Marie-Hélène/Sam Bourcier on “Gender in Translation”

Queer activist and theorist, Marie-Hélène/Sam Bourcier is Professor of Cultural Studies and Queer Studies at the University of Lille III. He founded Le ZOO, the first queer group in France in 1996. He translated Teresa de Lauretis and Monique Wittig into French and writes extensively on medias, gender and sexual politics, pornography and post-pornography, queer subcultures and politics. He is the author of the trilogy Queer Zones 1, Politique des identités sexuelles et des savoirs, (2001), Queer Zones 2, Sexpolitiques (2005), Queer Zones 3, Identités, Cultures, Politics (2011). He is currently working on a book on genders work and neoliberalism.


Marie-Hélène/Sam Bourcier will take part in Gender in Translation, After Hours on November 4, 2016 at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in the symposium “Gender in Multiplicities: Intersectionality, Coloniality, Assemblages, Co-Formations: French and U.S. Conversations” on November 18, 2016 at UC Berkeley.

-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?

I literally bumped into Gender Studies in the late 90’s in London. It was in a feminist and anarchist bookshop in Camden where I bought by chance Gender Trouble. I liked the title. U bet! It changed my life. It introduced me to Monique Wittig, / la politique. Her Straight Mind had been written in English (not in French) and it made me translate it into… French a couple of years later. It introduced me to gender fucking and Gender Studies. To queer life, queer practices, queer communities and queer thought. Speaking for myself, it is impossible to separate theory, politics, studies, practices, and subcultures. And the same goes for queer theory of the first wave, Butler & co. I am not sure Gender Trouble could have happened without the proliferation of new and queer genders in the late 90’s, neo fem, neo butch, daddies, drag kings, trans, etc. What would have been queer theory without the drag queen as a new paradigm and gender as “her” performance? All of this could not have happened in France.

-> 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?

Yes, of course. A lot. A lot of other and important paradigms are available now, which makes it possible to rework gender as performance and make it less disembodied and more materialistic. Gender as technology, gender as biodrag, gender as work and, last but not least, gender as performance and work where performance can work at work against the performance in the entrepreneurial and economical sense. The latter makes it possible to think of genders and bodies captured by neoliberalism which is much needed, especially now that homo.normatives, les “bons homos”, get homonationalists + homo.Incorporated. Now that queer gender performances get swallowed by diversity management. Now that more and more gay and lesbians identify themselves as same sex getting married to… same sex… And gender lost its centrality and got to be thought along with race, coloniality, ethnicity. Taking into account multiple forms of power and oppressions led to new paradigms such as intersectionality, co-formations, coproductions.

-> 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?

Yes, it does. In the 90’s, we used to think of the being queer as an endless process of translation. Meaning that you have to translate yourself constantly in terms of gender and sexual identities and politics to the others… It was also a time when we wanted to get translated into French, French Theory (Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze), the way it had been queered by lesbian feminists such as Butler and de Lauretis. As a French postructuralist baby, I had been fed and sometimes fed up with all of them when reading them. They were not that feminist nor into sexual minorities. It was a blast to have them re-sexualized and re-politized from a queer point of view. This traffic between France and the USA was extremely stimulating and necessary. Also because France didn’t want to hear about Gender Studies, not to say about Queer Studies. I remember sending to an important French publisher a project we both worked on with Paul Preciado, adressing this traffic, this contraband. It was called “The Politics of Inverted Translation” and came with a recommendation letter by Derrida. Of course it was rejected. And when we asked him about translating Gender Trouble, the answer was quote “Butler is an hysterical woman”.

 Today, more than 15 years later, when you see what stands for Gender Studies in France, well the perspective not to talk about the distinction is both blatant and instructive. More or less, French Gender Studies are synonymous with women studies and gender mainstreaming. What’s the point of talking about gender then? Gender was a forbidden word around 2000, even within feminist circles. Why did it get allowed? Because it is a way of getting rid of the F word and depolitize Gender Studies. French Gender studies stick with the sexual difference frame and equality policies such as equality between men and women. Gender is nothing but a key word, which has entered French universities when they got privatized and assumed they should do a bit of gender if they wanted to be competitive at an international level. Also, France got kicked in the ass by European institutions in terms of discrimination. Straight sociology took over the field in a very positivist (still…) way to the point that it now works as a form of biopower, of management of the LGBT as a population. With a flat and disempowering (on purpose) definition of gender, that is gender as a norm… As if we didn’t know. Norms seen from outside or from above, crossing out “gender bottoms” full of resources and political potential. If you keep asking students – including the queer ones – to study gender as a heavy norm, you just reify it.

So we still have a lot to learn from US Cultural Studies. They do exactly the opposite. Their purpose is not to measure change but to do social transformation. Cultural Studies such as Gender and Queer Studies provoke epistemological shift and create space for sexual, gendered and racialized minorities. It is not the case with French Gender Studies. In my opinion, Gender Studies don’t exist in France. Genderqueer and transfeminist subcultures and politics of course exist, and they produce new forms of knowledge, new practices and different bodies. But they are excluded from universities and most of French Gender Studies. It is the case in my university where a great project of creating a master’s degree in Gender Studies I have been working on for two years has been frozen last year beacause the President didn’t want to have a queer and now trans person co-direct it.

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

Transfeminist, queer and decolonial. Empowering and political. Gender Studies existed before feminism, LGBT and Queer Studies for the worse and to oppress gender variants and women. Gender tudies can be very conservative and disempowering. Gender and queer Studies that matter are those who brought feminismS in there and which are intersectional and decolonial. Which decenter themselves from Eurocentric epistemologies. It is about different ways of producing knowledge and analyzing power differently. It is about genderS proliferation. It is not about a rikiki and reformist agenda trapped into sexual difference and it is certainly not about using Gender Studies to exclude LGBTQI etc. people.

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

Gender is political. Gender is burning. It has always been and it is even truer today. I don’t think it is possible to separate Gender Studies and Queer Studies from political engagement. As I said, France didn’t want to hear about Gender Studies, not to say about Queer Studies. It didn’t change and it is precisely because of their political and cultural load. The problem is that phony gender studies are also… political. Another important burning political issue is the battle against the well-organized Anti-Gender movement. It is not specific to France but the way French leftish public experts and public intellectuals go on with the Pope saying that “gender theory” does not exist to answer back says a lot about the ongoing devitalization and depolitisation of queer feminism and Gender Studies. It also explains why queer art is so little in France…

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

As a scholar, activist, trans, curator and thinker, it evokes the ongoing process of translation which is always a political one. It reminds me of Montaigne’s thought: “Nous ne faisons que nous entre-gloser”. Yes, but not in the same language. Yes, but from within languages. Yes, but from a multiple site of enunciation and between multiple countries. It needs a little bit of S to gender and translation. Gender.s and translation.s because translation can be a major eraser as well. More routes must be opened. Different ones. Which America are we talking about when we talk about “American approach”? Not only queer theory of the first wave was rather white but it also erased queer of colors and was problematic when it came to trans*. It is Gloria Anzaldua who came up with the naming “queer” and she didn’t get into US universities alive. So it is very important that she gets translated in the linguistics sense and in a broader sense in France. It is under way. Maybe now it is that the connection works more between queer and transfeminist Europe and queer of color rather than with France per se and USA. And that queer and transfeminist Europe goes into conversation with queers and queer thinking outside the Euro-American axe. In Latin America for instance. It is not by chance that “transfeminism” came up as a different way or translating the word “queer”.


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