the imminent collapse of an empire

Writers generally don’t get to choose the titles of their pieces, but the confusion in the title and subtitle of this report by Alexandra Kralick — Are we talking about sex or gender? I mean, it’s not like bones could tell you anything about gender — is reflected in the report itself. Sometimes it’s about “the nature of biological sex”; at other times it’s about the false assumptions that arise from gender stereotypes. Kralick weaves back and forth between the two in unhelpful ways.

On the specific question of whether sex is binary, and the contexts in which that matters, if you want clarity you’d do well to read this essay. But for the moment I’m interested in something else.

There’s a passing comment in Kralick’s essay that caught my attention: “The perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and ’80s.” The phrase “second-wave feminism” has been used in various and inconsistent ways, but it is typically associated with “difference feminism,” an emphasis on “women’s ways of knowing” being different than those of men. And in that sense it’s better to say that “the perception of a hard-and-fast separation between the sexes started to disintegrate” as a result of the critique of second-wave feminism as being too “essentialist” in its modeling of sexuality and gender. The most influential figure in that critique was Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble set in motion the discourse about gender as choice, gender as performance, gender as fluid and malleable, that we see embodied in Kralick’s essay.

So while I don’t think Kralick has the details of the history quite right, she’s definitely correct to suggest that scientists are having this conversation right now — or not so much having a conversation as making declarations ex cathedra — as a direct result of intellectual movements that began in humanities scholarship twenty-five years ago.

So for those of you who think that the humanities are marginal and irrelevant, put that in your mental pipe and contemplatively smoke it for a while.

Many years ago the great American poet Richard Wilbur wrote a poem called “Shame,” in which he imagined “a cramped little state with no foreign policy, / Save to be thought inoffensive.”

Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
“I’m afraid you won’t find much of interest here.”

The people of this nation could not be more overt in their humility, their irrelevance, their powerlessness. But …

Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
(Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

Hi there scientists. It’s us.