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Fr. 683

November 12, 2015

In a separate post from novelty, Green takes time to comment on the recent Germaine Greer controversy. Therein, Green reframes and reaffirms Greer’s propos about the man-woman binary by bringing attention to the constructions underlying sex and gender. Of gender in particular, he remarks that “it is path dependent“. By this, Green intends to designate a special relationship or continuity between a being’s past and present states:

To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present. In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

If we bracket for a moment Green’s broader goals of vindication, we can more carefully consider this relationship of path dependency and its further application to other areas. In general, we might surmise that any relation under which the application of a term or category hinges on the continuity between prior causal states and the present instance of application would fall under this notion. More particularly, we could describe this relation in a number of ways, among them, coherentist, contextualist or, perhaps best, holist. Although this does not entirely account for the relation’s temporal extension or diachronicity, as the others suggest synchronic relations, this would suffice to capture the notion of coherency between different states, be they temporally distinct or otherwise.

Green recognizes something of the sort when he continues:

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

Again bracketing, Green’s analysis suggests further applications to self and identity in that the person’s earlier temporal states cannot simply be jettisoned in this way. A change from one orientation to another does not make the other disappear. For there are no complete revolutions in self; the work, like that of the bricoleur, is one of years and with the materials at hand. As these states remain with you and are cognitively available, at least to some extent, we can consider the form under which they remain available to be (an approximation of) “self”. Indeed, self would be path-dependent in just this way.

It is perhaps worthwhile to recall Green’s concluding remarks on the controversy:


But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

If there are no complete revolutions in self, the fact remains that there can be partial. Neither self nor identity should be built up as a prison for the person living them. Yet it is incumbent on those considering these matters to acknowledge the risks of totalizing logics in such a domain.

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