I was trying to write a blurb to offer my services as an educator on gender and on transgendered experiences in general, and I came up with the following. It will have to be condensed considerably to fit on my brochure/web page/press kit. But:
I believe that one must approach questions of how our ideas about gender–or any other conceptual category for human experience–are woven from cultural and physiological circumstances with a very sensitive eye for complexity and subtlety. That certain biochemical realities are going to crop up to worry the social construction of gender is, I think, inevitable. But at the same time, one must be careful not to universalize the ways in which one experiences seemingly irresistible physical constraints. For those constraints not only manifest themselves differently in every person, due to both biochemical and psychosocial variations across individuals; but what seem to us like brute physical facts are always already interpreted “brute” facts, from the moment they emerge out of the indiscernable seam between experience and language into discourse itself. This has happened prior to the moment we even begin to speak of “the somatic” and before we can recognize bodily experience as experience.
I think that one can point to neuroplasticity as one manifestation of this almost prelinguistic coding; without appealing to knowledge that I do not have of neurological processes, I can say that even at a relatively popular level of understanding, it has become clear that the environment, or rather the events that make up an environment, leave physiological traces of varying permanence on our neurological structures. A cursory reading through non-specialists’ literature on the effects of trauma on child development, for example, will make clear that the neurological body is itself prone to physical alteration by what happens to it from its earliest development in the womb, and that environmental “inscriptions” upon our biochemical processes are so immediate that they begin long before we begin to call ourselves “I.”
Whether one begins analyzing the effects of “nurture” on “nature” at the level of neural plasticity or the level of conventional, learned naming of affect, a number of things seem clear to me from here. One is that somatic phenomena and their cultural interpretations are entangled at a level beneath conscious awareness, in ways that are unimaginably complex, and that this occurs not only before we first say a word about them, but before we consciously experience them. Another–and I cannot stress this enough–is that there is no quick leap from recognizing this entanglement to the idea that somehow we have unlimited agency to choose whether or not to “agree to” or “follow” cultural interpretations of the physical. For we receive the physical as already encoded once it reaches conscious awareness; thus its irresistibility is already a cultural irresistibility, but no less irresistible for being cultural. There is no hierarchy of compulsion when speaking of nature “versus” nurture; they are intertwined and cannot be separated out to an extent where any such hierarchy could be assigned.
Of equal importance is that in order to address the experiences of another, we must humble ourselves before their complexity and before our own. We might use what we know of our experiences to empathize with another, but it is imperative not to universalize those experiences, and not to disregard or try to dispose of those differences that will always exist between discrete ways of getting along in the world. This is something I think one must strive for whether one is working in relationship with another individual or with a group of people, and especially when we find ourselves dealing with a conceptual class that is supposed to refer to a specific type of person.
In this latter case, complexity is compounded by the realization that conceptual classes are also cultural productions involved with several–sometimes potentially infinite–bodies at once, and that rarely is a particular person given the choice of opting out of classes assigned to them. Thus a feedback loop develops in which being assigned to a class determines–but in a complicated way–certain environmental effects on the body; those effects then have extensive cognitive ramifications affecting how a person will react to their apparent belonging to a particular class, which will then have external consequences which will have somatic consequences, and the cycle repeats, repeats, and repeats. It is here that much cultural ethical work needs to be done to reduce the suffering that emerges at various eventful points in the cycle.
At a pedagogical level, I strive to encourage students to approach their experiences ethically in this way: to understand that they can use their own self-awareness to empathize compassionately with those whose experiences they do not explicitly share; but more importantly, that this empathy need not–and cannot–be an imperialistic, appropriating empathy which disregards differences in experience in order to function as empathy. To teach students to be aware that one cannot completely understand another’s experience, but that, nonetheless, compassionate empathy is still not only possible but necessary, is one of the most–if not the most–compelling aims of education in the humanities, in my opinion.
In practice, this means that my own lectures are often exercises in trying to ascertain what holds us in common to each other–rather than what we hold in common with each other–without demanding that we conceive ourselves as identical to one another in any way whatsoever. That we cannot ascertain, precisely, what holds us in common to each other is part of what I try to convey–and also that this is not an allowable excuse to disregard the ethical consequences of being so held.
Whether speaking about my own experiences with abstract ethical theory or the everyday concerns of living as a transsexual in the very particular places where I do my living, I strive to make connections between lives apparent without attempting to make every life completely cognizable by every other life. Thus, in that uncanny way in which every paper one writes from English 101 to one’s dissertation often ends up talking about the same thing, I find myself almost always lecturing on ethics, whether I am explicitly explaining Levinas’ thought or reading a poem about the perils of choosing which public restroom door to enter when presenting as vaguely gendered.