Under the Covers with Foucault, Ozick, and Fuss: The Nightmare of a Common Language

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Under the Covers with Foucault, Ozick, and Fuss: The Nightmare of a Common Language

Em Madsen

A young woman sits cross-legged on the floor of her room. She faces her bed, which is covered with a batik blanket. On the bed sit three figures: a bald man with his hands over his eyes, an older woman with her hands over her ears, and a woman with short dark hair, hands covering her mouth. A dictionary lies open on the young woman's lap.

As I define these terms: man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, I claim power. Does it give me pleasure to name these terms? To categorize and pigeonhole? No. I undertake this task with a growing sense of confusion: Foucault sneers into my ear that "Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species" (Foucault 43). If I subscribe to Foucault's viewpoint that this transposition was a negative one which moves against the truth that human bodies have no inherent interiority, I must effectively rewrite the way I think about my own body and sexuality. What of the markers of my femaleness, the delicate genitalia covered by the arching pages of the very dictionary in which I seek refuge? Ozick arches an eyebrow at me and undercuts her address with all kinds of irony: "Dazzlingly influential hole!...From this hole everything follows logically; first the baby, then the placenta, then, for years and years and years until death, a way of life" (Ozick 252). According to Cynthia, as much as I identify as a heterosexual woman because of my hole and my hole's attraction to rods, this hole dictates nothing about me other than my ability to give birth at some point in my life. Could it be that Ozick and Foucault support each other? I imagine them exchanging knowing looks as Fuss lifts a hand from her mouth to advise me further: "Sexual identity may be less a function of knowledge than performance..." (Fuss 238). There is the gauntlet, thrown down before me: how does my performance of my gender and sexuality reflect my own assumed interiorities? And how can my examination of this performance influence my future efforts in definition and power?

One of the assumptions which contributes to the way in which we humans define ourselves is our assumption about the contents of the dictionary. As an English major, there always comes a certain point in dealing with a text where I say, "well, let's see what the OED says." The dictionary is given a kind of primary status: I have even heard of it referred to as the English major's bible. The signs and symbols in the dictionary, the definitions which it provides, are taken as gospel: "If it's in the dictionary, it must be so." However, this ignores the fact that when we define words, we are drawing on subjective and highly personal sets of references. These sets of references are created by the "disciplines" Foucault speaks of, the network of our experiences within society. Words are very flexible, changeable things, and when we use a word, we are not actually equating that word to an exact object, we are equating it with an abstract idea that we hold about the object. The same is true for definitions. The dictionary actually attempts to show this flexibility in examining the roots of words, and how the definitions have changed over time. If we can allow for this evolution and allow our reflections on it to give us further freedoms in definition, then we can use Foucault's observations for our benefit.

What does this look like? Well, as Anne's favorite Foucault quote says, "Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects on it as a problem." So, to follow this logic, we must look through the definitions we hold in the metaphorical dictionaries of our minds, detach ourselves from these definitions, and examine them with all their frictions and issues. Diana Fuss moves towards this act when she writes "our notion of sexual difference all too often subsumes sexual differences" (Fuss 237), resorting to binaries that imprison everyone, not just homosexuals. Her advice is that we move towards "nothing less than an insistent and intrepid disorganization of the very structures which produce this inescapable logic" (Fuss 238). Foucault posits that this can be accomplished through a new set of "objectives and vocabulary," but Fuss believes that this "dream of either a common language or no language at all is just that" (Fuss 239). So where does a person who is interested in this dream turn to for help and guidance?

While neither Foucault nor Fuss offer any concrete examples, I'd like to think that Cynthia Ozick makes a good start. In The Hole/Birth Catalogue, she challenges the viewpoint that women must be anything because of their anatomy. Through the use of the pared-down word "hole," she exposes the hole in the logic of essentialism. This works extremely well, as I said before, with Foucault's thinking about the body: just because a body has a hole does not indicate anything innate or interior about the body. So Ozick's advice is to begin looking at our bodies themselves, for it is the structure of our bodies and how we think of them that creates "this inescapable logic" Fuss writes about. Ozick presents a helpful point for those looking at female as opposed to male definitions. But what of the homo to hetero which Fuss is mainly concerned with?

Foucault writes about the origins of the definition of homosexuals: this contemporary identity began as a label slapped on by an increasingly medical-minded society in the mid-nineteenth century. Before a certain point, it didn't matter who you slept with or when, you were just a sexual human. But after that point, not only did it matter who you slept with, this fact had serious ramifications for how you were viewed and labeled in society.

Foucault uses an example from 1867 of the French peasant Jouy, which causes real problems for me. He would probably point out that I was mired in contemporary thought patterns about pedophiles, but I cannot accept the flippant way in which he dismisses the "caresses" this man apparently shared with young village girls. Foucault's point is that in an earlier context, this sort of behavior happened frequently, and was not labeled in any way. Once it was labeled, "sex became something to say, and to say exhaustively..." (Foucault 32). However, I believe that the point where labeling occurs is the point where sexual behavior begins to have an effect on other's ways of self-identifying. The parents of one of Jouy's victims (I would say, Foucault might say "willing accomplices") complained to the authorities. There was some reason this did not feel right to them, and as self-defined "parents" (because of his rod and her hole and the results of an encounter between those body parts) they stepped in and sought to label Jouy's behavior as transgressive, inappropriate, and dangerous to their daughter.

This is an act of "other-imposed definition," but in contemporary society, people have begun to define themselves. Is this an act that is forced upon them by society? Where was the turning point when this societally-imposed "naming" became internalized? Did those who defined reach for their dictionaries and realize that defining others meant there was a need to define the self? Many times the names which are claimed are names which complicate identity and make existence difficult. However, in "outing" oneself, or claiming a transgressive or subversive sexual identity, there is a distinct power. As Fuss points out, homosexuality and heterosexuality each haunt each other. We cannot have straight sex without gay sex, or transgressive without run-of-the-mill. And how did this act of definition move from one of lack of power to one of power?

t's all in the words we use, say Fuss, Foucault, and Ozick. Once we create terms and use them to define ourselves and others, society can then police these terms and the people who use them. Fuss says we should "use [the terms] up, exhaust them, transform them into the historical concepts they are and always have been" (Fuss 239), and I believe we have this responsibility for we have created them! We are the police, and we are those who suffer beneath our own definitions. We talk and talk and talk, but we don't do. The only thing we do is gender performances.

Ozick and Fuss are going through my closet as I type, fingering my pink raincoat, the sweaters made for me by my grandmothers, my one pair of heels. Foucault is looking at my bedside table: lotion, earrings, and in the drawer, the diaphragm in its pink plastic case. This is the paraphernalia of 21 years as a female. I have accumulated this stuff as part of my costume in my grand performance of myself, a heterosexual female. When I spoke with Paul Grobstein earlier in the year about how things accumulate, he remarked that if humans kept cluttering their living spaces, there would be no more room, and room is essential if we are to grow and evolve. I believe this is the room Foucault is referring to when he speaks of using thought as freedom: the room to step back and examine the thought-artifacts that litter this dorm room, this campus, the highways and drawing rooms of America. This flotsam and jetsam is always shifting and piling up and draining away. How can we ever presume to name what is constantly changing? It reminds me of the play by Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding: the main character, Frankie Addams, is a twelve-year-old tomboy. Halfway through the play she puts on a pink dress and starts calling herself F. Jasmine. Her changing names reflect her changing sense of self. Like Frankie, we can start thinking about the dictionaries in our heads, and we can think about creating multiplicities of definitions for these dictionaries, too many to police. With an examination of new and varied definitions (like Paul's 16+ genders), we can work together to create the birthing expansions and contractions that will mark our shift into a new and awe-ful vocabulary.

Foucalt, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Random House, New York, NY. 1980.

Fuss, Diane. Inside/Out. Routledge, NY. 1991.

Ozick, Cynthia. "The Hole/Birth Catalogue". Ms. October 1972.

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