Saturday, July 05, 2008

Gender Trouble [Again], and Again

Figure 1. Eurydice, no. 13, by Bracha Ettinger


Now that I am actually en route to Leeds, I am hoping everyone will indulge me if I share my thinking again for the roundtable, organized by Clare Lees and the Gender and Medieval Studies Group, on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages." Taking Karl's and Jeffrey's comments into account and also having my brain blown to bits [metaphor, just a metaphor] by Bracha Ettinger's The Matrixial Borderspace, which Noreen Giffney made me read under threat of pain of [oh, never mind, I wanted to read it, but I still blame her for the initial suggestion, and the book is so crazy that I'm dying to talk to anyone, anyone at all, about it], I've reworked my comments and share them here. While I am in Leeds, please talk amongst yourselves about the matrixial borderspace, and of course, send me any suggestions for revision.

I. The Question of Sexual Difference/Unsettledness/Crossings

By way of setting what I would call the threshold from where I begin to set out [to travel in a certain direction and along certain lines] to think about gender and its location(s), 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?]; still 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, again in Butler’s terms, 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]. Sexual difference is therefore “neither fully given nor 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.” I’m interested, too, in what I think is the important question posed by Butler: is sexual difference, “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]. If so [and, yes, I think so], then the question of sexual difference must always remain “open, troubling, unresolved, propitious” [p. 192].

II. Inter-betweenities/A Thousand Tiny Sexes/An 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 [not to be necessarily conflated with the liminalities of certain cultural anthropologies of past decades], are decidedly "in the air" of current intellectual discourse. With the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the eighth-century Mercian hermit-saint Guthlac as my touchstone texts, and in relation to thinking the location of sex & gender, I want to focus in particular on:
a. all of the anxieties that circulate in the texts over restlessness, unsettledness, and vagrancy, as well as over the world's mutability: in Felix this mainly occurs in relation to Guthlac's decision to become a monk in order to get away from the "whirling waves" of the world, whereas in the Old English Guthlac A, we have the demons figured as actual vagrant homesteaders who have been dis-placed by Guthlac and who warn Guthlac that he has chosen a kind of animal life;

b. Guthlac’s night-time flight, when a multiplicity [or what Bracha Ettinger would call a “severality”] of demons bind and drag his body through brackish fens and brambles, freezing skies, and down to the jaws of Hell, and in which flight, as Jeffrey Cohen has written, the demons are “swarming ‘molecules’ of alterity that refuse organization into molar wholes . . . [who] persecute Guthlac with an ardor that equals the saint’s own, an intensity of desire that ties them forever to his self-definition despite the distance and difference that his celibacy seeks to maintain” [Medieval Identity Machines, p. 149]. I’m interested in the ways in which Guthlac gives himself to be dragged in what Cary Howie has called an act of traherence that “never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from,” and still following Howie’s thought, I’m interested in how Guthlac and his demons flying together through Middle Anglian and other space form a queer ontology, “an erotic participation through which they become not identical but singularly shared and mutually, messily incompleted” [Claustrophilia, p. 7]. This might also be a queer phenomenology, in Sara Ahmed’s terms [in Queer Phenomenology], where Guthlac and his demons together, in voluptuous flight, form an “oblique angle in relation to that which is given” (where “that which is given” might be the closed, hard, immoveable, and masculine—sexed but sexless—body of the saint who is always already dead);

c. his “companion”/”serving-thane”/”brother” Beccel who mourns him—but whose presence [and therefore, also, his friendship] is suppressed until the end of the narrative;

d. the prohibition Guthlac establishes to never be with his sister in life so that they can be together in death: in Felix, he tells Beccel that “in this life” he “avoided her aspect” so that “in eternity” they might see one another “in the presence of our Father in eternal joys”; in the Old English Guthlac B, he tells his companion that he “denied” himself the “light of her face” so that they might “meet again” in “heavenly glory” before the “face of the Eternal Judge”
Following and elaborating upon some questions Karl S. asked me relative to this project, we might ask: What is the sex of Guthlac and his demons in flight? the sex of Guthlac and his sister under the sign of Guthlac’s prohibition to deny himself the light of her face? the sex of Guthlac and his sister in the face of their Father after death? Does the sex of Guthlac’s sister put his masculinity into play? Does his warrior masculinity secure his hermit sexuality against free play, and if so, how does a live-in “brother” complicate Guthlac’s hermit sexuality? What are the genders of Guthlac and his sister, by which we might mean: what do they desire? what are they thought to desire? how are we supposed to desire them? how does their Father desire them? How does their being offered to our desire [and/or to God's] contour their gender? or ours? Is there any voluptuousness about their (delayed) desire to be with each other?

I want to ask, further, if it is possible to think about how sexual difference [between Guthlac and his demons, between Guthlac and Beccel, between Guthlac and his sister, between Guthlac and his sister and Father] in these texts is posed as a type of chiasm, or a series of inter-betweenities, within which certain “affects, sensations, and movements” are evoked and also “crossed." 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 [gender] carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects. This indefinite [gender] 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”].

III. The Matrixial Borderspace

Speaking of multiplicity (and also cautioning myself, thanks to Jeffrey Cohen’s caution that gender may not be as capacious or immense or temporally empty as Deleuze’s “life”), I want to conclude these half-formed thoughts here by briefly mentioning the work of Bracha Ettinger, a psychoanalyst and feminist theorist, whose idea of a matrixial borderspace—a symbolic prenatal space of inter-relations that is gendered feminine—might offer some interesting avenues for locating gender in medieval texts as a site of encounter “occurring at shared borderspaces between several co-affecting partial subjectivities that are never entirely fused or totally lost, but share and process, within an always-already minimal difference, elements of each unknown other” [Griselda Pollock, "Intro," The Matrixial Borderspace, p. 3]. In the matrixial dimension, subjectivity is conceived of as “the co-poesis of ‘I and the non-I’,” and “an originary feminine” preexists Oedipal, phallic gendering structures, “yet the affects and imprints of the encounter with it [again, prenatal] (for what will later be both sexes) will be sexuating: generative of erotic, libidinal, desiring effects”—this is an “utterly sensual space . . . composed of at least two temporalities and complexes of repetition and restaging” [Pollock, p. 15]. In Ettinger’s own words,
The Matrix speaks to a strangeness in me, as well as that of an intimate other irreducible to what, in later phallic constructions, will form the basis of identifications and rejections, incorporations and expulsions that mark and create boundaries and identities for discrete territorialized subjects by whom such porousness or breaching of boundaries can only be experienced as perversion. [“The Red Cow Effect,” p. 87]
Medieval authors and medieval saints would have had no such language nor conception of prenatal symbolic matrixial borderspaces, but my hunch is that a lot of what is going on in the Guthlac [and other hagiographic] narratives—in terms of Guthlac’s despair over the “storm-tossed” unsettledness of a world that won’t stand still [which despair drives him to become a monk to begin with], his desire for a barren hermitage that will pull him even beyond the limits of the monastery [which is itself finally too restless, too “several” for Guthlac], his need to prove himself against swarming demons, the invisibility of his serving-companion until it is necessary to have a witness for his death, and his banishment of his sister, especially—all speak to a deep-rooted set of phallocentric aversions to the supposed “perversion” of the “breaching of boundaries,” and to what Ettinger calls the “conductible affectivity” of matrixial sexual difference, “which gives voice to the affected body-psyche co-emerging with the other and the world” [Pollock, p. 3].


Eileen Joy said...

Oh, and did I mention that the symbolic prenatal matrixial space is also intrauterine? Ettinger's work looks to be a really exciting answer to Lacan's and other psychanalysts' *failure* to describe/historicize identity and sexuality without recourse to the phallus and to castration/lack/cutting/separation, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you want to be blessed enough to read The Matrixial Borderspace with Bracha herself sign up now!


Karl Steel said...

MOR, if only I could afford it. EJ, this is really exciting, and I look forward to seeing this as a 'full' paper. And, wow, the Ettinger DOES seem really useful: basically, we have a model for a presymbolic that, however, makes room for difference that is, as you explain, structured by something other than lack, structured by a bit more play. The implications for an ethics--always stymied by the pessimism of psychoanalysis as I understand it--seem pretty large!

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen said...

Eileen, quoting Butler, wrote:
is sexual difference, “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]. If so [and, yes, I think so], then the question of sexual difference must always remain “open, troubling, unresolved, propitious” [p. 192].

I would say -- and maybe I have not thought deeply enough about this to say it, but this is a quick intuition -- I would say that sexual difference is a thing and a fact (and it is the third term, presupposition, that gets at how thing and fact can possess their agency: they act because they have been materialized in certain ways through a whole network of beliefs and materialities that sustain them). Then I'd say the "demand" part of the formulation is ALSO true, and that the constant necessity of rearticulation is true as well ... and it is because all these things are true (and not because a choice needs to be made that hinges on Butler's "but rather") that sexual difference is inherently "open, troubling, unresolved." And, in her word, propitious.

Whew. This is complicated stuff, Eileen, and your talent is to make it lucid. I love how the Guthlac comes into it, and hope to have more to say when the exhaustion of composing my NCS piece abates.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: I am just back from actually having given these remarks, and I want to say with you, that yes, deep down, I also agree that sexual difference *is* a "thing and a fact," while the "necessity of rearticulation" is also true [and, not to be redundant, necessary]: it's basically saying [or you are, or I am, basically saying] that sexual difference has real biological, material, etc. weight, while at the same time [we are] saying, sexual difference has to also be in a continual state of re-deployment--it is always "on the move," so to speak [or should we say, it behooves us to *keep* it "on the move"], while at the same time, it [sexual difference] contains certain immovable materialities [which again, nevertheless, I am/we are able to transport to somewhere else: even the very idea of transport/transposition/transgender, etc. implies that there is "one thing" which can *become* another "one thing"].

I read Bersani's and Phillips's "Intimacies" on the plane over here, by the way, and boy oh boy, is this book something to talk about. And I really *don't* like whole parts of it, and part of the reason for my dislike is lodged [in all gender honesty] in the ways in which gay/queer *male* sexuality dominates the discussion, and yet I can't help but feel that if I say that "out loud," I commit some sort of retrograde unreconstructed "feminist" critico-theoretical faux paus. Oh well--a tale for another day, I suppose.