- Fall 2002, Vol. 11, No. 1 (requires
Gender, Sexuality, and Cultural
An Interview with John Sloop and Carolyn Dever
The 2002/2003 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, Gender, Sexuality,
and Cultural Politics, explores interdisciplinary approaches to
issues of gender and sexuality, in the academy as well as in public
policy and more general cultural contexts. Now at the twentieth anniversary
of Foucaults History of Sexuality, Vol.1, and the tenth
anniversary of Judith Butlers Gender Trouble, gender and
sexuality studies reside at an indeterminate locus at the nexus of the
humanities, sciences, social sciences, and legal studies. In particular,
this seminar will investigate the evolution of gender and sexuality
studies, pursuing such diverse topics as queer studies, masculinity
and transgender issues, feminist work in linguistics, biology, and overlapping
constructions of race and gender. This years participants come
from a wide range of academic disciplines, including English, French,
philosophy, history, womens studies, communication studies, political
science, and American studies. The programs co-directors are Carolyn
Dever, associate professor of English, and John M. Sloop, associate
professor of communication studies. In a recent interview with Letters,
Professors Dever and Sloop discussed the new program, its relation
to their current research, and some of the larger issues their on-going
discussions will engage.
Letters: This Fellows program has its roots in a more
informal gender and sexuality discussion group that came together several
years ago. Could you tell us about this group and how it has evolved
into the current program?
Dever: Vanderbilt has a strong cohort of researchers in different
departments working intensively on questions of gender and sexuality
and, in many cases, on lesbian and gay sexuality within a feminist and
gender-studies framework. Two years ago, to support this research and
the various feminist initiatives already taking place on the campus,
faculty members working in this field started a discussion group. The
group has served as a forum for the sharing of our current projects,
as well as an idea bank for these works in progress. It has been a tremendous
resource for all of us, and John Sloop and I decided at the end of last
year that we should formalize this project and propose a Warren Center
Fellows program. What excites me about this particular seminar is precisely
this history of substantive intellectual engagement and also
Sloop: In attempting to interface with other scholars in the
field, I saw a unique problem for myself and for my colleagues in the
communication studies department. Its a small department, and
one of the things I thought about was how we could interact with people
from other departments. I missed what I had in graduate schoolthe
excitement of all these ideas coming together. This working group has
recreated this atmosphere of collaborative learning. All of the members
have been so generous with their ideas. There is never any hostility
Letters: You mention in your proposal that we are currently
facing a watershed moment in gender and sexuality studies. Could you
say a bit about the history of scholarly work in this field and point
to some of the new directions the field might be taking?
Dever: We are at a moment in the scholarly discourse of gender and
sexuality that is very rich and that will be focused in interesting
new ways in the next few years, and were trying to become a part
of that. About ten years ago, there were several extremely important
publications in gender studies and queer theory. Queer theory
was a new theoretical term at that moment; it was introduced as a kind
of post-feminist AIDS-era homophilic approach to the analysis of culture,
and it took root in the academy and in activist contexts very intensively
around the beginning of the 1990s. It has matured in very important
ways and is still
a significant discourse in the academy. It has opened up many questions,
but its not yet clear to me what the new directions for scholarship
are going to be. We were trained at the moment of the genesis of this
discourse, and now we have to figure out what the big questions for
the next ten years are going to be.
Sloop: I think something that Carolyn just said is very important
to thinking about why this will be such an exciting group of people.
Were talking about all types of very fluid, and very contested,
areas in engaging these topics. What we are referring to in speaking
of gender or sexuality embraces all of these
terms and practices, and there is a lot of contestation and theoretical
transition that makes this a very exciting moment, not only within the
academy, but as she said, in political activism as well. We have people
in this group who have talked with and worked with activists and indeed,
have been activists, and all of that excitement will be with our group.
Also, in terms of interdisciplinary work, these participating scholars
are mostly very young in their fields and are coming out of the excitement
of the beginnings of the field, ten years ago.
Letters: This years Fellows program, like past Fellows
programs, involves a rigorous interdisciplinary discussion of issues.
What are some of the challenges that such a discussion presents? What
are the fault lines, points of contention? Are there moments at which
the interdisciplinary nature of the discussion makes communication break
Dever: It is interesting to think about interdisciplinary discussion
in two important and different ways: the first involves the nature of
academic work itself and it gets to something that John was just saying
about our desire as scholars to be thinking in political ways and to
be engaging with practices of activism. Since we are a group of scholars
working in an academic context, one of the translations that were
going to need to make, one of the frames that well need to break,
and one of the borders that well need to cross, is the border
between academic and activist work. We will also need to think about
how we constitute ourselves as academics, and how our academic work
can be in conversation with activist work at the same time. I anticipate
that the interdisciplinary nature and diversity of the group will prove
to be tremendously enriching. Most of the group members have already
been working together for the past two years in the ongoing discussion
group we were just talking about, and the disciplinary range has enriched
Sloop: Sometimes interdisciplinary friction can result when scholars
have different approaches to supporting their argumentsfor example,
the employment of a quantitative approach versus a qualitative approach.
Many productive discussions can come out of these different types of
methodological assumptions, but occasionally they can bog down discussion.
This year, we have the advantage of having common roots, in particular,
our familiarity with the seminal works of the early 1990s that Carolyn
mentioned earlier. Our methodologies might be a little different, but
we have enough assumptions in common that we probably will not have
difficulty interfacing. One of the differences, though, that I do want
to mention is the fact that we come from different sexual identities
and gender experiences. This is important to this group because of the
link between our work and our political activism. I am expecting that
well have some very productive friction in the course
of our discussion.
Letters: It seems that all the Fellows understand their
work as part of an activist agenda. How do you understand your own work
in the field of gender and sexuality as shaping current politics and
what are some of the critical debates?
Dever: I have a book that is coming our shortly, entitled
Feminism in Theory: The Practice of Abstraction. It is in some sense
a reconsideration of academic feminist theory in conjunction with activist
feminist theories from the period of the womens liberation movement.
Part of what interests me about this period is its archive. Im
looking at lots of activist documentation from the early 1970s that
hasnt really been examined with respect to literary contexts,
such as neighborhood newsletters, flyers, circulars, and group manifestos.
These are integral to my book and are juxtaposed as theoretical texts
with theoretical texts that would be more familiar to a contemporary
academic audience. Part of what Im trying to do as a means of
linking activist and academic work is to historicize how we think about
activism by thinking about theories of activism as theories of interpretation
and theories of politics. I want to bring the terms activist
and academic more intimately together as a way of thinking
about them, how they constitute each other, and how they talk to each
other. My sense is that there has been an enormous amount of interest
in the academy around projects that are similarly working to historicize
Sloop: The book that Im currently working on is a series of
contemporary case studies of gender trouble. I focus on
such issues as trans-genderism, sexual identity, and other debates that
trouble people and get talked about in mass media and discourse. One
thing Im trying to do in this book is to expose the stability
of all of our categories in mass culture, not as a means of implying
that they cannot be changedfor obviously thats what activism
is all aboutbut rather, to raise questions about how much room
for optimism we have in being able to change the meanings of terms in
categories that already exist. Thats one source of tension that
always gets played out among the more optimistic critics, who think
that it is easy to push borders, and others who focus on constraints.
Recently, Ive been reading essays from a collection of historical
cases that my colleague in the communication studies department, Charles
E. Morris, is putting together in a volume called Queering Public
Address. One of the draft essays, by Dana Cloud of the University
of Texas, Austin, exhibits this type of theoretical or critical tension.
Cloud questions the value of going back in history and trying to reclaim
certain figures as queer, gay, or lesbian. Her argument is that it is
not worthwhile to go back and reclaim, for example, Eleanor Roosevelt,
because Roosevelt never made a public statement about being lesbian.
Instead of doing such projects, she suggests that we should be focusing
on policy and the present.
Dever: I think that right now in gender studies, queer theory,
and feminism, that we are at a moment when people are doing very interesting
work on questions of globalization, human rights, postmodernism, and
raceespecially in the postcolonial context. I think that in the
next few years were going to see this global perspective occupying
a more and more central place in discourses of gender. In early discourses,
in trying to understand, for example, what the identity of the womans
movement might potentially bethat is to say, what its objects
of analysis or objects of activism might beit was very difficult,
and to some extent remains very challenging, to simultaneously analyze
issues of race, issues of gender, and issues of sexuality. The terms
are asymmetrical relative to one another, and they operate differently,
but they are crucial. Its very important to keep them all in play,
fairly, at the same time.
Sloop: Ive been thinking about these issues since Jennifer
Terry, a visiting speaker from the comparative studies department at
Ohio State, met with our workshop last year. Ive been listening
to these claims about where we need to go, and what our work needs to
be saying and doing. I tend to think of our work not in terms of what
Im writing, or what any of the members of this group are writing,
but in terms of the work of the critical community as a whole. In that
mosaic, I think, all of this needs to be worked out.
Dever: Our Visiting Fellow, Lisa Duggan, who is in the American
studies program at New York University, is somebody who is working to
bring discourses of race, gender, and sexuality together. Her book,
Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence and American Modernity, is an
excellent example of those efforts. The book shell be working
on next year with us is about Jesse Helms and the origins of a political
stance in the U.S. that is based on hate. Her work demonstrates how
homophobia and racism have been fused in public discourse. She is someone
who will be very important to the way in which we as a group are attentive
to intersections of race and sexuality. Another member of the program,
Brooke Ackerly, who is a new faculty member in the political science
department, is currently at work on a book on human rights in a global
context. Most of us are in humanities departments or in humanistically
inclined social science departments, so I think Brookes more empirical
work on matters of social justice will bring a fresh perspective to
Sloop: What Lisa [Duggan] is doing with class in Sapphic Slashers
has been very important to me in thinking about one of the cases that
Im working on. One of her arguments is that people have understood
lesbian relationships as being disruptive of domestic spaceswhite,
middle-class and upper-class homes. As I was looking at a case of what
we would now call trans-genderism from the same period, I found that
I was focusing almost entirely on identity issues in terms of sexuality
and gender while overlooking, to some extent, issues of social status.
After working through Duggans book, I realized that one of the
sub-themes that was running throughout this case was the way in which
lesbianism compromises status. The subject of this case, Lucy Lobdell,
had lived like a man and ended up marrying a woman named Marie-Louise
Perry, who was of the Boston Perrys. There was this casting
of Marie-Louise Perry as the normal partner in the relationship,
and much discussion about the wealthy family she came from, how she
gave up her inheritance, and how lesbianism had led to the downfall
of a proper woman. Its a thing that wasnt blatantly
exposed in the context of the casenone of the doctors were saying
these things explicitlybut the allusions were definitely there.
Letters: Do you think that the current scholarship
in the field speaks to the experiences of people of the lower classes?
Dever: Its a tension with any theory that pretends to talk
about a category like gender. Even a category such as women,
which seems coherent to us, is an utter failure. There is absolutely
no way that any body of theoretical work could possibly account for
all kinds of experience. I think there are two things that are important
to realize from that failure: the first of those is that we must be
constantly aware of the limitations of our theory, and keep going back
dialectically and working in a corrective fashion. Second, we must be
cognizant of blinders, such as the issue of class or status that John
was just speaking to, that might erase particular categories within
the category of women altogether without even realizing it. I see any
theoryand feminist theory in particularas requiring this
Letters: You have referred in your proposal to work being
done in legal studies and medicine, and the ways in which gender and
sexuality scholarship is responding to current issues in these fields.
In what ways do you see the field of gender and sexuality shaping medical
research and funding or legal decisions?
Dever: I see the most profound areas of overlap in the discourse
of Critical Legal Studies, which is small but vibrant. What Critical
Legal Studies shares with the kind of scholarly work we do in humanities
centers is an investment in the kind of post-structural discourse, to
which such theorists and philosophers as Jacques Derrida and Michel
Foucault have been important. There is a sense in which Critical Legal
Studies and post-structuralism in the humanities are concerned with
a similar deconstructive impulsethe fact that there is no essential
subject for example.
Sloop: I agree with you, although when I heard the question I
immediately thought of the impact in a courtroom and in the writing
of law. I think that Critical Legal Studies has some impulse towards
that. But in terms of medical research and medical decisions, I sometimes
find myself questioning our impact as scholars. Is progress being made
in these fields because of the work were doing? Im not quite
sure. But its true that there have been people in the academy
who have been writing about medical research and engaging in medical
discussions about gender study (for example, what we should do with
intersexed children) for quite some time. If I ask what has led to the
major changes in policy, major changes in doctors discussing these issuesor
in some cases, being forced to discuss these issues I do think
that its due in part to the type of work that we are doing, particularly
the big discussions, such as the John/Joan Twins case, for instance.
Dever: Im thinking about an organization like HRC (Human
Rights Campaign), a lesbian and gay advocacy organization, which is
working through legal channels and through political action. I dont
think their members are necessarily familiar with our scholarship, but
were working on similar issues. Were not necessarily familiar
with their specific work products either, but were clearly all
working on the same projects, just from different ends.
Sloop: I agree, and I think that indirectly, as we take part
in the evolution of this discursive community, this will lead to the
change in assumptions in the medical and legal arena.
Dever: Take for example, someone who is working in medicine like
Anne Fausto-Sterling, whose book, Sexing the Body: Gender, Politics,
and the Construction of Sexuality, is informed by work like ours,
but isnt written for us exclusively.
Sloop: I was reading an interview with Fausto-Sterling in which
she said that she didnt think she had any influence in changing
anyones mind until she wrote an article that appeared as an editorial
in the March 1993 edition of the New York Times, entitled How
Many Sexes Are There? She identifies this moment as the one in
which she entered a conversation that might function to change medical
discourse. Its almost as if these communities are impenetrable
until mass media discourse forces them to talk about the issues up front.
Letters: Could you say more about the John/Joan Twins
case that you are currently working on?
Sloop: The Twins Case is a fairly famous case that engages the
issue of what to do with intersexed childrenchildren with ambiguous
genitalia. There is an excellent account of it in John Colapintos
book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, a
profoundly sad work that recounts the psychological problems that Joanwho
now calls himself David Remierhad during the experience
of being raised as a girl. This has obviously always been a troubling
question for physicians and parents. One of the major studies, one that
has affected for years what has been done with these children, was conducted
by John Money, a sex psychologist at John Hopkins. His arguments were
very cut and dried at the time; Moneys theory was that gender
was completely socially constructed. He believed that the sexual identity
of the physical matter of any body could be constructed simply by raising
it as male or female. He thought, for example, that if we took a boy
and crafted a vagina for him, and raised him as a girl, he would become
a girl. In his argument, it was very clear that he was maintaining gender
stereotypes while at the same time claiming that gender was socially
constructed. His theory and its supporters seemed peripheral until the
very celebrated John/Joan Twins Case came about in 1967. In this case,
one member of a set of twins had his penis accidentally severed during
circumcision. The mother, not knowing what to do, saw John Money on
television discussing gender transition and was persuaded by his arguments.
Ultimately, she had her sons penis removed and raised him as a
girl. Money did not stay in touch with the family, but over the years,
he claimed this experiment as a phenomenal success. Other physicians
looked upon Money as the guru in the field and accepted
his experiment as evidence that we can do anything sexually. Unfortunately
Joan experienced great difficulty being raised this way.
Upon finding out that he was born a boy, he made the transition back
into being a male. One of the things that I was interested in studying
was the way in which this experiment was taken over by other physicians.
For instance, Milton Diamond, a biologist at the University of Hawaii,
thought that this case proved John Moneys ideas to be an absolute
failure. As he would argue, gender and sex are hard-wired into the brain
and there is no room for transition. What seems clear, though, is that
both Money and Diamond had very un-nuanced theories of what gender is.
Diamonds theory, though supported through the evidence of this
case, had a rather disturbing essentialist argument built back into
Dever: Clearly, in medical circles, questions about the location
of gender are as germane as in communication studies or English. These
are always questions of interpretation, questions about bodies, what
bodies do, what bodies are intended to do, and how the social world
constructs bodies. The meaning of what a body is, however, is
always a matter of interpretation.
Sloop: Yes, this seems true, and in fact a lot of physicians
and medical researchers understand this, but unfortunately in mass media
discourse this gets lost. The way that bodies are talked about always
becomes a This-Is-What-It-Is issue.
Dever: Except when definitions conflict with each other, as in
the Twins case, in which one physician believed he could make anyone
any gender he wanted to, while the other believed gender to be hard-wired
in the brain. Thats a very interesting conflict, because it presents
two declarative, authoritative statements that are directly opposed
to each other.
Sloop: Yes, but whichever side of it you took, what it meant
to be male or what it meant to be female were ultimately the same. The
evidence givenwhat kind of toys did the person play with, what
kinds of clothing did they wear, what did they like to doultimately
supported a narrow construction of categories. Money and Diamond agreed
on the categories: this is what a man does, this is what a woman does,
this is what boys do and girls do. Even though Money took a socially
constructed stance to gender, he certainly wasnt troubling it.
Dever: Was anything done to Joan other than the alteration of
Sloop: Yes, they had started hormone treatment, but the child
refused to take it sometimes and was never comfortable with taking it.
But perhaps what is most interesting about the account presented in
Colapintos book, and in all of the articles that responded to
it, was that everything about this childs life was used by Colapinto
solely as evidence of the failure of Moneys experiment. So, in
the end, Colapintos discourse, which essentially matches all the
other public discourse, does not present a very nuanced argument at
all. We are lucky, though, to have the expanded perspective of the current
medical discourse on intersexed children. Activist Cheryl Chase, whose
efforts preceded those of Colapinto and who has now become fairly well
known, had petitioned against physicians doing surgery on intersexed
children. She suggested that parents of children with ambiguous genitalia
refrain from doing anything. But no one would listen to her until Colapintos
book came out. While it took a major case for Cheryl Chase to have any
impact, she has been in conversation with academics for years. She is
doing the kind of work where we see this type of interfacing between
activists and the academy. In fact, shes editing a book right
now with Alice Domurat Dreger, who has written about the history of
hermaphrodites and intersexed people in her book, Hermaphrodites
and the Medical Invention of Sex. Chase is trying to bring the voices
of these people, historically and in the present, into that work. Through
her efforts, were seeing the combination of public activism and
academic activism that is so important.
Letters: You mentioned earlier, Carolyn, the relationship
of your current book to the concept of archives. Could you say a bit
more about the kind of archive that we are building for future scholars
of gender and sexuality?
Dever: Constructing an archive in lesbian and gay history can
be exhilarating and it can also be challenging, because there isnt
always a lot of material there. You cant construct an archive
of silence, and sometimes what you are confronted with is silence. Similarly,
constructing an archive of aspects of the womens liberation movement,
as Im trying to do in this book, is really challenging because
much of the activist literature of the period has gone unrecorded. We
dont have the utterancesthe records of what people did on
the streetsand that creates a historical archive in the context
of memory, but not necessarily within the context of paper. This brings
us to the kinds of questions that we are constructing now. I have a
friend who is a librarian in a collection in New York City that specializes
in nineteenth-century British fiction and contemporary American literature
from the 1960s and 1970s. He has told me that being an archivist as
a profession is very strange, because computers and technology are changing
the nature of the archive altogether. We no longer have draft manuscripts
because we save over them every time we save a document. So, what counts
as data from this historical moment has yet to be figured out. This
is, of course, one of the points that Judith Halberstam [professor of
English literature, University of California, San Diego] is making,
though from a different perspective, in her current work on the Brandon
Teena archive. She is interrogating the larger presumption of the archive.
Its really important to understand what the assumptions of any
coherent body of knowledge are, and to closely consider what is being
included and what might be eluding any archival project.
Sloop: Exactly. Part of our job as academics is to look at the
public archive and challenge that archive. There is very important work
to be done in building archives, especially with the sort of material
that gets lost. Conversations are lost, and so there is the matter of
trying to help people build their memoirs. In terms of archival work
though, we must be as comprehensive as possible when researching any
case, finding every scrap of that discourse, and understanding the themes
and assumptions we make as a culture.
Letters: Could you say more about the positive and negative
aspects of the dissemination of information through the mass media?
Sloop: Id like to have something optimistic to say, although
Im at a point where Im fairly pessimistic. When I think
of traditional mass media or electronic media, television, or film,
Im optimistic about the fact that issues are being raised. I know
that transitions are always ongoing. Im not an ironclad Althuserrianthere
is always room for transition. But Im pessimistic as well, because
much of the time our common-sense assumptions get repeated. Mass media
has to appeal to mass consumers, so therefore it caters to their assumptions.
This is what John Fiske [professor of communication arts at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison] has referred to as ideological claw-back.
He uses the metaphor of a bucket of lobstersif one of them tries
to climb out, the other ones are always there to pull it back in. New
ideas, configurations of being or different ways of representation,
dont completely shut down, but in order to be popular, they have
to fit common sense assumptions. Im at heart a McLuhanitenot
a media-determinist, but one who has been influenced heavily by Marshall
McLuhans workand I do think that new modes of communication
alter our ontology and epistemology and our common-sense assumptions.
Ten years ago I was more optimistic, as many other critics were, because
I thought that we could play with gender, sexuality, and racesee
them as performativeand ultimately deconstruct them. But I think
that its clear to almost anyone who looks, critics such as Lisa
Nakamura [assistant professor of English at Sonoma State University]
for example, and others who in looking at this discourse have seen a
rigidification of stereotypes, that in performing identities, we reify
them. If I see anything positive coming out of these new modes of communication
its the fact that political activists have a much easier time
cohering around these spaces. Cheryl Chase has said that with access
to the internet she was able to build a coalition that she could never
have built otherwise, because the intersexed community is very small
in some sense. Building a coalition via the internet forms new identifications,
new categories, new communitiesthats a positive aspect.
But if we put media in this material culture, Ive very pessimistic.
The internet has, if anything, turned me back to a very base Marxism
in a sense.
Dever: Id like to consider these issues pedagogically as a
means of understanding how to create an optimistic vision out of something
somewhat pessimistic. I just recently finished an undergraduate feminist
theory course; most of the students had taken Johns gender trouble
course. Some of the most interesting and empowering work they did on
their final projects involved the analysis of various media outlets.
A few students worked on magazines, a few worked on topics involving
televisionone student produced a really good paper on Sex
in the City and one or two others were working on internet
topics. These students were just beginning to get a sense of the kinds
of analysis that feminist theory made possible, and the media-oriented
approach worked extremely well as a means of helping them to articulate
a position. In watching these undergraduate students try to figure out
for themselves how the analysis of gender and sexuality might work in
their worlds, it became clear that pop culture gave them something to
push off against.
Sloop: Pedagogically, one of the reasons why its easy for
me to have popular courses is because I teach mass media. No matter
what analytical approach I take, or what tool Im providing the
students with, its something that they are familiar with, and
its something they can work from. Its intuitive for them.
Teaching them to analyze these resources in new ways has been exciting.
No longer do they succumb to common sense assumptions. Im very
optimistic about this. Its in considering how the mass media operates
organically, without our helping people to intervene that I become pessimistic.
This semester, I had students doing analyses and building web-sites
that helped to deconstruct some of these things Im talking about.
I teach a course called Communication Culture and Consciousness
which is a media ecology course. This course used to be so exciting,
the students would come in every day excited about the possibility of
new communities, of new forms of democracy, of trans-nationalism, and
the throwing off of borders. There was this intense excitement about
connections and links and for a brief moment, this sort of Haraway cyborg
utopia. But within three years the assumptions the students had come
into the class with, changed. When I first started teaching the course,
there were no web browsers, now theyve been using browsers forever,
and the students work with the new media just like its the same
old song. And of course, its not.
For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.
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