The Anxiety of Language: A Call to Action!

Last week’s recap reading “Post-structuralism and deconstruction” cleared up what was for me a big lurking question– “So what?”  I have been carefully (sometimes painfully) following the philosophical paths from linguistics to deconstruction– sign= signifier+signified, language is arbitrary, text is boundless, etc. but I was struggling with why this is important or what can we do with this information.

The very beginning of this reading hit me with an idea that has been bugging me since the first day of my return to the undergraduate classroom– the plague of “like”, “you know”, and “you know what I’m saying?” that peppers the language of what otherwise seemed to me as very bright capable young people.  First, let me acknowledge and apologize for my “kids these days” tone.  I don’t mean it.  I love young people and have willingly chosen to spend my days surrounded by high school students.  I don’t think I’m any smarter than you all and in fact have learned quite a bit from my classmates. What’s disturbing to me about the “like, you know” disease is that it seems to be more of an issue for the young women in our class than the young men.  And, oh does this make my feminist heart bleed.  Because you girls are so smart!  (So are you guys, no offense.) But you apologize for your brilliance or stammer through it in a way that sometimes totally clouds your meaning.  So when you ask, “you know what I mean?” I can’t say that I do.

Last week’s readings both offered possible reasons for this fracture between the ideas in my classmates’ heads and their methods of explaining them.  In “Post-structuralism and deconstruction”, Barry explains this language anxiety as “pervasive whenever we have to use language at any level beyond that of casual daily exchange with people we know very well and whose status is the same as our own” (62).  Is it because males have been socialized to perceive themselves as a higher status that they don’t suffer quite as much from the “like, you know” problem?  It seems to me that the young men in our class either speak their minds succinctly or stay silent, where the young women all participate fairly actively, but rarely without explaining themselves, apologizing for being wrong, or adding many throat clearing interjections throughout their speech.  I’m sure they don’t even realize they are doing it, and I’m hoping that my little rant here will encourage them to be bold and speak their brilliant minds without hesitation!

But, perhaps, to bring in the other reading from last week, they are permanently stuck in this loop– like Mary Shelley trying to write an autobiography using only “male” language and male form, their language is bound to take on monstrous dimensions because they have been relegated to the underprivileged space in the gender binary.  And maybe the only reason I’m a little better at it is because I’ve had more practice.  I have a feeling I have apologized and “liked” my way through many a speech– maybe I still do and am not even aware of it?  Looking back over my blog I can see my need to apologize haunting me (“I love young people!”  And “You guys are smart too!”).  Perhaps it is an inescapable loop– you know what I mean?

The Gender Binary

The other class I am taking this semester is Prof Hugh English’s Topics in Genders and Sexualities, so today, right before finishing this reading, I was engaged in a class discussion of Christine Jorgensen’s A Personal Autobiography. (Jorgensen was the first male-to-female transsexual who underwent sexual reassignment surgery in the United States).  This is one of several case studies, novels, and memoirs we have read on this topic this semester, and while I consider myself extremely open-minded and tolerant of people’s rights to express their genders/sexuality in whatever ways they please, many of these readings left me troubled and even offended by their blatant sexism.

For, if one is to accept the idea that one can be a “woman trapped in a  man’s body” as the cliche goes, then one must accept the idea that “woman” is a state of being that can be identified without the physical markers of vagina, uterus, ovaries and sadly, in many of these works those non-physical gender markers are simplistic and sexist– dolls, make-up, skirts.  This trouble arises because of what deconstructionists identified as the system of binary operations.  Man/Woman is one of the most basic binary systems at work in a logocentric culture, and in English, the supplementation is clear even in the words themselves (Woman=womb+man).  Man is privileged, woman inferior, and even when the subject is trying to reverse this relationship within themselves– turning from man to woman, at least as close as they can come physically using modern medical science– they cannot escape the binary. Instead of becoming women and moving “woman” to the privileged space in the binary, Jorgensen and Jan Morris (another 20th century MTF transsexual) willingly put themselves in the inferior role, all the time acknowledging the privilege of “man” while rejecting it for themselves.

 

What difference does it make who is speaking?

In Foucault’s discussion of the author’s name as one aspect of the “author function” (in “What is an Author?”), he states, “it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function.  Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (210).  This immediately brought to mind the Shelleys, both Mary and Percy, and what the name “Shelley” does to categorize their writing.  Additionally, what status does Mary Shelley automatically gain simply through the privilege of her married name?  Her text isn’t simply grouped together with other texts published under the name “Mary Shelley” but also those published under the name “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” Although, in her case, had she published using the last name of her father (Godwin) or her mother (Wollstonecraft) she would have been accorded similar privileged status. This is because a Name has particular coded problems associated with gender that Foucault does not mention in this essay, although we can easily apply his theory to this problem.

If the author’s name “seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text” and “indicates the status of this discourse within a society and culture”, then surely the implied sex of the author’s name matters.  In my very traditional undergraduate study, professors routinely referred to all male authors by their last names (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Hemingway, etc.) but often used first names with the women, most memorably “Emily” for Dickinson.  I felt this was in some ways to slight her importance but in others to continually remind the readers that this was a woman, that her author function must always be present in order for us to properly “read” her.  And, I can’t help make the leap here to Hilary Rodham Clinton– The name Hilary Rodham had achievement as a lawyer in her own right, under her own name, but because we have grouped her together with her husband, she has risen to great heights politically, only to be commonly referred to simply as “Hilary.”  If we say “Clinton”, we automatically think of her husband.

It also brings to mind the tradition of women publishing under men’s names– George Sand and George Eliot, the Bronte sisters and their masculine pseudonyms– this may have been a practical consideration in a time where a female name would have limited the audience or possible revenue, but what implications does it bring to the text itself?  How did it change the reading?  How would the discourse change again when the true gender of the author was revealed?