Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discloses

Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discloses

by Ephraim Das Janssen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253028921
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/11/2017
Pages: 170
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Ephraim Das Janssen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Chicago State University.

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There are men, and there are women, the story goes. Men are strong, rational, ordered, active, unitary, and attracted to women. Women are tender, emotional, creative, and passive; their attention is divided; and they are attracted to men. A man and a woman meet, and, after a period of pursuit and more or less feigned reluctance on her part, they marry, have fat babies, and live happily ever after. So the story goes, anyway, and it is not a difficult story to find. It is replayed in almost every book, film, and television program available; it is presupposed in philosophical, legal, ethical, political, and medical systems. It is one of the dominant discourses of Western culture, one of the myths that lend lives meaningfulness. But is it true?

In one sense, this story is not only true but truth. As a dominant discourse, this story is the rule by which truth is measured for how relationships between men and women are supposed to operate; it is the context of the "ought-to-bes" and "in-order-tos" within which all of us always already find ourselves. It is the norm. But in another sense, it is not true at all. If it were, there would be no need to tell the story; it would just be. As the character Cal puts it in Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex,

I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn't normal. It couldn't be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people — and especially doctors — had doubts about normality. They weren't sure normality was up to the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.

The story cannot happen unless there are alternatives, other paths that could be taken. And it is in these other paths that things get really interesting.

This book addresses the relationships that exist between individuals (Dasein) and the social body (das Man). There is a great deal going on in these relationships. I argue that the ways in which power operates on individuals produce gender and the persistence of transgressive individuals operates, in turn, on institutions of power. This interrelational, mutual interplay of influences is key to understanding what gender is, and this book is an examination of just how such interplay occurs.

The West is heavily invested in the story it tells of gender, so invested that violating gender norms is dangerous business, which makes urgent an examination of just what gender is and what can be expected of it. In some cases, those who do not fulfill conventional expectations regarding gender are decried as threats to the community. In some cases, they are killed. Even children are killed over this. At times, the difficulty arises as a result of ambiguous or atypical biological sex characteristics, which make it difficult to determine an individual's biological sex and gender, and other times there is no physical anomaly present in those who do not conform easily to gender norms. Those physical conditions referred to as "intersex" or "disorders of sex development" raise questions about the patient's "true gender" and how it is to be determined. Debates over the best way to treat such people are impassioned, and the current trend is to delay treatment as long as is feasible without damaging the patient's health. Some of these questions ask whether transgender people commit fraud by living in the gender roles to which they feel themselves drawn, whether it hurts or helps children to be forced to conform to their assigned gender roles, and what may be made of such people in a world in which only two gender options, the masculine and the feminine, are available.

Current research regarding those who do not fit neatly into the expected categories poses a challenge to a cogent understanding of sex and gender and also to the traditional Western understanding of human nature as a combination of the discrete elements of mind and body. It raises questions about identity and thus how related questions of justice and equality may be understood. It is clear that biological facts about bodies create certain expectations regarding the genders that are associated with them, and I argue that it is no less the case that ideas about gender have an effect on how bodies are understood and classified according to scientifically relevant criteria. Most people expect the sciences to be based in brute facts regarding bodies. But at the same time, without the sciences to classify bodies and articulate their findings, the bodies they examine would not be intelligible; there would be no way of speaking about them at all. Culture, which includes the sciences, has its basis in the natural world. At the same time, nature has its basis in culture, because it is only by means of language and inquiry, which are cultural phenomena, that anything about nature can be known. The philosophical question of gender is concerned with how a loosely related set of expectations that seems to begin with biology but also extends to behavior, social roles, legal status of citizens, the character of freedom, and ultimately human experience itself may be made sense of. The question of gender arises out of the way gender is meaningful in factical, historical life; how gender expectations come about; the role of transgression in the gendering of human lives; and relationships between individuals and the social constructions that shape us. As Martin Heidegger has noted, nonscientific experience and understanding of the world are epistemically and experientially prior to scientific investigations; that is, people do science about things that already matter, instead of things mattering because people do science about them. Thus, the biological aspect of gender is not the only important one in the field of gender theory or, indeed, in life; equally crucial are the existential, cultural, and historical origins of gender.

This is why Heidegger's phenomenological model of Dasein (human existence, Being-there) in his most well-known work, Being and Time, is useful for articulating the question of gender. Heidegger was innovative; he was the first in twentieth-century Continental philosophy to point out that a defining characteristic of human experience is the very fact that human beings question their own existence. Dasein cares about its own existence while making as few assumptions as possible about what "human nature" is. Employing Dasein allows a perspectival, historical, and deconstructive approach to the question of gender, dismantling the tradition in order to see how it works. Dasein is Heidegger's response to the mess that the Moderns have made of trying to define the self as a discrete, coherent "thing" while never discovering just what that thing is, a minimalist approach that allows for the discussion of ideas that are otherwise precluded by the very language of the philosophical tradition. The stories Dasein tells and the ways in which Dasein investigates its world are what is important and interesting to the phenomenologist, because these are what shape Dasein's manner of living out its own Being in its everyday concerns. Since Dasein is a question to itself, instead of a disembodied, coherent subject or res cogitans, it makes sense to speak of many aspects of Dasein's Being, including its body, its culture, and the natural world, as crucial to Dasein's questioning of its own Being. This means that "the 'essence' of Dasein lies in its existence," which is to say, the question of the meaningfulness of Dasein's embodied Being-in-the-world is not an ahistorical, universal, "essential" answer but rather a mutable, undefined, and unrestricted question that has different historical answers. The point is for Dasein to question its existence as it is lived rather than to produce answers that are reified as "absolute truth."

Heidegger's account of Dasein is a challenge to traditional essentialist metaphysics, and he deliberately avoids describing human beings in essentialist ways that are so familiar as to go un-remarked-on. Instead, Heidegger's project is to "destroy" the basic tenets of the Western philosophical tradition in order to gain a fresh perspective on how they operate. It is not only the thinking of the ancients that must be destroyed in the literal sense of being unbuilt or dismantled but also the philosophical heritage they have passed on. To discover the most basic truths about human Being, it will be necessary first to cast off the lenses of tradition. The idea is not to "destroy" the past in the sense of annulling it in toto; rather, it is to discover how much thinking along traditional lines has left hidden.

A most interesting aspect of practical application of ontology is that it provides the means for reversing the usual focus on gender as such and approaching the question from a different angle. The work being done in this field focuses on questions of ethics in particular cases or specific types of cases, rather than on the experience of gender and the ways in which gender is innovated according to those persons' needs. But gender matters only insofar as it is meaningful to Dasein's life, so a reversal of this focus is also necessary to produce a robust account of how gender is experienced and why it is so important. The point is to approach the issue of gender from the point of view of how Dasein lives it, avoiding the danger of endorsing existing gender norms in the process of examining gender norms and thus creating circularity. Instead of asking, "What causes some people to be transgender?" the phenomenologist needs to ask, "What is gender?" To begin, presuppositions regarding gender and how they function in Dasein's lived experience must be examined.

I argue that it is not the case that Heidegger was a hopelessly sexist thinker who must be drastically altered; rather, it is the case that he did not address all the possible implications of his own ontology of Dasein. Insofar as Dasein is a bare-bones model of the kind of being to whom its Being matters and is a question for it, it provides a model with implications that can be developed and applied to gender issues that are in urgent need of attention today. It is my hope that a Heideggerian, applied phenomenological account of gender focuses attention where it is needed: lived experience. I do not want to give a merely sensational report of people who are so bold as to transgress gender norms and expectations; nor do I want to offer an in-depth exegesis of Heidegger; rather, I aim to use Heidegger's theories to get at the heart of what gender is for all by examining those for whom gender just does not work out according to expectations. Just as the study of a foreign language aids in understanding one's native tongue, an examination of transgressively gendering individuals can yield a greater understanding of how this ubiquitous phenomenon operates for everyone.

So what is gender? I argue here that it is a phenomenon experienced as a style of Being, shaped by the tensions that obtain between individuating Dasein, understandings of embodiment, and the social constructs according to which Dasein's Being is rendered intelligible, and operating according to deployments of power by means of technologies. Since Dasein is always already engaged meaningfully with its world, this meaningful engagement always takes some historical form, some "style" or other. There is no aspect of Dasein's Being in which gender is not an issue for it. Yet this issue as an issue has until recently gone largely unexamined and unquestioned in the history of Western thought, including in Heidegger's own work. Gender differences have been presupposed rather than questioned. Emancipatory discourses concerned with prescriptive ethical or political claims, such as the fights to pass the Equal Rights Act or Employment Non-Discrimination Act, fail to question what gender is, instead adopting prevailing presuppositions regarding gender. If gender is simply not presupposed to be an ahistorical metaphysical or biological reality but rather understood to be a fluid, changing, historical concept that is subject to change, it is possible to examine how it arises and explore where its limitations lie. This can free inquiry from both unfounded biological reductionism and metaphysical essentialism.

To do this, I use Heidegger's model of Dasein but also the theories of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Edmund Husserl. The result is an applied ontology of the phenomenon of gender that is neither a critique of current secondary literature in Heidegger studies nor a prescriptive ethics. Rather, this work is an exploration of how it is that Dasein both shapes and is shaped by gender expectations within its particular, specific, historical, and cultural context. My aim is not to place these thinkers into conflict, declaring one the "winner" and the others "losers" in a debate. While agonistic methodologies are quite helpful in establishing validity in competing arguments, this investigation calls for a different approach, one more akin to the way music is read on multiple staves so that harmonies may emerge. It is more helpful to engage in a phenomenological examination of the theories and analyses of the above-named thinkers, which also allows the analyses themselves to cooperate and interrelate in a living understanding of gender.

Wobbly Terms

One difficulty that arises in gender studies is the ambiguity of the terms used. Indeed, this ambiguity demonstrates the urgency and necessity of the present inquiry — discrete terms like "biological sex," "sexual orientation," "sexual behavior," and "gender" are often conflated in everyday, professional, and academic discourse; they are "wobbly." If one asks an expectant mother the gender of her baby, she is likely to say, "It's a boy" or "It's a girl," when in fact, while the fetus's biological sex is known, the child has yet to manifest any gender, properly speaking. Certain expectations are implied in language, not least of which is the expectation that a fetus that has a penis will be a "boy," whereas a fetus that has a vagina will be a "girl." This is most often the case, but, as many parents have discovered, it is not a universal truth. It is necessary, then, in any discussion of gender, to clarify the terms of the discussion in order to avoid confusion and talking past each other. In this book, I rely on the current common, professional, and academic usages of the terms in question, but I recognize, too, that allowing terms to remain a bit "wobbly" in usage may not be such a terrible thing: in different contexts, different ideas (and sometimes even new ones) can emerge. At any rate, care with language should not extend to rigidity that prevents the expression and evolution of ideas.

That said, "biological sex" is used here to refer to the biological classification of bodies as male, female, or intersex (those bodies that are not unambiguously male or female), which takes genital shape, chromosomes, hormones, reproductive capacity, and DNA into account. The evolution of the way in which biological sex of human beings is classified has occurred in conjunction with the discovery of sexual differences between males and females. Primary sex characteristics are those that are related to the reproductive system, whereas secondary sex characteristics are those nonreproductive characteristics that typify males and females. So the presence of testicles or a uterus in a human body is a primary sex characteristic, and facial hair or larger breasts are secondary sex characteristics. Typically, humans are classified as being one of two sexes, but the incidence of bodies being born that do not neatly fit one category or the other is not as uncommon as is ordinarily supposed, and estimates suggest that as many as one in one hundred births exhibit some sort of intersex condition. Such conditions include those in which the genitalia develop in an atypical fashion, in which DNA is atypically structured, in which an insensitivity to, or overproduction of, hormones may occur, or in which enzymes that inhibit masculinization are produced. Since the mid-twentieth century, such conditions in newborns or small children have been regarded as "medical emergencies" and are medically "corrected" as far as possible, whether they threaten the patient's overall health or not. There is today some debate about whether this is the most ethical approach to the phenomenon of intersex individuals, and some very strong arguments are being made in favor of delaying surgeries or hormone treatments (in the absence of medical necessity) until patients are capable of making informed decisions regarding their own bodies.


Excerpted from "Phenomenal Gender"
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Copyright © 2017 Ephraim Das Janssen.
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Table of Contents

1. The Question of Gender
2. Gender in its Historical Situation
3. Heidegger Trouble: Gendered Dasein and Embodiment
4. Gender and Individuation
5. Gender, Technology, and Style

What People are Saying About This

Assuming a Body - Gayle Salamon

Original in its reach and ambitious in scope, this book is poised to make an important contribution to Heidegger studies, to phenomenologies of the body, and to transgender studies.

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