Ref. :  000002928
Date :  2002-03-06
Language :  English
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Gender & Nation

Author :  Rada Iveković


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Gender is probably the most important or the “first” organising principle. It is a truism to say, but still useful to repeat outside academia, that all human institutions are gendered and hierarchical. So is the nation, of course, and so is even sex/gender itself. The two constructed and historic differences (nation, sex/gender) intersect and mutually support the hierarchy at the heart of each other. But gender has the peculiarity of being used as an “archetype” for other inequalities and injustices by analogy, through the fact that women’s subordination is generally and globally accepted by most. Also, sex/gender is older than nation in the order of time. Indeed, it presents itself as apparently a-historic because it was there before language, as “primordial”. As Julie Mostov and I wrote in our book, “the gender/sexual difference, as the oldest known difference inscribed into language, is seen as basic, unquestionable and unproblematic - a condition of life. As such, it manages to sexuate everything. It symbolically permeates all other dichotomies of thinking, all differences within the sphere of the historically consensual and, thus, permeates the historic legitimation of hierarchies that thrive on differences. (1) In this way, the global patriarchal consensus about the submission of women to men justifies other subjugations using the mechanism of symbolic ‘analogy’. The depiction of this state of affairs (i.e. of the domination of all women by all men (2) ) as natural, which naturalises and essentialises patriarchy, is itself historic. This history of the social relations of genders is usually forgotten and masked by replacing social and historic relations with biological ones. Accordingly, when the ‘national difference’ surfaces historically, it appears in the terms of the gender difference, ‘justifying’ hierarchies that are set by the pretended natural hierarchy of genders. (...) Gender and nation are social and historic constructions, which intimately participate in the formation of one another: nations are gendered; and the topography of the nation is mapped in gendered terms (feminised soil, landscapes, and boundaries and masculine movement over these spaces).” (3) It is, indeed, the oldest difference we can think of. The global patriarchal consensus regarding the position of women is interesting because it is universally used for the justification of other subjugations too, through a mechanism of symbolic "analogy". This instrumentalising of a state of affairs (i.e. of the domination of all women by men) through its depiction as natural, and thus its naturalisation and essentialisation, is itself historic. To introduce, maintain or promote other inequalities and exclusions (class, racial, caste, national, ethnic, ideological etc.), it is useful to project on them the “naturalness”of the gender inequality, and thus to feminize the weaker term in the dyad. (And by the way, this works through a binary logic: when there is plurality, it gets reduced to a basic two.) The nation itself, as the term in Western languages shows candidly, draws its language and terminology from the historically much older, though also constructed, sexual and gender difference (nascere, lat. “to be born”). Coming into language and on the historic stage much later (from the 15th to the 19th century, depending on the author you read), it uses the already existing language and terminology. All its vocabulary is highly sexuated, and so is its conceptual framework. This slips further into the language of state-building and of adjacent areas too.

Sexuating and gendering any terminology “justifies” and legitimises the inequality it refers to, though a trick is played here, since the difference is also constantly presented as symmetrical and non-hierarchical. This blurring of the two different ways of relating the two terms to each other in a binary plays the trick of the hegemony imposed. On one level the two (the feminine and the masculine, or any other two terms of a hierarchical binary) are equivalent or equal: this is the case on the level of the particular. To be more precise, on this level, they are different and/but equal. Yet on another level, when it comes to a higher authority or to transcendence, they stand in a hegemonic relationship, because one of the two terms will be normative, while the other will be marked as different (the exception). The normative element is the one whose experience can be directly universalised (as human, for example), and who has a privileged position in representation. Of that which escapes representation, discourse and the possibility of being universalised, what doesn’t find its language, or looses all its particular characteristics when said, we say that it is marked in language. Indeed, our languages and thinking are constructed through this: it is only the dominant experience that can be universalised. When the higher office, the “universal” level is taken into account, the term which is normative and directly “universal” (4) appears twice (both as particular/different and as universal) there where the other appears only once (as only particular & different). That is also how hegemony takes place: far from being one and the same forever, hegemony is itself only an office, where the particular interests of one of the participants in the game are successfully universalised for some time. The constant blurring between the particular and the “universal” levels is part of the game. (5)

In the case of the gender-nation relationship, and because the nation uses the language of obstetrics and of parentage, there is also a signifying and purposeful confusion as well as a constant questioning regarding the “origin”. The problem is that language already comes with the sexual differences imbricated in it, and that the latter in any case precedes it. This is where psychoanalysis has introduced the unconscious in its system: it is that which cannot be remembered, thought or said, since it is the origin of thinking itself. Language cannot say totality though it strives to, besides being unable to say, at the other end, that which does not correspond to the norm. Is the sex-difference ontological, asks Jean-François Lyotard, his rethorical question only to answer - how should I know?: “It makes think endlessly, but it won’t let itself be thought. Thought is inseparable from the phenomenological body. But the sexuated body is separated from thought and triggers it. We would be tempted to see in this difference some primordial explosion, a challenge opposed to thinking, comparable to the solar catastrophe. But such is not the case, since it gives food to thought infinitely, reserved in the secret of bodies and thoughts. It only annihilates the One." (5) The sexual/gender difference is one of the most difficult things to think, and few philosophers will admit it so openly. Is this because in it lies the origin of the body, because it is the body, is it that it has no language because it makes the latter possible? It is difficult, for one thing, because sexual difference was there before both language and life, and language cannot say that which is its condition of existence. For another (or is it the same thing), the fact that this difference tends to dualize and gender everything, may not be neutral in itself. At the same time, it reduces or erases all other differences than this one. This reductive power is then used in mechanisms of domination, as I shall try to argue further in this paper. Thinking (reason), as it arises in language, appears to be already split.

On account of hegemony, I said (that it would last) “for some time”. The particular origin of a universal idea doesn’t prevent it from being universally accepted, though it can’t be by all for the same reasons or in the same way (indeed, it can also be inforced). Ideas that stand for the universal, such as the nation, the state, are subject to erosion, especially in our time. Through their inner and contextual exhaustion, they show with time that they have become again an empty signifier, or are recognised as such- are seen through. If someone wanted to keep them to last through a transformation (a transition), they would have to be credited with new concrete arguments linked to real experience. When the content, previously accepted as universal, is finally empty and left completely without the contributions and without the particular support of those who were its bearers, and when they don’t recognise themselves in the project any more, they will abandon it and the ship will sink. For hegemony you need to have support. Those who have abandoned the ship will pass to the construction of new secure conditions for themselves, transforming some other (particular) interest into universal, through a political project, through a war, through elections etc. It is interesting to analyse what the conditions are, or what it takes for one hegemonic configuration to crumble. I have analysed in my work mainly the “psycho-political” conditions in modernity for this, (7) and I have done this while keeping in mind that there have been different modes (though related and of one origin) of modernity such as (at least) capitalist, socialist and colonial/post-colonial modernity. This helps in avoiding the Cold War notion that colonial or socialist societies have been something completely different (alterity itself) and that they or at least some of them are pre-modern or “traditional” beyond repair. Modernity itself (re)produces “tradition”, especially in the third world and in post-colonial and post-socialist countries again. The opposition pre-modern/modern does not hold, but the fiction is nevertheless conceptually quite efficient as an organising principle of (post-)modernity itself. This may be among other things because it is also highly gendered, tradition been assigned to women, modernity to men.

In my own life experience, what I could observe, was how the self-representation of a population was changed and discredited over the years (the former Yugoslavia), and how the gap was increasing between the official image and truth, and what people felt about themselves while feeling more and more socially, politically impotent. When this gap widens so that no confidence can be put any more into the “higher authority” which serves also as that what keeps a community together (a homogenising principle), it comes to a very dangerous crisis which may, but also may not, turn into violence. Depending on the historic conditions, a critical event (8) may or may not occur here. That possible turning point could also be disintegration. After a philosopher whom I quote immediately hereafter, we call this state of all possibilities, which should really be thought as naught, a - palanka. Whether it will turn to violence, depends on the historic, political and social context, and what will be the options. But in a situation where one or several generations have been spared the political (this could happen to the US too), where solutions and answers have been given to them in advance so that they need not even ask the questions, where people or some portions of it have been “spared” responsibility and political agency as citizens, violence is possible, if not probable at such times. Especially so if institutions have crumbled too. And here I quote Radomir Konstantinovic for a very important passage:

"Violence serves the function of rendering real the problematic Ego, whose inner, psychic stage it links to the reality of the world. Where this complexity (of reality) fails, developed as it is into a feeling of non-reality, of a total illusion of its validity and, consequently, of its existence, - the violence too does not occur. Violence is a directing method (rijska metoda) by which this miserable psychological theatre tries to become realistic in a literal sense, up to the moment when the limit between the stage (any stage) and the world is erased. Violence, which is brutality brought to its peak, is the only way of creating a reality (stvaranja stvarnosti) which, though existentially absent, 'ungraspable', accepts to respond only to a big hit and, generally, only to grandeur in anything: in words, gesture, posture, defiance. The smaller the feeling of reality, the bigger the necessity for violence. With the strengthening of this feeling, the necessity for violence diminishes. Obviously, the 'non-reality' of the world is here nothing else but the non-reality of the subject (...)." (9)

We all know of such situations in countries where institutions and value systems have crumbled to pieces while nothing was offered to replace them: that is the ideal situation for new or old, reformed mafias to step into the picture and attempt the hegemonic escalation. Sometimes, as was the case in the Balkans recently, wars are needed for that. And wars are of course more gendered than anything else. They also represent a particular setback for women, for any peaceful options, for democracy in general.

But I would like to come back to my own definition of violence - as being the reaction to the fact that “we” are not self-generated, and being the attempt to compensate for it via the identity principle (i.e. sameness kept at any cost) and the struggle for (maintaining) power. At the level of states, this is also called sovereignty. It enhances a hegemonic mechanism. Historically (but of course, not fatally), the urge for the continuity of the same as being identical to itself has been appropriated by representations of masculinity and by men (on another level, by the West, regarding other continents; or by any dominant agency).There is an expression in sanskrit that fits very well here, svayambhû, “being (born, produced, or becoming) by oneself”. That is the ideal of the one in the hegemonic position or fighting for it: autonomy and sovereignty not only as destiny, but also as origin, negating the others: the One. From this point of view, it is absolutely outrageous and unbearable that women should be giving birth both to the same and to the different (to baby girls and baby boys) instead of producing only daughters. Women scandalously maintain in themselves the unity of the species. It is even more insupportable that men can’t reproduce other men. But this “aberration” of nature can be repaired through the birth of a nation, where sameness is replicated regardless of the differentiating material role played by women. The nation (also through the name-of-the-father, where it applies) is an exclusively masculine lineage, as well as the family, in patriarchal conditions (10) .

At the time of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia (11) , the main parties in the conflict, from the time their stakes and they themselves were articulated as “ethnic” or “national”, tried hard to prove that they had been on a given territory not only before the others, but even completely without the others. They were there the first and only ones, and in the new narratives and representations the nationalists were constructing, they didn’t owe anything to anyone. No alterity could be tolerated in their constitution. Since, of course, there is neither biology nor culture without the other or without difference, the nationalistic dream of self-birth is both suicidal and murderous. (Though the non-intended suicide of the nation, whereby a nation reaches its maximum - adequacy to itself -, comes only after the murders.) They all started at once producing theories about the unique origin of their people as different from the others, and elaborate fictive histories of their “nation” being the oldest in the absolute sense: this was the way of producing those nations. Some examples of such historiography are really grotesque. This is how difference is being accomplished, and what is more, difference as hierarchy, opposition and conflict, - “us” & “them”. In fact any community, and the nation is one, nurtures such dreams. Paradoxically, overdone “identity” leads in the long run to its own disaggregation.

In such a construction, where the national and the masculine are immediately identified and thought of as universal though in different ways, (12) women find themselves in a double-bind situation, which is a situation of non-agency, of forceful immobilisation. They do not correspond to the pattern or to the ideal with which to identify in sameness, since they embody both the difference and that which is marked as different. In practical political terms it means that they are practically (but not theoretically) denied access to active citizenship, and their having those rights abstractly doesn’t help here, because they find themselves on the side of the exception to the rule, which they guarantee precisely by being the exception. (13) The same is true of other groups, such as Black Americans, or others. But the mechanism is especially true of how vertical patriarcal communities are constructed, whether the specific hierarchy concerns women or not. Patriarchy does not concern particularly women, but the general network of hierarchies.

Sex/gender (14) may eventually be only this: a first split in/of thinking, a separation before it is reflected (upon). In this case, it would all be about a division of reason, to which corresponds at the same time, in a signifying shift back which makes the levels (dimensions) change, - the division between nature and culture. Sex/gender is then the crucial argument and instrument of enforcing and maintaining a form of domination thought to be natural, i.e. the “best”. It is not sure there is such a thing as sex or gender (beyond the biological) outside its fantasies and its construction which, nevertheless, manages to produce real cleavages. From biological sex which is also accessible only as informed by culture (which means that it has no “pure” form), to the social and political gap between men and women, there is indeed a total shift of dimensions. It is a shift from the imaginary (and maybe the symbolic) to the real, or already from the normative to the normalised and the lived. It is not the existential that defines the institutions, it is (also) the contrary. But the institution is fed on real experience, it molds it and translates it while putting order into it. We are interested in sex/gender as the division of reason, and it is as such that it enters into the definition of the nation which it maintains and whose hierarchies it reproduces.

Is there a way of overcoming this cleavage of reason? To overcome it not while erasing it through any kind of sexual “communalism”, but through inclusions, in the manner of a “negativity” that makes the difference, in order to constitute what Etienne Balibar calls a “citizenship without community” (15) ? Because, he says, it is the institutionalised exclusion that constitutes the founding moment of citizenship. By extension, it is the exclusion (or rather, the subordinate inclusion) of women that founds citizenship as well as the nation. And as he rightly says, in order to overcome compartmentalisation, we should have to engage into a common operation or a shared act (16) . This means that men would also have to engage on the side of women in an enterprise of democratising gender relations, in order to inscribe them as equals within the people, into citizenship and into the “nation”. This project can only be reciprocity, if we don’t mean to render the nation, in its recognition of (“ethnic”, “national” and other) differences, paradoxically blind only to the sex/gender difference among all differences. But since women are seen as the stake and the material basis for the nation, a supplementary cultural effort is needed for that, in order to brake the “normality” which is just normativity. Also, in order to deconstruct normative temporality which says that the emancipation of women will come, but only after many other priorities.

Balibar proposes in general the alternance and reciprocity of the dominant and dominated positions, in order to fight against majoritarian hegemonies. (17) But such a “rotating” democracy may still seem too rigid since still basically binary.On the other hand, the specificity of the subordinate inclusion if women, exactly, doesn’t let itself be caught, or be expressed, represented, or for that matter “universalised”, in a dichotomy. Or does it? The dichotomy, which supposes also a hierarchy, is the very form of the articulation as well as of the social and political normalisation of the sex and gender relationship. It is the form in which the subordination of women is imposed and made consensual. The dichotomy (subject-object, male-female, rationality-nature, etc.) is the way of silencing the real relationship that can take place between women and men within a more complex configuration as informed by their real common life which also brings in individual differences. Normalised reality represents this relationship in a necessarily binary and inadequate manner, while violating it. A “rotation” in power, when it comes to gender, cannot possibly be thought of as consecutive, it has to be done in contemporaneity, synchronically, in a mélange, in disregard of discriminatory categories. It is impossible to imagine separate communities of women or men without further communalising and essentialising sex in general, and women in particular. Doesn’t the gender relation (a political relationship) present itself as the ultimate test (rarely practiced) which can show the limits of a notion, for example of that of alternating? It is then time itself which comes under interrogation. If by that we mean some consecutivity in the alternance of groups in charge, it will immediately lead to the inevitable construction of stereotypical normative and frozen roles. In the contrary, it would be only inasmuch as it were neither consecutivity nor dichotomy, and inasmuch as it implied all the times in synchrony and in diachrony, that alternance could represent hope for democracy. In other words, for democracy, one has to start from sex/gender, but not end in it. The sex/gender difference passes through each of us, and differences are as numerous, and more, indeed, than individuals (since each one of us can be many).The sex/gender social relationship begins not where there are two people, but even before. It is impossible to imagine de-communalizing cultural, ethnic, religious, national, racial, class etc. identities, and not do the same of sexual/gender “identities”, through which communalism/communitarianism starts also for the other groups.

The human political dimension (le politique), which is what deconstructs essentialisations at each attempt of fixation, is outside (beyond) the conceptual dichotomy nature/culture as the tension that runs between them. Or better, it passes through both terms without being encapsuled by them. If that différend (18) is irreducible, it nevertheless works and moves, it brings about change. It is suspense, it is the political. It is then reparable, while letting the difference be. (19) In other words, dichotomy is that which fixes not only gender, but also sex, and not the other way round. Dichotomy, being the mode of thinking, produces binary conceptual categories. It then projects these onto its objects, and in order to make it convincing and applicable to other cases, it renders the dichotomies “natural”. Thus sex (and gender) is produced as normative.

But to render the universal, or to surrender to the universal, means also to yield a little on the identity principle, to access to discontinuity which is at the source of life. Life, which, to overcome death, never makes of the latter an absolute alterity.

The human takes form, in reality, only as a relation and under the tendency of a generic normativity. But since, precisely, it is a relationship, it is malleable. Dualism (which is a mere conceptual device and a matter of understanding, the inclination to make order, to categorise and control) infallibly alludes back to the norm because it refers to an ontology of a naturalised and well defined difference. But humanity can only be recognised as one, having multiple and non-identifiable (open), complementary forms, irreducible to each other: the sexual difference is here at the origin of the species, which may be the reason why it is taken as a normative pattern (20) . But, what is more important, individual differences in all matters are even more remarkable and underline in every moment the insufficiency of the binary (man-woman) to express them.

In order to blur the trace of this mechanism by which are excluded or subordinated those that are already and in any case marginalised and barred from power, the basic difference guaranteeing the origin of the species is projected on all other differences as the standard difference, seen as dichotomous and rendered normative. It is the same that divides reason. In order for this project to work, it is perhaps more basic that it should be a dichotomy at all, rather than that it should be the sexual difference itself, because it is dichotomy as such that implies hegemony, dissimulates hierarchy, and divides reason. Its being seen as sexual is instrumental. In the next step then, through sexualising/gendering and naturalising relationships and concepts, it imposes the law, the rules of the game.

This is why mere difference itself, especially communal, communitarian or group difference seen as “identity”, cannot be a project - as it was thought by some post-modernists or by many a communitarian. But it must be respected. With differences and their alliances, however, political projects can be made, but that is another matter. If I were to sum up (though I am not aiming at anything final here), I would say that sex/gender is the division, or rather the constant process of the splitting of reason or, in other words, the production of differences which is life itself. And nation, though following partly this alignment and being buttressed by it, is not quite the same: it is reason already divided, even when in a nutshell or still as a project (as reason and not; as non-violence and violence; as us & the others, etc.). Though nations are also processes, and never identical to themselves, they also have an aspect of a “promised” closure, of heading towards their own dismantlement, since the principles of sovereignty and of exception themselves carry a contradiction by which an excess of the identity (the nation) will bring about its end. (21) Nation (as well as any type of community; but genders are not communities although fraternities are) is la raison déjà partagée (reason already bisected), this is why it can be seen at striving from partition to partition. This is why it is really difficult to stop any “ethnic”or “national” riots once triggered, though it might be possible to prevent them beforehand through a different project-building.

NB: This paper is a draft prepared for discussion by the Women & Gender Studies Group at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore on April 11, 2002. I am grateful to professor Veena Das for having invited me to JHU and discussed my ideas, as well as for the opportunity of giving this and other lectures. To professor Gyanendra Pandey, I am thankful for his critical reading of this piece, and to the WGS group for their valuable comments and interest. To all of them I am indebted in different ways for the time-out and new insights they gave me at JHU. My special thanks go to Dr. Ruby Lal. The present paper comes partly, though not entirely, from the Conclusion to my book Le Sexe de la nation (manuscript)


(1) Difference "in itself" is not marked, but it is historically and concretely determined as the hierarchy, domination, injustice, social inequality that are made to be "theoretically" based on it. "Long live the difference", "Vive la différence !" is the slogan of both the (possible, but not necessary) just social claims, as well as of the (possible, but not necessary) racist claims. As shown by Balibar (1990), new racism is "differentialist".
(2) Colette Guillaumin, Sexe, Race et Pratique du pouvoir. L’Idée de nature, Côté Femmes, Paris 1992.
(3) R. Ivekovic & J. Mostov, From Gender to Nation, Longo Editore, Ravenna (Europe & the Balkans, Institute for Central & Eastern Europe, Forlì) 2002.
(4) the access to universality, for women or other subjected groups or individuals is indirect and never clean.
(5) R. Ivekovic, “Studije o eni ienski pokret" in the collective book by the same title (ed. by R. Ivekovic), Beograd : Ed. Komunist, 1981, pp. 5-49; Ernesto Laclau-Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, London - New York : Verso 1985; Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), London, Verso 1996.
(6) J-F. Lyotard, L’inhumain. Causeries sur le temps, Galilée, Paris 1988, p. 31, translated by me. I won’t go into an otherwise interesting and rewarding critique of Lyotard here. I have done it elsewhere: Le sexe de la philosophie. Jean-François Lyotard et le féminin, Paris : L'Harmattan, 1997.
(7) La balcanizzazione della ragione, Manifestolibri : Roma, 1995; Autopsia dei Balcani. Saggio di psico-politica, Raffaello Cortina, Milano 1999; in German: Autopsie des Balkans. Ein psychopolitischer Essay, Droschl : Graz 2001.
(8) Veena Das, Critical Events. An Anthropological Perspective in Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1995.
(9) Konstantinovic, Filozofija palanke, Nolit, Beograd 1981, pp. 87-88, translated by me. See two translations from this book into French: “Sur le nazisme serbe”, Lignes 06, October 2001, pp. 53-75; “Sur le style du bourg”, Transeuropéennes 21, 2001, pp. 129-139. The central concept of palanka (literally “small town” or “province”) denotes a state of mind rather than a location, in the sense of “spirit” or rather of “spectre”. It means an incomplete integration of a still communal and perhaps partly even rural society in transition, whose contradictions - face to face with modernity - may, but need not, lead to violence. It denotes the always possible totalitarianism, a state of latent fascism of which everyone is capable and that is never historically overcome. Relapses are possible at any stage, as recent events in many parts of the world have shown (take the Balkans; the long march of racist and rightest ideas in the way Europe is being institutionalized; the “axis of evil” concepts ; Rwanda, etc.). This type of society (palanka), of hesitation about modernity, is possible anywhere, and is not limited to (post)colonialism or (post)socialism, but is known to late capitalism too.
(10) R. Ivekovic, “Women, Nationalism and War: ‘Make Love, Not War’”, in Hypatia, vol. 8, n. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 113-126.
(11) Turned also into an international war; it is really a series of wars with both a local, civil, and an international character, as agression.
(12) Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Vol. 2, trans. E. Carter and C. Turner, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis 1978/1989; Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender & Nation, Sage, London-New Delhi 1997.
(13) R. Ivekovic, “Women, Nationalism and War: ‘Make Love, Not War’”, in Hypatia, vol. 8, n. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 113-126.
(14) I am not going into this terminological distinction which I don’t follow here, but we can discuss it; see what follows.
(15) E. Balibar, Nous, citoyens d’Europe? Les frontières, l’Etat, le peuple, La Découverte, Paris 2001, p. 124.
(16) E. Balibar, op. cit., p. 125.
(17) E. Balibar, op. cit., p. 213.
(18) Jean-François Lyotard, Le Différend, Minuit, Paris 1983.
(19) But between the two sexes/genders, no distinction will ever be neat.
(20) Françoise Héritier, Masculin / Féminin. La pensée de la différence, Odile Jacob, Paris 1996.
(21) R. Ivekovic, “From the Nation to Partition, Through Partition to the Nation”, in Transeuropéennes 19/20, 2001, pp. 201-225.


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