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genealogical approach to social science’s objects and categories helps in pushing further and partly displacing the very function of critical discourse: as Jemima Repo puts it, building on Foucault, “in a genealogical inquiry it is not enough to simply denaturalize and destabilize discourses […] the central stage of genealogy is to examine the condition of possibility for the emergence, expansion, intensification, transformation and destruction of discourses” (page 9). In The Biopoltics of Gender, Repo fully achieves this goal, retracing the emergence of gender theory and showing its centrality in mechanisms of contemporary biopolitical governmentality. Repo traces back to the 1950s the emergence of gender as a social, political and medical category that has been embedded from the very beginning in “logics of social control that reconfigured the sexual order of things” (page 25). Hence, her genealogical account shows that, far from originating within the feminist tradition, gender appeared firstly in the regulatory discourses of US sexological studies. Then, gender has been put to work by demographers with a purpose of social control and has functioned as a primary mechanism within contemporary biopolitics of populations. What clearly emerges from the book is that gender works through, and within, biopolitical technologies of government. Pushing this argument further, Repo shows that gender has not simply contributed to the affirmation of neoliberal biopolitics, but it also constitutes a “biopolitical apparatus” in itself, for regulating populations and governing life. By acting both upon populations and upon singular conducts, gender (similarly to dispositive of sexuality) represents a crucial hinge between the level of individuals and that of multiplicities. In fact, in The Will to Knowledge Foucault contends that sex “was at the pivot of two axes along which developed the entire political technology of life” (1998: 145). More precisely, according to Repo, “gender became invested with dangers, norms and vitalities that previously were terrain of sexuality” (page 73).
However, by reframing Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics in the light of contemporary neoliberal governmentality, we should keep in mind that Foucault situates the biopolitical rationale within—and relates it to—an overarching specific regime of truth that, according to him, underpins modern capitalist societies. Such a regime of truth is structured around the practice of confession and the related obligation for the subject to tell the truth about himself. Therefore, it is not simply a question of the production of a normative subjectivity (e.g., as Repo well illustrates, the neoliberal model of the subject as human capital), nor it is a matter of a series of epistemological-medical truths that stemmed from the normative work of gender. Rather, it is important to grasp and highlight the differences and the discrepancies between sexuality and gender as part of a biopolitical apparatus. It is a whole economy of confession and production of truth that connects biopolitics as a technology of power, sexuality as the truth about sex and a psychological knowledge about subjects that centers around the notion of desire. For this reason, and departing from Repo’s argument, I want to suggest that gender does not play the same function of sexuality as described by Foucault. Moreover, it should be considered that the misleading opposition that Repo talks about between norms, cultural and social facts on the one hand (gender), and biological ones (sexuality) on the other, has been at stake also in the dispositive of sexuality with the likewise deceptive binary opposition between sex and sexuality. Indeed, following Foucault, the former “made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity, as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere” (Foucault, 1998: 154).
The first part of the book provides a poignant critique of gender equality policy and of mainstream gender analyses, showing how these are functional and internal to neoliberal governmentality. Repo then reconstructs in a very detailed way the emergence of gender as a mechanism of social control in the US and in Europe, focusing in particular on the government of life and of population through gender. More than fostering populations, “gender equality,” Repo contends, “was deployed in EU policy as a new modality for the reoptimization of population and productivity” (page 134). In the final chapter Jemima Repo radically challenges the way in which gender has been mobilized by feminists, focusing in particular on the Anglo-American tradition, arguing that gender politics has finally come to foster the disciplinary and normative function of gender initiated by psychiatrists and demographers. Provocatively, Repo argues that “gender never belonged to feminism” (page 198). Although she clearly admits the strategic use of gender by feminist movements in empowering forms of resistance and agency, she fundamentally questions the idea that feminists succeeded in subverting and unsettling the medical discourses of normalization that sustains gender as an apparatus of power. Nevertheless, from a Foucaultian perspective one should be careful in envisaging a pure space of politics and political action building on notions and concepts which are not entrapped from within the meshes of power. Is it on a discursive level that can we assess the leeway for twisting the effects of power and truth generated by normative technologies, or is it rather by shifting the attention to practices of subjectivation and modes of life that we can grasp that?
What Repo calls the “politically ambiguous discourse” of gender (page 177) represents the actual character of all contested categories and discourses that have been repoliticized and strategically appropriated by subjects, becoming a battleground. It is at the level of practices that Foucault ultimately finds the room for altering and disrupting the functioning of sexual norms. In some interviews from the 1980s Foucault highlighted the forms of resistance and modes of life that emerged in the gay movement. What matters, according to Foucault, is to detach, at the level of practices, pleasure from “the normative field of sexuality and from its categories” (Foucault, 2000: 1131), with the purpose of creating a new culture and new relational forms that cannot be coded, defined, or disqualified by the dominant opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality. In 1977, in an interview with the French group Revolutionary Communist Ligue, Foucault rhetorically asks if feminist and gay movements have mobilized sexuality for flattening the stakes of their struggles into it. On the contrary, Foucault replies, these movements have built upon the specificity of sexuality in order to “claim the possibility of inter-individual relationships, social relations, forms of existence, life choices...etc. that go well beyond sexuality,” generating a “centrifugal force with respect to sexuality” (Foucault, 1977: 20-21). This seems to be the main challenge of gender-based movements as well in the face of the ongoing attempts of re-appropriation by neoliberal discourses that, Repo shows, center on gender equality for fostering and optimizing productivity in Western contemporary economies.
Therefore, we might suggest an inverse analytical move to the one proposed by Repo, by looking at governmental uses of gender as strategies of capture of practices and forms of subjectivation that exceed the epistemic and normative codes of neoliberal biopolitics by “queering” gender. Intersectionality theory in black and Marxist feminism has historically represented a concrete of way of de-essentializing gender, positing it as inherently entangled with racial and class issues (Crenshaw, 1991). Similarly, in her seminal article “Under Western Eyes,” Chandra Talpade Mohanty cautions against a conception of “woman” as a stable category that entails a notion of gender “that can be applied universally” regardless of “class, race or ethnic locations” (Mohanty, 1993: 337). Pushing forward Mohanty’s analysis in the light of gender debates, it is a question of moving beyond gender difference as a normative yardstick for thinking power relations, building rather on the specific conditions of subjection for enacting struggles around, and through, gender-based practices that escape the model of a self-governed productive subjectivity.
Crenshaw K (1991) Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review: 1241-1299.
Foucault M (2001) Le triomphe social du plaisir sexuel: une conversation avec Michel Foucault. In: Foucault M Dits et Ecrits. Paris: Gallimard, pp.1127-1133.
Foucault M (1998) The Will to Knowledge: The history of sexuality, volume I. Hurley R (trans) London: Penguin.
Foucault M (1977) Entretien inédit entre Michel Foucault et quatre militants de la LCR.
Mohanty CT (2003) Feminist Without Borders. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Repo J (2015) The Biopolitics of Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.