… or how Bessora shatters the notion of biological determinism!
The French word genre [gender]is a derivative of the Latin word genus, generis: it is connected to the idea of origin, or birth.
To say gender is to refer to category or class, in other words a homogeneous whole. And in the case of humans, this homogeneity is often defined biologically or pseudo-biologically: the first meaning attributed to Genre by le Petit Robert is that of Race, even if this is defined by the more general meaning of genre humain [humankind].
Genre is hence heavily impregnated with the notion of biological determinism.
Apart from Race, Sex is another arena for this organic fatalism: the fact of being a man or a woman, like that of being black or white, is often thought to determine certain modes of behaviour: a black person is lazy just as a Jewish person is mean; a woman cooks while the man does odd jobs around the house. However, the substance of the notions of feminine and masculine is in constant fluctuation because, in fact, cooking is not done with the vagina just as the home handyman does not work with his penis.
Biological does not imply a particular social role.
Kant believed that mixed marriages were unnatural; just as homosexual marriages may be considered unthinkable today. This is because the notion of Genre transforms a representation which is fluid into a frozen reality. But the relationship between the sexes is not based on a biological fact: it is rather a tapestry of representations. Neither the ovary nor the testicle can conceive of a connection because this connection is first of all imaginary. On the other hand, a relationship implies a social group.
Biological determinism, which tends to attribute to humans qualities which are linked to their physical traits, stems from a dualist and Manichean view of the world. It is a view made up of oppositions such as Nature-Culture, Tradition-Modernity, Man-Woman, and Black-White. For these oppositions to be valid, they would need to be defined absolutely. But it is only possible to define something which is static. The terms involved in each of these oppositions, on the other hand, relate to a series of events, for time, where human societies are concerned, is the time of movement and of history: it does not present a masculine or feminine reality, but rather representations of reality which are constantly being renegotiated.
For a form of determinism to endure, there must be an underlying biological inevitability, of which the supreme example would be sexuality and procreation. But sexuality and procreation are no longer areas to which determinism applies: sexuality can be hetero- or homo-; fertility can be controlled through contraception. In short, sexuality and procreation are now separate from one another and the result of individual choice: and choice sounds the death knell for determinism. In affluent societies and amongst the wealthier classes of other societies, artificial insemination or adoption make it possible to be a parent even when one is sterile. Procreation is no longer restricted to fertile heterosexual couples, just as sexuality does not necessarily imply procreation.
Biological determinism is a political means of imposing a social model. Thus, the character of Bianca in Les Taches d’encre [The Ink Stains] uses biological determinism to impose a family — and hence social — order: she is opposed to feminism, however, because she considers that it emancipates men from women. Fearing that her partner might leave her, she says on page 174: « Who will bring home the money if he leaves? I refuse to work because feminism is a struggle which distances us from the class struggle; feminism means that men take the power at home while women abandon their children to go and work. If men learn to look after the house and the children, what use will they have for us? »
Furthermore, promoting the idea of determinism proves how dated it is: for if it were absolute, determinism would have no need to justify itself; it would assert itself naturally, without ever being questioned.
Bessora is a novelist. She was born in Belgium in 1968 of a Swiss mother and a Gabonese father, and currently lives in Paris. Her publications include 53cm (Editions du Serpent, 1999) and Les Taches d’encre (2000). See Africultures issue 21 p. 87 and issue 32 p. 107.///Article N° : 5485