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Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

Gender Ontology, Sexual Difference, and Differentiating Sex: Malabou and Derrida

By Emily Apter, 2017

FOR CATHERINE MALABOU, “epigenetics” is a crucial concept that locates plasticity in the passage from the genotype to the phenotype. In a seminar delivered in 2012 at the European Graduate School, “Epigenetics and the Plasticity of Life,” she pressed on the prefix “epi,” “surface,” to signal epigenetics as the “interpretive” mode of genetics. Homing in on how certain “interpretive molecules” such as “interfering RNA” can alter the appearance and structure of the phenotype’s expression by inhibiting, de-differentiating, or deprogamming certain parts of the genetic sequence or code, (such that certain genes—say cancer genes—are silenced), she links this interpretive function to her own notion of plasticity, or “self-transformation.” The stakes are high: for Malabou epigenetics has the potential to navigate between the often wholly polarized disciplines of neuroscience and philosophy, and beyond that, to serve as the site of a new subjectivation of nonsubjective or biological processes, which is to say, a kind of consciousness, awareness, or second sense of our biological plasticity (Malabou 2012). This concern with ways of being (biogenetically) in sex or with modes of consciousness that might be sexed or gendered lends specificity to Malabou’s ascription of gender ontology, a term used in contradistinction to (but not necessarily in conflict with) theories of gender and sexuality grounded in performative social constructions or ensembles of rights and claims to an essential identity or group identification.

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