Drew Cordes

Gender 'Differance': Alienation & Validation

Filed By Drew Cordes | February 14, 2012 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Baudrillard, gender, Judith Butler, linguistics, performativity, post-modernism, post-structuralism, validation


"All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts ..."

-- Shakespeare, "As You Like It," II.vii.

Please forgive the following unholy union of the personal with the theoretical. I know this practice takes some of the oomph out of my hypotheses, but I'm doing it for two important reasons: 1. to give you, my dear reader, some insight and context into my deliberations on these things, and B. I have limited patience for theory that has no practical application (be it personal, artistic, etc.) in the living world. Grounding the theoretical in actual experience makes it more understandable (hopefully).

Now, foreplay aside - I'm a transgender woman, I pass when I want to (which is usually), and I had gender reassignment surgery a little less than a year ago. At this point, I am expected to feel validated and "complete" as a person in terms of my gender expression out in the social world and in terms of how I view myself, i.e. the elimination of "dysphoria" and correlational harmony of mind and body[1].

This is not the case.

I don't regret anything I've done; I'd do it all over again, as much as it sucked. I feel validated in my identity via gender to some degree, but I also can't ignore the alienating aspects of gender expression. Now, I didn't place all my psychic eggs in the basket of reassignment surgery and expect it to resolve all my issues with identity, love, etc. This is a common pitfall - one that all trans folks seeking the knife should be aware of - but it is not where my alienation originates. The nature of my felt dissonance is difficult to convey, as it's best explained by some rather dense philosophical theories, but let's give it a try.

A Crude Summation of Post-Structuralist Linguistic Philosophy

(stick with me, I swear it's relevant)

The word for the central concept at work here is "differance," which is described by its coiner, famed French thinker Jacques Derrida, as "neither a word nor a concept" -- so that should give you some idea of the abstraction to follow. In the post-structuralist[2] ethos, differance (a pun combining the words differ and defer) represents the inability of language to definitively convey ideas and reality, as well as our inability to perceive and grasp True meaning without the inaccurate intermediaries of language.

This principle expands further within the discipline of semiotics, which is the study of signs in all their varied forms. Reality itself, as perceived by humans, is one big system of arbitrary signs and subjective perceptions. This includes human behaviors - the wink from the stranger across the bar, a thumbs-up from a friend, an icy stare from an upset spouse - these are all signs, and all rely on our perception and ability to differentiate to parse their meaning. And as any married person will tell you, sometimes you're prone to misinterpret signs from even the most familiar source[3].

A contemporary of Derrida, Jean Baudrillard provides, I believe, the most expedient and poetic explanation of this phenomenon in his work "Simulation and Simulacra."

"If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly ... Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself."

Enter Gender

Queer theorist Judith Butler applies these semiotic principles to gender. What we think of as gender expression - the expression of varying degrees of "masculinity" or "femininity," or some mix of the two - is "an imitation for which there is no original." We are copying an ideal that in reality, has never existed. A copy of a copy of a copy ... ad infinitum[4]. The term Butler coins for this is performativity.

"The 'being' of the subject is no more self-identical than the 'being' of any gender; in fact, coherent gender, achieved through an apparent repetition of the same, produces as its effect the illusion of a prior and volitional subject. In this sense, gender is not a performance that a prior subject elects to do, but gender is performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express. It is a compulsory performance in the sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings with it ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by these very prohibitions." (Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination")

Here's where I differ with Butler, and where alienation begins to manifest itself: She posits performativity as predominantly an unconscious phenomenon; and even if we're aware of our performative practices, we're still bound by its pervasiveness in our cultures - as Butler says, "It is a compulsory performance," and failure to play one's role brings consequences. She writes, "Although I have concentrated in the above on the reality-effects of gender practices, performances, repetitions, and mimes, I do not mean to suggest that drag is a 'role' that can be taken on or off at will. There is no volitional subject behind the mime who decides, as it were, which gender it will be today." (Ibid.)

I disagree. Butler's viewpoint here neglects the experience of the transgender, genderqueer, and gender-fluid populace. There are many people who, in fact, do adopt and discard genders at will. My own gender transition is a form of this. Granted, the initial casting off of masculinity was not the quick, capricious act that Butler's casual phrasing implies, but the end effect is the same. And now that I have completed the journey in one direction, I find myself pondering what's to stop me from turning around and walking the road again? I could pass as a man again, if I wanted. I can still talk in my old voice, my postures and gestures are malleable (I've already reformed them once, after all), my hair can be cut short, my breasts can be bound, jewelry and makeup obviously are easy to discard, etc.

We often are so focused on transition's final destination that we never notice that its path lies straight through Baudrillard's desert of the real. Is femininity any more representative of who I am than masculinity was? I am still copying a copy, after all - a sign without truth. I, and other trans and gender-nonconforming people, did consciously choose our current gender expression (or lack thereof), but is the choice of one artifice over the other a validation or a further delusion, a further alienation of self? This question is the essence of gender differance.

Gender Differance

The very act of transitioning requires the initial recognition that gender expression is not necessarily representative of self-identity. The first step each transitioning person takes is some form of the thought: "Being a man/woman really isn't me," and the seed of alienation is planted in this realization. How can one arrive at this conclusion and immediately turn tail to take refuge within the other end of the gender spectrum? If the concept and expression of gender itself is illusory, as Butler says, how can one gender expression reflect one's identity more than another? It can't. Regardless even of one consciously choosing to employ it, gender is, ultimately, artifice.

Some of us already realize this - I realize this. So why and how does gender expression maintain its importance? I endured great pain, both physical and psychological, to express a gender I know is false. Why? Where does the validation lie?

Validation lies within alienation itself. It lies in embracing the illusion. Validation is the joyful, purposeful manipulation of the falsehood. This is what Derrida calls, in his own linguistic context, "play" or "freeplay." He critiques his structuralist forerunners for searching language for a truth, presence, or center that does not exist - much in the same way that Butler explains that an original gender, a gender ideal, does not exist.

"... structure -- or rather the structurality of structure -- although it has always been at work, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure -- one cannot in fact conceive of an unorganized structure -- but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the freeplay of the structure." (Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences")

Derrida describes freeplay as "the disruption of presence. ... Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence ..." (Ibid.) In other words, toying and experimenting with the unbridgeable gap between the object or idea (aka the signified), and the word or sign employed to convey it (aka the signifier). Derrida continues, saying there are two responses to freeplay, the alienating: "A turning toward the presence, lost or impossible, of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauist facet of the thinking of freeplay ...;" and the "Nietzschean affirmation -- the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation ... This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as loss of the center. And it plays the game without security. For there is a sure freeplay: that which is limited to the substitution of given and existing, present, pieces." (Ibid.)

This "joyous affirmation" of freeplay is where we can find the validation of gender differance. Regardless of being aware of gender expression's inherent emptiness, one can still choose to find meaning in its freeplay manipulation. We can simultaneously realize its falsehood and disconnection to reality/identity, and still feel validated that the fully informed choice[5] to "play" is one of our own free will, and that the entire world of gender is offered to our own "active interpretation."

One can manipulate the signs consciously as one sees fit; or one can even, as Baudrillard often urges in his writings, figuratively set the signs ablaze. In "The Mirror of Production," he provides his most famous quote while examining capitalist economics through the lens of post-structuralism. Wonderfully poetic, Baudrillard merges his desire for the figurative burning of signs with literal fires set by revolting political protesters: "Something in all men profoundly rejoices in seeing a car burn."

With gender, once one is aware of (and gives consideration to) the performative system in place, the choice of expression (or lack of expression) one makes is infallible. An informed choice of where one finds meaning cannot be taken away from the chooser. Whether choosing, in one's freeplay, the extremes of masculinity or femininity, androgyny, gender neutrality, remaining fluid from day to day, or militating against the very notions that we must adopt the artifice of gender at all, one's choice has power. And it is validated when one sees its reflection in the world.


Personally, I've felt more alienated than validated with my gender expression lately. This feeling does not mean I regret my actions or retrospectively think I was naive in my decisions or feelings (as I said, I'd do it all over again). My feelings of alienation may be nothing more than one side of the constant pendulous action of gender differance - validation to alienation to validation ... and so on. What I do know is that I find the thought of Baudrillard's burning car more and more delightful. After enjoying so much Derridean freeplay with gender, I'm beginning to lust for the flames myself - to watch gender burn and cackle at its every pop and spark. ... Perhaps I should cut my hair.

[1] Relatively speaking. There's a bump on my nose I'd like gone, and a cup-sized boost for my chest would be nice, but these are not manifestations of dysphoria, just more all-too-common lamentations about being imperfect.

[2] Also referred to in various contexts as deconstruction or post-modernism.

[3] Next time you end up sleeping on the couch, blame semiotics.

[4] Perhaps not truly "ad infinitum," since our species and the life it evolved from wasn't always around. If you want to be super technical and nitpicky about things, you could theorize that our performative genders today are ultimately highly evolved, highly modernized imitations of our cro-magnon origins - the "traditionally" strong and dominant male role being merely a fine-tuned version of clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her back to a cave by her hair to rape. Though, men assaulting and raping women still happens today, millions of years after these origins ... not always as evolved as we think we are, are we?

[5] We could have another debate over what "fully informed" means and who is fully informed. I think most people believe they are fully informed. I believe that most of them are not. Do I believe I'm fully informed? About this subject, yes, of course I do. Regardless of knowing that my ego is not immune to the same self-assuredness that "most people" fall prey to, I do think I'm informed. Though, I also could very well receive an email from Judith Butler calling me a misguided ass.

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