In light of recent debates in conservative contexts concerning a political reversal of emancipatory achievements (e.g. the re-legalization of domestic violence in Russia, attacks on ‘Planned Parenthood’ and same-sex marriage by the US-government under Donald Trump, the rejection of gender-relevant topics by a majority of right-wing conservatives) as well as the ongoing activist struggle for equality, the question as to why a strict gender binary and traditional heterosexual roles are so stable is still highly relevant. These debates need to be examined in the context of a simultaneously increasing complexity in the sciences and social movements, which problematise a strict gender binary both in scientific contexts and in people’s everyday experience.
Since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), sex and gender, it seems, have been sufficiently deconstructed. Still, the notion of not only a biological, but an all-encompassing gender binary has proven to be surprisingly enduring. Neither scientific evidence nor lived difference seem to be able to shatter the belief in gender binaries. On the contrary: especially in current debates, traditional roles are being defended with seemingly new urgency.
The research training group seeks to analyse the persistence of gender binaries from various disciplinary perspectives, taking into account different historical constellations. Central to the group’s work is the hypothesis of a ‘culture of gender binaries’, which assumes that strictly binary notions of gender and sexuality are intimately connected to the dynamics of a notion of ‘culture’ as a means of social identification. On the one hand, recent verbal defences of gender binaries appeal vehemently to ‘traditional’ cultural concepts that are “normative, hierarchical and usually nationally framed”, insisting on the “authenticity and morality, and hence on [the] inherent rightness” of certain lifestyles, and which “manifest an inherent colonial structure” (Ammicht Quinn 2006, 265; our translation). Yet the vehement positing of binary notions of gender also originates from a more ‘modern’, postcolonial, pluralised, and globalized concept of culture. This concept, on the one hand, finds „in cultural contact resistance, appropriation, different interpretations, and competing models“ (Ammicht Quinn 2006, 266; our translation); on the other hand, it also facilitates, through the discontinuation of national and ‘traditional’ sites of identification, an intense adherence to other ‘cultural categories’ – such as the putative certitude of gender binaries –, and a differentiation from everything perceived as ‘other’. A ‘culture of gender’, in the globalised present, can thus lead to both a pluralisation of lifestyles, as well as a more and more vehement positing of gender binaries.
The aim of this research group is to explore the mechanisms that maintain gender binaries, both in contemporary and in historical contexts.
In order to better be able to conceptualise the concurrence of diverse cultural formations regarding a defence of gender binaries, the remarks of British literary and cultural theorist Raymond Williams prove useful. Some of Williams’ definitional decisions became formative for Cultural Studies. He extends the term ‘culture’ to no less than the whole texture of human actions, significations, and interpretations, “a social process, creating specific and different ‘ways of life’” (Williams 1977, 19), hence a notion of ‘culture’ as everyday life: “Culture is ordinary” (Williams 1989). He describes culture as “the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (Williams 1981, 13). This understanding of culture led to a much more all-encompassing set of those practices which could be examined by Cultural Studies, including empirical and social-scientific components that, until then, had been the exclusive realm of sociology, anthropology, and ethnology. At the same time, those disciplines working with texts, especially Literary Studies, began to generalise the notion of ‘text’, so that, in the end, everything that signifies could be understood as ‘text’ – in France, Roland Barthes was simultaneously exploring a similar expansion in his explorations of ‘Mythologies’ (cf. Barthes 1972).
Williams always worked historically. He wanted to be able to observe and understand cultural developments on a micro level of individual positions and contributions. This requires a dynamic model of culture, which, in Williams’ writing, does not result in a teleology of ‘progress’ or ‘evolution’. Instead, this dynamic model assumes that historical strata of older and more recent developments and models exist simultaneously, “dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process, of historically varied and variable elements” (Williams 1977, 121). He subsumes this process in terms of “dominant”, “residual” and “emergent” cultural formations (opinions, ideas, genres, lifestyles, etc.) (cf. Williams 1977, 121-122; 123).
This means that a culture change – and cultures are always changing – ultimately consists of a simultaneity in which older formations survive (while at the same time being positioned differently through parallel developments), dominant forms expand internally towards more progressive and conservative components, and, at the same, time genuinely new forms emerge, which are neither residual nor dominant (cf. Williams 1981, 203-305). Thus, at every moment in which we observe a phenomenon synchronously, we need to assume the simultaneity of historical layers which keep connecting and re-connecting. It is crucial that residual and emergent processes, while negatively sanctioned by ‘dominant’ culture to some degree, are, at the same time, a necessary component of this ‘dominant’ culture, which can never map all forms of human action and thought (cf. Williams 1977, 123; 124-125).
Our research training group seeks to reformulate the question of this simultaneity, first and foremost regarding the striking simultaneity of different residual, dominant, and emergent models of gender and sexuality. That is, the scholars in each project will examine examples from different disciplines in terms of how residual elements circulate, and what their overall cultural power is, how dominant definitions and practices renew themselves internally or hedge against change, or how genuinely emergent forms come about and what happens to them in the process. With this approach, we aim to raise the question of how notions and practices of gender and sexuality do not simply ‘evolve’, but continue to be flanked, or even inflected, by residual elements, and challenged by emergent developments.
To begin with, we plan to focus on an analysis of the alleged ‘dominant’ version of conceptions of gender and sexuality, and how it is safeguarded against emergent and residual versions. Hence, the research group fundamentally challenges the stability of the doxa as defined by Bourdieu. In this context, we will be considering a wide range of theoretical approaches which all, by means of a diverse set of terminologies and slightly different approaches, seek to capture how convictions remain stable, how they are being naturalised, and how, in the end, they unfold their effectiveness as positings which are not and cannot be further questioned.
Ammicht Quinn, Regina. “Kulturethik.” Handbuch Ethik. Ed. Marcus Düwell, Christoph Hübenthal, Micha H. Werner. Stuttgart and Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2006. 264-269.
Barthes, Roland. Mythen des Alltags. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
--. Culture. Glasgow: Fontana, 1981.
--. “Culture is Ordinary.” Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism. London and New York: Verso, 1989. 3-18.