He’s been dead for eight years now, and yet never far away, certainly not in the current debate. I recently heard him protest in my head during an interview in NRC in which the president of Voorzij, a club of 25 ‘gender critical feminists’, bluntly stated: ‘My body determines my gender.’
I thought of Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-English cultural theorist, and not much later he equally objected to all the fuss about the new series. rings of power, a Tolkien prequel Lord of the Rings, in which colored actors and a black elf are also played, the nicest objection is that it is impossible, because Tolkien’s fantasy world is based on a proto-historical Europe where everyone was white.
Now, of course, if you really want to take these kinds of arguments seriously, as many did, you can say that it is not true at all that the first modern Britons who lived ten thousand years ago, for example, had black skin, such as DNA- research on the so-called Cheddar Man recently expelled. Just as you can also say that nature is anything but binary, that there are not only intersex people, but also men with multiple X chromosomes or women with unusually high testosterone levels. But then Stuart Hall’s voice only gets louder in my ear.
Because biology doesn’t matter. There is infinite variation in nature, one lion is not another, but it is human culture that classifies these differences, captures them in language and thus gives them meaning. And above all, it is culture that determines which differences are important and which are not (just to name a few: humans share sixty percent of their DNA with a goldfish, 98.7 percent with a bonobo, and one hundred percentage with other people). Race is therefore not a biological concept, argued Hall, but a cultural concept. It has no core, it is not in our bodies, it exists in what is invented by humans, in language, politics, history and popular culture.
It functions as a discourse, argues Hall in one of his most famous lectures, Race, the fluid denotes. Race is one denotes, a carrier of meaning, but that meaning is not fixed either. ‘It shifts and it slides’, it is constantly changing, as everything is constantly changing, both in nature and in culture. The way people of color were portrayed in the 1950s is incomparable to today, and the US is not the Netherlands: you have to look again and again at the ways in which a specific culture generates meanings.
‘What we are follows from what we decide to become’
Of course, everything Hall says about race also applies to sex, gender, neurodiversity, validity et cetera. This even applies to robots, I recently read in the book Anti-nihilism of twin brothers Jarmo and Arthur Berkhout. Here too, Stuart Hall was not far off, but now he would have nodded in agreement.
In their book, the brothers dissect the film Blade Runner 2049, from 2017, where the artificial protagonist wants nothing more than to be human. It’s a recurring theme in science fiction: the robot that learns human emotions, learns to tell jokes, and then still isn’t taken for granted. IN Blade Runner 2049 on the other hand, the robot gradually comes to realize that his existential problem is not so much that he is not a ‘real’ human being, but that his perception of authenticity is wrong. All the while following his rulers’ discourse that only biological beings matter. But the distinctions between high and low, between real and unreal, between worthy and unworthy are ultimately only classifications and qualifications that serve the establishment.
Being human is an open question, say the brothers, it has no essence, it is changeable. ‘What we are cannot be reduced to our origins. It follows from what we decide to become’.
According to Hall, little is more threatening to the establishment than beings—people, animals, or things—that evade their classification. Deviations are confusing, they turn things upside down, ensure that the rest, clearly classifiable people, no longer understand the world. This, I think, is also what radical feminists fear so much in the discussion of trans rights. If someone can call themselves a woman, what does that classification mean? The use of the term ‘humans with wombs’, for example, erases not only the word ‘woman’ but also the historical struggle for equal rights. That fear seems justified to me. But stubbornly clinging to a discourse that is the very foundation of oppression will not set anyone free.
At the moment, the norm is under pressure everywhere (is what we consider normal really so normal?), but nowhere more so than on the subject of gender. New boxes are added, existing boxes are stretched, the meaning of old boxes is changed. There seems to be more room for difference. Not the difference between groups on which the classification is based, but the difference within groups. Or am I just hoping? That’s what Stuart Hall hoped. After all, if everyone is an aberration, someone is an Other, if there are no longer clear boundaries because difference is the norm, no one will ever complain – to call another ‘debate’ currently underway – above a black mermaid.