Friday, April 15, 2011

That Issue, of Representation

Just a couple of quotations or so.  First, although we in the west tend to speak in terms of categories, that are binary, as if they are natural, our practices are ancient, going back to the man Aristotle, who profoundly believed that females naturally were inferior to males.  Second, from Aristotle to a bit more recently Ferdinand de Saussure to Jacques Lacan to Sigmund Freud and even to Jacques Derrida, there has been this presumption of representation by language, as if language itself is naturally so binary, so that there's the signified and the signfier, or, in more personal terms, as if more objective terms, the observer and his subject observed by him.  But fortunately, we all know there's more than just these two, than just the "either/ or" possibility in language.  So third, there are linguists and literary theorists such as Hélène Cixous, who get us beyond the (male-ish, constructed-as-if-"natural") binary.

Cette transformation du discours littéraire en discourse scientifique - qui sera (du moins, pour la tradition occidentale) à peu près definitivement formulé par Aristote - résulta d'un effort immense et vraiment langagier des Présocratiques, et cet effort devait être accompagné d'un effort linguistique, des élaborations théoriques des relations complexes entre l'univers, la pensée et le language, et entre la langue et son usage.
--Ferdinand de Saussure,
"Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure"
Revue Suisse de Linguistique Generale
Société genèvoise de linguistique

.....In his own investigation of "the life of signs in society," [Ferdinand] de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, saw language as a binary system consisting of an arbitrarily related signifier (the sound) and signified (the concept). Jacques Lacan developed this concept of the nature of the sign as both arbitrary and diacritical, a fundamental concept of sexuality in Freudian psychology, into a psychoanalytic theory that has had great impact on feminist theory. Jacques Derrida argued from the basis of this arbitrary and diacritical nature of the sign that language is essentially indeterminate--that there is no origin of meaning--and that there is no prelinguistic self. Because the issue of gender is fundamentally an issue of representation, for feminists the study of signs has become the study of gendered signs, and the arbitrary and diacritical nature of the sign is the site where semiotics and feminism intersect.
.....Arbitrariness means that the relation between the sign and its referent is neither a necessary nor natural one. From here, we could argue against claims of an essential nature of woman, because woman as a sign is a constructed category. A complication that arises from this constructedness is that, because the recognition of women as a distinct social group was a founding moment for feminism, the arbitrariness of the sign at first seems to threaten a fundamental aspect of feminism, that is, its claim that there is a category called woman. But by denaturalizing the category, the arbitrariness of the sign opens up for analysis the many ways in which woman is constructed as subject within an oppressive system.
.....In its diacritical nature, the sign takes on its meaning only out of its difference from other signs. This meaning-making through difference has led to the insight that the categories of man and woman stand in diacritical relation to one another and, moreover, that this binary opposition is at the heart of language. Hélène Cixous argued that Western philosophy and literary thought is a series of male/female oppositions which, no matter the terms, always translate in a patriarchal value system into positive/negative. To this binary system, Cixous opposes a multiple, heterogeneous difference as the feminine.
--Mary Anne Stewart Boelcskevy,
edited by Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace


Kristen said...

Ok-- this seems to translate in popular parlance as "box" thinking-- that there is a box called "man," and a box called "woman," with a whole bunch of stuff in each box, or category-- and feminism says that the contents of the boxes is largely arbitrary. The only non-arbitrary things in the box are the obvious physical differences. And the modern mantra, "Think outside the box" opposes this way of thinking. What are the alternatives to "box" thinking? Clearly part of it is to see that men have a "female" side and women have a "male" side-- but even that idea still buys into the labels that there are certain traits that fit into one category and not the other. Hmmm. . .

J. K. Gayle said...

The only non-arbitrary things in the box are the obvious physical differences.

Hmmm... indeed. The notion of "certain traits" also makes or constructs the box, doesn't it? Well, it's not as if difference is invisible or not "obvious" (whether body difference of sex or race or height or such). Once, I heard a male preacher say, "women not only have different plumbing from me but their wiring is also different too." That very same preacher is a strong pulpit advocate of "complementarian" marriage and of "male over woman" (not the other way around) teaching. // Many studies have been done to prove the physical difference of race makes a difference. And some have noted that the taller a man is, the more likely he is to be a CEO of a company. "Nature" design? "God's" boxes? hmmm....

Kristen said...

Yes, there is the nature vs. nurture argument too. And there's not just socialization and how that affects one's own behavior, but how physical differences change how you are seen by society and which doors are going to open for you while others remain stubbornly closed.

Even if women and men are "wired" differently, there is still more variation within each sex than there is between the sexes as a whole. Each individual person is "wired" differently from all others. This can be seen in the personality differences of identical twins raised together in the same home. Hmmm. . .

J. K. Gayle said...

but how physical differences change how you are seen by society and which doors are going to open for you while others remain stubbornly closed.

When you said this, Kristen, that reminded me of what John Radcliffe wrote here,

"In this case I made the enforced binary decision to enter the “female” toilets in order to assist my mother, on the basis that she rather, than I, was the “user”. "

John Radcliffe said...

I’ve often wondered why languages like English and Greek see the need for masculine and feminine pronouns.

To my mind they are only useful when one is referring to two people who happen to be one of each sex. In other (indeed, probably the majority of) situations they are either of no advantage (they can’t be used to distinguish between people of the same sex) or actually create problems (when one is referring to people whose sex is unknown or simply irrelevant).

Two sets of pronouns to refer to “first and second referents” would seem to be potentially much more useful, which suggests to me that the introduction of gendered pronouns is determined by some agenda other than a linguistic one.

Take this sentence as an example: “One who keeps his commands remains in him, and he in him” (1John 3:24a). With my “two-referent” pronoun system, this could be disambiguated as something like: “Ref1, who keeps ref2’s commands remains in ref2, and ref2 in ref1.”

Here even NIV84 pluralised to remove the referent ambiguity: “Those who obey (TNIV ‘keep’) his commands live in him, and he in them.” As avoiding pluralisation was one of the aims of latest revision, NIV11 has: “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them”. Here “them” is used as a 3rd person singular pronoun (not as a “true” plural as in NIV84 and TNIV), while substituting “God’s” indicates that the commands aren’t the keeper’s own. (Unfortunately, inserting “God’s” removes an ambiguity I would prefer to keep – that of whether the commands are God’s or Jesus’. I think that careful consideration of v23 suggests the last referent there was Jesus not God, and so he could be the referent in v24 too.)

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for the good questions and excellent commentary and analysis on the English (T)NIV for 1John 3:24a.

I look forward to reading this verse in The Divine Feminine Version, co-edited by Shawna Atteberry, Laura Grimes, Julie Sweeney, Timothy Victor, and Mark Mattison.

In the mean time, let me just say, You've taken me back to some of the languages of my childhood: Vietnamese and Indonesian and English. Vietnamese has an elaborate pronoun system, because family and relationships are so very very important for Vietnamese people; nonetheless, they will not over-specify gender if they don't have to, as with the inclusive "ai," "họ," and "người ấy." Likewise, the Indonesian's pronoun "(d)ia" means either "she" or "he"; and "barangsiapa" is something like "anybody" or "whoever."

So let me quote (for whomever) some respective translations:

J. K. Gayle said...

1John 3:24a in different gender inclusive translations:

vâng giữ các điều răn Ngài
thì ở trong Đức Chúa Trời
và Đức Chúa Trời ở trong
người ấy;
(the above is the Vietnamese I grew up with)

vâng giữ mệnh lệnh Thương Đế
thì sỗng trong Ngai,
va Ngai sỗng trong
(the above is newer Vietnamese, in a translation by one of my former work colleagues)

(below is Indonesian I grew up with)
menuruti semua perintah Allah,
ada dalam Allah
dan Allah ada dalam

(below is I John - or "Yohanan Alpha" - verses 18 to 24, by the wonderful translator Willis Barnstone) -

My little children, let's not love in word
Or tongue but in our deeds and in our truth.
By this we'll know that we are from the truth,
And before him we will persuade our hearts
That if our hearts condemn us for being cold,
That God is greater than our hearts. He knows
All things. My loves, and if our hearts do not
Condemn us, we have confidence with God,
And what we ask from him, we will receive,
Because we keep to his commands and do
What pleases him. And this is his command
That we believe the name of his son Yeshua
The Mashiah, and we love one another
As he commanded us to do. All who
Keep his commands reside in him and he
In them. And so we know that he resides
In us, and through the spirit he gave us.