Knowing the Body: Middlesex Forum
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|re-inventing the self|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-10-22 12:00:15
Link to this Comment: 11171
For the next two weeks, we'll be reading Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex. Please post your initial reactions to the novel here. Gus and I would be particularly interested to hear what aspects of the text were highlighted for you by Paul's presentation, last week, about biology's contributions to thinking about sex and gender.
For instance, I heard, in Eugendies' 3 a.m. interview about the novel, lots of strong echoes from Paul's talks about genetic influence (not determinism), about exploration, about change. Eugenides observes that the book
"is about reinventing your identity on different levels, be that Greek to American, female to male....Reinvention of self is an enduring theme in American literature in general...this...has obviously Classical antecedents...and those are the things that inspired me: metamorphosis and changing....my 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."
Looking forward to hearing what you think about these and related matters--
Date: 2004-10-25 12:42:37
Link to this Comment: 11209
Middlesex is fascinating and written in a very refreshing style. I really appreciate how Eugindes is able to tell such a vivid story demonstrating a lot of what we talked about last week...that genes are only an influence, allbeit a very real one, especially for our narrator. I like that s/he puts the biology of the situation in the midst of a very believable and sympathetic story, and doesn't give us all the details of what exactly s/he looks like because that isn't who s/he is. I think my favorite part so far is when we as the readers are being taken back in time and it is written like a tape rewinding- I like the emphasis on circumstance and environment and the references to how important the timing is for us all to end up the way we are. Looking forward to reading more!
|Reinvention at Gunpoint|
Date: 2004-10-25 13:06:27
Link to this Comment: 11210
To begin, the atrocities committed by the Turks in Book I completely overshadowed any discussion of sex and gender in my mind. Innocent people everywhere are murdered each day because they are not on the inside of a different category. Desdemona and Lefty could have met the same fate as Dr. Philobosian's family if they had not begun the process of leaving behind their Greek heritage and their sibling relationship. When Lefty told the official at the passport office that Desdemona was his wife, they began creating a new life for themselves while remnants of the old life blazed in the background. Survival convinced Desdemona to flirt with and marry the man she met aboard the ship to America. Lacking any other home, she allowed her immigrants braids to be cut off. Sourmelina was ridiculed in Greece for being caught in compromising positions with other women, and she was forced to make herself appear as another woman with her husband Zizmo in Detroit. How much choice is involved in the reinvention of one's self?
Date: 2004-10-25 14:16:42
Link to this Comment: 11211
I was facinated with the amount of fate in the book. I agree that Eugenides was showing that "the self" was "influenced" by many forces, and that biology and genes were one piece of that puzzle. I was interested however, at how this is juxtaposed with the effect of the character's choices made in their youth like gambling (Lefty) or joining the military (Milton). These choices had huge implications on their future fate, and how they experienced the world. Perhaps like genes when mixed with the right other elements in the right time, though only an influence, our decisions to take certain actions can be more of a determining fateful influence than we suspect. I don't know if I agree with this, but if we consider whether biology is an influencer or determinant, then it might be useful to look at whether life circumstances have the same or a different amount of influencing and determining qualities.
|Re-inventing history and gender|
Date: 2004-10-25 15:26:30
Link to this Comment: 11212
In the 3 a.m. interview, Eugenides says that "[his] narrator in Middlesex is not entirely reliable; he's inventing the past as much as he is telling it." I'm having trouble putting what struck me about this quote in words, but it seems to me it's very helpful in understanding Cal's re-invention. I think the quote highlights the way re-invention serves as an important resource for performance. When Cal tells us his family history, everything he talks about is somehow relevant to the central point of his story, his adoption of a male identity. His choice to tell us about his family's past before she was born and the way in which he does it serves a purpose in his narrative. If, presumably (since he wasn't present), he's filling in the gaps by making up details, facts, and conversations, and he's leaving out all that is not relevant to his intersexuality, how does he manipulate history to become an effective technique for telling his story?
I'm especially interested in how this re-invention of history mirrors Cal's gender re-invention. Gender is perfomative and, as such, it must be tailored to our audience. The Intersex Society of America encourages parents to raise hermaphrodite children without a specific gender. But traditionally, most parents of intersexed kids choose one gender or the other, because as a society we're uncomfortable with anything that doesn't fit our man-woman binary. I wonder what elements of his self Cal must have had to suppress or make up when re-inventing himself as a man, because they didn't fit or, on the contrary, were needed to succesfully perform his "new" male identity.
|The Jouney of Identity|
Date: 2004-10-25 15:27:01
Link to this Comment: 11213
The journey of the narrator is not just about the role of genetic influence. Its emphasis is on Callie/Cal's story and the multiple, intertwined narratives within her/his own. In the novel, it is apparent that Callie/Cal's identity is not determined by her/his genes, but it is not solely defined by her environment either. Callie/Cal's story highlights the fact that her genes had to be taken into account eventually. Despite being raised as a girl, Callie/Cal comes to the realization that she/he must accept The so-called "transformation" that takes place is more of a discovery. When confronted by her/his mother, "Don't you think it would have been easier just to stay the way you were?, Callie/Cal's reply is that "This is the I was." So, what has changed at the end? Not the genes certainly. I think it could be argued that the sex hasn't changed either; Callie/Cal remains a hermaphrodite. What about Callie/Cal's gender identity? At first glance, Callie has become Cal, she has become he, and yet, Cal remains outside of male/female, a modern-day Tiresias, identifying with neither and both at the same time. Cal cannot erase Callie from who he is now because it has all been the same journey of the same individual. Callie is not a separate identity from Cal but part of the journey that is made up of the paths that have been chosen by, not only Cal, but by the ancestors who make up his history.
|Gentics at Play|
Name: Mo Convery
Date: 2004-10-25 16:00:14
Link to this Comment: 11216
Eugenide never allows you to forget genetics. It is a definite presence running through the very human stories of love, exile, and family dynamic. It is not necessarily talked about as a negative powerful or controlling force or consequence, it is just present behind the decisions that the characters make. As he describes one moment in the history of Cal inception he is constantly tying back in the presence of genetics from a current perspective. For instance, after he talks about Cal’s grandparents honeymoon night on the ship, he follows explaining how they are smugglers of the genetic defect. While as I reader I was guilty of seeing this type of analysis as futuristic, Eugenides forced me to view it as a very common player in his novel. It is not something that is a consequence on the horizon, but very much at play from the beginning.
|Reinvention, fate and choice|
Date: 2004-10-25 16:53:57
Link to this Comment: 11217
In Middlesex Eugenides tells a story of reinvention. The intertwining stories tell us about the choices that the characters make in order to reinvent themselves. Lefty and Desdemona reinvent from brother and sister to husband and wife. They have to create a new history for themselves and a new identity. Cal also reinvents himself from Callie to Cal. Lefty goes from a very Greek subject to a more American man. The old identities of these three characters are never fully discarded. Cal tells a story about occasions when Callie resurfaces through different physical acts that were typical to her. The brother/sister relationship resurfaces when Lefty begins to deteriorate; his Greek identity resurfaces at that time too. Gilda comments that Cal is not a reliable narrator because “he's inventing the past as much as he is telling it.” If we stick to that standard then the identities of most of the characters are not reliable because they are reinventing themselves as much as they are telling their histories or past identities.
LB and Jana talk about the idea of choice vs. fate. I think that this is a question of influence vs. determinant. How much is Callie’s reinvention of herself determined by her past and how much is it just influenced by her past? Cal’s genetics did not determine his identity as a male. He lived as a girl for many years. His ancestors also carried the gene that influenced the things required for him to be a hermaphrodite, but these qualities were not expressed in them. The choices of his family members also have a strong effect on his identity, but I think that they did not determine it. Callie may still have reinvented himself as Cal without his grandparents also being siblings and his parents being cousins. The same effect may have still occurred with Desdemona marrying a cousin or someone carrying the same gene entirely outside of the family. While Cal’s family’s choices facilitated the passing down and expression of a gene, I don’t think that they determined it.
|Viva la Revolucion|
Name: Arielle Ab
Date: 2004-10-25 17:04:19
Link to this Comment: 11218
I must say I am quite thrilled with this book thus far. Yes, education is good and dandy but really thank G-d for entertainment. I haven’t read much of it yet because I keep bribing myself to do my other work before so that I have the treat of curling up with my beautifully written required reading about sex, incest, hermaphrodism (spelling?) and Greek culture of which I’m a huge fan ever since seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding (yes I know that might be the most reliable source but hey, I enjoyed it). I do find it fascinating the way Eugenides has a running biological theme through these issues and accounts. I was intrigued by his description of genetics as an army and all the different pieces of our genetic material being likened to the military. He writes “Arrayed in their regiments, my genes carry out their orders. All except two, a pair of miscreants- or revolutionaries, depending on your view- hiding out on chromosome number 5.” (16) After our discussion on Thursday and the language surrounding genetic variance I was struck by the option “miscreants” or “revolutionaries”. As I’m currently in my revolutionary mind set- completely adorned with Chinese and Cuban paraphernalia- I particularly enjoyed thinking of genetic variance as revolutionary. It makes perfect sense in some ways, those pieces of us that defy a dominant code and through their accomplishments and work, in this case they “siphon off an enzyme”, they bring about reform, change, and glorious revolution. As with all revolutions, one is never sure how they will unfold but they are necessary to continue to grow as a society or in this case a species.
|middlesex and monsters|
Date: 2004-10-26 10:46:37
Link to this Comment: 11227
I was so glad to read this book for class; I was allow to see the book in both my academic pleasures as well as my reading ones. There are many themes that I enjoyed throughout the book, including body as language and the idea of being trapped in a body that doesn't reflect your true inner self (i.e. desdemona being stuck in a healthy body, milton being stuck in an akward body, Lefty being stuck in a body racked with stroke, Zoe stuck in a bad marraige, etc on to Cal himself). What I wanted to talk quickly about here was the repeated images of monsters throughout the narritive, which I find particularly fun. It was due to a monster that Milton was conceived "Against [Desdemona's] will, the play had aroused her, too. The mInotaur's savage, muscular thighs. The suggestive sprawl of his victems." (p. 108). Euginides later speaks of pregancy..."was like a maze." (p. 113). With a monster at the end...Calliope/Cal. Callie alludes to monsters of the sea in her treatment of her growing adolescense in the locker room. Looking himself up in the dictionary, hermaphrotism is alluded to as Monster, which was the turning point for Cal's decision to run away and not go through with "reconstructive" surgery. And finally he sells his body to voyeurs as a monster turned god, Hermaphroditus. All of these allusions to monstrosity contrast with the very normal, normal-seeking even, Cal. I think that these literary effects allow the reader to recognize the monster of every existance, and accept the normalcy of hermaphrotized existance.
|Anne's revelation...and further questions|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-10-27 10:47:11
Link to this Comment: 11231
I got very excited @ the end of class yesterday, wanted to try and trace here what happened, along w/ an invitation to others to fill in, add to...
We began discussion w/ David's posting about culture as the "theoretical"--actually, as the actual--"offspring" of the interaction of biological systems, the results of the sort of "mingling" that occurs when material creatures come together. There is a "biological basis" for cultural exchange (in so far as the creatures making culture are biological beings); but the key point here is that biology "re-produces" non-biologically. Per Paul's talk, I understand such linguistic "interminglings," the productions of these cultural variants, as forms of exploration. Does there then remain anything peculiar, anything distinctive, about sexual activity in the conventional sense? Or have we re-defined sex as any intermingling, any type of exchange that reproduces, re-presents, creates something new....?
In this context, the deep question I heard Gus asking (and I'd love to have you write this out, articulate it yourself here in the forum, Gus) was about what fuels the insistent search of biologists/scientists--actually, everyone in culture who is invested in "scientific answers"--for an account of origins, for an explanatory story that goes back to the originary point. That certainly seemed to be what motivated Levay's search for a "gay gene"; does it also (as I heard Gus saying) underlie Paul's account of "what biology has to contribute to thinking about sex and gender"? (Am hoping Paul will answer this challenge himself; my own account would be that all those little boxes do not @ all seem to represent a search for foundations or origins, but an endless interactive process w/out beginning or end....)
My own small revelation @ the end of class, provoked by the observation of one of you that Calliope's story (as she told it after the fact) seemed "fated," was that this process of searching for origins is what motivates novel-writing as much as it motivates biology. It is because of the indeterminacy of life, because the future is unpredictable and the present is not easily reduceable to the past (there are always multiple possible explanations for anything that has happened), that WE TRY TO BRIDGE THE GAP BY TELLING STORIES. We make meaning by making up stories to explain how we got from A to B, how we might have gotten to B from A.
I've been trying to write about this in the forum for the Working Group on Emergence, and am working now on a talk about it for the Language Seminar @ Swat next Thursday night. So stay tuned for further articulations in this and other corners.
In the meantime? I'd very much like to hear how this sits/sounds to each of you.
|searching for origins|
Date: 2004-10-28 12:55:29
Link to this Comment: 11248
After reading Anne's post, and reflecting on my own thoughts on Middlesex in particular, I want to reach for a conclusion as to WHY we search for origins. If biology, literature, any discipline, are all origin-story tellers and seekers, then what is the common thread that links all these diverse disciplines? (Other than sex and gender ;-) ) It makes sense to me that in the search for origins, what we are really searching for is individual legitimacy as "normal", "successful" human beings within a context of the greater world or universe. Cal's journey leads him to Zora, the first proud Hermaphrodite he meets, who consequently is persuing the ORigin of hermaphroditism, and calculating the reference of their genetic ancestors. but Why was ze doing this? In order to verify the commonality of hermaphroditism in every culture spanning back to the origins of culture, as closely as possible. I think that this is why many queers revere biology as a safe and stable discipline, and seek biological facts to verify our attractions...biology is a philosophy dealing with the origin of our bodily behaviors and compunctions, and thus, natural and Normal. My view of Middlesex is the normal life of Cal, who is just different from most other people he meets. Each character, whether happy or not, seeks to be normal and true to their own culture as best they can, and Cal is not immune from that pursuit.
|continuing conversation ...|
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: 2004-10-30 12:17:04
Link to this Comment: 11273
Very much don't want to interrupt or distract from conversation about Middlesex. Its a book I like a lot, like many of you, for lots of difference reasons. Did want to mention that conversation continues as well in the related but differently focused biology/sex/gender
realm, and invite any one else interested to join in. There is a response to David's posting there, as well as to postings by Rebecca and Nancy. And an exchange between Jessie and me.
Happy to take on there as well the issue of whether "science" is motivated by a wish for "an account of origins". I suspect many (but not all) scientists may be so motivated but, if so, that's certainly not a distinctive characteristic of science. A search for the "originary point" is a common characteristic of many kinds of story telling in arenas other than science (eg the creation myths of most religions). In fact, I would argue that one of the currently more significant things going on in science generally is a series of challenges to the notion that looking for an originary point is productive. I can't, of course, speak for Simon Levay but my own interest in the biology relevant to sex/gender is (so far as I know) much more an interest in the sources/significance of diversity than in "origins".
|You can run, you can hide, but you can't escape . |
Date: 2004-11-01 11:38:19
Link to this Comment: 11299
"As individuals, we always display or "do" gender but this dichotomous difference (no one escapes being declared female or male) may be more or less relevant, and relevant in different ways, from one social context to another." --Barrie Thorne "Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School"
This quote is from a book I'm reading for my Praxis III Independent Study course on gender differences in the classroom. Thorne's book describes the minute details of how sex and gender influences students' behavior. Thorne's language couldn't be more perfect in context of our discussion about "Middlesex." The book is a series of escapes--Lefty and Desdemona from the island, Milton from the war and bankruptcy, Cal from his own female self. I had never really considered *why* someone would want to "escape being declared male or female", but that's because I live, work, and play in an environment that embraces declarations--I own my female declaration. I defend it when challenged and it's something no one can take away from me. That's what struck me about the film in Thursday's class--other people had decided which declaration to make for young children (when it was not a matter of their health).
|why can't we be both?|
Name: Rebecca Ma
Date: 2004-11-01 11:52:50
Link to this Comment: 11300
Middlesex suggests that although events, in this case biological events change a person’s life, it is a person’s retrospective understanding of the change and subsequent response that determine human identity. Reading Middlesex reminds me of the plot of a science fiction novel in which characters customarily spend childhood as one sex and then decide if they would like to live their adult lives as another sex. Callie embodies this wonderful experience of living in two very different bodies during the course of one lifetime. I think I would have been a shame to deny her the opportunity of witnessing her female body morph in a male body. Men and women would be able to have more sympathy for one another if more people had hermaphroditic experiences.
Name: Mo Convery
Date: 2004-11-01 14:09:27
Link to this Comment: 11303
When first reading Schneider’s critique of Middlesex, I was drawn in by her argument that Eugenides propels gender polarization through the character of Cal/Callie. She states, “When she is a little girl she is a little girl. When doctors announce that he is actually a boy, he becomes a boy.” After reviewing my reading of Middlesex, something struck me as a bit too clear-cut in her argument. Her criticism lies within one large presumption. She presumes that the individual is static; the point of gender identification comes from discovering what is already there. Cal/Callie first began to seriously question her gender identification as female when puberty began. In bio terms, the hormones that defined her as a man began to flow. Is this the same Callie that she was two years previously? I would argue no. The chemical composition of her body changed, her physical body began to change, and her experience with her sexuality began to change. She became more and more masculine in identity and appearance. Why is it not legitimate to believe that such a dramatic change in an individual gender identity is possible during such a time of transformation? Cal’s biological and physical composition changed drastically, why couldn’t her gender identification?
Date: 2004-11-01 15:00:36
Link to this Comment: 11304
One of the five main principles of the Intersex Society is that "all children should be assigned as male or female, without surgery" and their activism is mainly centered on eliminating surgery on intersexed people during childhood. In their FAQ, in response to the question "How do we know the correct gender of a child with an intersex condition?," they say:
We won't know the child's gender until she or he is old enough to communicate to us. It is recommended that the child be assigned a gender based on our best prediction, and allow her or him to determine for herself or himself once she or he is old enough to do so.
Part of me is not satisfied by this answer, because Cal didn't have surgery and her parents assigned her a gender based on their "best prediction" (not that they knew of his intersexuality), but he still suffered because of the imposition of a gender different from his real one. The ISNA operates under the assumption that the child will communicate his/her gender to us when s/he is old enough, but in Cal/lie's case (which is, of course, fiction and not represenative of all intersexed people) that "old enough" was well into her teens. If he hadn't found Dr. Luce's report, who knows when he would have discovered the reason why he was always so conflicted about his identity. In short, communicating one's gender might not be as easy as the ISNA presupposes.
But on the other hand, thinking about Jenny Boylan and transgender people in general, I realize that even when there's no genital ambiguity or hidden congenital causes for intersexuality, gender doesn't necessatily correspond to sex. In those cases, no "best prediction" based on immediately apparent biological characteristics and even genetics will work.
I wish there was a way to avoid wrong gender assignments, but I guess I'm being too idealistic.
|Problems in Middlesex|
Date: 2004-11-01 16:18:55
Link to this Comment: 11305
As I read Middlesex, I am still moved by the prose, enjoying the story and appreciated Eugenides for bringing this narrative to life, but I'm not sure I think he's doing a good job. I'm terribly disappointed in his descriptions of Callie's discovery of herself. Her feelings for the Object (by the way, what a disturbing choice- calling her the Object, I mean), her experience with Jerome...all of these are the points at which Cal declares she knew something about herself- her inherent, latent maleness. Reading Homer, Cal tells us of Callie's enthusiasm for the violent story of Troy- oh, well OBVIOUSLY that makes her a man. In hindsight, Cal is completely denying variation in the experience of growing up female. It denies lesbianism in order to embrace hermaphrodism. Hermaphrodism is the escape from impending lesbianism...whoa, wait a minute?
All though I was unable to go the the Life in Two Genders talk, I gather from conversations about Jenny that her difference was an internal feeling-an everpresent awareness of the mismatch between her self and her body. That narrative is trivialized by Eugenides, who insistently anchors Callie's self-discovery in the external.
|All the things I didn't say...|
Date: 2004-11-01 17:30:44
Link to this Comment: 11307
One of the criticisms of Middlesex in class was that Callie/Cal's identification seemed too simplistic, that she/he believed it so easily when told she/he was a female and the same when she/he figured out that she/he was a male. The reason I continue to write Callie/Cal and she/he is because I'm not sure that I feel confident/comfortable enough trying to fix/categorize this character. Our discussions is class recently have revolved around the issues of the biological sex versus the social constructions of gender. I think the character of Callie/Cal cannot be categorized as strictly male or female since she/he has lived as both. If identity is influenced and defined by biology and experience, can't we say then that Callie/Cal is neither male or female? Once again, we've returned to the idea of categories...why is it that we need to categorize Callie/Cal? Why can't we let her/his individual story define who she/he is? Callie/Cal's ability to pass as either female/male reminds me of Moraga's story and the fact that she could transcend the boundaries of race. It's a perspective that is certainly on the outside, and I would say it's outside of language which seems to be defined by boundaries and categories.
One of the ideas that kept coming back to me during our discussion in class was Delany's comment about similarites and differences, "Thus even the similarities are finally, to the extent they are living ones, a play of differences - only specific ones, socially constituted. Not transcendental ones." Do we want to be able to relate to Callie/Cal in some way? The meeting of the members of the Intersex Society say they could hear similarites in their stories, that their previous feeling of isolation had ended now that they had met others who are "like them." However, their stories were different because their experiences were not and could not be identical. Is Delany right? Is the nature of human beings and of life such that we cannot actually truly relate to others? Is that something that is true that we are unwilling to accept? It was brought up in class that Eugenides is a male author and not an intersexual, therefore, what kind of perspective is he actually offering us? Is it all just speculation? A made-up fiction? However, if we go back to Delany, would the story have more depth and authority if it was an intersexual? He would probably say no because it would not be able to speak to an intersexual experience that doesn't exist in the first place.
Callie/Cal writes that she/he "made no lasting conclusions" about herself/himself. She/he acknowledges that this is probably hard to believe, but as I thought more about it, I can imagine that this is true. If the self were able to exist independently of society, able to escape social constructions and outside influence, wouldn't there be no wrong or right? No normative other than what the self knows to be true? What was Callie/Cal's truth? How was she/he to know that she/he was different? (And when we say "different," are we actually saying "other" than the norm? But who defines what is normal?) Callie/Cal knew enough to know that not all bodies are the same, and even though she/he was not experiencing puberty as a girl would, what reason had she/he to believe that this conclusively made her/him a boy? As Callie/Cal noticed, she sat down to pee and did not have the body of a man in the obvious ways. The fact that she didn't have breasts didn't make her a man either, just a flat-chested girl...the existence of which isn't anything incredibly out of the norm. The fact that she/he was interested in a girl meant nothing, "Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time?"
For me, Callie/Cal's sexuality did not have any one specific point of origin. I thought that the fact that it is a story consisting of multiple stories contributed to the idea that nothing determines anything. Doesn't it tell us something if we cannot reach a point of origin collectively? That Callie/Cal herself/himself has no conclusive moment? Why can't the merit be in the story itself? In an experience that we may not be able to fully understand but can somehow appreciate?
|Thoughts on Middlesex|
Name: Marissa Ch
Date: 2004-11-01 19:17:10
Link to this Comment: 11311
I think it was really interesting how Cal called his mother and father (as well as other family members) by their first names in the book. It is almost like he is re-telling a story he heard from a stranger. This can be significant, since Tessie and Milton are not the actual parents of "Cal" especially because they were against his birth in the first place.
There are also moments in the book when Cal goes in and out of referring to himself in the third person in referance to Callie. In one way, it seems that he has distanced himself so much from Callie that she was a completely different person. However, the way he switches back and forth between the points of view shows that Callie is still a part of Cal.
I was somewhat disappointed by the ending of the book. I was really behind Cal and supportive of his trip to California in order to re-invent himself. However, when Milt died, it kind of took away from these emotions and made Cal into another "reckless teenager" who doesn't think about the consequences of their actions. If Milt was willing to risk his life to find Cal, I can only assume that he would have embraced Cal if he gave him the chance.
|on the reliability of predictions....|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-11-01 23:16:14
Link to this Comment: 11315
Reflecting here on Gilda's observation that
"no 'best prediction' based on immediately apparent biological characteristics and even genetics will work" and Beth's that "a story consisting of multiple stories contributed to the idea that nothing determines anything"--
I'd like to invite us all to work a little more w/ this matter of how sufficient history is as a source for extrapolation, how reliable the predictions we make about the future based on what we know of the past. You can find these queries addressed in a number of other forums on Serendip, including some recent ones on catastropic climate change, on the history of the universe, on the emergence of meaning in language use. Would be (more than delighted) to hear where any/all of this takes you....
Date: 2004-11-02 01:11:31
Link to this Comment: 11317
I'm not really sure that this book does justice to narrating an intersexual person's experience for a number of reasons, but one of the things that really struck me about the book was the amazing lack of transphobia in it. On the basis of this book alone, it would seem like being intersexual is just peachy, just don't sleep in the park alone at night. Perhaps because the ending of the book felt so rushed, Cal's coming out to his family just seemed really fake, non-problematic, and simplistic. Although Tessie didn't know quite how to react, her reaction was overrided by pretty mundane details... let's get ready for the funeral, the car will be here soon, Desdemona needs her epsom salts... Maybe this stems out of Eugenides' saying in the 3am interview that he purposely didn't research the psychological experiences of intersexuals and instead wrote from his imagination and his assumptions about what an intersexual's experience would be like. I think the book fails to address pertinent transgender issues and doesn't focus on what intersexuals' real-life experiences might be like. For me, Cal reads more as a literary metaphor for dualism, complementing the story of immigration, than as a resource for transgender experience.
|yeah, but still. . .|
Date: 2004-11-02 13:13:06
Link to this Comment: 11321
I was somewhat ambivalent about doing this book, but I was also really taken with it as a novel. Corresponding with Bethany Schneider this summer made me more aware of its limitations, but I was also excited by the possibility that these limitations themselves would generate some valuable discussion of what we expect a book whose protagonist is intersex to do, think, feel—and what those expectations may have to do with the context in which it’s being read. I would agree that the book doesn’t feel like the “experience” of an authentically intersexed person, and the ambivalent response to it from intersex groups seems to reflect this. I think this is a weakness from a literary point of view in that Eugenides is attempting to capture a wide enough range of experience of the twentiethh century U. S. to make the novel representative of that century, but that he doesn’t, as Jessie points out, represent something that one would expect realistically to have been more of a factor—transphobia.
I want to suggest some ways the book may still be valuable, though, in the context of our class. First of all, we may need to transform our expectations about what kind of text this is. It’s not a memoir of an intersex person. It’s a novel, a bestselling novel, and as such it’s a document of a larger public consciousness about not only intersex but sex, gender, race, and nation—one riddled with contradictions and areas of ignorance. Personally, I vastly prefer it to a cultural text one might see as somewhat parallel, The Laramie Project, which certainly has some different purposes, but is so centered around generating “tolerance” for gay people that it just hammers you over the head with the fact that its primary addressees are straight people.
Second, I actually want to try to recoup the humor and entertainingness of the prose politically. That’s because I’m interested in how this novel works against the “incitement to confess” that Foucault writes about. To draw this out a bit, it seems to me as if many of us, myself included, wanted to get more inside Callie, find out what the truth of her being was, and we felt the depiction of her interiority was a bit inadequate, and that its shallowness was reflected in the apparent choice she makes that biology is destiny. But I actually think the novel is interesting in that it resists this sort of reading. I’m not even sure it makes it clear why Callie makes the decision she does. Or that biology-writ-large is the reason she does so. It seems more conscious, to put it in more Grobsteinian terms, of portraying Callie as wanting to tell a story, and biology providing the story she wants to tell.
I guess one discussion question I’m getting at here is, does the end of the book necessarily mean that the novel’s saying that biology is destiny?
But more broadly, I’m simply not willing to give up on the relative lack of internal agony and truth-seeking. I would agree that this limits the book’s political potential in some contexts. And I would encourage people to read other books about transgender and intersex, such as Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. But it also seems to me that this novel does interrupt what Foucault portrays as the ways power is exerted via sex and sexuality since the 19th-century, the construction of sex as the truth of the individual.
|going on thinking....|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-11-03 13:37:08
Link to this Comment: 11335
Gus, you are such an interesting thinker. In an attempt to keep myself from falling into sadness (largely because of a sense of discouragement, today, that I'm living in a country where folks are afraid to think....??) I thought I'd pick up here on some of what you are saying, above, and invite others to join the conversation. (That invitation comes along w/ another to bring up here, before class tomorrow, any other strands or aspects of Middlesex you'd like us to consider, before our time on the novel runs out....)
Two things in particular struck me about what you had to say, Gus. The first was your sequence of linked observations that "many of us...wanted to get more inside Callie, find out what the truth of her being was," that the novel "resists this sort of reading," and that in doing so it enacts something Foucault taught us: the (illusory) "construction of sex as the truth of the individual." I'm not quite sure the novel resists that reading (I'd say rather that it refuses the portrayal of a particular version of interiority ), but I do think that your description/Foucault's debunking of our collective desire to "get @ the truth" is another expression of that "search for (illusory) origins" you asked us to consider last week.
Perhaps there is no "deeper truth" to be found, either in biology or in fictions or in other selves. In this context, (a passage from Chapter 15 of) George Eliot's Middlemarch, which evokes an essential and inalterable self, may offer a particularly resonant background to/point of departure for Middlesex:
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.
The second question you raise is whether "the end of the book necessarily means that the novel’s saying that biology is destiny." My own answer to that is an emphatic "no." Cal refuses the script written by the sex-doctor, and embraced by her parents (hey, she's an adolescent: she rebels); and refuses finally a script that makes "gender" the primary descriptor, the deepest and truest aspect of self, as she makes clear in the passage I read to you all last week:
"You will want to know: How did we get used to things? What happened to our memories?...my 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" (520).
Now: that claim may have some pretty heady/rough implications for this course--and for the program called Feminist and Gender Studies and/or Gender and Sexuality. If "gender is not all that important"--WHY are we studying it so earnestly, making it so central in our meaning-making? (I'm hearing strong echoes here of the various testimonies, in class yesterday, to how--BECAUSE you were reading this novel in this class--you came to it it w/ expectations that it would give you a true testimony about matters of sex and gender, and then were frustrated when it did not...)
So: where does any of this take your own thinking?
|Ending my silence|
Date: 2004-11-03 13:59:12
Link to this Comment: 11338
I have been silent on the boards now for a week and a half. The reasons behind this are not laziness or apathy, but perhaps the exact opposite: over-thinking the subject at hand and trying to reconcile the millions of contradicting ideas that are going through my head. In an effort to not “take myself too seriously,” I am now posting to try to begin to breakdown my thoughts.
As I mentioned in class yesterday, I feel awkward, possibly even hypocritical, in critiquing the formation of gender identity, especially in the way our class has been approaching the topic. Who are we to discuss the formation of gender identity of an intersexual, metrosexual, homosexual, anything-sexual? Who are we to even discuss the formation of our own gender identity? So much of what goes into building our gender identity is rooted in subconscious influences of culture, our own interpretation of culture, and the biological workings of our body outside of culture. All of these things, compounded I’m sure by millions of others, add to the individuality of our experiences.
In “Hermaphrodites Speak!” we confronted with what I consider possibly the largest paradoxes of gender identity. The members of the Intersex Society gathered as a group in order to be supported by people like them. This group provided a support network that none of them had experienced before because of their “difference.” Yet, by classifying themselves in this group their individual experiences were lost or distorted in order to fit into the group experience. One common topic was that of surgery to alter/define the sex of the hermaphrodite. Each person had a different surgery, yet the conclusion as a whole is “surgery is bad.” What is lost is the individuality of experiences, no longer was it “X’s” experience or “Y’s” experience but “the groups” experience which then defines how the group interacts with greater society.
No group is directly representative of its individuals, and no individual is directly representative of its group. There is such generalization about a group that it then blurs individuality. We looked at the people in “Hermaphrodites Speak!” as hermaphrodites, as opposed to a painter, a lawyer, a ________, etc. While their experiences are shaped by their biology of being hermaphrodites, there are so many other influences that could also shape their experiences.
The question that I am left with is: where does this effort of studying gender identity go? How, in studying the gender identity of hermaphrodites, are we doing something that is useful. We are studying them as a spectacle, almost as entertainment. How does this do us or them (like the binary division?) any good?
As I said, there are millions of things that are going through my mind… so here is just one. I hope it has come out in a semi-coherent manner.
|Place of the US in the World Community|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-11-04 17:25:35
Link to this Comment: 11360
If you'd like to share your thoughts/questions/confusions/illuminations about the election, as a way of helping us all make sense of what happened (and what can happen next) there's a forum now open called Place of the US in the World Community - Nov 04.
Date: 2004-11-04 20:57:06
Link to this Comment: 11363
I think I’ve found the passage that I will forever love in this book. It’s about language which reminded me of previous discussions about language and performance and whether language is simply a practical tool to communicate or a performance in and of itself. We can after all convey the same technicalities of a situation in countless different ways, different influences, different nuances, different facial expressions, emphasis on different words and each combination brings about a slightly different understanding, interpretation between the speaker, the listener and the larger society and implications. Yet with all of this, so often it seems (particularly in English) that we, or perhaps just me, are left at a loss for words. No feelings to describe such a complex tangle of agendas, emotions, thoughts, images, yearnings, dislikes, confusions, ambivalence all in one. With this said, I was struck by the passage on page 217, “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I know exactly about the minibar in the room excitement! Anyway, I just wanted to post about this because it was a poignant instance, just like the many this book is overflowing with, in which Eugenides manages to articulate a small piece of humanity.
|where's the middle?|
Date: 2004-11-06 13:27:57
Link to this Comment: 11393
Not to kick a book when it's down, but... I need to fill my forum quota... Anyway, I wasn't overall disappointed with the book -- it's a great read, just not what I was expecting in all respects. I love the idea of transformation and reinvention, but I'm not so sure about the author's stance on binaries and the options available to transform INTO. I was expecting the book to explore the possibilities of the "middle," rather than necessitate Cal's choice on either end. By the end of the book, it seemed to me that the "middle" the author was referring to was actually the "middleground" between two people with different experiences. "We didn't have an upper register, so to speak, but only the middle range of our shared experience and ways of behaving, of joking around" (516). I’m not sure that Eugenides presented the possibility of one person situating him/herself in a middle category.
Also, I think Eugenides presents a different concept of gender fluidity than I expected coming into the book. Throughout the book, the components of femininity and masculinity are taken for granted. The behaviors and values Cal associates with being a girl or being a boy are relatively uncontested, which ends up affirming an objective certainty about what it means to be a woman or a man. In this light, it seems that fluidity of identity means more being able to arrive at the established gender by a variety of routes, rather than problematizing that gender category itself.
|keeping variation in mind...|
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2004-11-06 15:34:27
Link to this Comment: 11396
One more thought, here, before we turn our attention away from the biological body and Middlesex and toward more explicit gender politics. One thing that came up, during our class discussion about knowing the body biologically, was that Paul's schema of "boxes" (representing signals from presumably four different brain regions) contributing to gender identity omitted one of "intensity"--or how much matters of sex and gender matter to one, how important the impulses to identify oneself in terms of either sexual object choice or gender. Chelsea posted about this, too (and spoke about it in class again on Thursday) when she said that it has ceased to matter at all.
I was reminded of this point--and the need to record it--by a talk I attended Friday afternoon by Akosua Ampofo, a women's studies scholar from Ghana, who pointed out that--in addition to individual brain variations--there are also large cultural differences in this regard. Ampofo spoke about the reluctance of African scholars to "do sexuality." There are many reasons for such silences around sex work, including the fact that African women's bodies and sexuality have "been under the western gaze for so long" (so there is a disinclination to continue gazing), and that Africans look at sex in different ways, more "practical," Ampofo said: "they do it, they don't talk about it." Sexual pleasure is "not focal" for them; w/ other bread-and-butter issues to deal with, there's "no time for sex." These observations are reminiscent, too, of Carolyn Dinshaw's story about the non-transferability of American presumptions about sexuality to other parts of the world.
|A girl, a boy|
Name: Arielle Ab
Date: 2004-12-13 20:45:46
Link to this Comment: 11968
Cal/Callie's story was incredibly interesting to read. I was struck by the notion that he was comfortable as both a girl and a boy. The way he contrived to change his gender was also incredible. There seemed to be an inherent contradiction in his gender construction and description. On one hand he clearly described the construction of gender. He trained himself to be a boy- through posture, walk, habits and dress. At the same time though, his sexual attraction to women seemed to be a naturally masculine trait for him. I thought that was the most interesting. Despite the girl on girl love and sex with The Object, he never appeared to think of himself as a lesbian. The abruptness with which he changed his gender left me a bit speechless particularly since he said he was comfortable as a girl. He never tried a "middle" gender... but sexuality and gender and identity are so complicated and indivual that I liked that the portrayal showed that. Every individual is different in their decisions and interpretations even when it comes to such socially pressured issues like sex and gender.
|look it out|
Date: 2005-08-11 16:46:35
Link to this Comment: 15879
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