Wednesday, July 28, 2010

on gender, orientation, subjectivity and description

I'm begging someone to tell me how badly I've misinterpreted Irigaray. I'm also begging someone to tell me I've got her mostly right, or right enough, or that my reply is good, or lousy.

You are living in conceptuality, somewhere between the imperceptible presence of nothingness and the inertia of a corpse. What is the rigour of your thought? The superb confidence of someone moving inside a fleshy fabric borrowed from the other. The limitless appeal of someone entrusting his survival to the destiny of mortal women. The implacable, systematic quality of an organization which has already taken from living organisms the elements it needs to be sustained and developed unreservedly. A sovereign power, miming and undermining the whole of the resources from which it draws.

The fact that you no longer assert yourself as an absolute subject changes nothing. The inspiration which breathes life into you, the law or duty which guide you – are these not the very essence of your subjectivity? You feel you could abandon your ‘I’? But your ‘I’ holds you fast, having flooded and covered the whole of everything it ever created. And it never stops breathing its own emanations into you. With each new inspiration do you not become more than ever ‘I’? Reduplicated within yourself. (Irigaray, Elemental Passions, 82f.)

There is an obvious gender-essentialist position in this book. I don’t accept that position, based on my own experience as much as my philosophical thoughts about gender. I don’t recognize myself, my sexuality, my experience, in Irigaray’s accusations. But I am uncertain of myself: To some degree, we always misrecognize ourselves.

I think I understand the challenge of Irigaray’s account of passion and the gendered differences in “feminine” and “masculine” sexuality in 20th Century northern-white cultures (let’s be honest with ourselves, Luce: that’s who you’re talking about and who you’re talking to). Most people, looking at me, would see someone “male” and to a large degree “masculine” – the beard is a bit of a giveaway for most. I was brought up into a culture that has a gigantic disciplinary and discursive apparatus to reproduce a heterosexual norm, and to gender our bodies and our experiences. One might assume, then, based on my superficially appearing “masculine,” that the norms of “masculine” and “heterosexual” apply to me in some untroubled way. One way I feel challenged by Irigaray (and other essentialist feminists, e.g., Geraldine Finn) is that, since I, by being “masculine,” have a position of privilege in our society, it’s all very well and easy for me to claim to be “liberated” from “masculine” or “hetero” norms. It’s easy because, first of all, coming from that position of privilege, there’s less obstruction to my making my gender and sexuality an issue for myself – that is, I am not forced to make it an issue, I have a kind of privilege to take it up as an issue. I think that’s probably true. I also can’t do anything about it. Does that mean, really, that I can’t “repudiate” my “absolute” subjectivity?

On another level, the way I’ve been describing erotic experience, and the erotics of sensation, is undoubtedly gendered, because I am addressing this from my perspective and understanding, with my language. Therefore, my privilege, and my gender, and my presumed heterosexuality, decidedly matter in these descriptions. One might, in fact, read them as nothing other than the outpourings of an erotic “entrusting” of my “survival to the destiny of mortal women.” But given Irigaray’s descriptions of passion, and of sex, which are decidedly gendered and hetero, I think dismissing my accounts on this basis prejudges them on the basis of a presupposition that when I describe erotic clutching, I mean by that to name and evoke heterosexual intercourse. And, to be brutally frank and overly candid, that is simply dead wrong.

For, however “masculine” and “hetero” our culture’s vast disciplinary apparatus has constructed me to be, my actual practices of embodiment and sexuality don’t fit the profile very well, and only have for brief periods of my life. Reading my evocations of the erotic from a standpoint that doesn’t presume that, for me, the erotic is limited to the sexual, and the sexual isn’t limited to the heteronormative, I hope I have been able to say something that can’t be boxed up that way. I bring this up to get at two things in response to Irigaray.

(1) If one ties subjectivity, and the mastery-sovereignty-dominance she imputes to (masculine/masquerading-as-neutral) subjectivity, on the basis of, and through the auspices of an erotic and sexual act-relation-orientation, then what one imagines to be true about sexual practices would have to factor into how that, or any, subjectivity is constructed. In short: it should matter, for the construction of my gender/sexuality/subjectivity, just how I tend to get it on. Making presumptions about it on the basis of my superficially apparent gender would substantially miss the point.

On the other hand, to account for gender/sexuality/subjectivity, I would myself have to link this back to sexual practices, disciplinary practices attendant thereto, and the entire history of my body and its orientation and gender. This could, I believe, begin with an account of those practices, histories, etc. (This is something I’ve been doing all summer, and which I haven’t posted, for probably obvious reasons.)

(2) The “absolute” subject who appropriates women and flesh as “resources” is, on my alternative account, subjected even in that appropriation, and never “absolute” sovereign. Certainly I do mean to appropriate the flesh of this peach, but I have to let the peach into me, to become (in part) part of me, for that appropriation, that enjoyment, that jouissance to happen. (I know, I know: jouissance is an ambiguous French word that means, in one sense, orgasm; I know, I’m saying eating a peach is orgasmic – but we do say things like that. I once tried to convince a grad school pal to translate jouissance as juiciness in a paper he was writing. Almost won him over, too.)

And there are all kinds of pleasures (and pains) that take place even for privileged white “masculine” types like me, that only happen by way of the commingling of flesh and my subjection to sensation. There is no “absolute” subject – I assume Irigaray understood this and was writing hyperbolically, but that skews the account.