I just got out of my Trans- Poetics class with the always fabulous Rebekah Edwards. We are examining two bodies of work, Transgender Theory/Studies and Translation Theory, and discovering how they inform each other and create new meanings.
This is shaping up to be an amazing experience, with a bunch of beautiful minds. We discussed Susan Holbrook’s essay, “Lifting Bellies, Filling Petunias, and Making Meaning through the Trans- Poetic” about the trans- moments Gertrude Stein’s poem “Lifting Belly,” and Clare Sears’ “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” against one of our readings last week, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation.” My focused interest for the last few weeks has been the way bodies interpret other bodies (bodies meaning not just people but groups of people and institutions, as well as the body as something separate from the self), or translate aesthetic. In these pieces, especially the Sears one, we discussed the way the private/public dichotomy, gender norms, racism, nationalism, and bodies policing bodies all connect, and how these might relate to “trans-ing,” a term we will work towards defining all semester.
Rebekah schooled us on the Ugly Laws, which appeared in many cities across the U.S. in the early 1900’s, policing what kinds of bodies were allowed to be in “public display” and what kinds were “unsightly.” A fellow classmate, L., mentioned something very spot-on in relation to the interpretation of the law and the translation process from written word to punitive action: “[this law thing acts as an example/makes visible] the instability of meaning that creates space for trans-ing.”
For this class, we are also supposed to have a weekly blog with rotating roles. This week I wrote an integration of Sears’ and Holbrook’s texts. If you want to read that, and the description of my 30-day praxis, see below.
Reading Holbrook and Sears, I found two main moments of similar discourse that I want to put into conversation:
the “notion of meaning”
I was particular intrigued by Holbrook’s observation of “Stein’s persistent investigation into the ‘notion of meaning'” (758), the word “notion” emphasizing the fact that meaning is not concrete, and can easily be changed according to audience and various contexts (social, environmental, political, temporal). “Notion” is a much lighter word that “theory” or “existence”–its tone implies something not to be taken seriously, perhaps a critique of all the critics trying so hard to pinpoint a solid “meaning,” or interpretation, of Stein’s text. I love the way Holbrook seems to revel in the multiplicity of meanings, setting forth ambiguity and contradictions in the text as an intentional, intelligent device on the part of Stein. I think Holbrook makes a significant observation when she says, “Error offers the promise of freedom in a language that would correct deviance” (758).
Here Sears can be entered into the conversation. Sears also looks at playing with meaning, meaning in different contexts, but focussing on bodies, the naming of bodies, and the way bodies are translated according to their contexts: “the meaning of the freak show performance (like the meaning of any text) was never complete fixed, but open to multiple interpretations by different audiences” (Sears 183). These multiple interpretations of performance and people’s bodies contained the possibility of what Holbrook calls “error.” By allowing dime museums and freak shows to exist to police structures of heteronormativity, the law also allowed for “unintended interpretations” (Sears 183).
in a dress
The other moment, or series of moments, concerned the regulation of gendered appearance to a particular sex, and the way both Stein’s life/poetry and the San Francisco freak shows subverted those regulations. Below are some pulled quotes I wanted to throw against each other:
“If any person shall appear in a public place…in a dress not belonging to his or her sex…he shall be guilty of a misdemeanor…” (Revised Orders 1863, qtd. in Sears 171)
“There is no ‘proper’ gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another, which is in some sense that sex’s cultural property” (Butler, qtd. in Holbrook 765)
“What arises out of Stein’s rigorous defamiliarization of terms like ‘wife’ or ‘the man’ is the sense that no one ever perfectly ‘looks like one.'” (Holbrook 765)
Instead of straight analysis, I’d like to throw some questions in the mix: What does the vague/ambiguous language of the SF law allow? What authority does it place in the hands of police/society to regulate the appearance of normal bodies and “problem bodies”, what is decent and what is not? How does this same policing show up in society today/how has it transformed since the 1800’s and how does it affect the way we view ambiguously gendered bodies?
Both of these points very much relate to my current exploration and investigation of the way we translate/read bodies, and how their meaning or assumed intent changes according to audience and context. My 30 day praxis revolves around this, and I have also been doing writing exercises in my Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Faith Adiele involving the body as an archive and the stories each part can tell–how our experiences are intrinsically linked to parts of our bodies and the way others relate to them.
30 Day Praxis
Queries: How does the way others translate/read our bodies (our actions, shape, looks, sounds, stride, movement, color) differ from the way we translate our actions for others? Is my translation/transcription of what my body is saying always accurate? How are messages lost, muddled? If I were to let my body speak for itself, merely act as a medium through which signals are turned into words, how would it claim agency? What surprises, what stories? What memories would be revisited? Over time, in different places, would the messages change ? (And how?)
Praxis: Everyday, I will (1) randomly choose a part of my body to focus on. I will then (2) spend 10 minutes or so (probably more, but no less than 10) acting as scribe for that part of my body. These scribblings could include how that part (let’s say finger) is feeling at the moment, a memory it is involved in, a trauma/injury (paper-cut?), or how the finger wishes others to read/translate it. These journalings will be very open to allow for impulse and change. I will then (3) pull a word, words, or a quote from the scribbling that seems like a good embodiment of the whole sentiment, and (4) transcribe it onto the body part with a black pen. I will keep these words on me as long as possible, wearing them in day-to-day life; sometimes I may choose the same body part several times, the message becoming layered, blurred, muddled. To document these words on the body, I will (5) take photos at the initial transcribing, and hopefully other times during the day in different contexts. (6) Take notes sporadically on how meaning changes in different contexts, or anything else interesting about my praxis.
[I want to explore the slide between subject and object, the agency of the body and how that is conveyed and received, how that is separate from the “I” and where it merges. Also the body as a vessel for memory, and how that is extracted/translated/transcribed. ]
Restraints: I won’t be able to leave the writing on all my body parts (for example, my forehead), due to contexts like work and my internship. This might also play into the tension between the questions “How does my body wish to be read/how do I wish my body to be read (in this context)?”
Side note: It’s interesting how so many of my classes now have an online aspect to them, demanding the use of internet and computer as a way of accomplishing task, research, and communication/discussion, not just to write papers. Something to puzzle further.