Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Body is a Text / The Text is not a Body

I've been teaching Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body in my undergrad class, and at the same time, many students have chosen to write their final papers on it in comparison to Virginia Woolf's Orlando. And still at the same time, I've been teaching the plays of playwright Sarah Kane in the grad class, particularly the plays Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis.

Each of these texts plays with gender and genderlessness in interesting ways, and I've found myself rehashing the main tenets of Judith Butler a lot over the last several weeks. In particular, I've been thinking about the notion of gender as textuality a lot: that Orlando's transformation from male to female takes place in the midst of this highly textualized (even meta-textualized) milieu that pits the "biographer" against the mythologized figures of Modesty, Purity and Chastity, and the trumpet blasts of Truth. Kane stages characters in Cleansed with their bodies mutilated and their sexual organs transplanted on one another, but in 4.48 Psychosis gives us unattributed text that is often performed by multiple actors of two genders.

It's Written on the Body that has the most interesting material for me to chew on, because its narrator is, famously, ungendered. I've read readings that imagines the narrator as a collage of multiple possible sex/gender/sexuality permutations, a bricolage of gender pastiche, if you will. As a reader, I constantly find myself resisting the urge to impose a gender on the narrator at any given point, and my students also report this impulse (though they seem less interested in resisting it). The text, in this way, is not a body--the narrator isn't really male or really female--and I have been trying to use this to suggest that all notions of gender are textual...that none of us is really male, or really female.

What's curious is the way that discussions like these (and we've been having them all semester, since masculinity and nation have been throughlines in this course) implicate my body as the teacher. Now, I perform gender far less ambiguously than I have in the past. In undergrad, I wore skirts to class sometimes, used my theatre make-up offstage more than once, etc. I was slight (5'11" 130 lbs) and pretty, I shaved every three days whether I needed to or not (usually not) and since this was the early 90s, had long , lovely hair. And while still I am described as anywhere from flamboyant to expressive, and Willow tells me that if you tied my hands down, I'd be unable to speak, my gender performances are more obviously compulsory. These days, the weight gain of grad school, the facial hair I'm now wearing, the demands of professionalism, the diminished space for play, the diminished need to attract new and diverse partners, etc. means I have fewer avenues and reasons for ambiguity. I'm a married father who's a professor in a fairly conservative region, and I'm taking a lot fewer risks (and am interested in fewer risks) than when I was 20.

And yet because I indulge in the tropes of masculinity less insistently than most of my students, and because I have in the past played against them (and suffered some minor negative consequences, mostly involving hate speech), When we discuss these moments in the grad class, I feel trapped by a spotlight, frozen against the wall. I'm not sure if I'm feeling a certain pressure from students to practice what I preach, i.e. to reveal how merely textual gender is with my own body, or to conform more rigidly to the dominant paradigm. Butler talks about making gender a persistent site of play, but in the classroom, that's a big risk that doesn't fit with the life I have right now. But suddenly, in these moments, while (or perhaps since) Winterson's text is not a body, my body becomes legible as a text.


Bardiac said...

Sounds like you're having a cool semester. It's hard when you realize you've given up some of your edge, isn't it?

Winterson's an amazing writer! I've taught *Oranges are not the Only Fruit* in a couple of classes, and students have gotten a lot out of it. But *Written* is amazing in a totally different way.

Do you know Shelley Jackson's Hypertext *Patchwork Girl*? It's really interesting in re-vising *Frankenstein* and thinking about textual bodies.

Anonymous said...

Hmm --- I've been thinking a lot lately about the debate Butler had with the "bad readings" of Gender Trouble, where she took activists and other people to task for thinking they could open their closet door and put on a gender --- the idea that gender is a performance rather than performativity. I was totally on the activists' side when I first read it, but now I'm much less sure.

What if we thought of gender, not like a text, but like language --- you're born into language and must conform to it rather than the other way around to be understood, and the more original or inventive you are in creating language, the less likely other people will be able to communicate with you. In other words, I'm starting to think that whatever you do to perform gender is much less important than how other people around you read you.

And I wonder how much your discomfort in the classroom over these topics is connected to the issue of power. Risk and play, particularly when one is playing with concepts that the dominant culture wants to remain invisible, are always about relinquishing or renegotiating power ---- not something that's easy to do when you're at a new place and just spent lots of time and effort establishing classroom authority. (I _hate_ having to give up power in the classroom, pedagogical usefulness be damned! Know how hard I have to work to maintain that power?)

And on a totally different topic: guys in skirts rock! I went to prom with a guy in a kilt. I'm so sure I approve of the comparison of thinness with femininity, though.

-- trystero49

Horace said...

Trystero, the thinness thing had more to do with the fact that more typically and legibly masculine features (my neck, wrists and forearms, ankles and calves, ratio of waist to hips, etc.) weren't visible until I gained enough weight to be something other than super-skinny. So I was often read as feminine (and as often, queer) because I wasn't obviously (or in many less obvious ways, too, I hope) masculine.

The idea of gender as a language "written on the body" is precisely the point that I think Winterson is making.

But performing too legibly is one way I think that we play into "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" she suggests that while drag doesn't necessarily effectively perform another gender, it does make gender a site of persistent play, and so I think I mourn just a little bit the fact that I don't play in that was so much any more

kfluff said...

I've written a bit on Winterson, and I'm ashamed to admit that I can't help but read the narrator in WOTB as female.

I wonder if that might suggest something, too, about classroom performances of gender as well. It's definitely a situation where "one can't help but" because of the disciplinary functions of education, no? Play is difficult when the stakes are so high...

Thanks for the reminder to link content to practice!

Horace said...

The theory we've been working with in the class about the narrator's gender is that as a collage of gender performances, it becomes a cipher: that readers are more likely to read their own bodies underneath the performances. For example, I tend to read my own younger, more androgynous male body onto the narrator at many points.