Gender as Soft Assembly (Book Review)

Author:  Harris, Adrienne
Publisher: Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, PhD, Winter 2006, pp. 38-40

Any reader expecting an easy answer to the modern-day gender conundrum should not read Adrienne Harris’s new book Gender As Soft Assembly. Quite in contrast to the current trend of offering simple, seemingly reassuring solutions to complicated psychological issues, Harris’s book requires patience and attention. Harris challenges her readers to engage in their own thinking with the detailed information she provides on developmental theories, chaos theory, gender development, psycholinguistics, attachment theory and developmental psycholinguistics. This is an extremely well researched book in which Harris has set herself the steep task of reworking developmental theory by looking at language and gender development at a time when many theorists have given up on developmental theory altogether.

In her introduction, Harris explains that she was trained in her early professional life as a developmental psychologist who was never taught to think of development in terms of linear, unfolding structures but rather in terms of functional and dynamically transformational processes. In her training, “structure and the more straightforward descriptions of stages took a back seat” (p. 3) with process, self-organization and transformation taking a front-seat. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater and banishing developmental theory from the contemporary psychoanalytic scene altogether, Harris wants to re-inscribe developmental theory into the psychoanalytic canon in order to show how mind, gender and language emerge in various contexts and are “neither solely social and interactional processes nor reified into simply endogeneous experiences but…are historical, social, biological and intrapsychic processes [which] are always interacting, overlapping open systems”(p. 3).

Early on, Harris announces her plan of marrying chaos theory with relational theory and thinks of it as “a marriage made in heaven” because the former privileges “open systems, self-organization and dynamic processes” (p. 5) while the later emphasizes analytic work in “a set of relational matrices of intense mutual though asymmetric” processes. Though the marriage may not be complete, Harris proceeds with great care to work out the details of these intricate marriage partners to make the eventual wedding an undeniable success. She begins this marriage contract by defining the individual as “a complex site of multiple states in various stages of editing” (p. 19) and examines the various social and gendered contexts and processes in which such a multi-fractured individual comes to be. True to her relational roots, Harris is not so much interested in the individual per se but in the variations within and between individuals. Therefore, the term “soft assembly” is particularly well suited to her project because, as she explains, it encompasses “the protean, multi-pathed but planful and patterned unfolding of experience, such as becoming gendered. Multiplicity offers a certain flexibility that, in relation to shifting objective and social contexts, is distinctly adaptive” (p. 29). In this more flexible mode of looking at language and gender development, old terms like “arrest,” “fixation” and “stage” are cast aside and are replaced in favor of “process,” “transformation,” “function” and “context,” so as to comprehend the unique configuration of any individual. In this configuration, motivation is also no longer understood as a natural, given trait, but as a process emerging from simple infant capacities. Harris unequivocally states, “Following Ghent (2002), I suggest that motivational systems are not blueprints but outcomes” (p. 7). With Winnicott’s idea of “going-on-being” and with infant studies’ focus on “timing, rhythm and temporality,” Harris argues that our sense of time has to be re-written not as a unidirectional process but as a movement that flows back and forth, producing effects retroactively. Reinvoking Freud’s luminous 1898 concept of Nachtraeglichkeit, she masterfully elaborates:

“With the idea of Nachtraeglichkeit, psychoanalytic theory has thus issued a particularly acute challenge to any simple conception of time or its linearity in development. As experience unfolds and becomes part of what is fed back into memory schemas, memories alter and reconfigure. Powerful affects from contemporary experience enter and rework memory. An ever-altering and renewing developmental narrative takes shape” (p. 64).

The scene is now set to show the usefulness of chaos theory which takes into full consideration multiple, differing developmental trajectories and lends itself so cogently to psychoanalysis because it does not explain behaviors from “the top down” but from the bottom up and is thus much more akin to infant studies which attempts to explain one specific story of one specific individual at a specific time without compressing this particular story into one grand master-theme. Harris demonstrates with great elegance that any learning process usually thought to be biologically or maturationally driven, is indeed a process constituted by multiple stepping stones--cognitive structures, sensorimotor actions, semantic rhythms, and interactional patterns, which come together (or often do not come together) in a distinctive way for any given individual. Non-linear, dynamic chaos theory can absorb a much greater variety of behaviors than linear developmental theory because it pays attention to detail and elasticity and also (paradoxically) observes idiosyncratic patterns within and between individuals.

The concept of attractor is fundamental to chaos theory, which Harris defines as “points of convergence without being exactly points of gravity and not structures as much as dynamic patterns, sometimes regular, sometimes bimodal and sometimes fractal and strange. Attractors can be defined as those fixed points in the stream of behavior, but fixed points that are nonetheless dynamic and potentially susceptible to transformation. Attractors can be modeled as deeply troughed or rigid pattern forms or as rather fluid assemblies that mutate and reassemble in new and distinct configurations. This concept identifies the unique ways that individual experience is unfolding and self-organizing, changing through multidimensional phase spaces and moving along multiple time scales”(p. 85). Attractors, Harris explains, do not drive a system but are the outcomes of activities and systems in perturbation and movement. In contrast to stage development theory, chaos theory has little predictive capacity, but instead is well equipped to look at a set of behaviors or dispositions retroactively (après-coup), examining the traces that have been left behind by a chain of intertwined, multiple variants.

Gender can thus function as a kind of attractor, a point of convergence of interrelated historical, cultural, familial and intrapsychic strands rather than operate as a given, predestined biological identity. Citing Judith Butler’s work on melancholy gender, Harris elaborates and suggests that we see “gender as the charred remains of various fires, set intrapsychically and interpersonally, representing conflicts between loving and being that cannot be fully metabolized and “internalized… Gender as an attractor would be a touchpoint where systems intersect explosively or cooperatively: historical, familial and individual” (pp. 87-88).

Defining gender as an emergent, convergent system allows Harris to look at clinical case histories from a “kaleidoscopic,” moment-to-moment perspective rather than from of a “monarchial” top-down, judgmental position. Qualities that have been traditionally considered to be strictly feminine or masculine can now be re-written through the relational/chaos theory lens as properties emerging out of particular inter-and intrapsychic experiences in collaboration with distinct socio-cultural constellations. In a way, I think, Harris aspires to provide a theoretical scaffolding that finally offers people an infallible model to truly grasp gender as a construction and not as a biological essence, subject to multiple aberrations.

With Gender As Soft Assembly, Harris does not only respond decisively to the question of what constitutes gender today, but she also strives to provide a theoretical model that still works within the psychoanalytic domain, yet one that can shed the antiquarian skins which perspire scents of linearity and determinism. At a time when the world has become so unpredictable and when technology has created genetic and sexual possibilities never realizable before, the “old” theories insisting on a master theme can no longer contain nor explain the variations we encounter in everyday life and in our clinic. Either we are forced to pathologize that which does not fit into the master trope or we are tempted to cast the entire theory aside and deem it insufficient for our time. I think Harris wants to save psychoanalytic theory from such a fate and proposes chaos theory as a treatise that can adequately respond to and explain the complex sexual identities of the 21st century.

It is interesting to note that similar endeavors have occurred in fields closely related to psychoanalytic theory. Michael Andre Bernstein’s concept of sideshadowing, which he develops in Foregone Conclusions (1994), also attempts to address the kind of global, monolithic literary thinking which privileges the literary unidimensional technique of foreshadowing, where the present is already always a “harbinger of an already determined future.” In a search of coherence, individuals tend to want to make sense of their history by looking backwards, using incidents from the past as luminous explanations of their pre-ordained present. In contrast to foreshadowing, Bernstein suggests sideshadowing as an alternative narrative technique, one that is less dismissive of variety and more responsive to the unpredictability of everyday life. Instead of seeing the present as an already pre-ordained future, sideshadowing permits one to regard the present as being “dense with multiple and mutually exclusive possibilities for what is to come”(p. 1). Sideshadowing, Bernstein writes, champions the incommensurability of the concrete moment and refuses the tyranny of all synthetic master schemes. It rejects the conviction of a code or law to be uncovered beneath the heterogeneity of human existence”(p. 4). In addition, much like chaos theory, sideshadowing pays attention to the randomness of human life, to the haphazard incidents and the small details that can shape one’s life decisively, but which can be passed over easily by a theory, insisting on unearthing a deeper truth.

And yet the idea of giving up on structural theory altogether because it is deemed to be antiquated and too rigid strikes me to be too premature a move. There is an aesthetic order to structural theory that is not necessarily rigid but rather ingenious in the ways it detects one irreducible variant among seemingly different traits or behaviors. Wanting to find an order behind an apparent disorder, Levi-Strauss (1995), for example, recounts an old Peruvian tale where all newborns born with feet first, or with a harelip or as twins were being accused for causing a bitter cold and were asked to repent for their sins. Levi-Strauss was not so interested in the causal relationship between the three groups and the belief that they caused brutal weather conditions, but what intrigued him instead were the links by which the twins and the babies born with feet first or with a harelip were connected in the old Peruvian culture. Cross-studying various North and South-American myths, Levi-Strauss finally deducted one common element among this rather disparate group: All three members of the group shared an element of trickery and potential destructiveness for which they were held responsible and deemed suspicious all their lives. Now it is true that each member of this “first-feeted, harelipped and twinned” assembly could be studied individually, each in their own socio-cultural environment, but the fact that one invariant could be deduced from this ensemble allows for the kind of concise structural logic that risks being eclipsed by post-modernism. Structural theory can certainly become too rigid and monolithic, losing sight of the particular detail, but post-modern reasoning can also become too porous and all encompassing and thus risk losing its explanatory force. I think Harris’s sophisticated study of Gender as Soft Assembly offers a timely response to these competing powerful theoretical currents.


Bernstein, M. A. (1994). Foregone conclusions. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Levi- Strauss, C. (1995/1978). Myth and meaning: Cracking the code of culture. New York: Schocken Books.

Reviewer Note

Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Ph.D. is the president and personal and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. She is on the faculty at PINC, NCSPP (the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology) and at The Wright Institute. She was one of the founding members of the San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies and a past president of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology. Jeanne Wolff Bernstein is a contributing editor to Psychoanalytic Dialogues and is on the Editorial board of Studies in Gender and Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She has published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Studies in Gender and Psychoanalysis, Fort/da, Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Free Associations, Recherches Cliniques en Psychanalyse and in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. She is in private practice in Berkeley, California.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.