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Locker Rooms are the New Bathrooms–Bodily privacy and the “opposite sex”

Paisley Currah

Locker rooms are the new bathrooms. Officials in Maryland are in court to keep 16-year-old Max Alexander Brennan out of the boys’ locker room. According to the Washington Post, school administrators “have said they must look out for all students, who have a right to ‘bodily privacy’ and should not be forced to undress in front of the opposite biological sex.”

Of course, the idea of “biological sex” is nonsense, and in more than only way. How will these officials define biological sex–as the sex assigned at birth, as a post or “partially” transitioned body, or as gender identity? It’s gender identity that’s the criterion for M/F classification on drivers’ licenses in 32 states, and for US passports. In fact, as I argue in my book, there’s no there there when it comes to deciding who is F and who is M. In the past, what sex is depended…

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Notes and Fragments on Being

In thinking about the nature of the everyday and the banal, the ordinary and the forms that life take within the spheres of the everyday worlds human beings inhabit, I want to elaborate Being. I think there is something missing in the discourses that contemporary debates about human life. In saying that missing something is a working concept of what Being “is” I am returning to a question that was not only not answered in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I am attempting to see how various strands of thought about the human–from the scientific to the purely theoretical–have managed to miss the centrality of the meaning of existence not because it hasn’t been their aim. On the contrary, the aim of almost every discourse about human life has been about elaborating some sense of meaning for the contexts in which human beings find themselves. Rather, these discourses have managed to mask the question of Being, shrouding it behind words that use its potency without referencing its ever being there. I don’t want to rehearse the impossible and laborious Heideggerian task of the question of Being and the existential problems that such a question highlights. I do want to illustrate how the complexities of our debates about humanity have left Being as an already answered question. How the question of Being has a tendency to be falsely problematized as leading to an inert opposite of the more inviting thematic question of “Becoming.”

There is nothing, so to speak, in the question of Being that would lead to the conclusion that Being is static and unchanging. I can use cosmology and quantum physics as a means of illuminating the reasons for this assertion. Consider Stephen Hawking’s text A Brief History of Time as not a purely rationalistic text that seeks to address a popular audience in ordinary terms about complex physical theories. Instead, Hawking is engaged in an attempt to find an underlying and unifying cause or force that can piece together the disparate theoretical maps of general relativity and quantum theory. In that sense, he is engaged in the question of Being of the universe. But nowhere in the text does he suggest that this kind of Being, or these underlying and unifying laws, would inhibit the spectacular diversity of the universe. He argues for an endlessly complex universe on macro- and micrological scales that seem to emerge from some common fabric that static-ness. Physicists have already demonstrated that something can come from nothing–the philosophical equivalent found in the statement that Nothingness is not Nothing. This Being that Hawking is trying to grasp often takes the form of dark energy, dark matter, and theoretical particles that have non-visible yet identifiable action on things we perceive to exist. Things can emerge from “empty” space. The Nothing of space is actually filled with virtual things. Nothing exists. What is more philosophically worded than that! In the scientific pursuit of meaning, Hawking betrays the fact that philosophy is never far behind. And it is precisely ontology, or the theory of reality, that Hawking seems to be most attuned to (and unaware of). 

When I hear astronomers speak of stars and cosmic phenomena, they almost always come back to a few simple yet profound assertions. The chiefest among them is that we, as in the human organism and all of life that exists on this planet, are made of the stuff that stars helped to create. The atoms in our bodies are all present thanks to the forces of gravity and nuclear fusion and fission–from violent phenomena caused by an equally violent original force (or big bang). Such investigations have as their ground the question of the human’s place is within the larger cosmic context of a possibly infinite universe. For the scientist, our Being rests in the Being of cosmic proportions. Whether that makes us terrible unimportant or unique is an answer about which they have yet to come to a consensus. There is never a moment in which a scientific question is posed that does not–even tangentially–relate to the place of humanity in some (worldly, cosmic, universal) context.

Inter Alia

When did it become easier?

Alone at sea, that ocean of people

A trap for certain:

the mobility of the MTA–

When did it become easier?

Alone in some bar

(A bar that, if human,

would be some parvenu from its look

so hapless yet intriguing

What stories she would tell

What things and foundless dreams)–

When did it become easier?

To focus between the words

On a page,

A text,

On the endlessness

On the listlessness

Of language and human being–

When did it become easier?

To find:

the phantasmatic, the mind

And the imagination, the soothing

Passage of a train of thought,

To acknowledge

words and things

my warp and woof.

To let you go

Filling the black spaces of print

with the promises of a dead man–

To read Heidegger than share a Heineken?

Morals

I remember the term was from the Latin–mos, more–to share, a custom–

Thinking aloud that Roots for words matter, smugly.

However true that may be, I would use it against you.

How could do this or that? How could you look him in the eye?

“How could you” —

As if action must always be circumspect;

As if always subject to interrogation;

As if the heart were there like some organism, mindless–

What a conceit of our time! What of my conceit!

That I would call you out for your crime of passion:

“How could you cheat on him and still have Easter Brunch!”

I have to admit I was disgusted.

I mean, even Lucifer deserves the truth,

for isn’t that what he brought to Eve (the woman first, of course!), knowledge?

But here I am drawing comparisons — he isn’t Lucifer!

But he’s certainly a being,

A human deserves no less the truth than anyone, or any thing, else!

Or do you thrive on such deception?

Or am I astonished, taken aback, because you may have done this to me?

That at every dinner, every event, every time we argued or smiled, kissed or embraced,

You concealed a part of yourself you knew was immoral?

That you could not share with me that secret–

Because you knew that to share it was to end us?

Because you knew it would end our sharing all together?

I’ve been meaning to say

I’ve been meaning to say

Any number of things but find a lack of words,

The power of speech, gone, emptied.

To say, that is to be in a space of speaking–but how?

What do the philosophers call it? Subjectivity?

Yes, what subjectivity must I inhabit to speak to you

All the truths that circulate between us?

They are vast, these truths.

But so is the between-ness.

I’m sorry but this may take some time.

That making myself known to you requires care.

That my words, like my own being, are so so delicate.

Sinews that barely bind together their power, their meaning.

The being of which seems to come undone the moment they enter air.

Lost.

They are lost, aren’t they? These words.

I mean to say, when I speak do I leave these words to a special kind of death?

The physicists say the universe may never stop expanding.

They say that our stars, the things we use to chart and know ourselves,

The constellations that keep our histories and futures within arms reach,

That they are moving beyond us–someday beyond view, billions of years from now, gone.

Aren’t my words to you like these stars, like so many constellations

That move forever beyond ourselves.

They spread and lack the substance to reunite with each other.

Are they lost lovers doomed to wander the expanse of the that divide between us?

Is this divide so unbridgeable?

I’ve been meaning to say “I love you.”

Assorted Poems

Two Poetic Clusters

I. Some Thoughts on “Being-in” a Relationship

Abuse

There were moments when
Reading between the lines meant
I was merely “going there” out of spite.
It was in one sense a perpetual hysteria.
And oh how you relished and delighted
In calling me out. To gaslight, they say.

I was a bridge, and Gloria would say it’s my back.
I’m no Mestiza
But I know when fuckery is afoot.
I just fail to act.
I don’t like how it makes me look
To be under someone’s strange spell,
Dazed and dizzy–to be is dizzying, like:
Stepping off a moving platform, or
The sudden drop from a theme park ride, or
The thematic rise of an orchestra of feeling, of
Falling, stomach knotted, dismissed.

Then, of course, there’s this residue of sentimentality–
The long road back to confidence
The building up of self-esteem racked with doubt
That it could ever resurrect–again!
For this wasn’t the first and only time, friend (can I call you that?)
You have made a profit from me
And I have been the happily exploited,
The Marxist laborer
Bad faith, bad air!
Let me breathe and then see how my lungs
Can incapacitate, how words can fling from this tongue
Whose use you consigned,
And let my language, let my speech,
Rip, tear, and make aware I am not to be fucked with.

There is no “roar” or feverish scream,
Only the ongoing roll of thunder
that follows the flash of what you have done–
Since silence no longer has lease.
And I have finally revived enough, uncovered the veil enough,
And seen something most hideous–
That is, I was right all along.
They were right all along.
And rather than be burdened, I rejoice.

Cat and Anima

Tell me how it is possible
That this cat,
This tiny wonder of a beast,
Would end up being smarter, kinder, caring,
Than you, my “undying love and lover”?
At least a cat’s solipsism is honest.

Regret

Regret is the profound forgetting
That, as a moment of action has passed,
A constellation and eternal flow of time have not.
Oh, how this nothing touches
And undoes every past “now is the time”
But there will always be this other “now”
This other “time.”
And I’m no pollyanna.
I’m no “wait not for death cometh.”
I’d rather embrace the possibility of both nothing and everything
Than return to that apologia to absolution
I have called forgetting.

Queer Fuck App

A queer asks the readers of his profile:
Whatever happened to dates?
I want to start and ask–
Who is this author and why was a date ever a happening?
What is the essence of a date, my queer?
Is it that we please ourselves in conversation?
Slake our thirst with spirits or beer?
Be with others? Some ingrained instinct?
To court, and learn to court, betray ourselves and secrets?
Is the essence then to unconceal that which we hold most precious–
Like a Pauline revelation?
Like a small fugitivity to the soul?
When do we essentially date?
Out of what cavern, what dark corner does
The essence is to unconceal reveal itself?

It is no small thing to meet.
I believe in the power of small wonders
Like the intra-action of forms of life
Like the spark of a mood and the flames of passion.

But now is the time for banality.
The -ing of our selves: Text-ing, Sext-ing, Dat-ing.
The program-ing of our love-ing.
But never be-ing. God never that.

It seems more extraordinary to remain alert
To be present in the midst of all this,
The mist that hangs over trees,
The smell of grass, rock, and soil–fuck, even the murk of our
Garbage bins, the ones that scatter a city’s streets,
Should inspire a kind of of of “hey look! There! Here!”
“Here was life!” We would scream.
But banality is the silence we forgive.
The lost extraordinary of living ordinary. Here.

II. How Modern, our Anxiety

Cruelty

Bracing oneself has become second nature.
I was reading somewhere that we have all, as humans,
(What do philosophers call us? “The subject?”)
That we have all learned to be hyper-vigilant.
It’s a “sign of the times.”
It’s the effect, symptom and subject of “neoliberalism.”

But is that the sign to be read?
Is that the memory-to-be, a future anterior, as they say,
That I should look back
And remember the constant;
The invariable and independent;
The crushing weight
Of that bracing and spate of vigilance.

Stimmung mit Unheimlichkeit

I read somewhere that love is a state of mind
And not exterior to ourselves.
It’s not “really” there–we posit it.
But moods are like things themselves.
They capture us, ensnare the senses,
Make important those things that matter.
Oh, if we could see that the mattering of matter
Is the effect of mood,
Then a state of mind
Has no distinction from quartz, to the rose,
The body, our pleasure–
And what is more exterior than fucking?

Trans Politics, Philosophy, and Being

There seems to be little need for philosophy these days, especially in the arena of trans politics. That division–between philosophy (as thought) and politics (as doing)–is a distinction over two thousand years old, and is out in force today. There is nothing philosophical about a bathroom ban or the negation of human rights, or the very dislocation of one’s being human from trans people. These are real and violent. I can’t help but wonder why this division persists when it is clear that our very ability to think about ourselves in terms of bodies, genders, sexes, races, and other imported traits, is defined in some fundamental sense by a thinking and a doing that happens simultaneously. For example, I cannot think but for my embodied-ness. It is impossible to go to some outside of what I have experienced. For to do so would be to speculate in a new language, a new grammar, that seeks to bring meaning to those illegible items in my mind that, but the virtue of my new itinerary, cannot be made legible–I cannot escape my body. So if this division between philosophy and politics may be broken entirely, and the elements that were siloed into each laid bare in their togetherness, what could we say about ourselves, our bodies, and our engagements everyday applications?

These are not new questions or considerations. They relate to an ongoing set of considerations that have their modern roots in Heidegger and his follows–Foucault and Derrida. It would follow that our engagements with real world political systems of power, how we think of them, would have to circle back to these philosophers and activists (both in their own right). I find it impossible not to think in Heideggerian terms lately–not simply because I have taken a more active interest to understand his work. I have found couched in his theories of Being a language and perspective more capacious and far more fulfilling than other thinkers. He brings to the table the possibility of a rupture out of a way of thinking and talking and speaking plagued with an old metaphysics. This metaphysics, for instance, treats gender in either fluid or fixed ways–but never both; a metaphysics that considers sexed consciousness in terms of a “match” between the consciousness and the born body. This rupture must occur if we are to allow any unfolding in our social relations that provides a ground of openness, dignity, and self-constitution. Because time, or temporality, and belongingness in the world are central to understanding what we have termed human being, Heidegger provides a phenomenology that capaciously critiques any and all discourses that seek to confine the essence of Dasein–that is, the unfolding emergence of Being in (the) (hu)man.

First, let’s consider gender and sex–if these two items can be distinguished nicely at all–as extensions of a scientific understanding of certain bodily characteristics. If we think of gender in terms of its linguistic history, emerging from medical discourses in the 20th century, and we think of sex as emerging from the growing discipline of medicine and anatomy as far back as the 5th century, then our commitments to inquiry are already limited as a matter of course. We have a starting point, somewhere in time, that is conditioned by the social, political, and medical alliances of that time, and form what gender studies has as its subterranean point of departure. That phrase, point of departure, is misleading on its face. It is supposed to suggest a conceptual place from which investigation can diverge. But it also suggests a baggage, a continuation of investigating and thought that must, by necessity, have some structural relation to that originating point. On the voyage away, we can certainly dispel with some, but not all, of that baggage. So if the medical model of gender/sex has embedded itself in the very ways we conceive of our embodied being, then in what way can we speak about ourselves that doesn’t privilege this kind of technical knowledge, the organismic knowledge, of chromosomes, hormones, cells, textbooks, and other biological imperatives? How do we not already smuggle in a certain kind of desire (of the sexual and mostly heterosexual kind) that interlink the fundamental understanding of a gender/sex system?

We might begin to see where this is neither purely a philosophical set of questions or observations, nor something that is purely political–but is situated in between. Derrida had suggested that moving beyond a discourse, “one risks ceaselessly confirming, consolidating, relifting, at an always more certain depth, that which that which one allegedly deconstructs” (135). There, no destruction is really happening–but merely a reaffirmation, sometimes if only a silent one, of the internal structure that’s being attacked. Attempting to speak of gender in purely social terms engages in this explicitly. If we have as our itinerary the plan to call into question gender’s importance and existence altogether then we risk prioritizing norms over ordinary life, and the body itself. This could be taken as a demoralizing discourse that isn’t very revolutionary–but speaks of beings as merely effects of a kind of power and saps the agency of trans people to identify at all. It hardly gets at the plural iterations that beings take within such norms, let alone their complex relations with norms. On the other hand, we could “violently break” from the old terrain–but this venture is doomed to repeat in some fashion the old excesses of a previous language. Breaking the medical model doesn’t revolutionize discourse by its very act and thus releases us from its narrowing grammars of sexed being. That move, rather, attempts to radicalize social relations, as social, and soon finds itself trapped in the metaphysical circle of re-defining humans and humanity. It must constantly refer back to that old language in order to justify its new-ness. These are all politically charged courses of action. They all have deeper meanings for life in its everyday experiences. It is neither purely theory nor purely political and praxis.

Now, B, how does this relate to trans politics in its American form? I think this question belongs to three kinds of considerations. First, trans politics must decide how to manage political institutions that, from the outset, privileges stable identity over fluidity. Liberalism is a doctrine of individual rights. Individuals are self-present and have a continuous consciousness that streams birth and death. One can change, but not their essence as individually self-possessed persons. Thus, our political institutions are more likely to privilege medical models of human existence over socially situated and living expressions of being in the world. This seems to be the case where bathroom bills fix identities in either/or categories of sex, and freeze identities in government issued documentation. If, as many argue, there is not single trans community, trans narrative, or trans “normative” way of life (as I do), then the consequence might be to compromise and lose the vibrancy of diverse narratives–and risk invisibilizing. Second, medical models are often the basis for accessing health care, transition related or otherwise, that are instrumental for the unfolding of gendered embodiments. This commitment to a medical grammar affects social and popular discourse on trans life (where people think being trans is pathological, is “realized” somewhere during an otherwise “normal” course of conscious existence–when did you realize you were trans?) but also forces a certain kind of narrative structure on some, but not all, trans modes of existence. Third, in order to think of social movements and their interconnections, a commonality (of oppression and resistance) is often the necessary connective tissue. But if there is a move to destroy the old models of trans existence, that would risk resistance from those who have adopted such models. If there is a move to merely alter language, there is a resistance, again, from communities that seeks to liberate trans knowledge out of a the complex of medical hegemony. These have obvious political import on organizers and activists, and those whose lives are, under the new trump administration, violently thrown back into the margins from which they had just, until recently, escaped.

So the question: What is to be done? That, I wish, is something that philosophy or politics could tell us straight away. But that isn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be the end of either. Both forms of thinking about and interacting with the world are always situated within it. They are both already fixed within the body, the living moment, the temporal and historical moment. So, if anything, it gives us a way to think ourselves out of that metaphysical circle that keeps a privileged position for the clear, the fixed, and the always present. Heidegger and Derrida both considered the moment of philosophical destruction as a means of seeing, and hopefully actualizing, an exit from that circle. But at what cost? It could mean the reconnection of a new circle, a new seeming totality that re-figures life in structural ways. But it would be subject to the same critical engagement that allowed its break from the former circle. Thus, to be, and to be human, is subject to an ongoing set of possibilities bound but also undone by a constellation of meaning we have forged for ourselves for the last two millennia. It means, as Derrida suggests, speaking in multiple languages, in multiple times, and persisting that human life is not so easily definable. It means considering that deviations from the norms of our culture are not themselves the act of violence–rather, the very installation of those norms constitutes the original violent act. If that can be taken as something worthy of the name truth and of political significance, then our political institutions are in a constant reenactment of an original violence one might tentatively call “defining man.” If when “defining man” took place in political forms, its rights, privileges, and immunities as citizen were also violently attached. If so, then recuperating the liberal rights model seems self-defeating to a movement that must prize, above all else, self-creation, style, and survival itself. One cannot continue to survive in a model that merely tolerates human diversity for the sake of a mythos of individualism.

Is there a way to  overcome such political violence where we must all look  and act like everyone else (white and protestant)? Where equality has come to stand in for the radical sociality that constitutes our shared ethical existence and world? And where such political commitments have managed to mask the historical collusion of racism, sexism, and classism from their critical and obvious relationship with mass incarceration, extra-judicial police killing, transphobic body politics, and the election of a fascist? Certainly things to think about.

 

Cite: Derrida, Jacque. 1968. “The Ends of Man.” In Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.