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Notes Towards Day 7

Finishing Middlesex/
"Thinking About What Was Next":

Notes Towards Day Seven of

Critical Feminist Studies

Photograph by Simran Kaur, BMC '04
I. Coursekeeping
naming gaming: 3 to your left, 3 to your right
signing in
$ envelope
if you're observing Rosh Hashanah:
10/3 paper due Sun, 10/5 @ 5
(but let me know, so I plan my time)

in preparation for Katie's Baratz's visit on Thursday, read first series of selection in packet:
four short autobiographies and first chapter of a handbook for parents of children w/ DSD
("disorders of sex development," aka intersex/hermaphroditism)

tomorrow's postings esp. important:
what questions do you have for her/what do you want to talk about?
esp. sharp representative of "both" cultures: science and humanities,
so think about the use-value/effect of these different (mythic, medical....) languages

II. Picking up where we stopped on Thursday--
Catagorization: An Exercise
(inspired by Wil Franklin's Bio exercise on "Exploring Diversity")

Categorization can begin
* from the "top-down"
with the catagories, into which we then put ourselves.
How many categories can each of us occupy simultaneously?
If we were building a "science museum," how many rooms would feature you?
(overlaps in the ven diagrams, the apples on the tree, the other tree becoming a river...)

* from the bottom-up
with reports of what we observe about ourselves,
which we then sort into categories
(the map of travelers, taking off into space....)

We focused, in our discussion, on the relationship among the categories.
We didn't look @ which (kinds of) categories were important to us:
How important (for instance) was gender?
Were there significant categories we didn't name?
(Why not--too obvious? too important?)

How much are the categories "inside" determined by those "outside"?
And vice versa?

...And what does all this have to do with Cal?

Tim Sainsbury, "The Hermaphrodite"

On the one hand,
Zora: "we're what's next" (490).

And on the other:
Cal: My bodily metamorphosis was a small family found that, contrary to popular opinion, gender was not all that important. My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood. In most ways I remained the person I'd always been (519-520).

Let's think of that as a feminist position:
getting to the point where gender isn't important.
(One of the reasons we'll be reading
The Book of Salt.)

Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender

George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: we are programmed to see patterns.
As pattern-seeking/pattern-making creatures, we make smaller sets
from large amounts of information and, conversely,
infer larger structures from whatever limited information is available.
But what are the principles of our doing so?

As Foucault writes in the Introduction to Herculine Barbin,

biological theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of a mixture of the two sexes in a single body, and consequently to limiting the free choice of indeterminate individuals....From the medical point of view, this meant that when confronted with a hermaphrodite, the doctor was...concerned with...deciphering the true sex that lay hidden beneath ambiguous apearances (viii).

It is at the junction of these two ideas--that we must not deceive ourselves concerning our sex, and that our sex harbors what is most true in ourselves--that psychoanalysis has rooted its cultural vigor (xi).

The idea of the "administrative control" that results from the ability to identify "kinds"--is also the central argument of the Preface to Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
(translation of Les Mots et les choses) which begins with a meditation on the constructedness of categories.

Bringing this back to our text...
Cal escapes Dr. Luce's "administrative control."
Does he escape society's?
Do you read this novel as fulfilling or altering a script?
Is it about
inalterability or change?

dhathaway: "Five minutes old, and already the themes of my life - chance and sex - announce themselves" (p. 216)....The themes play out completely...chance and sex.

Cal: I suspect that Chapter Eleven's transformation was caused in no small part by that day...when his life was decided by lottery....Chapter Eleven...was trying to escape what he had dimly perceived...the possibility that not only his draft number was decided by lottery, but that everything was (317-318).
rchauhan: On page 273 Callie says "The architecture of Middlesex was an attempt to rediscover pure origins."

The novel dances between these two possibilities--
life is (on the one hand) utterly random;
(on the other) there is a certain foundation,
a clear path of cause-and-effect that
can be uncovered to get to "pure origins."

Which genre is it?
What type?
What category would you put it in?
Is it a foundational story or an emergence story?
A "medical memoir" or a fictionalized autobiography?
A tragedy or a comedy?
A story about the possibility or impossibility of changing the script?
(Is it "therapeutic"?)

On the one hand, the emergence of "the crocus" is one of the many
images of biological evolution which fill the novel:

Georgia O'Keefe, "Abstraction Blue,"
from Kara Meister's Website

At the end of this wounded, dishonest season, as the first crocuses appeared, returning from their winter in the underworld, Calliope Stephanides...also felt something stirring in the soil of her being (320).

For that spring, while the crocuses bloomed, while the headmistress checked on the daffodil bulbs in the flower beds, Calliope, too, felt something budding....A kind of crocus itself, just before flowering. A pink stem pushing up through dark new moss....I'd feel a thaw between my legs, the soil growing moist, a rich, peaty aroma rising, and then...the sudden, squirming life in the warm earth beneath my skirt. To the touch, the crocus sometimes felt soft and slippery, like the flesh of a worm. At other times it was as hard as a root (330).

...most of the other girls in my grade began to undergo their own transformations...behind our teacher's back, in our desks, we are flying through time....Nature is making its preparations. Deadlines encoded in the species are met. Only somehow, so that she's the only one who takes in the true extent of the metamorphoses around her....(285-286). locker rooms....The swampiness, the nudity bring back original conditions....On I the fantastic underwater life all around me. Sea anemonies sprouted from between my classmates' legs....Higher up, their breasts bobed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving in the current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute (295-297).

In the basement bathroom was a time frame I felt much more comfortable with...the slow, evolutionary progress of the earth, of its plant and animal life forming out of the generative, primeval mud. The faucets dripped with the slow, inexorable movement of time (328).

I lifted my face up out of the water and so was unaware of the eyes studying my mollusk....The surface of the sea is a mirror, reflecting divergent evoltuionary paths. Up above, the creatures of air; down below, those of water. One planet, containing two worlds (484).

Cal's story is a story of his emergence from an amorphous/amphibious state--

The adolescent ego is hazy thing, amorphous, cloudlike. It wasn't difficult to pour my identity into different vessels....I was able to take whatever form was demanded of me. I only wanted to know the dimensions (434).

But a kind of swish, like a frog kicking off from a muddy bank. My heart, that amphibian, moving that moment between two elements; one, excitement; the other, fear (265). what? What is the "solution" that his life represents? the early seventies...everybody wanted to go unisex....But then another thing happened. It was called evolutionary biology. Under its sway, the sexes were separated again....Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again....My life exists at the center of this debate. I am, in a sense, its solution....I don't fit into any of these theories....In the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells. This new century we've just begun has found something will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (478-479).

What is the function of consciousness--and of its lack--in the novel?
On the one hand....

The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It's a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison....Outside had ended. There was nowhere to go that wouldn't be me (387, 473). Under...sedation Tessie withdrew into an inner core of herself, a kind of viewing platform from which she could observe her anxiety....There was a place halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness where Tessie did her best thinking (465).

Cf. Chapter 15 from George Eliot's novel Middlemarch:
some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and...
behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.

Yet living "unconsciously" may open us to new possibilities:

Lefty was confronting the possibility that consciousness was a biological accident...he'd always believed in the soul, in a force of personality that survived death. But as his mind continued to waver, to short-circuit, he finally arrived at the cold-eyed conclusion, so at odds with his youthful cheerfulness, that the brain was just an organ like any other and that when it failed he would be no more....the hard disk of his memory slowly began to be erased, beginning with the most recent information and proceeding backward.... (263).

Had she had all her wits, Desdemona could not possibly have fathomed what I was saying, but in her senility she somehow accommodated the information. She lived now amid memories and dreams, and in this state the old village stories grew near again....he eyes had gone dreamy. She was smiling. And then she said, "My spoon was right" (526).

One of the things Cal acquires, in the course of the evolution of his mind,
is the ability to transform chance into pattern, the horrific into the positive,
to use a disintegrating universe to contruct a new one:

Grow up in Detroit and you understand the way of all things. Early on, you are put on close relations with entropy(517).

In my family, the funeral meats have always furnished the wedding tables. My grandmother agreed to marry my grandfather because she never thought she'd live to see the wedding. And my grandmother blessed my parents' marriage, after vigorously plotting against it, only because she didn't think Milton would survive to the end of the week (195).

"We're not going on vacation. There's a war!" (360)

Cal is sometimes embarrased to admit that disaster can have positive effects:

Which leads me to a terrible confession...while the sun set melodramatically over a death that wasn't in the script, I felt a wave of pure happiness....I had the obscure Object in my arms (339).

Shameful as it is to say, the riots were the best thing that ever happened to us. Overnight we went from being a family desperately trying to stay in the middle class to one with hopes of sneaking least the upper-middle (252).

Does his insistant upward "turn" ever bother you ?

(If so, you might) think of this as a generic innovation
Cal presents the comedic as a deliberate
re-writing of his ancestral genre, tragedy:

... strange infants born in the village...every few generations...always met with tragic ends (117)

A real Greek might end of this tragic note. But an American is inclined to stay out just in time....before...the common tragedies of American life...[which] do not fit into this singular and uncommon record (511-512).


Silently Tessie inserted the links, tragedy in one sleeve, comedy in the other...under the influence of those two-sided accessories, what happened next took on contrasting tones....Milton came face-to-face with the essence of tragedy, which is something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try....But...there was a comic aspect to events that day, too....even a brand of harsh satire in my parents' quest itself, because it typified the American belief that everything can be solved....All this comedy, however, is retrospective (426).

It is based on the possibility of there always being an alternative, a choice.

"Comedy is tragedy plus time."--
Carol Burnett

Cf. first conversation in the series on "Choices and Constraints": Mark Lord on The Play of Choice
we might tell ourselves another story than this one about valuing our freedom and being in control of the choices we make. This could be a story about "choicelessness," about those moments when things fall into place without our seeming to select them, when "the path just seems to unfurl before us"...
Mark attempts to make the act of choosing playful and fun for his audiences, structuring situations in which there is "no cost for selecting one option over another."

America...was about something that had happened for two minutes
four hundred years ago, instead of everything that...was happening now!
(p. 298)

I stood in the door...thinking about what was next
(last line of the novel).