Bruno Perreau is the Cynthia L. Reed Associate Professor of French Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolog. He will participate in the “Gender in Translation” dialogue at UC Berkeley, on December 10th, 2015 on the topic: “Transatlantic Echoes: Education and Belonging after Marriage Equality”.
-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?
I started my career in France studying how the law hinges on fantasies of nature. I studied adoption policies as the epitome of a paradoxical search for roots. Gender roles were a key part of this research, which I recently published in English: The Politics of Adoption. Gender and the Making of French Citizenship (MIT Press, 2014)
-> According to you, has the reflection on Gender Studies evolved over the past years, if we consider the publication of “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler (1990) a reference point?
Because it focused on performativity and norms, Gender Trouble helped detach the study of gender from biological conceptions of the self. Not that bodies do not matter –to quote another book by Judith Butler–, but materiality is always mediated by language, law, memory, etc. This approach opened new directions in gender studies (on trans identities, racism, youth, aging, etc.), but also contributed to existing debates outside of gender studies, for example on loss, agency, or belonging. Now, there is no battle won for good! Essentialist conceptions of gender remain very strong in the academia. It is particularly the case in France. Gender is often used as a “criterion” for understanding contemporary societies, but its very contours, and the author’s standpoint are too rarely questioned.
-> The operation “Gender in Translation” as it has been conceived originally tries to put into perspective French and American approaches to Gender Studies. Does this distinction still seem relevant to you? Why?
In my new book Queer Theory: The French Response (Stanford UP, forthcoming 2016), I use the term “transatlantic echo,” because French and American studies on gender and sexuality are so entangled that it is impossible to distinguish the original from the translated version, without artificially separating our two countries. I prefer to think in terms of oscillation within and between multiple cultural and subcultural contexts. Conversely, reactionary movements, which fought against the Taubira law on marriage equality, wanted us to believe that “gender theory” was an American corpus, totally distinct from conceptions of kinship in France, and thereby profoundly threatening when it came to translating it. In short, I am not saying that there are no differences between France and the United-States, but that it should not be the starting point of our work.
-> Could you define the specificity of your approach to Gender Studies?
For me, gender is what Michel Foucault called “transactional realities.” Something that does not exist, but still produces effects, drawing its efficacy from its claim to universality. No thought, or gesture can be labeled as feminine, gay, or trans as such; however, the gendered categories through which we perceive them impact our behaviors, and eventually social and legal norms themselves. My approach is thus skeptic: I try to take the production of discourses on gender seriously, but I am also very wary when gender is used as a reference that precedes the very context in which it is produced.
-> Does your research in the field of Gender Studies bear a civic and/or political engagement? Is this an important aspect for you?
Absolutely! Justice is not a given. It is contingent upon new interpretations of the social world. This is what I strive for when writing. Opening new possibilities. When I showed the plasticity of the legal system of adoption in France, I resolutely campaigned for social change in a context characterized by the hegemony of biology, and a certain impoverishment of kinship (surrogacy is for instance forbidden in France, and assisted procreation limited to heterosexual couples).
-> As a scholar/artist/thinker/curator/…, what does the title “Gender in Translation” evoke for you?
In Europe, the notion of gender first circulated through policy-making (gender mainstreaming, gender equality, etc.). Gender, as a critical tool, which originated in Joan W. Scott’s and Denise Riley’s work in the 1980’s, is completely different word! Somehow, “gender in translation” should only be understood broadly. We should not limit ourselves to languages, and reify national cultures, but rather examine the numerous interactions between different spheres of expertise and knowledge across borders.