Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Embodiment Problem

I'm beginning to worry that I'm nothing more than a ferocious, obstreperous, intractable contrarian; that all of my philosophy, theology, and metaphysics are based on nothing more than denial and negativity; that I have an uncontrollable urge to qualify, mitigate, and negate any statement I see, simply because it is a positive or categorical statement.

Maybe I'm being a good deconstructionist, drawing attention to Derrida's insistence that every word or statement contains a trace of its negation, or maybe I'm just a buzz-killing, problematizing Negative Nigel (not that the two are mutually exclusive). What's clear is that I am intensely suspicious of any position, idea, belief, or argument, and I will find ways to criticize even the ones I agree with.

Of course, this makes it rather difficult to establish which ones I do agree with, because literally everything in the world seems fatally flawed to me. One area where I have absolutely no idea what I think or believe is to do with embodiment.

Queer theologians LOVE embodiment. In an understandable reaction to the sex-negativity of the matter-denigrating dualism that still pervades our culture (the religious form descending through Christian thinkers heavily influenced by popular Greco-Roman philosophy; the secular flavor popularized by Descartes), queer theologians take Merleau-Ponty's observation that the body is inseparable from the self and use that to unproblematically celebrate embodiment as an innate good. Susannah Cornwall writes that she's never met a queer theologian who didn't agree with the statement that embodiment is good (yes you have, Susannah, I just didn't mention it).

Well, if it's a consensus view in my field, I'm going to have to problematize it. I'm a contrarian like that.

Truth be told, though, my need to problematize the simplistic “embodiment = good” equation stems ultimately not from theory but from my personal, very complex and conflicted, relationship with being embodied.

Early childhood was probably the time I was most comfortable in my skin. I played sports, took my shirt off when I felt like it, got rough-and-tumble sometimes and curled up quietly with a book at other times. I've never been coordinated or graceful (ask my mother about my disastrous semester of ballet lessons), but I haven't always been as uncomfortable and awkward as I am today. Sadly, I hit every single branch on my way down the puberty tree, from bad posture to bad skin to a severe case of the Bella Swan lolclumsies, all of which still afflict me today (to the point where there is an evil plot on the part of my more Schadenfreude-prone friends to kidnap me and take me ice-skating, just for the lulz).

It's not that I hate my body precisely. I hate some of the things that it does (every month: this time it's not going to happen, this time I have willed it out of existence with the sheer force of my hatred for it), I hate its limitations (third arm and stalk eyes now, pls – or at the very least a sense of spatial awareness and a cure for motion sickness), and I hate most of all the meanings other people read onto it. Sometimes I think that all this fumbling toward a trans* identity is simply an attempt to wrest a modicum of control over how others read my body.

Like, I often think that I would like T and top surgery, but is that because I want those things themselves or because I want the meaning they would cause others to read onto my body? And it's not as though you can separate those things. (One reason why the “man trapped in a woman's body” narrative is unhelpful for me: completely detached from the body, what possible meaning can “man” or “woman” have? I've been trying to answer that question my entire life.)

And I know that T and top surgery wouldn't magically make me enjoy being embodied. This isn't a straightforward case of “here are the things wrong with my body, let's fix them.” It's more a case of ontological dissatisfaction with the very fact of my having a body at all. T and top surgery might alleviate the symptoms, but there's no cure.

The problem with YAY EMBODIMENT is that I don't feel that way about embodiment. If embodiment is a good thing and I should love my body, then my dysphoria and general antipathy toward physical reality have to be pathologized. And that puts me in the weird position of wanting to defend my dysphoria. Like, don't tell me how to feel about my own body! I can hate it if I want to!

Shit's complicated, yo. And, as abstract as it sounds to debate embodiment and the nature of the relationship between mind/soul/self and body/matter/physicality, it's not mere ivory-tower pontification. It's really important for how I live out the rest of my life.

Yes, I made this. Yes, it helped me figure stuff out.

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