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Sunday 7 August 2005

Liminal Spaces: thinking aloud

Several months ago, I read Cixous and started posting about binary oppositions. Binary oppositions are bad because they're inherently hierarchical. The use of hierarchies on one context reinforces the use of hierarchies in other contexts according to Cixous. Or, as she writes, "Is the fact that Logocentrism subjects throughout - all concepts, codes and values - to a binary systems, related to "the" couple, man/woman?" (From "Sorties" in The Newly Born Woman, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. Trans Betsy Wang. Exerpted in The Hélène Cixous Reader, New York: Routledge. Ed. Susan Sellers p 38 - 40) In other words, when things are placed in binary opposition, the gender binary is reinforced. The gender binary as such is closely related to other hierarchies. When you think in terms of binary oppositions, you reinforce hierarchical systems, sexism, racism etc. So we attack the gender binary by attacking the logical system behind it.

But then she goes on about how writing is women's. Doesn't the use of categories reinforce the binary?

Categorization is, of course, socially constructed. There are, for example, animals in the world that have hair and nurse their young. There are other animals in the world who have feathers, beaks and lay eggs. We call the former group "mammals" and the latter group "birds." Categorizing animals in this way is useful to us because we can generalize about the categories that we have created. We can use our constructed categories to talk about things that birds tend to have in common with each other. However, it's important to remember that these are constructed. It causes us confusion that the duck bill platypus has a bill, hair, lays eggs and nurses it's young. It causes the platypus no angst whatsoever.

The reality of the physical, of our bodies, may place us within a category, but it doesn't make the category anything other than constructed. God created birds and mammals, but god did not create the category "birds" nor the category "mammals." Creation is more complicated than our categories and a fair number of beings inhabit liminal spaces between our neatly defined boxes.

Most things in nature are chaotic. They tend to fall near poles, but can also fall in between. We have our categories "male" and "female" and most people's bodies seem to fall near these poles. But around 4% of people's do not. Moreover, gender and sex are not equivalent. Again, we have poles regarding social roles, the largest being "heterosexual male" and "heterosexual female" but there are poles in other places and some percentage of people who fall nowhere near any of them. We all vary from ideals. We all, in some way, inhabit liminal spaces, some of us more than others.

Biology is not destiny. If the very concepts of "woman" and "man" are socially constructed, then the binary opposition is also socially constructed. Women and men are not opposites and not even a reflection of genetics or genitals. Unless you are taking an androgen blocker, the hormone that you have in the largest quantity in your body is testosterone, a hormone which also, before birth, dictates what shapes our genitals will take. We're all just people with different hormone levels and histories. We have the power to construct our own bodies and our own categories.

The categories "mammal" and "bird" are useful for doing scientific research. The categories "male" and "female" are useful for creating new humans. Another use of categories of people is, as Cixous hints at, the creation of the "alien other." A certain kind of man is the standard, everyone else is part of an out group. The out-groups then organize for their own interests, but this action supports the initial division, created by the in-group to cement a power system benefitting itself.

So why not attack the binary by attacking the binary?

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