I have been busy at work these past few weeks planning and organizing blog related projects!
The Sex Uneducated Podcast will be coming your way in the next few weeks! My partner and I, as well as many other guests will be traversing all topics explored by the blog and THEN SOME. Politics, cultural critique, relationships, and an honest divulgement of our own personal lives, the podcast will hopefully be a real-time audio treat for all to enjoy! Furthermore, we will be answering questions on air and addressing blog related posts, asks and comments!
Additionally, I’m organizing a support group for Bay Area folks living with an STD! More details on that to come!
Stay tuned y’all! Exciting things are just around the corner!
Recently I was asked a thought-provoking question. After presenting on the work of resident UC Berkeley feminist theorist and Gender Women’s Studies faculty, Trihn Mihn-Ha, some students asked the class to think about which theorists we have read this semester and decide who has been more or less “accessible” and why. I raised my hand to share my thoughts, gently expressing that I didn’t believe any of the theorists we had attempted to understand were actually comparable. They each have their own voice, their own positionality and their own means of creatively expressing that which they see when they look out into the world.
The question reminded me of my theatrical training - a space I spent so many years occupying and it, in turn, occupying me. During my years in the performing arts I became very intrigued by an acting method developed by Ann Bogart, Professor and Chair of the MFA Directing Program at Columbia University, called Viewpoints - a physical improvisation method that frees up the body in non-normative ways in order for true and raw emotion to come forth. Much of the idea behind viewpoints is to make the actor uncomfortable; by doing things with the physicality of the body that are not normally done we can create productive fissures in our emotional life. The cracks that begin to occur are precisely what allow for untapped emotion to emerge at the surface, but this can only successfully take place when the performer fully surrenders themselves to the multitude of ways the body and emotions resist the work. The method is about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Yet, is this not what we, as a collective human community, are trying to avoid, to varying degrees, in our waking lives? Is this profound abhorrence for discomfort, that which has the capacity to inspire intense violences and oppressions, the driving force behind the construction of the complex matrices that only serve to categorize, label and section off both the individual and the collective in ways that create recognition and, as such, manageability? In this sense it seems that Judith Butler, with the immense assistance of Michel Foucault, has successfully articulated the first and very essential components to creating a world in which the uncomfortable is expressed and then able to be recognized in order to be avoided. Mel Chen has then articulated the nuanced ways those components operate to ensure hierarchies are in place to further remove us all from a particular reality about our existence: we are a species among species, with only a sense of superiority that we have named for ourselves. Lastly, and perhaps conversely, Juana Maria Rodriguez offers us ways to transcend these oppositions of comfort and discomfort by bringing them all together in very intimate ways as an active form of resistance.
In Bodies That Matter, Butler argues that bodies are only actualized through “a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (xviii). Through the indoctrination of bodies by way of specific symbols, laws and other permutations, bodies become recognizable as either ‘man’ or ‘woman’. This legibility is, as she argues, only an effect. Concepts of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ are not actually fixed, naturalized categories but the result of inculcation and time coming together in productive ways. “Gender is not exactly what one ‘is’ or what one ‘has’. Gender is the apparatus by which the production and normalization of masculine and feminine take place along with the interstitial forms of hormonal, chromosomal, psychic, and performative that gender assumes” (42). Therefore, it is in the repetition of these materializing patterns over time that norms are developed and a very forcefully protected line in the sand is drawn for what is and is not “comfortable”.
Butler further develops these ideas in Undoing Gender stating that, “a norm operates within social practices as the implicit standard of normalization” (41). Without these norms, or rather these standards of comfortable, what then is the body? This question, which we will readdress when we delve into Mel Chen’s work, is unanswerable. It could be argued then that the elusiveness of our very existence is the basic intention behind our construction and upholding of these ‘lines in the sand’. Butler also touches on this when she says, “for gender to be a norm suggests that it is always and only tenuously embodied by any particular social actor” (42). The immense effort it takes for all of us, on a moment-to-moment basis, to reiterate our existence through gendered terms reveals, as she says, the tenuousness of our entire understanding of reality. It is in this delicacy that, if probed, our very understanding of existence can come into question, presenting difficult and profound existential curiosities. If norms are what give shape to the human conscious world and we are all merely actors in an endless act of repetition and norm production, then is our world, in actuality, quite shapeless?
Mel Chen takes up this question as it brings humanness to center. Is human consciousness the only materializing force at work? Chen argues that human beings manipulate both animals and nature in ways that make them fit into our systems of understanding, or as I have situated it, into our systems of comfort/discomfort. For example, “animals provide models for scientists seeking a biological substrate of sexual orientation” whereby the bodies of animals have also been brought into our gendered materialization processes to further stabilize the notion of the gender binary (Animacies, 103). But, what are the materializing processes for non-humans? We should not be so quick to imagine that there are none at work simply because we cannot communicate through shared language. However, it is in this inability to communicate that we have used and co-opted non-humans in ways to serve are quest for creating dividing lines of normal/abnormal, here/there, and worthy/unworthy.
In addition to animals providing some of us with apparently pliable matter to shape into whatever we need in order to further justify our stiff imaginings of the world, Chen argues that animacies, hierarchies on the basis of a human interpretation of species, have also provided us with a space, both concretely and abstractly, to locate those who do not conform to our norms. In a sense, these hierarchies are a way to further remove us, and perhaps distract us, from our very basic existential discomforts. Within animacies, those bodies that make us so deeply uncomfortable because they don’t conform to our norms during a given time and place can easily be rejected and ‘reduced’ to an animal. Animals suddenly become racialized and the queer community becomes something to be ‘domesticated’ into heterosexuality. Animacies, therefore, become the complex mode of classification, informed by the process of materialization, that allow us to even situate that which makes us uncomfortable. Paradoxically, this allows for the illegible to become legible in their unintelligibility. Perhaps this is what Butler means when she asks in Bodies That Matter, “what challenge does that excluded and abjected realm produce to a symbolic hegemony that might force a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter, ways of living that count as ‘life’, lives worth protecting, lives worth saving, lives worth grieving?” (xxiv). By constructing hierarchies in relation to our other regulatory norms, we produce active yet temporary constraints as to who is and isn’t considered socially ‘comfortable’. Feminists argue that it is in the temporariness and the fragility of these norms, which is exemplified in their constant need for reaffirmation, that we can find the space to push back against these stifling and violent definitions of ‘acceptable humanness’.
Queer Sociality and the power of fantasy then, as Juana Maria Rodriguez argues, is perhaps the space where we can confront what Butler and Chen posit within their respective theories. She argues that, “whether through a reworking of individual sexual histories of violence, or the rescripting of tired tropes of racialized sexual abjection, the touch of sex and its potential for recognition offers the possibility of exceeding the constraints of the quotidian in which recognition and intelligibility are not forthcoming” (338). In a world that is entirely dependent upon the existence of gender and sexual norms, Rodriguez offers us a way of manipulating those norms at their very core in order to push back against them.
Both Butler and Chen discuss the way society is managed through the development of what is the right and wrong way to occupy the human body. Disseminated into all aspects of both institutional and cultural practices, the regulation of bodies is always done through gender and sex. Michel Foucault thoroughly explores this in his seminal work The History of Sexuality: Volume I. Foucault argues that sex and sexual acts are “not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of all, made to function according to an optimum” (24). By extending definitions of correctness to sexual acts, sexuality and gender can be closely monitored, surveying and categorizing those who do it ‘righteously’ or blasphemously. Thus, sexuality and sexual acts become the site where regulation, power and the notion of comfort/discomfort intersect in very potent and intimate ways.
This potency of forces is precisely why Rodriguez argues that sexual acts in of themselves can become an opportunity to shapeshift oppressive realities. “In our sexual fantasies, we can occupy a space of our own creation, devise our own tactile, visual, and auditory codes, assign queer meanings to gestures and utterances that have preceded our entrance onto the sexual stages we inhabit” (341). The sheer delicacy of the norms we construct provide fertile ground for rearranging and manipulating them in our most intimate moments. “In our fantasies and in our sexual play we can make familial shame sexy and state discipline erotic” (341). The agency that is robbed, to varying degrees, from all of us – even the most privileged – by the complex mechanisms and discourses that give a very limited contour to our reality can be reimbursed to individuals who choose to reshuffle the cards of right and wrong in their bedrooms.
The discomfort and, often times, repulsion many people feel toward consciously deviating from sexual norms is more than just skin deep. Rodriguez poignantly reveals that, “to deny our fantasies because they are too complicated, too painful, or too perverse, to erase their presence or censor their articulation in public life, constitutes a particular kind of insidious violence that threatens to undermine our ability to explore the contours of our psychic lives, and the imaginary possibilities of the social worlds in which we exist” (343). It is in the interest of particular forms of power to prevent people from exploring and playing with reality in this way. If enough people began to turn themselves and their own individual worlds inside out through acts of sexual transgressions, these questions of existence would continue to be asked and continue to be left unanswered; in the unavoidable truth that we cannot absolutely and universally know how and why we exist lies a greater revelation about power and dominance. When we begin to think this way, to push past the discomfort it inspires, we begin to recognize the farce of power and inequality.
Butler, Chen and Rodriguez all come together then to describe, from the macro to the micro, the infinite ways throughout time and space that we, as a species, have fabricated the story of our existence. Yet, even feminist theorists continue to create discourses that seek to give concrete shape to matter, to life, to consciousness. I am waiting for the moment someone comes forth and suggests a theory about active acceptance. Not acceptance of violence, marginalization, rape and other atrocities, but acceptance of our inability to know the answer to the very fundamental question we are all continually asking ourselves. The absolute discomfort that the existential inquiry produces should be something that people, feminist theorists in particular, are encouraged to further explore. We should foster a feminist practice of becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable knowledge that the very nature of our academic interests reveal that the world is amoebic, not defined by human consciousness and in a constant state of mutation. The issues we seek to solve cannot be isolated, frozen in time and then surgically removed from society. The issues we seek to solve can only be approached, circumnavigated and creatively quelled. We should be very careful to not speak in ways that simply construct alternative apparatus’, inversions of the very discourses we problematize for the sake of avoiding our own discomforts. Like my work with viewpoints, perhaps some profound revelations could occur if we simply became comfortable enough in the discomforts of life to allow authentic and raw emotion to flow forth or, as Rodriguez so beautifully writes, sit with the “sense that is never fully legible or knowable, even to ourselves, a sense that is always just a sense, a gesture toward a way of knowing that betrays its own desire for futurity” (345). Beware the impulse to create fixity in this world. Instead, heed the opportunity to exist in just a sense of what is and is not real.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of “Sex” New York: Routledge,1993. Print.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke, 2012. Print.
Foucault, Michel, and Robert Hurley. History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. [S.l.]:Allen Lane, 1979. Print.
Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Queer Sociality and Other Sexual Fantasies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17.2 (2011): 331-48. Web
Hm, I think this is a very over-simplifying statement. The sex/gender binary is a very dangerous one as it naturalizes something that is deeply complex. It erases the lived experience of many different people and doesn’t sufficiently explain this phenomenon of “gender” - what really can? There is certainly something biological taking place in the body to create different genitalia, but the variety of genitalia and the frequency of intersex people continues to problematize this binary. Anne Fausto Sterling, a feminist theorist and biologist, has done extensive research and writings about the occurrence of intersex people revealing how the sex/gender binary is insufficient at describing the materialization of bodies. At this point in my understanding and in my study, I think that one must imagine themselves outside of the sex/gender apparatus, that definitive matrix of norms that is constantly regulating who and how we operate as sexed bodies, and figure out what is true for us as individuals. This is a radical act and can be a very dangerous one for certain people, but questioning norms and binaries, and making that questioning your lived experience, is revolutionary.