“If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.” ~~ Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
“I wanted to work out how a norm actually materialises a body, how we might understand the materiality of the body to be not only invested with a norm, but in some sense animated by a norm, or contoured by a norm.”
~~ Judith Butler and Regina Michalik (Interviewer). The Desire for Philosophy. Interview with Judith Butler. in: Lola Press. May 2001. (English).
“Emotionally influenced memory must anticipate, and begin to account for, the apparently substantial influence of sex.” Sex-Related Hemispheric Lateralization of Amygdala Function in Emotionally Influenced Memory: An fMRI Investigation
“The Russian surgeon Nikolaj Bogoraz performed the first reconstruction of a total penis using rib cartilage in a reconstructed phallus made from a tubed abdominal flap in 1936. The first female to male gender reassignment procedure was performed in 1946 by Sir Harold Gillies on fellow physician Michael Dillon, and his technique remained the standard one for decades. Later improvements in microsurgery made more techniques available.” ~~ Phalloplasty, Wikipedia
Radically averring that biological sex is predicated on conceptual categories, both sex and gender essentialism are called into question. What does it mean to call these categories, of male and female, which have gender corollaries nominated as man and woman, into question? Furthermore, given the symbolic efficacy of these categories, the binary stability they produce along with their political, social and economic effects, questioning their ontology is critical. Sex and gender essentialists posit that biological sex is a priori determined by certain laws of nature; these laws are ostensibly healthy, and it is best if follow them, etc. However, sex essentialism is also employed as a political tactic by some transgender activists, who posit that their inherent sex is in-congruent with their assigned sex. Understandably, as with homosexuality, and the attempts to find its biological origins, the hope is that by giving empirically validated biological weight to lived transgender experiences acceptance will come more easily. Sex and gender as a dyadic amalgam is problematic, and questing for roots deep within DNA may possibly lead to further confusions. Complicating matters further, the binary is drawn into question by non-binary and non-gender(ed) subjects, who fall outside their thrown (assigned) gender, and even sex. Cisgender and transgender dichotomies also reveal instabilities, folds and margins.
A thorough ontological analysis of sex and gender is not the intention of this article. Rather, I wish to open a space whereby the political ontology of sex/gender is dislodged, disembarked and questioned; a body is more than invested in, animated and contoured by a norm. Butler’s quote above comes close to what Negative Nihilist Ontology posits as fleshthought, especially when she uses the word contour. Reading this word which possesses a rich history: geographical, artistic and topological, musical/vocal (pitch, tones, utterance), one can sense that norms nearly create bodies. Birth is a social process of bodies meeting, in joy, ecstasy, boredom and even horror (as with cases of rape). Language, structures, and other contingencies contour even where subjects will be localized or positioned at specific point(s) and time(s) all coalesce for conception, pregnancy and birth. Even before its first breath, the fetus-being feels aspects of this weight of the always already present past. Furthermore, the fetus-being and baby-being is part of that weight. It is a fleshthought.
The negation of nothing produces a something. Negating nothingness is presence, and for over three thousand years, perhaps longer, Judaeo-Christian monotheism has deified the presence of absence in in the form of God, the Father. Out of a myriad of phenomena, God, or The Word, acts as the unmoved mover. In the New International Version of the Bible, John 1:1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God*, and the Word was God.” Entities are far too complex and terrifyingly uncanny to live/experience/describe, so under penalties, in some cases death, these experiences/entities/beings are given over to, or thrown inside unifying semiotic categories: patriarchy, etc. Unifying semiotic categories operate to bring chaotic multiplicities into line with a signifying chain. Under the Law of the Father, the Sign (man/woman, heterosexual/bisexual/homosexual, law-abiding/criminal), operates to nullify complexity, nuance and displace differences into binaries, occasionally triads. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in
“Christianity taught us to see the eye of the lord looking down upon us. Such forms of knowledge project an image of reality, at the expense of reality itself. They talk figures and icons and signs, but fail to perceive forces and flows. They bind us to other realities, and especially the reality of power as it subjugates us. Their function is to tame, and the result is the fabrication of docile and obedient subjects.”
Taming nomad-ism (physical and otherwise) is definitely critical for the creation of societies based more heavily on stationary sign-systems versus contingent fluxes and flows. The transition from hunter/gatherer to agricultural formations probably is critical here, although the matter of Neolithic change is not the intention of this article. However, the subjectification of the phenomena into “(hu)man” produces excesses, and these excesses are what Deleuze and Guattari might characterize as the flows that burst forth in great deterritorializations, scrambling, oozing and breaching the stationary territory of the settled individual/society/category. Producing ruptures within a priori (imperative) categories, authority itself is challenged. Yet the challenge to authority is necessary for its reification; authority must be challenged to act as authority in order to fulfill itself as such.
Sex is clearly more complex than even the signifier “sex” can describe. The signified is excessively outside that which signifies it. The authority of signifying chains that make claims upholding “biological sex” as a unified totality rest on empirical examination of hormones, genitals and other fleshthought features. Memory, affectivity and arousal isolated to discrete parts of the brain are separated under the sign of sex, the study Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories, states their findings as such:
“We used event-related functional MRI to assess whether sex differences in memory for emotional stimuli is associated with activation of different neural systems in men and women. Brain activation in 12 men and 12 women was recorded while they rated their experience of emotional arousal in response to neutral and emotionally negative pictures. In a recognition memory test 3 weeks after scanning, highly emotional pictures were remembered best, and remembered better by women than by men. Men and women activated different neural circuits to encode stimuli effectively into memory even when the analysis was restricted to pictures rated equally arousing by both groups. Men activated significantly more structures than women in a network that included the right amygdala, whereas women activated significantly fewer structures in a network that included the left amygdala. Women had significantly more brain regions where activation correlated with both ongoing evaluation of emotional experience and with subsequent memory for the most emotionally arousing pictures. Greater overlap in brain regions sensitive to current emotion and contributing to subsequent memory may be a neural mechanism for emotions to enhance memory more powerfully in women than in men.”
“Testing sex differences revealed that left but not right ventral amygdala activation when viewing aversive pictures was associated with delayed memory of those pictures in women, whereas the converse pattern of right but not left activation was associated with delayed memory in men. In addition to replicating prior reports of this sex difference in samples with both sexes (14, 15, 21), this pattern is consistent with findings from studies on female humans only (19, 20) and male rats only (76). Addressing the specificity of sex differences in amygdala memory function, sex differences were not observed for the dorsal amygdala, anticipatory activation, or immediate memory. Future research, including neuroimaging studies with large samples for both men and women, is needed to further characterize the boundaries of lateralized sex differences in emotional memory and to determine whether these sex differences are related to consolidation processes or other factors (2, 15).”
Ontological analyses interrogate both the epistemological paradigm of the empirical research, along with noting that the research itself states that maybe “sex differences are related to consolidation processes or other factors.”
If sex is social, biological and other, then gender becomes irrelevant in terms of description. In fact, some languages, like Polish, do not have a word for gender. Sex itself encompasses and gathers body, affect, identity and behavior. Signifying chains unite empirical scientists examining encephalons via scans of discrete units of a contiguous organ within a complex corpus. These signifying chains create a transference of language/sign realities onto and into these perceptions of flesh, incorporating thought into flesh, and vice versa. Regarding the significance of “sex” and its naturalization in the aforementioned studies, it should be noted that blood dilation, electrical activity and other tissue/cerebral variations are incredibly complex, and submitting them to categories of binary logic, when this itself is being undermined by genetic findings of multiple “sexes,” reinforces my skepticism of purely biological essences, and essences in general. For instance, good practice would ask: were all the subjects tested for their “sex” chromosomes, etc?
Susan Stryker in Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin, writes,
“When I came out as transsexual in 1992, I was acutely conscious, both experientially and intellectually, that transsexuals were considered abject creatures in most feminist and gay or lesbian contexts, yet I considered myself both feminist and lesbian. I saw GLQ as the leading vehicle for advancing the new queer theory, and I saw in queer theory a potential for attacking the antitranssexual moralism so unthinkingly embedded in most progressive analyses of gender and sexuality without resorting to a reactionary, homophobic, and misogynistic counteroffensive. I sought instead to dissolve and recast the ground that identity genders in the process of staking its tent. By denaturalizing and thus deprivileging nontransgender practices of embodiment and identification, and by simultaneously enacting a new narrative of the wedding of self and flesh, I intended to create new territories, both analytic and material, for a critically refigured transsexual practice. Embracing and identifying with the figure of Frankenstein’s monster, claiming the transformative power of a return from abjection, felt like the right way to go.”
Stryker’s radical exegesis of sex/gender led her to “wed … self and flesh.” Remaining both feminist and lesbian, she demarcates a new ontology that destabilizes the cis/trans binary. I would like to extrapolate this statement into an analysis of cisgender instability. The cisgender person perpetually fails in their category. The instability of phenomena which exceed the category of “man” or “woman” creates tension within the subject, giving rise to desires to “be a man” fully – leading to a cartoon-like performance of hyper-masculinity; a disinterested yet participatory engagement with the masculine/male/man category is an androgynous response; a feminine hyper-reaction against the category finds itself at the other end of a spectrum of possible responses. A cisgender person may traverse a gambit on reactions to their sex/gender category. Melanie Klein’s theory of the partial object might be helpful here, for she proposes that an infant views an object as either bad or good, oscillating between the two, if this is not resolved it leads to a paranoid-schizoid position; in short, the goal, for Klein, would be a good/bad synthesis of the object leading to the depressive position. If sex/gender is a category, it can also be an object (categories are ideals to be obtained or realized), and a synthesis between the experiential and abstracted categories may have salubrious effects. (“The chief characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position is the splitting of both self and object into good and bad, with at first little or no integration between them.” Whereas, “Earlier there were felt to be two separate part-objects; ideal and loved; persecuting and hated. In this earlier period the main anxiety concerned survival of the self. In the depressive position anxiety is also felt on behalf of the object. Omnipotent control over the object, now felt as more real and separate, diminishes.”)
The absence of gender in non-binary or non-gender individuals does not negate its presence. In fact, the non-gender person brings the world of gender into stark relief. The transgender person, or transsexual person, scrambles the matrix of categories which were previously thought fixed. Nomadic “self with flesh” wedding/welding practices sometimes lead to a return of ontological trans-essentialism. And transgender persons sometimes wield the very empiricism that is used to reinforce binary logic as a personal and political tool: my brain says I am X, but my body is Y, etc. Understanding subjective and reflective sex and gender as composed of thoughts about flesh and certain features of a body that ‘don’t match’ this inner/inherent feeling is difficult for Queer Theory because it dismisses, or at least displaces, an inherent sex/gender. However, the transgender individual often feels inherently “male” or “female;” sometimes they go to great lengths to embody the category they are not yet in flesh. This further complicates arguments against essentialism, and perhaps places the anti-essentialist/essentialist dichotomy itself into an unstable position.
In conclusion, the diachronic and synchronic history of the society and the individual must be accounted for while engaging in ontological analyses of complex phenomena which I contend cannot be adequately addressed by signifying chains aimed at unification. Politically the Right along with some transgender activists and advocates utilize empirical and essentialist rhetoric and practices, however, the problems confronted on the battle ground of transcending sex/gender assignment at birth far exceed even these debates. The a priori judgements on the body are not final, the categories themselves are unstable, and no essence can be found except that essentially there is no essence. And it is perhaps in the absence of this elusive essence that we feel its profound presence.