Performativity in Text

Gender Symposium Speaking Notes

I will be discussing two of my papers today: one on the construction of gender and the other on the performativity of gender in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem “Hermaphroditus”.

Judith Lorber, in her essay, “The construction of Gender”, specifies the constructed nature of gender not only in the gender binary, but in every gender expression.

Each of us are given gender roles and norms to work with and as we act within them, we are “doing gender”.

Gender expression is so unique to each of us. When we do gender, it is not necessarily taking on gender roles and leaving them intact as a collected expression of other people’s expectations. Rather, we are given that collected expression which has been built over time and we contribute our piece to its story.

As an English major, I have a great love of stories. For me, the ongoing story of woman is fascinating. The changes that we have made to our identity, not only through time but also between groups within the same times is phenomenal. That theory after theory has been stacked on top of one another to provide a plurality of feminist voices shows the engagement that we have had in our story. We have gone from instances of helping to enforce the patriarchal systems of oppression amongst ourselves, like in examples of body shaming or legitimately advocating for women’s oppression, to the opposite of denouncing any domestic responsibility or femininity. Coming from this, characterized for me by the condemnation of the occupation of the housewife, women have since sought to incorporate a multiplicity of perspectives in what it means to be a woman.

Hyper masculinity and hyper femininity, what we may traditionally associate with man and woman, do not truly exist. They are a social construct which really only exist as representations of extremity of gender. They do not exist in their pure forms in any of us, nor do they exist in a static form where they may remain isolated.

Gender identity and expression is constantly engaged with the world around us, in flux all the time, being shaped by our interactions with different influences.

By doing our genders we claim them as our own and we add each and every one of our expressions to the ever growing story of the gender identity that we have claimed as well as provided a position that other genders may be defined by.

I wear coral pink blouses with bright red lipstick because I decided that it worked for me. When I want to feel my best I wear that red lipstick with my pearl earrings and my favourite bra, because those things are how I physically manifest my femininity. The lipstick with the pearls is a combination used by many women in many eras and has a very classic look- it is by no means unique to me. But I claim them as my own each and every day when I fuse them with my fiery personality and general feistiness.

Though I perceive myself as very feminine, my personality is considered quite masculine. But it is my more “masculine” strengths that I actually find to make my femininity most dynamic, not lesser.

As each of us reinterpret what our genders are we contribute to the story of our gender role as well as participate in other people’s negotiation. As in writing a paper, we pick and choose sources that prove to be beneficial to our purpose or else sources that stand to give contrast to our ideas. It is no different with gender when we integrate specific characteristics of existing gender expressions, selecting what we want to inscribe on our bodies to perform.

My more recent paper addresses Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, “Hermaphroditus”, which explores the Greek mythological figure of Hermaphroditus. I argue that “Hermaphroditus” is a celebration of the beauty of liminality. In the poem, Hermaphroditus is described as having “double blossom of two fruitless flowers (24) whereby the physical male and female bodies are both present.

The body of Hermaphroditus is a concrete reconciliation between male and female, brought together not only to passively coexist but to create an active whole. This is not an abnormality of form for Swinburne, but the fusion that rejects the idea of male and female to be polar opposites.

In Michel Foucault’s essay “The History of Sexuality”, he describes that “hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” (Foucault 893). Because hermaphrodites, or intersex individuals, do not suit the needs of the social institutions that benefit from the gender binary, like marriage or the hierarchical system of the division of labour.

The figure of Hermaphroditus is elevated as beautiful because of this physical liminality. Swinburne, when he looks upon a statue of Hermaphroditus, does not find them lacking. But claims and advocates that this beauty is not confined to a gender binary and is male and female. He recongnizes the beauty of AND, rather than being defined by OR.

I adapt Judith Butler’s theory of performativity to the poem of Hermaphroditus. Butler’s theory specifically targeted real, physical bodies. Though the character or the statue of Hermaphroditus may meet this requirement, I carried it further. I relate Butler’s theory of performativity as a lense by which to view the poem of “Hermaphroditus” in the form of its text.

Butler describes gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (900).

Hermaphroditus acts out how “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (Butler 903-904) because of the very conscious embrace of both sexes within the character throughout the poem. Because “Hermaphroditus” is such a sensual poem it celebrates both sexualities as well as all which fall between them. The poem as an external force participates in “constitut[ing] reality through language” (Butler 900) to further revise gender in a more liminal and deviant context.

The form that the poem takes itself is made hermaphroditic, with string male and female presence throughout the poem. The stanzas are not broken by one being about the masculinity of Hermaphroditus and another about their femininity. Each are infused together in each stanza, such as in the lines:

With love like gold bound round about the head,

Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his

Yet by no sunset and by no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.

The male and female that are brought together, like in the character of Hermaphroditus, do not need to stand in opposition to one another because they fit within the same physical body as well as textual body.

In this same way we are all made to be hermaphroditic in our gender expressions, as we are all a collaboration of masculine and feminine influences that we interpret to coincide within ourselves.

We construct our genders very actively both as a society and as individuals. This process should be made more conscious so that we may construct gender identities that truly reflect us on both of those levels. Our gender identities are things to be claimed and it is for us to pick the very best aspects for those expressions. We must not be afraid to make ourselves beautiful through liminality.

Andrea Oakunsheyld
Professor Forlini
ENGL 449
25 February 2014

Performativity in Text

In response to class discussion, I aim to answer what the significance of the beauty of liminality that Swinburne describes in his poem, “Hermaphroditus”. I will contrast the interpretations that the class had in asserting that the sensuality of the poem was overwhelmingly feminine by drawing from Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. I will argue that the sensuality in the poem of “Hermaphroditus” must not be confined to be only feminine but that this sensuality is actively claimed to be both male and female in the performative text.
Written on the Greek figure of Hermaphroditus, Swinburne’s poem describes the duality and supposed binary of Hermaphroditus in the “double blossom of two fruitless flowers” (Swinburne 24) and the liminality of existence between male and female, never belonging wholly to one or the other (Swinburne 35-36). Rather than the sterility that some of the opening description offers, particularly in being “fruitless”, the poem emphasizes the inherent flux between these binaries by Hermaphroditus having an active claim to both labels, to “choose between two loves and cleave unto the best” (Swinburne 6). In the body of Hermaphroditus, male and female are brought together to be both distinguished and reconciled to one another.
In class, one of the main points which surprised me from a classmate, Joie Coles, was that the sensuality of the poem struck her as entirely feminine and lacking in masculinity (January 23rd). Specifically she interpreted physical features like eyes and lips as entirely feminine, particularly in lines such as “sex to sweet sex to lips and limbs is wed” (Swinburne 17) or the “large light turned tender in thine eyes” (Swinburne 54). There seemed to be an expectation from Joie as well as the class that that for masculinity to be represented it could not be entangled with themes of sensuality now most associated with women, and that masculinity is a concept which needed a more rigid description. This attempt to submit masculinity to a rigid definition in opposition to the feminine also present in this poem exposes the construction which insists that gender be perceived as static, and that male and female be fixedly opposite to one another.
Because of this social need to create and uphold static gender identities, anything outside of these definitions becomes deviant. As explained by Michel Foucault, “[u]p to the end of the eighteenth century… hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union” (Foucault 892-893). Because hermaphrodites, or intersex individuals, do not suit the needs of the social institutions that benefit from the gender binary, like marriage or the hierarchical system of the division of labour (Lorber 126), they are condemned. To further discredit people of nonconforming identities they were said to have a medical or mental illness (Foucault 892). This illness was considered not only inherent within the deviating person but something that was “everywhere present in [them]” (Foucault 896) to ultimately dehumanize them down to a label. From being viewed primarily as a sexual deviant, these deviant “conducts [or identities] were actually solidified in [people’s bodies]” (Foucault 898) through practices over time, thereby constructing gender in both accepted and unaccepted forms. Complimenting Foucault’s work on identities being manifested in the human body, Judith Butler writes on her theory of performative gender which is also inscribed on the body.

Judith Butler describes gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 900) which are entirely performative according to current cultural expectations. As in Foucault’s argument, those who fail to perform correctly, as in the context of Hermaphroditus, are devalued (Lorber 127) and socially punished (Butler, 903). Gender is not a passive phenomenon, (Butler 906), but “constantly created and recreated out of human interaction” (Lorber 126). Swinburne works to make Hermaphroditus’s identity as both male and female a very constructive and active presence, for the reader to find nothing lacking in being of both sexes. As a character, Hermaphroditus acts out gender in the very conscious embrace of both the female and male sexes throughout the poem; “with love like gold bound round about the head, [s]ex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed” (Swinburne 16-17), and they become a physical performative of the male and female genders’ reconcilement. Within the body of Hermaphroditus both male and female aspects are inscribed on the body to full coexist. Though Butler emphasizes the instability of gender and its performativity specifically to the physical body (Butler 900), her theory of performativity can be applied beyond the body of the character of Hermaphroditus to the textual body of the poem.

Hermaphroditus acts out how “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (Butler 903-904), both as a character and as a text. The textual structure of “Hermaphroditus” is performative of gender by its flux in using male and female pronouns within the stanzas, as opposed to having their masculine and feminine qualities divided between stanzas; this makes them physically consolidated in the text in the same way the character of Hermaphroditus reconciles the male and female genders in their body (Swinburne 18). Each meeting of male and female qualities in “Hermaphroditus” exist in the network of the poem, acting temporally as the reader makes their way through the poem to leave the reader with the experience of Hermaphroditus’ wholeness. Masculine and feminine sensualities are shared in the identity that unfolds to the reader when both are described leading up to the “love or sleep or shadow or light that lies between [their] eyelids and [their] eyes” (Swinburne 29-30). As a text, the poem is not divided into male or female aspects of Hermaphroditus, but fuses both within its stanzas to marry them to each other in the textual body (Swinburne 7-8, 12, 16-17, 23-28, 35-36, 38, 52-56). The text itself becomes hermaphroditic in pursuing the masculinity and femininity of Hermaphroditus as it actively works with both genders to make the poem whole and complete in the same way that Swinburne describes the body of the character. Because “Hermaphroditus” is such a sensual poem it celebrates both male and female sexualities and thereby the liminal beauty of being both, in character and in text. The poem as an external force participates in “constitut[ing] reality through language” (Butler 900) to further revise gender in a more liminal and deviant context.
Deviant identities are condemned because “the authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions” (Butler 903) and do not accept any views which challenge these fictions. By making periphery genders Other, the dominant genders create a constructed binary between men and women, or between conforming and nonconforming. Because human bodies are not born identical there has always been physical variation from hair colour to genital formation, making this binary not only unstable but false. The distinction between male and female does not exist in the opposition that society has upheld, an argument most often seen in the criticism of the oppression of women in favour of men, but male and female, as well as all genders, exist in a network which is constantly being defined in relation to each other. Men and women are not complete opposites in reality, and the character of Hermaphroditus reaches further than any of us who identify as men or women to unite qualities of both not only in personality but in a concrete physical form. As Sedgwick discusses in relation to Derrida’s method of deconstructionism, it is not enough to destabilize and reverse a hierarchy or binary, because this uses the same corrupt system of one dominating the other (Segwick 913). The elusive reality is in “understanding their irresolvable instability” (Sedgwick 913) and the need to progress beyond the privileging of either term to ultimately embrace both or all as equal.
Hermaphroditus, by embracing both male and female, is elevated by Swinburne to be above either of these conventional sexes because of the liminality and unity. Hermaphroditus is beautiful because “they” are “and”- not “or” (Forlini 23 January). The coming together of the sexes in one physical form breaks the physically separate spheres of men and women in Victorian society (women being sequestered in domestic spaces, men in the public) (Forlini 21 January). Whereas beauty is conventionally acknowledged based on conformity to one of the set gender roles, Swinburne elevates Hermaphroditus because of the fluidity and collaboration of gender expressions to . The construction of gender is enforced with agency, molded to the reality of the body- not the body to the expectation. In the beauty of hybridization, the contributing binaries are set free from their constricting definitions by joining them in harmony together. That the eyes and lips of a man can be considered both wholly sensual and still confidently masculine empower the terms of masculine and feminine to be defined and redefined as they are performed throughout time: the reality responding to the active construction of gender. Because masculine and feminine are constantly distinguished by their opposition, so too, are they distinguished from, and by, identities which fuse them together, ultimately resulting in a strong sense of plurality of expression. The significance of the beauty of Hermaphroditus’ liminality is in its social power to challenge dominant gender identities to advocate for diversity, and in how it celebrates the fusion of male and female, “love stand[ing] upon thy left and thy right” (Swinburne 33) to create a perfect whole which finds nothing missing or lacking in its deviance through union of these sexual forms.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 900-911. Print.
Cole, Joie. “English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157, University of Calgary, Calgary. 23 January. 2014. Address.
Forlini, Stefania. “French Influences: English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157, University of Calgary, Calgary. 21 January. 2014. Lecture.
—. “French Influences: English 449”. Scurfield Hall 157 University of Calgary, Calgary. 23 January. 2014. Lecture.
Lorber, Judith. The Social Construction of Gender. Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Reading. Ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. 126-129. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 892-899. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford, 2004. 912-921. Print.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Hermaphroditus. Au Musée du Louvre, Mars 1863. PoemHunter.com. Web. 24 February 2014.

At the Airport

Continuing with my work with Amnesty International, this year I am working for Amnesty Canada as a Local Organizer in Calgary to help support the activist community with information and resources; but now a new adventure has arisen. Four people including myself are being sent by Amnesty Canada to a conference in Mexico where Canada, Brazil, the U.S. and Paraguay will be hosted by Amnesty Mexico for a series of workshops and sessions on human rights.

The Canada team is myself from Calgary, one from Regina, one from Toronto, and an Amnesty worker specializing in indigenous issues in Columbia who is also from Toronto. Currently at the airport before my first flight connecting to Toronto, I’m ecstatic to meet the rest of the AI Canada team. During the conference I am hoping to write more blog posts, tweets, and articles on the experience. Two of our team will be speaking about indigenous rights in Canada and I will be presenting with my partner about different styles and techniques of activism. We’ll be getting to hear from each country on their own human rights situation, as well as the stories of two individuals who have survived torture to highlight Amnesty’s “Stop Torture” campaign.

So many of us hear torture stories and terrible events sensationalized regularly in the news, each time becoming less and less real for many people. As a person who has been lucky enough to grow up in Canada this has not been a reality that I have had to face, though I work to not become desensitized to the humanity of these horrors. Hearing these stories and having these individuals right in front of me may be the most intense experience I will face but I am ready. For those who choose not to look and not to see information like this when it is presented to you: this does not go away because you don’t look- it is perpetuated. The people who will share their stories have been through far worse than I likely will ever have to and so it is the least that I can do to be able to share their experience for a moment when they speak and to remember. Each of us will bring back our own stories from this conference to share with our communities in Canada.

One of my favorite quotes from Robin Williams was from the Dead Poets Society- “…That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”. And at the airport I sit here wondering how this will influence my verse.

What Are Words Good for Anyway?

This past week I had the pleasure to be part of the English department orientation for first years, bringing along some of my executive from the department club. Three faculty members were invited to speak about their experiences and work as professors before we spoke about our student club, and to be honest, they blew my mind. I’ve always loved to listen to brilliant people share their views on things like what an English degree can do for you because they give an entirely new perspective that’s fun to explore. The Creative Writing prof that was speaking had an amazing little anecdote that she shared with the group:

She started by saying that the Creative Writing classes were extremely popular with students who are not even English majors because of how accessible and rewarding they are. She moved on to say that she has seen some brilliant medical science students come through her classes and been surprised at some of the depth with which they wrote. She told us about one student in particular who she talked to, asking him why he decided to take a writing class. His answer was simply that one day, being a doctor, he will have to tell someone that they are going to die. And that he wanted the best command of language that he could manage for when that day came. I ALMOST LOST IT WHEN SHE TOLD US THIS STORY.

Much to the disbelief of both Arts and Science students creative and abstract skills are not only useful (or not) for the Arts kids. It is, to some degree, in all of us. It is the reason that people work so hard to become doctors in the first place, or any other career one could be passionate about. It is so beautiful to me when those studying science, business, engineering, or otherwise take a moment to realize how relevant the power of language and other mediums are to their own purposes, and how they are influenced themselves by these forces. The magic of language and of art is one to be shared; I am always so proud when I see another human being take up the cause!

Speaking Out Against Russia 2013

Over this past summer I heard some disturbing radio broadcasts and saw online updates about the anti-gay laws in Russia taking effect. As my school year starts I’m beginning to do more research on human rights issues for the UofC Amnesty International Club, and from hearing about Russia’s insane policies over the last few months, and seeing how publicized it already is, I decided to take this particular issue on and give it the push that we can offer before the Olympics happen in Russia. Basically, even against Russia’s own Constitution, President Putin has had several laws passed of a homophobic nature including making it illegal to pass “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations between minors”. This, essentially, is inhibiting freedom of expression, association and assembly, in making it acceptable to break up peaceful protests and beat those involved, ban pride events, and anything else that speaks out in favor of the LGBTQA community.

It has been proposed by Western populations that boycotting the Olympics altogether. However, after hearing several interviews from individuals in Russia, the apparent way to go is not even to put pressure on the Olympic Committee, but to put pressure on the Olympic Sponsors  to pull funding if these human rights violations continue. Although not all of us are avid supporters of the Olympics, for various reasons (I, myself, really am though), they have (arguably) almost always been a cause for countries to be their best, if not for legitimate reasons, than at least to put up and appealing front for the rest of the watching world. Russia, however, is beyond even caring- a dangerous condition. And so to all of you people over the interwebs, I urge any of you who are comfortable enough to do so to write a letter to Stephen Harper, President Putin, or at least sign the online petition on the Amnesty Website. Amnesty does its best to stay politically neutral, and focuses solely on quality of human life and human rights, so you’re not taking any side other than demanding dignity and rights for the LGBTQA community in Russia. http://e-activist.com/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1770&ea.campaign.id=22244

Nerdy Passions

As the school year begins to approach, my thoughts go towards the direction of my academics, my eventual career, and what I would like to do with my life. I am reminded of how badly I want to create and build for others, and to progress our lives as we know them. I am feeling extremely geeky when I realize that what I’m excited about for school is learning about science fiction lit, sustainable living, and being part of my university community again.

This, as well as my unabashed obsessions (Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Mozart, Wicked, etc.) are what apparently makes me a nerd. A word that I keep coming back to with more and more pride. Being nerdy, some say, is the lifestyle of fully embracing whatever it is you love and never being ashamed of those things. Today, I almost had a heart attack while waiting to hear who the new Doctor would be. Still haven’t made up my mind on that one- I shall reserve judgement until his first season airs, though. When I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and I got chosen for the wand demonstration, I definitely cried. When I find a really amazing TEDTalk on sustainability I get so happy at the discoveries being made and the knowledge which is starting to be spread. I look at architecture and my stomach drops because it really is that big of a deal to me. Passion and conviction truly are anyone’s greatest assets. So in spirit of all the students out there who are maybe starting to think about the coming year, I hope you all remember why you pay way too much money, live like peasants, and eat KD 5 nights a week. Hopefully all of us will find where we are supposed to be, and we will be celebrated for our dedication to our fields and recognized for our nerdy passions. 

Because of my job as an Events Coordinator for the University of Calgary’s Students’ Union, I will need to leave my hometown early to go up for job training and such. And to be honest, I am ecstatic! Although making coffee for minimum wage is riveting, all I can think about is my university career.

Having re-evaluated my academic path in what I am sure is the first of many mid-ecudation crises, I am going to pursue a combined degree in Honours English and Urban Studies. The exciting part: unlike a double major, a combined degree gives you two full degrees!!!! Man, I’m going to look so bad-ass for graduate school applications! It feels so wonderful not to be in doubt of my academic life and I think it will be a nice balance between the paper writing of English and the practicality of Urban Studies.

Finding a place to stay in Calgary for the 10 days or so that I’ll be there prior to residence move-in has been a challenge, but I think I’ve  found a couch to crash on. I always love move-in though, I’m one of those weirdos who love getting into a new room and spending the day getting settled and comfortable. What really needs to happen, though, is finding a good storage system, and ways to kick my own but into a better routine than last year so I can be a bit more prepared in the mornings.

Also in exciting news, The Scribe and Muse Reading and Writing Club will be having an official name change to “The Scribe and Muse English Club”! A few more things to tidy up like email address and banking info, but it’s well on its way. It will be so fabulous to go back to Book Club and tackle some great projects with my events partner and the rest of my 2013-2014 executive. As for Amnesty I’m working on ways to incorporate more current events into our weekly meetings, not only updates on issues that our events are based on- because there’s so much more than the cases that are targeted.

So yes, these are the main reasons that I’m excited to go back to uni. One of my best friends is also coming back for her fourth year, after a year abroad, and it will be wonderful to share the year together. To all of you thinking about going to university, going back, etc., my own opinion is to get involved as much as you can in whatever you think you would like to do. You’ll meet amazing people, it definitely pads a resume if you need it, and believe it or not, it actually really helps with time management. It seems that the more I do, the more I have time for. It’s all about finding your passion 🙂

Coming Back

Fake It ‘Till You Make It

TEDTalks

In my last post I had talked about the significance of becoming aware of what and who you are. To be more precise, this is the best starting point. Being extremely aware of exactly the person you are is often a lost art, with personal intricacies forgotten in the rush of trying to be adequate by standards determined by the many demands of our lives. Being brutally honest about personal qualities, in my own experience, will give you the best tools to then move on to actually DECIDING who you want to be.

There will always be a raw persona of ourselves that we keep and that we identify with, but there is such a large volume of our aspects that we can determine for ourselves. In my first year of university, I joined the “Emerging Leaders Program” in order to meet people (as I was from another province), and to become involved with my new life. This past year I was a Peer Helper for that program as well as a participant in the second year program as well, where my own Peer Helpers did a TEDTalks event with clips on developing professionalism and leadership. The most significant clip for me was about “faking it ’till you make it” meaning to act like you have certain skills until you actually start to develop them.

Forever being a socially odd and nerdy individual in public school, I had decided when embarking on my university career that I would allow myself to be the person that I had been growing into that no one I grew up with would let me be. This allowance was really my first “faking it” moment because I really hadn’t learned exactly how far self confidence could take me. I pushed myself to talk to random people and make connections during my first few weeks, joined anything that interested me, and acted how I thought I would like to be. Thinking about what I wanted my end result to be, whether it be more confident, involved, patient, or studious, if I played the part, so to speak, I developed new mindsets about myself to the point where it became embedded in my personality and complimented my other aspects.

This is what Amy Cuddy of TEDTalks described as not only faking it until you make it, but faking it until you become it. To be honest, it’s not fake, it’s developing new habits or developing yourself. You are the only one who can determine what these things should be, and for them to benefit you fully they need to be things that you alone have decided you want.

For me, this has worked on being conscious of my confidence, keeping anxiety in check, and staying far more organized than I could have ever once pretended to be. I’m still crazy on the inside, but directing myself has made me showcase who I am. University is one of the most effective ways to shape ourselves as it is, we may as well go all out on giving ourselves the best tools for life!