A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 11): Desire

“It is through sexuality that the body–and thus the self–is transformed from a thing that is concerned with itself to a thing that is concerned with others…Sexuality then becomes relation, not in the sense that all relations are at their heart sexual, nor that sexual relations are about the masquerade of one thing for another…but that sexuality is always offering my embodied existence as held in this inescapable and tensile paradox: I am for me and I am for the other, and each of these modes of existence realizes itself in my body. Sexuality is one among only a handful of ways I can experience both these modes simultaneously, and can be the means by which the distinction between myself and another can dissolve…” –Gayle Salamon

In Western interpretations of Buddhism, we find several ideas that can help use understand how sexuality (one’s sexual orientation as well as one’s existence as male, female, or non-binary), is a social construct–more specifically the notion of emptiness. Emptiness, not to be confused with nothingness, is comprised of interdependence and impermanence.

Interdependence is the idea that a thing’s existence depends on a set of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are the relations a thing has to everything else. For example, the existence of my computer depends on the materials it was constructed from, a team of people and/or machines to construct it, entire teams that designed and engineered it, Steve Jobs founding Apple, etc. In other words, my computer does not exist on its own as a thing in itself. If you take a away the different relations that constitute my computer, I no longer have a computer.

Compare this to Hume’s bundle theory which posits that objects are merely a collection, or bundle, of properties that have no underlying essence or identity–an inherent thing that an object is in itself. For example, suppose you had an ice cream cone. According to bundle theory, you cannot imagine or perceive an ice cream cone without its properties. After all, what is an ice cream cone without its shape, its color, its texture, its flavor, etc.? If you were to strip all those properties away, you would have nothing left. Thus, our existence and the existence of everything else, is constituted by our relations to each other. This includes our sense of self, or subjectivity, our bodies and our sexuality.

In addition to interdependence, we exist in a state of impermanence. This simply means that everything is in a constant state of change. Rather than a set of singular objects that persist through time, the world is composed of constantly changing relations. This can be difficult for our minds to wrap around because identity is inherent in our grammar and thought. For example, we  can’t help but use nouns, adjectives and verbs to talk about the world, but if Hume and Buddhism are correct, there are no nouns, no words that can refer to things in themselves, since there are no things in themselves.

What does this have to do with sexuality? Recall in Part 10 that the body schema is the projection of a surface as opposed to an actual surface (a verb rather than a noun). This body schema is what gives rise to a sense of one’s body that can differ from how it is perceived from the outside. Proprioception is the phenomenon informing us of the different spatial relations of different parts of the body to each other. As its name suggest, it is an internal sense–the sense that is the basis of the body schema.

Perhaps even more fundamental than the body schema is the sexual schema. Rather than being based in proprioception, it is based in transposition:

“…[P]roprioception emphasizes the relation between one part of my body and another part, the assemblage that constitutes my felt sense of my body as a whole. This sense is, of course, gained as I make contact with the world around me, but it is at its core a consciousness that is of and in my body. Transposition describes a slightly different phenomenon, a sense of self that is not additive or cumulative, but a function that emphasizes a shifting from one mode of being or bodily inhabitation to another, involving something like a substitution…This is a substitution that relates to my material being, and is in some sense an intermediary for it, but cannot be reduced to a function of materiality as such.”

Salamon goes on to explain that though the body schema is constituted by the relations of different parts of the body to each other forming a coherent whole that fits within the boundaries of the skin, the sexual schema is constituted by relations of the body to things external to the skin, i.e., other bodies or subjects. This may make sense of sexual orientation, but how does it make sense of one’s existence as male, female, or non-binary? Recall that bundle theory and interdependence imply that our bodies, like everything else, are just a collection of properties or relations. We tend to think of our bodies as bounded by our skin and that sex is an inherent feature of those bodies that is denoted by certain physical characteristics.

However, if we take bundle theory and interdependence seriously, it’s hard to argue for keeping our sexuality confined to the space within our skin. In order to illustrate this, consider another concept: desire. In Buddhism, the human condition is characterized by suffering (broadly interpreted as dissatisfaction). There are different kinds of suffering such as bodily pain and loss, but the kind that Buddhism is mostly interested in is suffering that arises when we are confronted with the fact that things aren’t the way we want them to be.

In order to alleviate this suffering, we pursue the things we desire, but Buddhism suggests that since desire is the very basis for this kind of suffering, our pursuits can only lead to further suffering, for when we experience the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling our desires, that satisfaction is brief and we quickly return to our default state of dissatisfaction. Even worse, when our goals become frustrated, we can ruminate and make things much worse for ourselves.

It is this state of dissatisfaction, and the tendency to interpret dissatisfaction as something undesirable that is happening to me, which causes me to develop a sense of myself as independent of others and persisting through time unchanged, which causes me more suffering than I would otherwise experience.

When we act on that desire, we experience transposition which can be described in the following examples illustrated by Salamon:

“In the desiring look, the eye that comes to rest on an object finds there a still point, an anchor that grounds vision itself and transforms it so that what is, factually speaking, a blurring upheaval in the visual field is sensed as an remarkable shift to focus through this process of transposition. My look has an object, and I trust that object to ground my look and thus know that the world itself is not turning, that the ‘upheaval’ that occurs when I turn my head and look at something is both occasioned by that desired object and quieted by it. This experience…is a decentering of the self that happens because I turn toward another, and yet that other magically restores me to myself by persisting as the focused and sustained object of my look.”

She goes on to argue that this transposition is the phenomenon that results when two seemingly independent parts, an embodied subject and the subject’s object of desire, come together and interact as a coupled system. Without realizing it, our relations to objects (and other subjects), are what constitute our experience of embodiment and the specific relations to the objects of our desire are what constitute our experiences of ourselves as separate and persistent while in reality what we are is parts of an overall interacting system.

The sexual schema is the transposition we experience when we act toward other subjects as objects of desire:

“When I reach for the other, I do not feel my arm but an intensification of both the proximity and the absence of the one for whom I am reaching. My sensation can in some sense feel itself to be located in that other, and my arm, unbent and reaching out, is no longer the location of my sensation but rather becomes the gesture through which I am toward the other. The arm is the conduit of desire, but not the seat of its sensation. My body is the vehicle that puts me into compelling and sometimes heady proximity to the objects of my desire in this way, and, in the case of sexual desire, my body comes alive through being intentionally directed toward another.”

In short, when we become part of an interacting coupled system with another person as a result of sexual desire, our bodies can take on new meanings, new relations, and, thus, new configurations that extend beyond the borders of our skin and into the body of the desired other. This transposition is the kind of sexual transcendence some of us experience while performing sexual acts with another. In a sense, two bodies become one as they comprise a coupled system where one’s experiences can be mediated through the other.

This sexual schema and diffuse experience illustrates how our experiences of embodiment and sexuality can occupy an ambiguous space beyond our skin. How do we make sense of this and locate one’s maleness, femaleness, or other sex?  Recall that since embodiment removes the possibility of any direct cause-and-effect relationship between the physical and our perceptions, it cannot be located in the physical. Also, to be embodied is to feel a sense of one’s body in relation to others. It is our bodily interactions with others and the world that gives rise to our sex in a space between the physical and the mental. Salamon describes it thusly:

“[Sex] is neither matter nor mind, but partakes of both these things and yet cannot be described as a mixture of them. It is forged through our relations with others…To feel one’s own flesh, or to act as witness to another’s, is to unsettle the question of subject and object, of material and phantasmatic, in the service of a more livable embodiment.”

What sense then can we make of the existence of transgender/non-binary individuals if sex is neither found in the body nor the mind and is not a combination both? If Salamon is correct, we have to deconstruct some very ingrained and intuitive distinctions.


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