terre thaemlitz writings

On Technology & Gender Confusion
- Terre Thaemlitz

First published on comatonse.com in 1997. This essay was originally written for inclusion in the book Synthetic Pleasures, a reader companion to Iara Lee's film of the same name, but the production was ulimately cancelled.


What is the historical impact of technology on gender? What forms of gender confusion have arisen in the wake of our newfound cyber-lifestyles? Chances are that most people think first of the fantastic: plastic surgery, transexuality, gender eradication, androgyny, pansexuality, genetic selection and mutation. Imaginative alterations envisioned in support of utopian social orders or fetishistic fancy. In either instance, they are visions of social deviance. But how can such radical visions be evoked by the mention of technologies nurtured by corporations, government agencies, and stodgy private institutions built on old money? How did we arrive at this curious contradiction? Perhaps there are some less immediately spectacular types of gender confusion going on.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the transgression of gender roles and sexual deviance were considered social improprieties - simply bad patterns of behavior. Male and female "sodomites" were identified and isolated through their involvement in particular actions. The social rejection of such actions was justified in religious terms, and the sodomites' crime was that of following misguided compulsions of the flesh. Similarly, sodomites (and hermaphrodites) were commonly associated with witchcraft and sorcery. But despite the lofty overtones of a spiritual battleground, the boundaries of sexuality and gender roles were ultimately understood in relation to actions. And every member of society had to beware of the temptations of these actions.

With the advent of Industrialization - the cultural absorption of Modern technology and science - these actions came to be defined in physiological terms as biological predispositions. The battle between Good and Evil was now one of Natural versus un-Natural. There emerged a dichotomy of Heterosexuality and Homosexuality, and associated with each of these conditions were specific and predetermined gender roles. Of course, those behaviors which spoke of propriety and good taste were deemed most Natural. Gender and sexuality were no longer considered to be rooted in social behavior, but now became the preconditions from which social order Evolved.

But at the same time, the advent of Industrial technology and the emergence of Western capitalism presented this new Sexology with a contradiction of circumstance. Ironically, it was the very need for an Industrialized work force to support this new technological and scientific growth which demanded the breakdown of traditional (and now deemed biologically predeterminate) gender roles. With eyes full of terror people saw the family unit crumble as women and children were forced into labor outside the home. By the turn of the twentieth century the press was flooded with reports of a new transvestitism - women passing as men. And before you knew it, even a proper lady could be spotted in trousers.

The post-Industrial era seems to be cycling on this state of contradiction, swinging like a pendulum between decades of conservatism and decadence. But as time advances, and momentum is lost, we find ourselves dealing with ever more frequent moments of ambivalence. An emotional disassociation from extremity of circumstance which seems to grow exponentially with the wondrous strangeness of our technological abilities. In a world of silicon breasts, hormonal alteration, vaginal construction and penile implants, extreme positions are saved for talk shows (or, as I like to refer to them, spectacles fueled by a repressed desire for clarity - a vicarious brush with 'belief' through opinionated guests and audience members - that push of desire which will swing the social pendulum into the next decade of consciousness).

But this ever increasing confusion in the face of contradiction is also resulting in the reassociation of gender and sexuality with social action, as opposed to immutable biological preconditions. A concept of social action which, unlike that before Industrialization, is not so heavily shrouded in ideologies of extra-social spiritualisms. As we fantasize of the idealisms and terrors of a world constructed through medical alteration and genetic selection, we are no longer able to escape discussion of our societal role in the development and propagation of gender roles and sexuality. Women fight for social equality based on material grounds of ability and economic necessity. And both contemporary Lesbian and Gay Rights movements claim cornerstones in Stonewall, a rebellion of transvestites against repeated physical and emotional violence. If the advent of Industrialization was paralleled by a despiritualization of gender and sexuality, post-Industrialization seems paralleled by increased attempts to understand our behaviors in overtly political and social terms.

Which brings us to our original question of the role of corporations, government agencies and private institutions in the development of technologies. Given Industrialization's role in the propagation of self-contradictory forms of gender confusion, I am willing to rule out conspiracy theories suggesting a capitalist elite's gradual takeover of society by genetically engineered hermaphrodite worker drones. It seems that gender confusion permeates the very foundations of post-Industrial society, and that this prolonged state of non-resolution has resulted in ambivalence. Perhaps it is ambivalence, not motive, which plays a greater role in the continued regulation of a status quo... but just in case, I'm keeping an eye on the folks down in Market Development.