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!)
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,
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