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Sexual Difference and Ontology


To even suggest discussing sexual difference as an ontological question might induce—not without justification—strong reluctance from both the sides of philosophy (the traditional guardian of ontological questions) and gender studies. These two “sides,” if we can call them so, share at least one reason for this reluctance, related in some way to the fact that the discussion would attempt nothing new. Traditional ontologies and traditional cosmologies were strongly reliant on sexual difference, taking it as their very founding, or structuring, principle. Ying-yang, water-fire, earth-sun, matter-form, active-passive—this kind of (often explicitly sexualized) opposition was used as the organizing principle of these ontologies and/or cosmologies, as well as of the sciences—astronomy, for example—based on them. And this is how Lacan could say, “primitive science is a sort of sexual technique.”1 At some point in history, one generally associated with the Galilean revolution in science and its aftermath, both science and philosophy broke with this tradition. And if there is a simple and most general way of saying what characterizes modern science and modern philosophy, it could be phrased precisely in terms of the “desexualisation” of reality, of abandoning sexual difference, in more or less explicit form, as the organizing principle of reality, providing the latter’s coherence and intelligibility.

The reasons why feminism and gender studies find these ontologizations of sexual difference highly problematic are obvious. Fortified on the ontological level, sexual difference is strongly anchored in essentialism—it becomes a combinatory game of the essences of masculinity and femininity. Such that, to put it in the contemporary gender-studies parlance, the social production of norms and their subsequent descriptions finds a ready-made ontological division, ready to essentialize “masculinity” and “femininity” immediately. Traditional ontology was thus always also a machine for producing “masculine” and “feminine” essences, or, more precisely, for grounding these essences in being.

When modern science broke with this ontology it also mostly broke with ontology tout court. (Modern) science is not ontology; it neither pretends to make ontological claims nor, from a critical perspective on science, recognizes that it is nevertheless making them. Science does what it does and leaves to others to worry about the (ontological) presuppositions and the (ethical, political, etc.) consequences of what it is doing; it also leaves to others to put what it is doing to use.

Perhaps more surprisingly, modern philosophy also mostly broke not only with traditional ontology but also with ontology tout court. Immanuel Kant is the name most strongly associated with this break: If one can have no knowledge about things in themselves the classical ontological question of being qua being seems to lose its ground. This is not the place to discuss what exactly the Kantian gesture and its implications was for modern and postmodern philosophy, whether it simply closed the door behind ontology (and, as some argue, left us imprisoned by our own discursive constructions, with no access to the real) or laid ground for a new and quite different kind of ontology.

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