Shape of selves to come: from sexual difference to autonomy and reciprocity
Nicholas, Lucy Katherine
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While much research has established that gender has undesirable effects, and some has even concluded that subjective and social life would be preferable without it, there has been limited extension of these claims to the corollary of exploring how it might be eradicated and what could replace it. This thesis considers if and how this could be done. It provides a practicable elaboration of an alternative way of being to that of sex/gender difference by developing theory that argues that the eradication of sexual difference is possible and desirable, and presenting various practices that demonstrate this. Drawing on gender theory and feminist science, the durability of gender is traced back to its anterior spectre of an assumed stable and immutable sex, and specifically compulsory sexual difference. Also, drawing on philosophy and empirical sociological studies, it argues that this is not ontologically tied to the nature of sexual difference, but to socially and intersubjectively constituted and enacted factors, and therefore that social life without sexual difference is an ontological possibility and other ways of being and relating are possible. The normative argument that the existence of sexual difference is undesirable is made by appealing to an ideal of “autonomy,” which sexual difference serves to limit. Simone de Beauvoir’s ethical philosophy is drawn on to develop an ontological ethics that posits freedom or autonomy as a collective situated “doing” which sexual difference limits by presenting oppositional antagonism as universal. A more preferable (and practically possible) situated way of “doing” that maximises “autonomy” would be that of reciprocity. In elaborating the principle of reciprocity as a replacement for sexual difference and considering its practicability, it is evaluated in terms of the normative precepts that the thesis takes off from in order to consider its robustness and to avoid accidentally replicating the restriction on, or “violence” towards autonomy that it is intended to replace. Potential antinomies in realising such an ethic, specifically in “impure” real-world contexts are considered. Also, specific features to ensure and maintain reciprocity are developed, by treating the “androgyny” that I argue is inherent to reciprocity as a transcendence, and not combination or collapse, of the oppositional nature of sexual difference. These constitute a specific way of relating to others that is both specific to them individually and also encompasses the universal ethic of reciprocity. In making this ethic practicable, the thesis considers some possible means or strategies through which a reciprocal (in the specific sense developed) ethic could be fostered so that subjects could understand themselves and others without presumptions of sexual difference. It offers some illustrations of ways of perceiving and treating the self and others (and learning how to do so) that are reciprocal, drawing on real-world queer, anarchist and pedagogical practices that are compatible with the ontological, normative and practical precepts of the ethic of reciprocity. It also considers what the consequences for the eradication of sexual difference might be for “sexuality” and desire. My distinctive contribution to knowledge lies in taking critical, deconstructive theoretical work around gender that is often construed as abstract and impracticable, and attempting to render it socially relevant and utilisable, without undermining its antiuniversalising impulses. I have done this by teasing out the practical implications of such theoretical insights and by drawing on non-traditional sources of ideas / theory. Knitting divergent theories together in an original way, I have contributed to making such theories useful for social change by crafting what I argue is a thorough workable re-constructive ethic that is compatible with the impulses of deconstruction.