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Calliope’s mosaic karotype: an objection to mind-body dualism

skumar's picture

Calliope’s[1] mosaic karotype: an objection to mind-body dualism

While many struggle to refute French Philosopher René Descartes’ dualist speculation of the mind—the mind and the body can exist as distinct substances—Calliope Stephanides Jeffrey stands as an objection to the Cartesian dualist view. Calliope’s diagnosis as a 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseuhermaphrodite makes hir[2] body an amalgamation of both feminine and masculine qualities. Essentially, Calliope’s identity is a synthesis of hir identity as woman and hir identity as a man. Unlike Descartes who considers himself “a thinking thing,” Calliope’s existence requires an identification of hirself as a mental configuration (woman) and as a biological configuration (as a man). Despite Calliope’s masculine physique, he often, not “occasionally,[3]” relapses into a feminine psyche. It is said multiplicity of self-identification that debunks Descartes' philosophical theory of mind and body.

When stripped down to its core, Middlesex is a personal narrative of Calliope’s renewal, reexamination, and revival of hir mind and hir body. To this, Descartes would agree that physical amendments do not have a bearing on one’s existence. However, it is the series of Calliope’s psychological, or mental, renovations that most worry Descartes; the fact that Calliope ignores hir feminine mentality and forces a sense of masculinity means that Calliope ignores hir true self. The interchangeability of man and woman persists throughout the novel, thus laminating[4] how Calliope’s narrative disproves the mind-body separation. In order to fully understand the argument the paper signifies, knowledge of the controversial Substance Dualist theory is necessary.

Consequently, I will introduce the notable argument for separation of the mental and the physical entities in section I. Subsequently, sections III-V (excluding section II) prove that Cal’s manifold psychobiological identity invalidates substance dualism.

I. Descartes’ Argument for Substance Dualism

a. Section I serves as an introduction to Descartes’ mind-body problem.

In the Second Meditation of Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes presents the controversial mind-body problem, a problem he is largely responsible for creating and a focal point in the discussion of philosophy of mind ever since. Descartes reasons that his thoughts identify him as a person. Thus, he supposes that he exists so long as the thoughts in his mind exist. Thought, Descartes realizes, cannot be separated from him and so he considers himself a “thinking thing”: an inhabitant of his mind. The controversy of the Cartesian Dualist view arises when Descartes proposes that he does not exist because of his body— merely an extended, mechanical composition governed by the physical laws of nature. Contrarily, Descartes distinguishes the mind as a nonextended object that does not abide by the physical laws of nature. Since the two substances can clearly and distinctly be defined as separate entities, Descartes argues, we can understand the mind and the body as separate substances that can exist and survive separately. This is known as Descartes’ Separation Thesis. In the Second Meditation, the body has less value for Descartes; the mind is the heart of existence. Thus, Calliope’s quest to combine hir body and hir mind denies that these two entities exist irrespective of one another.


II. Descartes’ speculation of bodily changes

a. Section II introduces an understanding between Calliope and Descartes about the modifications to the physical body; the metamorphosis of the body is an element of Calliope’s identity that Descartes would agree with.

In the beginning of Calliope’s narration of his “impossible (302),” or (essentially) inexpressible life, he makes clear that the formation of his identity is a sort of cyclical fluidity that seeps from present to future to past. Variability in identity formation is introduced to the reader when Calliope describes the physical appearance of hirself as a baby: “an inadvertent harmony (218)”. Calliope suggests that the metamorphosis was destined from birth; Calliope reveals the idea of variable physical features in a single body as a means to foreshadow the conclusion of hirself as a hermaphrodite. Calliope refers to the masculine and feminine blend as harmonious simply as a means to reassure hir bi-gender identity. The fact that Calliope understands hir phenotype as “changeable (218)” emphasizes the acute degree of wavering that Ze, similar to Descartes, would regard with a sense of normalcy. For Descartes, a body is an extension, namely height, weight, and minor attachments (breasts, muscles, genitals et cetera) of a larger framework. In other words, Descartes would not identify a surgical removal of a genital—an ordinarily significant change in one’s physical appearance—a reconstruction of an individual, thus Descartes and Cal would agree that variance in physical appearance is negligible and that peripheral changes have no bearing on one’s ‘existence’ whether it be as a male, as a female, or a hermaphrodite. Obviously, a transformed physical structure does not make Calliope a hermaphrodite; it is the fact that Calliope conflicts between hir biological sex as a man and the performance of a woman that makes hir a hermaphrodite.


III. Descartes’ stance on Calliope’s gender disguise

a. Section III explains why Descartes believes Calliope should identify as a woman; hir mind echoes a feminine persona and so it seems a pragmatic decision to assimilate as a woman.

I will present textual support for the transformation from Calliope to Cal. Cal’s forced “[adolescent] swagger” (449) and “comical opinion of [a penis] (452)” reinforce the superficiality of Calliope’s masculine gender identity. Descartes would view the description of Cal’s “adolescent” walk as an image of abnormality and ineptness. The robust adjective (“adolescent”) bolsters Descartes to reiterate the fact that Calliope’s authentic self is a woman. A “real” man would not giggle at the sight of a penis; the coyness that exudes from Cal’s “comical opinion” clarifies hir femininity. Calliope’s definition of self infuriates Descartes, especially since Calliope’s self includes mental and physical entities whereas Descartes’ self includes mental. Here exists an incongruity between Descartes and Calliope. While gender identification is matter-of-fact for Descartes, Calliope remains conflicted. Although Ze makes conscious efforts to assimilate hirself, Calliope says “gender does not matter (520)”. It is clear that mind and body play a resilient tension within Calliope and in saying this, in saying that “gender does not matter,” Calliope ultimately surrenders her decision to assimilate with either gender type.

IV. Descartes on the interaction between Calliope’s mind and body

a. Section IV indicates Descartes’ theory that mind triumphs, regardless of an interface with the physical body.

To reinforce said hypothetical quarrel between a dualist and a hermaphrodite, I would like to present a selection from Middlesex that further examines the predicament of mind and body:

…every time I went into a men’s room a shout rang out in my head: You’re in the men’s...Nobody objected to my presence. And so I searched for a stall that looked halfway clean. I had to sit to urinate. Still do (452).


In this case, the femininity that persists in Calliope’s mind triumphs Calliope’s bodily masculinity. Descartes would take this occurrence to show that the predominance of the mind ensures Calliope’s “womanliness[5]”. Calliope’s quest for a “halfway clean” suggests a gradation of cleanliness that is, according to gender stereotypes, an essence of femininity. Additionally, the fact that Calliope’s biological structure did not defy hir decision to sit down and urinate provides evidence to Descartes of a prominent female gender. It is absolutely clear to Descartes that Calliope is a woman. Calliope, however, struggles to let go her of masculine identity. Calliope relishes the fact that people do not “object” her presence in the men’s room. It is this sense of assurance of hir identity that Calliope has been in search for. In other words, Calliope appreciates that Ze is no longer a “monster (431),”or a thrilling medical experiment, but someone who other people regard as a man. At this point, in front of the men’s room, Calliope seems to “pass[6]”. The relief for Calliope is bliss. It is this estatic feeling that Calliope refuses to lose; although Calliope knows hir mind that Ze is more like a woman the thought of "passing" as a man urges Calliope to hold on to hir male identity.

V. Descartes’ on societal pressures

b. Section V indicates Descartes’ idea that Calliope protests against hir mind due only to the societal pressure to “pass.”

I would like to end with how Descartes would interpret Calliope’s tension to assimilate within a binary gender. It is clear by Calliope’s difficulty to articulate hir identity crisis that the decision to be male, female, or stay in-between is one of immeasurable agony. Calliope would contest that hir biological structure is too much like a man and hir mental faculties too much like a woman to identify with one side of narrow gender spectrum (forced upon by society’s categorizing disposition). Yet, Calliope also yearns to be identifiable to others (we see this yearning when she expresses great relief that hir identity is no longer “objected”). Descartes would simplify this decision for Calliope—the decision to identify as male or as female— by pronouncing it a pragmatic, prima facie[7] choice. Thus, Descartes would recommend that Calliope persist as the woman she tailored hirself as: the woman Ze was before prior to reading Dr. Luce’s medical report. The pressure Calliope faces in Middlesex, Descartes would think, is an unnecessary anxiety that emerges due to the pressure to “pass[8].” Why “pass?” If “pass” means biding by bodily standards of society, than we must not abide by societal standards. Instead, Calliope should listen to the femininity that resonates in her mind; this is the only way to curtail Calliope’s psychosomatic mess. After all, the mind is the only thing we know for certain.











[1] In this paper, I deliberately abstain from referring to Calliope as “Cal” or “Callie” because I believe Ze abstains from completely identifying as male or female.

[2] In an effort to emphasize the complexity of Calliope’s gender and to adhere to Calliope’s supposition that “gender does not matter (520),” I will use Leslie Fenburg’s gender-neutral pronouns throughout this paper.

[3] In the post, “Sex and Gender, Biology and Literature, anorton writes: “…female inclinations [surface] only occasionally…” (Serendip Exchange, 9/10/2008).

[4] Laminate (v). 4. To manufacture by placing layer upon layer of material. (Oxford English Dictionary).

[5] Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy McKenna. “Toward a Theory of Gender.” Page 177.

[6] Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy McKenna. “Toward a Theory of Gender.” Page 176.

[7]Prima facie” is a term often used in philosophy to mean “at first thought.”


skumar's picture

Fluidity of Feminism

I read my paper for a third time over break. I am consistently startled by the unexpected twist in my argument! I really wonder what I was thinking then and why I chose to write it like that. Maybe I was seeking a more innovative approach to my discussion? Who knows. Nonetheless, it is still fascinating to review my thoughts. (It would have made more contingent to say that Descartes' 16th century philosophical view is outdated by Calliope's revolutionary mind-body problem). I wish I would have written THAT at the end.

Anyway, I thought more about the subtext of my paper that nothing is certain. At the beginning of our exploration of Feminism, I thought the course would solidify my preconcieved notion that feminism was about women. Now, having fully engaged with "feminist texts" and engaged in "feminist discussions," I am pleased that the class challenged my initial views! Exploring identity issues and gender issues through a philosophical lens consolidated the everchanging study of Gender & Sexuality. (Even the name has changed from its original as Women's Studies). As time progresses, feminism represents an umbrella term, encompassing a larger scope of people, concerns, and issues, instead of a rigid term defining women. My newly formed notion of feminism, then, reminded me of Paul Grobstein's talk on biology as a story. I cannot believe I am saying this (I wonder how Sarina would respond)... but it is not just Biology, but Feminism is everlasting and everchanging. If Biology is a story....

Then, is feminism a story? a tale that can be traced? Trick Question. There is no answer. I think it is the nature of Feminism to never know. We cannot neither categorize Feminism nor never get it a stationary, universal definition because...of course, we can never say anything with surety. I, like Descartes, sought to find something of Feminism that is for certain, some definitive answer or definition that I can walk away with. I was quick to find that Descartes' idealistic mission, as well as mine, was cyclical; my discovery brought me back to my initial quest to define Feminism.

skumar's picture

Section V


Hm. I did not realize how Descartes analysis of Cal's longing to pass would deter from my claim. It had not occured to me, until you brought it up. No, it had not been an attempt at sarcasm. The unintentional shift in my argument is due to the shift in my writing. This was my first time writing an English paper with a Philosophy paper format and I struggled with the balance between aruging like a philospher and analyzing passage as expected in an English paper. I was so caught up in writing a philosophy paper (writing in Sections). Sections IV and V of the paper were the same paragraph, until I realized I should break it up into two paragraphs, two sections. If you notice, though, Section V is an extension of the bathroom scene in Section IV. In writing this paper, I was more concerned with the execution of the fusion of two writing styles than the way the argument panned out. Thus, the writing assignment did not only challenge my thinking, but challeneged my writing style as well. Still, though, I will have to be more careful next time when taking on such an unfamiliar writing task.


About continuing feminist philosophy, I would love to! I would like to do something a little different; thus, I do not think I will write about feminist philosophy for both the 5-page paper and the 12-page paper. I will give Bordo a read and let you know how I can incorporate it into a paper I would be interested in writing. Thank you for suggesting the texts!

Anne Dalke's picture

A Hypothetical Quarrel Between a Dualist and a Hermaphrodite

Well, skumar, you surprised me. Or I should say the shift in the direction of your argument did. In this playful representation of (an updated, postmodern) philosophical discourse, you begin by saying that Cal's multiplicity of identity debunks Cartesian dualism; but you end by giving Descartes the last word--and Cal a philosophical (i.e. dualist) way out of the pressure hir feels to "pass."

Perhaps I'm not getting the satire, or perhaps the satire got away from you? Or perhaps the argument shifted in the process of writing, and where you ended is directly contradictory to where you claimed (at the beginning) you would end?

What really interested me here, in short, was the question you posed at the beginning, about whether Cal's complex gender identity offers a challenge ("proof" seems too strong a claim) to Cartesian dualism. What really surprised me was your decision, before you concluded, to turn that claim around, to offer Cartesian dualism as an answer to Cal's complexities.

At the deepest level, Descartes' attempt to identify that which cannot be challenged--to arrive at a solid, stable starting point--seems under direct assault from Cal's evolving identity, by the variability of all sorts of identity categories--racial, ethnic, national, religious, gendered--throughout Eugenides' novel. The core difference here seems to be between the desire to find a "foundational" story and the willingness to let life play itself out, to emerge without any preordained certainty. Dismissing the body as an "extension," not definitive of self, is one level of the argument, but the hypothetical quarrel you pose between dualist and hermaphrodite is not only a quarrel about the importance of the body in defining the self; it is, more profoundly, a quarrel about whether we can arrive @ any certainty, any fixedness, any place beyond change.

The Serendip exhibit on Writing Descartes: Being and Thinking plays out this idea extensively; do you want to keep on exploring in this direction? If so, you might also find useful some of the work of the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo--especially The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture (1987) and Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1993).