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Lecture: Can Sex Be Expressed?

Lecture: Can Sex Be Expressed? [Sprache: Englisch]
// mit Jules Gleeson

24.11.2022; 5:45 pm

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Meeting-ID: 931 9953 8077

This lecture will offer a rejoinder to gender nihilist positions through establishing the expressive face of sex, a set of qualities which I take to be obscured both by “performative” approaches prevalent in gender studies since the early 1990s, and a more recent trans theory tendency to twin plasticity with racialisation.

I argue that accepting sex’s lability (or mutability) is most easily achieved through integrating insights from semantic pragmatism. A logically expressivist approach can let us better grasp how what is later taken to be “fixed” qualities of sex are originally set in place. Interventions to manipulate sex (whether endocrinological, sartorial, or whatever else) cannot be set apart from the vying sets of normative terms deployed to guide and delimit these efforts.

This view of expressiveness recognises the pragmatic aspect of both bodily measures taken to reshape sex, and the conceptual terms which interlock with them. Like any other exploration of natural history, discussing sex proceeds through normative communities establishing themselves through use of shared terms. Whatever the immutable or “forever set” qualities of sex are, they only come to be itemised as such through a process of normative assertion, and (often tenuous) consensus. The consequence is vying community levels understanding which vary depending on participation (or non-participation) in the wide range of ethical experiments that have come to focus on manipulation of sexual difference. This expressive approach to understanding normative assertion better allows us to grasp both the potential and limits of reshaping sex.

Particular reference will be made to clinical treatment of intersex people, following the work of theorists including Iain Morland. My hope is to show that these cases of routinised harm demonstrate the potential for expressiveness to be exactly the means of oppression: due to the limits of plasticity, potential forms can be “overwritten”. If we understand surgeries as writing (as Morland does) we come to understand also how hate speech might be etched across our physiques. More hopefully, I’ll consider the (dark yet playful) appropriation of clinical terms by the early intersex liberation movement, to demonstrate how savviness towards rival vocabularies can be used for emancipatory ends.