoy the inevitability of castration, without having to admit it to yourself. So you still have to send the penis into witness protection. Obviously if you actually sent your penis into witness protection castration would have already happened, right? So gender for me is a fetish in the sense that it is a defensive formation in the face of universal castration that allows us not to admit that castration is the thing we're enjoying. The problem with castration is that it is inevitably going to happen to you. It always happens, not the actual slashing and hacking, but that like your boss is going to tell you what to do. There are so many things in your life that are going to wrest control out of your fingertips. So the thing you have to prepare for is not castration. What you have to prepare for is the enjoyment of castration. You have to come up with a system where, when the time comes, you can protest that you don't like it when in fact you do.

So gender is a fetish but that's different from the Marxian idea of fetish. The idea of commodity fetishism, I get it as a theory, but I think there's some sort of misunderstanding there. So I guess I'm already answering the “Am I a socialist?” question. Because this is a Verso Book, I told them that their slogan should be “Commodity fetishism for people who should know better,” which I think as a slogan neatly demonstrates the problem with the theory of commodity fetishism. The problem is that it does not actually demystify the object.

JR: Would you be able to describe the precipitating antagonism that caused you to launch this entire project that began with “On Liking Women” and, later, Females?

ALC: There were a couple things. One, and I think this was already clear from “On Liking Women,” was that in every sense of gender that I had experienced, it was clear that desire was the motivating force. But I didn’t see this fact reflected in a theory of desire. The theory of desire wasn’t there, in academic or popular work. You have to remember that when I wrote “On Liking Women” I still believed myself to be an academic, so a lot of my frustration was with other academics. So part of it was looking for a theory of desire. And on the other hand, I thought that the popular discourse about gender was very, very narrow and limited. I

I understood where the desire, ironically, to cut desire out of the equation was coming from. There's a good historical reason for wanting to conceal it or downplay it or just jettison it entirely, which is that you don't want trans people being treated like they're perverts, basically. The social dishonor of perversion is the important part here, which is that ultimately it was not acceptable to say, “I did this because I wanted to,” or, “I did this because I wanted to have a certain kind of sex.” And so that was a big motivator behind “On Liking Women” and later Females.

Another way of putting this is that there are basically two prongs. One is that there's this sort of feint in “On Liking Women” towards a kind of transsexual lesbian separatism, the idea that everyone should just transition. If you're not already a woman, become one. That's the way to do it. And I peel off from this, I don't actually endorse it. But it did mean that people were coming up to me and asking, “Do you really think everyone is a woman?” And the only possible answer was yes. And it’s the same thing with men wanting to. I told someone the other day, if you leave me long enough in a room with anyone I'm going to tell them to transition, it's not that hard.

But I knew that that was going to get me in trouble. I knew that that was going to be taken as me invalidating people's identities. And so there was sort of a neat jump to Females as a way to have my cake and eat it too. In that book I try to set up a kind of ontological framework that wouldn't actually be the same thing as someone's gender, and thereby still be able to recognize a multitude of different genders­—men, women and otherwise—but still be able to make the kind of argument that I wanted to make. People would also say, “What about trans men?” And I would say, “What about trans men? They’re men.” It seems like there's some sort of weird misgendering, like withholding or misandry toward trans men. You think you’re doing someone a favor...

And the other prong is the more academic concern, which is that I felt that for all of the great work that had been done in gender studies, no one had actually said what gender was. No one had been able to meaningfully differentiate it from other social phenomena. So we had ideas about social constructionism or performativity, but especially the social constructivism, which predates Butler. The idea that gender was socially constructed, that it was a habitus, that it was the build up of some sort of gesture, that there was a practice to it. Garfinkel, a sociologist at UCLA in the 60’s called it “an achievement.”

And all this was true, it all seemed obviously true. But it did not meaningfully differentiate gender from anything else that was socially constructed. Where did style of clothing end and gender begin? How is gender different from a law, which is socially constructed? How is it different from money, which is socially constructed? All this was the beginning of a theory, but it was not a theory. It didn't tell you what made gender gender. As I said, I’m a systematic philosopher, and I also just like to know what things are, which is a very sort of conservative viewpoint philosophically. So I wanted to know what gender was and I wanted to say what gender was. So here we have the beginning of a theory of gender, or a first step in that direction, in the book.

JR: Would you care to elaborate on what you think gender is?

ALC: I had this image that kept playing in my mind, which is not really a memory exactly but was sort of a memory, speaking as someone with boyfriend experience. There's this scene that happens in a heterosexual relationship where the woman goes to the closet and pulls something out and says, “Do you think I should wear this?” And the man often doesn't have a very good answer. Often what is being solicited is, “I want to know what you want me to wear.” So it’s not like the girlfriend wants to wear something that she doesn't want to wear. She has opinions also about her own clothes. But there's this desire for the desire of the boyfriend, to help select the item of clothing, and that’s often sort of thwarted.

And I was thinking about this again because of something that Freud says about women's cosmetic narcissism. This kind of moment is normally held up as an example of classically female narcissism, like the girlfriend fretting about her appearance, and the boyfriend says, “I don't care what you wear, I think you're beautiful in anything,” which is the worst possible answer you could get, right? And so while there is a sense in which she's expressing her own narcissism, there's also a sense in which, in fact, what she would like to do is express her boyfriend's narcissism. “Can't you just want something not because you want it for me, not because you're cooperating with me, not because you're doing me a solid, but because you actually want me to look a particular way? And then I want to be that.” I find this moment very instructive as a little vignette in my head.

And so the theory of gender that is in the book is that gender is quite simply a sexuality turned inside out. I want to express the desire of people for me through my own gender performance. I want to be someone that you want to fuck, essentially.

Now, I don't actually answer the question of what sexuality is, because obviously we could go on forever defining the terms that are used in the definitions of the terms. But this understanding of gender gave me a foothold. A genre of literature is also constructed, but a genre of literature is not the expression of someone else's sexuality.  So this was my way of saying that gender is a social expression, that it's socially constructed, but it’s the social expression of someone else's sexual desire. And that “someone” doesn't have to be a literal person. When it is just the expression of one literal person's desires, then you're firmly within kinky territory. So the “someone” can be a sort of diffuse sense of other people. The person for whom you put makeup on in the morning. And I’m totally ready to be challenged on it. I think there are weaknesses. It's a little flip, it creates a number of problems that I don't bother to solve in the book. But I think that at least there's the attempt of requiring more from a theory of gender than we have before.

And this is something in your book, Jordy. There are beautiful scenes in the book in which Jack is wanting to be something for his lover, that sense that gender is for someone, and not for yourself. The for-ness of gender is extremely important to me.

JR: I think a lot of people very much appreciated the way that “On Liking Women” reintroduces the question desire, your emphasis on the idea of gender as a relational matrix. I think for trans men, or maybe just for me, it was pleasurable because I think we're all just completely sick to death of the “self made man” idea. It just puts me to sleep, and angers me at the same time, it's just so banal. But I’d just like to call your attention to an interesting question that Juliette Mitchell might raise, which is, “Does sexuality inform gender in the same way that it informs sexual difference?” That's a question I'm sure you could knock it out of the park. And I’d also like to ask you a question inspired by Jules Gill-Peterson's Histories of the Transgender Child. It dovetails with your book in a very interesting way, but then departs from it, because it basically describes how we have clung to the idea of gender as the vanguard and sex as the regressive concept. Jules Gill-Peterson goes back and looks at these endocrinology clinics in the mid century, where they invent the concept of gender to stabilize the crumbling binary of sex, because these doctors were realizing that biological sex was not binary. So then they say that social rearing is determinative of gender identity, and we need this medicalization to bring people's social rearing in line with their body. So the book actually ends up arguing that gender has a very conservative origin. Is it a totalizing account of all gender everywhere? Perhaps not. But who is giving that, except perhaps you are preparing such a thing.

ALC: I haven't read this book, but I really want to. I think I am making a similar version of that argument on an ontological level, which is of course the dumber thing to do, like Gill-Peterson is actually studying real things. But for me gender is, psychoanalytically, basically a reaction formation. It’s an attempt to tamp down a problem, the problem being that everyone is female. People grapple with this in different ways. And men’s genders and women’s genders are sort of the charismatic megafauna of the attempts to deal with femaleness. So I think there is a way in which we would actually be very close on that.

And I think if you go even further back, and I mentioned this in the book actually right near the stuff about endocrinology, you find that gender is necessary as a concept in order to link bodies that have been marked as inhuman, yet still possessing sex, to bodies that have been granted personhood. So, the father of modern gynecology so-called builds the field by operating on enslaved women in his back yard during the Civil War. So I think a very specific “we” has romanticized gender as the flight from sex. But in that case too, I think woman becomes separate from female in order to justify a discipline whose purpose is to perpetuate enslavement.


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“Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.”So begins Andrea Long Chu’s genre-defying investigation into sex and lies, desperate artists and reckless politics, the smothering embrace of gender and ...

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