An Argument against Transcendence

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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Sex and Gender

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An Argument against Transcendence

Amy Pennington

As we have discussed sex and gender in the past weeks, I have found myself frustrated with the desire many members of the class have voiced to go 'beyond' the concepts of embodiedness and enculturation. Many of my peers seem to want to dismiss theories like Foucault's because they leave no room for inherent inner 'essence' or 'transcendence.' The main question this course has left me with thus far has been: why must we think of the embodiedness and enculturation of our selves as limiting, imprisoning, or problematic, either in regards to concepts of sex and gender or in general? What is this constant desire we have to get 'beyond' our cultured understandings, our embodied experiences, as though behind them lay some hidden, absolute truth?

The understanding of our cultures and bodies as base obstacles to be overcome on our path to the 'truth' about sex and gender is a notion I find highly problematic. In this essay I argue that by delving into our cultures, our bodies, and thus exploring the place of sex and gender within them, we can follow a more productive path. Through this argument, I hope to demonstrate what I have learned so far about the making and un-making of the categories of sex and gender in this course: that the inevitable human process of making categorizations occurs within an embodied mind which was formed and is continually re-formed by, as well as reforming, the culture which surrounds it. The categories we make and alter form parts of our identities and our understandings of the world, which form parts of our selves. Our selves are formed by their interactions with the bodies they inhabit, and with the culture that surrounds those bodies. In turn, that culture is formed by the embodied selves which are constantly interacting to create and recreate it. Transcending our bodies and cultures, then, is beside the point, for we are formed of them, and they of us. We, as the 'selves' Grobstein describes, function necessarily within discourses, and communicate necessarily through language, but our predicament need not be viewed as oppressive. Rather, we ought to embrace our embeddedness in the structures of language, discourse, and culture, while continuing to recognize that such structures are completely constructed by the interactions of our embodied selves. Such recognition provides us with as much freedom as might the imagined transcendence we seek, for if the sex and gender categorizations espoused by our current culture are based not upon some immutable truth but upon our own interactions, they can thus be seen as infinitely alterable. I seek through this essay to suggest an alternative and perhaps more useful 'story' than the one of transcendence which we have followed thus far in class. Referencing our readings of Lakoff, Foucault, and Lacqueur, as well as Paul Grobstein's lecture, I seek to provide evidence for my claims that we are embodied creatures who inevitably categorize, that we are also encultured beings who function within discourses, and thus present the argument that perhaps we as students ought to regard culture and biological bodies not as false constructions to be discarded or overcome, but as incredible constructions within which we must examine the making and un-making of sex and gender.

Lakoff and Johnson assert the claim that 'we,' as humans, are embodied minds whose reason "arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience" (4). If we accept Grobstein's story of the self and the body, we can then easily understand Lakoff and Johnson's argument that "the same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason" (4). Thus, it is only through our bodies and brains that we can think and experience. Further, the ways in which we think about the information we receive through our bodies is determined largely by the ways in which our brains function. As beings with limited consciousness in an immensely complicated world, we are confronted with more information than we can think about at any given moment. In order to cope with all this information, our brains process information in a number of ways, one of which is through categorization (Lakoff 18). While much of this categorization is done without our conscious control, some of it occurs as we use our minds to reason. At the same time, part of how we experience the world is through categories which make the information our minds receive intelligible (19). Thus, we must consider ourselves as embodied, and thus inherently category-making, beings.

Of course, our experiences as humans are not only mediated by our embodiment, but also by our enculturation. Grobstein's diagram of the culture outside the body transposed on the self within the brain explains my argument here quite well, in a visual sense. Our minds are formed around the information we receive from outside of our selves, either from our bodies or from the interactions of that body with the bodies (and thus embodied minds) of others. The ways in which we think about subjects, the choice of subjects to think about, and the categorizations made within that subject: all are influenced by and inseparably tied to the culture in which we exist. Foucault provides convincing evidence for the inevitable enculturedness of our minds in his theory of the 'archaeology' of science and its history, which "is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility" (xxii). In other words, the history of science is not a history of the slow discovery of unadulterated 'truth,' but instead a history of the different ways in which scientists choose to present and frame the information they have about the world so as to create 'new' truths, according to their own will and innumerable other social tensions present at that point in history. But not only the history of science is a history of shifting discourses; all human social practice, and thus all human thought, is performed within discourses (Hall). The impulse to transcend discourse by refraining from speech thus falls in line with our other hopes of transcendence, for we cannot escape the structures around which form our very minds. Thus, we can understand that our minds are not only embodied, but encultured, that we form our inevitable categories within and around the discourses in which we participate through thought and speech.

All of our entanglement, however, need not leave us feeling trapped. Instead, we can view our bodies and our culture as tools with which our minds make sense of the world, as filters through which the most important information is distilled to purity, as molds which we can use to give shape to the shifting sands of our thoughts. For all of our fear of being 'limited' by our bodies and cultures, we still are unable to imagine thinking without them. Our minds are able to focus on certain categories and minute subjects precisely because they are unburdened by the weight of unimportant neural information, yet they can still access a seemingly infinite amount of information and reason through endlessly various problems. As for our enculturation and thus our inevitable participation in discourse, Laqueur articulates a point Foucault also makes in his work: "difference and sameness are everywhere; but which ones count and for what ends is determined outside the bounds of empirical investigation" (10). Data is present everywhere, in larger amounts than our consciousness can even deal with, but the choice of what data to emphasize and how to portray it's 'consequences' is up to the person who puts the data together to form a theory. Our inability to escape discourse need not be seen as a form of entrapment, for we can change the ways in which the discourse functions through our own participation in it. Thus, we are granted the freedom to create our own truths through the manipulation of the discourses within which we function.

I have presented here an alternative story about enculturation and embodiment, one which portrays these ideas as not constricting of thought but freeing. Its usefulness in my mind exceeds that of the story of culture and body as shells to be cast aside or prisons from which to escape. Instead, in our class' tradition of metaphorization, I would like to think of the culture, discourse, body, and brain within which my mind and self exist as a home. I propose that, instead of searching for a space outside the web in which we both entangled and a part, we use our understanding of these structures to which we are inevitably tied in order to play with and rearrange them according to our will. Instead of escaping categorization of sex and gender, I believe that we ought to study it, embrace it, and play with it, because this is the only way in which we can change these categories for the better.

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