Eric Fassin on “Gender in Translation”

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Eric Fassin is a Professor of Sociology at the Department of Political Science and Department of Gender Studies, Paris-8 University, France. His work focuses on sexual and racial politics and their intersections in current immigration policies from a comparative perspective, in national as well as transnational terms.

Eric Fassin will take part in the “Gender in Translation” Dialogue at University of California, Berkeley, on December 10th, 2015.

-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?

Let me turn your question around. How can one NOT be interested in gender studies? Of course, I could give you personal reasons for the fact that I spend my life working in this field. But then, my question is: what are the personal reasons of most academics, artists, etc., for NOT paying attention to gender? Beyond the intimate dimension, let me mention three things: first, when I tried to become a social scientist, sex seemed particularly relevant to reflect on nature vs. culture; second, when I lived in the U.S. at the turn of the 1990s, the centrality of sexual politics (abortion, sexual harassment, date rape, etc.) made me think about the importance of context; third, as I tried to discuss the American scene for a French audience, I had to wonder about the resistance I encountered. There is a geography of gender.

-> 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?

It keeps evolving. Think of the debates on biology, on trans and intersex issues. Think also of the discussions on intersectionality that try to address different forms of domination (sex, race, class, and more). Perhaps the most important evolution of the years 2000 has been the context of “sexual nationalisms” – both homo- and femo-nationalisms. Geography now becomes geopolitics.

-> 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?

I’ve made a living, so to speak, writing about the “transatlantic mirror”. An important part of my work concerns not just the figure of “America” in France (or conversely that of France in the United States), but also the circulations across the Atlantic. At the same time, I am more and more convinced that we have moved beyond the mirror: there is not an American original and a French copy of gender studies. In fact, it is not just transatlantic any longer; the internationalization of gender makes the circulations more complex. Maybe there is not a center any longer – it’s more like a multiplication of centers, contexts in which the deployment of gender takes on different meanings (and relevance).

-> Could you define the specificity of your approach to Gender Studies?

I work with the concept of “sexual democracy” (as a counterpoint to Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics”). On the one hand, I start from the historical moment we are in. “Gender trouble”, to me, is not so much the “essence” of our sexual condition as the truth of our historical context: sexual norms have lost their transparency; we cannot ignore their political nature any longer; they are up for redefinition. On the other hand, sexual democracy is not just the logic of the world we live in. It is also a rhetoric than can be used to draw boundaries between us and them – and this is what is at stake in the instrumentalization of sexual democracy for xenophobic and racist purposes. My job consists in taking seriously both the critical and normative dimensions of gender.

-> Does your research in the field of Gender Studies bear a civic and/or political engagement? Is this an important aspect for you?

The beauty of working in gender studies is that (contrary to most other fields) you cannot ignore or deny their political dimensions – whether critical, or normative, or both. The only question is: what to do with this? In practice, I have been involved in feminist and LGBT politics. Of course, my position as a “sociologue engagé” that does not speak from a minority perspective complicates matters; but I find that is a good thing after all. At least, I cannot claim to speak in anybody’s name… and also, it encourages me to think of the consequences on the norms – not just on those that are marginalized by norms.

-> As a scholar/artist/thinker/curator/…, what does the title “Gender in Translation” evoke for you?

Gender is always in translation. Gender is always translation. To put it in Derridean terms, gender is / in translation.

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