Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sex, Ethics, and Method: Response to Heyes and Käll

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Sex, Ethics, and Method: Response to Heyes and Käll

Article excerpt

I thank Cressida Heyes and Lisa Käll for their careful and generous readings, and especially for the questions they pose. Even as Heyes and Käll raise very different kinds of concerns, each fundamentally requires that I reflect more carefully upon the issues of philosophical method that took me on the improbable path that resulted in Making Sense of Intersex. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to their criticisms among philosophers at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Though I cannot respond in detail to all of the questions raised by Heyes or Käll, I will try to address what I see as those which most directly challenge my arguments.


Heyes is skeptical of my invocation of Nietzsche and the value of my proposal that ressentiment is a motivating force in the surgical and hormonal normalization of the bodies of children with atypical sex anatomies. Heyes contrasts my identification of ressentiment in the response of medical specialists who promote unnecessary medical interventions for intersex anatomies with Wendy Brown's identification of ressentiment in her critique of identity politics in "Wounded Attachments" (Brown 1993): "Is ressentiment a generalizable attitude" Heyes asks, "in which those who deviate from the norm are punished for their jouissance through moralizing revenge, or is it (as for Brown) the moralizing revenge of the disempowered?" (Heyes 2016: 795). In other words, it doesn't seem to follow that physicians, who occupy positions of power and authority, can be understood to express ressentiment in their treatment of obviously powerless children.

To Heyes it might appear that an obvious extension of a Nietzschean analysis in the context of thinking about intersex would focus, as Brown vividly puts it, on "the wounded character of politicized identity's desire" (Brown 1993: 391). Brown casts a harsh light on contemporary claims to politicized identity, what in the 1990s was often expressed with respect to subjugated racial and sexual categories. Brown sees in the "desire for recognition" marked by politicized identity claims, a reiteration of "regulatory, disciplinary society" (398). Following Foucault-yet critical of what she sees as Foucault's "curious optimism" his "confidence" concerning the possibilities of resistance (397)-Brown cautions that rather than emancipation, these claims to identity, expressed, as they must be, within the terms of"discourses of liberal essentialism and disciplinary normalization," effectively replicate or reinforce the mechanisms of power that produced the subjugated positions from which activists now claim authority (398). In elaborating this claim, Brown brings Nietzsche into the analysis, identifying proponents of identity politics and their claims to civic membership and political rights with those "slaves" in Nietzsche's genealogy whose revolt resulted in the transvaluation of values.

Reading Brown today, I might see in the claims by some intersex activists, including those wholly focused on demedicalizing intersex, an illuminating comparison. The skepticism Brown expresses with respect to prospects for resistance grounded in identity claims is a prudent reminder of the skepticism we should exercise with respect to the promise of legal and political "fixes" focused on the problem of assigning gender to newborns with what is still called "ambiguous" sex.

Take for example the acclaim that greeted the 2012 German law mandating a sex assignment of "X" to intersex infants instead of "M" or "F" Hailed as an important advance, the German law has been repeatedly misrepresented in news media throughout Europe and the US as offering parents a "choice" in sex assignment of their children (see, e.g., Bendavid 2013; Heine 2013). As the Swiss activist group Zwischengeschlecht ("Between Genders") explained when the law went into effect, this legislation does not in fact provide parents with increased options, but formally prohibits registration of children with intersex as "M" or "F" Physicians, not parents, are vested with the authority to register children's sex assignment. …

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