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Notes for Day 4

Reading Middlesex:
Notes Towards Day Four of Critical Feminist Studies

I. Get up, introduce yourself to someone you don't know,
and tell each other where (one branch of) your family (tree) came from

Any interesting tales?

II. In telling these stories, we locate ourselves in relationship
to Middlesex, which is an immigration story=
a story about re-making the self on a range of axes (not just gender...),
as per An Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides:

... the book is ...about...reinventing your identity on different levels, be that Greek to American, female to male....At the end of the novel, I put Callie in Berlin, a little bit because the book is so much about division, between Greeks and Turks, blacks and whites and, obviously, male and female. It made sense that Cal would be writing from a city that is divided and has been reunified....Reinvention of self is an enduring theme in American literature in general....those are the things that inspired me: metamorphosis and changing....

III. I want us to look @ the (not-only-American)
cultural history of this idea of metamorphosis, but first:

Paul stopped on Tuesday w/ a few questions....

Let's see where we are with our (provisional) answers:

What does biology have to contribute to thinking about sex and gender?

:I actually did not see much of a scientific perspective from the talk in class....what he said just doesn’t line up with what I’ve seen from more mainstream scientific places....I disagree with the idea that science is nothing more than does produce facts and theories...sound enough to consider true...I also believe in genetics, and in two sexes. Yes, due to biological issues, some people don’t fit...This doesn’t mean there are no sexes at all.

kscire: I do not agree...that the notion of two sexes is a social construction. Biologically speaking, the majority of people are born either male or female....I do not see how such an innate difference can be attributed to social conditioning.

See also Joan Roughgarden, Evolution's Rainbow:
Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People
the story of ecology is one of endless variation, "always poking through social categories,
spilling over the borders, fudging the edges," eschewing "biological-based hierarchies" and
any "forced bimodality" between two sexs and two genders..."hermaphroditism is more
common in the world than species who maintain seperate sexes in separate might
be viewed "as the original norm"

Anne Fausto-Sterling, "The five sexes: Why male and female are not enough."
The Sciences
(March-April 1993): 20-24:

if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature. For biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; and depending on how one calls the shots, one can argue that along that spectrum lie at least five sexes--and perhaps even more.

But see also additional data set from NYTimes, 9/10/08:
As Barriers Disappear, Some Gender Gaps Widen
"personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures....
The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge....
Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America."

What are the implications of (Paul's version of) biological stories for

  • the current distinction between sex and gender?

    Though I do find the biology and the literature to be complimentary, I do wonder whether the use of biology (which I have already stated I find impersonal) discredits the notion that gender is something that people can choose.

  • feminism?

    Literature has come to be used in our culture in such a way that allows for a multiplicity of can provide for a multiplicity of interpretation as well....any science that allows for shades of grey, and does not attempt to answer the particulars with a universal (“someone who is born with an XX is a girl”), is a feminist science. I remember that someone in class defined feminism as respecting others choices, i.e. allowing for a multiplicity of right answers. A feminist science is a science that helps us do that.

  • women's institutions such as Bryn Mawr?

    aaclh: Tuesday's conversation left me feeling confused, like we don't know anything....I would like a few more concrete ideas....I guess what I wonder the most after that class is, if the old story of a dichotomous sexed society is inaccurate...then what should the new story be? Infinitely many sexes/genders does not quite make sense and I think denies any commonality between people. I'm not sure what this says about feminist politics. I think something will have to change though since previously feminism dealt with exactly two sexes/genders.

IV. Let's go back to the beginning...The Egg and the Sperm.
The story of their meeting has been told in a variety of ways.
What versions were you taught/have you heard?

From BBC News

Emily Martin. "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society16, 3 (1991): 485-501.
It is remarkable how 'femininely" the egg behaves and how "masculinely" the sperm....Gerald Schatten and Helen Schatten liken the egg's role to that of Sleeping Beauty: "a dormant bride awaiting her mate's magic kiss, which instills the spirit that brings her to life". Sperm, by contrast, have a "mission," which is to "move through the female genital tract in quest of the ovum." One popular account has it that the sperm carry out a "perilous journey" into the "warm darkness," where some fall away "exhausted."' "Survivors" "assault" the egg, the successful candidates "surrounding the prize." Part of the urgency of this that "once released from the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within hours unless rescued by a sperm." The wording stresses the fragility and dependency of the egg, even though the same text acknowledges elsewhere that sperm also live for only a few hours.

Evelyn Fox Keller, "Gender Language and Science" (1996 Templeton Lecture).
Until fifteen years ago, the experimental work done by biologists on fertilisation provided ample evidence to support chemical and mechanical accounts the sperm could penetrate and activate the mechanisms for the activity of the egg were looked for; inactivity requires no mechanism, and such mechanisms were assumed not to exist.... Today a different metaphor has come to seem more useful, and clearly more acceptable. In contemporary textbooks, fertilisation is more likely to be cast in the language of equal opportunity. My favourite definition is from a textbook widely used by molecular biologists by Alberts et al called Molecular Biology of the Cell, but it is representative: Fertilisation is defined as "The process by which egg and sperm find each other and fuse"....In fact the research goes further, as if confirming some very deep seated fears. Current research sometimes endows the egg with archetypal powers: the egg sends out microvillae which "grasp" the spermhead and "drag" it to the ovum. Other, unwanted, sperm are incapacitated, ejected, or simply destroyed.

I suggest that this story illustrates exactly the ways in which language can shape our thinking and acting. It frames our attention, our perception and the fields in which we can envision ways to move....both metaphors were manifestly productive, albeit of different effects. One led to intensive investigation of the molecular mechanisms of sperm activity while the other fostered research permitting the elucidation of mechanisms by which the egg would have to be said to be active as well....this is a story about how gender ideology shapes the ways in which all of us see the world, men and women alike.

V. The way the story of fertilization is told has shifted.
Eugenides is likewise shifting, here,
the way the story of gender identity is told....

He begins with Uncle Pete's explanation that
under the microscope, sperm carrying male chromosomes had been observed to swim faster than those carrying female have a girl baby, a couple should have "have sexual congress twenty-four hours prior to ovulation." That way, the swift male sperm would rush in and die off. The female sperm, sluggish but more reliable, would arrive just as the egg dropped....

Meanwhile, in the greenroom to the world, I waited...The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection....An infinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold, me among them but with no guaranteed ticket....

...influenced, but not determined....

VI. As interesting and important as the details of Callie's genetic history
is the evolution of her cultural history...

Who are her literary ancestors?

Scientific studies--

Specialized readers many have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites" ....

mpottash: that in this first paragraph Cal is contrasting the way in which his story had been told, and they way in which he is about to tell it, implies that biology and literature tell two different types of stories.

Cf. Greek myths--
Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then another....

(Who was Tiresias?)

From OVID: METAMORPHOSES, BOOK III, richly illustrated by famous artists in European history

Tiresas: The Transexual Blind Prophet

(Who was Ovid?)

...In all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux....
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
Contrives. In all creation, be assured,
There is no death--no death, but only change
And innovation....
...the earth and all therein, the sky
And all thereunder change and change again,
We too ourselves, who of this world are part,
Not only flesh and blood but pilgrim souls....
(1-8 A.C.E.)

(Eugenides again:) I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!...Sing how it passed down through nine generations....Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too.

In his 3 a.m. interview about the novel, Eugenides observes that the book

in contrast to the way hermaphrodites have appeared in literature -- miserable creatures like Tiresias for instance -- I wanted to write about a real person with a real condition....Originally, I worked from

the Memoirs of Herculine Barbin, published by Michel Foucault in the late seventies....But as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is and ... it's sad. You can go and read it, but she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition....

Escher's "Metamorphosis" @ InSite narrator is determined by her genes, she has this genetic mutation there's no escaping of. But the mutation does not make her who she is, does not determine everything about her life. There is still a great amount of free will and possibility in her life, and that's one of the things the book is strongly determined in.

At least one (local) critic took issue with this free range of identity.
From Bethany Schneider's 9/02 Newsday review of Middlesex:
Race, sex, nationality - all are rewriteable, reinventable..... But unfortunately the book is uncoordinated - it feels like a teenager, like it needed to grow up a bit before it was allowed to live in the world on its own. The breadth of plot and time and characters is only awkwardly handled by the first person narration of Cal....In addition to the problem of historical knowledge, Eugenides' denies his main character any interiority regarding the problem of gender identification. Cal insists that s/he has no deep psychological sense of her complex gender identity.

Cal lacks, in other words, the "persistent self" figured in

He had two selves within him apparently, and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.
(Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter 15)

There are, of course, multiple ways to interpret Eugenides'
21st century revision of Elioit's 19th century novel.

In Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler asks us to

note above all the complexity and diversity of literature...the possibility of fictionally exceeding what has previously been thought and written....Literature is a paradoxical institution because to create literature is to write according to existing formulas....but it is also to flout those conventions, to go beyond institution that lives by exposing and criticizing its own limits.... "cultural capital"...But literature cannot be reduced to this conservative social function...literature is the noise of culture as well as its information. It is an entropic force... (40-41)

(Or: how useful is the story of evolution for thinking about the evolution of stories?)

VII. So: what are we making (so far) of Middlesex?
What are the implications of this literary story for

  • the current distinction between sex and gender?
  • feminism?
  • women's institutions such as Bryn Mawr?

    (and others, following): nothing specific about the narration...suggests gender
Keep on reading: Book II for Tuesday, Book III for Thursday...
If you haven't posted your initial responses to the novel, please do so before the week ends...