The Individual Experience in a World of Categories

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Knowing the Body

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The Individual Experience in a World of Categories

Elizabeth Piastra

Lakoff and Johnson argue for an embodied mind, saying that our categories are based on how we experience the world through our bodies. According to this theory, as a result of their different anatomies, men and women would experience the world differently and their categories would be inherently different. Also, it would be expected that all women would share the same categories. Our class and our discussions have demonstrated a diversity of opinions and methods of categorization that refute this part of Lakoff and Johnson's argument. I think that Lakoff and Johnson were correct in saying that "the categories we form are part of our experience" (Lakoff and Johnson 19).
However, what they neglected to factor into their analysis of the way human beings categorize is the differences of each individual experience. Categories and their meanings are based on an individual's personal knowledge of the world, and that is why no category means exactly the same thing for more than one individual. I want to examine the categories of race and sexuality in Moraga and Delany to demonstrate the significance of the individual experience and its direct connection to categories. Also, I want to suggest that race as "other" is more problematic than sexuality to one's personal identity.
Delany's "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion" presents us with a series of troubling tales. They all originate within Delany's life, but his reason for choosing these particular tales is "precisely because they are uncharacteristic" (Delany 125). Even within one's own individual experience, there is an uniqueness to events. The category "gay" doesn't mean that the individuals who identify themselves as part of it will share an understanding of all that it has meant for one person to claim this label for himself/herself. Delany acknowledges that the identification with others that categories create is in a way false, "even the similarities are finally, to the extent they are living ones, a play of differences" (Delany 131). He emphasizes that much of the sexual experience remains outside of language. No everything will be shared, not everything can be. An individual's journey to claiming his/her own identity is entrenched in the personal journey, in occurrences both characteristic and uncharacteristic. However, maybe these "uncharacteristic" tales are not as uncharacteristic to his experience as Delany believes. It is fact that they are indeed a part of Delany's experience as a gay man, and he says himself that there is no universal "gay experience." What is Delany's basis for a gay experience when all he has is the complete knowledge of his own? I think that maybe this has been Delany's point all along. In the end, he denies the existence of a Gay Identity:
The point to the notion of the Gay Identity is that, in terms of a transcendent reality concerned with sexuality per se (a universal similarity, a shared necessary condition, a defining aspect, a generalizable and inescapable essence common to all men and women called "gay"), I believe Gay Identity has no more existence than a single, essential, transcendental sexual difference. (Delany 142)

I think what Delany is saying about identity is not restricted to the category of gay but can be applied to all categories. There is an illusion created by the nature of categories, which is that we can use them to relate to others. The words used to represent categories can be said to be meaningless in the respect that there is no one meaning that is held by everyone. The connotations of a word vary among individuals and what it is meant to inhabit a category is based on the individual experience and what the individual holds to be true. It is not the personal system of categorization that is problematic because as Lakoff and Johnson state, "every living being categorizes" (Lakoff and Johnson 17). It is not something that we as human beings are able to control but an action that is "an inescapable consequence of our biological makeup" (Lakoff and Johnson 18). The underlying problem of categories is related to language and its inability to capture the individual experience since by its very nature, language is about communicating with others. The act of putting our system of categories into language results in the category losing the individual's meaning. The category is now open to the interpretation of others and their imposed meanings. Now the individual's identity is called into question.
This struggle to maintain one's own personal identity is highlighted in Moraga's The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind. She insists that we invent ourselves, but the part of her argument concerning race is problematic because race is thought of as both biological and external. However, Moraga's way of living race is one that is impossible for most people to relate to. It is defined precisely by the fact that Moraga's experience cannot be defined by any category. Even though others may want to put her in the "biracial" category, her experience defies the limits of this category. She has experienced life as a woman who is white, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Cuban, brown, a half-breed, Chicana, etc. because as she says, "My lovers have always been the environment that defined my color" (Moraga 233). She is not simply a biracial woman; she has lived as more than that. Moraga's experience cannot be labeled by any one category. Her experiences as a woman of color and as a lesbian are intertwined; In Moraga's own words, "...we've know a lot of women. Why is it so hard to write of what we know about women? And much of what I know, I admit, is about race" (Moraga 232).

What are you?
Have you ever had to convince someone of your identity? Every time I tell someone that I am Irish, Italian, and Korean, I have to offer an explanation in response to his/her look of disbelief or puzzlement. With a smile on my face, I say, "Well, my dad is Italian, my mom is Irish-Italian, and my twin sister and I were adopted from Korea." Just when I think I see the light bulb of comprehension turning on above his/her head, I hear the next words out of his/her mouth, "Oh, so you're actually Asian then since your real parents are Asian, right?" Sometimes it feels as though I have to defend who I am, that there is a need for me to provide others with an acceptable reason for the claim that I am making in regards to my own identity. In the minds of these other individuals, Asian is a category that fits. Physically, they can look at me and see that I am Asian. Korean is the answer they are looking for if they want specifics because, once again, that makes sense and allows their systems of categorization to remain stable and intact.

"Call me something meant to set me apart from you and I will know who I am." (Moraga 237)
Cherrie Moraga's statement about difference sounds extreme at first, but in a way, as someone who is transracially adopted, I understood where she was coming from. The idea of categories as defining who I am unsettles me. Like Moraga and her refusal of the terms "biracial" and "bisexual," I don't want labels being imposed on me, trying to tell me who I am and limiting what my experiences have been with one word, a word that is meaningless compared to the individual experience that it is supposed to represent. I feel that there is something about categories that make identity problematic in regards to the individual. The confusion and bitter tone that I read in Moraga's tone do not only result from her inability to belong to any particular category but from her frustration that the individual experience is compromised by expecting us to limit and define what we have done and who that makes us by accepting the categories of societies. Moraga's experience reflects the inability of language to capture the individual experience. My reading of Moraga and more importantly, my understanding of her, was not so much about what her words were but the emotions and feelings behind them.

Delany's "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion" and Moraga's The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind are about the value of the individual experience, and yet, the reactions to them were very different. I think that the explanation for this has to do with language and the differences in the writing itself. The tone of Delany's piece is more of an appeal to the audience to re-evaluate the idea of identity. Moraga's writing is also meant to move others, but it is more defiant. She is resistant to the very language that she is using, resentful of the categories that are boxing her in. The inclusion of race and Moraga's argument that it is something that is outside of a category is more problematic than the Delany's idea of sexuality as being outside of language. Moraga's defense rests in her unique experience. Delany, a black gay man, makes practically no reference to its influence on his gay experience, whereas Moraga's race has been defined by each of her relationships. I viewed Moraga's refusal to have labels imposed on her as empowering despite her criticism of the particular labels. If the personal is political, shouldn't an individual like Moraga have the right to claim her own separate category? Delany is also advocating a kind of separation from a category. In his case, he is dismissing the idea of a gay identity. I think that at the heart of their arguments can be found the same message: we need (in the words of Gus) "to maintain the personal without collapsing it into the political." In order to do this, we cannot neglect the value of the individual experience by trying to condense it into categories, only to discover that the meaning has been lost.

Works Cited:
1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
2. Samuel Delany. "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion." Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996.
3. Cherrie Moraga. "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind." Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity. Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi, eds. New York & London: Routledge, 1996.

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