Monday, June 23, 2008

Gender Trouble [Again]: If It's July, I Must be in Leeds, but it Could Have Been Swansea

Figure 1. Lady Bunny [now if only she were holding a real bunny, maybe even a bioluminescent one]


When the Call for Papers for the 2008 meeting of the New Chaucer Society came out some months ago, I was astounded. With Congress session sections ranging from "Form and Aesthetics" to "Transitions, Ruptures, and Temporalities" to "Geographies and Colonizations" to "Devotion, Dissent, and Diaspora" and beyond, this looked to me to be the conference to not miss. I was especially interested in the description of the session section on "Gender versus Sexuality," organized by Diane Watt:
In the last two decades, the focus on sex and gender (primarily conceived in terms of the male-female, masculinity-femininity binaries) in Chaucer and Middle-English Studies has shifted to one on sexuality (which often eschews binary categories and embraces more fluid definitions and categories). Meanwhile, the trend within gender criticism has moved away from thinking about women, the female, femininity, and anti-feminism, to exploring men, the male, and masculinity. At the same time, gender, sexuality and queer are sometimes used as if they were synonymous terms. To what extent, in medieval criticism, is gender opposed to or equivalent to sexuality? Does a focus on sexuality elide questions of gender, especially in relation to women? To what extent does the opposition between gender and sexuality arise out of tensions and conflicts between feminism and queer theory? Indeed is feminism an outdated discourse or are there valid new feminisms (such as postcolonial feminism, or, of course, queer feminism or lesbian feminism)? What can feminist approaches to Chaucer and medieval literature learn from queer studies, and what can queer approaches learn from feminism? As we debate these terms, feminism and gender studies continue to thrive, giving us new insights into periods like the fifteenth century and introducing new ways of thinking about issues like place, time and space.
With panel sessions within this section on "Queer Times and Places" [organized by Bob Mills] and "Gendered Spaces and Sexualized Places" [organized by Michelle Sauer] and "Gender versus Sexuality" [organized by Karma Lochrie], I thought, "who the hell would miss this?" Now that the program is also online, and I can see who exactly will be on these and other panels [including our very own Jeffrey and Betsy M. on a panel on the politics of memory], I am asking myself why I chose to go to the Leeds Congress instead? I thought briefly about throwing myself out of a one-story window, but then realized that since Clare Lees and Diane Watt would also be at Leeds [in addition to being at the NCS meeting in Swansea], and since I would be on a roundtable that Clare organized on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages" [in order to examine "how genders and sexualities are mapped discursively, linguistically, poetically, materially, and analytically"], that maybe I wouldn't throw myself out the window after all.

But then when I realized that the thought of having to address the topic of gender filled me with dread, and jumping out windows was looking good to me again. I had some relief when Clare informed us that we would each have about five minutes and that's about three good paragraphs--this is either completely liberating or a kind of challenge that maybe even Judith Butler would wilt under. Suffice to say, I've been panicking for about two weeks or so regarding what I should or would want to say. I piled up every book on gender/sex/sexuality imaginable on my dining room table and hoped that their collective intellectual weight would engage in some kind of osmotic synthesis or else crash the table and me with it. I considered the term "gender" in relation to my own life experience. No, still nothing [I mean, there's a lot of little somethings, but nothing definitive, nothing I would want to stake an analysis upon--get real: is there anything more essentialist than your own life?]. Do you think it is fair to say that, after about twenty years of feminist, gender, sex and sexuality, and queer studies, the question/issue/materiality/location of gender could not be more confused, or confusing? It's one of those subjects where, the minute you begin trying to describe it, as Butler would say, you engage in a hopeless process whereby "[a]nything we might say against it [sexual difference] is oblique proof that it structures what we say. Is it there in a primary sense, haunting the primary differentiations or structural fate by which all signification proceeds?" [Undoing Gender, p. 177] Ummm . . . DUH!

Well, after some struggling and crying and even pleading with my dog Sparky to pitch in [he declined], I did manage to cobble together some random notes which I am hoping will assemble themselves into three tidy paragraphs by July 7th, and any critical suggestions from our readers for how I might continue shaping these thoughts would be most helpful. I want to acknowledge a debt here as well to Holly Crocker, who first got me thinking of gender, and more importantly, the human, as a location or topography, something that accords with the medievalist historian David Gary Shaw's idea of the person as a "highly localized site of awareness" [in his book Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England]. In some remarks that Holly contributed to a BABEL Working Group roundtable session on "Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms" at the 2005 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, she had this to say:
I’d like to suggest that gender is more about places than times. Gender is a structure of difference, and as such, it immediately illuminates what Jeffrey Cohen calls the “temporal interlacement” of the Middle Ages: the “the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity” as a critical model for contemporary scholars. And, considering the post-historicist interest in medieval studies in “place” (a la David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn), it seems that we should put more thought into the human as its own “topographical mode,” if you will. One of the ways of mapping the human, I maintain, is gender. But it is not just that gender is a way of drawing lines that demarcate what counts as (in)human in a binarized polarity--it is, but that’s not so interesting. Rather, if we think of gender as a mode of “placement,” I would like also to pursue the ways that its processes of alignment naturalize certain of its divisions. In other words, I’d like to suggest that the elision of “masculine” and “human” is a way, first, to exile all that which is not readable as masculine from the ambit of the human. . . . I’d like to suggest that contemporary interest in “place”--which often defies temporalities--needs to be thought of as an active category of difference that can have troubling consequences over time. Placing the human, particularly through constructions of gender difference, allows us to think about the structures that we continue to respect as visibly neutral (or outside time). These can be quite tangible (and here I’m thinking about texts and their material constructions), but they can also be quite abstract. The ways in which the tangible and abstract of what we count as “human” bleed into one another, then, and calls upon us to review the ways in which categories that we’ve often thought outside the domain of place--race, class, gender, sexuality, religion--are in many ways the place-holders for a “human” identity that stands apart from all of these, except in privileged, rarefied, and fantasized ways (and here I want to bring in Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we recognize the “fact” as a gathering--like a place, or a storehouse, to bring in Mary Carruthers or Vance Smith--over which we exercise creative control through time).
So, with all that, and more, in mind, herewith are my own thoughts for the Leeds panel on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages":

I. Confusion/The Question/Ethics/Unsettledness/Crossings

My first foray into gender studies was a feminist theory reading group I belonged to from 1993-1995, where we read Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, among other texts; I can safely say that since that point, after fifteen years of reading in feminist, gender, sexuality, and queer studies, and having spent a good deal of the mid- to late 1980s as a gay/AIDS activist [and most of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s being disgusted with a gay activism that sees “gay marriage” as the most important rallying point for a gay politics], that I feel less sure about what gender IS than I have at any other point in my life; with Judith Butler, in Undoing Gender, I agree that the terms “sexual difference,” “gender,” and “sexuality” have come into conflict with one another, and currently, feminist studies are often viewed as having to do with gender whereas queer studies are viewed as having to do with sex and sexuality [and we might ask, what kinds of critico-theoretical as well as more practically political problems does this cause for us?]; following Butler, who is following Irigiray, I am interested in an ethics “which is not one that follows from sexual difference but is a question that is posed by the very terms of sexual difference itself: how to cross this otherness? How to cross it without crossing it, without domesticating its terms? How to remain attuned to what remains permanently unsettled about the question?” [p. 177]; this is especially important for premodern studies, I think, when we understand, pace Butler, that “the question of sexual difference” is a question “whose irresolution forms a certain historical trajectory”; finally, we must keep in mind that one of the problems sexual difference poses is “the permanent difficulty of determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end” [p. 185]: therefore, sexual difference is “neither fully given not fully constructed, but partially both,” and it possesses “psychic, somatic, and social dimensions that are never quite collapsible into one another but are not for that reason ultimately distinct”; the important questions are then posed by Butler: “Does sexual difference vacillate there, as a vacillating border, demanding a rearticulation of those terms without any sense of finality? Is it, therefore, not a thing, not a fact, nor a presupposition, but rather a demand for rearticulation that never quite vanishes—but also never quite appears?” [p. `186]; the question of sexual difference, then, must always remain “open, troubling, unresolved, propitious” [p. 192].

II. Inter-betweenities/Intensities/Immanent Gender

In the journal PhaenEx’s recent call for essays,* the editors ask for papers on the “in-between”:
What is neither here nor there, now nor then? What resides or occurs in the in-between, and what is its meaning or purpose? And what is the meaning or purpose of the edges that mark the liminality of both this in-between, and the phenomena on either side of it? What are the rhythms, speeds, contours or densities of the in-between? What affects, sensations or movements do edges evoke? Can the in-between be known, can we dwell there - or do we only ever traverse this phenomenon, pass through or pass over? Do edges draw a clear line in the proverbial sand, or do they rather shift like the waves of sands across a desert? "The in-between" and "edges" are clearly related phenomena, in that they both raise questions about the limits of binary systems of classification and the identity of things as discrete and separate entities. But what is the nature of this relation? How do the phenomena of the in-between and edges support one another, challenge one another, or even form the condition of possibility for one another?
In-betweennesses, or what Michael O'Rourke recently called inter-betweenities [and not to be necessarily conflated with the liminalities of certain anthropologically-inflected critical discourses of past decades], are decidedly "in the air" of current intellectual discourse. With the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the eigth-century Mercian hermit-saint Guthlac as my touchstone texts [and with a particular focus on the flows and intensities of Guthlac’s demonic flight, his “companion” Beccel who mourns him—but whose presence is suppressed until the end of the narrative—and the self-prohibition Guthlac establishes to never be with his sister in life so that they can be together in eternity after death], I want to ask if it is possible to think about how sexual difference in these texts is posed as a type of chiasm within which certain “affects, sensations, and movements” are evoked and also “crossed”; further, I want to explore how, in Deleuze’s terms, gender, as well as “a life,” is always “everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects. This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be to one another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness. . . . One [gender] is always the index of a multiplicity” [“Immanence: A Life”].

*special thanks go to Michael O'Rourke, for the reference to PhaenEx, and also for turning me on, via a syllabus of John Caputo's [REL660 Theology of the Flesh], to Deleuze's "Immanence: A Life." Is there anything cool we could want to know that MOR doesn't already know? No.


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

The performance of gender as the performance of the human; or, if you inhabit the stereotype that passes as gender tout court, you will be labeled a robot: it's all here. Lesson: to be human, you must imperfectly coincide with a gender (as stereotype) norm.

Karl Steel said...

Looks interesting, EJ. If you're taking suggestions, I might suggest starting with graph II and working out Beccel and Guthlac's sister a bit more, as your parenthetical really grabbed me.

What is the sex of Guthlac and sister? Does the sex of G's sis put his masculinity in play? Is G's being a hermit meant to be understood as a performance over his authentic warrior masculinity? Does his warrior masculinity secure his hermit sexuality against free play, as a warrior is at least tethered to a rigid sex system, at least relative to hermit sexing? (wait, I don't remember: has JJC already done this?)

And then gender questions: What are the genders of Guth and sis: (i.e. (?), what do they desire? what are they thought to desire? how are we supposed to desire them? How does their being offered to our desire contour their gender? Or ours? is there any voluptuousness about their (delayed?) desire to be with each other (in some sense)?

Of course none of this gets at the big q's Watt is posing and you're posing through Butler and your own experience. My questions, that is, leave sex and gender in their own boxes and, by extension, allow sex (and feminism: and analyses of power?) to be superseded by gender (and the queer: and analyses/paeans to pleasure?).

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Two things:

(1) Eileen, go to Leeds again next year because I am going. All ITM readers: Leeds 2009!! Be there.

(2) I am not completely comfortable with substituting "gender" for "life" in the Deleuze quotation. It seems to me that life is such an irreducible multiplicity, something much more capacious than gender ... or maybe I've simply missed your point, and that you are arguing that gender is just as vast a movement rather than (as I understood it from Butler) a certain drag upon movement, sometimes a mechanism of capture, always insufficient, but always in some ways limited and delimiting. That is, gender is more fully entrenched within a specific social configuration/context than a life (which can be untimely/unhistorical) need be.

But I also fear that is to hasty a response on a day when I have two kids at the office with me, one in a Belle gown and one watching Pirates of the Caribbean III on a DVD player. That's a gendering for you!

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I kind of knew that substituting "gender" for "life" in Deleuze's thinking on life/immanence/transcendence was kind of capricious, maybe even bogus, so I agree with your initial thoughts here, but you're also right that what I was mainly trying to get at [in a kind of provocative way] that gender, like Deleuze's "life," comprises certain, as you say, "vast" movements. Of course, I also agree with Butler, as you phrase it, that gender, to a certain extent, is a "drag on movement" or a "mechanism of capture"--that it is always de-limiting in certain contexts, and not just theoretically but very materially-historically. But if we go with Deleuze on the vastness/transcendence of "life," we might also fall into a certain trap of "vitalism," I think, that doesn't always take into account all the ways in which a life, although it can sometimes feel as if it is "everywhere" [or can be theorized to be seen as such], is also always *somewhere* and limited by that "somewhere" [which might be a gender, even a transgender, a class, a geograpy, etc.]. But I guess I'm also trying to get at the idea that even *one* gender is an index of some sort of multiplicity and inter-betweenities, that, pace Butler, it is always "crossing," and when we talk about gender we are also always "crossing" [or should aim to be doing such--crossing without "landing," as it were, without "domesticating"--our terms or ourselves].

Karl: your comments are fantastic; I plan to steal pretty much all of your thoughts here and also take your advice on starting with Section II. Thanks so much. I didn't say so explicitly in my notes, but your question: what is the sex of Guthlac and his sister? is PRECISELY where I'm headed. You're right that Jeffrey, in his MIM chapter "The Solitude of Guthlac" [which is, like, the best thing ever written on Guthlac], has already addressed the issue of Guthlac's masculinity [in relation to his celibacy but also his status as a Mercian warrior prior to becoming a hermit-saint] as well as the issue of his "tiny thousand sexes" when he is in flight with his demons, and I mainly want to expand on Jeffrey's thinking and take it in other directions [vis-a-vis the mourning friend Beccel and the sister]. Now, I'm especially excited about your idea of whether there might be a "voluptuousness" about Guthlac's and his sister's "delayed desire to be with each other," and I'm going to be thinking further about that. Do you think, though, Karl, vis-a-vis your last thoughts here, that "gender" and "queer" can work well together [can "get along," as it were]?

I will tell everyone who might be at Swansea that Clare Lees and Diane Watt will be presenting on Karma Lochrie's panel on "Gender versus Sexuality," on the topic of "Queer Talking: Sex, Gender, and Collaboration," which I am assuming will have some synergies with a presentation they did together at the ASSC workshop in London in May on "genderqueer" collaboration, and I would not want to miss that. Not for anything. If I were there.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

It is interesting that Pega, Guthalc's sister, is one demonic impersonation -- and the Britons another. Race/gender nexus anyone?

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I'm so glad you brought up this detail, because maybe you can help me out of a sort of quandary, or maybe not, but:

the narrative detail of the devil impersonating Pega [or of the *real* Pega being inhabited by a devil] in order to tempt Guthlac to fast only occurs once in a later thirteenth-century text [sometimes attributed to Matthew Paris, although the Guthlac bits are written in a different hand: CUL MS. Dd.xi.78, fols. 61a-92a], which seems to follow Peter de Blois's abbreviated twelfth-century Vita, and also Felix, and maybe also local vernacular stories [according to Bertram Colgrave]. It is this author, and this author only, who provides the story that, at one point, Pega was actually living on Crowland with Guthlac, and after the devil took on her appearance, Guthlac banished her from the island.

What really interests me, of course, is why this is never mentioned at all in Felix or in the Old English poems, and this makes the mention of Guthlac's self-prohibition to never see his sister while they are both alive really . . . weird. Could it be that Felix knew that part of the story but suppressed it, OR, was the self-prohibition against seeing his sister troubling enough for a later chronicler/hagiographer to *invent* the Pega/demon story to cover over other troubling interpretations of the prohibition? What do you think?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Now I wish I had the Guthlac materials at home with me so that I could return to them and reread everything said about Pega, because she is really interesting.

I'd side with your second interpretation, if only because its impossible to prove the survival of a tradition for the centuries it would take to move from Felix to Paris (or whoever). My own thought is that the 13th C story is almost Wordsworthian in its brother-sister intimacies, and that it picks up an anxiety evident in the text from the beginning: Guthlac delays his enjoyment of his sister's presence until after the horizon of death, because the pleasures of her being with him are dangerous (because so pleasurable). It's not an incest narrative exactly, because Guthlac hopes to fully enjoy being with his sister ... just not in this life. What's heroic is his moving the satisfaction of that desire to postmortem/post-body -- but he doesn't give up on or yield that desire, just postpones its satisfaction until he is ready for its rewards.

I hope I'm remembering that correctly.

So much of the Guthlac narrative is anti-familial.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Thank you Eileen, for giving me more to ponder re place and gender, which I have recently written about (and will email you).

What hits me most about gender as place is that it opens the category or being of what is *in* place in the direction of its facticity and thrownness.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: is there an edition of the 13th-century Guthlac text available, or is it something you have to view at University Library, Cambridge?

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I'm embarrassed to say I don't know the answer to that offhand, Eileen, and I don't have my Guthlac materials at home (my research on the saint dates all the way back to a graduate seminar paper I wrote for Joe Harris in 1989, so much of what I've gathered is pre-computer notes as well). I suppose the section is included in an edition of the Chronica Majora.

It is possible that Jane Roberts includes the relevant section as well in her edition of the poems, since that is so comprehensive -- but again I just don't have it here.

Here are two essays that you may well have found already, and are quite good; both are by Alexandra Olsen. Saint Pega and Saint Guthlac, Hermits" reproduces a roundel from the Harley Guthlac roll illustrating Pega leaving the fen 'Pega soror Guthlaci' is her label). Saint Guthlac and Saint Pega in the South English Legendary is even better for your purposes, since it traces the development of Pega's story and does treat the devilish impersonation ("Pe3am simulans") in question.