Presentation of Self: Examining the I through Materiality

I am going to speak today from the intersections. Intersections that take into account more than simply the norms by and through which we, as bodies, are framed. Rather, I am going to speak through the intersections of disciplines that seek to establish a kind of primacy over what authorizes my ability as a thinker, as a speaker, to discuss (meaningfully) what it means to be a human.

If a I am to speak at all, I have to list myself. I am speaking as a cisgender queer man; a poor graduate student; a white intellectual (if I am allowed to call myself that) living in an historically black neighborhood. I am a body composed of varying degrees of symmetry and asymmetry. I exist, divided by time, but located in space. I have no core, as I have been told, no essence. I have only a sense of myself, of my body, and that of the world around me.

On my view, I see two poles from which I can legitimately speak about my humanity. We may call them science and construction, one of nature and one of culture. At one terminus I see a set of material relations only penetrated by the most scientific of methods; reason established by Descartes who surmised that our being is enlisted by our thinking, cogito. On the other terminus I see a direct rejection of that Cartesian premise. It seeks, rather, to make sure that we humans understand that we are positioned within a social grid that is pre-determined by language, culture, sociality; that we have no inner core; that the cogito is a myth.

But when do I get to speak, as me, as B. Existing at either end of these poles I feel as though I have no voice, only that which is given to me by those who have adumbrated at either end the mechanisms that allows for scientific or cultural intelligibility. I am either a body, composed of cells that decay with old age, determined and fixed by the finitude of biological components that, in reality, make up my thinking, acting self. Or I am a racial subject, composed of genital parts that genders me and, by processes that are not of my own making, grids somewhere within a matrix of heterosexist power. And I want to scream.

In this presentation, I want not only to move between these poles that exact upon my body a set of frameworks that instantiate a voice. I want to collapse them. And I hope to do so through a (re)reading of the texts.

We have the stories provided by Butler and the autobiographical, theoretical treatment of Stryker. I believe that Butler is right-headed and, thus, correct by establishing an ethics of recognition in her essay on Doing Justice. It is, indeed, in the practice of allowing an individual to speak that is ethics. The human must be allowed to be creative. And here, I am being ironic—for there is no creativity in an always already. In the field of social construction, in the always already of discourse, there is only repetition, and an endless generality. Butler, however, seeks to establish a remedy to that kind of discursive force that has done so much violence upon the bodies of trans* people, of the intersexed—those whose intelligibility is authorized by surgical mutilation. There is yet, still, humanity in the unintelligible. We must allow a person to choose, for, following Bergson, we must believe in the creativity that is the human condition, not its essence—the condition of potential becomings. When forced both surgically and socially into sex/gender distinctions, David rejects the dead name/being Brenda. In the tragic end, he eventually rejects even his own life. Both the science of the body and the social constructedness of the intelligible disposed with his humanity—because, you see, he had no voice, no creative capacity, no ‘where’ from which to speak.

With Stryker’s Letter, the irony is that she is in fact is human though she tore flesh from bone to become a woman. Her affective state, she calls it rage, moves furiously through that matrix that sought to fix her body on a gendered grid. As a dead he, she was nameless, the other-than to herself, because that terrible monster of sociality told her of her own deviance. But she was necessitated by technology, rending her body through the knife of biology, to her potential becoming. Hers was a fuck you to both poles, both terminals from which I feel she had to speak. Reading Stryker may take to the extreme one of Foucault’s most striking assertions on the ‘materiality of ideas.’ As Rosi Braidotti explains ‘One cannot make an abstraction of the network of truth and power formations that govern the practice of one’s enunciation; ideas are sharp-edged discursive events that cannot be analyzed simply in terms of their propositional content.’ What was Stryker doing but the envisioning of her ‘real’ body, the material thingness that came into being, juxtaposed against a backdrop of other discourses that sought to constrain that thingness. And thus she, too, speaks at a certain kind of intersection.

But this is most important for me: Both Butler and Stryker find ways of speaking, making their respective voices a part of the medium through which knowledge is defined, refined, contorted, and marked. They force, through Stryker’s rage and Butler’s justice, the radical notion that bodies, however represented, are nevertheless real—in jeopardy; dangerous yet fragile; material yet abstractly creative. And Whittle makes this poignantly clear. The objective nature of scientific discourses set alongside the oppositional rhetoric of social construction has strained the trans* body—forcing a politics of recognition that has no historical equal. See me; hear me. Such a politics forces the hand of others to recognize both the instability of sex/gender discourses, but also the material consequences of non-recognition (as Butler illustrates with David).

So—we cannot be at both ends of this spectrum at once; we cannot see matter materially and discourses discursively. We must either move between them in an endless effort of playing capture the flag, or collapse this dualism forever. And why not? Why is it that our disciplines have so rigidly erected a barrier to protect themselves from the onslaught of chaotic emotion (science) and the horrors of essentialism (constructionism). Shouldn’t we take up the ethical obligation of thinking about bodies, as matter, in ways that exist in relation to discourses, and how discourses relate to matter (the materiality of ideas)? Isn’t Stryker and Butler putting that to its ethical limits—ejecting from their philosophies a new way of seeing? After all, isn’t the body always moving? If the body is now a moving site, what kinetic energies emanate from it—that is unique, creative, agential? Affect, emotion, intentionality. And if movement precedes position on our social grids, then perhaps the emptiness of the real (as we discussed in class), the creativity that follows from it, isn’t so scary after all. We can rage, like Stryker does, or we can ethically care for those whose own intelligibility is violently thrown into disorder, like Butler illustrates. But it is always, in my opinion, an ethical question. And the collapsing of that science/culture dualism, becomes our own modern ethical dilemma in gender theory.


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