The idea for this blog post evolved accidentally. It is based on biographic data I gathered in the context of research for my PhD thesis about intersexuality and a new perspective, which has opened up for me in relation to current sociological accounts of subjectivation. Accordingly, this contribution is the surprising output that arises when theoretical discussions suddenly open up a new perspective on »old« material.
In the tradition of poststructuralist theory, current works describe subjectivation primarily as an external impact on the individual, as a constant process of discursive and non-discursive practices of »doing subjects« (Reckwitz 2017, 125). It seems to me that a poststructural understanding of subjectivation mainly focuses on the practices of production and thereby neglects the empirical dimension of the resulting subjectivity, understood as a specific way of feeling and thinking as well as acting in the world of the subjects.
This made me reflect on subjectivation using the example of intersexuality. I argue that practices of »doing subjects« are always linked to a specific subjectivity, which opens up a space for resistance and transformation by »doing resistance« (similar to what Butler  described as resistance to interpellation). In the following, I will give a short introduction to the topic, present my analysis and finish with a methodological proposal, which appears suitable to me at the current point in time. However, I am open to new ideas and further suggestions.
German-speaking sociology has only recently developed an understanding of discourse that does not simply reduce it to a subjectifying force, which acts externally on the subject. Instead, it has begun to address the emerging subjectivity, sense of identity, reflective power and capacity for agency that comes about in the subject (Alkemeyer et al. 2013; Reckwitz 2006; Reckwitz 2017) and to identify the subversion of discourse in a micro-sociological context. Using the example of the medical discourse of intersexuality, I intend to show how subjectifying discourses are linked to the subjectivity of intersexuals and to specific practices of resistance in everyday life. In this sense, subjectivation and subjectivity cannot be separated from each other: Instead, their relationship always refers to a practical moment of subversion. By drawing on conversation excerpts from two interviews I conducted in 2012 with intersexuals, I want to show how a praxeological view can provide insights into the relation between knowledge, subjectivation and subjectivity. To start off, it is important to say a few words on the medical treatment of intersexuality.
In the 1950s, the linguistically-based term »gender« was introduced into clinical intersexuality research in order to clarify that the psychosexual development of a child does not necessarily refer to its sexual body, but primarily to interactions during the first two years of life (Wilkins 1950; Money et al. 1955; Krämer 2017). A research team from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital developed this interactionist position in an influential treatment directive (»optimal gender policy«), which provided for the earliest possible sex reassignment of intersex children born with so-called »ambiguous genitalia«. The creation of a body for heterosexual relations in the later course of life was the top priority of this medical intervention. Following this guiding principle, potential consequences associated with the treatment such as scars in the genital area, trauma, or later asexuality were consciously accepted by the physicians. Since the guidelines also provided letting children be treated without their knowledge, so as to avoid confusion in the development of gender identity, many patients – like some of my interlocutors – were unaware of their intersexuality until late adulthood. Many doctors were of the opinion that it would be better for an intersex child not to know its original sex, so as to guarantee the development of a »healthy« male or female gender. Somewhat more provocatively one could also say that some intersex children were part of a strategic conspiracy by medical practitioners and parents, denied knowledge of their true gender for the reason of patient welfare.
But the plan to create inconspicuous subjects did not work out in many cases. This was mainly because knowledge as significant as that about one’s own sex and gender is difficult to conceal. At a certain biographical point the truth always came to light, for example with an intersex child who grew up as a girl suddenly, in puberty, having her voice change or a beard begin to grow, or the parents or doctors deciding to finally clarify the situation to the person (Lang 2006; Klöppel 2010). The sudden revelation of not being part of the gender that had been known and experienced since birth in many cases led to a profound disruption of the previously held self-image, which made strategies such as evasion and alternative interpretations of one’s gender in subsequent everyday situations necessary.
In the following, I will discuss two situations, which I believe are strongly reminiscent of Garfinkel’s »breaching experiments« (1967), Sacks’ concept of »doing being ordinary« (1984), or the process of interactive gender representation of transsexuals (Hirschauer 1998). However, I will couple these practices more closely with the subjectifying discourse, because subversive practice can only be understood as practically emergent as a protest of subjectivation. The two examples below can be interpreted as a strategy of concealment and, in contrast, a strategy of disclosure.
One of my interlocutors, who only had her intersexuality explained to her in advanced adulthood and had at this point been living in a heterosexual relationship for many years, told me the following story:
»I was already 42 when they told me. The doctor, a young man, looked at me seriously. He just said: ›You have XY chromosomes.‹ My first thought was ›well, whatever. I’m healthy.‹ The reality of this only became clear to me later. That I had been lied to all the time. Had been operated on without my knowledge. So I was not a real woman at all […]. I was different to the others. But I had no idea of this the whole time. […] But by now I had been living in a relationship for many years. What should I tell my husband? If I go up to him and say, ›Listen, I have male chromosomes. I am intersex being.‹ He’ll give me an incredulous look and ask: ›Am I gay then or what?‹ No, he doesn’t know a thing about it. […] When I go to the doctor for my check, I always tell him: ›I’m going shopping.‹ Then I bring him back some instant soup or something (laughs). So he doesn’t ask […] That’s how we live together. I keep it secret. So that we can stay together.« (Mrs G., 55)
One could say that the practice just described is simple secrecy so as to conceal the actual circumstances and thus ensure the survival of their relationship: Mrs G. has XY chromosomes, but tells her husband nothing about it because she believes that he would be at least as confused about the information as she was herself and might get the idea that he’s gay. To save their relationship, Mrs G. acts in her everyday life as if there is nothing to say about it. In this way, she preserves the illusion of a »normal« heterosexual relationship.
But the excuses, secrecy and recognised need for it cannot be understood without the subjectivation of intersex existence by the medical discourse. Because subjects experience the urgency only where they are confronted with the discursive expectations of a heteronormative person which here means both: heterosexual identity and physically unobtrusive gender binaries. The fact that knowledge of their chromosomes is so fundamental to the relationship between Mrs. G. and her husband that it needs to be concealed in everyday situations can only be understood as an authority of certain knowledge systems. Only in relation to an existing heterosexual norm, which entails expectations of the body and of sexuality, are practices of concealment of potential otherness necessary. Against this background, there is a direct relationship between subjectification and subjectivity. It is not only the manner of self-reflection, but also the expected social consequences and their strategic avoidance that is framed by intersex discourse.
Ways of coming out
The subjectifying discourse, however, also creates practices of coming out or breaking of taboos as a side effect. Some of my interlocutors not only condemn the surgical and hormonal interventions that they experienced in their childhood, but fundamentally oppose the terms originating from the medical discourse. For example, many reject the medical term »intersex« or the newer term »DSD« (disorders of sex development) because of their pathologizing significance. This rejection of a discursive invocation necessitates subversive practices of re-articulation in everyday life.
A person who first learned about being intersex at the age of 22 told me that she has opposed the medical terms and their related interpretations for some time. It was a self-help group that showed her that it was actually possible to challenge this and to re-encode those descriptions that describe her existence as an abnormality of nature. Since then, she has looked intensively for new possibilities to grasp her identity, which she has managed in a very limited way, because words do not describe how she actually feels concerning her gender.
»So for me it’s all completely dissolved. This binary description no longer does it for me. For me, I would rather take double-digit hexadecimal digits. I would even go to three digits. In order to truly understand everything about the sexes. For me, there is no normality because normality is always based on a mass. Its average. And that’s just the way it is for me, that normal male/female does not exist anymore. […] Nevertheless, the binary system for reproduction is important for most people. Since real difficulties may arise if one were to dissolve this system. That’s just like the idea with the flat earth in archaic times. […] When asked what my gender is… then I explain the other [alternative gender forms, D.K.] mostly in terms of light. There are just different states of aggregation or other light conditions, because somehow everything is vibration and emits rays. It’s just another level. They often look at me dumbfounded. But I often cannot explain it any other way.« (Mrs L., 30)
The statement by Mrs L. can be understood as a practical defensive attitude towards the medical discourse which she perceives as inconsistent. By explaining her gender to others in recourse to alternative concepts (aggregate states, the state of light, heliocentric world view), she is looking for scientific solutions to reverse the self-pathologizing connected to the discourse. In this sense, the practical reversal of meaning is a significant act, as it enables her to free herself from the pathologizing attributions.
By drawing upon the example of intersexuality, two dimensions have become obvious, which are important for sociological research on subjectivation. Both have already been stated elsewhere (Reckwitz 2017, 128): the cultural-discursive order of knowledge, which produces and »shapes« the individuals to subjects, and the performative dimension, in which the orders are reproduced in everyday life. For me it seems appropriate to add a third dimension, which is directly linked to the cultural-discursive order and the performative dimension: the practical dimension of »doing resistance« against existing subject positions.
With this in mind the medical discourse of intersexuality can be understood as a powerful knowledge system, which defines the frame within which intersex people become specific subjects by specific practices, e.g. by clarifying (or not clarifying) their »real« sex, pathologizing their gender or by medical interpretations of their »ambiguous« genitalia etc. However, this frame is not set in stone. As a side effect, it also generates the possibility to put up resistance against the subject position.
To realize this empirically and to focus on practices of resistance, I propose a dyadic methodological approach. Praxeological research needs…
- an intense familiarization with the discourses and fields, which define the frame within specific practices emerge. Additionally, for a better understanding of the structure and logic of the field it could also be useful to extend the research by interviews with experts and ethnographic fieldwork, in case of intersexuality e.g. therapy sessions.
- to work out practices of »doing resistance«. Here, biographical interviews with the individuals studied seem appropriate to me. These could show, in which moments in life and how the individuals put up resistance; in case of intersexuality e.g. surgical interventions, unintentional slips of the tongue by physicians or parents. These could be analyzed retrospectively as moments of irritation, in which forms of a new awareness arise leading to a new way of reflecting the own »doing«.
Postgraduate, Institute of Human Movement Science, University Hamburg
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