Essay: Earle

Mid-Term Essay
STS 5305, Fall 2016
Joshua Earle

In 2009, a face-tracking webcam gleefully followed the face of a white woman while completely ignoring the black man seated right in front of it (Frucci, 2009). This was a harbinger of the system we now find ourselves beholden to. Today, I and many others sit in a similar blind spot, invisible to the powers that be. Some of us are here on purpose, avoiding the god’s eye gaze (Haraway, 1991) of the technocracy, slipping away from the panopticon’s (Foucault, 1977) control, resisting the system with a soft luddism to retain our own humanity. Most, however, are sorted here against their will, shunted aside by a system that doesn’t see them. They would be a part of the system, gaining all of the benefits therein if they could, but the webcam of the world follows other faces. Ultimately, we should have seen this coming, but the signs were hidden behind the promise of an easier life, behind the glimmer of the next new way to connect to each other. We allowed this unilateral way of thinking and being to seep into us with little resistance.

While it may have begun, at least visibly, with the webcam all those years ago, the point at which things turned is when our communication devices went internal. Once our connectivity was implanted, and became integrated into our bodies and minds, the war was lost. Through a combination of malice and ignorance, the types of people that were visible to us and our technology shifted. Those who could not or would not adopt this new technology became increasingly marginalized and invisible to the rest of us. Even when philanthropists tried to extend the reach of the technology, there were those that were missed or who refused, afraid of the parts of their lives that they were giving up. Eventually, the philanthropy stopped. Or at least slowed significantly… I still see some people trying to connect those of us who remain outside the system. This has become very rare, however. Now that people are basically born into the system, those who opt out, or are left out, are disappearing. And the desire to recruit those who resist this technology is waning in equal measure.

One might think that we who remain outside the system would scramble when opportunity presented. We live on the margins of society, only in those places where others want not to go, work in places where it is too dangerous to send an expensive drone. However, to be within the system comes with its own risks. There is a singularity of thought that dominates the system. Those who created the system modeled their ideas of thought on how the computers of the time worked. Those ideas persist, shaping how those within the system think. The knowledge, and desires, and biases, infused within the technology became the instruments of how everyone thought. The kind of algorithms that controlled the racist webcam now control how people think and behave. The technology has an obvious politics (Winner, 1980) which shifts thought, and marginalizes those who don’t fit into the expected definitions or shapes around which those algorithms were built. The instruments with which those within the system think hold within them their own knowledge, infused within them by their creators, and evoked through their modes of operation (Baird, 2004) that silently guide people in nefarious ways.

We have been marginalized, but our minds remain relatively free. We have learned many lessons about how minds work, but we are powerless. We are on the margins of society, and have no recourse to change the system. It is too large and too entrenched and has too much inertia for the few of us outside to change. But I can imagine a world where we saw this danger coming, where we found a way to avoid such a linear way of thinking.

I would seem to be an obvious path, too. Transhumanists in the late 20th and early 21st century shaped their thought on evolutionary models (Kurzweil, 2000. Savulescu, 2003). They believed that technology would become the driving factor of human change rather than biology, but they never left the rhetoric of evolution far behind. And yet, as anyone who has studied biology and evolution ought to know, the greater your genetic diversity within a population, the more healthy that population becomes. The opposite is easily seen in the sickly Cheetah, or show dogs that get so inbred that a whole host of physical maladies runs rampant through their lines as we kept them “pure” for the sake of aesthetics. My grandfather told me of a dog he had which was a member of a show line of golden retrievers, but due to the shallowness of the gene pool, had epilepsy, a kink in his tail, and other medical issues throughout his life. The problems of purity have shown up in human populations as well, with the high incidence of hemophilia in the British royal family. Philosophers in the 20th and 21st century talked about the difficulties of reliance on purification (Latour, 1991), and yet, this singular mode of thought has persisted.

Even before the turn of the 21st century, science began to show that the human condition, and in particular, human cognition, was far more complex than a simple eight-pound biological computer housed inside our skull (Gershon, 1998. Wilson, 2004). Another thinker, my grandfather, posited a way of thinking that explores the intra-activity of ideas and identity, and posited that, much like genetic diversity, diversity of ideas and ways of being is necessary to a healthy and growing social and cultural way of life (Earle, 2020). Had we taken my grandfather’s suggestions, there is a way we could have involved a larger portion of the world population, created a culture of inclusion which valued difference and intra-activity, one that would have included even those people who may not have adopted any sort of technological enhancement, because that difference in diffraction with others would have created new ways of being that continued to improve the thought diversity of our culture, protecting our cogno-diversity and against the sorts of famines which are existential threats to monocultures in any context.

If those who pushed for the development of this technology had only taken their own evolutionary rhetoric to heart, we might not be in this situation. Instead, there were metrics and statistics that told us which were the best and most efficient ways of being, and as a society we pushed toward that singular way of being. And yet, only in the interaction between differences can new understanding be made. Only through the mixing of different genomes does the population thrive. Only through the interaction of different ways of being can new possibilities truly be created. Ideas and ways of being diffract through each other, creating new phenomenological events and creations (Barad, 2007). If, like we have created, there is but one way of being; that way merely grows, it cannot change, cannot evolve. And sometime soon, I fear it will meet a challenge it is not ready for and will collapse. I mourn for humankind when that inevitability arrives. At this point I believe it is inevitable. The monoculture of the modern mind that has colonized science and technology (Shiva, 1993) is a ripe target for some form of famine to force the reintroduction of diversity or to force extinction. The only question will be will those of us outside the system get caught in the downfall as well.

We are working on both of those things as we speak. Only once we had become so invisible that the system decided that we were no longer a threat worth controlling, were we able to gather in large enough numbers to begin planning and building a way of life that might both disrupt the system, but also help ensure our survival in the case of a system collapse. We have gathered in many locations, communicating with an older system that is no longer monitored by the system, gathering many ways of being, goals, and types of thought and organization. We are currently producing a new technological paradigm, separate from the system, and inclusive of the various genres of being in our community. While it’s a little like comparing apples to elephants, early measures seem to show that diversity of technologies as well as general performance seems to be improving at a faster rate than the trends that produced the systems. If we continue, we should reach survivability even in the case of a system collapse within a few years, and we may be able to reach our goal of a controlled dismantling of the system within a decade or two. We hope to even include individuals within the system who want to keep their way of life. Our system is built to be inclusive and assimilatory to all potential genres of being. Once we include system individuals, our own system will be improved. We hope to produce a new society which is inclusive, accepting, and improving the way of life of as many people as possible. We will not accept a system-style culture of exclusion and enforced normativity. Not only is the system unfair and immoral, but it is also worse at improving the condition of people and the world at large. We can do better.


Baird, Davis. 2004. Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. Univ of California Press.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Earle, Joshua. 2020. Genres of Being: The Importance of Difference and Diffraction in an Equitable Science, Technology, and Society. Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage.

Frucci, Adam. 2009. HP Face-Tracking Webcams Don’t Recognize Black People. Gizmodo.

Gershon, Michael. 1999. The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine. Harper Collins.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2000. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin.

Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press.

Savulescu, Julian (2003). "Human-Animal Transgenesis and Chimeras Might Be an Expression of Our Humanity". Journal of Bioethics. 3: 22–24.

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind. Zed Books.

Wilson, Elizabeth A. 2004. Gut Feminism. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15 (3). Duke University Press: 66–94.

Winner, Langdon. 1980. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus. 121–36.

Gender as Genre
Joshua Earle
STS 5305 Final Essay
Fall 2016


Gender infuses every corner of our social life. We gender each other. We gender our cars. We gender our pets…and toys…and even nature itself.

The vast majority of this gendering lies on the binary of masculine/feminine. However, the lived gender experience of individuals does not often map onto such a strict binary. And ascribing a gender to a built object or a planet is… kind of weird. Feminist epistemologists and theorists have been wrestling with the problematic of binary gender for years. We know gender exists. We live it every day. We wear, or avoid wearing, particular clothing and colors. We have certain mannerisms and ways of being in the world that are gendered (and perceived as such by others). How do we then attend to the real, lived experience of gender, while acknowledging its constructedness? How do we allow for performance while acknowledging that gender is also inscribed by others onto us? How do we break down the binary categorization, while acknowledging that most people actually do fall into two main large categories?

Categorization and Quantification

At their most basic, categories allow us to distinguish ourselves from others and the world around us. Without categories, there would be no way for me to describe the ways in which I differed from another person or the world at large. There could be no “me” without there also being “not me.” Perhaps one day everyone will live in a shared consciousness where that binary is also unnecessary, but as we live life right now these distinctions exist and are useful in navigating the world. Everything from color to size to shape to sound is described in the language of categories. It should be no surprise then that the messy assemblage of bodily shapes and appearances and behaviors that we call “gender” is likewise categorized.

The problem with categories is that demarcation becomes slippery once you start to investigate liminal cases, and it can also do violence to those in those liminal spaces. Much as with the debate about the demarcation of science, what gets left out of that definition becomes taboo and marginalized (Popper, 1963; Lakatos, 1977; Ruse, 1982). Often adding more categories (like the ever-increasing sex/gender/ sexualities acronym of LGBTQIAA) only serves to further marginalize those who aren’t included in the new categories. Also, the lived experience of a person who seems to fit into a category might not be as copacetic as it seems. Even someone who self-identifies as “male” or “female” might find themselves chafing at the boundaries of the gender category they identify with. Adding a Trans-category to both male and female includes some people in the discussion, but further marginalizes intersex individuals, or individuals who self-identify as non-gendered or gender-nonconforming in another way.

Once one has a set of classifications, one can count them (the categories themselves, and those who fit into them). This is where the violence against those who stretch or break classification boundaries, and thus become invisible, happens. Quantification is about power; both for those with power—as a means of control and discipline—but also for those without. If the disenfranchised get together and vote, their voices can be heard in ways that are disproportionate to their social, cultural, or financial power. If workers strike, they leverage their numbers against the power of their employer, evening the playing field. Being counted means existing, and having power, in a political system. (Porter 1995; Rose 1991; Appadurai, 1996)

People (either individually or collectively) whose only concept of gender classifications is “female” and “male” will not be able to understand/perceive those who do not identify with either category. When “male” and “female” are the only boxes one can check under “sex” or “gender” on an official form, how, then does someone who does not fit proceed? How does one get counted when one’s category doesn’t exist? How can one participate in the world when the world doesn’t see you? The panopticon’s control comes with a reciprocal ability to participate in the system in which one exists (Foucault, 1977). Lacking the visibility within the system also constrains one from resistance to that system. Hence why marginalized communities struggle to get their ways of being categorized (see, again, the growing sex/gender/sexualities acronym; or the struggle to get certain conditions added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)).

Other Theories of Gender

Many have attempted to re-form gender in different ways in order to get way both from the binary of masculine/feminine gender dichotomy, and the essentializing of gender to an underlying natural cause (sex via chromosomes, genitalia, or secondary sex characteristics). Sandra Harding broke gender into three categories; gender symbolism, gender structure, and individual gender (Harding, 1986). Anne Fausto-Sterling, adapting Judith Lorber, breaks gender down even more, bifurcating it first into social institution and an individual experience, and then separating it even further (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Judith Butler sidestepped categories altogether by calling gender a performance. Donna Haraway, referencing Judith Butler even went so far as to call gender (and many other sources of identity) fiction (Haraway 1991).

Harding’s work wasn’t so much to break down gender boundaries or to add more gender variants (only speaking of masculinity and femininity in reference to the three realms), but rather to illustrate the multiple levels on which gender is lived and inscribed. Individual lived experience is only one way in which gender exists. Gender structure speaks of the way labor is divided along gender lines (and can speak of many other structures in which gender becomes relevant). Gender symbolism, or gender totemism, is the wider separation of things, especially in a hierarchical sense that ascribes things we value more as masculine and vice versa. This was important to reveal the ubiquity and pervasiveness of gender on many levels of our lives. But illuminating this manifold thing we call gender does nothing to include people for whom the masculine/feminine binary structure doesn’t fit… it merely illuminates in how many ways and on how many levels they are left out.

Anne Fausto-Sterling does something similar. Under Lorber’s category of gender as a social institution Fausto-Sterling lists gender statuses, gendered division of labor, gendered kinship and others, while under individual gender, she lists sex category, gender identity, gendered marital and procreative status and others. (Fausto-Sterling, 2000. p. 251) She further complicates it by describing the layers of gender like those of a Russian nesting doll, with the cellular gender at the innermost layer and culture and history being the outermost layers. And while this complication of gender is helpful in describing the layered nature of the world and how our systems came to be, it still does not get us past the binary (though, to be fair, nothing in Fausto-Sterling’s category breakdowns requires a binary, or would push back against complicating the binary).

Butler does try to get away from restrictive catagories with her concept of performativity. Gender performance allows for a far wider range of subtle, individual differences in how one interprets and re-presents one’s gender to the world. One’s gender identity is the product (the effect rather than the cause) of the performance. Haraway, pulling a lot from Butler, describes many of the structures and classifications in and around gender as fictions. She hedges away from calling gender a fiction directly, but it is heavily implied (Haraway 1991 pg 135) in her attempt to expand social constructivism to notions of gender.

I have struggled to fully accept any of these conceptions of gender. Separating gender into more categories doesn’t, by itself, fix the problem of categorical violence. Butler’s performativity has an aspect of transformation and a re-forming of gender within it, but can get lost in the constructedness and lose a sense of the materiality and individuality of gender. Similarly, the self can be lost in the lack of a doer in the deed of the performance. Even her attempt at fixing this issue fell short of giving materiality, and the self, the agency they deserved (Butler, 1990). I always felt the there was something missing in these conceptions: either a nuance of complexity (as with Fausto-Sterling, Lorber and Harding) or a foot grounded in realism (as with Haraway and Butler). I don’t know if I have a solution, per se, but perhaps a metaphor that helps us think about gender in a complicated, but workable, way.


Early on in Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us, S. Lochlann Jain runs through a list of “stamps on her passport to the kingdom of the ill” that apply to her and her situation: “Diagnosed with a late-stage cancer at age thirty-six, after three years of misdiagnoses by three different doctors… Underwent hormonal therapy to be an egg donor for former partner… An out queer… Two small children living with her, one born three months prematurely and still hooked up to an oxygen tank; resided with parents during treatment… An anthropologist with expertise in medical anthropology and injury law… Canadian” (Jain, 2013. p. 19-20). These genres of being lay under the introduction subheading: Cognitive Dissonance. She notes how the conflicting ideas that cancer creates in oneself shapes the identity associated with having cancer. The counterfactual possibilities of survival for those who have died – if only they’d just done some thing – or of death for those who survived – because why should I live when kinder, brighter people have died – can’t be resolved, but can only be spun out and examined (Jain. p. 23).

Identity, be it cancer or gender, brings with it an existential cognitive dissonance. No descriptor that one could list about oneself can ever describe the fullness of one’s existence. No list could ever be long or inclusive enough to capture every aspect of one’s experience. Identifiers are not people. And yet society forces these labels and identifier upon us, and makes it politically and socially necessary to be these identities in order to exist in the world. Cancer is just another set of identifiers that, like gender, chafes (even if we accept the label) because the box never fits us quite as comfortably as we would like. We hold these truths to be self-contradictory that we belong both within and outside of the identities we choose and those that are chosen for us. Our cognitive dissonance then becomes the identifier of our identities.

And yet, our identity is incredibly important to our place in the world. We organize ourselves around identifiers, such as parent, queer, female, Canadian, has cancer. We share experiences and feel camaraderie with those who carry flags with the same stripes, even as we understand that those flags are poor re-presentations of the whole that is a person. But the import that we ascribe to these patterns, to these labels, to these ways of being in the world, to these genres, hold us fast and we struggle mightily against any attempt to remove such uncomfortable boxes from our selves. Many of these boxes are so important, in fact, that they can organize society as a whole. Identifiers of race, gender, ethnicity, locality, and class determine our access to the world and its many possibilities. The politics surrounding identity create both justice and injustice, they harm and help. They contradict and cause dissonance, they allow us to commune and cause consonance.

But with all the harm that identity causes can we just be rid of it? The easy and obvious answer is no, but the more difficult question becomes: Then what is to be done? Can we break down identity in such a way that it no longer chafes? That it no longer lies on the ear like a diminished fifth? Can we comprehend a way of being that softens the politics? Jain wants to “usher cancer and its identities out of the closet and into a space not of comfort, or righteous anger, but of mourning, a space where the material humanity of suffering and death informs communicative and collective action” (Jain, 2013. p. 24). This seems a good place to start. If we begin communication and collective action, we shift the burden of identity away from a person onto the broader community. Cancer is so big, and so heavy, and we allow individuals to carry all of it, but through the entangled sharing of information and action that burden can be spread around and handled with greater ease. Gender, arguably, is even larger, bringing with it millennia of history. If identity is not an individual genre, but one of a group that allows for the entrance and exit of many actors, and shifts its key as the various entanglements and diffractions evolve over time, then perhaps the contention of identity can be similarly eased. If we can mix and remix gender or other identities in the same way that I have mixed the metaphors here so far, then perhaps some freedom from the category violence I spoke of earlier will be found.

I have used the term “genre” a couple of times now, and I should explain more about how and why I am doing so. “Genre” shares an etymological root with the words “gender,” “gene,” “eugenics,” “generation,” and “generate” (DeLauritus, 1987) and evokes “kind” and “creation” within all of those words, but also involves an individuation which locates the experience within the self. Genres describe kinds that are created, which evolve and mutate over time, and a part of which nothing need be exclusively. Genre is neither binary nor polar. It describes things in ways that do not suggest hierarchy or worth in relation to each other. Even as we look at the genres of fiction and nonfiction, a pair that seems both binary and hierarchical, examples are easily given (unauthorized biographies, autobiographies, historical fiction) which sit within and without both camps as their own thing comfortably and without contradiction. And with as much disagreement as would erupt between lovers of various literatures as to which of those genres is “the best” or “more worthwhile,” the essential hierarchical idea is quickly put to rest.

When we apply this frame to gender, we can portray it as non-binary and non-hierarchical, allowing individuals to move between genres of gender without much in the way of conflict. This also makes it more difficult for people and communities to use naturalized conceptions of gender norms as justification for marginalization and exclusion. Genres of gender and sexuality no longer lie on a polar spectrum (which merely adds new locations to a previous hierarchy, much like Lorber and Fausto-Sterling) but instead exist in a much more dimensional, entangled and fractal relationship with each other.


In literature and film we “play” with genres and tropes all the time, as ways of producing, reinforcing, and disrupting expectations. Firefly, Star Wars and Star Trek are all instances of the science fiction genre, but no one would say that they share all of the same qualities. They can also be described respectively as a space western, science fantasy or space-opera, and a Futuristic techno-utopia. All of these properties would fit under the umbrella of science fiction, but many include themes from other genres, and all have in one way or another, changed what the science fiction genre itself is.

Genres only exist relationally to each other. They cannot exist of themselves, but only as a relation to other genres. There can never be just one genre. Even when we conceive of the minimum two genres in relation to each other, their relationality necessitates the creation of new genres that come out of the interaction between the original two. If the interaction of two genres necessarily creates new genres through their diffraction, we can see a way of thinking about identity that moves away from a singular, separate individual way of being, to one that is the result of the entangled fractal diffractions (Barad, 2007) of many, perhaps infinite, other genres/beings/ways of being. Similarly, this can shift (not entirely, but substantively) burdens of identity from individuals to collectives, while retaining the self as the locus of experience.

This shift toward a more collective sense of identity mirrors what Jain herself advocates for the concept of cancer. She pushes against the singular, triumph of the human spirit, concept of survivorship and towards one of shared experience (Jain, 2013. p. 31). And quotes John Donne of the communal nature of survivorship when he writes “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (ibid p. 32, ref. Donne, 1959). This relationality lies at the heart of Jain’s account. And yet, she doesn’t want to shift the burden to population-wide statistics. The individual still matters. The Holocaust shoe project isn’t about some percentage of people who died, but about those people who died (ibid p.35). There is also danger in removing the individual from the story altogether.

The dissonant dichotomy of the singular and the communal is one that I think genre also helps us understand. We are not our genre, just as a book is not a genre. It might be of a genre, but it cannot be a genre. A genre is not a physical thing, but a result of relationality. In literature, it describes how a book relates to the other books that have come before it, where it stands in the whole history of books. And then, the book changes that equation, diffractively, altering the whole history of literature, if by only a tiny amount, imperceptible to most. This entanglement allows the whole of a genre to morph and evolve as new provocations of that genre are produced and interact within the genre and with other genres.

Similarly, we understand ourselves to be both I and We at the same time. We exist as a singular experience, but also as a collection of relations (genres) with which we affect the world and are affected by it reciprocally. No genre, or collection of genres, sufficiently explains I or We, just as no genre or collection of them, actually tells the story within a book. And yet, the shared relationality of genres allows a book to share some of the burden of storytelling through its relationship with the previous history of literature in much the same way that a genre of being can help an individual carry the burden of identity by spreading it through the relations they have with those who have come before and those who are entangled with that identity even if they are not of it themselves.


Nothing in my conception of genre fixes the problem of what box to check on a census form. As long as the government (or corporations, or society in general) desires to count people, there will come a time when a person is forced to collapse their complex identity into a check mark, or to remain outside the system and suffer the categorical violence that follows. Perhaps the best outcome of genres in this area is the removal of a sex/gender/sexuality identifier at all, due to the inability in this model to lock down a singular category that matters. I somehow doubt this outcome, so perhaps it is best to realize a limitation and retain the hope that in broader society this can remove hierarchies of value and lower stigma to those who find themselves in minority identities.

There is also a “prime mover” problem. If we think of genres of gender as beginning from a binary of male/female, one can easily draw lines of influence back to those two and claim that whatever someone claims as their gender is “really” one of the two in that first binary. This problem is one I hope to tackle in a later paper, and it is one that is necessary to the success of the metaphor. Unfortunately I both only just realized this issue, and this essay is already longer than necessary.

A third problem is one of applicability beyond socially constructed categories. I am working through a paper using this framework on biomedicalization and have already run into come conceptual problems. Genres may not help to break down scalar separations, or to deconstruct technological lock-in as I hope they might. This is an area that needs more thought.

Ultimately, this metaphor may be more limited than I originally thought. It has given me a more comprehensive understanding of Judith Butler’s performativity, but I remain unconvinced that it treats materiality and the individual self with enough worth. It can (and has) been argued that a self is a construct without clear boundaries as well, and philosophically that might hold up. I think the more feminist, and the more ecumenical, approach is to accept the individual experiences of people as ontologically valid and make sure to include those considerations in our theory. Otherwise we get into the postmodern constructivist realm of “nothing is real, everything is illusion” that makes people roll their eyes at us. Genres, I believe, can get us to a place where equal, or at least deserved, emphasis can be put on all necessary considerations of identity.


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