Living in a Body

According to current cultural convention, our genders are determined by our bodies. This is a view that has recently come under heavy scrutiny, especially by the scientific community, and for good reasons. Many of my friends would agree that gender has no basis in the body, but is rather a psychosocial phenomenon. However, I depart from my friends and would like to convince you that that the body is fundamental to gender.

First, it is helpful to understand what we mean when we talk about the body. Most would consider it material. However, I would argue that the body is not merely material, and that the experience of living in a body is just as important as its materiality. According to psychoanalysis, the ego (self) is primarily based in a model of the body, a body image. This body image is our perceptual access to, and experience of, our flesh.

How does gender fit into this picture? According to transgender theorist, Gayle Salamon, phenomenology provides us with a useful way of making sense of our bodies:

“Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy concerned with the way in which things in the world give themselves to consciousness and with the structures through which we experience that givenness…It is that endeavor to see the familiar with new eyes — that phenomenological principle of holding in abeyance what we know about any object, situation, or person in order to see it freshly and more precisely — that offers itself as an incitement to reinterrogate that which we think we know about gender and thus to radically open up the traditional categories through which it is understood.”

A consequence of the phenomenological perspective is that there is no view from nowhere–no truly objective view–of the body, and that each individual person is the primary authority on their embodied existence. When it comes to gender, Salamon writes, “…phenomenology offers an expansive conception of the body in which it is more than merely its materiality, emphasizing the importance of how one feels in and senses with and inhabits one’s body…In this phenomenological view gender and sex can be understood as delivered to the subject through a felt sense rather than determined by the external contours of the body, thus circumventing a view of sex or gender that understands either to be a matter of bodily morphology as given.”

A common objection to this claim is that phenomenology essentially collapses into idealism, which precludes any material basis for the body. This objection, however, is based on a few distinctions, some of which we will cover here. First is the realism and idealism distinction. Realism consists of the following claims:

  1. There is a mind-independent world. In other words, it’s existence is not dependent on any subject’s perception of it.
  2. We can have knowledge of this world through the mind’s representation of it. 

According to idealism:

  1. Something mental is the ultimate foundation of all reality, or even exhaustive of reality. In other words, reality is dependent on a subject.
  2. Our knowledge of this reality is not representational, since there is nothing external that our knowledge represents or corresponds to. Therefore, it is subjective.

Based on these definitions, it’s hard to argue how phenomenology doesn’t entail idealism. The phenomenologist can either bite the bullet and concede that knowledge of the world is purely subjective, or she can respond to this criticism by contesting a more fundamental distinction: the object-subject distinction.

So let’s get to bottom of this distinction:

  1. Subject: a person, or self; the subject of experience.
  2. Object: a thing external to the subject, which can be perceived by the subject and is thus its object. 

Let’s assume realism for a moment in order to see how it works out in practice. Though we can perceive the world through mental representation, it is necessarily the case that each perspective is exactly that, a perspective that can represent only on aspect of the world, and not the whole of it.

The phenomenologist embraces the ambiguity that necessarily follows. This ambiguity is best illustrated by sexuality:

“There is something enabling in this philosophy of ambiguity; it is precisely the ambiguity attending sexuality that can become the means for understanding bodies, lives, and especially relationality outside the domains of male or female.”

Based on our body image (which is largely conditioned by our norms and values), the boundary that separates us as subjects from objects, or the world, is our skin. However, we know from some research that we can incorporate external objects into this image. Thus, objects can become part of the subject. How is this possible? The proposed explanation is known as transposition, from the root word transpose, which has multiple uses including the following:

  1. An act, process, or instance of transposing or being transposed, which is changing the relative place or normal order.
  2. A mathematical interchange of two letters or symbols.

Therefore, transposition is the process of changing from the position of being the object of perception to centering perception itself by becoming part of the subject. This can happen both in the long run, and in real time within what is known in neuroscience as peripersonal space(though peripersonal space is not the only site of ambiguity):

“The binding of visual information available outside the body with tactile information arising, by definition, on the body, allows the representation of the space lying in between, which is often the theater of our interactions with objects. The representation of this intermediate space has become known as ‘peripersonal space’.”

Salamon describes transposition in relation to the sexual schema (which includes both the body and peripersonal space):

“…[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…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…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 unremarkable shift to focus through this process of transposition…When I reach for [a desired person], 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…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, embodiment is neither found in the subject or the object, but occupies the ambiguous space in between. How is this so?

Recall the Buddhist idea of interdependence, which is the idea that a thing’s existence depends on a set of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are constituted by the relations a thing has to everything else. Take Hume’s Bundle theory as an example, which posits that objects are merely a collection, or bundle, of properties that have no underlying essence or identity. To better imagine this, 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, the existence of the ice cream cone is constituted by its relations, or its causes and conditions. Thus, our perceptions are relational as opposed to being grounded in either subject or object, including our perceptions of the body.

“If the physical body can be thought as a discrete and bounded entity, capable of being distinctly set apart from the ground that is its world, this identification is less a matter of disconnection or differentiation and more a product of relation. A body becomes so by virtue of its interaction with what surrounds it, not because it is composed of a stuff that is radically foreign to its surroundings.”

Therefore, realism must contend with this apparent contradiction between subject, object and their relationship to each other. Does idealism fair any better? First, let us consider an argument for idealism:

  1.  All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.
  2. The only epistemic basis for claims about the external world are our perceptual experiences.
  3. Therefore, The only reality we can meaningfully speak of is that of perceptual experience.

We will critique the first premise: All we have access to in perception are the contents of our own experience.

It seems that we have to accept (1) and (2), which necessarily means we must endorse the conclusion. However, we can avoid the conclusion by denying (1). What basis do we have for doing that?

Contained in this premise are assumptions regarding the contents of experience. Idealism, like realism, implicitly assumes the object-subject distinction as well as the real-ideal distinction. It does not consider a third alternative, the ambiguous space between subject and object. Since we have already found both theoretical and empirical reasons for this third alternative, we can safely deny (1).

Where do we go from here? How do we make sense of a reality that is neither real nor ideal? What does this mean for our notions of meaning and truth? As explained earlier, even if we assumed realism, we have to deal with perception’s inability to capture the whole of reality. We are left with the ominous threat of nihilism and the anxiety it accompanies. Salamon provides us some reassurance:

“This is an account of…’truth’ that refuses to give primacy to either the perceiver who registers perceptions of the world or the world as a material fact over and against our perceptions of it…This failure of perception to account for the totality of a thing is, of course, true of any object in the world toward which perception might be intended. Every object is shot through with an infinite number of possible appearances which no single act of perception can encompass and no series of perceptions can exhaust. Even a perception in which we have all faith, which seems to deliver a truth about the object, cannot encompass the reality of that object because ‘reality’ does not belong definitely to any particular perception…Yet perception is not impoverished by its inability to deliver the ‘whole’ of any object; perception always gives us something less than this whole but also something more through the multitude of connections it makes between the perceiver and the thing perceived…perception is not a passive activity whose aim is to capture a quantifiable measurement of the world through recording and measuring the qualia of any particular object within it. Perception produces our relations with other objects and subjects, and these relations are, finally, the location of the object’s meaning. The perceptual truth of the object becomes the creation of its meaning, a meaning that is produced rather than found.”

Therefore, when there is an apparent tension between my anatomy and my felt sense of my body, my felt sense is the only meaningful determinant of my gender. It wouldn’t matter if scientific consensus contradicted me, and it doesn’t matter now what anyone thinks the materiality of my body suggests.

At this point, it is worth reiterating a few points about binary distinctions. The sorites paradox presents a challenge not just to the pursuit of non-vague language, it also threatens foundationalist views of logic and, by extension, knowledge. Philosophers have done various things to address these challenges including denying that logic applies to the paradox. However, they have not come without their own challenges.

For example, in order to argue that logic doesn’t apply, some have argued that there is no actual problem once we are able to eliminate vagueness in our language, thus saving classical logic, which relies on the binary truth values: True and False (hence classical logic being referred to as bivalent). Unfortunately, the endeavor to eliminate vagueness hasn’t produced satisfactory results and has largely been abandoned.  As it turns out, vagueness is inherent in our thought as well as in our language.

Other philosophers have appealed to multi-valent (or many-valued) logics. For example, instead of a binary system only using the values True and False, we can use a three-valued system using True, Indeterminate and False. However, a trivalent logic leads to the same problems.

What about a “fuzzy logic” that has infinite values where instead of a binary of truth values we have a spectrum of values? That doesn’t work either because it’s not exactly clear why we need to accept degrees of truth outside of solving these particular problems and whatever degree of truth we assign is going to involve an element of choice (or subjective judgment). By this point we should be perfectly aware that we cannot objectively determine whether or not a statement is 1/2 true, 1/3 true, 1/4 true, etc. Even if we accept that degrees of truth solves this set of problems, it leads to its own set of problems.

These problems of vagueness in semantics and logic resemble the problem of ambiguity in embodiment, though there are significant differences between vagueness and ambiguity. For example, ambiguity implies that there is more than one feasible interpretation. On the other hand, vagueness arises in the presence of borderline cases.

Thus, not only is it the case that our lived experience emerges from ambiguity, there is no clear border, or boundary, delimiting the two poles we call object and subject, suggesting that the whole of reality is beyond our perceptual grasp. We must, therefore, become comfortable with our own little piece of it, and that is what my transition–my my efforts to be present in my body–has always been about.


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