Friday, February 6, 2015

Zhuangzi and my Gender Identity

I often turn to ancient Chinese philosophy to try to make sense of things. It's odd for a white, Midwesterner who doesn't speak Chinese, I know, but it is true. (In fairness, I use Greeks, and Frenchmen, and old professors too).  Here's a classic example of me turning to the Ancient Chinese thinkers. So yesterday, I was thinking about Zhuangzi's most famous parable (he's an ancient Daoist I like, whose writing style involved lots of bizarre parables). In his “butterfly dream,” Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly, and on waking is uncertain whether he “really is” Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or “really is” a butterfly, who is currently dreaming that he is Zhuangzi. So let's switch things up a bit, but still basically plagiarize Zhuangzi ...
“On many occasions, I, Dr. Morton, dreamt I was a woman, living my life as a woman. I was conscious only of my happiness as a woman, unaware that I was male. And soon I awaked, and there I was, male. Then later, I realized that I did not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a woman, or a woman dreaming I was a man. Between male self and female self there was such a distinction. This is called the transformation of things.”

Now first note, at the level of ontology, this is not all all how we usually use the notion of transformation. No physical thing has changed here, rather we have an uncertainty of perspectives. We are shifting between two different interpretations of self, and in a sense between two whole worlds, rather than watching a change within one perspective or interpretation or world. It is that one's assumptions have come unmoored, and things that previously seemed impossible, or not even thinkable enough to bother rejecting as impossible, suddenly seem possible. I have an old argument about free will somewhere that works just like this. But my early bits gender transition fit this picture well too. I “knew” that I was male (albeit barely so), but there were all these opposing bits of data that I just wouldn't or couldn't take seriously, or frame into an opposing account. And then, I framed the account, and the “knowing” dropped away, and suddenly things had been transformed, because I stood between two accounts, that seemed so distinct, and yet could not both be so. Maybe I was a man who routinely dreamed of being a woman, or maybe I was not a man, but routinely worked to convince myself that I was. How would one go about deciding an issue like that, once it has become plausible enough to be entertained? How do you know you aren't a butterfly dreaming that you are a human? Well, obviously, most people prevent this worry by never really allowing it as a possibility worth serious consideration in the first place. But once you do allow it, what then? Similarly, for me, for so long, I just refused to entertain the possibility, but once I had, I had no further defenses … And once the two possibilities, I'm a man who dreams regularly of being a woman vs I'm a non-man regularly working to pretend to myself that I'm a man – stood together epistemically roughly equal, I quickly knew which I wanted to be true ...

But that is not really the main thrust of Zhaungzi's thought on the matter, even in that chapter, book 2 of Zhuangzi, entitled “The Evening Out Of All Things.” He makes a lot of points about epistemology, and logic, and mysticism there. But one reflects where I wound up on the gender stuff with a couple more years of work and reflection. This is a passage I've come back to, many times over the years. I've recently re-read at least 10 different translations of it, here is my own translation (heavily dependent on Sarah Snyder's translation, and careful word by word 'trot' and analysis, in "Science of Myself", but also many other translations and my own opinions and understandings.)

“There is no being that is not 'that.' There is no being that is not 'this.' From 'that' standpoint we cannot see, but from the standpoint of knowing oneself, one can know. Therefore it is said 'that' comes from 'this,' and 'this' comes from 'that' – which means 'that' and 'this' gives birth to one another. And so with life then death, and death then life. And so with possible then impossible, and impossible then possible. 'This' causes what is uncaused, and what is uncaused causes 'this.' Thus, by means of the sage shedding the light of heaven, 'this' is not the cause, and also is the cause. 'This' is also 'that,' and 'that' is also 'this.' 'That' is also one that 'this' is not, 'this' is also one that 'that' is not. Is the result that 'that' and 'this' are in the same place? Really? Is the result that 'that' and 'this” are not in the same place? Really? When 'this' and 'that' are not incautiously taken as opposites, this is called the pivot of the Dao. At the pivot of the Dao, only then do we attain the center of the ring, where one is not impoverished by what must be so. 'This' also does not exhaust the whole, 'not' also does not exhaust the whole. Consequently, we do not use a limited perspective when we seek to shed light on a topic."

There is an epistemic/mystical place, where traditional opposites no longer stand in opposition. And this is different from the moment of transformation in opposition (as in the first passage), or from an opposition where the tension is being held and used for some useful purpose (as in Heraclitus' notion of opposing coherence). Rather yes and no, no longer “stand against each other,” they seem complementary, or aspects of a whole. It's also not that 'this' and 'that' merge, or lose all distinction, or disappear into a mystical Monism. Rather the distinction between 'this' and 'that' ceases to be a source of “exhaustion” or “impoverishment,”- the situation is “rich” enough to allow different and distinct accounts to have space to be. In gender, my male-self and female-self do not merge fully, or stand in some transcendent unity - but rather both stand together as different and distinct as they are united or blurred - but as elements of a vaster richness, elements in a coincidentia oppositorum. Nor am I holding the two under tension to use the power of the frission, the two stand distinct/non-distinct as they are testifying to the case, rather than working as an engine of becoming.

So I say genderqueer and androgyne and non-binary, rather than male or female. And I don't mean epicene as in unisex, and I don't mean not-any-of-either-male-or-female, and I don't mean actively alternating, or paradoxically-fused, or a simple unity of the two, or transcending the categories of male and female entirely. I mean sitting in a wide lavish ring of wealthy selfness, where Brian and Patricia are present, and no one account is vast enough to account for both together, but I say “BP” as a symbol of this being-together-within-myself.  I mean Anekantavada in Daoist drag, dancing to some crazy Heideggerian euro-pop or something.

And so I remain, as I long have been, a connoisseur of many extremely fine grades of beyond-binaryness.

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