gender, excess and the possibility of non-alienating life

Mikey Elster[1]

[Portuguese version available here | versão em português disponível aqui ]

The fact that gender is a social, political, and relational category has two implications for understanding gender identity that often sit at odds with each other. On the one hand, gender identity is often seen as part of the personal, individual feeling of oneself in relation to others. On the other, the social and political nature of gender requires a process of authentication, recognition, or some other form of mutual intelligibility—meaning gender identity is as much about the subjective imprint of others on oneself as it is about any individual notion. I was talking to a woman named Martha about her transgender child, named Jo, when she got to the heart of this issue. Jo was assigned female at birth and currently identifies as genderqueer, but at one time identified as a boy. Early in Jo’s transition a psychiatrist administered a diagnostic questionnaire consisting of 10 questions. From Jo’s responses, he concluded that Jo was not transgender and would not qualify for hormone blockers to delay puberty. When confronted with Jo’s diagnostic “failure” the mother explained that the whole process seemed ridiculous to her, “I could’ve had a transgender son, who was gay, who wanted to look like a girl, but really felt like a boy inside. But because of this stupid, like, anti-feminist stuff [meaning diagnostic tests and the gender binary], like he couldn’t have been that and I don’t know what happened.”

In political-economic terms, capital produces and reproduces gender as part of the larger project of reproducing itself and social relations. Confronted with a gender subjectivity that exceeds the ideological scaffolding of capital, the psychiatrist in question acted as a gatekeeper. But this is never a completely successful or totalizing process. Beyond the fact that they were able to eventually find a supportive psychiatrist, Martha’s interpretation of her child’s subjectivity is not illegible. It is maybe confusing to some at first, and it may not have satisfied the first psychiatrist, but it makes sense of Jo’s identity in terms and with language that is completely understandable. In her explanation, Martha uses normative language to express that which goes beyond the scope of capitalist production and reproduction. It mines gender for excess which can in turn be productive in a non-alienating sense. In any case, responding to interpellation involves varying degrees of obedience and disobedience, including responses that are both obedient and disalienating, legible and beyond the interests of capital.

In what follows I want to try to pull together various threads of theorizing on gender, from Marxist-feminist anthropology, to queer theory, to trans studies, in order to work out a theory that is both adequately materialist without being reductive or dismissive. Materialist in order to maintain the analytical precision necessary to make claims about historically and geographically specific phenomena; cautious because social relationships and their residual effects on individuals are not always reducible to the material, even if they are always deeply imbricated with it.

The theoretical starting point of this essay is the question Kay Gabriel asks at the end of “Gender as an Accumulation Strategy”: “…what would it mean for gender to function as a source of disalienated pleasure rather than an accumulation strategy?” (2020). The following essay proceeds from the argument that

Gender for capital assumes the form of an accumulation strategy, an ideological scaffolding that sustains an unequal division of labour, contours practices of dispossession and predation, and conditions particular forms of exploitation, including and especially in the form of un- and low-waged reproductive labour (Gabriel 2020).

From this point I argue that gender is a site of struggle over the social value and control of “excess” meaning (which is by no means mutually exclusive to the material). I use the term “excess” in describing gender for a number of reasons. First, I want to provoke consideration of camp aesthetics, being “extra,” and the parodic extravagance of gay culture and the queer theory which it inspired. This is related to the invitation to revisit queer theory in trying to think about capital that was sparked by an incredible panel discussion at the 2019 meetings of the American Anthropological Association (Hughes, J. et al 2019). I should also note that I use the term “queer” in this essay fully aware that its practically an empty signifier that has been evacuated of any particular meaning. I use it in a stricter sense than it usually appears by drawing from Sedgwick (1993) to mean something like an experience centered on the lives of people with same-sex desire and non-normative gendered and sexual expression which is open to possible reformulations that destabilize those very categories. Second, I say excess quite literally to refer to the places in which people find meaning and significance that is understandable within the confines of ideology but which exceeds or is reoriented away from its function in reproducing unequal social relationships. Finally, but equally related, I want to focus not only on a critique of capital, but also on an analysis of the critical points where it fails to be a totalizing force, where human productivity exceeds, escapes, or evades capitalist interests.

I’m writing this essay as a genderqueer person currently engaged in ethnographic research on transgender pediatrics and trans youth social and support networks in New York City. While this essay is not ethnographic in the sense that the argument I am making does not directly arise from considering any data in what follows, my thoughts are nonetheless influenced by my work in a specific time and place. The empirical and personal impetus for this essay stems from a commitment to making sense of my research participants’ claims about selfhood within a broader social and political context. Specifically the simultaneous claims that gender is personal and political, individualist but social, the result of socialization into a sexist world and of deeply personal self-expression. I attempt to show how although these claims are sometimes at odds with each other they are by no means mutually exclusive. At the same time, I want to avoid recourse to liberal notions of a rational choosing subject.

Butler and the “pre-social”

What is gender “in the final analysis,” or, “in the last instance”? As Kay Gabriel puts it “[g]ender belongs to the sphere of ideology—not in the pejorative sense of false consciousness but in the descriptive sense of the conceptual representation of social relations” (2020). The social relationships that gender conceptually abstracts are real, and have material consequences. But gender itself is the abstraction of a social relationship. Studying gender itself is a matter of engaging with something that has already been abstracted, is already socially mediated, and is already in motion. In short, we have extremely limited empirical access, if we have any at all, to “the last instance,” “the final analysis,” or the “pre-social” upon which gender ideology functions. This is not meant as a definitive statement in support of post-structuralist epistemology, but an acknowledgment that it is a mistake to try and locate potential sites of agency as outside of the ideological force of gender. The idea that the pre-social source of gender inequality can be located and that it is false consciousness that keeps the working class from realizing it is itself an admission of the power that ideology has over constituting what is thinkable. It may simply be more parsimonious to assume our own conceptual tools are subject to the same influence while simultaneously trying to think our way through it.

With acknowledgment of the various critiques levied against Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter remains a valuable attempt to theorize gender without recourse to the “pre-social” genderless subject. For Butler, being a subject means already being gendered.

“If I were to argue that genders are performative, that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of their choice, donned that gender for the day, and then returned the garment to its place at night. Such a willful and instrumental subject, one who decides on gender…fails to realize that its existence is already decided by gender” (Butler 1995, ix).

And yet Butler’s project remain one interested in theorizing gender as a potential site for agency and struggle. Later in Bodies while discussing the film Paris Is Burning, Butler pulls from Althusser’s theory of interpellation to open the possibility for agency. Put briefly, Althusser theorizes the law as unilaterally working on a subject. The police officer shouts “hey you!” and the subject responds, thus becoming a subject to the law and entering into a social relationship determined by conditions that precede that subject’s being. Butler is particularly interested in the range of failures that can arise from the law hailing a subject. “The law might not only be refused,” she states,

but it might also be ruptured, forced into a rearticulation that calls into question the monotheistic force of its own unilateral operation…there might be produced the refusal of the law in the form of parodic inhabiting of conformity that subtly calls into question the legitimacy of the command…[the law] creates more than it ever meant to, signifying in excess of any intended referent (Butler 1995, 82).

In this sense, gender is initiated by “the law,” shorthand here for the web of social relationships and significations that precede any one subject, hailing one as man, woman, child, etc. And it is the response it produces that leads to gendered subject formation. Important note for later: the law always produces more than it intends to, more than it can operationalize or distribute.

For the act of interpellation to work on Butler’s own terms requires a recognition of the inherent immateriality of ideology. When the state hails one as woman or man, husband or wife, son, daughter, etc., it does so by calling upon an idealized subject that does not exist. Only through the embodied and material response that one yields to this interpellation does gender come to exist as one lives it. Thus, all gender performativity is a failure to some degree or another—not just the radical alterity of queer subjectivity. This is the moment of performativity. Not the agential, self-directed expression of a true or transcendental self, but the response one gives to a complex machination of material conditions giving rise to an ideological apparatus that attempts to hail one into being. The “stuff” of gender is deeply embodied —or material—in this sense, but Butler’s theory of performativity emphasizes that these responses are historically contingent, variable, and therefore subject to radical transformation.

Analogous to capitalist production, the “excess” of gendered signification created by the law, and all of the social relationships that coalesce within it, is a potential site for struggle in the same way that the surplus value of commodity production, and all of the social relationships that enable it, is a site of class struggle.

Marxist-feminist anthropology

The Marxist-feminist tradition in anthropology has provided some of the most incisive critiques of capitalism and the sex/gender system. I am thinking in particular of Gayle Rubin’s now famous “The Traffic in Women: Notes towards a ‘political-economy’ of sex,” in which she outlines how the construction of gendered difference through kinship, marriage, and the sexual division of labor gives rise to a sex/gender system that persists beyond and entangled with political, social, and economic systems. While Rubin adeptly navigates a maze of ethnographic, psycho-analytic, and Marxist theory in crafting her argument, one of the central points of her essay is that sex and gender are part of larger social systems: “…sexual systems cannot, in the final analysis, be understood in complete isolation. A full-bodied analysis of women in a single society, or throughout history must take everything into account: the evolution of commodity forms in women, systems of land tenure, political arrangements, subsistence technology, etc.  [emphasis in original]” (1975, 209).

Since “The Traffic in Women” there has been robust ethnographic analysis of what could be called the political-economy of sex which attempts to consider everything. Not only in terms of subject-formation, but in how economic responsibilities, rights, and burdens have shifted along gendered and racialized lines in response to developments in late capitalism. Recent work has especially emphasized the importance of analyzing social reproduction. As Cindi Katz puts it,

the social reproduction of a migrant workforce is carried out in its members’ countries of origin. When they are employed elsewhere, this represents a direct transfer of wealth from generally poorer to richer countries. Variable capital produced in one site and tapped in another is no less a capital transfer than the extraction of raw materials, debt servicing, and the like (Katz 2001, 710).

Furthermore, the focus on social reproduction by feminist scholars is not a conflation of production is to reproduction as masculinity is to femininity. Rather, it is reflective of the fact that in spite of the considerable strain capitalism has placed on traditional notions of “the family” and other cultural practices around gender, it still produces a sexual division of labor and gender inequality—often with a racializing effect as well. This is borne out in recent studies of the effects of the 2008 financial crisis (Rankin 2013) and some of the preliminary work studying who is most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Several scholars have explored, in various contexts, how increased demand for labor power has resulted in more middle-class, so-called “first world” women taking part in the wage labor economy, while migrant and lower class women have taken on a larger share of reproductive labor as wage work (Colen 2006; Collins and Mayer 2010). Sexuality has also undergone attendant shifts, as exemplified by Suzanna Maia’s ethnography exploring the mesh between class, whiteness, and desire in economies that middle-class Brazillian exotic dancers in New York City must navigate (2012).

In this analysis, production and reproduction are co-constitutive categories that often contradict or fold in on one another. Indeed, the production of a gender identity is a central component of reproductive labor (Rubin 1975, 167). This brings into view what others have called the crisis of social reproduction. The liberal reforms that “freed” women to enter the wage labor market were accompanied by wage stagnation and increasing costs of living. There is immense downward pressure on social reproduction that increasingly requires the working class to shoulder most of the burden. Those who work as childcare workers or for cleaning services also need to reproduce themselves and their families, on top of the reproductive labor they are engaged in for wages. The law claims the right to men and women’s wage labor alike while the gendered and racialized effects are intensified (Cf. Mullings 2005). This produces gendered demands that are impossible to meet, thus producing a “failure” to properly respond to gendered hailing. A “good mother” must work full-time to prove her independence and prioritize her children’s well-being. In turn, this dislodges the gender anyone can actualize from the project of capital’s reproduction. One becomes a gendered subjected in spite of its impossibility.

That is to say that gender identity and gendered desires, including the bodily desires to medically alter one’s appearance, dress a certain way, talk with a certain inflection, etc. are not reducible to their role in reproducing social relations. Nor are they extractable from it, but they take on a semi-autonomous position that can produce an excess of meaning. Capitalism is defined by its incompleteness, its constant need to expand and grow. It always produces more than it can consume or distribute, only to attempt further accumulation and dispossession in the future.

Queer Excess

The co-parents of a young transboy named Ben were telling me about his time at a queer summer camp. The campers all got to design and create their own capes for a fashion show. Ben loves the imagery of fire, and his parents explained that he likes to use the word “flamboyant” as if it is related to “fire.” Naturally, during the fashion show he marched down the runway saying “I’m flamboyant! I’m on fire!” The complex slippages of meaning between being “flamboyant,” “on fire” or even “flaming” were probably unintentional on Ben’s part, but were a source of great amusement and joy for his moms.

Eve Sedgwick identifies the “open mesh of possibilities” and “excesses and lapses” in meaning that arise when one’s identity is at odds with normative prescriptions as the central facet of queerness (1993, 8). Because of the meager explicit representation of queer people in art and literature, Sedgwick argues that queer pleasure has often resided in reading into the subtext of a work, looking for gaps to fill with one’s own desired meanings. We can make an analogous argument in terms of political-economy, where until recently and still with uneven success LGBT people have long been excluded from economic processes through social stigmatization. Queerness has often represented an “excess” to the ideological construction of the family at the center of economic life. In the US today an estimated 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Expelled from the reproductive unit of the family, queer people have a long history of recreating their own systems of survival, kinship, and meaning in spite of coming from a place of abjection (cf. Weston 1991).

If this seems like a celebration of the revolutionary agency of the queer subject from a position “outside” of capital that is not my intention. Rather, it illustrates how capital’s excess can be expropriated and rearticulated. It is the very stuff of capitalist ideology that conditions its outside. While Sedgwick aimed to identify and explain the specific case for how queerness positions itself to excessive meaning, she also identifies something unique to gender more generally. Kay Gabriel makes a similar point in discussing the intractability of trans liberation and class struggle.

Non-transsexuals too are hailed into subjectivity by the ideological operations of gender; non-transition expresses the force of a desire also. The pathologisation of specifically transsexual desires marks out, and re-sexualises, only these configurations of gender according to the normative force of the history of the clinic…Transsexual desires aren’t either good or bad, they’re real” (Gabriel 2020).

The same thing goes for queer subjectivity. Just as much as it can be expropriated as a source of pleasure it can be re-appropriated by capital. Consider the corporate Pride March in New York City 2019, which was accompanied by police, versus the March for Queer Liberation in 2020, which was attacked by police. Sexual and gendered subject formation is not a case of complete subjectivation or agential transcendentalism. It is the processual result of a struggle over control and distribution of excess. Read together, queer, trans, and feminist politics are concerned with the struggle over whether the value of gendered signification can be oriented towards liberatory ends or extracted as another resource in the production ideological scaffolding.

The Political Implications

There is a political urgency to reformulate gender analysis for a number of reasons. Among them is the disconcerting resurgence of biological essentialism in mainstream discourse. The right-wing commonly chimes in with their own homophobic, transphobic, misogyny, but it appears just as frequently on the left as well. Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) or “gender critical” feminists are the common targets of criticism for reliance on biological essentialism, but its far more pernicious than outright exclusion of trans people. There’s a growing debate within trans medicine over whether trans identity can be confirmed or predicted biologically, usually by some assessment of whether one has a “male” or “female” brain (a concept which is already suspect in and of itself). Positive or negative assessments of this project have originated from across the political spectrum. For the left, there is a clear expediency to rendering gender as related to something material and to avoid reifying the choosing subject. But the conceptualization of gender as if it can be rendered as something pre-social or non-subjective invites the influence of the clinic, psychiatrists, and medical institutions that are responsible for the pathologization of trans people, women, and people of color in the first place. Rather than provide an analytical starting point, the increasing interest in understanding identity as biologically supported runs the risk of re-entrenching the monopolistic hold over gender authentication that patriarchal institutions struggle to maintain. And it goes without saying that this process is subject to racial unevenness around the idealized form of “proper” gender, potentially shoring up white supremacy’s already considerable influence in medicalizing the body.

It is not a stretch to see this trend as a parallel response to the crisis of social reproduction described above. Given the impossibility of achieving the contradictory demands of gender as a social relationship, there is a recommitment to tethering it to the supposedly stable category of biology. This could be chalked up to false consciousness, a mis-identification with a regressive theory of gender in the face of capitalist contradictions. But I am hesitant to locate concerns around gender, sexuality, race, or subjectivity more generally strictly within the realm of “consciousness,” as that runs the risk of silo-ing gender into a realm of immateriality that is solely determined by capital when the relationship seems to be more dialectical.

If instead gender is a struggle over signification that produces excesses which can be creatively expropriated, then it can be analyzed as a strategy of capital while we simultaneously reorient it towards creating a less alienating life.


Butler, Judith. 2011 [1995]. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. 1 edition. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge.

Colen, Shellee. 2006. “‘Like a Mother to Them’: Stratified Reproductionand West Indian Childcare Workers and Employers in New York”. In Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, organizado por Ellen Lewin. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

 Collins, Jane L., e Victoria Mayer. 2010. Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Gabriel, Kay. 2020. “Gender as an Accumulation Strategy”. Invert Journal.

 Hughes, Jen and Ho, Karen (organizers). 2019. Noelle Stout, Margot Weiss, Scott Morgensen, Jen Hughes, and Kimberly Chong (presenters). Roundtable Discussion: “Toward a Critical Queer and Trans Economic Anthropology”. Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Vancouver, CA.

Katz, Cindi. 2001. “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction”. Antipode 33 (4): 709–28.

 Maia, Suzana. 2012. Transnational Desires: Brazilian Erotic Dancers in New York. Vanderbilt University Press.

 Mullings, Leith. 2005. “Resistance and Resilience: The Sojourner Syndrome and the Social Context of Reproduction in Cenral Harlem”. Transforming Anthropology 13 (2): 79–91.

 Rankin, Katharine N. 2013. “A Critical Geography of Poverty Finance”. Third World Quarterly 34 (4): 547–68.

 Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The Traffic in Women”. In Toward an Anthropology of Women, organizado por Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1993. Tendencies. Series Q. Durham: Duke University Press.

[1] Mikey Elster is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York whose research interests include medical anthropology, gender and sexuality, and North America. Their current research and the subject of their dissertation is the ethics and politics of caring for young transgender people.

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