Gender and capitalist worldmaking

We’ve reached the end of our class on gender, so it seems like the right time to finally tell you what gender is all about: worldmaking.

What do I mean, worldmaking?

What I mean is: gender holds up the world. (Is that even a metaphor?) It’s a catastrophic world for some; a liberatory world for others; it’s an ambivalent, precarious, awkward, inconvenient, effervescent world for so many of us. But in any case, inasmuch as the world is being held up at all, it’s held up by gender. NOT ONLY. But in substantial part.

One of the things that this means is that gender is not only a form of constraint, an outside “social norm,” or a harsh repressive apparatus. It is also a productive force (and a force of production); a zone of creativity and improvisation; an architecture for social dramas and a set of dramatic occasions; sometimes it’s a source of joy or, as they say these days, “euphoria.” Gender is what gives social things their color, one could say, or that shows us their depth by organizing the flow of light and of shadows. We’ve tried to bring some new things into the light. And we’ve observed that gender calls out to us (that’s what interpellation is) and it gives us a place to occupy (whether we choose to stay in it or not). We’ve investigated how gender organizes both the work of social reproduction and the social reproduction of work.

Gender as we know it here is not just worldmaking. It’s capitalist worldmaking.

Thus gender organizes the hidden work of social reproduction: childbearing, caretaking, cleaning, raising, educating, celebrating, holding people up. It’s interesting how in writing that sentence, one can say the word women without even uttering it. But of course, it is not only women, and the division of gendered labor is shifting in some important ways. You can end up with two very different images of the world if you study its historicity — that means the way that it becomes historical, the way that it is changing, the directions of its motion — and then if you study a freeze-frame of its structures — the way that everything seems to endure across space and time, the immutable principles of the system. The gender binary sometimes seems immutable, embedded in our infrastructure and even in our unconscious. Yet it seems to be shifting out from under us…

Meanwhile, gender also organizes the social reproduction of work. In a world where it sometimes seems that almost everything is commodified, gender is partly what is there to ensure that the system of commodity exchange and capital accumulation can continue, gender makes sure that we are ready for work, wakes us up on time, organizes our homes… To be able to get up and go to work is, again, to be an object: that’s what we are doing when we work for a wage, selling our labor power and ourselves as commodities.

Gender, then, makes us objects. But not all forms of objectification are equally dehumanizing. To be a mother or father or nonbinary parent is also to be a sort of object for one’s child. A “transformational object,” some psychoanalysts would call the maternal role: an object that serves to let somebody else transform herself into a subject. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be the kind of object that a caregiver is. I’m not saying it is always unalienated or unambivalent or unexploitative. But perhaps without moments of objectification, we would not be subjects either. And gender makes us subjects, organizes selves, is already there inside us. For better or worse, it preshapes our very forms of perception, the cognitive schemas that organize our gaze, our hearing, our sense of touch. And not just the raw sensory impressions themselves, but the conditions of possibility of their use. When are we allowed to look at each other, when are we asked to avert? What are we allowed to hear, or not hear? Who touches, who gets touched?

I’ve been touched by this class even though I’ve been overwhelmed by it. One of the most interesting moments for me in this class was when we talked about emotional labor and being a student. It turns out that even though this is an institution that is structurally affluent, virtually everyone here has done some form of service or care work, most of which is structurally devalorized and much of which is gendered.

People reported being asked to be “eager”, “available,” “polite,” “firm,” “infinitely available,” “neutral,” “eager to help,” “curious,” “not rude,” “vigilant,” “calming,” “nice,” “confident,” “looking fancy,” “efficient,” “authoritative or comforting” (for the EMTs).

I mean. That’s a lot of emotional work.

Meanwhile the kinds of norms that come from the school environment are fundamentally set up to encourage you to identify as the future managers of a neoliberal, precarious economy. Again, here’s what we said about being a student at this university, in 2019, in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States, in the Global North. (We are deeply situated. We are not universal.)

You must be attentive. Get good grades. Be silent. Take notes. Stay awake. Be eager. Care. Be on time. Do the work. Be competitive. Be proactive. Be curious. Participate. Be good at time management. Have “executive function.” Appear overworked. Be young. Like groupwork (which is widely loathed). Treat school as top priority. Everything is a means to an end. Don’t question authority. Accept that the person who grades you is right even if they’re not…

These norms might seem natural to you, or not. As an outsider, I think this list of requirements is utterly overwhelming and bewildering. It asks you to accept multiple forms of domination and discipline. But you are also supposed to stay enterprising, optimistic and productive, and to take on the burden of filling in for any failures in the institution. You’re supposed to be intensely entrepreneurial but docile, you perform agency and enthusiasm but obediently, and your instrumentalism is without bounds.

In an important way, the norms of being a student draw on the sorts of emotional labor that many of you have had to perform in other jobs. But they add to it the possibility of having some power, authority, status, and institutional agency. It also seems to offer you the possibility of leaving behind the sorts of service work that you have previously done so as to aspire to something “better” or at least different (in that omnipresent future that is infinitely deferred).

This whole scenario fills me with existential questions about what I am doing as a teacher. And about what you must be doing as students…

But again, the class is really not about giving you answers or even a settled theory of how gender and social reproduction work. It’s about sensitizing you to questions. Who are we such that we think about gender? (To think about gender is already gendered…) Whose desire animates a space, whose fantasy? (Whose desire animates this classroom? Mine? Yours? No one’s because we are all too exhausted and alienated?) Whose perspective is this? Who is at the center of this scene, who is marginal? Who is working and who is on the slack?

As I speak, I’m working, but I’m not sure from whose perspective I’m speaking. I’ve ended up feeling like the problem with teaching this class is that it is hard to really be present because we are always asked to be instrumental, always asked to be projecting into the future. (That’s true for teachers too: we are also supposed to be always instrumental.) Of course, there’s a reason why we aren’t always present: the present can be a bad place to be. My heart goes out to those of you who are stressed and overwhelmed and struggling with dilemmas, structural and otherwise. I’m sure I don’t know about most of them. I still respect the fact that people are going through things that aren’t going to come out in a classroom, at least this classroom, maybe any classroom.

Teaching, again, is a lot about emotional labor too. And scenes of failed reproduction. I’ve learned a lot about failure as a teacher here. I’ve gone home and felt crushed by having said something that was wrong or inadequate or just bad for our mood. I’ve talked too much and watched people get worn out by the noise of my own voice. I’ve never taught this class before, you know, and so I’ve also learned a lot about which readings work and which don’t, which sequences of ideas work and which ones are too abstract, which assignments produce good results and which ones… produce meh.

At the same time, this class has been the first time I’ve ever been comfortable presenting in a feminine way at work. For all its other problems, I’m grateful to the university environment for that. A class on gender seems like a fitting place for that.

It’s a strange day for me (as a worker) because this might be the last class I ever teach; I don’t have another academic job lined up, and I literally can’t afford to keep being a precarious academic because I have kids to feed and this economy is not working. I sort of love teaching even though I’m still working on not being bad at it. And this isn’t a class about me, but I’m a social symptom too (I encourage you to learn less from what I say than from my obvious contradictions). I think it always matters who the teacher is, and I think teachers owe you some kind of accountability or at least some self-analysis. I owe you that. It’s strange, because next week I’m leaving Cleveland — the work here is done — and literally I may never set foot here again. That’s what precarious academic work looks like right now: a long trail of absences. I wish I had been able to do a better job of teaching this material to you all. But I’m still grateful that I got the chance to try. Good luck with the end of the semester.


That’s it, class is over, I know you’re all busy, you’re all free to go now.