Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Hillary and the gay marriage debate, or, The endless fight for solidity

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton sat down with the Human Rights Campaign. Marriage, she said, is "a fundamental building block of our society", turning what is generally a criticism of gay marriage into a argument for it. You can see the same turn when a republican senator's son came out, prompting him to adopt the pro-gay "stability" stance, albeit with an edge of self-reflection

When Maria Miller, culture secretary and the conservative MP for Basingstoke, gave her statement to parliament on the gay marriage bill, she ended it on a similar note, arguing for marriage through suggesting that it is what provides institutional foundation:

"...Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have. It binds families and society together. It is a building block that promotes stability."

When I mentioned Miller's statement to my students a few weeks ago when we were studying Zymunt Bauman, I asked them what they thought this might suggest. Social theory teaching always works much better if I can get students to transpose abstract thought onto topical matters. Marriage is, fundamentally, fundamental. It offers solidity. That's why it's called an institution. It's an anchor of economic stability - it is as much a practical decision as it is a romantic one. By extending that to gay people, "it promotes stability", as Miller says. The fluidity of life today - go where the jobs are, meet people online - sits in direct tension with an institution like marriage. 

As the liquidity of contemporary living subsumes tradition, the project of marriage - our inclination and ability to commit- becomes gradually more precarious. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about trends in British divorce statistics. Gay marriage, though, and Cameron's inclination to push it through, seems just as relevant. If we can look at the ongoing espousal of marriage through a lens of pragmatism - that it is, almost solely, a practical move on the part of the government - I think we get closer to the truth than Clegg and Cameron can with their turgid ramblings about love.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Pared Planethood, or, Men and Women are From Earth

The existence of vague boundaries is normal: most of us are neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. Sexual
physiology is unusually abrupt in its divisions. (Ian Hacking in Making Up People: 164)

RAW Story posted a news piece last month about an upcoming journal article called "Men and Women Are From Earth: Examining the Latent Structure of Gender". It's a quantitative study and the statistics are, as so often is the case in psychological literature, rather too dense to wade through without my SPSS bible to hand. You can access a early-publication copy of Carothers and Reis' article here.

Using a variety of secondary data sets, the authors undertake an analysis of a host of normative aspects of gender recognition (what they quite amusingly call "symptoms"). 

... it will be important to think of these variables as continuous dimensions that people possess to some extent, and that may be related to sex, among whatever other predictors there may be. Of course, the term sex differences is still completely reasonable. In a dimensional model, differences between men and women reflect all the causal variables known to be associated with sex, including both nature and nurture. But at least with regard to the kinds of variables studied in this research, grouping into “male” and “female” categories indicates overlapping continuous distributions rather than natural kinds. (17, accessible here.)

I find myself particularly intrigued by the efforts of academics from different disciplines to enter in the gender debate. I'm so firmly ensconced in queer theory on these matters that it's quite easy to lose myself in the abstraction of Butler's philosophy. She argues that we are all in the midst of a matrix of cultural intelligibility, perceiving one another through an inescapable framework of normativity. It's nice to have some numbers that, whilst certainly not explicity backing up my beliefs, feed into the wider argument that gender is much more fruitfully thought of as a dynamic continuum of existences.

nb.  the title of this post comes from a hilarious quip tweeted by indefatigable humourist Megan Amram last month.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

speculation and ancestral genetics

A BBC News article published today offers its readers an interesting counter-argument to the burgeoning array of private enterprises offering potential customers a genetic recounting of their ancestry.

"The DNA ancestry tests appeal to our interest in our family trees. However, our DNA is not the story of our family tree. It is a mosaic of genetic sequences that have been inherited via many different ancestors. With every generation you (nearly) double your number of ancestors because every individual has two parents – going back just 10 generations (200-300 years) you are likely to have around a thousand ancestors. We don’t have to look back very far in time before we each have more ancestors than we have sections of DNA, and this means we have ancestors from whom we have inherited no DNA." - from Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing

What we might understand as an infinite regression conundrum in ancestry testing is only one issue in this discussion. As Dana Fullwiley points out in a 2008 article for Genewatch, margins of error in genetic testing technologies can lead to the bizarre possibility of "artificial ancestry", wherein an erroneous ancestral claim can be made about an individual. This brings to light the obscure tension between what we consider to be the reality of our origins are epistemologically, the tools we adopt to determine it, and the inherently speculative nature of ancestry testing.

"Genetic ancestry testing presents a simplified view of the world where everyone belongs to a group with a label, such as ‘Viking’ or ‘Zulu’. But people’s genetics don’t reflect discrete groups. Even strong cultural boundaries, such as between the Germanic and Romance language groups in Europe, do not have very noticeable genetic differences. The more remote and less-populated parts of the UK, such as the Scottish Highlands, do have some genetic differences from the bulk of the population, but they are not big. There is no such thing as a ‘Scottish gene’. Instead groups show a story of gradual genetic change and mixing." - from Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing

We might aso think about the incongruence of claims made by groups of people, and the claims produced by the ancestral genetic testing that is undertaken on them. (check out Sharp and Foster's 2002 article where they argue that in genetic research dealing with "populations of which individual donors are members  means that all  members of those populations may be affected by research findings, including those who did not consent to or take part in the resource” [p. 847]). A challenge of an individual or their collective's world view raises a host of ethical issues.

I've also been thinking quite a lot recently about the renewal of classificatory boundaries of identity through genetic testing. The quote above invokes concepts akin to "genetic drift" and "admixture". I wonder how molecular science is reconstituting specifically social, cultural and/or religious groupings through this language. That's not to say that the science is inherently "wrong". I don't know that research in this area can be right or wrong when it's a matter as speculative as ancestry. It's simply a matter of recognising that who we choose to be is determined by so many different things, and an genetic ancestry tool is one such thing.

Amazing stuff.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Week 2: Bauman, Week 4: Foucault, Week 7: Sennett, Week 8: all of the women

This week: feminism. Every other week had a bloke’s name for the title, and a chapter from their book to read and discuss. But this week? Feminism. I asked my students what they thought of this. They astutely noted that apart from me – the only female seminar tutor – the entire social theory course was taught by men, teaching content written by other men.

I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. There’s every reason to expose the students to Bauman, Foucault, Latour and so forth. But what of Butler or Haraway? I can think of a great lot of female theorists who would’ve been just as pertinent as  core reading for the biopolitics and biocapital week. What about Waldby? Cooper? This is something to take up when we evaluate the course at the end of the year.

It’s not about apportioning blame, I argued. Rather, it’s looking toward the systemic issue at play. We had a good discussion about this – my classes were mainly female, and we forecasted that maybe a social theory course in twenty years’ time would have some of their writings being taught to first years. Who can say!

Once we'd gotten the deep and meaningfuls out of the way, I introduced my students to Laura Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze, before deconstructing a Lynx advert, and the formulaic TV show “Take Me Out” which I’ve seen perhaps twice but that my students apparently watch all the time (when they don’t have work, they say, rather than instead of work…)

Apart from women's sexualisation, subservient to male sexual whim, we also unpicked the problematic reduction of men to the "end of the world, all I want to do is get laid" sentiment. We also had a discussion about whether it was heteronormative. Why, I asked, aren’t there any videos of guys spraying themselves and having other men leg it towards them? Somebody suggested that it was because there are more straight guys than gay, so it's marketed towards them. 

This lead on to a discussion of whether heteronormativity perpetuates straight sexual identities, or whether because people are generally straight, the worlds around them have become heteronormative. I wanted to get into John D'Emilio's thesis in Capitalism and Gay Identity from "Making Trouble" which could've brought us back to Marx, Engels and (re)production of the working classes. Alas, there are but sixty minutes in an hour...