What is Power?

What is power? Like most concepts, it is something that seems intuitively obvious at first blush, but like most things, it’s a little more complicated than it might initially appear. One might believe that power is the ability of someone to do something according to their will, i.e., the power to do something they want to do. In philosophy, this is considered a kind of action-theoretical view of power. Another view is the power-over view wherein power is defined in terms of the ability to have power over someone else, i.e., the ability of A to get B to do something that B would not do otherwise. Of course, it is plausible that both views of power can be useful in certain contexts. One doesn’t have to just endorse a single conception at the exclusion of the other and may even be just two ways of talking about the same thing. For example, both can be seen as action-theoretical with power-over being a derivative form of power-to.

These may be useful and intuitive notions of power, but what do we really mean when we talk about power in more of a social context? For example, I have previously argued that patriarchy is a systemic form of power. What would it mean for power to be systemic? Rather than viewing power in terms of an individual being able to constrain and/or compel another, a systemic view of power could view things in terms of structures that determine the possibilities for individual actions. Of course, this is still compatible with action-theoretical accounts of power–after all, it can still be conceived as reducible to individual actions in many relevant ways–but it does put those accounts in a larger social context.

Indeed, many individualists can get on board with the idea that patriarchy is a kind of social system that establishes what are more or less possible, or probable, courses of action for individual actors to take. For instance, an individualist feminist could argue from this perspective that women are generally disadvantaged by implicit biases against women that lead employers (potential or otherwise) to unconsciously believe that women are less fit for certain job roles, even when things like experience and education are controlled for.

It was previously mentioned that not only is the self a social construction, but so are our sexualities as well as our bodies. However, what was not explained is exactly how that social construction comes about. Construction is a concept that describes a process, or a doing of sorts. In other words, social construction can be described in power-to and power-over terms. Of course, this doesn’t fully account for how power constructs humans, including their flesh and their desires (more on that specifically will be addressed at a later time).

Constitutive views of power take the systemic notions just described to another level in a way that makes power not reducible to individual actors or actions, thus differentiating them from action-theoretical perspectives. These views stipulate that instead of power merely determining what actions are possible for individual actors, power constitutes said actors and the social context they act in, and is manifested by the exercise of one’s will over others. In the context of feminist discourse, patriarchy constitutes gendered subjects, their actions, and their social contexts. It is manifested by phenomena like misogyny.

Recall the Buddhist concept of interdependence and Hume’s bundle theory. According to these ideas, what we are is a set of properties and relations. In other words, we are constituted by our relations to other people and things in the world around us. If we take these notions seriously, then the constitutive view of power is much more plausible than it might initially seem.

Philosopher Michel Foucault put it this way:

“[Power is] the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the processes which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them;…thus forming a chain or system.”

There is an important point in this that needs special emphasis. Power doesn’t just impose limits on people. In other words, it isn’t merely regulative. As the term “constitutive” suggests, power is also generative, or productive. In other words, it produces subjects and the categories they fall into. Such categories within the contemporary cultural context that subjects find themselves in are often framed in binary terms such as “male” or “female”, “man” or “woman”, “masculine” or “feminine”, “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, etc. Of course, culture doesn’t just produce binary categories. It also produces categories such as “non-binary” and “bisexual” (though those categories are defined by reference to certain binaries).

What is even more important to understand is that even though dominant culture imposes social sanctions on non-normative identities (transgender identities, for example), it nevertheless produces them. For instance, though homosexual people were (and still are to an extent) culturally unintelligible, the category “homosexual” is still a conceptually intelligible category (though not culturally intelligible; yes, there is a difference) that also provides intelligibility to the category “heterosexual”. In other words, not only does culture produce non-normative identities, those same identities are not accidents, but are features it relies on. They are necessary for normative identities to exist. In other words, they are interdependent.


What is Patriarchy?

“What is patriarchy?” is a question that I often get from anti-feminists and men’s rights activists (MRAs), albeit disingenuously as a means of setting me up for a “gotcha!” moment. Typically, what is being asked for is a definition that they can use to poke holes in as a way to completely dismiss the idea of patriarchy–and feminism by extension. Since definitions are necessarily incomplete, or imperfect, there is always a way to find a flaw, but we don’t typically dismiss other definitions on merely this basis as a general rule. Thus, the anti-feminist/MRA is applying a double standard as a dishonest debate tactic when they do this.

This idea that you can come up with a complete definition  comes from the notion that words have inherent meanings and that all we have to do is figure out all the necessary and sufficient conditions in order to get at a complete definition of those words. Therefore, if that cannot be done (at least for the time being), then we have reason to doubt the validity of the concept and what it refers to.

In Language-games, I wrote the following about meaning (yes, I am quoting myself):

“Many of us intuitively believe in inherent meaning, the idea that words and statements have meanings that are essential, or necessary. In other words, there is an objective set of necessary criteria that constitute a ‘biological male’, and all must be present in order for one to be ‘biologically male’. However, there is a fatal problem with this view. What we ultimately decide on as necessary is partially determined by an element of choice (or preference).

“What if instead of viewing meaning as inherent, we abandoned the idea in favor of something different? What might a word’s meaning be if not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions? Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meanings of words and statements are functions of their use. In other words, in order to understand the meaning of a word, or a statement, you need to understand how it is being used.

“In his work Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein introduced and developed the concept of language-games. Think of a paradigm case of a game: chess. In order for a player to play chess successfully, she must first understand the rules of the game, have an ability to identify patterns and anticipate the moves of her opponent. Like playing chess successfully, effective communication requires an understanding of how words are being used by being able to understand general rules, recognize patterns in communication, and anticipate what fellow communicators intend to convey by reading context clues.”

In summary, what we have to accept is that though we cannot come up with perfect definitions, we can settle for working definitions and instead of asking “what is patriarchy?”, a better question to ask is how should we use the word “patriarchy” and why?

Consider the following working definition:

“Patriarchy is a social arrangement in which males hold more social, economic and political power compared to females. It refers to a society in which power is disproportionately held by men. Patriarchy is not in our genes or part of biology instead it is a social construct which can be seen as part of our cultural belief system.

“Patriarchy is not a universal phenomenon. Rather there is a patriarchal tendency in human societies where most societies tend to be patriarchal in nature. In the past we had societies which had matriarchal tendency. We have some societies which are highly patriarchal while some are as less patriarchal in nature while some somewhere in between being egalitarian and highly patriarchal ie; in the middle ground (spore).Patriarchy can take on/ play out in a variety of forms and ways. Hence patriarchy is not a unitary state but rather a variation within a range of possibilities.”

What are the important points of this working definition?

  1. Patriarchy is a social system (or “arrangement”).
    • Note that social systems are how power is distributed and functions in society.
  2. In this social system, the distribution of power is predominantly held by men.
    • This is why a social system of this nature would be described as patriarchal.
  3. Patriarchy is made evident in our cultural values and practices.
    • This will be the primary focus of my analysis.
  4. Since this concerns the distribution of power, it is unlikely that it will be evenly distributed across time and place.
    • In other words, patriarchy doesn’t function the same way around the world or throughout history.

Keeping these points in mind, it’s easy to see how even well meaning skeptics–and even feminists themselves–can miss out on a productive dialogue regarding this topic. Patriarchy isn’t something you can easily point to. In fact, it’s not even something that can be observed directly, but rather indirectly. Opponents of feminism may consider this a flaw, but we have many reasons to believe that it is not, and we can look to scientific practice to see what those reasons are.

In science, there are observable and unobservable entities. This seems really pseudoscientific at the outset because science is supposed to be empirical. This is correct in a sense, but the main project of science is to describe and explain the phenomena that scientists observe. Stated differently, science entails not only observable “facts” of the natural world, but also theories that put those facts into context and allow us to make hypotheses that we can derive predictions for further observations. A common method among scientists is hypothetico-deductivism, what most recognize as “the scientific method”. In short, what scientists often do is come up with a hypothesis, derive predictions (this is where the deductivism comes in), and then come up with tests that they can use to see if the results they observe are consistent with those predictions. If they are consistent, they are said to support the hypothesis and if they aren’t, then the scientist can reject or modify the hypothesis (or even the test that was designed to test it to see if there was a flaw in the test). A simplified model of this method can be seen here.

What is important to understand is that the hypothesis isn’t what is being tested directly. What is being tested is the predictions that can be derived from it assuming it is true. In other words, the hypothesis is a part of the theoretical side of science and the results derived by testing the predictions are the factual side of science and all kinds of hypothetical, or unobservable, entities are used to help scientists understand and research what they are dealing with.

Two obvious examples are dark energy and dark matter–things that cannot be observed, but can be studied by observing their effects. Other, more scientifically controversial, examples are described by Sean Carroll in his article titled “Science and Unobservable Things“:

“The […] thing to understand is that all of these crazy speculations about multiverses and extra dimensions originate in the attempt to understand phenomena that we observe right here in the nearby world. Gravity and quantum mechanics both exist — very few people doubt that. And therefore, we want a theory that can encompass both of them. By a very explicit chain of reasoning — trying to understand perturbation theory, getting anomalies to cancel, etc. — we are led to superstrings in ten dimensions. And then we try to bring that theory back into contact with the observed world around us, compactifying those extra dimensions and trying to match onto particle physics and cosmology. The program may or may not work — it’s certainly hard, and we may ultimately decide that it’s just too hard, or find an idea that works just as well without all the extra-dimensional superstructure. Theories of what happened before the Big Bang are the same way; we’re not tossing out scenarios because we think it’s amusing, but because we are trying to understand features of the world we actually do observe, and that attempt drives us to these hypotheses.

“Ultimately, of course, we do need to make contact with observation and experiment. But the final point to emphasize is that not every prediction of every theory needs to be testable; what needs to be testable is the framework as a whole. If we do manage to construct a theory that makes a set of specific and unambiguous testable predictions, and those predictions are tested and the theory comes through with flying colors, and that theory also predicts unambiguously that inflation happened or there are multiple universes or extra dimensions, I will be very happy to believe in the reality of those ideas…Keeping in mind, of course, that when Boltzmann was grounding the laws of thermodynamics using kinetic theory, most physicists scoffed at the notion of these ‘atoms’ and rolled their eyes at the invocation of unobservable entities to explain everyday phenomena.”

You might be saying, “Okay, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with patriarchy?” Good question, my dear reader! What can be taken from the idea of unobservables in science is that like dark matter, dark energy, inflation, multiverses, etc., the notion of patriarchy is a useful part of an overall feminist theory we can use to explain what we observe in reality and make predictions. Thus, by hypothesizing patriarchy, we can observe its effects in the world. Of course we must then ask what are the effects of patriarchy that can be observed?

Continuing from the source of our working definition of patriarchy:

“Patriarchy is evident in our institutions at the macro state level and predominantly it is the men holding military and political power whereas women are excluded or marginalised from and in institutionalised competition for prestige. The head of state, cabinet ministers and the top executives of major companies are still mostly men. Women’s average income is still significantly lower than men’s average income level. At the micro level, patriarchy can also be seen as the structuring of society on the basis of family units, where fathers are attributed as having the primary responsibility for the welfare of, and authority over, their families.

“The most common notions and [understandings] of patriarchy is male dominance over women through violence…and common misconceptions of patriarchy is the total oppression of women in all spheres of life. Patriarchy is not a unitary state. Male dominance in the political, economical and military arenas and women’s surbodination [sic] in these areas should not always be seen as total oppression of women by men as these arenas also tend to be highly stressful and not necessarily easy on the men.”

A full analysis of these empirical claims is beyond the scope of this analysis and has been fairly fleshed out by other feminists. The main point that I want to reemphasize is that patriarchy is a social system that distributes power unevenly between men and other genders and concentrates it primarily in the hands of men as a group. We can see this in the way society is structured and functions both on a macro and micro scale, and that this distribution of power isn’t universal, nor does it affect all men and women in the same way. However, we are still at liberty make some useful observations regarding its effects.

The primary effect of patriarchy that impacts women is misogyny. In an APA blog post, philosopher Kate Manne explains some of her thoughts regarding misogyny and its relation to patriarchy:

“I was so frustrated with what commentators were saying about misogyny—that it had to be hatred directed at women as a class, harbored deep in the heart of an individual misogynist. But that makes no sense of misogyny as a political phenomenon.

“My first basic thought was, what would we expect misogyny to be, understood as the most hostile and toxic manifestation of patriarchal ideology? Not a uniform hatred of women, surely. Patriarchal social structures, in conjunction with the ideology that governs them, work to make women into men’s deferential, attentive social subordinates, and to mask many of the forms of dominance and power which men have over women. Patriarchal social relations are designed to look as amicable and seamless as possible, in other words. So why would even the least enlightened of men within a patriarchal culture be hostile towards women across the board, or as a social class in its entirety? We might expect him to have a low opinion of women’s capacities in masculine-coded arenas, say (which I think of as being sexist). But having a low opinion of someone is one thing; being hostile toward them, quite another. Women will often be far too pleasant and convenient to have around to be an object of his hatred, at least when things are going smoothly.”

In other words, the idea that misogyny is “the hatred of women” is generally unhelpful and fails to explain and predict what we actually see. Instead, we need to be a little more nuanced when it comes to understanding how patriarchy functions and is manifest through things like misogyny. An example of the subtleties of misogyny in practice can be found in an article published by The Guardian titled “AI programs exhibit racial and gender biases, research reveals“, which explains that researchers have found that Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs pick up on racial and gender biases through studying the way humans use language:

“In the past few years, the ability of programs such as Google Translate to interpret language has improved dramatically. These gains have been thanks to new machine learning techniques and the availability of vast amounts of online text data, on which the algorithms can be trained.

“However, as machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.

“Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: ‘A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.’

“The [program’s] approach [to learning language], which is already used in web search and machine translation, works by building up a mathematical representation of language, in which the meaning of a word is distilled into a series of numbers (known as a word vector) based on which other words most frequently appear alongside it. Perhaps surprisingly, this purely statistical approach appears to capture the rich cultural and social context of what a word means in the way that a dictionary definition would be incapable of.”

In other words, a statistical analysis of our everyday language use reveals that humans have implicit, or unconscious (not just explicit, or conscious) racial and gender biases. These biases can affect our individual decisions as well as the way institutions and societies operate and do a lot of work as far as explaining how racism and misogyny affects people in the real world.

Of course, it is also worth noting that racism can intersect with misogyny, so the way misogyny is experienced by women of color can be very different than the way white women experience it. It is also important to understand that “intersect” does not mean “additive”. In other words, the experience of misogyny for women of color is more than the “sum” of what you would get if you tried to think of it in terms of a simple arithmetic algorithm adding misogyny and racism together (i.e., we can’t think of it as a simple addition problem like 2+2=4). In reality, it’s much more complicated than that. Thus, patriarchy and misogyny can operate, and are experienced, in very different ways since the distribution of power along gender and racial lines is nowhere near uniform within societies as well as between them. They also happen to “intersect” with other systems of power (including but not limited to racism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, etc.), thus making the reality much more complicated than even most feminists will acknowledge.

With these ideas in mind, hopefully feminists will be able to do a better job of explaining their ideas and experiences to outsiders. Of course, there is no convincing to be done if one is engaging with the disingenuous person, but if we play our cards right, we can do a better job of communicating our ideas to those who are genuine.


Why History is Important, Gosh Darn It!

I am currently studying to take the GRE. As part of that study, I just got done practicing my “Analyze an Issue” essay for the analytical writing portion. I figured I would share what I wrote as a nice break from me ranting about gender and trans issues all the gosh darn time. Also, since what I wrote about was interesting to me, I figured someone else out there might also find it interesting. However, it still makes references to social and political issues, so please be nice and keep in mind that I don’t have a lot of time to fully flesh out a logically bullet-proof argument (because that’s totally possible). I also didn’t have a choice about what I was to write about, thus it comes from a place of not knowing as much as I do when I talk about gender and trans issues. Okay, feel free to rip my writing to shreds (on those conditions)…

When we know our history, we are less likely to repeat it–meaning we more effectively avoid making mistakes, both individually and as a society, in the future when we take the time to learn from past mistakes. Examples of this include economic policies. However, some may argue that this practice of learning from the past may backfire when we learn the wrong lessons. It will be argued that though this is sometimes true, we can still learn from history and avoid repeating it so long as we have a more complete and accurate understanding of the past.

One of the most recognizable examples is from The Great Depression and The New Deal Era. The biggest takeaways from these events are (1) economic downturns often follow when too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, and (2) redistributing wealth through taxation and public spending can prevent or remedy economic downturns. Of course, one other mistake that was made was assuming that such policies could be implemented to a degree and duration that turned out to be unsustainable.

These policies ended up causing what would be called stagflation–a macroeconomic phenomenon described by high inflation and unemployment rates during a period of slowing economic growth–a result of increases to the money supply intended to keep up with spending. Stagflation ended when the Federal Reserve “tightened” the money supply through increased interest rates.

It could be argued in both cases that we already had historical lessons to learn from and had we learned from them, these policy mistakes could have been avoided. The problem is we didn’t, and it wasn’t necessarily because we didn’t take the time to study history. We often construct historical narratives that support a sense of cultural identity, and when there are dominant cultures, the historical narratives of other cultures are either distorted, or ignored to the point that most in the dominant culture are unaware that they even exist. Whitewashing is an obvious example of this phenomenon. In the dominant white culture, European-American narratives are often prioritized over those of people of color. Because of this, most white Americans miss out on learning that racism is systemic (not merely an individual attitude), and that “enlightenment values” contributed to some of the nastiest outcomes of colonialism.

In light of all of this, it is most reasonable to conclude that we are less likely to repeat the mistakes of history, so long as we have a more complete and accurate understanding of our history. For example, Marxists (especially of the Leninist and Stalinist varieties) promoted the Soviet-style command economy. However, history showed that such command economies caused famines and encouraged dictatorial regimes that killed millions. The final result was a two-class system: the ruling elite and a very poor population of survivors. Once “The West” learned from the Soviet Union’s mistakes, nationalization of industry became less popular, and many such policies were abandoned, thus preventing further suffering.

Trans Health: Mindfulness and Exercise

If you have been following me for a while, or have read some of my earlier content, you already know that I experience something called gender dysphoria, a condition in which a person feels dissatisfaction, distress, or restlessness as a result of their assigned sex not being in-line with their true gender. If you haven’t, shame one you! Now go pay penance for your sin by catching up on my stuff! Don’t worry–I’ll wait.

The American Psychological Association explains that much of the distress trans people feel is a result of their struggle to fit in and find acceptance from others in addition to other obstacles such as lack of access to proper medical care. They also take care to mention the following regarding the diagnosis “gender dysphoria” that appears in the DSM-5:

“According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people who experience intense, persistent gender incongruence can be given the diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria.’ Some contend that the diagnosis inappropriately pathologizes gender noncongruence and should be eliminated. Others argue that it is essential to retain the diagnosis to ensure access to care.”

As with other diagnoses, the gender dysphoria diagnostis unnecessarily applies a label to a human experience that brings with it all kinds of negative connotations. Hence all the transphobes who mistakenly use the DSM-5 to dismiss trans people as mentally ill (never mind the ableism contained in the dismissal). However, it looks like the diagnosis isn’t going away any time soon and regardless of its status in the DSM-5, many transgender individuals still have to deal with their distress. Of course, there are all kinds of resources for that such as gender confirming surgeries, hormone replacement therapy, counseling, support groups, etc. Now, that’s all fine and dandy if you have access to all of those things, but what is a trans girl/boy/enby to do if those are not realistic options?

Good question! One thing that anyone–regardless of their ability to access other forms of treatment–can rely on is good old meditation and exercise. It is already well known that mindfulness, the practice of being present, provides all kinds of psychological benefits that range from reduced stress to enhanced working memory. In her paper published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research, Patricia C. Broderick compared three different coping mechanisms for dealing with dysphoria (what she refers to as “dysphoric mood”)—a more generalized kind of distress—that include rumination, distraction, and mindfulness meditation.

She found that rumination was associated with increased dysphoria while distraction was associated with a mild improvement (consistent with research that came before). Mindfulness meditation proved to be the most effective with the greatest associated decrease in dysphoric mood. So it looks like being in touch with yourself and your feelings from a non-judgmental point of view is healthy. Imagine that!

Okay, so based on this and other research, it looks like mindfulness is a good way to go. Indeed, it was a fantastic therapeutic technique that I did in and outside of therapy that helped me learn how to cope in a way that was far more productive than what I tend to do: ruminate,i.e., get caught in a vicious cycle of feeding my depression and anxiety by thinking all kinds of horrible things about myself or what might happen to me. Regarding rumination, Broderick explained the following:

“Because the link between ruminative coping style and negative [emotional states or dispositions] is so clear, it is extremely important for clinicians to be able to interrupt this negative cycle…”

Another way to treat dysphoria involves physical activity and exercise. Physical activity and exercise can be forms of distraction, but they can also be sources of improved overall mental health. Okay, so that’s all well and good, but what if you don’t have time to meditate and exercise? Though it is not totally clear whether or not exercise combined with other forms of treatment such as mindfulness meditation results in improved mental health more than either one would when done in isolation, doing both can save time, and, as some have argued, it can enhance performance for all you gym bros out there.

The techniques described in the link should work well for anyone, trans or cis. However, when it comes to transgender folks, I am inclined to think that when combined with mindfulness, exercises that target proprioception can have the best results for transgender individuals experiencing gender (or in this case body) dysphoria. Recall that in a previous post, proprioception was the internal sense of ones body parts in relation to each other. It is the sense that allows you to do all kinds of tasks without having to see everything you are doing, such as bringing your food from your plate to your mouth when you eat. Mmmm…yummy!

Examples of exercises that can easily combine exercise with mindfulness is yoga. If you are not a yoga master, never fear–you can do exercises as simple as stretching while focusing on the breath and the sensation of that comes from stretching. Another simple type of exercise would be balancing exercises that require you to stay present on your current state in order to remain in balance. Once you become more skilled, you can practice mindfulness during more complex exercises such as pushups or lunges. Whatever exercise you do, make sure you can focus on the breath as well as the proprioceptive inputs.

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.

Why Representation Matters

When it comes to understanding new or unfamiliar information, we typically reference past experiences and prior understanding in order to make sense of it. When we have difficulty with making sense of something, we often try to make it fit with what we already know (or what we think we already know). Like puzzle pieces, sometimes the edges and contours don’t really fit together. We only have two options in this case: either force it to fit in somewhere and deal with the fact that it doesn’t seem quite right, or try to find a way to accommodate it so it can fit in with ease.

However, unlike puzzle pieces, our knowledge is a bit more flexible. If we can’t find a place for something, we can create it by changing the pieces we already have. This does require more effort, but in the end we are left with a beautiful picture rather than a somewhat fragmented and broken image.

When I was beginning puberty, I would dream that my body had breasts and a vagina–features that differed significantly from the ones that I actually had–features that earned me an assignment to the “male” gender category at birth. At the time I experienced these dreams, I didn’t quite know what to make of them. I had always been told that I was a boy. Since I was attracted to girls, I ended up interpreting my experiences as just the result of curiosity and my developing sexual interests. However, that was an incomplete explanation.

It’s true I was attracted to girls, but what I felt wasn’t quite sexual. It was–what I understand now as a sense of euphoria–a warmness that comes from feeling at home in my skin and affirmed in who I was. It was different from what I was used to feeling in my actual skin. In short, the dream was pleasant in a way that I couldn’t really appreciate because I lacked the understanding necessary to know what it was that I was feeling.

Some of my first memories are of me with my mother. These memories don’t necessarily have any cognitive content, so they are more about feelings rather than facts about my life that I could put into words. I remember feeling a strong attachment to her–something similar to what all of us who get the chance to bond with our mothers, fathers, or other caretakers feel. Before I knew anything about gender, I felt we were essentially one in the same.

However, once my mind matured enough, I became aware of gendered differences. I was born with a penis and I was taught that meant that I was a boy. As much as that didn’t sit right with me, I had a hard time finding a way around the apparent facts surrounding my body. Not only was I told that my body was a boy’s body, but that my spirit, or soul, was a boy’s spirit.

In the faith I was raised in, I learned that God created us in His own image. This creation included our spirits as well as our bodies and that our bodies were meant to be reflections of who we were spiritually. Gender was an essential characteristic of our identities, and so we could infer from the simple facts of my anatomy that I was a boy destined to become a man, marry a woman, and build a family as the head of my household.

This understanding of who I was supposed to be seemed to clash with who I actually was, but since I didn’t know any different, I forced the pieces my life’s puzzle to fit. The result was a fractured self that took me years of blood, sweat and tears to repair, a process that was not able to take place until I was confronted with information about myself that forced me to admit the truth that, despite my anatomy, I was female.

Before then, I heard of people called “transexuals”, but the only exposure I had was based in stereotypes and not at all representative of typical transgender women. What little knowledge of them I had was distorted and not very relatable, though I experienced something I considered strange given the context. That experience was a feeling of empathy. I thought to myself, “these poor fools think they can be women. I wish I could be a woman, too, but at least I am sensible enough to understand and accept that’s not possible…though I do admire them for trying anyway.”

As explicit as those thoughts were, the idea that I could not be a woman was so ingrained, I didn’t think such thoughts might be unusual for someone assigned male at birth. For all I knew, my experiences were actually quite normal, yet I didn’t dare talk about them to other people because I also knew I would be punished for it. Thus, I continued my life as a fractured person until I really knew what it meant to be transgender.

My process of self-discovery started when I interacted with transgender people I could relate to. They made me realize–after a very painful period of severe dread–that I was like them and I needed to transition to become whole like I was in my dreams. It didn’t matter that I had a penis. It didn’t matter what I used to believe about who I was. I knew that I was a woman. That happened when I finally came across representations of  transness I could use to reference past experiences and prior understanding.

My experiences of self discovery and growth have aspects that everyone can understand. For example, we all know what it feels like to not measure up to the ideals of masculinity or femininity. We all know what it feels like to feel uncomfortable in our bodies, or be perceived in ways (either by ourselves or others), that don’t sit well with us. We all know what it feels like to not belong. We all know what it feels like to feel fractured, or incomplete. It is my hope that we can all know what it is like to feel whole. May we all be able to see ourselves in each other.

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.