14 Reasons Susan Sontag Invented Buzzfeed!

By Seth Studer

41wboBULMFLIf you’re looking for a progenitor of our list-infested social media, you could do worse than return to one of the most prominent and self-conscious public intellectuals of the last half century. The Los Angeles Review of Books just published an excellent article by Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam on Susan Sontag’s private hard drives, the contents of which have recently been analyzed and archived by UCLA. Nude photos have yet to circulate through shadowy digital networks (probably because Sontag herself made them readily available – Google Image, if you like), and most of the hard drives’ content is pretty mundane. But is that going to stop humanists from drawing broad socio-cultural conclusions from it?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Did Susan Sontag shop at Sephora?

Sontag, whose work is too accessible and whose analyses are too wide-ranging for serious theory-heads, has enjoyed a renaissance since her death, not as a critic but as an historical figure. She’s one of the authors now, like Marshall McLuhan or Norman Mailer, a one-time cultural institution become primary text. A period marker. You don’t take them seriously, but you take the fact of them seriously.

Sontag was also notable for her liberal use of lists in her essays.

“The archive,” meanwhile, has been an obsession in the humanities since Foucault arrived on these shores in the eighties, but in the new millennium, this obsession has turned far more empirical, more attuned to materiality, minutia, ephemera, and marginalia. The frequently invoked but still inchoate field of “digital humanities” was founded in part to describe the work of digitizing all this…stuff. Hard drives are making this work all the more interesting, because they arrive in archive pre-digitized. Schmidt and Ardam write:

All archival labor negotiates the twin responsibilities of preservation and access. The UCLA archivists hope to provide researchers with an opportunity to encounter the old-school, non-digital portion of the Sontag collection in something close to its original order and form, but while processing that collection they remove paper clips (problem: rust) and rubber bands (problems: degradation, stickiness, stains) from Sontag’s stacks of papers, and add triangular plastic clips, manila folders, storage boxes, and metadata. They know that “original order” is something of a fantasy: in archival theory, that phrase generally signifies the state of the collection at the moment of donation, but that state itself is often open to interpretation.

Microsoft Word docs, emails, jpegs, and MP3s add a whole slew of new decisions to this delicate balancing act. The archivist must wrangle these sorts of files into usable formats by addressing problems of outdated hardware and software, proliferating versions of documents, and the ease with which such files change and update on their own. A key tool in the War on Flux sounds a bit like a comic-book villain: Deep Freeze. Through a combination of hardware and software interventions, the Deep Freeze program preserves (at the binary level of 0’s and 1’s) a particular “desired configuration” in order to maintain the authenticity and preservation of data.

Coincidentally, I spent much of this morning delving into my own hard drive, which contains documents from five previous hard drives, stored in folders titled “Old Stuff” which themselves contain more folders from older hard drives, also titled “Old Stuff.” The “stuff” is poorly organized: drafts of dissertation chapters, half-written essays, photos, untold numbers of .jpgs from the Internet that, for reasons usually obscure now, prompted me to click “Save Image As….” Apparently Sontag’s hard drives were much the same. But Deep Freeze managed to edit the chaos down to a single IBM laptop, available for perusal by scholars and Sontag junkies. Schmidt and Ardam reflect on the end product:

Sontag is — serendipitously, it seems — an ideal subject for exploring the new horizon of the born-digital archive, for the tension between preservation and flux that the electronic archive renders visible is anticipated in Sontag’s own writing. Any Sontag lover knows that the author was an inveterate list-maker. Her journals…are filled with lists, her best-known essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), takes the form of a list, and now we know that her computer was filled with lists as well: of movies to see, chores to do, books to re-read. In 1967, the young Sontag explains what she calls her “compulsion to make lists” in her diary. She writes that by making lists, “I perceive value, I confervalue, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence.”

As reviewers are fond of noting, the list emerges from Sontag’s diaries as the author’s signature form. … The result of her “compulsion” not just to inventory but to reduce the world to a collection of scrutable parts, the list, Sontag’s archive makes clear, is always unstable, always ready to be added to or subtracted from. The list is a form of flux.

The lists that populate Sontag’s digital archive range from the short to the wonderfully massive. In one, Sontag — always the connoisseur — lists not her favorite drinks, but the “best” ones. The best dry white wines, the best tequilas. (She includes a note that Patrón is pronounced “with a long o.”) More tantalizing is a folder labeled “Word Hoard,” which contains three long lists of single words with occasional annotations. “Adjectives” is 162 pages, “Nouns” is 54 pages, and “Verbs” is 31 pages. Here, Sontag would seem to be a connoisseur of language. But are these words to use in her writing? Words not to use? Fun words? Bad words? New words? What do “rufous,” “rubbery,” “ineluctable,” “horny,” “hoydenish,” and “zany” have in common, other than that they populate her 162-page list of adjectives? … [T]he Sontag laptop is filled with lists of movies in the form of similar but not identical documents with labels such as “150 Films,” “200 Films,” and “250 Films.” The titles are not quite accurate. “150 Films” contains only 110 entries, while “250 Films” is a list of 209. It appears that Sontag added to, deleted from, rearranged, and saved these lists under different titles over the course of a decade.

“Faced with multiple copies of similar lists,” continue Schmidt and Ardam, “we’re tempted to read meaning into their differences: why does Sontag keep changing the place of Godard’s Passion? How should we read the mitosis of ‘250 Films’ into subcategories (films by nationality, films of ‘moral transformation’)? We know that Sontag was a cinephile; what if anything do these ever-proliferating Word documents tell us about her that we didn’t already know?” The last question hits a nerve for both academic humanists and the culture at large (Sontag’s dual audiences).

Through much of the past 15 years, literary scholarship could feel like stamp collecting. For a while, the field of Victorian literary studies resembled the tinkering, amateurish, bric-a-brac style of Victorian culture itself, a new bit of allegedly consequential ephemera in every issue of every journal. Pre-digitized archives offer a new twist on this material. Schmidt and Ardam: “The born-digital archive asks us to interpret not smudges and cross-outs but many, many copies of almost-the-same-thing.” This type of scholarship provides a strong empirical base for broader claims (the kind Sontag favored), but the base threatens to support only a single, towering column, ornate but structurally superfluous. Even good humanist scholarship – the gold standard in my own field remains Mark McGurl’s 2009 The Program Era – can begin to feel like an Apollonian gasket: it contains elaborate intellectual gyrations but never quite extends beyond its own circle. (This did not happen in Victorian studies, by the way; as usual, they remain at the methodological cutting edge of literary studies, pioneering cross-disciplinary approaches to reading, reviving and revising the best of old theories.) My least favorite sentence in any literary study is the one in which the author disclaims generalizability and discourages attaching any broader significance or application to the study. This is one reason why literary theory courses not only offer no stable definition of “literature” (as the E.O. Wilsons of the world would have us do), they frequently fail to introduce students to the many tentative or working definitions from the long history of literary criticism. (We should at least offer our students a list!)

In short, when faced with the question, “What do we do with all this…stuff?” or “What’s the point of all this?”, literary scholars all-too-often have little to say. It’s not that a lack of consensus exists; it’s an actual lack of answers. Increasingly, and encouragingly, one hears that a broader application of the empiricist tendency is the next horizon in literary studies. (How such an application will fit into the increasingly narrow scope of the American university is an altogether different and more vexing problem.)

Sontag’s obsession with lists resonates more directly with the culture at large. The Onion’s spin-off site ClickHole is the apotheosis of post-Facebook Internet culture. Its genius is not for parody but for distillation. The authors at ClickHole strip the substance of clickbait – attention-grabbing headlines, taxonomic quizzes, and endless lists – to the bone of its essential logic. This logic is twofold. All effective clickbait relies on the narcissism of the reader to bait the hook and banal summaries of basic truths once the catch is secure. The structure of “8 Ways Your Life Is Like Harry Potter” would differ little from “8 Ways Your Life Isn’t Like Harry Potter.” A list, like a personality quiz, is especially effective as clickbait because it condenses a complex but recognizable reality into an index of accessible particularities. “Sontag’s lists are both summary and sprawl,” write Schmidt and Ardam, and much the same could be said of the lists endlessly churned out by Buzzfeed, which constitute both an structure of knowledge and a style of knowing to which Sontag herself made significant contributions. Her best writing offered the content of scholarly discourse in a structure and style that not only eschewed the conventions of academic prose, but encouraged reading practices in which readers actively organize, index, and codify their experience – or even their identity – vis a vis whatever the topic may be. Such is the power of lists. This power precedes Sontag, of course. But she was a master practitioner and aware of the list’s potential in the new century, when reading practices would become increasingly democratic and participatory (and accrue all the pitfalls and dangers of democracy and participation). If you don’t think Buzzfeed is aware of that, you aren’t giving them enough credit.


Nixon/Vietnam/1968: What We Know and When We Know It

By Seth Studer

The story broke in August. I was working on an academic article about Richard Nixon in post-Watergate American culture (forthcoming). When not working not working on the article, I actively avoided Nixon-related stories in the news media and on the Internet: not an easy feat in August 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Then again, it was a little easier than I would have liked. The stories, like coverage of the JFK assassination’s fiftieth anniversary the year before, were pretty scarce and uneven. Inevitable, I suppose. In two years, Hillary Clinton (nominee presumptive) will cast a ballot for herself as president of the United States. What a dim memory her husband’s impeachment seems already. Ex-senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently visited South Dakota State University, where I teach, to wax poetic about the post-ideological, post-historical nineties: a time when, to hear them tell it, the two great American parties apparently worked together in constant harmony, tossing aside profligate “political differences” for the good of God and country. One recalls the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan that read as if Tip O’Neill and the Gipper played “government” each day before retiring together to a pub in the evening to share pints and sing Irish drinking songs. Our national history is like an elementary school recess period; we will not allow anything vaguely resembling a row on the playground.

And so intelligent Americans consistently misremember, or are compelled to misremember, events the nineties and eighties: events that they witnessed firsthand. How much dimmer Watergate must seem to those who lived through it. My mother watched the hearings as a junior high student while earning babysitting money; tough times, stagflation. I recently quizzed her on the names “John Dean” and “Sam Ervin,” which elicited vague recognition but no concrete memory of the basic contours of the only scandal to prompt an American president to resign. The players themselves did little better. During the first week of August 2014, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein appeared on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC, describing the events of 1973-1974 – and their role in those events – less convincingly and with less interesting conclusions than they had at the time. PBS News Hour managed to assemble a nice roundtable featuring Timothy Naftali (Nixon aficionado and NYU professor), Beverley Gage (the best historian of post-1945 America working today, currently at Yale), Pat Buchanan (Pat Buchanan), and Luke Nichter, a Nixon scholar and professor at Texas A&M – Central Texas whose July 29 2014 book The Nixon Tapes provides one of the most thorough single-volume accounts of the 37th president’s self-recordings. The main topic: who remembers Watergate? What was the big deal? Nixon wasn’t such a bad guy after all, right?

Journalist Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate was published the same day as Nichter’s volume. A few weeks later, after journalists and Nixon buffs ruminated and digested Hughes and Nichter’s work, stories began to pop up across the Internet highlighting new revelations from the transcripts. In particular, a revelation from Hughes provoked strong reactions. Salon featured a dramatic excerpt from Chasing Shadows, featuring a scene that prompted George Will to accuse Nixon of treason. These stories did not receive much fanfare, but the headlines were sensational. New Watergate bombshell! The scandal behind the scandal! Nixon guilty of treason! Even George Will admits it! For most intelligent Americans, the story had all the impact of a new Bee Gees single. But for those who, like me, think and talk and read and write about Richard Milhous Nixon with an almost neurological compulsion, something exciting had happened.

Here’s the short version. One of Hughes’s transcripts (July 15 1971) features Nixon explicitly ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute. This is notable for one major reason and a couple minor ones. Major: it’s the only time on the tapes we hear Nixon directly order a break-in. Minor: breaking into Brookings is a pretty big deal, and explicitly ordering such a break-in directly is a pretty big deal, especially for Nixon, a master of suggestion and the subtle cue. But there were few obvious reasons for Nixon to give such an order in 1971; the Watergate break-in seems rational by comparison (Democratic National Committee, election year, etc.). One is forced to assume that Brookings had something that Nixon wanted very badly, although Nixon does not quite say.

Hughes argues that this transcript represents the genesis of the plumbers/Watergate/resignation. We are unlikely to find another such explicit order to break into an august enemy think tank; this seems to represent the moment when things went a little crazy for Nixon. Most coverage of Hughes’s book focused on this sensational thesis, that the Brookings affair wrought Watergate.

The evidence against the thesis is very strong: the origins of the Nixon administration’s culture of surveillance are far too numerous and diffuse to reduce to a single event. But even for Hughes (who at times seems to use the word “Watergate” simply to attract a general audience – and why not?), the fact of Nixon ordering a break-in is less compelling than the fact of Nixon ordering this break-in. The ostensible purpose was to blackmail former president Lyndon B. Johnson with documents, located at the Brookings Institute, that revealed Johnson’s plan to broker a surprise Vietnam peace settlement by October 1968. Peace in Vietnam would have significantly boosted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s chances of succeeding Johnson. Proof of such chicanery would have given Nixon political leverage over Johnson. But, as Hughes writes, Nixon’s staff (including Henry Kissinger, who participated in the fun) doubted that Nixon’s burglars would find anything useful at Brookings. And why would Nixon want leverage over an unpopular ex-president?

From Chasing Shadows:

 At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony. … [And the] potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.

There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself.

The reason, Hughes argues, is that Nixon hoped to obtain documents implicating himself in the failure of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Allegations that Nixon had sabotaged the peace process would emerge and grow in the decades after Watergate.

George Will’s review of Chasing Shadows shifted the focus from Hughes’s thesis to his data, new data which, Will argued, implicated Nixon in “treason” (Will’s word choice received more attention than his argument). While other journalists focused on Hughes’s link between the new data to Watergate – his attempt to carve a “Rosebud” out of a few seconds of tape – Wills argued that the real story had been missed. Hughes provides very strong, if very indirect, evidence of what we already almost knew about Paris 1968: that, to bolster his chances of becoming president, Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would have almost certainly ended the Vietnam War by early 1969. All the other “White House horrors” – Watergate, ratfucking, domestic espionage, “the Canuck letter,” even Allende – pale in comparison to this.

Johnson and Nixon
Johnson and Nixon

According to both Hughes and Will, Nixon gave an irrational order: break into Brookings and steal documents. Why? To blackmail Johnson? The risk was too great, and they might not even find the documents they wanted. There must be another, more rational reason. According to Hughes, Nixon must have been looking for files implicating himself in sabotage, files that he could obtain by no other means, files that his enemies at Brookings might have possessed: “Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival.” This reasoning (in short, that Nixon would not have behaved irrationally) was strong enough to convince Will to charge a Republican president with treason.

I disagree not with Will’s conclusions, nor even with his reasoning (though depending on Nixon to make rational decisions is frequently a losing game), but with his confidence in this new evidence to make the case for treason.

All responsible historians and Nixon buffs know that Nixon betrayed Johnson and sabotaged the Peace Talks; we also know that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute. The question has always been how well we know. How much data to we possess? How much must we rely on reasonable inference? Who said what, when, where, and why? We already knew that Lyndon B. Johnson probably had direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement – but Johnson’s evidence has never been recovered, and Nixon denied any involvement in the Peace Talks to Johnson’s face. So when a Nixon scholar claims to have evidence of the 1968 sabotage, it’s a big deal. Thanks to Hughes, we have some new data. Nixon ordered the Brookings job. We know no that with 100% certainty. We always suspected, but now we know. But we can still only infer, with great confidence (approaching knowledge), that he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Such great confidence that I’m willing to say “I know.”

But Hughes hasn’t found the smoking gun that Will and others are made it out to be. Will’s article and Hughes book are both padded with backstory and dot-connecting that aren’t derived directly from the tapes or from the public record.

Hughes would argue that the 1968 sabotage was Nixon’s greatest secret, that he built a citadel of surveillance and paranoia around himself in order to protect that secret, and that Watergate must necessarily be understood as an outcome of this secrecy. I agree that Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks were probably his greatest secret – but we have not heard Nixon himself admit that. That’s the nature of secrets and the nature of Nixon. And Nixon is nothing if not resistance to simple casual analyses. One simply cannot imagine a Nixon White House sans paranoia and plumbers, with or without the Peace Talks scandal, just as one cannot imagine Nixon as a consistent ideologue or as a good friend or as a convincingly honest man.

We will probably never get that piece of hard evidence – the fact in a pumpkin patch, the smoking datum – that proves Nixon intentionally sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks and deliberately extended the Vietnam War until October 1972 for political purposes. We don’t need such concrete evidence, really – the historical evidence against Nixon is about as strong as historical evidence gets. In lieu of a taped confession, we must content ourselves with reasonable inference based on hard data. And Hughes’s transcript is one more very hard datum to add to the pile, shedding a little more light on Nixon’s most heinous crime; undue focus on Watergate and the plumbers distracts from the fact that Nixon committed his most evil act before he was even president. We should be interested in the 1968 Paris Talks not because they led to Watergate and resignation. We should be interested because they represent a devastating lost opportunity to end the wickedest war in American history.

Track and Field with Judith Butler

By Amanda Grigg

Earlier this month Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India, was barred from international competition following an evaluation of her testosterone levels.  Chand has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which is characterized by excessive levels of testosterone. The condition puts Chand’s (naturally occurring) testosterone levels in the male range according to the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field. Both the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now use testosterone levels to determine whether female athletes can compete as females. Though they have moved away from the language of “sex determination” testing, and now suggest that their efforts are designed to ensure fairness because (though this is highly contested) having testosterone levels in the typical male range give some women an “unfair” advantage.

Dutee Chand
Dutee Chand via the New York Times

It’s unclear what prompted the request that Chand be tested, which was reportedly made by someone at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in June. In a prominent past case, South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification testing after she somewhat suddenly improved her times and began winning races. Though Chand has exhibited no such sudden changes, she acknowledges that she has a masculine build, which might have motivated someone to request that she be tested.

This might seem odd (and sexist, and draconian) but it’s actually a return to normal for international athletics. Sex-determination testing used to be required for female olympians, a result of regular allegations that men were posing as female athletes. Testing was, thankfully, phased out in 1999 but in the past several years has come back to international track and field with a bang.

In 2009 then 18 year old South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification tests after questions were raised “about her muscular physique and drastic improvement.” A description of the testing required for sex verification featured in the NYT suggests that it is invasive and extensive.

The testing done on Semenya takes weeks to complete. It requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender. The effort, coordinated by Dr. Harold Adams, a South African on the I.A.A.F. medical panel, was conducted at hospitals in Berlin and South Africa.

Eventually Semenya was reinstated. By this time her initial test results had been made public without her consent, she had been sidelined from the sport for a year, missing out on an estimated $250,000 in prize money, had been forced to undergo a bevy of tests, and was embroiled in an international controversy. The shift from sex-verification testing to a testosterone standard was in large part a result of the mishandling of Semenya’s case.

Non-binary sex traits are actually surprisingly common. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that in one in 100 births children exhibit sex traits that differ from the standard male or female and that in one or two in 1,000 births children receive surgery to “normalize” their genital appearance. There are also several chromosomal conditions that result in non-binary sex traits which do not become evident until puberty. Anne Fausto-Sterling famously argued that roughly 1.7% of the population is intersex. The figure is disputed based on her broad definition of intersex, but works for our purposes of non-binary sex/sex presentation that would raise the suspicions of the IOC and IAAF.

According to a case study released in an academic endocrinology journal, at least four female athletes at the 2012 London Olympics tested beyond the female limits for testosterone. All four reported an absences of menstruation and were found to have enlarged clitorises and undescended testes. Genetic testing revealed that the athletes had various genetic mutations resulting in XY (male) chromosomes presenting with an outwardly female body.  According to the authors all four athletes expressed the desire to maintain their female identity:

We thus proposed a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy, to which the 4 athletes agreed after informed consent on surgical and medical procedures.

These women opted to undergo procedures to feminize/normalize their bodies, though purportedly, thanks to the end of “sex-verification” and the instatement of the testosterone standard, in order to compete they were only required to lower their testosterone levels. Similarly women like Chand who exhibit hyperandrogenism are offered the choice of having surgery or taking pills to artificially lower their testosterone levels.

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya

Problematically, science on the benefits of testosterone does not make it clear that heightened levels confer an inherent advantage. Testosterone is just one part of the body’s complex physiology and the importance of skill, training, and psychology further complicate the potential potency of testosterone. Chand’s case suggests as much. In fact, if you compare Chand’s personal best times to the top times at the 2012 Olympics, she places outside of the top 24 in all three of the events in which she competes (100m, 200m and 400m).

In the case of the IOC testosterone testing is mandatory for all female athletes. In the case of the IAAF, monitoring occurs by request and is thus based largely on physical appearance and comportment, meaning that one’s gender presentation is fundamentally mixed up in observers’ attempts to ferret out the not-sufficiently female athletes. And competitors appear to be more than happy to evaluate one another’s sex based solely on appearance. Speaking to journalists after the initial announcement that Semenya would undergo testing, fellow competitor Elisa Cusma of Italy, said “These kind of people should not run with us…For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” Russian runner Mariya Savinova told reporters that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test, saying “Just look at her.”

These procedures seem drastic but in fact they mimic and formalize the kind of informal gender policing that plagues women’s sports in the US and often targets women of color. Female athletes tend to challenge cultural ideals of femininity and what female bodies should look like. And the blurring of gender and sex boundaries tends to make people anxious (cue Judith Butler). If these anxiety-inducing athletes fail to counter their nonconformity with adequate kowtowing to femininity and heterosexuality they’re publicly ridiculed. For ridicule in particularly racialized terms and despite regular expression of traditionally feminine traits see Serena Williams. Notably and problematically this often takes the form of accusing women of being trans, as these charming men employing trans-slurs to criticize Serena Williams on twitter demonstrate (I excluded the worst of the tweets, which included more slurs and threats of violence against trans women).


Let’s recap: In order to compete at the international female athletes – and for the IAAF particularly those who appear masculine – must meet an arbitrary standard of female-ness. If they do not, they are required to normalize themselves until they do. If you teach Judith Butler this is like mana sent from the how-to-explain-social-construction-to-freshman heavens.

These procedures have historically been referred to as “sex-verification” but they are irrevocably tied up with gender. They are a great illustration of how closely linked sex and gender are and offer powerful evidence in support of Butler’s argument that sex is both socially constructed and that the binary construction of sex is forcibly enforced (in part because it is vital that it appear to be a clear, pre-existing, natural division from which gender (masculine/feminine) and sexuality (attraction to women/men) stem).[1]

“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms…”Sex” is thus, not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the “one” becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility.

 Butler, Bodies That Matter p. 4

For those who aren’t fans of academese, here’s Alice Drager, professor medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern on the IAAF’s sex determination processes:

at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision…And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’

These cases raise all kinds of interesting and important and infuriating issues. First, the emphasis on testosterone in determining sex eligibility is not only scientifically unsound but reinforces the notion that testosterone belongs to men (in fact it occurs naturally in both women and men though at varying levels) and that this inherently male trait is associated with and even the primary determinant of athletic prowess (can you say scientific sexism)?

Second, it is beyond suspicious that the majority of the women embroiled in sex determination scandals have been women of color. In the US, black women in particular have historically been deemed inherently less feminine than white women and in many meaningful ways have not considered to be “women” at all. As noted, in the IAAF, requests for sex-determination testing can be made based solely on an observer’s (coach or athlete)’s perception that the female athlete in question might not be adequately female. Insofar as race shapes perceptions of femininity and masculinity, it would likely play a role in decisions to request sex-determination testing [2].

In addition to IOC and IAAF policies exposing women to invasive testing and forced hormone therapy and even surgery, the IAAF’s request-based testing would seem to incentivize female athletes to make efforts to present themselves in as female and feminine a way as possible. There is no such incentive or requirement for male athletes, nor is there an equivalent test to ensure that they have adequate levels of testosterone, the right chromosomes, the right genitals. The argument that applying these invasive tests and requiring these life-changing procedures of women and not men isn’t discriminatory is based on the notion that these policies are only required to level the playing field among women, not men. Accordingly, both organizations are shifting away from declaring that their tests determine sex and instead suggesting that the tests ensure that no one has an “unfair” advantage. But if these athletes identify as women, and if the tests no longer claim to prove that they are not women, then the playing field is no less level than it would be if another female athlete had a natural difference that might make her more competitive, let’s say particularly long legs or large lungs. This would seem to be particularly true if, as is the case, women with high testosterone levels are not swamping the medal stands.

There are also compelling arguments that equal access to sports, particularly at the elite levels, is vital for ensuring social, economic and political equality. Thus excluding intersex and non-binary women from elite athletic competitions is a troubling act of discrimination on multiple fronts. And requiring that women alone conform to a certain standard of sex (to pass testing) and gender presentation (to avoid undergoing testing) in order to access this opportunity is equally disturbing.

Finally, we should ask where these policies leave transgender athletes. Trans women who take hormone pills might be allowed to compete, though in light of competitor’s responses to Semenya this would almost certainly lead to controversy over the insufficiency of the testosterone standard. And those who choose not to or who cannot undergo hormone therapy would seemingly find no place in international track and field.

Happily, Chand’s case offers a glimmer of hope. In the past female athletes subject to sex-verification have given in to the IOC and IAAF, “quietly” consenting to surgery to lower testosterone or leaving the sport. Some, like the four identified at the 2012 Olympics, have undergone plastic surgery recommended to further feminize their bodies. This history makes Chand’s decision to fight the ban particularly momentous. According to Juliet Macur who profiled Chand for the New York Times, “Dutee Chand loves her body just the way it is…She believes that the body she was born with — every chromosome, cell and organ — makes her the woman she is.”


[1] This is always the hardest thing to convince undergraduates of when you’re teaching Butler. Or maybe second hardest after convincing them to muddle through her…unique writing style.

[2] In the cases of Chand and Semenya, these requests have come during international competitions and not from competitions within their own country, where they would have both been part of the majority race.