As this reference to the Victoria and Albert Museum suggests, while gender difference and identity were certainly a matter of political positioning, they quickly became more about style than sexuality, a form of cultural self-expression. Inevitably, in an era that ushered in neoliberalism, such self-expression was also a form of self-promotion and self-marketing, ‘transgression’ riding the cutting edge of the new, to use the discourse of advertising. Bowie was in the avant-garde here, too, John Gray commenting on the ‘streetwise shrewdness’ that saw him, in 1997, issuing $55m worth of ‘Bowie Bonds’ just before the bottom fell out of the music business.3 That would be ‘Wall Street’ shrewdness, then. But when gender becomes ‘fluid’ in this way, does it make sense to speak of gender at all? The signifiers that used to be associated with gender are bound up with broader questions of image and style, not to mention race and ethnicity, a shifting play of identities that are unconstrained either by biology of social convention in which the order of reproduction is itself ‘in motion, in transformation’ as the twenty-first century ‘announces itself as the great century of bioengineering’.4 Better make way for the Homo Superior, as Bowie sang in 1971.5
In an interesting piece for The Times, written just three days before Bowie’s death, David Aaronovitch attempts to take seriously the implications of the fluidity of gender going so far as to announce a ‘revolution’ in which gender loses all significance and is left behind.6 Noting the increasing tendency for women to play male roles in Shakespeare, Aaronovitch suggests that ‘from Shakespearean roles to passports, we are moving towards a future where our gender will hardly matter’. Indeed, isn’t the requirement to identify one’s gender on every type of bureaucratic form both presumptive and intrusive? Indeed, any suggestion, certainly in the context of Anglo-American academia, that men and women might think, experience, love or enjoy in different and distinctive ways is regarded as deeply offensive. Ironically, the example of Shakespeare underscores this idea that the supposed ‘fluidity’ of gender actually implies a basic homogenization since all the actors on his stage were male, the female parts being played by boys. Similarly, insofar as it is an effect of capitalist and scientific discourses, the homogenization of gender is predicated upon the universalization of a subject that knows nothing of sexual difference. It is predicated upon ‘unisex’ that ‘consequently adapts very easily to the reduction of every subject to universal worker’ whose satisfactions may only be met by the goods, symbols and gadgets of commodifiable – that is to say phallic – jouissance. ‘Unisex means the phallic jouissance that is available to everyone’ (Soler, 2002: 49).6 There is no Other jouissance in the world of ubiquitous unisex. Is this a triumph for feminism or a catastrophe?
Judging by some of the recent statements by baby boomer feminists like Fay Weldon and Germaine Greer, it seems to be the latter. The students of Cardiff University protested at Greer being given a platform to speak in October 2015 because of her view that neither the presence nor the surgical removal of a penis turns a man into a woman, a view re-iterated in April this year by novelist Ian McEwan. These views are regarded by many students these days as hopelessly outmoded examples of ‘cisgender’ oppression. But the example of transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner does indeed disclose the truth about contemporary women – that they are, as Tilda Swinton suggests in the wake of Bowie, queers in a man-dress. That doesn’t make the sexual relationship any easier, of course, quite the contrary. These days it is not the Troubadours but algorithms and software engineers who don’t cease not encoding the sexual relation in applications like Grindr, Tinder, Dattch and so on. For the moment, these dating sites remain remnants of a passing epoch of sexuality holding out the promise of a new era of gender-free choice. Swipe, Trash, Save, add to list. Our object in our pocket, the phallus no longer a special signifier of the Other’s desire holding a cache of erotic value, but an empty space of mediation opening onto an infinity of metonymic links, a list that is always lacking, the list that is indeed itself the signifier of the Other’s lack.
Similarly, the metaphor of the rock star, hero of sexual transgression is gone. Their rise an effect of a certain demographic and the dominance of mass media, analogue technology, these stars are now falling, dropping like flies, accusations of sexual misdemeanor and abuse staining their memories.8 Their great musical legacy has dissolved into lists and data streams, freely downloadable, passing through the ear buds of the One-all-alone.
1. Philip Hoare, ‘Lighting up a blacked-out Britain’, The New Statesman 15-21 January 2016.
3. John Gray, ‘The shifting shaman of the modern age’. The New Statesman
4. Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘The Real in the 21st Century’ Hurly Burly 9 (2013): 199-206, 204.
5. David Bowie, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, Hunky Dory. RCA Victor, 1971. See http://genius.com
6. David Aaronovitch, ‘Boys and girls, welcome to the revolution’. The Times. 07.01.16.
7. Colette Soler, ‘Hysteria in Scientific Discourse’ in Suzanne Bernard and Bruce Fink (eds) Reading Seminar XX. NY: SUNY Press, 2002: 47-56.
8. See Heather Saul, ‘Germaine Greer defends “grossly offensive” comments about transgender women. “Just because you lop off your d**k, doesn’t make you a f*****g woman”’. The Independent. 26.10.15. See also fay Weldon and Ian McEwan comments in The Sunday Times 03.04.16: 3.
9. See Angelina Chapin, ‘Why Talking About Bowie’s Sexual Misconduct Matters’. Huffington Post. 01.18.2016. www.huffingtonpost.com