Right, Twitter, @janeclarejones has manifested me doing a thing about what I used to teach undergraduates. So, I'm going to do it here. If you want to play along, you're welcome.

Here's the rules.

You are the undergrads. I'm the postgrad tutor.

This is gender theory 101.

@janeclarejones We will start with this dude, with his impressive moustaches, Ferdinand de Saussure.

He had a theory about language that you need to understand if you are going to understand how post structuralism/ post modernism/ queer theory came about.

He's where they started.


Easiest to give a concrete example. A red flag to show a dangerous beach, and a man looking at it.

The red flag is the sign, the dangerous currents are the signifier.

Combine the red flag and the dangerous currents, that makes the "signified," the whole mental concept


So imagine two people talking to each other. The signified in one of their heads travels to their mouth. They speak a word. This goes to their interlocuter's ear, and then into their brain, producing the same sign in their brain. And so forth.


This is not always a smooth process, it can fail. But the two points to take from this are

1. concepts in people's heads are made up essentially of signs stuck onto things in the real world, almost like labels

2. Human communication is a way to share those concepts

This is obviously a HUGE oversimplification of the theory, rather than a steel man of it, but these two concepts are the ones you will need to understand how to get to Foucault from Saussure.

It's also worth noting that this is semiotics, emphatically NOT social science.

Next up, this chap. Jaques Derrida. Like many French Philosophers of his era, partial to a black polo neck and a pipe, but looking rather more dapper than that here.

Derrida was big on "negation." He proceeded by "negating" others, not expounding his own theories.


I'm inclined to make comments about how much fun this must have made him at dinner parties, but I will restrain myself.

He also liked "deconstruction," which (also annoyingly) he refused consistently to actually define. He dropped enough hints for me to give it a go, though.

So, this is about to get embarrassing now. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Ok. Here we go.

Imagine the sign/signified/signifier thing above? So, take your pen and your piece of paper. On one side, draw a picture of a flower.

On the other side, write flower, same spot as your pic

Now draw a circle around both. The circle should be reproduced on both sides. If you cut it out, then you have the sign (the word flower) the signified (the picture of the flower) and the signifier (the whole thing you are holding in your hand.

Nope, says Derrida. I'm going to write what I had undergrads do, which is embarrassing not just because I used to really believe this stuff, but because my understanding of it was not sophisticated. But anyway, here we go, this is what I did.

I would then take out a little coffee table that I brought with me for this purpose. I would ask them "what is this?" They would say "a coffee table." I would then sit on it. "What is it now?" And then I would mildly threaten them with it and ask "what is it now?"

The point was to weaken the idea that there were fixed things in the world that could be understood on their own terms, without our relationship to them. Essentially to blur the lines on the side of the paper with the picture on it. Make it hazier.

Then I would tell them about Japanese oranges. The Japanese word for orange is written in the letters they use for English words, because they can't see the colour orange. They think it is either red, or it's yellow. No orange. I had great fun as a teacher there.

I taught the kids to differentiate between red, yellow and orange, fairly quickly. Interestingly, it was much easier to teach it to nursery kids than secondary school kids.

But back to Derrida. The point, I argued, was that there was no such thing as clear concepts in the world

Everything was blurry, undefined. There were no "signifieds" to stick "signs" onto, because every signified melted into every other signified.

The signs were equally blurry. Even within the same language, a ginnel became an alley became an entry.

And here we go...

Because wrapped up in every single one of those "signifiers" was a whole history, a rich seam of language, of meaning, of experience to mine.

When I talk about fibre, about women's hands and women's work, it means one thing. It connects to all my experiences of that.

The owner of a textile mill, staffed by disenfranchised women earning pennies a day will understand a completely different thing by those same words

Meaning is never present in the words themselves. It can never be so perfectly encapsulated as to form a signifier with a meaning.

Meaning is always and forever, deferred. It never lands.

If I say "cat" to you, you might think of your cat, your friend's cat, about kittens, about collars, Egyptians.

This changes the nature of communication

It becomes a much more mysterious thing than Saussure imagined

This is all fine. In fact, honestly, I am still kind of in love with this theory. It is so useful and interesting in certain types of literary analysis

It's really philosophically interesting too, and it tells me something about how others inner lives will always be mysterious

Mysticism aside, the really important points to take forward here are

1. if there are no fixed conceptual entities, then language cannot be nomenclature, as there's nothing fixed to label

2. languages are arbitrary ways of imposing meaning on the world

3. That meaning exists in the language, and NOT in the world itself, NOT in the relation between the world and the language.

That last point is so important. I told my undergrads that meaning was not in the relation between the word and the world, but in relations between words

This is where it gets really embarrassing. So, if you have followed me thus far, and not been TOO incensed, this is where the water starts getting distinctly choppy. Sorry.

I ended one tutorial and asked my undergrads to bring a dictionary to the next one. Maybe 1/3 did.

"Can you define flower for me," I asked them.

Of course, they looked up the word.

"the seed-bearing part of a plant, consisting of reproductive organs (stamens and carpels) that are typically surrounded by a brightly coloured corolla (petals) and a green calyx (sepals)."

"But if there are real things in the world that have meaning, independently of language," I asked them, "and if they really are distinct from each other, why, when you look up something in the dictionary, are there only more words?"

"How do you get beyond language?"

Now just keep that thought of getting "beyond language" in your head, because we are going to take a whistle stop tour of Judith Butler, before circling back round to the fact that "pointing" is also a type of language, and the thought that maybe, all we have is words.

My French used to be much better than it is now, not fluent, but good enough to have read and understood Derrida in French (I suspected the English translation of overcomplicating things, but no, it really was that purposefully impenetrable.

I know how to parse language.

But honest to God, reading Butler was like eating pea soup with a fork.

Why use 1 word when 563 will do?

Part of my acceptance of her ideas was that when I finally got my head around what she was saying, I was so pleased with myself that I didn't stop to question it.

This is the REALLY embarrassing bit. Ok, here we go.

So, get your pen and piece of paper again. And on one side, draw a stick woman, and on the other, draw a stick man. Really, you have to do this for this to work.

I'm gonna pause and go do this.

Rudimentary will do.

Here's my wee version.

Now, I want you to write all the ways that you can tell if a person is a man when you meet them in the street next to the man, and all the ways you can tell if somebody is a woman of you meet them.

Physical, social, whatever.


I stood at the front of the class, collecting answers to the question, "how do you know if anybody you meet is a man or a woman? What evidence do you base it on?

Their required reading was some of Gender Trouble, by Butler, but none of them had ever read it, let alone understood


So I'm morto for me own ma at this point.

Having got a loooooong list from the class which basically amounted to
1. gender stereotypes
2. secondary sexual characteristics

I then proceeded to "cross off" each one in turn as being incapable of distinguishing men from women

"Well obviously, long hair doesn't work - some men have long hair and some women have short hair"
"A bulge could just be socks, you don't know when you meet a person at all what they have in their trousers, and it's kind of weird to ask, right?"
"Some men are very short..."

We rejected each attribute, one by one, as being incapable of being a determining factor as to who was a man and who was a women.

Somebody always brought up biology, which I found EYE WATERINGLY BOURGEOIS at the time.

I was INSUFFERABLE. Let's be clear here.

It was usually a mature student, and almost always female.

One woman, who I would give my eye teeth to get back in touch with, said "I know I'm a woman, though, coz I've pushed a baby out of my vagina, and no man ever did that."

"But," I said, "transmen give birth."

"You could meet a transman," I said, holding court, "and because of the effects of testosterone, you would not even question whether he was a man. Transmen are men, and transwomen are women, forever and ever amen."

*slightly fictionalised, coz I can't bear it otherwise

OK, I'll be brave. I can bear it.

Anybody who has ever attended, or given, a university seminar knows about the power dynamics.

I, unashamedly at the time, used those dynamics to reduce her to an eye roll.

I would give a lot to find her, and all of them, and say sorry.

Anyway, I'm getting side tracked.

We took the time to dismiss every single way in which you could possibly distinguish between men and women. I even called people sexist for suggesting stereotypical things, such as height or athletic performance as distinguishing factors.

I wanted them to conclude: it is impossible to work out, with any certainty, whether any human that you meet is male or female, based on the fact that every factor upon which you might distinguish is possessed by somebody of the opposite sex to which that factor usually pertains

Ah, shit, I didn't know I could still write like a queer theorist. Turns out I can. It never leaves you.

Turns out it's like riding a bike.

Right now, I feel like an alcoholic eyeing up a mini bar on a weekend break.

I loved the language, though. I loved it.

I felt so clever, and so right, and so righteous. I didn't have to expound my own theories, or stand by anything. I could proceed by negation, like an annoying incel. Like that failed comedian. You say a thing, I negate it. I don't have to make, only to destroy.

I asked you earlier to remember "beyond language?" And a quick reminder as well about signs, signifiers, signifieds (Saussure), and about meaning, always and everywhere deferred, spread out, delayed (Derrida).

This is the moment, for me, where I went down the rabbit hole.

I'm just going to ask you for a bit of slack here. You all know me. You know how I feel about butch women. You know that I am not averse to "playing" with gender.

If a theorist looks like this, can I be blamed for giving her more than the usual amount of slack?


That's out of the way, I'm delaying. Ok. Here we go. I'm going to talk about my PhD.

My thesis was, basically, that virginity is a fucked up concept.

There are societies in the standard anthropological sample that have no concept of virginity.

That is to say, there is no change in your identity, when you have sex for the first time. It's like playing golf for the first time.

And people regard virginity really differently, some people talk about PIV sex, but some people talk about first orgasm.

Other people talk about the first time they really consented.

EVERYBODY who I spoke to whose experience of losing their virginity was "first PIV sex" flat out refused to say "PENIS IN VAGINA." They all said "really doing it." "Biologically doing it." "Not just messing."

But everybody who lost their virginity in a non standard way said "Oh, not PIV sex, I don't define it like that."

Both groups "pointed" towards a definition of sex. They gestured. They made a "sign."

How to get beyond their language? How to get beyond signs?

The original Saussure was "semiotics." The study of signs.

But, say Derrida and Butler, the meaning is bound up in the language itself.

There's no "real" thing that the language relates to.

And if you say there is, you are "pointing."

I summon @zaelefty for this next bit.

@zaelefty I am ashamed to say that I used intersex people as human shields. I knew a bit about chromosomes, but not a great deal. Enough to use them.

There are xx men, I used to say, when undergrads said that chromosomes were the thing.

And besides, you can't see chromosomes.

@zaelefty But anyway, I argued, "aren't you just pointing at chromosomes? how do you actually GET to the chromosomes, outside structures of knowledge and power? You are standing on a house of cards.

And then I would get to Foucault, and that is for another day.