michael j. morris

divided self
28 November, 2015, 12:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I want to think and write about the inconsistencies of self, how any self is already divided from itself in any number of ways, how “a self” is already a swarming multiplicity of partial selves, possible selves, who one is or can be or might be within any number of settings or relations. Perhaps part of what it means to be a self (I might also say “subject,” which implies more of a specific position within language and social relations, but I want to focus more on the “self,” here as one’s sense or experience of who or what it is that one is. Or made personal: the self as my sense or experience of who or what it is that I am. Or made relational: the self as your sense or who or what it is that you are…) is to always experience or understand that self in relation to such divisions, partialities, multiplicities, and inconsistencies. Some of what I am thinking is in response to reading Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, Or the Unbearable. But it is also in response to or an extension of my own  questions about identity, identification, how I come to try to know or recognize myself and extend that sense of recognition to social relations—how I try to extend the experience of recognition (which will always be in part misrecognition; it’s a matter of degree) to my experience of self in relation to others. It is in part bubbling out of a stew of family relations. It is groundwork for choreography that I’m developing. And it’s in response to something my best friend said to me from South Korea this morning.

Over the last two years, I have shifted my preferred pronouns to they, them, their. This was a development in the ongoing process of my gender, finding/making a place for myself in language where I felt like I could be recognized. By “recognized,” I mean something like “feel like I exist” or “feel like it is possible for me to exist.” To the extent that language is a device/system with which we not only name and navigate our world, but also structure our understandings of what our world—including ourselves—can mean, where “naming” and “meaning” also enables and constrains what can occur, what is allowed, what is unthinkable or foreclosed, how we are named or called and the meaning of how we are named or called shapes how we are positioned not only in words but also in the world that words organize. To be called “she” or “he” is to be categorized within a system of gender that operates on personal and political scales (the two are not mutually exclusive, the two are perhaps the same system perceived or framed at different sites and with different degrees). To be called “he” or “she” is to be cast within a role that is not of your making, a role in which your actions, your behavior, your body, your relationships, etc., are given some meanings and not others, some options and opportunities and not others. These roles and meanings are not entirely fixed nor are they consistent or stable across time, but neither are they infinitely flexible or fluid. Even when their parameters are malleable, these linguistic terms still demarcate a limited territory for what a person so called might be or become.

When I first encountered people who identify as genderqueer and use pronouns other than he or she, I felt like I glimpsed a space—in both language and in the world that is organized by language—or territory of possibilities for being/becoming that more closely coincided with how I perceived myself. This is not to say that such terms are identical to me or perfectly demarcate the contours of my lived experience of gender or personhood; no word or signifier is identical with that to which it refers. This difference—between lived experiences and the words with which we come to describe them, understand them, and attempt to know them—is an inescapable condition of language, and is integral to the kinds of ruptures, divisions, breaks, and displacements that I am thinking about in regards to the self. I think it may be true that in every application of language, there persists this simultaneous recognition and misrecognition, this gap between what something or someone is and the words with which they become known. This dual recognition and misrecognition is perhaps even more acute when it is our selves that are addressed or named in language, because as the self that is addressed, we have access to the felt sensations of being recognized and misrecognized in varying degrees; indeed, we come to know ourselves in part through such affective registries, the senses of ourselves that are animated by and within specific words. I’m not interested in narrating my own experience of gender in the perhaps familiar passages of trans narratives, the re-telling of “I’ve always known” or “I’ve known since I was a child” or the claims about who I “really am.” I think at least part of what holds my attention here is the degree to which the self in language always entails degrees of not-knowing, the ways in which any statements about any “real” or “authentic” self will be given in terms from which such a self is always divided. I believe it may be true that this relation to language, the ways in which it makes us both known and unknown, is a condition that we all endure to different degrees and with different sensitivities. What I can say about my own experience, which may be true for other people’s experiences as well, is that the degree to which I felt misrecognized by gendered terms such as “man” or “he” or even “gay” eventually acutely outweighed the degree to which I felt recognized by such terms; the [shifting] spaces that they demarcate in language and the world no longer felt like my home, and it’s possible that they never really did. Shifting the words with which I identify myself, to “genderqueer,” to “they,” to “queer” has been a process of aligning myself with [imperfect] terms with which I feel more recognized, words that demarcate spaces in which I feel like it is more possible for someone like me to exist. To identify as genderqueer is for me a claim that who I am does not have to fit within the binary categories of female or male, however flexible those categories might be(come). To identify as queer is for me to describe the capacity of my desires as deviating from persistent sexual norms, particularly those that would define desire within the limited frameworks of binary gender. And to identify with the pronouns they, them, and their is also to position myself outside of the gender binary, while also laying claim to the self as a singular multiplicity—which is intimately related to the realizations I am attempting to articulate here, the self as already more than one, a plurality within singularity.

And yet even these words are shifting signifiers, words with which I do not fully coincide, words that are not my invention, from which I am still already divided, and thus, in a sense, figured as divided from myself—the very self I attempt to name with such terms. Despite the degrees to which I feel recognized by such terms, they also mark ruptures between any self that I am and the circulation of those terms beyond myself, breakages between language and lived experience that cannot be mended. It is possible to claim that the self is as much this discontinuous series of ruptures between shifting, inconsistent parts from which it is tenuously composed as it is identifiable with any one seemingly stable, seemingly consistent part. In as much as I might identify myself with or as a particular word or person or personality or role, I must (or could) also identify myself with such ruptures, such divisions, such breaks, as well as my relation to such ruptures, divisions and breaks. I am such ruptures in that any self that I perceive myself to be is negotiated in and through and in relation to them, even if that relation is denial or disavowal. I could describe myself as those unnamed, unnameable gaps between my self and the words with which I identify myself—or the words with which I am identified by others—those fluctuating inconsistencies that I encounter within myself, those bursts of misrecognition where I see that I am not that word by which I am called or named, rather than attempting to utilize language in such a way that I feel myself more recognized by it. However, it remains difficult to persistently identify with such ruptures, such gaps, such breakages. To do so involves losing track of oneself, accepting the inadequacy of language even as that language organizes our lives and world, and identifying with an ineffability that is the outside of language, the Symbolic, what psychoanalysts might call the Real. Even as I acknowledge this inadequacy of language, an inadequacy that becomes the grounds through which a self persists, I remain attached to pursuing a recognizable self, a self that is more sufficiently (however imperfectly) approximated in language. Perhaps this is an effect of what Lacan called the mirror phase—staring into my own reflection, seeing an image of a body (that is also not identical to myself, that is also divided from the self that I am) and idealizing the impression of that person as a singular, whole, recognizable entity. Or perhaps it is an effect of language, the assumption of the Symbolic, in which words assume categorical entities, a thing or being to which a word can refer. Perhaps this is the tension between psychoanalysis and Deleuze, between the subject and the schizophrenic, between a world that compels the maintenance of a castrated subject as if it were whole and a world that fosters the surrender to a self as a series of positive processes and flows that never fully resolve into any consistency or whole. How can one live as a rupture? How do we bear our own divisions, breakages, and partiality?

I don’t have answers to this or a way to resolve these problems; in fact, I might be suspicious of any attempt to resolve what I perceive to be irresolvable. What I think I am attempting to describe here for myself is the ways in which language divides the self from itself. And because language—the words we use and the words that are used for us—shapes how we become the self that we are, we could say that such divisions are fundamental to the self. The self is not only divided but such ruptures and how we navigate them are the problematic origins of any self that we are.

This is not only a matter of language, although our relations to language provide an exemplary opportunity to contemplate our own divisions, partialities, and inconsistencies. We perhaps also experience this in our relations to others, the encounters through which we come to realize that however much my perception of myself and how others perceive me coincide at the position of my body, those perceptions remain invariably different. That difference—between how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others—introduces another division, another rupture. It would be easy but short-sighted to suggest that how I perceive myself is somehow the “real me,” and how others perceive me is either accurate or inaccurate depending on its correspondence to how I perceive myself. I may maintain a privileged perspective of myself from the “inside” as it were, with access to a range of affective experiences that underscore my choices, my behavior, and my encounters with others, and such insights can be crucial for how I understand myself or choose who it is that I want to become. But who I am to others is no less real, if for no other reason than this: how I am perceived by others affects how they react towards me, shaping the ways that I can move through the world to varying degrees. How other people treat me based on their perceptions of me shapes my lived experience, which then becomes continuous with how I perceive myself. Whether or not I am conscious of the perceptions of others, I am always an experience for them as well as an experience for myself, and any encounter with an other can re-introduce that multiplicity, that division. In my encounter with you, I not only experience you as other than myself, as only ever partially knowable and opaque, but I experience myself in such ways through you. In as much as you are other than me, I see the me that you see as other than how I see myself; I come to know your partial experience and knowledge of me, and in doing so experience and know myself as limited and partial. You introduce me to myself in ways that are never fully familiar to me, and the me that you know is not the same as how I know myself. And so my encounter with you presents the distance between you and I, and that distance, that difference, is introduced into my self as part of how I am constituted in and through our encounter.

I see you seeing me and perhaps it isn’t anything you say but the way that you look at me that makes me feel that the person you are seeing is not me, or not entirely me, or not the same as the self that I can see. I feel you touch me or lie beside me, and feeling you feeling me makes me unfamiliar to myself; you are on the bed beside me, and yet the person that you are lying beside is never identical to how I feel myself lying there. I feel your touch as if from the inside, and yet you feel me from the outside, from my surfaces, and so I am divided, different from myself, dispersed from different directions and perspectives. You speak to me and you respond to the words I have said, and what you have understood from what I said is not at all what I intended, and so you respond to me but also to a stranger, to someone who is not the me that I know, and yet is the me that you address. Every encounter with another presents me to myself as other than myself; I come to know myself as a social being or becoming, and in that sociality, that relationality, I am multiplied and divided, never singular or fully one.

Earlier today my best friend described visiting another country as feeling as if she had lived her whole life there, when in fact she has lived most of her life in the U.S. How is it that we can come to feel as if we have lived entirely different lives? What is the situational alchemy through which it can seem that we are an entirely different person than we had known ourselves to be only days before? I don’t presume that this was what my friend meant in her description, but I have known that feeling, this feeling I am describing: I find myself somewhere, in some setting or context, and there it seems as if I could be or could have been someone else. Sometimes it can feel like coming home, as if: yes, this is where I have been all along, right here, and it was not until now that I realized it. I think I felt that way the first time I took a Butoh class, or when having sex with someone who touched me as if they already knew my body, or when walking around San Francisco for the first time on my own. It’s the kind of feeling that gives rise to mythologies of destiny, of soulmates, of past lives, the feeling that of all the places I’ve been and things that I’ve done, this is somehow more real, more timeless, more expansive than anything before. Perhaps what I’m describing is a kind of belonging or feeling recognized, a context or exchange in which parts of oneself that have never had a place come to have a place. Perhaps in those situations we feel more whole, more complete or more actualized. But of course any pleasure or satisfaction that we feel in such moments haunts and is haunted by the reality that we have known ourselves just as often—if not more so—as incomplete, and that incomplete self is no less me than the self I experience in those moments of relative fulfillment. We are both, these selves we experience as whole or complete, and these partial selves, and we have to live with that ambivalence.

And what of those moments when you do not recognize yourself? Rushing out the door for a meeting, glancing in the mirror to check your hair, locking eyes with your reflection, and that person seems to be a stranger. Waking up in someone else’s bed, pulling on your clothes, and asking yourself, “What am I doing? Who am I?” Reading something you wrote years earlier, recognizing the penmanship, but the thoughts articulated in the words so unfamiliar that they could have been written by someone else. Hearing yourself say something out loud, and feeling disassociated with your own voice or the words that you’re saying. In so many moments, we seem unfamiliar, strange, or distinct from who we know ourselves to be. How do we live with those moments? Some get compressed into the unconscious, swept away in order to maintain some consistent sense of ourselves. Others maybe become breaking points, breakdowns, breakups, falling apart, or giving up. I think it’s difficult to dwell in those moments in which we do not recognize ourselves; maybe at other times it can be delightful, surprising ourselves, revealing that we are more than we thought we were. In either case, as in language or encounters with others, even to ourselves, we can suddenly or gradually become different, multiple, divided, ruptured.

I am not writing towards a conclusion or a thesis. I don’t quite know where these musings will lead, except perhaps towards a greater appreciation for ourselves as multiplicities, the various dimensions through which we encounter our own difference, the mechanisms through which we manage our divisions and breakages in order to carry on, and some of the complexities of trying to achieve recognition and actualization when we are also unrecognizable and in some ways impossible both to others and ourselves.



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