Interview with Mara Glozman

Mara Glozman is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina and a Professor in Linguistics at the National University of Hurlingham (UNAHUR) in Buenos Aires. She has also been advisor to Monica Macha, an MP in Argentina who has proposed to legally introduce changes for the use of inclusive language to be officially accepted and recognised as a right of expression in different public Argentinean institutions.

My first question relates to the plural and singular use of language. You do touch upon this topic in some of your papers, but it is certainly not a central topic, and I would like you to expand more on this if possible. I would like to understand more from your perspective what inclusive language has to offer, or not, to the use of plural and singular indicators in Spanish. I would also like to know if you think there are any social consequences of this overflow of the singular and plural that inclusive language seems to bring about or promote.

There is, first of all, the issue of the plural, in a grammatical sense, and within a particular language system like Spanish. The forms that the plural adopts in relation to the inflections of the nominal, to nouns, pronouns, adjectives and in some cases participles varies in Spanish. It varies according to grammatical gender distinctions between feminine and masculine. In certain uses of what is defined as inclusive language in Argentina for example, the inflection “e” appears in particular as a way of avoiding the plural as masculine.

Inclusive language problematises the nominal forms, the plural forms related to naming, when pronouns, nouns and adjectives are used to refer to persons. The problem here is not so much the grammatical gender of language understood as a system, but the specific cases in which nouns, adjectives and pronouns which in Spanish vary in grammatical gender happen to refer to persons. Inclusive language encapsulates a very particular aspect of Spanish grammar, it does not entail verbs, prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions, it does not include the vast majority of the linguistic system but a specific subset.

The use of the ‘e’ as an inflection in both the singular and the plural have a variety of uses in Argentina. Firstly, there is the use of the plural – “todes” (everyone) – which would include multiple variants of gender without any particular specification to which gender such plurals refer (feminine, masculine or non-binary). We could think of this as a rather general use: alumn”e”s (pupils); tod”e”s (everyone); amigu”e”s (friends) – these uses include any possible variant of gender inflection.

Secondly, we can think of the diversity in the use of plurals, when “todas”, “todos” or “todes” are used to purportedly refer to groups of either female, male or, in the case of “todes”, to non-binary people. Both in the use of nominal forms in the plural and in the use of singular forms for nouns, pronouns and adjectives, the use of “e” refers to non-binary people who identify themselves beyond traditionally gendered binary definitions and boundaries, in the same way as “a” (feminine inflections) have been used for example to refer to people who identify with the feminine.

There are, of course, a lot of problems and issues that emerge from these different uses and with the idea of inclusive language in general. For instance, within the social sciences and feminist movements, there is this tendency to overlap or consider as equal the grammatical gender expressions of language on one hand, together with gender understood as a social construct on the other. For example, it is argued in those cases that the use of the masculine plural “todos” makes women invisible. Sometimes there is a tendency in these social science and feminist positions to attribute the masculine plural, taken as a mere particular grammatical formulation, with some kind of metaphysical if not moral value and capacity. I argue instead that grammatical formulations and social constructs are two rather different phenomena. From a linguistic perspective and in Spanish, I can attribute feminine and masculine inflections to a myriad of both things and people. Grammatical gender becomes problematic and problematized by inclusive language only when there are certain particular expressions and uses that refer to persons or groups of persons.

Another different problem is the relationship between plurality and diversity. Inclusive language tentatively offers the possibility that in the use of non-binary forms a multiplicity of gender formulations are enabled, giving the possibility for those people who identify themselves as non-binary to do so. This is really interesting, as in Argentina  we have the Gender Identity Law, passed in 2012, which established that everyone has the right to be treated according to their self-identified gender identity. In this sense, the non-binary forms of language somehow came to operationalise or make actionable this right to be treated and named according to multiple gender identities.

So, these are two very different issues: the use of the “e” to avoid the plural masculine understood as a vehicle that has made women invisible for example; and the use of the “e” to respect the gender identity of non-binary people. We basically need to think inclusive language in terms of plurality, diversity and rights: the right to self-identify and the right for institutions and other members of society to respect such self-denomination. This is a thorny issue because the meaning of “e” is not yet fixed and there have been cases when the use “e” in Argentina has, for example, acted as a means of alienating “others” who are seen as deviant. I have also heard for example the “e” being deployed to refer to collectives of trans men, who would never name or define themselves in non-binary terms. There is also this heterosexual cis use of non-binary language which is deployed “just in case” when, coming from this particular narrow worldview, it becomes unclear whether persons or groups of persons “fit naturally” as feminine or masculine.

Tell me more about self-identification. This is relatively new in governmental spheres and connected to the issue of visibility, of making more categories available for people who self-identify differently to the traditional categories used to govern populations. In my view the use of “todes” has the potential of overflowing gender categories and becoming a more universal reference, the “e” has the potential to exceed gender references and tap into more variables or categories (similar to the use of ‘everyone’ in English). How much do all these controversies and struggles around the meanings of “e” facilitate the expansion or universalism of inclusive language?

I have some reservations in relation to language and inclusive language in particular understood in this way. Your question invites a way of thinking about how much capacity and power we attribute to language. On one hand, we have the morphology of language, the grammatical morphology of language in itself. Some discourses about language (meta-linguistic) for example advance that Spanish as a language is sexist (machista) per se. In my view, however, Spanish is a particular morphological system, it is a language understood as a device for the production of certain structures. There is a structural principle behind the functioning of sentences, of syntactic structures, concordances, there are hierarchical and dependency relationships between words, etc. This is not sexist or not sexist in itself, it is a system or order.

A different issue however is how certain expressions of language work within certain given discourses. Here, in my view, we can indeed start thinking about the function of language being sexist and/or patriarchal. So, we have on one hand, the morphology and syntax of language, and on the other hand the functioning of certain elements in discursive orders which are tightly related to social and ideological processes. These are really different ways of understanding language. From my perspective, if the aim is to approach this subject from a more analytic and epistemic standpoint, then we absolutely need to distinguish these two ways of understanding language. This is not to say that I am against the use of inclusive language. On the contrary, I have been an active participant and consultant for a myriad of organisations that are promoting the use of inclusive language in Argentina, and I’m very interested in this dialogue and this type of polyphonic construction.

Another thing that I have reservations with, is that I also do not think that linguistic forms have the capacity to make persons visible or invisible. There is not a linear or automatic relationship between speech and the order of things in my view. There is a specificity of the linguistic system, in the same way as there is a specificity in biology of the circulatory system. There is a specific materiality of language that we can indeed think in relation to social processes, but what we cannot do is attribute somehow fictional capacities to syntax per se. I do not think there is any solidity in arguments that try to relate grammar and syntaxis with the patriarchy, analytically and empirically speaking.

Can one word make a person either visible or invisible? I think this proposition is quite metaphysical: that language, a mere word, a loose unit of language, can be attributed such power? I have a critical position in relation to this. This whole idea that that which we do not name does not exist. I have a different perspective on this. Many times those things that we cannot speak about are indeed those which exist materially, sometimes emotionally. The materiality of emotions for example does not translate in a rather transparent and straightforward way in linguistic forms. There is no direct correlation between what we are, who we are, affects and the social relationships we are entangled with – and language. I depart from a much messier understanding of the relationship between language and the world, or between the dynamics between social relationships, identity and speech. This idea that we make universals by choosing to use certain words, or that we make visible by using certain expressions in epistemic terms, I honestly find it hard to adhere to this view.

We can, however, think social process and language are tied together when, for example, we look at lexical forms, grammar inflections in cases where nouns refer to persons. The relevant forms of inclusive and non-binary language are when nouns, pronouns and adjectives refer to persons. In my opinion, this is where the focus should be placed.

But thinking about categories for example: religion, race, class, gender and so forth which have been used as devices for governing populations since at least the invention of the Census in Western societies in the 19th Century. There is an argument that these devices enable to make statistically visible certain groups of people and communities to be accounted for policies which might benefit them. It could be argued that the emergence of social categories from a performative standpoint made possible inhabiting and experiencing certain ways of being a person (and not others of course).

I understand this, however I work with a theoretical perspective which actually questions the existence of fixed and invariable meaning. This theory, in particular Pêcheux’s theory of the materiality of meaning, proposes that there is no meaning that can be attributed beforehand to any expression or word or any particular way of functioning within discourse. Within this theoretical framework, you can say “Black” and the meaning and association that word establishes will be very different according to which discursive formation it becomes inscribed in.

Going back to the visibility and invisibility argument, such an argument does not allow for an understanding of this variability in the uses and relationality of language. Language does not simply function as an “On and Off” button. We also need to remind ourselves that one can make something invisible by naming it too many times, by obfuscating it too. This whole idea of visibility and invisibility tries to stabilise something which is, in reality, very unstable and constantly uncertain. There is an urgency in current understandings of language and categories to fix and stabilise, which does not account for the multiplicity and variability that language and its uses facilitate.

The conditions of discourse formation are inherently traversed by racial issues for example. A single word then, can or cannot be racist, sexist; it depends on the discursive formation, network, plot and use in which it is inscribed. And this is something that we can sometimes control, but too many times we cannot. We must remind ourselves too that in the processes of discourse formation, persons are a support of, can be thought of, as vessels of devices of discourse.

I would like us to now think about what you are touching upon in relation to the indeterminacy of language, but in relation to identity. What you mention about the indeterminacy of language is something that has been also put forward by different social theories of identity, not understood as something forever fixed, but as a mark which is always in the making and in material and linguistic relations to networks of meaning. There are certain devices, like the Census, which force persons to fix their identity in time for example. But if you depart from theoretical and political assumptions that language and identities are always in flux, then my question is: why bother with inclusive language? In what way does inclusive language help us understand identity as something that is constantly in flux? What are the implications of this in terms of identity politics? Does inclusive language ascribe to this idea of fixed identity?

I’m not sure I would speak of language evolution as this assumes a linear trajectory and a homogeneity in the understanding of what language is and does too. I do not work so much with the idea of context or use, but I was referring more to the idea that expressions and words do not have a pre-attributed meaning but their meaning emerges as a result of their relationships with other words.

The idea of use also introduces the idea of an individual speaker, of an individual using words. I do not agree necessarily with this. In my view, the meaning of words is beyond the voluntary actions of a given speaker. Of course, from a functionalist, pragmatist perspective, individuals are attributed this capacity of using words for certain means and end. These perspectives are also built around a particular theoretical scaffolding that supports particular understandings of what subjects and subjectivity are, and we can see some of these assumptions being played out in the use of inclusive language in Argentina.

When you say that inclusive language can be tied to identity politics and policies, I am not entirely sure this is the case. I would say that rather than being tied to identity politics and policies, inclusive language is more closely tied to equality policies, because it not only focuses on minorities, but also engages everyone. The Law on Gender Identity that was passed in Argentina is universal, all people are entitled by this law to be treated in relation to their own gender identity; we all have a gender identity, not just transexuals or lesbian or gay people. It is a universal right, a right to be treated with dignity according to the name you choose to be named by and how you want to be addressed in public.

In my work I do not engage a lot with the idea of identity, but I do engage with processes of identification from an Althusserian perspective, not a singular identity. The individual is in my view an effect of the work of discourses and ideology rather than the origin or cause. This is why I sometimes have some doubts in relation to the epistemological foundations that support the discourses around inclusive language. I do engage with the politics of it, and I am highly involved in this respect in different ways, however I do distance myself from this idea that a person can speak as they like when they like. It is not as simple as choosing to use certain words and not others.

But going back to identity politics. I do not think that the Gender Identity Law in Argentina was designed with minorities in mind but has instead attempted to universalise the right (which was already held by binary people) to be named and identified according to multiple genders, not just two.

No one would name a cis male in any other way as referring to a cis male, because social relations already shape the conditions of speech for this particular gender. But everyone has the right to be named and identified in relation to any other gender, and in this way be treated with dignity. This is a universal right. There is, on one hand, the right to be treated with dignity, and on the other the right to be named and be referred to in your own terms too. This is the right to self-identify in our own individual terms. This right has socially and in language only been attributed and granted to binary people so far, and it should be extended to people identifying in a multiplicity of genders.

Self-identification is not new in this sense. We have always been enabled by language forms and uses to define ourselves in speech: I’m alto/alta (I’m tall); I am an abogado/abogada (I’m a lawyer), etc.  Historically, even when you trace the language back to Classic Latin, there has been always a tendency to enable self-identification in the multiple uses of the “I”. The problem has been that that such self-identification did not give room to other genders – both in language and discursive forms, at least in Spanish.

However, it is also true that in neo-liberal times, there is a tendency to attribute to individual speakers more and more importance. In this context, individual speakers are thought of as speech guarantors, as originators of language, they are not so much thought of as vectors of a language. “I speak as I am”, “I speak how I like”, “talk to me in this particular way”, and so on.

You talk a lot about processes of individuation as part of your work. And in one of your papers you also talk about this idea of “gender-ized” subjectivities. I thought that trying to understand the connection between those two processes is incredibly interesting, rich and complex. Could you expand on this?    

My work draws on Althusser’s theory of interpellation, the interpellation of individuals and subjects, and individuals understood as effects of ideology and not as individuals as given. I work too with the re-reading that Michel Pêcheux does and his materialist take on language, where the formation of discourse is understood in relation to mechanisms or processes of interpellation, and the production of subjects and subjectivity. Subjects are effects of the work of ideology, of language and the subconscious, and not the other way around. The theory of Pêcheux is very interesting in this respect because, drawing on Althusser, it points towards the formation of discourse.

The processes of subjectivation I describe in some of my papers are also modes in which particular individuation processes have an effect on how we understand ourselves as units. We become identified within certain discourses, but this is not necessarily an identity that we choose with free will. This does not mean however that we cannot choose how to be named and referred to, what gender we identify with. There is a dialectic relationship between the subject and discourse: there is a subject who is subjected to discourse; and another subject that can intervene in discourse. There are certain dimensions of discourses by which we become governed, and some others where we do have the possibility of intervention. There is, in a rather fundamental if not classical way, a dialectical relationship in my view between subject and structure. By putting the focus on processes of subjectivation it becomes possible to question whether a speaker is choosing what to say, and rather see these as processes where subjects are the effect of the work of discourse on them.

Categories however are what enable us to experience discourse processes and formations collectively I think, or as part of a social group. If I identify myself as a woman, well then that category enables me to be grouped together with other persons in the world who inhabit or experience the world as women. I’m interested in such a social aspect. What happens in the processes of personalisation that we are studying for example, is that we are encountering processes of extreme intersectionality unfolding. These are processes in which the intersection of variables, data and categorisation that are made to refer to persons is so vast, that groupings become irrelevant.

Why do we need to categorise though?

Well because from a social perspective to do so has enabled the formation of collectives, and that is where identity politics has become somehow problematic. Imagine a discursive formation that is so varied and vast that it ceases to use plurals and/or categories. This is where intersectionality becomes problematic too as it could eventually cease to group, to produce collectives.

I struggle to relate to identity from a theoretical perspective. If you ask me about my identity I would say I am from Football Club Atletico Independiente, this is my identitarian certainty at this point in time! Well, I am Jewish as well, and arguably there is something identarian in this too. Identity is important inasmuch as it is inscribed in the Law, but not as a theoretical category or device I would personally choose to deploy.

We have to also remember that in Argentina the word identity also acquires a particular historical significance and specificity because of the military dictatorship. The notion of identity that might circulate in academic circles in the United States for example, and which might tie in nicely with identity politics, is not necessarily the same as the one that resonates in Argentina.

Additionally, the right to gender identity in Argentina needs to be understood in relation to other fights for other rights in the country, such as equal marriage, the right to abortion, etc. These interventions have risen from civic society and grassroot movements and have come to be discussed in parliament bottom-up so to speak. This is an amplification of rights to sectors of society which were in an unequal footing in relation to others. The right to equal marriage is not addressed to a minority, it is for “todes” (everyone) to be able to get married lawfully. The same applies to the right to have sovereignty over your own body. Well, now trans, non-binary and any other person self-identifying in their own terms have the same right as being named and enunciated as they like just as any other cis, male female person has historically had.

In my way of thinking, the problem with self-identification is that it is virtually infinite and does not stop at gender. We cannot reduce it to say five categories of denomination, right? The idea behind “todes” is that it includes an infinite possibility of containment. This is in my view goes hand in hand with, or at least drips from these theories of fluid, unstable identity formations, but at the same time it destabilises certain social groupings that have served to advance leftist political rights too. If self-identification is ‘countless’, persons might find themselves outside of any possibility of relating to others or forming part of social groupings.

Self-identification or self-nomination has nothing to do with inclusive language in my view. It has always been a widespread practice in the use of language, the problem is that such use and formation did not allow for the self-identification of those who did not identify with binary masculine and feminine forms. Inclusive language is a universalisation of this right. However, I think sometimes we ask far too much of language. Sometimes words are just words. Of course, words produce effects, and these effects are not stable, but it is the instability that is interesting and not so much the particular words as such.

For example, if you use “todes” to refer to a collective of trans males that is seen by some to constitute a form of aggression, whereas if you use it to refer to a mixed group of males and females it is a different story. Words have indeed effects in our bodies, in our emotions, etc. Words and language forms have affective effects, in how we are shaped to listen, they can bring about memories, they might make you want to isolate yourself or listen and participate more. It is exactly the same with gender nominalism. As cis persons we are so taken by our self-evident identity that it appears as if inclusive language is something that only matters, applies and is relevant to trans or non-binary people.

This is a moment in history when the processes of gender-isation is being put to question, the world of compulsory heterosexuality is being questioned. The regime of binarism and heterosexualism has been brutal and ferocious because it has permeated that which is said and what is not said. It also inhabits and colonises silent and non-discursive forms. At the same time, such processes of gender-isation are being criss-crossed by neo-liberal subjectivity regimes which bring about strong hyper-egoistic subjectivity positions. There is, in my view, an exacerbation of the “I” in many spheres, and inclusive language discourses and practices do not entirely evade such  influence well. The exacerbation of individualism and excessive subjectivity is part of the current state of things, a state which sometimes also expresses itself in the discourses and meta-linguistics of inclusive language.