Assuming a Body
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Assuming a Body

Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality

Gayle Salamon

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eBook - ePub

Assuming a Body

Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality

Gayle Salamon

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About This Book

We believe we know our bodies intimately—that their material reality is certain and that this certainty leads to an epistemological truth about sex, gender, and identity. By exploring and giving equal weight to transgendered subjectivities, however, Gayle Salamon upends these certainties. Considering questions of transgendered embodiment via phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud and Paul Ferdinand Schilder), and queer theory, Salamon advances an alternative theory of normative and non-normative gender, proving the value and vitality of trans experience for thinking about embodiment.

Salamon suggests that the difference between transgendered and normatively gendered bodies is not, in the end, material. Rather, she argues that the production of gender itself relies on a disjunction between the "felt sense" of the body and an understanding of the body's corporeal contours, and that this process need not be viewed as pathological in nature. Examining the relationship between material and phantasmatic accounts of bodily being, Salamon emphasizes the productive tensions that make the body both present and absent in our consciousness and work to confirm and unsettle gendered certainties. She questions traditional theories that explain how the body comes to be—and comes to be made one's own—and she offers a new framework for thinking about what "counts" as a body. The result is a groundbreaking investigation into the phenomenological life of gender.

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1
WHAT IS A BODY?
1
THE BODILY EGO AND THE CONTESTED DOMAIN OF THE MATERIAL
Every body contains in itself a phantom (perhaps the body itself is a phantom).
PAUL SCHILDER,
THE IMAGE AND APPEARANCE OF THE HUMAN BODY
Of what use might psychoanalytic theory be to those of us trying to bring attention to transgender within contemporary discussions of embodiment and gender? I would suggest that recent writings on transgender share a number of concerns and questions with the domains of psychoanalysis and phenomenology: how does the body manifest a sex? How can we account, in a nonpathologizing way, for bodies that manifest sex in ways that exceed or confound evident binaries? An understanding of transgender that wants to proceed by challenging a rigidly binaristic understanding of sex might find useful tools in theories that put similar pressure on the binary relation between body and psyche. Transpeople have tended toward suspicion of psychoanalytic accounts of gender—and justifiably so, since psychoanalysis has historically been used to relegate them to the realm of pathology and abjection. Indeed, this tradition continues within some psychoanalytic circles.1 And yet, psychoanalysis, perhaps more than any other discourse, has provided the most thorough and detailed examination of the elaborate set of mechanisms by which a subject “knows” her own body. Since psychoanalysis deals with the psychic construction of the self and the way in which that self inhabits a body, it can complicate the assumption that the material body is unproblematically available to us as a perfectly faithful reflection of the psychic self. Freud can help us describe the psychic conditions under which the body assumes a sex and consequently is useful in discussions of sexed embodiment in which we understand sex to be something other than a binary.
In what follows, I reexamine two Freudian concepts of particular relevance to discussions of transgender. First is Freud’s critique of a binary model of sex in his discussion of hermaphroditism, a critique that has received surprisingly little attention. Second, I attempt something of a guided tour of his schematization of the bodily ego and the use to which it has been put by writers grappling with questions of gender, body, and identity. The concept of the bodily ego is of particular use in thinking transgender because it shows that the body of which one has a “felt sense” is not necessarily contiguous with the physical body as it is perceived from the outside. That is, the body one feels oneself to have is not necessarily the same body that is delimited by its exterior contours, and this is the case even for any normatively gendered subject. Taken together, these two models offer a theory of gendered embodiment in which the body is understood to be something more complex and capacious than a unitary formation of matter, singularly given to or claimed by only one sex. To understand embodiment as necessarily routed through a bodily ego is not to contend that body and ego are coterminous or selfsame, but to assert that projections of various kinds are required in the construction of both the ego and the body, that the ego is itself a projection, and that difference, distance, and otherness are at the heart of the ego and the body.
INTERSEXUAL CHARACTERS, BINARISM, AND FREUD’S TEMPTATION
Freud opens Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality with a string of provocative claims. The most startling among them is offered at the beginning of a discussion of his well-known theory that human beings are innately bisexual. “It is popularly believed,” Freud begins, “that a human being is either a man or a woman.”2 Freud goes on to suggest that popular opinion on the subject might be mistaken, and that science “knows of cases in which the sexual characters are obscured, and in which it is impossible to determine the sex.” In his discussion of hermaphroditism, conditions that we today would describe as intersexuality, Freud addresses the assumption that human beings are either male or female and suggests that this assumption is at root an error. He marshals the authority of science as evidence, where science possesses knowledge simultaneously secret (science knows about things of which popular opinion is ignorant) and authoritative (what science knows trumps what popular opinion assumes). In the case of sexes and bodies, what science “knows” are instances in which the sex of a body cannot easily be read from its surface and that, consequently, human beings are not always easily divisible into male or female. It is the science of anatomy upon which Freud is most reliant here—and, even more particularly, the anatomy of genital morphology, the reading of the sexual surfaces of the body in order to ascertain (or, in this case, confound) the interior “truth” of the body’s sex.
Freud suggests that the hermaphroditic body’s refusal to neatly conform to sexual binaries presents a wider cultural challenge to sexual boundaries—indeed, to the very notion of sex itself. This is accomplished by a curious double movement, where binaries are present both inside and outside the body at the level of morphology and at the level of culture. The intersexual body refuses to conform to the binary of sexual difference by which it could be easily categorized as “male” or “female.” And yet, the means by which the cultural binary is challenged is the body’s stubborn manifestation of a binary in which both male and female characteristics are legible at the surface of the body. Thus the body’s stubborn insistence on a legible binary is precisely that which renders a categorical binary illegible.
Freud suggests that this gender ambiguous body has important implications for thinking sexed bodies, whether they be transgressively or normatively sexed. After positing science as the authority that can rectify popular opinion’s misconceptions in matters of sex, Freud explains why he wants to attend to the specificities of hermaphroditic bodies: “The importance of these abnormalities lies in the unexpected fact that they facilitate our understanding of normal development … [and] lead us to suppose that an originally bisexual physical disposition has, in the course of evolution, been modified into a unisexual one, leaving behind only a few traces of the sex that has become atrophied. It was tempting to extend this hypothesis to the mental sphere” (7).
What, exactly, is happening here? Freud grants that anatomical incidence of hermaphroditism is an “abnormality,” a deviation from the normal, then asserts the “unexpected fact” that understanding this abnormality is a condition for understanding “normal development.” This seems clear enough and squares with his later assessment of the biology of masculinity and femininity, even within the realm of the sexually “normal,” as retaining the admixture of characteristics so prominent in the “abnormality” of hermaphroditism, so that “pure masculinity or femininity is not to be found either in a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture of the character traits belonging to his own and the opposite sex” (86). The morphology of hermaphroditism is here the same in kind as “normal” morphology, differing only in the degree to which admixture is present. This is not to say that the difference between the normatively gendered and the hermaphrodite is insignificant, since the former has “his own” sex and the latter cannot. It does suggest, though, that the sex proper to any individual—the ability either to lay claim to ownership of a sex or to be claimed as the property of that sex—is itself a question of variation at the level of degree rather than of category.
What is most surprising in this passage is Freud’s narration of his “temptation,” which further radicalizes the propositions he sets forth. He plays with the idea that the physiology of the human species has developed from an originally bisexual morphology into a unisexual morphology, thus presenting—however briefly—the condition of intersexuality as the originary template for understanding sexual dimorphism in the species itself. This evolutionary metaphor can be read as having pernicious consequences, as it positions intersexual bodies as less developed, less evolved, than “unisexual” bodies, which have managed to “leave behind” the traces of the sex that they once retained. Bodily atrophy becomes the sign of phylogenic advancement. Yet, a more positive reading also presents itself, in which the intersexual body stands as the exemplary instantiation of sexual difference, both in the realm of morphology and in the realm of the psyche. For a moment, Freud offers the intersexual body as the condition that makes theorizing the universality of a “bisexual psychical disposition” possible at all. The extension of this hypothesis into the mental sphere, Freud offers, might explain “inversion in all of its varieties as the expression of a psychical hermaphroditism.” What is proposed here is that intersexuality presents a productive disjunction between psyche and soma that can help us to understand both object choice and sexual identity, in cases of inversion, as well as, more startlingly, in “unisexual” bodies and psyches that take “normal” sexual objects.
But as soon as Freud narrates his temptation, he claims that it must be refused. However, the retraction is something less than a flat refusal, since Freud is so explicit in laying out the scope of what tempts him. The temptation to universalize his hypothesis is apparently more than Freud can resist, since he performs the extension even as he claims to refuse it. Freud regretfully concluded that the extension would not hold, dependent as it was on biological evidence that never materialized. That evidence—that “inverts,” figured here as “psychical hermaphrodites,” carry the somatic manifestations of hermaphroditism—could not be demonstrated. Thus Freud presents the “unexpected” universalizing turn, entertains it briefly by suggesting that “all that was required further to settle the question was that inversion should be regularly accompanied by the mental and somatic signs of hermaphroditism,” then states that “this expectation was disappointed.” The “evidence” was sought, on the one hand, in order to “settle the question” of the relation between inversion and hermaphroditism, and its absence clarifies the relation between inversion and somatic hermaphroditism: Freud finds no connection and concludes that they are “on the whole independent of each other.” On the other hand, what remains unsettled is the question Freud raises as to the relationship between hermaphroditism and normal bisexual psychic disposition.
SPLITTING THE SEXUAL DIFFERENCE
Freud’s invocation of the categories of bisexual and unisexual in this context both clarifies and complicates matters. The use of the term bisexual, when it is oppositionally paired with a unisexual body, designates a body that displays both masculine and feminine characteristics (and the referent of characteristics, like the referent of bisexuality, is constantly shifting, alternately designating bodily appearance, the sexual apparatus (7), sex specific behaviors (8), and even the sexual instinct itself (6). In this sense, bisexuality becomes synonymous with hermaphroditism, and the use to which Freud is tempted to put hermaphroditism—his hope that an understanding of the hermaphroditic body might help us understand bisexuality—would appear to be frustrated by this conflation of terms, unless we are to understand that bisexuality simply is hermaphroditism. This last possibility finds support in Freud’s choice of title for his discussion of hermaphroditism: “Bisexuality.” Yet the discussion under consideration is but a brief detour (perversion?) in Freud’s larger discussion of inversion. If bisexuality is simply hermaphroditism, this does not quite make explicit its relation to inversion. Like the examples of bisexuality Freud presents, the term cannot confine itself to one referent, but always works between registers. In outlining the relation between bisexuality and inversion, Freud refers to a second bisexuality that is not synonymous with somatic hermaphroditism, a “theory of bisexuality that has been expressed in its crudest form by a spokesman of the male inverts: ‘a feminine brain in a masculine body’” (8).
According to this theory, bisexuality is always the appearance of masculinity alongside femininity, but the first type of bisexuality, the hermaphroditic type, is operative at the level of the body—male bodily attributes along with female bodily attributes. The second type, which Freud attributes to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, removes the admixture of masculine and feminine from the realm of the strictly somatic. This model of bisexuality asserts that there is a coherent and unitary sex proper to the subject’s body and another coherent and unitary sex proper to the subject’s psyche. This, then, is an emphatic rejection of the notion of admixture that characterizes Freud’s bisexual body. Here each register, somatic or psychic, is capable of containing only one sexual possibility; thus sexual difference within the individual is safely contained within two distinct and unbreachable registers. Masculine and feminine are neatly split between the body and the psyche (or “brain”), and these categories are definitionally impermeable. Freud rejects this theory by suggesting that it unnecessarily “replaces the psychological problem with the anatomical one.” That is, it displaces the question of sexual difference within the psyche onto the register of the body in a way that requires unsupportable conjecture, since “we are ignorant of what characterizes a feminine brain.” For Freud, this characterization of bisexuality is insufficient in that it finds sexual difference incompossible within any given register and thus demands a consolidation of sexual signification within both soma and psyche in order for either to be sexually legible. The “crude” implication, Freud maintains, is that any admixture of masculine and feminine within the same register is socially and psychically unbearable. The sexual identifications that are possible in such a framework are circumscribed to such an extent that, practically speaking, we have returned to the realm of “popular opinion” in which a person must be either a man or a woman but never both. I will return to this metaphor of the “feminine brain in a masculine body” (and vice versa)—and the usefulness of Freud’s critique of it—in later chapters, since it persists as a familiar trope in representations of transgender and transsexuality, although its phenomenological accuracy has been widely disputed in trans narratives.
Freud presents us with a body in which gender is divided between different registers, but the body is fractured at an even deeper level, since the physical body itself does not seem to exist as a simple and coherent whole for Freud. A notion of bodily unity that would depend on a body comprised of stable parts (both in the sense of nonchanging and selfsame and also easily identifiable) is hard to find in the Freud of Three Essays, insistent as he is on pointing out the ways in which bodies, whether hermaphroditic or unisexual, insist on signifying contrary to what we expect, whether we be “popular opinion,” scientists, analysts, or theorists. We see Freud moving further away from a strictly biological or anatomical model of the body, focusing instead on the lability and plasticity of the erotogenic zones and detailing how these erotogenic zones give us a sense of bodily coherence. Freud lays out this alternative topography of the body in his discussion of infantile behavior and thumb sucking, in which he provides an expansive notion of what counts as an erotogenic zone: “any other part of the skin or mucous membrane can take over the functions of an erotogenic zone, and must therefore have the same aptitude in that direction. Thus the quality of the stimulus has more to do with producing the pleasurable feeling than has the nature of the body part concerned” (49). He has a great deal to say about the function of the mucous membrane of the mouth as an erotogenic zone, but he also designates the hand as an erotogenic zone (75) and claims that the skin is an erotogenic zone par excellence (35). Indeed, this ascription of erotogenicity can and does extend to every part of the body—to its surface, especially, but even to its very interiority. “I have been led,” Freud says, somewhat boastfully, “to ascribe the quality of erotogenicity to all parts of the body and to all the internal organs” (50). Not only is everything capable of being a genital in this formulation, thus undermining the monolithic (or, at least, indexical) relation between genitals and sex, but the ability of the genitals to indicate sex is further undermined by Freud’s comments about sex hormones and the transformative effects they had in mice: “It has become experimentally possible to transform a male into a female, and conversely a female into a male. In this process the psychosexual behavior of the animal alters in accordance with the somatic sexual characters and simultaneously with them” (81). In his speculative comments about hormones, Freud appears to be trying to strengthen the link between biology and sex or sexual identity: the biological change brought about by the introduction of sex hormones caused a concomitant change in the psychosexual behavior of the animal. The sexual behavior of the animal confirms its sex: the “heterosexual” behavior of the mouse (!) helps to determine its status as male or female. However, the move has the curious effect of decoupling the determination of sex from simple biological determinism: a change in hormonal level, which Freud takes care to distinguish from “spermatozoa or ova,” produces an actual male or an actual female, regardless of genital morphology. The importance of spermatozoa and ova are not to be dis...

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