A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 10): Bodies

“The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.” –Sigmund Freud

When thinking about Butler’s idea of performativity and her comparison to drag, it’s easy to come away thinking that one can simply change their gender through the very act of performing drag and then change back again once the performance is over. This kind of gender voluntarism seems to go contrary to our experiences. After all, it doesn’t seem like dressing and acting in a way typically associated with a particular gender is enough to actually become that gender.

One of the things that Butler argued against was this very idea of gender voluntarism. Though it is true that performativity is an alternative to the idea that gender is essential, it does not imply that gender performance is a mere matter of choice. This misunderstanding tends to arise from the idea that there is a sharp distinction between our externally observable behaviors and the activity of our minds.

The mind is very active in the construction of our gender performance both on conscious and subconscious levels. Since the subconscious entails automaticity and a lack of conscious access, much less control, then it becomes clear that we cannot change genders by simply changing the way we express ourselves in externally observable ways. Since the mind is also active in gender performance, how does its activity explain the experience of gender in general, and perhaps more interestingly, how does it account for the subjective experiences of transgender individuals like Katy?

In her work Assuming A Body, Gayle Salamon explains many of Butler’s ideas and arguments through a thorough examination focusing on the felt sense of self and gender. One major focus of this examination is on the idea that the body, like gender, is socially constructed. Relax, dear reader! At face value, this definitely seems like an absurd idea. After all, how can the body be constructed? It’s made of matter, so it seems ridiculous to assert that it is a social construction. However, for the sake of argument, let’s give Butler and Salamon the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not saying that bodies aren’t physical things (they actually argue that they are not saying that). Okay, so what could they possibly mean then?

Let’s start by recalling the concept of the schema discussed in Part 1. Schemas are structures in the mind that give meaning to sensory data. Without them, there would be no perceptions, no coherence, no body to feel or be aware of. Salamon’s work hinges on the notion of a body schema (sometimes referred to as body image). She takes great care to point out that it can be misleading to call it an image or to describe it as the sense of a unitary, stable surface.

As intuitive as it is to think of it that way, she points out–in much the same way Hume argued against the idea of a unitary, persisting self–that the body schema is fragmented and unstable since it is the result of perceptions that come and go, that are ever changing. What gives us this sense of a coherent, stable body is the body schema’s constant reference to a memory of past perceptions. Much like Locke, Hume and Parfit talking about the self, Salamon points out that referencing our memories give us a sense of our bodies as stable despite the fact that they are constantly changing. Hence the emphasis on the body schema as not being a surface, but the projection of a surface. Rather than conceiving of the body as a noun (material), it is better to think of it as a verb (the process that gives rise to its materiality).

Salamon explained that this projection exists in a social context:

“It is the constructedness of the body image that Schilder wants to emphasize in his account, a construction that always takes place in a social world. The body image is always contextually situated, in relation to other bodies and to the world, and its construction is a social phenomenon: ‘the [body schema] has to be built up. It is a creation and a construction and not a gift. It is not a shape…but the production of a shape. There is not doubt that this process of structuralization is only possible in close contact with experiences concerning the world.’ And elsewhere the image of the body is ‘not a structure, but a structuralization’. Here we see a clear echo to Freud’s description of the bodily ego not as a surface, but the projection of a surface.”

Bear in mind that neither performativity specifically, nor schema theory more generally require a denial of the existence of the physical world. To do so would be to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. After all, how else would the process of materialization even be able to take place? Rather, what is being suggested is that as argued before, we do not have direct access to the physical since the activity of perception removes the possibility of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between sensory data from the outside world and the projection of the surface we know to be our bodies. What’s even more interesting is the surface we feel ourselves to have is not the same surface we are perceived to have from the outside.


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