Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference

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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.

Gender bender

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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

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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.”

25 thoughts on “Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference

  1. Facebook is consumerist wank, and no amount of pandering to liberal tastes will ever manage to obscure all this is no more than a publicity stunt. And guess what, it worked!

  2. Facebook still doesn’t allow us to state our sex (rather than our gender). Gender Questioning is a good category, everyone who questions the legitimacy/necessity of gender should choose it.

  3. Dear Ross,

    Setting aside the questions of facebook and the problems of internet politics I have a question.

    Do you believe that trans and gender non-conforming people can simply identify as they wish and live as they wish without risk of harassment, disrespect, and physical danger?

    • No. Gender is a social category that evolves out of historically accumulated material conditions. It expresses a relation within society, a relation of division and opposition.

      One’s “identity” (be it race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) is thus hardly an arbitrary choice. Even the range of possible gender identities that are discretely available at any given moment is socially determined. Also the possibility of “transition” between them. That’s not to say that there’s no room for agency within existing social structures. Just a very limited agency.

      Which is part of what’s so farcical about the idea of entering something in as a category on a social media website, capturing this aspect of oneself in this manner. Users can change their name, age, gender, and so on at the drop of a hat.

  4. Ross,

    Thank you for your reply, but I think you misunderstood my question. I didn’t mean to ask whether you though there were unlimited socially available identity choices for trans and gender non-conforming people. I meant to ask whether you thought that trans people could live their lives without the risk of arbitrary harassment, assault, or disrespect.

    -MD

    • All sorts of other factors enter in — and hardly anyone can live with the guarantee of not being harassed, assaulted, or disrespected — but I think that to leave it at that would be to dodge your question. It would be foolish to suggest that transgendered individuals don’t face disproportionate violence, intolerance, and discrimination at present. Conservative social mores linger or otherwise persist, recalcitrant and resistant to unfamiliar lifestyles or behaviors. Obviously gender isn’t simply a lifestyle or set of specific behaviors, but insofar as gender is “performative” this is often how it manifests itself publicly. Persecution of minority groups stigmatized as alien on account of their perceived cultural characteristics must, as always, be opposed by socialists.

      But neither should their minority status be fetishized as progressive and emancipatory in and of itself, as this tends to naturalize difference by affirming the superficial aspects associated with these identities as somehow essential. Socialist revolution would mean the suspension of all fixed and solid identities. Race, gender, nationality, and so on will be recognized for what they are: social and historical artifacts to be abolished and overcome rather than multiplied and reproduced. To cling to any of these particular identities as something inherently deserving to be saved denies their fluid and transient character as historical products. It would constrain the radical mutability of human existence in a stunted and limited form. As Marx put it in the Grundrisse:

      [W]hen the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

      Freedom is nothing other than this ceaseless movement of becoming.

      • Ross,

        I am dismayed to see that you choose that particular passage of the Outlines to support your argument, as I believe it has quite the opposite meaning than the one you imply. But never mind our differing marxology.

        You write above that trans people face disproportionate violence, and constitute a persecuted and stigmatized minority. Please allow me to ask you another question. If trans people are persecuted, stigmatized, and face disproportionate violence, then does their willingness to risk their lives for the sake of recognition not imply a struggle against oppression? Against the limit-conditions that block their full development as humans?

      • Marq,

        This is perhaps what separates Marxism’s longstanding commitment to racial and gender equality, as well as the decriminalization of various sexual orientations or acts, from what I view as its academicized, bourgeois-liberal perversion in identity politics.

        Moreover, I find the entire framing of revolutionary politics as a matter of “recognition” deeply problematic. As I see it, this discourse mostly derives from the Kojèvean rereading of Marx through one particular section of Hegel that interprets of history as an unfolding “struggle for recognition.” Postmodern theory recoded this as a “politics of difference,” which is more about affirming “alterity” or “otherness” than it is about negating the totalizing dynamic (capital) that both alienates and marginalizes particular groups while holding the whole of society universally in its thrall.

        I am happy to call people by whatever pronoun(s) they wish, and oppose any and every prohibitive measure of state or popular persecution of an ethnic or gender minority by the majority. Anything that would deny someone access too the basic liberal rights and formal freedoms that should be enjoyed by all must be fought tooth and nail. None of this is necessarily “radical,” however. These struggles in no way point beyond a society dominated by the commodity-form or toward the transcendence of bourgeois right in general. Which is not to suggest that they aren’t worth fighting for.

      • Ross,you are spot on:

        But neither should their minority status be fetishized as progressive and emancipatory in and of itself, as this tends to naturalize difference by affirming the superficial aspects associated with these identities as somehow essential. Socialist revolution would mean the suspension of all fixed and solid identities. Race, gender, nationality, and so on will be recognized for what they are: social and historical artifacts to be abolished and overcome rather than multiplied and reproduced. To cling to any of these particular identities as something inherently deserving to be saved denies their fluid and transient character as historical products.

      • Dear Ross,

        Thank you for reading and considering both my articles on trans feminism and intersectionality — in particular, your tweeted comments (to which I can’t reply because of my privacy settings) and your appreciation for my latest piece. Likewise, although my disagreement is plain, I readily acknowledge how productive and useful I’ve found the essays published on /The Charnel-House/ and for the new lines of thought they’ve led me to consider. At the standpoint of scholarly discussion, I extend my thanks for the interesting theoretical viewpoints this blog presents.

        Aoife

      • Ross — thank you very much for the upload. I’d read it some time ago when it appeared in /Nouvelles Questions Féministes/. I do appreciate you reminding me of it: I think it’s exactly what I’d like to be considering at the moment. Very Marxist indeed — but her repositioning of materialist French feminism as an entirely system of thought badly neglected by Anglophone only readers is important.

        FWIW, I found Cynthia Kraus’ response in 2005 quite useful. There’s a good overview on Wittig/Butler/Delphy in the anthology /Judith Butler’s Precarious Politics/.

        Francophile indeed! :) I aspire! But you must know you have my respect for your command of Russian, both as language as well as socio-historical context. In absolutely sincerity, you — and your blog — have given me much to read and intellectually grow from; and I thank you for that. And I am pleased that I may have offered something of interest to you in return.

      • Dear Aoife,

        You’re right about East Germany, by the way, and Stalinist attitudes toward sexuality and gender in general. (Part of what makes Hedwig weirdly accurate in its portrayal of that time and place). Very conservative, if not outright regressive. Early on the Bolsheviks were incredibly radical when it came to granting women the right to vote, legalizing abortion, decriminalizing homosexuality, and making divorce a relatively painless legal affair. That all began to be reversed starting in the early 1930s.

        Didn’t even know that Kraus wrote something in response to Delphy’s piece. Will have to check that out. One thing I appreciate about Delphy, in terms of intra-Marxist theoretical debates between rival traditions, was her long series of polemics against the official “socialist feminists” in the PCF, precisely with recourse to older figures like Marx, Lenin, and Zetkin. Good stuff.

        I’m linking to your blog. Be well!

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  6. Ross,

    Not only Kojéve, but also Frantz Fannon, James Boggs, C.L.R. James, Selma James and Paolo Freire believed that the potential seed of universal liberation lay within the concrete particular struggles of oppressed people. One of the lessons of the Outlines is that, in a society where the commodity-form is generalized and conditions every aspect of our lived experience, the everyday struggles of oppressed and exploited people do indeed potentially point beyond it.

    Again, marxology may vary, and it is not necessary for you to endorse this approach to organizing. But you have to ask yourself, as someone who still claims to be believe in an emancipatory politics: Who are you trying to unite with? You claim above that Marxism has a longstanding commitment to racial and gender equality. I claim that Marxism has a longstanding commitment to uniting with the struggles of the oppressed.

    Do you want to try to unite with the struggles of oppressed exploited people in a spirit of mutual transformation? Or do you want to take the worst and most petty representatives of radical identity politics to be the only possible face of the real struggles of real people fighting against real injustice. I think you will find that even your 20th century social-democratic revolutionaries cared intensely about national oppression, women’s liberation, anti-semitism, and the struggles against colonialism. I think you know Lenin wrote polemics against comrades who dismissed anti-colonial struggles in India and Ireland.

    • The categories of oppressor vs. oppressed can be misleading, especially when for Marxism the decisive struggle is class vs. class. It’s a matter of oppression vs. exploitation. Some are oppressed by virtue of the fact that they are not exploited: the reserve army of labor, for example, those masses of the unemployed who cannot even find a buyer to exploit their labor-power. Moreover, there are some elements of society that are most certainly “oppressed,” i.e. who suffer violence and material deprivation, that Marxists cannot see leading the class struggle. E.g. the peasantry and lumpenproletariat. For Marx, the reason the proletariat was the “universal class” was because it alone universally mediated its opposite, capital. Other social groups will doubtless participate in any revolution to overcome capital (including declassed portions of the bourgeoisie), but under the firm leadership of the proletariat.

  7. Ross,

    I was not asking you about leadership, forms of struggle, strategy, alliance building, or mass movement work. I simply claimed that Marxism has a long-standing commitment to uniting with the struggles of oppressed people, and that those who claim to work in the Marxist tradition have a responsibility to unite in a principled manner with those struggles. To criticize what is bad, uphold what is good, behave in a trustworthy manner, and always seek to unite with the most advanced within the broadest possible alliance of progressive forces. Anything less risks fossilizing Marxism as a living tradition of thought and action, rendering it incapable of acting in the world.

    This is a central commitment in Marxism. Do you feel free to ignore it?

  8. I’m going to go ahead & suggest that a lot of people agree with the content of your critique, but opposed (& feel a violence in) the tone its delivered in. Okay, gender should be overcome, identities should be seen properly as identifications (a core micropolitical point that you reiterate above), recognition is a liberal demand & not revolutionary (but there again, where gender-based violence exists it’s not really about being revolutionary but safe), informational capital is able to phagocytise all this data semiotising it, churning it out as yet more data to be sold (another violence in effect- one where empowerment is a commodity bought & sold under a general equivalence of identity)…but in this debate it doesn’t seem like these arguments are the problem. Maybe I’m just not such a big-deal social media celebrity figure, but when I’ve advanced ideas like the above it’s never been met with hostility. Could have something to do with the fact I’m not speaking in a legislative tone, not making accusations that “you think you’re so radical but I’m more radical than you are radical”, and using terminology that is- intentionally or not- misogynistic (I can’t speak to the racism accusation as I’ve not seen that stuff).

    Maybe there is a problem of methadological praxis: as comments above indicate, some people are interested in making connections between different groups, believing in the fundamental right of others to speak for themselves, for epistemology of struggle to follow from the ontology of the situation, rather than declaring from the outset was is and is not a legitimate connection. In another way of speaking: it might be more helpful- if you’re genuinely interested in emancipation, & sexual & gender equality- to push for radicalisation of positions seen as less than adequate, rather than constantly laughing at them and mocking them before- belattedly- trying to engage with them critically. After all, all these categories are composed out of various elements, the core of which are flesh & blood human beings who already feel that their existence is delegitmatised & threatened.

    As you say above:

    “These struggles in no way point beyond a society dominated by the commodity-form or toward the transcendence of bourgeois right in general. Which is not to suggest that they aren’t worth fighting for”.

    But isn’t that a straw-man? Are they about pointing to a beyond that comes after the commodity-form? And if they are worth fighting how is it one can come to spend so much time fighting against the people fighting them?

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  10. …subversive gender categories so harmlessly absorbed into the edifice of existing capitalism…
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    …capital doesn’t care how you identify yourself. Or rather, it does care — but not the way you think.

    ===

    Different identities are not merely “tolerated”; they are actively produced.

    ===

    Ya. Cheers for that.

  11. I’d get rid of the “gender” option and replace it with “sex” (though I suspect the original “gender” option was just using the word as a euphemism anyway). If you have a penis you’re male, if you have a vagina you’re female. Simple and understandable.

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