Friday, September 07, 2007

IV Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self


Between difference and otherness there is an interesting middle ground, a continuum, if you will—and let’s remember that a continuum is not linear like a spectrum; a continuum is multidimensional. For example, the universe is a continuum, but its elements can be studied by diffusing radiation through a spectroscope, which matches the distinctive light of each element with its counterpart in the total spectrum. The spectrum reveals only the identity of the element, not the element itself in relation to other elements, which can only occur in multidimensional reality. Looping occurs in linearity, whereas perichoresis occurs in multidimensionality. Looping excludes Otherness, while perichoresis requires Otherness.

This example signals the necessity for a significant shift in our thinking. And some of the misunderstanding in discussions of sexuality today arise from the fact that some but not all of us, and some but not all of the culture are familiar with, and, more important, have integrated these assumptions, the advances in physics that have shifted our ways of thinking from a Newtonian to an Einstinian universe. This means a shift from a two or three dimensional mechanical universe where cause, effect and entropy reign supreme and can be analyzed systematically by a mythical objective observer, to a multidimensional universe—twenty-two dimensions according to one version of super-string theory—a universe that is contingent, chaotic, relational and interactive, where time is a function of space and motion, and all space exists in each moment of time, where particles are said to make decisions, and indeterminacy is the rule of order, where paradox is the normal descriptor and where the observer is part of what is observed. In conversation, it means that one person may be thinking in a three-dimensional way using linear arguments, and another may be thinking in a multidimensional way using kaleidoscopic permutations, and of course in this situation they cannot possibly communicate

What I am trying to say is that we need to start thinking about sexuality with more rigour and accuracy than old-fashioned linear statements allow, that closed frame of reference that somewhat arrogantly assumes everything is knowable and can be accurately described and discussed in linear logic. It isn’t and it can’t, and the new way of looking at things reveals paradox as the most accurate mode of description. We’ll get back to paradox in a moment.

But now I would like to pick up on another notion from this new way of looking at the universe, which is indeterminacy. For example, according to Heisenberg’s famous principle, it is impossible to calculate both the position and the velocity of a particle. Light too is indeterminate: it can be observed as both waves and particles simultaneously. Particles are now talked of as if they made decisions, or, in the example of Shrödinger’s famous cat, the consequence of the experiment is indeterminate until the box is opened.

The same thing seems to happen with words. The French literary critic, Jacques Derrida, has used the word différance to reflect a similar indeterminacy, and I will use the French word to distinguish it from its homonym, difference. Indeterminacy, or différance, is much more notionally and linguistically pervasive than we in our insecurity might like to admit. Part of the human problem of maturation and relationship between individuals as well as among groups and nations, is the difficulty of moving gradually away from familiar concepts of sameness and difference, through the more problematical realm of mutability, ambiguity, or différance, to the ineffable, apophatic mental landscape where new connections are made and new insights are born. This requires us to relinquish both our narcissistic gaze on our selves and the comfort of concepts under our control, and to embark on the adventure of watching différance elide into Otherness. To make this shift in perception requires self-forgetfulness and a diminished role for the reflexive observations of self-consciousness.

All too often in our technological age, this mutation of language, ideas and self-perception into the uncertain area of différance and the dismaying vastness of Otherness is seen as a failure. Derrida is one of these people: he sees otherness as an ultimately closed system in which words become a senseless jumble of noise inducing the terror of a Mrs Moore in the Marabar caves. He seems to be aware of the inarticulateness of pain, but he does not seem to be aware of the liberating silence that comes from awe, that there is an infinite Silence accessible to human beings in which language has no existence even as an echo. We know this silence under the name of apophatic contemplation, or under its psychological aspect, as I hope to suggest, as the complete suspension of self-consciousness. But a closed system such as Derrida’s precludes understanding the death-wish as anything but a self-destructive descent into meaningless annihilation. It precludes jouissance, ecstasy, transfiguration, except, perhaps, as a ball playing off the walls in a spherical game of roulette, and it thus perceives only the dark mirror of nihilism.

Those of us who are familiar with the mystical tradition know that Derrida is missing—or perhaps refusing to admit—something essential. The disappearance of the isolating, luciferian autonomy of surety and language, the refocusing of intentionality and relinquishing of our apparent selves into Otherness, is coronal, that is to say, having used every one of our gifts to its utmost capacity, their elision into Otherness, far from being a failure or nihilism, is supreme fulfillment, and from the stillness where we wait, our gifts re-emerge from Otherness transfigured. ‘I will send forth my Word and it will not come back to me empty.’

But back to différance for a moment. If gender is difference, which is to say, something that can be known, then what is différance, or undecidability, in relationship to gender? Just as our awareness and notions of the universe change as we mature from the Newtonian to the Einstinian view, so does our perception of our selves. The problem is that the culture doesn’t often mature as fast as some of its constituents do, and, as I noted above, one of the fundamental criteria of maturation is the ability to be comfortable with ambiguity, with différance and with Otherness. So: difference, différance and Otherness.

I would now like to suggest that sexuality lies in the mutable, motile, indeterminate realm of différance. Let’s try for a new definition of sexuality, one that opens it up instead of restricting it. Sexuality is the animator of intention, whether that intention is mundane or mystical, whether, for example, it is directed towards the care of our ordinary bodily needs, the sustaining energy of commitment to a person or a task, or the longing that leads us into the transfiguration of Otherness—which, we must emphatically note, is given to us through the body, not accomplished by its rejection.

Sexuality is a metaphor precisely because of this différance, and I must digress here for a moment to explain what I mean by metaphor because it is perhaps a departure from what many people think of as metaphor. A metaphor is a landscape, rather like a Mary Poppins picture that you can step into if you choose. It is an illusory landscape with illusory boundaries, but because it has illusory boundaries, it gives the illusion of a safe place in which we may imaginatively explore notions and experiences that might otherwise seem too dangerous. If we go deeply into a metaphor, it dissolves and we find our selves in a new metaphorical universe that is waiting to be explored. Thus the experience of writers whose books are dead to them after they’ve been published. The metaphorical world that gave birth to the book is now, for the author, a dried-out husk even as it may be a life-giving calyx for the reader; for the author, its metaphorical space has been exhausted and left behind for new territory, preparation for the next work.

In addition, metaphor is earthed in some familiar object. Consider, for example, this metaphor: ‘the sun’s heat reflected off the hot griddle of the sea.’ Somewhere in the background of this metaphor is an ordinary griddle, but it is obvious that this mundane household object has little importance except to establish a trigger for the imagination.

The metaphor does not oblige us to do more than stand on the sidewalk with Mary Poppins, looking at the chalk drawing, speculating on the heat reflecting off a flat, hard, grey sea. However, if we are more adventurous, in our imagination we can step into a small boat and begin to drift across the vast expanse of salt water, hopefully armed with an umbrella and ice water at least, or perhaps we suddenly find our selves on a pavilioned barge with peacock fans swayed by invisible hands soundlessly moving the dead air around us, drinking wine chilled in snow brought from distant mountains, and grapes from the plain. You see what I mean.

Where is the kitchen griddle in all of this? Its importance has long since fallen away. It is precisely the shape-shifting character of metaphor, its différance, that reveals its otherness, and we must never lose the background perception of otherness that lies at the heart of every metaphor, which is both its context and that into which it elides, or we shall find our selves trapped.

Sexuality as a metaphor, then: I think the relationship of gender and sexuality is something like this. Gender, for all its difference, is something familiar, something that can be known. It serves a similar function to the ordinary kitchen griddle in the metaphor of the sea. Gender earths the metaphor of sexuality and then loses much of its importance as imagination and intention become animated in a play of presence and absence with Otherness. And as you can see from the example, it is this différance, this mutability, that liberates the metaphorical imagination.

At the same time, we mustn’t forget the metaphors we call masculine and feminine, which are ways of talking about the relationship of power and vulnerability and without which life and literature would be very dull indeed. I am not suggesting that we get rid of them, but rather that they were once a descriptor paradox such as we find in quantum physics or in Ralph’s statement, ‘I’m gay but I’m not,’ that has been mistaken for a botched premise by a linear culture, dismantled and its elements misused as templates into which people try to cut themselves and others to fit, like the ancient Greek bandit, Procrustes, who chopped or stretched his captives to fit his diabolical bed. But this is perhaps the subject for another lecture.

I want to come back to this relationship metaphor between gender and sexuality, but first it is important to talk about one or two other words that I will use to try to help us think about the human puzzle in a somewhat different way.


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