The Technology of Gender

Teresa de Lauretis, ‘The Technology of Gender’, pp.1-30, in:

De Lauretis, T., 1987. Technologies of gender: essays on theory, film, and fiction, Theories of representation and difference. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
In the feminist writings and cultural practices of the 1960s and 1970s, the notion of gender as sexual difference was central to the critique of representation, the rereading of cultural images and narratives, the questioning of theories of subjectivity and textuality, of reading, writing, and spectatorship.

But that notion of gender as sexual difference and its derivative notions – women’s culture, mothering, feminine writing, femininity, etc. – have now become a limitation, something of a liability to feminist thought.
To continue to pose the question of gender in either of these terms [sexual difference or differences], once the critique of patriarchy has been fully outlined, keeps feminist thinking bound to the terms of Western patriarchy itself, contained within the frame of a conceptual opposition that is “always already” inscribed in what Fredric Jameson would call “the political unconscious” of dominant cultural discourses and their underlying “master narratives”-be they biological, medical, legal, philosophical, or literary-and so will tend to reproduce itself, to retextualize itself, as we shall see, even in feminist rewritings of cultural narratives.
The first limit of “sexual difference(s),” then, is that itcanstrains feminist critical thought within the conceptual frame of a universal sex opposition (woman as the difference from man, both universalized; or woman as difference tout court, and hence equally universalized), which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the differences of women from Woman, that is to say, the differences among women or, perhaps more exactly, the differences within women.
A second limitation of the notion of sexual difference(s) is that it tends to recontain or recuperate the radical epistemological potential of feminist thought inside the walls of the master’s house – to borrow Audre Lorde’s metaphor rather than Nietzsche’s “prison-house of language,” for reasons that will presently become apparent.
By radical epistemological potential I mean the possibility, already emergent in feminist writings of the 1980s, to conceive of the social subject and of the relations of subjectivity to sociality in another way: a subject constituted in gender, to be sure, though not by sexual difference alone, but rather across languages and cultural representations; a subject en-gendered in the experiencing of race and class, as well as sexual, relations; a subject, therefore, not unified but rather multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted.
In order to begin to specify this other kind of subject and to articulate its relations to a heterogeneous social field, we need a notion of gender that is not so bound up with sexual difference as to be virtually coterminous with it and such that, on the one hand, gender is assumed to derive unproblematically from sexual difference while, on the other, gender can be subsumed in sexual differences as an effect of language, or as pure imaginary-nothing to do with the real.
This bind, this mutual containment of gender and sexual difference(s), needs to be unraveled and deconstructed.
A starting point may be to think of gender along the lines of Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality as a “technology of sex” and to propose that gender, too, both as representation and as self-representation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life.
[…] to think of gender as the product and the process of a number of social technologies, of technosocial Qr bio-medical apparati, is to have already gone beyond Foucault, for his critical understanding of the technology of sex did not take into account its differential solicitation of male and female subjects, and by ignoring the conflicting investments of men and women in the discourses and practices of sexuality, Foucault’s theory, in fact. excludes, though it does not preclude, the consideration of gender.
[Four propositions]
(1) Gender is (a) representation-which is not to say that it does not have concrete or real implications, both social and subjective, for the material life of individuals. On the contrary,
(2) The representation of gender is its construction-and in the simplest sense it can be said that all of Western Art and high culture is the engraving of the history of that construction.
(3) The construction of gender goes on as busily today as it did in earlier times, say the Victorian era. And it goes on not only where one might expect it to-in the media, the private and public schools, the courts, the family, nuclear or extended or single-parented-in short, in what Louis Althusser has called the “ideological state apparati.” The construction of gender also goes on, if less obviously, in the academy, in the intellectual community, in avant-garde artistic practices and radical theories, even, and indeed especially, in feminism.
(4) Paradoxically, therefore, the construction of gender is also effected by its deconstruction; that is to say, by any discourse, feminist or otherwise, that would discard it as ideological misrepresentation. For gender, like the real, is not only the effect of representation but also its excess, what remains outside discourse as a potential trauma which can rupture or destabilize, if not contained: any representation.
An interesting corollary of this linguistic peculiarity of English, i.e., the acceptation of gender which refers to sex, is that the notion of gender 1 am discussing, and thus the whole tangled question of the relationship of human gender to representation, are totally untranslatable in any Romance language, a sobering thought for anyone who might be still tempted to espouse an internationalist, not to say universal, view of the project of theorizing gender.
[…] gender represents not an individual but a relation, and a social relation […]
The cultural conceptions of male and female as two complementary yet mutually exclusive categories into which all human beings are placed constitute within each culture a gender system, a symbolic system or system of meanings, that correlates sex to cultural contents according to social values and hierarchies.
Although the meanings vary with each culture, a sexgender system is always intimately interconnected with political and economic factors in each society.
In this light, the cultural construction of sex into gender and the asymmetry that characterizes all gender systems crossculturally (though each in its particular ways) are understood as “systematically linked to the organization of social inequality.”
[…] the proposition that the representation of gender is its construction, each term being at once the product and the process of the other, can be restated more accurately: The construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation.
[reading Althusser] If I substitute gender for ideology, the statement still works, but with a slight shift of the terms: Gender has the function (which defines it) of constituting concrete individuals as men and women.
The shift from “subjects” to “men and women” marks the conceptual distance between two orders of discourse, the discourse of philosophy or political theory and the discourse of “reality.” Gender is granted (and taken for granted) in the latter but excluded from the former.
Although the Althusserian subject of ideology derives more from Lacan’s subject (which is an effect of signification, founded on misrecognition) than from the unified class subject of Marxist humanism, it too is ungendered, as neither of these systems considers the possibility-let alone the process of constitution-of a female subject.
Althusser’s theory of ideology is itself caught and blind to its own complicity in the ideology of gender. But that is not all: more important, and more to the immediate point of my argument, Althusser’s theory, to the extent that a theory can be validated by institutional discourses and acquire power or control over the field of social meaning, can itself function as a techno-logy of gender.
[Parveen] Adams’s critique of a feminist (Marxist) theory of ideology that relies on the notion of patriarchy as a given in social reality (in other words, a theory based on the fact of women’s oppression by men) is that such a theory is based on an essentialism, whether biological or sociological, which crops up again even in the work of those, such as Juliet Mitchell, who would insist that gender is an effect of representation.
[Michelle] Barrett’s conceptual framework does not permit an understanding of the ideology of gender in specifically feminist theoretical terms.
[On”The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory.”]
Once we accept the fundamental feminist notion that the personal is political, [Joan] Kelly argues, it is no longer possible to maintain that there are two spheres of social reality: the private, domestic sphere of the family, sexuality, and affectiyity, and the public sphere of work and productivity (which would include all of the forces and most of the relations of production in Barrett’s terms).
The importance of Althusser’s formulation of the subjective working of ideology-again, briefly, that ideology needs a subject, a concrete individual or person to work on-appears more clearly now, and more central to the feminist project of theorizing gender as a personal-political force both negative and positive as I will propose.
To assert that the social representation of gender affects its subjective construction and that, vice versa, the subjective representation of gender or self-representation-affects its social construction, leaves open a possibility-of agency and self-determination at the subjective and even individual level of micropolitical and everyday practices which Althusser himself would clearly disclaim. I, nevertheless, will claim that possibility […]
[…] going back to proposition 2, which was revised as “The construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation,” I can rewrite it: The construction of gender is the product and the process of both representation and self-representation.
[…] in [Althusser’s] view, “ideology has no outside.” It is a foolproof system whose effect is to erase its own traces completely, so that anyone who is “in ideology,” caught in its web, believes “himself” to be outside and free of it. Nevertheless, there is an outside, a place from where ideology can be seen for what it is – mystification, imaginary relation, wool over one’s eyes; and that place is, for Althusser, science, or scientific knowledge. Such is simply not the case for feminism and for what I propose to call, avoiding further equivocations. the subject of feminism.
By the phrase “the subject of feminism” I mean a conception or an understanding of the (female) subject as not only distinct from Woman with the capital letter, the representation of an essence inherent in all women (which has been seen as Nature, Mother, Mystery, Evil Incarnate, Object of [Masculine] Desire and Knowledge, Proper Womanhood, Femininity, et cetera), but also distinct from women, the historical beings and social subjects who are defined by the technology of gender and actually engendered in social relations.
[…] the subject of feminism, much like Althusser’s subject, is a theoretical construct (a way of conceptualizing, of understanding, of accounting for certain processes, not women).
However, unlike Althusser’s subject, who, being completely “in” ideology, believes himself to be outside and free of it, the subject that I see emerging from current writings and debates within feminism is one that is at the same time inside and outside the ideology of gender, and conscious of being so, conscious of that twofold pull, of that division, that doubled vision.
[…] women are both inside and outside gender, at once within and without representation.
For since the very first time we put a check mark on the little square next to the F on the form, we have officially entered the sex-gender system, the social relations of gender, and have become en-gendered as women; that is to say, not only do other people consider us females, but from that moment on we have been representing ourselves as women.
[…] we thought that we were marking the F on the form, in fact the F was marking itself on us?
This is, of course, the process described by Althusser with the word interpellation, the process whereby a social representation is accepted and absorbed by an individual as her (or his) own representation, and so becomes, for that individual, real, even though it is in fact imaginary.
[On  History of Sexuality vol 1]
Foucault’s analysis begins from a paradox: the prohibitions and regulations pertaining to sexual behaviors, whether spoken by religious, legal, or scientific authorities, far from constraining or repressing sexuality, have on the contrary produced it, and continue to produce it, in the sense in which industrial machinery produces goods or commodities, and in so doing also produces social relations.
Hence the notion of a “technology of sex,” which he defines as “a set of techniques for maximizing life” that have been developed and deployed by the bourgeoisie since the end of the eighteenth century in order to ensure its class survival and continued hegemony.
Those techniques involved the elaboration of discourses (classification, measurements, evaluation, etc.) about four privileged “figures” or objects of knowledge: the sexualization of children and of the female body, the control of procreation, and the psychiatrization of anomalous sexual behavior as perversion.
There is little doubt, at any rate, that cinema-the cinematic apparatus-is a technology of gender […]
The theory of the cinematic apparatus is more concerned than Foucault’s with answering both parts of the question I started from: not only how the representation of gender is constructed by the given technology, but also how it becomes absorbed subjectively by each individual whom that technology addresses.
For the second part of the question, the crucial notion is the concept of spectatorship, which feminist film theory has established as a gendered concept; that is to say, the ways in which each individual spectator is addressed by the film, the ways in which his/her identification is solicited and structured in the single film, are intimately and intentionally, if not usually explicitly, connected to the spectators’ gender.
Hence the paradox that mars Foucault’s theory, as it does other contemporary, radical but male-centered, theories: in order to combat the social technology that produces sexuality and sexual oppression, these theories (and their respective politics) will deny gender. But to deny gender, first of all, is to deny the social relations of gender that constitute and validate the sexual oppression of women; and second, to deny gender is to remain “in ideology,” an ideology which (not coincidentally if, of course, not intentionally) is manifestly self-serving to the male-gendered subject.
Rather than equating power with oppression, Foucault sees it as productive of meanings, values, knowledges, and practices, but inherently neither positive nor negative.
[Holloway] then reformulates, and redistributes, Foucault’s notion of power by suggesting that power is what motivates (and not necessarily in a conscious or rational manner) individuals’ “investments” in discursive positions.
Holloway’s is an interesting attempt to reconceptualize power in such a manner that agency (rather than choice) may be seen to exist for the subject, and especially for those subjects who have been (perceived as) “victims” of social oppression or especially disempowered by the discursive monopoly of power-knowledge.
How do changes in consciousness affect or effect changes in dominant discourses? Or, put another way, whose investments yield more relative power? For example, if we say that certain discourses and practices, even though marginal with regard to institutions, but nonetheless disruptive or oppositional (e.g., women’s cinema and health collectives, Women’s Studies’ and Afro-American Studies’ revisions of the literary canon and college curricula, the developing critique of colonial discourse), do have the power to “implant” new objects and modes of knowledge in individual subjects, does it follow that these oppositional discourses or counter-practices (as Claire Johnston called women’s cinema in the early 1970s “counter-cinema”) can become dominant or hegemonic?
[…] to theorize as positive the “relative” power of those oppressed by current social relations necessitates something more radical, or perhaps more drastic, than [Holloway] seems willing to stake.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the investments studied by Holloway are secured and bonded by a heterosexual contract; that is to say, her object of study is the very site in which the social relations of gender and thus gender ideology are re-produced in everyday life. Any changes that may result therein, however they may occur, are likely to be changes in “gender difference,” precisely, rather than changes in the social relations of gender: changes, in short, in the direction of more or less “equality” of women to men.
Here is, clearly in evidence, the problem in the notion of sexual difference(s), its conservative force limiting and working against the effort to rethink its very representations.
I believe that to envision gender (men and women) otherwise, and to (re)construct it in terms other than those dictated by the patriarchal contract, we must walk out of the male-centred frame of reference in which gender and sexuality are (re)produced by the discourse of male sexuality – or, as Luce Irigaray has so well written it, of hom(m)o-sexuality.
While it would be difficult to disprove that power is productive of knowledges, meanings, and values, it seems obvious enough that we have to make distinctions between the positive effects and the oppressive effects of such production.
The constellation or configuration of meaning effects which I caIl experience shifts and is reformed continually, for each subject. with her or his continuous engagement in social reality, a reality that includes-and for women centrally-the social relations of gender.
For the understanding of one’s personal condition as a woman in terms social and political, and the constant revision, reevaluation, and reconceptualization of that condition in relation to other women’s understanding of their sociosexual positions, generate a mode of apprehension of all social reality that derives from the consciousness of gender.
[…] besides the blatant examples of ideological representation of gender in cinema, where the technology’s intentionality is virtually foregrounded on the screen; and besides psychoanalysis, whose medical practice is much more of a technology of gender than its theory, there are other, subtler efforts to contain the trauma of gender-the potential disruption of the social fabric and of white male privilege that could ensue if this feminist critique of gender as ideologico-technological production were to become widespread.
On the contrary, the need for feminist theory to continue its radical critique of dominant discourses on gender, such as these’ are, even as they attempt to do away with sexual difference altogether, is all the more pressing since the word postfeminism has been spoken, and not in vain.
The problem, which is a problem for all feminist scholars and teachers, is one we face almost daily in our work, namely, that most of the available theories of reading, writing, sexuality, ideology, or any other cultural production are built on male narratives of gender, whether oedipal or anti-oedipal, bound by the heterosexual contract; narratives which persistently tend to re-produce themselves in feminist theories.
I think of it as spaces in the margins of hegemonic discourses, social spaces carved in the interstices of institutions and in the chinks and cracks of the power-knowledge apparati.
And it is there that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed – terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments; and in the cultural productions of women, feminists, which inscribe that movement in and out of ideology, that crossing back and forth of the boundaries – and of the limits – of sexual difference(s).
What I mean […] is a movement from the space represented by/in a representation, by/in a discourse, by/in a sex-gender system, to the space not represented yet implied (unseen) in them.
Now, the movement in and out of gender as ideological representation, which I propose characterizes the subject of feminism, is a movement back and forth between the representation of gender (in its male-centered frame of reference) and what that representation leaves out or, more pointedly, makes unrepresentable.
It is a movement between the (represented) discursive space of the positions made available by hegemonic discourses and the space-off, the elsewhere, of those discourses: those other spaces both discursive and social that exist, since feminist practices have (re}constructed them, in the margins (or “between the lines,” or “against the grain”) of hegemonic discourses and in the interstices of institutions, in counter-practices and new forms of community.
These two kinds of spaces are neither in opposition to one another nor strung along a chain of signification, but they coexist concurrently and in contradiction. The movement between them, therefore, is not that of a dialectic, of integration, of a combinatory, or of differance, but is the tension of contradiction, multiplicity, and heteronomy.
Thus, to inhabit both kinds of spaces at once is to live the contradiction which, I have suggested, is the condition of feminism here and now: the tension of a twofold pull in contrary directions – the critical negativity of its theory, and the affirmative positivity of its politics – is both the historical condition of existence of feminism and its theoretical condition of possibility.