Playing with (my?) gender: a phenomenological view

People like simple explanations. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that except for the inevitability that this life will end. What comes between birth and death is uncertainty in all its glorious dynamism, and maddening complexity. In vain do we try to set up, in our imagination, an unassailable dais from which we, as gods, can look down and analyse what we see. Try as we may, what we think we are looking down on tantalises us by being annoyingly different from the sum of its parts. And try as we may, we cannot forget – if it is little more than a niggling for the most ‘rational’ amongst us – that we have put our imagination into play, that most irrational of psychic playthings.

To create that dais, we have tried to divorce ourselves from the very experience of being human, our head-on collision with a million-million-million instantaneous phenomena each waking day, and the consequences of each collision – what Gaston Bachelard calls “the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions” (7). Each encounter with a phenomenon evokes something born of memory; it associates with something we already know or, rather, with an array of things we know, and even with images that we can’t see any connection to. Some of these associations dissipate and disappear immediately, others brighten even to the point of being eidetic; those that last beyond the instant blend, to extents we cannot measure, with the next phenomenon. Or they die as suddenly as they came, despite their brilliance. Memories, even those of eidetic brilliance, are never pure recordings of the past, however, but are fleshed out with the imagination, that “major power of human nature” as Bachelard calls it (18). And this cannot in any way be analysed: “[…] the poetic act itself, the sudden image, the flare-up of being in the imagination, are inaccessible” to investigation (2).

Nothing about us, nothing in us, can be static, even that which we ‘know’ to be the most static. Each of these experiences changes us, and because a change no matter how small it is alters the relationships between those inaccessible, analysis-resistant components of our whole, each moment we are alive brings a metanoia – a change in the state of being – which may be only slight but, even if we do not realise it, can be as radical as that of Saul on the Damascus road.

I have looked at my own gender ever since I was a child. Sometimes the issues this introspection has thrown up have been profoundly disturbing, distressing, and puzzling. Feeling that one has to ask not “who am I?” but “what am I?” is a dysphoric, chaotic thing. It is only since I have approached the philosophy of human experience that I have had the courage to regard this chaos as a ride!

I’ll come back to that ride shortly. Meanwhile…

Studying gender in literature – studying gender in any context, let’s face it – brings one hard up against the fact that language governs thought. By and large we are not developing the language we speak and write, we have developed it (discuss!). Usage and argot are tinkered with, so that odd things change here and there, and things slip a little over time; but by and large we do not express what we directly experience, rather we speak in pre-existing metaphors replete with pre-existing meaning, a process which makes us interpret those experiences according to those meanings. Our expectations are informed and governed, our behaviour is informed and governed, our physical actions are informed and governed, our sense of who we are or who we ought to be is informed and governed, all these and more things in our lives are informed and governed by these pre-existing meanings. We use this to shore up our pitiful defences against the onslaught of psyche-altering phenomena, as we cling on desperately to what we hope is ‘reality’.

In my research, which looks at, inter alia, the way gender attaches to bodies within specific texts, I have noticed that despite attempts to disassociate one from the other, one of the factors that keeps pulling us back is the etymology of the language we use. One of the ways in which people who examine their own gender approach this problem is to experiment with the use of pronouns, to make them the subject of their choice rather than labels hung round their neck by custom and usage. They recognise no societal control over their appropriation of “he” or “she.” Or they take “they” and make an epicene singular of it, and fair dos to them.

What they can’t shake off, however, is the etymology of the words “he” and “she.” The etymology, the common usage, the semiotics of these words, all attach to sex-gender (I use the term “sex-gender” to convey the general understanding out there of linked body and behaviour) whether we like it or not. Users seeking an expression of their own identity actually import and appropriate an existing identity, which they then allow to define them, and if that identity is governed by a sex-gender vocabulary, then they run into the danger of taxonomising themselves by that terrible ‘either/or’. And taxonomy is a system not of gathering together likes, but of rejecting supposed unlikes.

All this contributes to the reasoning behind my playing around with new epicene words, starting with the pronoun “choy,” which is a substitute for the masculine pronoun, and enables me to conceive of applying it outside of sex-gender, and from this point I can avoid further use of the m-word. A caveat here: I am not proposing yet another pronoun to join the alphabet soup of epicene alternatives to he/she/they that already exist and are deployed out there, I am simply using my own as an experimental tool for the purposes of this article; if you have a better word yourself, then use it. The ‘other’ to “choy” in my arsenal of pronouns would be “zhai” (analogous to the f side of sex-gender, but etymologically and therefore conceptually detached from it).

Having dreamt up (if you like!) these terms I can begin to play, to enjoy the ride, to recognise in the way I react to the myriad phenomena, my residual choy-ness and/or my wonderful zhai-ness, to choose to deploy one more than the other or to acknowledge that one is operating more than the other in me, and to accept the counter-dance that happens when the next phenomenon and/or the next memory challenges my choice. All this seems to take me away from Judith Butler’s notion of “performative” gender, or gender as performance (24), and turns it into a matter of play. A fairground ride, but one where the track is being continuously built, and where the performative statements “I am choy-ish” or “I am zhai-ish” have meanings which remake themselves, or are remade, with every utterance silent or spoken.

To many people this topic can never be a matter of play, however, and I recognise only too well the privilege I am exercising by suggesting that, for me, it can be. To those people it is a struggle, and mainly a struggle not of their own making. To other people, including at least one regular reader of this blog, it is a puzzle and an irritation as to why people can’t simply align, and acknowledge the alignment of, their bodies and their gender – it would make life a lot simpler. But that’s where we return to my original point – there is no simplicity, the god’s-eye-view dais has fallen under our feet, and with it analysis fails, simplicity fails. Much as we want the world to stand still for us eppur si muove!

And don’t forget it’s not simply gender that is constantly on the move in us, but everything else about us. (Discuss!)

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,

Penguin Classics, 2014.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out:

Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, Routledge,

1991, pp13-31.

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4 thoughts on “Playing with (my?) gender: a phenomenological view”

  1. Absolutely right: there are no simple explanations. Or rather there can be, but you have to accept that they can only work in a closed sphere, a context within society you opt to be part of. On this topic, I have spoken with some people who immediately go to the “common sense” thinking that nature made only two genders & genitalia for them are this determining factor, ultimately, but that physicality is the external indicator. But, as we learn through extending Heidegger, the way things work, their readiness-to-hand, recedes into its use. When the discrepencies show is when the tool breaks. This may sound awkward & that I am saying a gender fluid person is broken, I am not. What I am saying is that humanity is not an anomaly of nature & never can be, but humanity is, with their conscious mind, capable of re-writing the rules. If we can think it & be it, then it is part of what is. As you explain, we are not ‘By and large we are not developing the language we speak and write, we have developed it.’ Which I take to be that we are in a world that is already here when we arrive. The possession of a rigid gender has been challenged for a long time. Magnus Hirschfield before the Nazis burnt all his research & made an exile of him, at his Institute of Sexual Science had performed gender reassignment surgery in the 1930s. His research was immense. This is not a new matter. Gender identities don’t need to be challenged, because they already simply are potentials & they are potentials because as Heidegger posits, Dasein is circumspect. It may seem odd to bring Heidegger into gender theory, but he shows us the world and the a priori which is already here. I think this is important to note regarding complexity & we can affix it to our discussion about gender. As the they, a public exists in pockets. If people don’t want to accept other people identifying a certain way, stop paying attention, have no opinion, leave people be; they should be reminded “it has nothing to do with you.”
    As Kenneth Burke defines us, ‘we are the symbol using animal.’ The profound importance of this is that we are able to think with these signifiers & signify however the hell we want to produce an identity. Your identity is yours. Underneath are all your properties, everything you are & that is what informs you, your exterior even, no matter whether that exterior jars with other expectations. In short, there should be no expectations with human beings, they are sort of capable of anything.

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    1. The “common sense” thinking is, in fact, relatively modern. It depends on a medical (i.e. scientific, i.e. rational, i.e. dais-mounted) definition of sex-gender at birth, which is effected by examining the genitals. Before that thinking, the genitals were the window-dressing – the sign, if you like – that proved the divine definition, at least in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But that tradition misses a trick. Genesis 1:27 says “male and female created he them,” but misses out the words “and it didn’t matter a damn!” Because “they were both naked […] and were not ashamed” (2:25). Only when “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked […]” (3:7) did it matter a damn, and humankind was cursed with gender. You could look at it that way.

      The next trick that the Judaeo-Christian tradition misses is Jesus of Nazareth, who for all his being the “son” of God and not the daughter, was one of the most feminine characters in history… if we go by a traditional yardstick of femininity. Which we might not, but at least it’s an interesting debating point.

      The problem of being a “symbol using animal” is, of course, that we do not realise the shallowness of the symbols. When I see a tree I do not see it in its entirety, I see such superficiality as is in my immediate sight. Before I utter a sound, or even frame the word, I am assaulted by the associations that the sight evokes. I search for a word to express them, and the best I can come up with “tree,” which does not in itself conjure up the tree but stands as a pointer to it. I say “tree” and a hearer experiences the sound I make, which experience may evoke associations for them, and they then have their own understanding of what “tree” means. The result is not only a dichotomy in experience, but a semic slippage that may in fact be huge.

      We may well “think with [the] signifiers of gender & signify however the hell we want to produce an identity,” but my point is this: those signifiers and that identity then produce or re-produce us, in their image! These things slip out of our control.
      Karlis Racevskis, paraphrasing Foucault:
      Identity is what is naturally given and is therefore considered as a possession, yet it is also that which possesses the individual. If on the one hand, identity is constituted by a personal experience and an individual history, it is also inevitably a product of the otherness of cultural, social, and linguistic determinants. (21)

      Foucault himself:
      [The norm] is an element on the basis of which a certain exercise of power is founded and legitimized [bringing] with it a principle of both qualification and correction [and is] is always linked to a positive technique of intervention and transformation, to a sort of normative project. (50)

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      Foucault, Michel. Abnormal. Trans. Valerio Marchetti & Antonella Salomoni, Verso, 2016.

      Racevskis, Karlis. “michel foucault, rameau’s nephew, and the question of identity.” The Final Foucault, eds. James Bernauer & David Rasmussen, MIT Press, 1988, pp.21-33.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At the end of Delmore Schwartz’s America! America! Shenandoah Fish is looking in the mirror & considering self, coming to a conclusion that we cannot truly know ourselves unless we know how other people perceive us, in addition to how we conceive of our own personality. This obviously suggests that part of our personality is handed over to the control of others, even though we only have control over that interpretation of ourselves by them, by being who we are with them. That would mean that if we have a personality that is unchanging in any situation, with any person we meet, we might suppose that we would get a similar answer as to the kind of personality they interpret us as having via encounters with us. The thing is that we speak the same language in idiosyncratic ways, which produces subtle discrepancies; unless people are to give one word answers as to someone’s personality, which wouldn’t be entirely accurate any way & this sort of binary simplicity is clearly not what Shenandoah Fish thinks the case. Moreover, we conceal ourselves, like Heidegger tells us the ready-to-hand tool conceals itself behind its function. So a person may be considered as consistently happy, but this can be determined positively or negatively, depending on the personality encountering them.
        I mention this as I still haven’t decided if Shenandoah finds this problematic, he isn’t clear on this, it seems to simply be an idea he entertains. & thus I am not sure how problematic this is to the subject of gender. As we have said, the physical gender is a characteristic of personality/identity which consumes a person & the ways in which this is interpreted by others affects the person. But as I said, this has nothing to do with most people who from a distance have opinions on the matter without any real understanding. What I think Schwartz does by bringing this to our attention is show (& I’d disagree with this) how simple we might be, which may be owing to Shenandoah being an intellectual snob. But also, he might be implying something similar to what Foucault states in your quote ‘a positive technique of intervention and transformation’ which is inevitable in a world of encounters with different beings.
        It’s all very interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. By the way, my supervisor hates the word “problematic.” Almost as much as he hates the word “methodology.” Boy do we have an interesting relationship!

        One thing I should have mentioned when I referred to “struggle” is the fact that in some places that “struggle” includes the danger of murder. I recently attended the Trans Remembrance Vigil at the U of St Andrews, where the names of the murdered were read out. Sometimes there was no name. It was a minor Holocaust, and I could not hold back the tears. Privileged much, Paul?

        Like

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