Interview with Anne-Emmanuelle Berger

1Rue Descartes: In this deliberately heterogenous journal issue entitled “Performance, Discourse and Sexuality,” very different articles are published: the question that the issue poses is one of sexual identity or of its pluralization (or else of the end of this questioning). We are wondering about what has been called “sexual difference.” Does this question about the difference of sexualities still have a meaning today? How, in the humanities, does one take hold of, or not, this question of sexual identity, especially since the emergence of gender studies? Does this remain just a question? Are there fields of the humanities in which this question continues to be debated? This is probably true within gender studies or in psychoanalysis, but is it true elsewhere?

2We have three introductory questions to ask you.

3The first question is this: what about gender studies today? Where are we? How is this field doing? Has it reached its cruising speed? Are there any particular complications (institutional difficulties, for example)? We think that you are the most capable person for responding to these questions today.

4Second question: in this very interdisciplinary journal issue, we have grown attached to the question of encounters, or even clashes between disciplines. What then would you have to say about pluridisciplinarity in gender studies? It seems to us that it is one of the fields in which this inderdisciplinarity is strong, including from a conflictual point of view.

5Last question: what would you have to say about the question of sexual difference? Or the question of sexual identity (which is perhaps a different question)? Is it a relevant problem to currently address or has it become completely obsolete? This question is being asked to you not only since you are in charge of LEGS (Laboratory of gender and sexuality studies), but also because of your work as a researcher.

6Anne-Emmanuelle Berger: What about gender studies today in France, in the West and across the world? It is a domain that emerged under this name in the United States between the years 1990 and 2000. If the notion of gender has a long epistemological history that goes back to the fifties, it is really in this decade that, in the university, we crossed over from a field of studies that, since its beginning in the seventies, had been called women’s studies to gender studies. There is a paradigm shift at stake there, both intellectually and institutionally. Women’s studies was linked to the emergence of women’s movements in the West and, to begin with, in the United States. “Gender studies” (which I prefer translated into French as études de genre rather than its official catchphrase études sur le genre) was developed and thought of as such in the United States, not as much in the wake of the British sociologist Ann Oakley’s works on the necessary distinction between sex (known as natural) and gender (known as social) for feminist thought, as starting from the queer turning point, which was picked up, both in politics and in theory, for questions of sex and of sexuality. This turning point—carried forward by researchers and activists coming from sexual minorities, the great majority of whom were a part of the field of studies opened up by Women’s Studies—dates to the end of the eighties and was also, on the whole, a Foucauldian turning point. To give one example that I know well, Cornell University saw the creation of one of the first ever Women’s Studies programs in the world [1], and in 2002 Women’s Studies was ultimately renamed as Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies following a decade of discussion on the subject. Other programs in the United States bring together researchers coming from women’s studies and researchers coming from lesbian and gay studies—the latter were, in the early nineties, sometimes founded in the bosom of women’s studies, sometimes outside of it—chose different names: Stanford’s program, created much later than Cornell’s, immediately called itself Gender Studies; Irvine’s program, Transnational Feminist Studies. Duke’s program remained attached to its original name, Women’s Studies, until 2015, and is now called Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, using an order of presentation that is slightly different from Cornell’s. Cornell aimed to bring out the complexity of the domain without erasing its history, which begins with the question of women (feminism). Some programs have, moreover, decided to continue simply calling themselves Women’s Studies. In France, whose university system is public and centralized, and where national diplomas are issued, one single denomination officially prevails: études sur le genre, at the risk of crushing, or at best subsuming, still-active internal differences or divergences, ones that still make the field so rich, under the name of genre, such as the ones that distinguish the followers of an approach that was first developed in France under the name rapports sociaux de sexe (social relations of sex) or celleux (a mix of masculine and feminine gender pronouns), which advocate for an epistemological and political rupture between sexuality studies and gender studies. However, even if it is often said that France came late to this field, intellectually and politically speaking, this is not true; its one true and massive lateness has to do with a lack of scientific legitimacy for this domain, which hindered its institutional recognition for a long time. [2] One had to wait until the 2010s—which is indeed astounding when one takes into account the role of the aforementioned “French thought” in the theoretical formation of this domain—for it to begin to benefit, in its diversity, from tolerance or even kindness from the ministry, and in some cases (for the CNRS, some universities), from the active support of administrative supervision.

7Now, I will get to the question of interdisciplinarity. Generally speaking, gender studies is a field of research and not a discipline. From that point forward, interdisciplinarity is indeed consubstantial with gender studies. A singular approach (whether it be sociological, historical, philosophical, literary, ethnological, economic or another) is not enough to take into account the enormous number of questions that one asks through gender studies and problems its relevant problems. At the same time, the broader the palette of disciplines called upon in the field is, the more complex the field can become while growing richer. Historically, the disciplines that have contributed to forging the domain of women’s studies, in France that is, feminist studies first and foremost, gender studies after that, mainly come out of the social sciences; it has to do, in particular, with sociology, history, anthropology. With another vocabulary, literature and literary history have also been pioneering. But literature’s contribution found itself basically divided between approaches that called upon the vocabulary and perspectives of philosophy or of psychoanalysis (and that one encountered as part of what was, at one point, called “feminine studies”) and others who were much closer to a historian’s approach. All of this history is reflected in and has produced effects in LEGS (Laboratory of gender and sexuality studies), which in 2004 (officially on January 1st 2015), was the first interdisciplinary research unit (UMR) devoted to gender and sexuality to see the light of day in France. As a part of LEGS, instructors, researchers and CNRS researchers collaborate, as well as doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows coming out of highly varied disciplines; beside those disciplines that I qualified as historic (sociology, history, anthropology and literature), one currently also finds law, economics, geography, art history, education and political science represented. So, is it a “happy interdisciplinarity”? It is thrilling, it is difficult and this compels a confrontation, or rather a perpetual questioning of theoretical approaches and paradigms, working off of one another. As for me, I never thought that gender studies was the fruit of one and only one theory of gender; the history of its development, were we to seriously address it and do so in a spirit of equitable restitution, shows the opposite. I would go even further: we do not have to aim for the theory’s unification. The growing pluralization of disciplines harnessed into the field constitutes, from this point of view, a guarantee against its unification. For me, it is one of the essential safeguards against any dogmatic or doctrinaire temptation. So, it’s a bit of a Babelian field that speaks various disciplinary and theoretical languages. This situation encourages an ongoing work of translation and retranslation, which seems very fruitful to me.

8Rue Descartes: Regarding this “happy interdisciplinarity,” you spoke about a “confrontation of paradigms”: what have you been witness to as a part of LEGS?

9A.E. Berger: The diversity of paradigms is, first of all, linked to the composite origin of gender studies and the initial plurality of the conception of gender, since this is the notion that brings the field together today. The notion of “gender,” a bit more philologically narrow than its French equivalent “genre,” has a very long history in the anglophone area. But was is in the United States, in the fifties, that for the first time it was promoted from a categorematic term intended to distinguish binary or ternary morpho-grammatical regimes of nomination, to the rank of a quasi-concept. And this happened in a space that was, at first, in no way feminist. John Money, a pediatric endocrinologist working in the United States, was the first to theorize, not only the distinction, but also the disjunction between sex and gender, by concerning himself with what was then called hermaphroditism and what is today called intersexualism. In cases of intersexualism, which, for that matter, are morphologically and biologically varied, one cannot infer the gender of a person based on that person’s sex, or more precisely that person’s sexual characteristics, whether they are primary or secondary. Furthermore, what is interesting about Money is that he defines gender neither as an innate disposition, nor as an (either sexual or sexuated) identity, but as a role. The notion of “role” is primordial for him. That’s why, in The Theater of Gender, I connect it with an already old tradition in social sciences in the United States that goes back to the works of Ralph Linton in the field of sociology, namely his development of “role theory,” in order to conceptualize social relations. Whomever says “role” says learned score and not innate disposition; but a role also implies interaction with others and a “way of publicly presenting oneself.” Hence the relation between gender display (to speak like Erwing Goffman) and role; we are already in the vicinity of the question that you were asking regarding the notion of sexual identity. For Money, in any case, the notion of role epistemologically precedes the notion of identity. In other words, where one would tend to spontaneously think about identity as having something to do with the proper or with an individual’s intrinsic characteristics, role suggests the presence of a public interaction with others and, therefore, the precedence of something like the public sphere over something like the private sphere. A little later on, it is Robert Stoller’s turn: a doctor, psychoanalyst and specialist of transsexualism, which he refers to and contributes to theorizing as such, bringing light to the disjunction between sex and gender in transsexual subjects. He is nevertheless, unlike Money, going to think about gender as a core of the ego. And even if the “ego,” in psychoanalytic terms, is also the fruit of an interaction with others, gender as he conceives of it is here a marker, if not a component, of identity. Thus, even in the space of the United States, and in the course of a decade (1955-1965), differences, or even divergences, are already appearing in the definition of gender as a concept. Money’s conception of gender is absolutely compatible with what, in the United States, was called “the sociology of social interaction,” which Erwing Goffman became the most eminent representative of. In any case, if gender is a role, if it is a learned score, the acquisition of a gender identity can only be progressive and, for Money, it remains secondary: one must first learn the role. This acquisition falls within the scope of diverse processes of socialization, of a learning of norms. Stoller works, for his part, from a Freudian paradigm, even if, in his theory of transsexualism—more precisely of “M to F” transsexualism, the only one identified as such at the time—he inverts Freud’s propositions in some ways by maintaining that, in early childhood, it is not so much the little girl who is a little man, than the little boy who is a little girl and who remains so in the case of transsexualism. Coming from a different epistemological and clinical space than Money, Stoller ends up with different formulations. Thus, beginning with the initial epistemic core, the understanding and the theorization of gender follow potentially divergent paths.

10After that, there was a feminist regrowth of this paradigm. It was produced from the seventies onward and coincided with women’s liberation in the West, and always first and foremost in anglophone countries, but on the basis of other premises and on other epistemological grounds: the first two feminist theorists of gender and of the disjunction between sex and gender are, one the one hand, the British sociologist Ann Oakley and, on the other, Gayle Rubin who was then a young American sociologist and a disciple, in the United States, of Lévi-Strauss and Marshall Sahlins. In her inaugural essay “The Traffic In Women. Notes Toward A Political Economy of Sex,” published in 1975, she delivers one of the first feminist definitions of gender, conceived of as “a socially imposed division of the sexes”; she thinks about the disjunction between sex and gender, in the wake of Lévi-Strauss, as homologous to, and coinciding with, the opposition between nature and culture. She makes use of Lévi-Strauss’s explanation of the modalities of conversion of natural needs or dispositions in established cultural behavior in order to think about the passage (as well as the qualitative jump) from sex to gender, thus, once again, from a state or a function presumed to be natural toward one or several states of culture. She analyzes the asymmetry of gender positions working from modalities and rules of the exchange of women, according the explanation that Lévi-Strauss gives in The Elementary Stuctures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss, as we know, owes his conception of exchange as the princeps operator of the social link to Marcel Mauss. But, unlike Mauss, he conceives of the exchange of women, and consequently of matrimonial rules, as the centerpiece of this operation. Yet men had traditionally been the agents and beneficiaries of the marital apparatus (to speak like Foucault), and women the exchanged objects. This asymmetry allows Rubin to think about gender as not only a differential structure, but also a hierarchical one. This is the great originality compared to the approach of Money or of Stoller, who were not at all interested in the effects of hierarchy and subordination engendered by the social asymmetry of the positions of women and men. After its invention by Money and Stoller, then its appropriation by feminist thought of the aforementioned second wave, from the eighties onward, and for complex reasons which I cannot consider as a part of this interview, we can observe a Foucaldian turn in feminist thought benefitting from the translation and reception in the anglophone world of The History of Sexuality, especially its first volume. Thus new ways of thinking about gender emerge. The historian Joan Scott is emblematic of this turn. In her famous article, which was published for the first time in 1986, entitled “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” she explicitly invokes Foucault to think about gender, even if her way of doing history is actually not very Foucaldian. Nevertheless, her conception of gender is indeed dependent upon the way in which Foucault thought about sexuality and power together, since she defines it as a “primary way of signifying relationships of power.” By defining it in this way, Scott seeks to assert the political dimension of gender structure and relations. Of course, Rubin’s perspective was already protopolitical, but as an anthropologist, she is primarily a thinker of the social and of cultural variations. Politics intervenes from the moment when we ask the question of power and power relations. Starting with Joan Scott, the politicization of gender, at once as a category and as a concept, moves to the foreground. And because gender became visible as a power relation within a complex totality of power relations, a field of investigation was opened that we now label under the name intersectionality, or the study of the manner in which different relations of domination are imbricated with each other. It was the African-American thinker Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, who introduced the word while pursuing the effort of Black feminism in order to draw together, within their very tension, the oppression of sex and the oppression of race. Obviously, all of these questions were already budding in the sixties, just as much as questions that we regard today in the name of intersectionality, the question of heterosexism, of the relationship between gender and sexuality, etc. But they were formalized later, when they found a more solid theoretical footing, as it so happens always engaging thought and action in different directions. If the notion of intersectionality’s purpose is to assert the imbrication of relations of domination from the point of view of the experience of the dominated, one must however recall that there is not always imbrication, but also often tension between stages and relations of power: whomever is in a position of being dominated from some points of view, is also in a position of dominating from other points of view. And this tension also deserves attention and analysis. For me, it is also a way of saying that no social identity (whether that’s what we call it or not), no assignation, whether it be of culture, class or gender, can establish for itself the power relations into which we are drawn, nor can it pretend to take into account their totality. After Joan Scott comes, of course, in this history of the inflection and conceptual metamorphoses of gender, the Judith Butler moment. One reason for the political and intellectual impact of her theoretical intervention has to do with her astute way of making use of all available attempts, all intellectual traditions blended together, when thinking about the disjunction between sex and gender. In thinking about gender—with the help of psychoanalysis and as a result of institutional modalities, for (and in) subjects, of a heterosexuality that is, if not mandatory, at least hegemonic—she has decisively contributed to “queering” the feminist theoretical and political field. By bringing gender toward what she called “performance” and “performativity,” which she relates while differentiating between them, she also opened a new chapter. With the notion of performance—a word that, according to its most ordinary Anglo-American meaning, refers to theater or live shows—one gets back to Money’s idea that gender is a role, a learned score that is later played and repeated publicly. From certain angles, Butlerian performance theory is indebted to the American sociological school of social interaction, and it is an aspect of her work and of her intellectual genesis that we are in the process of rediscovering today. But she is also situated within the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Of course, phenomenology is an expansive movement, and there is a great distance between Edmund Husserl’s work and Levinas’s or Merleau-Ponty’s, who set off in very different directions. Let’s say that the motif of phenomenology is very present in Butler’s very first works devoted to gender, just as her most recent works are devoted more generally to politics. To think about gender as a performance is also to reflect on the modalities of its manifestation, of its appearing in the world and for the subject. It is also, in a more Merleau-Pontian vein, to take interest in its incarnation, in its materialization in and through the body. Butler contributed, I believe, to the current renewal of interest for Merleau-Ponty and for a certain phenomenology, within and beyond the philosophical field.

11The various steps in the conceptual history of gender that I just briefly recalled are obviously not linear; there is not, at each turn, a new way of thinking about gender that imposes itself and erases those that came before. There is instead reciprocal contamination of accumulated meanings, enrichment and pluralization of a concept, and, at each turn, reorganization of the field; gender is not a homogeneous concept. Its conception hasn’t ever stopped diversifying and this heterogeneity seems to me to be the condition of its productivity. But the notion of sexual difference—it is important to remember—also has a history and uses that are far from being homogeneous.

12Rue Descartes: Would you say that what strikes you in Butler’s work is both what she owes to the American sociological school (the theory of social interaction) and to phenomenology? Because we generally recognize her debt to Hegelian philosophy (her theory of recognition would be of the Hegelian sort).

13A.E. Berger: The readings and movements that feed or inform Butler’s thought are not exclusive from each other. Certain influences—I like neither the word nor the concept “influence”—or let’s say certain readings of Butler are unanimously recognized as determinant because she explicitly refers to them herself: this is the case for Foucault or for Hegel. But those readings that she exercises less, or that more stealthily feed her work, are just as interesting to me, if not more so, for understanding her work.

14Rue Descartes: There might be something of a less visible genealogy.

15A.E. Berger: Less visible and once again very composite. Since we spoke about the question of performance, Butler also draws, in the feminist field, from Esther Newton and the way in which this pioneer of the anthropology of homosexuality deals with the question of drag, and of gender as drag, through her study of the cultural phenomenon of “drag queens.” She owes one of the first and one of the strongest feminist formulations of the disjunction between gender and sex to Gayle Rubin, and does not fail to mention it. Rubin’s reading convinced her of the heuristic value and the indispensability of gender as a tool and a category for analysis. She is perhaps also the one who put Butler on the path of a necessary junction between gender and sexuality. She owes to Derrida a certain systematic way of questioning the repressed or the excluded part of a given logical (or political-logical) operation as well as the inflection of the notion of performance toward the notion of performativity, which allows her to ask the question of the relationship between gender performance and speech act. Gender performance is a citational act, an act that reiterates norms, but reiteration is never a simple reproduction, hence its political potential. She owes to Foucault the idea that performance is part of a power apparatus. But she is also indebted to Goffman, or even to Lacan—two readings that leave traces in her thought but which she still does not make reference to. Lacan is however present from the beginning, and he comes back particularly when she attempts to think about the question of embodiment (a word that I prefer to the French incarnation, which is overly distorted by religious connotations) or more precisely the phantasmatic morphology of subjects as desiring subjects. Gender performance and gender as performance are, moreover, not all that far from what Lacan theorized as semblance, masquerade, and of course, as pretension to possession, or to embodiment, of the phallus. Lacan, and also Freud, allow her to think about the junction between gender and sexuality, understood in the psychoanalytic sense and not only in the Foucaldian sense of the term, beyond, or in a different way than, what Rubin sketched out in this domain. With Teresa de Lauretis (who is Freudian or neo-Freudian, but anti-Lacanian) and just about at the same time as in the anglophone world, Judith Butler is one of the ones who attempted to theorize the junction between the social stage and something that we could call the unconscious stage. These two stages are obviously not opposed to each other in the same way as exterior is to interior or public is to private. On the contrary, the mode of their junction is an invitation to deconstruct these oppositions. It is important and necessary. If one thinks about gender performance solely a role-play, for which it suffices to learn or to decode the score, there is a risk of not being able to or not wanting to think, not so much about what the played scene and displayed genre dissimulate—for Butler or for de Lauretis, it is not about opposing being and appearing, depth and surface, the truth of being and the lie of gender—but about what it excludes, what the score leaves out, what it leaves unrepresentable or unrepresented: for example the shapes and the paths of desire. Butler and de Lauretis thereby offer another way, starting from gender, of thinking about the junction between politics and psychoanalysis, a necessary junction as soon as one becomes interested in processes of subjectivizing in all their complexity. The notorious French group “Psychepo” had already theorized this junction in other terms starting in the sixties. So, this brings back on stage the question of sexuality and the question of desire, which cannot exclusively depend upon an analysis of learned social scores or of modes of socialization.

16If gender studies allowed us to begin to look at the notes on what we now call intersectionality, it also allowed us to unfold, starting with a different vocabulary than in the seventies, the question of a junction between psychoanalysis and politics. Butler and several others rewrote the question of sexuality and desire in the field of feminist thought and the question of reflection on domination. Yet, for a long time this question was a point of division in France. Feminist thinkers (in the academic field and beyond) as well as activists that primarily associated themselves with the legacy of Beauvoir thought that it was better to keep one’s distance from questions dealing with sexuality, therefore from complex relations between gender and sexuality, because one wouldn’t know how to consider sexuality, from whichever angle, without thinking about the role of the body, a crucial element for the sexual stage and for the sexual encounter, whether these are played out in reality or in the imagination. Yet, Beauvoir conceives of the body, or more precisely the body of women, and moreover their sexuated body, as a generic or specific body, that threatens enclosure within—or to bring women to—a state of nature by assigning them the function of reproduction of the species. She carries on a completely different discourse whenever she speaks, using the philosophical tools of phenomenology, about the non-sexuated body, which serves as an interface between the subject and the world, and which allows one to concretely take possession of this body. We could nevertheless show that the model for this non-sexuated body, which maintains an active and comprehensive relationship with the outside world, is a masculine model. In short, only women would have, or would be, a sex. A very old idea, which Beauvoir’s inheritors in France wanted to escape from or believed themselves to have escaped from in keeping from any venturing onto the grounds of sexuality, even though they had been worked over at length by Beauvoir in The Second Sex and in her novelistic work, and by separating as rigorously as possible the examination of the social relations of sex from the examination of sexuality in its many dimensions and through its complex juncture with gender. I have to say that the humanities and a fortiori the social sciences, in which the majority of works on the social relations of sex are situated, have for a long time remained dependent upon a rudimentary conception of the opposition between nature and culture (rudimentary because it is oppositional), the body being thought of as an element and a representative of a nature that is itself unchanging, foreign to the mind and impermeable to the movements of History, a conception which developments in neurobiology and the rise of biotechnology have contributed to the ruin of. But already in the seventies, another movement of thought, that was not, it has to be said, necessarily or primarily feminist, was interested in, through the use of the paths laid both by “Marx” and by “Freud,” what we then called the libidinal economy, with the notion of “economy” allowing one to think about organization, allowing one to think about the organization of sexuality, that is, additionally, the respective form and place of sexualities, not as a fact or an effect of nature, but as a social fact, to be put into relation, as Foucault and Lyotard did then in different ways, with an assembly of economic and political evolutions. To speak as Foucault and Lyotard did then—along with, in that same period, Hélène Cixous—about “political anatomy” in order to describe the way in which a given organization of desire, dependent upon a given hierarchical distribution of sexes or of sexualities, configures the body and its pleasures, was a way of introducing or of reintroducing sexuality and the body into the field of politics. The emergence of queer thought in the United States in the beginning of the nineties, which was first elaborated in the field of feminism with Teresa de Lauretis and Judith Butler, but which particularly aimed to theorize the experience and the point of view of sexual minorities, completed the repositioning of sexuality at the center of the debate. If queer feminist thinkers made use, in turn, of psychoanalysis in order to think about sexual orientation and minority desire, at least in the United States, they mainly attempted to differently re-articulate psychoanalysis and politics by thinking, for example, about the regime of heterosexual relations as a regime of power.

17Rue Descartes: If I understand correctly, your thesis is that queer thought is going to allow us to move past the split that divides these two fields. Is that the case?

18A.E. Berger: It allows us to move past it, if you will, by re-situating the questions. Queer thought, on its feminist side, ventures to rethink the junction between gender and (hegemonic or minority) sexuality. It has mainly tasked to question the gender binary, a questioning that was budding starting with the very first formulations of the necessary distinction between sex and gender. For, from the moment when we show, as Money does, that the duality of feminine and masculine roles cannot be founded in biology, then biological or physiological variations present in intersexualism (which makes Anne Fausto-Sterling say, in a somewhat provocative fashion, that there are five sexes) come to contradict the idea of a universal biological basis for sexual difference—it was also already, in sum, what Freud was saying, when he urged not to put one’s trust in biology in order to establish or to understand the distinction between feminine and masculine—oh well, there is no reason to hold fast to two genders either. More specifically, the reasons for holding fast are of the normative kind, and that was indeed Money’s position. It didn’t come to mind for him to question the gender binary, either from the perspective of an abandonment of gender categories, or from the perspective of a multiplication of these categories, since his goal was to help intersexes to live normally and to fully integrate themselves into the social order. This is why he advocated for the surgical reassigning of intersexes to one “sex” or the other, as well as their behavioral socialization into one gender or the other (masculine or feminine) in order to allow them to live as a women or a woman “like everyone else.”

19Rue Descartes: Listening to you, we might say—from Money up until queer thinkers— that questions of minority and of the minority anomaly have always been central to thinking about the relationship between gender and sex. Can we really say that?

20A.E. Berger: One could indeed believe that in this field we are only talking about minority phenomena or minority positions. After all, the disjunction between sex and gender was thought about from the starting point of the ultra-minority phenomena of intersexualism or even transsexualism. But the approach that consists of starting from the non-normal, statistically speaking, in order to draw out teachings regarding the norm and normality, was already Freud’s approach. Starting from the study of hysterics, then of neurotics, Freud ultimately elaborated a system of interpretation that concerns the entirety of humankind. Particularly his work on neurotic pathologies led him to draw into question the notion of normality itself, showing that normal people are themselves neurotic, but sufficiently adapted to their environment so as to remain functional, and that, inversely, neurotics are just like other people. The questioning of norms or of the norm can, by definition, never be undertaken if not from a lived outside position applied to the norm, therefore from a minority position. But in the Lévi-Strausian paradigm that I was talking about earlier with regard to Gayle Rubin’s analysis of gender, the asymmetry of women’s and men’s positions does not depend upon a logic of the minority. Unless one is thinking, as would be politically justifiable, about the position of women in an androcentric regime as a minority position.

21Rue Descartes: So there would be an epistemological paradigm for gender studies, in any case for the question of gender and sexuality; it’s a question of the minority kind.

22A.E. Berger: If you will, and let’s remind ourselves that the question of minority rights is also at the heart of what we are theorizing today under the name of democracy.

23But I would like to come back, between the question of minority way of life and the questioning of the gender binary, to what the latter owes to Derrida’s thought. Even if he’s not a thinker of gender (not any more than Foulcault, by the way), and if he is less cited than Foucault in the field of gender studies, especially regarding its queer side, he himself never stopped asking questions about what he called “sexduality.” I believe that his enterprise of deconstructing logocentrism, and the oppositional and hierarchical binary structures that underpin it or constitute it, played a major role in queer thought’s development of a critique of binarity. The critical questioning, by queer thought, of gender and its binary structure has, moreover, had a genuine symbolic effectiveness. It has made new non-binary modes of existence thinkable and thus possible and has contributed to making new forms of social life visible.

24Rue Descartes: Can thought transform the possibilities of existence?

25A.E. Berger: I think so. In any case, it contributes. It states the conditions of a given cultural transformation and then contributes to making new social types or ways of life visible: what is imaginable becomes possible. I believe that it is particularly true within the domain and the history that we are talking about. The transgender question, as it is concretely asked today, sensibly, although somewhat less insistently in France than in the United States, is thus indebted to this theoretical opening-up. Furthermore, quite a few queer thinkers themselves embody these transformations in their life and in their body. Such as the thinker who began by adopting a lesbian social sexual and political identity who then became transgender. I am thinking of Judith who became Jack Halberstam, but there are many other examples. These thinkers show that one can live (or bring to life) one’s own contribution to thought.

26Rue Descartes: Is that the performative in gender theories?

27A.E. Berger: It is also that. And in that sense, there is a real effectiveness to the notion of the performative. In itself, this possibility is not new; after all, humans never stop inventing; human history bears witness to an endless production of new social types, new configurations of existence.

28Rue Descartes: Except that usually one thinks of the theory after the fact!

29A.E. Berger: That’s not certain. Before flying, we dreamt of flying. Leonardo da Vinci drew the delta-plane several centuries before it took flight. And as Derrida writes in Choreographies regarding a certain “dream of the innumerable” that clashes with “an implacable destiny which immures everything for life in the figure 2”: “Does the dream itself not prove that what is dreamt of must be there in order for it to provide the dream?” [3] But it is true that the feats of biotechnology, techniques of body modification and their rapid development now make the metamorphoses of gender and of genre that much more remarkable.

30Rue Descartes: It is also remarkable since it touches upon the question of identity and the question of the subject in a very new way, and this links back with the question of living things.

31A.E. Berger: This is in line with a context of a mutation notion of living things, itself related to technological acceleration and the impossibility of maintaining a stable border between organic and inorganic, technical and biological, etc.

32In this sense, the abundant manipulation of the notion of gender enabled all kinds of junctions; it opened up more than a field of questions, a field of what is possible. But gender studies have also significantly complicated the feminist task and cause by making all discourse held in the name of women or as women, if not impossible, at least difficult and/or dubious. One must still not forget that the situation of women as women remains a central and burning political question in the non-Western world, therefore in the majority of the world.

33Rue Descartes: The relationship between sex and gender, the question of queer studies and the question of feminism are all greatly discussed in France. Which stage are we at from the point of view of gender studies? Do we now carry out successive junctions or syntheses? Are we witnessing a surpassing of rifts? Is it a burning question?

34A.E. Berger: The bringing to light of such a hegemonic regime of sexuality’s (heterosexuality’s) role in the production of genders, and, likewise, the attention lent, in the name of intersectionality, to differences in class, race, religion, geopolitical environment, etc. have led to calling into question the unity of the category “women” and to questioning any political operation that seeks to make these differences disappear. Gender studies, in particular in their queer aspect, have therefore introduced a kind of irreducible internal tension within feminism, in its theoretical and political forms. The totality of movements and questions that I briefly recalled are now present at the university. We then continually attempt to articulate questions that fall within feminist problematics that we could call “classic” alongside new questions or perspectives made possible by the multiple uses of the notion of gender. In the West, one can think that, for women, there have been real advances for equality in legal-political terms, advances that, in turn, produce transformative effects on other stages, for example, what are called private stages, stages of desire, etc. But the West is tiny! Elsewhere, we aren’t there yet. As for me, I believe that on the world scale there are still, quite massively, areas of ordinary experience for women that too often remain—but not solely—experiences of violent domination, which, in turn, produce forms of resistance and common expression. And in this case, the word “woman” remains relevant for designating both a social category and a form of experience. One would like to be able to think what Marcel Gauchet now proclaims, namely that masculine domination and the patriarchy are over, but this still remains a vain wish, a pure view of the Western mind. And again, here is one of the difficulties that we confront in the field of gender studies. It is a field that has an international, or even transnational, reach and calling. But what about its modes of internationalization? Gender studies was born as such on the North American continent, and it also still draws its persuasive force and its ability to spread from the hegemonic position of the United States in the market of cultural values and the exchange of ideas. We owe it to ourselves to take this into account, to make it so that other kinds of discourse and other voices are not smothered or ignored on account of geopolitical forces that affect the intellectual field just like other fields of power. For all that, we must not deny ourselves the sources and resources at our disposal while attempting to naively privilege “Southern voices,” as though there were a pure South or a pure North, and as though all of these voices were not already deeply linked, feeding off of each other, often without admitting it, for a long time. We must simultaneously question, and draw on, all of the sources.

35Now, I come to your third and final opening question, which deals with sexual identity, and therefore with the history and the field of relevance of this notion. It’s a dated notion, in both senses of the term. It is part of an “episteme” and a history which psychoanalysis picks up on, and that Foucault analyzed as part of the apparatus of sexuality. Outside of this apparatus, and its paradigm, this would not make any sense. But it is also dated in its way of adjoining or dissolving, apparently unproblematically, identity, sex and sexuality. As for me, I come from a tradition that I would primarily qualify as deconstructive, that does not think in terms of stable identity/identities, but in terms of shifting differences—what Derrida attempted think about under the name differance with an (a), and which is used to draw into question identity and the permanence of identities. And I prefer the notion of community of experience, including sexual experience, to the notion of identity. Sociologically, the notion of identity can be useful since it takes into account sociopolitical phenomena of classification, and their potentially discriminatory effects. Strategically, I also understand that it is useful to lead certain struggles or to assert them… up to a certain limit, at which identity claims, and especially claims regarding gender and sexuality, become counterproductive. For as soon as you think in terms of identity, you substantialize, you totalize, you stabilize, you also exclude the possibility of an unpredictable transformation or shift, contrary to what the questioning of gender norms and paths of desire teaches us. We cannot make the notion of gender identity, nor its critical transformation, into gender identity, the alpha and omega of gender and sexuality’s thought or politics. Psychoanalysis, for that matter, does not think in terms of identity but rather in terms of identification, which seems more accurate to me. If the Ego is the composite sum of its identifications, how could sexual identity be homogeneous? Unless, once again, identity simply signifies social category, but then, anyway, one must question the processes of categorization and their effects.

36Rue Descartes: The title of this journal issue is “Performance, discourse and sexuality”. Would you say that the question of performance (or of gender performativity) remains as important today as it was at the moment when it was mobilized by Judith Butler upon the publication of Gender Trouble and its follow-up? Is it still as crucial?

37A.E. Berger: The notion of performance as Butler theorized it working from multiple sources—the sociology of social interaction from the United States, North American anthropology of sexuality, psychoanalysis (Lacan in particular) and his discourse of masquerade, Austinian and Derridian pragmatic analyses of discourse, European phenomenology, theatrical analysis—has a rich and composite conceptual spectrum that allowed philosophy to renew its questions without abandoning this conceptual matrix. Her latest works, on different political forms of public appearance, rely in several respects upon thought about performance as political set design, which not only speaks to a public, but also participates in the constitution of that public and its definition, in the political sphere’s sense of the word as public and in live performance’s sense of the word as audience. It seems to me that the spotlight on the notion of performance, for a long time tritely employed in Anglo-American to refer to various kinds of shows or live performances, has contributed to the development of what we now refer to using the name “artivism,” that is, forms of collective artistic intervention—thus, performances—with a political aim. There is a flourishing queer artivism. It is deployed in diverse cultural sites, but also sometimes in the streets.

38Finally, thinking about gender as performance and then making use of the notion of performance to generally reflect upon the possibility of acting in the political and social sphere so as to transform it, is associated with an attempt to, if not move past, at least formulate the antinomy between subjection and emancipation in a new way, and this attempt remains topical. Insofar as performance implies a form of action that reiterates norms and reproduces models, but can also contest them, it invites us to rethink the notion of agency. Through the notion of performance, this is also the role and the piece of the body that Butler attempted to exercise at new costs, insofar as performance assumes the active mobilization and exhibition of bodies. So of course there were, and we will continue to invent in the future, other ways of thinking about both the possibility and the limits of emancipation, but this continues, it seems to me, to produce effects in philosophical and political fields. That said, this paradigm does not take responsibility for a whole part of the analysis of subjectivizing, sexuality, desire, relationships to others and to the surrounding world, including its political dimension and effects; it remains in line with a long tradition of Western humanism. In particular, everything that we try to think about and that it is urgent to rethink today, including from a feminist or queer perspective, with regard to the position of the human within what we call its natural environment (other living species, elements that allow for the production or reproduction of living things, matter, etc., as the Anthropocene contributed to modeling or transforming them) requires other tools and other modes of analysis. It would therefore be a shame to cling exclusively.


  • [1]
    Created in 1969 under the name of Female Studies, the program received official approval from the university in 1972 under the name of Women’s Studies.
  • [2]
    On this subject, I will take the liberty of returning to my comments on the nature of resistance to the development of this field in France: “Petite histoire paradoxale des études dites ‘de genre’ en France” in Le Français aujourd’hui, N° 163, special issue “Genre, sexisme et féminisme,” 2008 / 4 (Paris: Éditions Armand Colin), p. 83-91.
  • [3]
    See “Choreographies: Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald” in Diacritics, Vol. 12, N° 2, “Cherchez la Femme Feminist Critique/Feminine Text” (Summer, 1982), p. 76.