Eric Plemons is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His project, “Making the Gendered Face” supervised by Dr. Cori Hayden, received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant in October 2010 and he is currently in the field. His research concerns the practice of Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) in the context of transgender medicine. The Wenner-Gren Blog recently contacted him to answer some questions about his investigations into the construction of gender at the level of surgical intervention.
You hold that skeletal structure is a particularly potent site of articulating gender difference – partially because it is seen as being ‘ahistorical’. Could you elaborate on that?
Both of the surgeons with whom I conducted primary field research as well as those who publish professional articles on the technical practice of Facial Feminization Surgery cite primary and fundamental differences between the facial skeletons of males and females (yes, these are the only salient categories here). It is surgical alteration of the bony structures of the face that distinguishes FFS from other procedures meant to produce ‘feminine’ features. These surgeons describe the differences between male and female faces as absolute, universal and historical: male faces are like x, female faces are like y. Whereas ‘gender’ is a category that is understood to be locally and historically specific—especially by trans patients who tended to present well-developed though somewhat heterogeneous theories of gender—sexual dimorphism is recognized as a characteristic of the human species. The power of the skeleton in this story is pervasive. The human skeleton—and especially the skull—has appeared throughout my fieldwork as not only the analogy for, but the very definition of, the core of the human body. The skeleton is used to stand for the human form: we are all the same on the inside. This notion of the universal and ahistorical human form fits neatly with representations of sex distinction as universal and ahistorical. Although variations are acknowledged to exist, they are just as easily dismissed as a tiny fraction of the population, a simply unimportant variable for a project predicated on the existence and stability of two sexes, such that one can leave one and become the other.
What obstacles or challenges have you encountered so far in your research? How have you adapted?
One of my primary obstacles has been navigating the small network of surgeons who specialize in surgical sex reassignment—both genital and facial—in the United States. This is a well-connected and very small group of roughly eleven people (five who do FFS, and six who regularly perform genital sex reassignment). While they may not always consider each other colleagues, each is certainly aware of the practices of the others. One advantage that I have had in working this network is the reputation and influence of the surgeon with whom I conducted the bulk of my field research. As the most well known and widely respected US-based FFS surgeon, his personal and professional endorsement opened doors to people and places that would have otherwise been difficult to access. At the same time, his endorsement also came enmeshed in the politics of this small group of experts. It has been a challenge to know when and how to leverage the credit that I have through my association with him, and then to know how to assure other surgeons—and their assistants and patients—that I am not personally committed to his practices and philosophies as the ‘right’ way to approach FFS. As I have progressed through my fieldwork and come to better understand the personal and professional stakes of these relationships, I’ve learned how to communicate my personal and scholarly interests in order tread lightly when necessary. I have made a concerted effort to develop individual relationships with each person I encounter in my fieldwork—an effort that is helped most of all by listening more than I speak.
You aim to “start a conversation” between cultural and physical anthropology. In your view, how can the two fields best “speak” to one another?
In many cases, the ‘four fields’ of anthropology remain distinct because they either examine dissimilar objects and/or employ dissimilar methods of inquiry. Though our discipline is bound by a common effort to understand the diversity of humankind, the things that we study and the way we go about studying them are frequently radically distinct. As a cultural anthropologist, one of the things that excited me about this research project was the opportunity to engage anthropological literatures and discourses that were completely new to me. I got to explore the history of archeological and forensic sex determination, and engage more contemporary debates about the role of typically humanities-driven theories of gender construction and enactment in these anthropological sciences.
Facial Feminization Surgery provides a critical point of access between cultural and physical anthropology. In the case of FFS, physical anthropologists’ indications of the sites of the skull’s distinctly sexed structures are not recognized as descriptions, but are operationalized as prescriptions for how to transform one sexed face into another. This is an example of something that has fascinated me throughout this research: FFS is the enactment of many forms of knowledge that have been combined in ways that their producers did not intend, and likely could not have imagined. Here, archaeological and physical anthropological knowledge is being used to (re)make faces, to literally produce gender. Our common object at the heart of this transformative project provides a means for common conversation.
How did the doctors, experts and physical anthropologists whom you encountered react to your background in cultural anthropology and the questions you were attempting to answer? Did you encounter any resistance to your ‘science studies’ critique?
To be honest, I was frequently struck by how quickly my interlocutors dismissed kinds of knowledge—and even kinds of questions—that were not immediately recognizable to them as ‘important.’ During interviews and observations, I tried to remain as neutral as possible, creating space for people to explain to me what they thought I should know about their own practice and experience as experts in a field, or patients undergoing procedures. Despite my sincere efforts to clearly explain the kinds of questions that guided my research, I found that people often simply wanted to tell me what they felt was important. The limitations of interest and of willingness to engage particular kinds of questions were quite enlightening in themselves. Physical anthropologists were not terribly interested in changing understandings of gender; they examined bones. Patients were not interested in the politics of trans embodiment; they were undertaking a very personal project that was about and for themselves alone. Surgeons were not interested in knowing too much about what an anthropological analysis of their practice might be; they were very skillfully performing a task at which they were expert, and were happy to allow me to observe. While I found people almost invariably willing to talk with me, their interests were limited to just that: their interests. The work of synthesizing and thinking across theses various realms of knowledge, experience and expertise is mine alone. This is, I think, what the work of anthropology is about.
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