A cultural milestone has been reached. Or so it would seem.
Earlier this week Facebook introduced a new option that allows users to customize their gender identity. Up to this point, only two categories had been available — the traditional binary of male and female. Now there’s a total of 56 different gender identities to choose from. (Just to be clear, it’s not a free-for-all. While the total number of options has increased more than twentyfold, one can’t enter in just anything. More options may yet be added, but for the moment that’s all there is. For a full list, see the Denver Post’s article on the subject).
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am on the whole fairly unimpressed by intersectionality and identity politics, their dubious claims to “subversiveness” and radicalism, and so on. In my view, it’s nothing more than a form of postmodern theory combined with left-liberal micropolitics, mostly focused on social justice issues and matters of media representation. Overtures are occasionally made in the direction of a vague, deracinated “idea” of communism, and there is an assumed anticapitalist ethos amongst its adherents. The notion that intersectionality or identity politics necessarily leads one to adopt a revolutionary political position has never struck me as convincing, as most of its concrete demands (for recognition, formal equality, inclusion) seem to me perfectly compatible with bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
Setting aside my flippant, sometimes overly dismissive attitude toward these tendencies, I’m honestly curious: How do people feel about the new Facebook gender options? Especially those for whom gender serves to orient their politics. Does this wider range of available categories constitute an important cultural victory? What does Facebook’s apparent willingness to embrace gender diversity say about capitalism’s ongoing ability to adapt to and accommodate difference?
Initial responses have varied — from outrage to indifference, all the way up to exuberance. Aoife Emily Hart, a comp. lit. adjunct and scholar of trans* feminism and interculturality, is positively ecstatic. She writes:
I’m thrilled. Hooray. I’m willing to declare this a Battle of Endor sized victory.
My highest props to FB for introducing a more comprehensive — and, for the most part, culturally aware — set of gender referents besides and beyond the static binary. We move from subjugation to intersubjective multiplicities of self-empowerment.
Do we? I’m not so sure.
These questions are prompted by an astute observation made by a commenter who happened across one of my old posts. Nilofar Ansher — a writer, editor, and researcher from India who blogs over at Trail of Papercuts — wryly noted “Facebook’s recent ‘inclusive’ view of gender and sexual orientation categorization.” Fifty-six categories? Really? How did they arrive at this precise number? Why not fifty-seven? (It should be mentioned, though, before proceeding any further, that these newfangled categories have not yet been implemented across the board. My comrade, Angela Nagle from Ireland, reported a case of combined/uneven development. Lagging behind as usual, Europe is still trapped in the dark ages, with only two gender options to choose from as of yesterday night. Similarly my friend Pablo, a gay Argentinian immigrant to the US, told me that the Spanish-language version of Facebook hasn’t yet been updated along these lines).
One wonders whether the more “radical” move wouldn’t have been to let people type in whatever they’d like — or better yet, remove gender from Facebook entirely. That’s exactly what one comrade proposed. Instead of these self-selected, custom-made categories designed to show what unique snowflakes we all are, enumerating every single oppression we’ve been made to suffer, maybe it’d be best to just nix the gender thing altogether in favor of an algorithm based on all the data Facebook gathers about you. After calculating all these variables, it’d assign each person a privilege vector letting them know where they rank vis-à-vis others. Considering all the random #doomporn that I post, however, Facebook might accidentally mistake these photos for my neighborhood and assume that I live in a war zone. Some big subaltern points rite there.
Nevertheless, the crucial question remained unanswered: Which of Facebook’s fifty-six genders would I choose?
Indeed, I’d gotten so used to only having two options to choose from that I’d scarcely even considered the alternatives. Scanning over what they had on offer, I saw the category “two-spirit.” This instantly struck me as funny, since the only reason I can imagine it’d be listed is because it’s something that sentimental white liberals seized on decades ago as part of their effort to romanticize the precolonial past. You see, at least in terms of the popular reception of such subjects (which usually arrive via academic anthropology, read through a genderqueer lens), these spiritual notions all seem to belong to this beautiful, harmonious world that existed before their European ancestors made landfall and began exterminating everything in sight. Nevermind that the populations indigenous to these territories were anything but a homogeneous bloc, that they were in fact highly differentiated and complex, each with its own language, mythology, and set of ideals. Often these cultures were even at war with one another, so while the “two-spirit” phenomenon has been documented in a number of tribes, it would be folly to assume that anything like a univocal concept exists between them.
Regardless, I had made up my mind. I decided I wanted to identify as “two-spirit.” Big Hitchcock fan that I am, I decided to do an homage to the 1960 horror classic Psycho. After all, wasn’t Psycho one of the first major films to portray murderous cross-dressing villains with split personalities? Sure, there was Ed Wood’s disasterpiece Glen or Glenda from 1953, and Some Like It Hot from 1959, but Psycho was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets Freud’s Oedipal complex. What more could anyone ask for? Generally, it seemed like a big hit. Maybe I was violating some secret protocol about “cultural appropriation,” but I’ve never been too good at telling when that’s the case. Some of the best shit out there has been “culturally appropriated”: Spaghetti Westerns, for example. Or even those delicious Vietnamese sandwiches they make with the baguettes. Bánh mì were one of the only good things to come out of French colonialism in Indochine, seriously.
Unfortunately, some were nonplussed by my choice. Though the humor was simply meant in good fun, those who held fast to the belief that identity politics and intersectionality somehow ensure a revolutionary outlook or perspective took exception to the idea that these were just part of some warmed-over version of social justice liberalism. Elisa Lorde was thus dispatched. She dutifully informed us that
[a]ll of you are disgusting and are now featured on Shit Brocialists, Manarchists, and Macktivists Say. This is only a notice, assholes. I’m not talking to any of you.
From here we were all suddenly transported to a world of great Sturm und Drang. And doge memes. And Gregory A. Butler, of course. There were the obligatory denunciations, accusing me of “Zionism,” “racism,” “sexism,” and so on. Clearly, just going from the Not my comrade banner in the background of their page, it’s pretty obvious that they have pretensions to political radicalism. It was probably jarring enough for them to see their supposedly subversive gender categories so harmlessly absorbed into the edifice of existing capitalism; to see a bunch of other leftists hammer this point home just poured salt on the wound. The page admin of Shit Brocialists Say even leapt to the social network’s defense, applauding Facebook “for offering us a bit of the gender spectrum.”
Returning to the questions we posed at the outset, what is the significance of the fact that a major corporation like Facebook would adopt such a hyperbolically enlarged spectrum? What does it say about capitalism’s ability to assimilate alterity or positions of radical Otherness (to coquette with the jargon favored by this discourse)?
Niche markets and the abolition of gender
Despite repeated allegations of “transphobia” that’ve been made against me, I’m the last person who’d begrudge someone the choice of his or her or their own gender. If this empowers you, more power to you. Same goes if it helps express your individuality, or if it’s just more descriptively accurate. By all means. None of the 56 new options particularly shock or scandalize me. And to be honest, I doubt many other Facebook users mind either. My only point is that capital doesn’t care how you identify yourself. Or rather, it does care — but not the way you think.
Capital “cares” about individual or subcultural identities insofar as they provide an indication of the kind of commodities buyers might potentially be interested in. Besides spending habits, such information aids in the circulation side of capitalist production. It allows companies and investors to key in on emerging patterns of consumption, even stimulate and push them further. Nobody wants to “be like everyone else,” so these identity formations typically don’t last long. They’re fragile, fleeting configurations that glimmer for an instant before bursting asunder, fracturing and fragmenting into new identi-groups with their own demands to set themselves apart. A new set of niche markets is thereby opened up. Different identities are not merely “tolerated”; they are actively produced. Surface heterogeneity masks underlying homogeneity — the liquid commensurability and equivalence of commodity exchange. Under the conditions of late capitalism, difference itself is accommodated, commodified, and therefore systemically overproduced. What does Facebook’s diverse array of 56 new gender options represent if not the overproduction of identities?
Take Facebook: Facebook trades primarily in the information its userbase voluntarily enters in. It gathers this data, organizes it, and offers adspace to any company that wants to place targeted commercials. All for a price, of course. Now there is nothing particularly pernicious, “evil,” or conspiratorial about any of this; it’s just the ordinary functioning of capitalism at this stage of its development. The bulk of their information comes from books, movies, and TV shows which users say they “like,” but factors such as age, gender, and sexual orientation doubtless enter in as well. Still, there’s the tricky matter of drawing inferences from this mass of catalogued data. Marketing strategies have almost certainly been devised, whether on a trial-and-error basis or by some other method. But this task is made considerably easier if users can select from a range of possible self-descriptions that help specify and narrow down the kinds of items they’d be likely to consume. Facebook would be stupid not to offer more variety in its gender categories. It’s sitting on a gold-mine of valuable data, the value of which is only augmented by greater specificity and user input.
Gender politics is not anything new to The Charnel-House blog. Several months ago I posted an entry titled “Hermaphroditism is a humanism: Toward a hermaphroditic humanity,” with the well-known El Lissitzky image of a young man standing alongside a young woman, their faces blended together. Lissitzky based this image on a fascinating photographic double-exposure, in which a man and a woman were blurred into a single composite. It was clearly intended as a provocation; my own (quite possibly naïve) opinion is that a truly revolutionary overcoming of capital would at the same time involve the transcendence of “gender” as a meaningful descriptor.
Of course, this is hardly an original insight on my part. With the abolition of the family form under communism, categories such as “man” and “woman” would likewise vanish, founded as they are upon property relations and the sexual division of labor. As Marx and Engels already indicated in their early manuscript, The German Ideology (1846), the splitting of humanity into men and women constituted the foundational act of civilization, marking the earliest known form of social antagonism: “The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” Such terms lose all significance in the absence of this relation, save perhaps that of mere anatomical description. Nor is this dynamic exclusive to the logic of gender, either. Racial segregation must be obliterated as well. “Even naturally evolved differences within the species, such as racial differences, etc.,” Marx and Engels maintained, “can and must be abolished in the course of historical development.”
Later Marxist theorists upheld a similar position. August Bebel retained the usage of gendered signifiers, but considered these useful only insofar as they pertained to “deviations…necessitated by the differences of sex and sexual functions.” (It follows from this, moreover, that even distinctions arising out of these slight differences might someday be eradicated — by technologies of artificial incubation, say. Perhaps in future no human being will have to endure the agony of childbirth). The great revolutionary Bolshevik Aleksandra Kollontai similarly promoted the vision of a society in which childrearing and domestic drudgery had been abolished along with the family. Quite a far cry from the “wages for housework” mantra adopted by later feminists such as Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati, incidentally. For Kollontai, the men and women of communist society would no longer cultivate themselves qua men and women, but only as individuals. Maya Gonzalez of Endnotes has made the case for the abolition of gender even more explicitly, as has Eve Mitchell in her “Marxist-feminist critique of intersectionality theory.” This despite some pushback by prominent Twitterati like Flavia Dzodan and others who consider the exhortation to abolish gender “cissexist” or even a veiled form of “colonization.”