Printed: 2018-06-23

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Posthuman Gender: A Non-Binary Future

Benjamin Abbott

Ethical Technology

October 12, 2013

Though still decidedly secondary, the dream of transcending biological sex and established gender norms occupies a key place transhumanist in thought. Transhumanists extoll transgender people as prescient pioneers of morphological freedom and technological enhancement. This article explores the problem of gender - yes, it is a problem - in relation to feminist theory and proposed transhumanist solutions. I simultaneously critique and embrace visions of transcendence.

​Gender as it functions today is a problem because dominant gender systems hierarchically classify people into limited roles. Phenotype - particularly genitals - serves as the primary basis for classification, thus dividing human beings into males and females and men and women according to hegemonic conceptions. This binary division, the associated social roles, and the privileging of men over women cause overwhelming physical and psychic harm each moment. Binary gender's many barbs range from piercing - rape, bashing, poverty - to irritating - pronouns, bathrooms, jokes - but on the whole form an agonizing trap. This is the context, acknowledged or not, in which programs to transform and/or abolish gender emerge.

Feminist theorization of gender - especially the radical variety - traditionally emphasize the oppression involved. Iconic feminist campaigns seek to stop sexual violence, sexual harassment, gendered income inequality, pornography, and so on. The idea of feminism as excessively focused on the dismal constitutes a recurring criticism from both within and outside of the feminist movement. The much-maligned radical feminists of today understand gender as strictly negative - the system of male dominance - and proclaim gender abolition as their goal.

Such radical feminists take pains to distinguish themselves from queer theorists, third-wave feminists, postmodern feminists, transgender activists, and so on, whom they identify as liberal apologists for the patriarchy. While hardly reducible to this caricature, third-wave feminism, queer theory, and postmodern feminism at least do customarily highlight the subversive and liberatory aspects of hybridity and unintelligibility over materialist structural analyses.

Transhumanist articulations of transcending the gender binary both resonate with elements of feminism as well as draw on other schools of thought. Martine Rothblatt, notable within the transgender and transhumanist movements, presents recognition of gender diversity as within the genealogy of rights-based liberalism guided by "the fundamental principle that reason trumps biology." In "Postgenderism," George Dvorsky and James Hughes attribute greater importance to the biology involved and stress the importance of technological interventions. "Our contemporary efforts at creating gender-neutral societies," they write, "have also reached the limits of biological gender." Dvorsky and Hughes paint a picture of unsatisfying feminist fulfillment within the bounds of law, politics, and culture that only technology can improve. Other transhumanist texts offer postgenderism or gender fluidity as one of many the toys available in the awesomeness that awaits just around the corner.

As critical as I am of rights-based liberalism, Rothblatt's notion that there are as many unique sex/sexual/gendered identities as there are people has immense value read alongside any assertions of biological determinism. Before I get to critiquing celebratory individualism, I want to caution against making too much of current sex-distinction research. Gendered ideology influences what gets researched, how research participants respond or perform, and how the research gets interpreted. As with much if not all social research, isolating variables is impossible. You can't find a lab free of the heteropatriarchy. I recommend Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender for a critical look a sex-difference neuroscience from technical perspective.

Despite the date of publication, Rothblatt's discussion of the science on sex difference in The Apartheid of Sex similarly provides an invaluable counter to confident claims of gendered brains and how much the difference matters. Emphasizing biology as a cause of social inequality naturalizes the oppressive status quo and thus furthers oppression. Through psychological studies of the phenomenon known as stereotype threat, we know that the discourses of innate difference function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Let's not support that cycle.

Biological and technological determinism stand out as vexing problems in transhumanist thought as a whole, which I hope to treat specifically and in detail in the future. (Wonderful place, that future, holding all our unfulfilled desires.) For the moment I'll just add the disclaimer that my critique of biological determinism in no way constitutes a dismissal of the biological or of technological intervention/enhancement.

The transsexual movement underscores the importance of access to hormones, surgery, and so on – at least within the context of existing gender systems. Physical bodies indeed matter with regard to gender/sex/sexuality and body modification in its various senses does make a difference. But the meanings involve are neither self-evident nor singular; human beings determine how bodies matter and what difference they make through discourse. Attributing profound social power to biological sex difference entails the risk of paying insufficient attention to how human beings construct the meaning of the body.

Now to the troubling resonances of individualism. Notions of transcending gender potentially dovetail with neoliberal ideology and so bolster consumer capitalism. As I’ve written for IEET and innumerable others have written elsewhere, industrial capitalism stands implicated in intense human suffering across the planet.

Transhumanist meditations on the awesome postgender future just around the corner can promote individualist consumer capitalism and obscure the oppression involved. For example, it’s all well and good to examine Andrej Pejic as a sign of a cultural trend toward androgyny and gender fluidity, but it’s likewise critical to remember that eir success exists alongside daily violence against queer and trans* people. Whether applied to gender or what have you, the sanguine tales of progress based in the liberal tradition only work for folks either already doing well or willing to displace their desires.

I see little reason to believe liberalism can resolve the contradictions of industrial capitalism and heteropatriarchy via continuing extension of legal and social recognition. Contrary to reformist designs, industrial capitalism shows no signs of allowing genuine universalization of the iconic middle-class lifestyle. More radical breaks from the status quo strike me as necessary. (And universalizing the middle-class lifestyle is a dubious project anyway!) As I've written for IEET previously, I draw inspiration from socialist-feminist Shulamith Firestone's program of automated abundance and psychosexual liberation. Like the aforementioned radfems, Firestone's thought valuably stresses structural transformation: existing economic and social arrangement must change fundamentally to get to anything approximating a postgender or postpatriarchal society.

At the same time, poststructuralist feminism and queer anarchism emphasize the dangers of any totalizing platform or organization. Interpreting gender as only a system of oppression elides the ways in gendered performance and subjectivity can operate as sources of pleasure and satisfaction. While not revolutionary by themselves, nonbinary and nonnormative gender expressions do make a difference. These expressions do not automatically reinforce patriarchy merely because they employ some of the same props and tropes.

If playing with gender and rejecting the binary were truly meaningless and inconsequential, they wouldn't arouse such scorn and hostility. Programs of gender abolition and gender expansion potentially establish new privileged aesthetics that denigrate deviants, but radical-queer articulations at least mitigate this in their explicit opposition to normativity. As the anonymous authors of toward the queerest insurrection write, queer is "a conflict with all domination." It's not about erecting novel hierarchies but dismantling the material, cultural, and theoretical framework for hierarchy's existence. In this way anarchism aligns with the liberal values of pluralism and self-determination in their best senses.

Technologies of artificial reproduction, body modification, virtual reality, and so on may well facilitate transcending binary, heteropatriarchal gender over the coming decades and centuries if they're coupled with such a revolutionary pluralism that demands individual and communal freedom in all aspects of life. This is the sort of transhumanism that animates my imagination and ignites my passions.

Eliminating the structural basis of masculine supremacy and its representational logic should sound the death knell for heteropatriarchy as prominent ideology. I dream of a world of androgynous cyborgs with shifting digital and physical bodies that also has room for primitivists to return to the woods. I don't know if it's possible, but coalitional politics against the variety of gendered oppressions right here in the present – from compulsory pregnancy and abortion restrictions to the prison-industrial complex – constitutes the path there.

Love to everyone in the struggle for a radically better life!

For Further Reading

"Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary" by George Dvorsky and James Hughes

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine

The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone

The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender by Martine Rothblatt

From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form by Martine Rothblatt

Benjamin Abbot is a genderqueer, transgender PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.


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