The gender apparatus

Torture and national manhood in the US ‘war on terror’

RP 168 () / Article

Feminist protest against US torture practices, including outcries over the use of sex, sexuality and sexual identity in the torture of prisoners at US detention sites from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, have understandably tended to focus on what the abuse destroys – the victim and his or her community. Here, though, I ask what the torture produces. Borrowing and revising a question that Catharine MacKinnon posed about genocide (‘What is the sex doing in the genocide?’1) I ask: What is the sex doing in the torture?

As many feminists have pointed out, the 9/11attacks on US soil catalysed an urgent quest to reassert US national manhood, a desire that had played an important part in US politics since the humiliating loss of the Vietnam War and that was reinvigorated by the events of 11 September 2001.2 But it is common for these analyses to focus on ‘national manhood’ as a psychological project.3 Susan Faludi’s influential account, for example, envisions national manhood as a fantasy through which the nation convinces itself of its invulnerability in response to a kind of traumatic psychic wounding and the primal fear of annihilation that accompanies it. But aggressive capitalist imperial aspirations and naked bellicosity are not reducible to psychological phenomena, even though the psychic figure of wounded national manhood is central to their operations. Here I show that ‘national manhood’ is essentially a justificatory operation that necessitates an ontological project.4 Because ‘national manhood’ cannot, properly speaking, be said to exist, it is constantly forced to borrow its ontological weight from something else. This process of borrowing does not operate exclusively at the level of collective national fantasy, but through a material process of production – that is, through an apparatus.

As I have argued elsewhere,5 gender structuresmultiple dimensions of human existence, from theway we live our bodies to how we imagine ourselves socially, to practices of language. Gender is not reducible to the individual subject’s experience of it, but it is one of the central nodes of meaning through which a social order gives me my place in being. The social constitution of gendered existence does not diminish in the least the sense of reality it founds for the individual subject, who most often lives gendered identity as both profoundly real and essential: to herself-understanding, to his sense of social location, to patterns of intersubjective belonging – which is to say lived gender collects ontological weight in the body and the person of the individual subject.6 In fact, gender infused in flesh and blood, in the most viscerally experienced corporeality of subjects, is the raw material upon which the apparatus works to acquire weight for something that is far lighter – the manhood of the nation. In so far as it is successful in its attempts to annex this ontological weight from elsewhere, ‘national manhood’ acquires the force to justify the aggressive movement of capital accompanied by thousands of soldiers in humvees, spectacular aerial bombardment, and the more or less wanton destruction of others’ lives. This relation between the apparatus and lived gender is not new, though it reinvents itself for the specific historical moment – but it is rarely analysed.



1. Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Genocide’s Sexuality’, in Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2006.

2. Examples include: Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007; Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, eds, After Shock: September 11, 2001, Global Feminist Perspectives, Raincoast Books, Vancouver and Washington DC, 2003; Zilla Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy, ZedBooks, London, 2007.

3. Faludi’s The Terror Dream is the most stark example. Other feminists whose work has been instrumental in problematizing masculinity in its relation to nationalism and militarization, and whose work has influenced my own, have not sufficiently understood or articulated the productive aspect of this relation, other than as a motivator for individual soldiers and citizens. Enloe emphasizes the policymakers’ ‘angst’ over not appearing manly (see Cynthia Enloe, ‘Masculinity as a Foreign Policy Issue’, in Hawthorne and Winter, eds, After Shock, pp. 285–6), and Carol Cohn emphasizes the symbolic systems of meaning that circulate through language and pre-empt certain ways of thinking or problem-solving because of the subject’s fear of appearing ‘wimpy’ or soft (Carol Cohn, ‘Wars, Wimps and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War’, in Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, eds, Gendering War Talk, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1993). None of these accounts is inaccurate, but none of them addresses the level of production that I am analysing here.

4. The term ‘ontology’ is used here neither to denote a science of being, nor to denote something that is substantially real in the brute sense of the term. I use it in the way that Judith Butler does on occasion (see note 22 [in full article]) to capture the ‘realness’ of gendered structures and experiences, the making real of such structures, and the sedimented significance of gender in both the lived reality of individuals and in public life, institutions, material practices, discourses, etc. One could say that gender has ‘existential weight’, but this would miss the ways that gender precedes and exceeds the individual subject and establishes one’s place in being, so that what I am and if I am is already a gendered question.

5. Bonnie Mann, ‘How America Justifies its War: A Modern/Postmodern Aesthetics of War and Sovereignty’, Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 4, Fall 2006; ‘Manhood, Sexuality and Nation in Post 9/11 USA’, in Bárbara Sutton, Sandy Morgan and Julie Novkov, eds, Rethinking Security: Gender, Race and Militarization, Rutgers University Press, Chapel Hill NC, 2008. This multi-layered account of gender will be developed further in my Gender: Style, Imaginary, Frame, Apparatus, in process.

6. I am relying here on both phenomenological and poststructuralist accounts of gender. Some accounts have emphasized the ‘lightness’ and malleability of gender; others note, however, that being ‘inside’ gender is crucial to being identified as human, to living a liveable life (Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, Routledge, New York and London, 2004), or that gendered ‘style’ sediments over time in such a way that it becomes essential to who we take ourselves to be, and who we are taken to be by others. See Sara Heinámaa, ‘Woman – Nature, Product, Style? Rethinking the Foundations of Feminist Philosophy of Science’, in Lynn Hankinson Nelson and Jack Nelson, Feminism, Science, and Philosophy of Science, Kluwer Academic, Boston MA, 1996; Iris Young, On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, New York,2005).