Friday, April 19, 2013

Embodying an Eunuch, or Absence as a Positive Being


The following is a transcript of a talk on ABSENCE
from the Medieval Bodies Conference at Catholic University
on April 19, 2013

Into the Dark

Absence touches us in ways that are hard to say and may be impossible to see. It gets under our skin, rewires us, lives like shards in our heart and calls to us on sleepless nights when we think we are alone. Then we step outside look into the darkness and wonder. To ponder the night skies is to study the past; a history that lives with us today in the light of stars removed in time and space, many of whom may have long since vanished from sight. We bask each night in the visible and invisible presence of absent but very real ghosts of our universe’s deep life. The light and hidden forces of these bodies whisper to us of old friends and forgotten stories. No longer relying on our ocular impulses, our empiricism, determinism and atomic absolutes, the multiplicity of sensors, mathematics, and relativity which we now reach out in the world tell shocking tales. 

In the beginning, scientists now think, moments after the big-bang all the matter in the universe collided with all the anti-matter, obliterating everything; except a tiny fraction that held on to existence. From tiny part of the original mass, all things in our cosmos have been created ( There is power is parts, power to persist as well as power to relate the story of all that is no longer with us; to manifest absence without becoming reduced to nothing. Now as we explore higher up and further into the heavens, we discover that instead of a void space, the darkness shines with background light, radiation left over from the initial expansion of the universe, as well as a host of black holes, dark matter and dark forces ( 

We live now in a world enraptured by invisible energies moving information, connecting people, and radiating us down to our cells and seeing is no longer believing. Our angels have returned. It behooves us, as a result, to reread our ancient theaters. By returning to these stages with sensitivity to dark mysteries, those things took for nothing because they did not appear to us according to the imperial empirical gaze & enlightened subjectivity.



Nothing Comes From Nothing

On a show night, walking alone through darkened catwalks of my highschool auditorium, fixing a few gels that had come undone in the giant light fixtures, I could feel my invisibility to the actors taking center stage below. Margins, shadows, backstage were my prerogative. Only certain bodies are certain times are given the vibrancy to announce their presence in the here and now, while the rest of us depart for the wings. In the theater hierarchy, these background workers and actors may seem like non-entities, but our disappearance doesn’t mean that we no longer have parts to play, but we retreat into the background, forgotten, letting our absence speak for us.

Man, we are told, is a product of the theater of Enlightenment; but his rise depended on absenting of his earlier (darker) twins: the part-Men, Eunuchs. Their presence has long been read from Reformation preachers to Psychoanalysis’s in negative terms; as a lack; a pre-amble; an empty signifier. An Atheist Christian, Slavoj Zizek marks a trajectory in Christianity in the Monstrosity of Christ

“In the succession of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism each new term is a subdivision, split off from a previous unity. This triad of Universal-Particular-Singular…[in which] Protestantism, finally the only authority is the text itself, and the wager is on every believer’s direct contact with the Word of God as delivered in the text; the mediator (the particular disappears, withdraws into insignificance, enabling the believer to adopt a position of a “universal singular”) (28).

Zizek affirms that this move from collective void to singular nothingness is manifest in God:  “the abyss of Godhead, the Origin-Source of everything, and the abyss of the poverty of man [meets in Christ] (36-37). By God becoming Man & dying he goes from one kind of nothingness to another, we can see through the lens of an Atheist Protestant, the lack inherent in the god-man, who in “taking upon himself (not the sins, but) the suffering of humanity, he confronts the Father with the meaninglessness of it all” (57). 

Evident in this is the Protestant compulsion to abject the material and the particular, combined with the Modernist compulsion to see and see through things, coming together to arrive at nothingness at either end; the self is void as is the Other. Even in this though, the “other” is voided first, so as to affirm the self as a kind of empty past; just as Medieval Eunuchs embody a “dark age” before the rise of the enlightened took the stage. 

An ocular impulse to unveil has gone awry; seeing through things has made everything invisible. Seeing nothing in the darkness that is whole and stable, we have fallen into nihilism. We have a lack where we once had bodies and a void occupying the space that used to house worlds; all because we made the mistake of conflating appearances (epistemology) with existence (ontology). We took castration as annihilation, and then we cut ourselves into oblivion. 



The Sound of Absence

Walking the catwalks across of four pre-modern theaters, we might find a proliferation of parts whereby Eunuchs are made, performed & embodied to re-present absence in the shadows: in the surgeon's amphitheater, he evidences the exchanges forms of the body; in the markets, as a slave, he evidences the exchangeability and convertibility of the human as capital. in the church choirs of Christians as well as holy spaces of Muslims, particularly in Jerusalem where the tradition continues today (Scholtz 200); operating house budgets, watching over other servants, particularly members of harems (Scholtz 229-232); and on the stage, the eunuch represents the artificial human, both in what he is and what he represents constructed by his relationship with technology. 

Already parted and partially removed, the eunuch keeps things moving but remains somewhere between the present and absent, the present and past, the visible and the invisible. Indeed when a eunuch is in the room, people tend to ignore him as a non-presence, but once his services are desired, he is called to and suddenly he steps forward and appears. To be a Eunuch qua Eunuch is to be part, not a whole. Eunuch translates out of Latin as "the gatekeeper," as the one that waits in the threshold to the bedroom; the site of intercourse. Doors may as well be an exit as an entrance. The embodied eunuch stands in defiance at the threshold to the human, forever pre-human, becoming, relational. Eunuch’s open up the human as a set of changing parts.

A few hundred years before I lurked in all black behind the stage of my high-school auditorium, the dark bodies of eunuchs prowled the back-stair-ways of an early modern manor, keeping the estate running while their master’s diner in the front room. They remained ever a bell’s call away. In a Church a eunuch choir stand behind a wall ready to sing Mass when called by the Priest. On another stage, actors embodying the part of a eunuch colored their skin and stood in the wings playing instruments, ready to perform their part at the call of the lead-actors.

In the 17th C. play, Selimanus, the eunuch is not seen on the cast-list or stage direction, but when Bajazet commands, “Eunuchs, play me some music while I sleep,” the text tells us that from somewhere out of sight, we hear “Music within” (88. Ix. 32-33). A call and a response is all that is given to announce to us their presence. If we are hearing their music, they must exist somewhere, off-stage or out of sight. Or, because this is a night scene, they may be hiding closer somewhere nearby in the darkness. We may be shocked by this sudden assertion of presence in the absence. Have the eunuchs always been there? Will they ever leave? What else may exist unseen and unknown in the dark? 

Absence embodies what Graham Harman calls “retreating” where the being of “real objects” withdraws from all “sensual objects” (language, senses, thought) emitting an “allure” suggested by the “sensual qualities” (95-107). Darkness, writes Ian Bogost, marks this distance between the real & sensual. In darkness we retreat into ourselves. The eunuch’s call, or song, first echoed in Byzantine Choirs, spread by the late medieval period: 

"When a boy is castrated before puberty, his voice never breaks, or deepens the usual octave. Physiologically, such eunuchs don’t develop the Adam’s apple typical of adult males; the position, form, and plasticity remain the same as a boy’s, but the rib cage disproportionally expands, and in combination these…characteristics produce a unique vocal register" (Scholtz, 38-39)



Things Unseen

These calls from the darkness, these forms of music performance became synonymous with castrated bodies for Shakespeare who references eunuch singers in a Midsummer Nights Dream, Twelfth Night, Two Noble Kinsmen, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline to name a few.

On Shakespeare’s stage we hear Anthony & Cleopatra calling on their Eunuch:

Cleopatra: Thou, eunuch Mardian!
Mardian: What's your Highness' pleasure?
Cleopatra: Not now to hear thee sing; I take no pleasure/In aught an eunuch has. 

This exchange functions like a song resonating between bodies to affirm mutual presence. However, what happens, such as in the scene noted above, when the eunuch does not sing? In his first as well as in his last scene, at Anthony and Cleopatra’s death, Mardian remains present on stage but is darkly silent. His voice removed, he retreats from our senses but stubbornly exists On the borderlands of existence, where non-presence flirts with non-being, Absence instead retreats across time, space, and into itself. 

A call may cause it to resonance and act, as the eunuch-like figure of Ariel does in the Tempest in various stage directions, performing but not always appearing. Many such pre-modern eunuchs seem to demonstrate powers of invisible presence, a lurking in darkness, to be called to appear and disappear while perhaps never really leaving. Combined with their power of song, the eunuch’s off-stage presence in absence is evidently key to his function. He operates the background for us, connecting the visible with the invisible, making things move as if by magic. In this way, Ariel, while never called an eunuch, is and does what a eunuch does to a fantastic extreme. 

Calling Ariel from his invisibility, Prospero invokes him to exhibit his presence: “Come away, servant, come. I am ready now./ Approach, my Ariel, come”. (I.ii.305-311). Embodying the absent party of an eunuch, Ariel steps from the darkness a total of twelve times, having so enchanted Prospero’s to continually call for his absent servant & to reveal his dependence on all the parts & bodies that imperial gazes won’t see. Ariel mocks such a master’s paranoid occularity by appearing in overly-sensual magnificence: invisible, playing and singing; loaden with glistering apparel; [with] Thunder and lightning (III.iii.1626);

While Mardian performs the retreating darkness of absent bodies, Ariel embodies the plurality, diversity & magnificence of all that exists out of sight that might overwhelm us with presence.



Inarticulate Parts

Flash forward a couple hundred years, back to my high-school auditorium. From the catwalk, I can see the play beginning down below. I put on a head-set so I can hear the other techies lurking like shadows in the darkness backstage, ready to all play their parts when the show calls for it. But not everything we do and are, especially in the shadows, are brought to light. What isn’t seen but is heard and shared among us are my pending transition. Having begun coming out as a transwoman to a choice few in this community has sparked a lot of questions but the main one I get is: do I plan on bottom surgery. One set of genitals would become absent and in embodying a eunuch, I would be moving towards taking on another part as another appeared. 

There are cut-off points to identity, but as absence makes clear, some things change while others remain. Being absent is ontologically different than lacking being, although they may appear alike. If there was nothing in the darkness, we would never step into it, and yet we must. The darkness of our own bodies mark what exists beyond our knowing as proof of things yet unseen:

"Body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech but it begets it...the challenge is to hear. Hearing is difficult not only because listeners have trouble facing what is being said as a possibility or a reality in their own lives. Hearing is also difficult because… they are also told on the edge of speech.…it is told in the silences that speech cannot penetrate or illuminate" (Wounded Storyteller 2-3)

Unlike the void that can only exist as a singularity, absence is a multiplicity and perpetually generates more and more absence. A void by definition does not exist, things fill the space of what is removed from our world and one of those things is Absence. Like a ghost or gravestone, it becomes present for us so that we might mourn and relate to what is no longer present for us. 

Eunuchs are defined by castration, by what it has made him into: scar-tissue. Cauterization over a rupture in existence, eunuchs seal over a lack by becoming present as an absence. He inhabits the space of what is no longer with us, so that when we see nothing & nihilistically reach out with grief-stricken blindness, we may touch & remember: bodies matter; remember: we are not alone; remember: “there is a part of me that never left a part of you” (Neon Trees, Still Young).


Friday, April 12, 2013

Stories of Saline: Gender Fluid Love in Twelfth Night

"Water is the menstruum of the world"
Michael Sendivogius 1566-1636


The following is a transcript of a talk on SALINE 
from the Gender Matters Conference at DePaul University 
on April 12th, 2013. 


Liquid Friendships

It’s so nice being (back) in Chicago where the water doesn’t smell. There is a sense that comes from traveling and living abroad that gives one an appreciation of the chemical diversity of water. Washington DC was a former swamp and its water remembers. Hawaii has sweet water that lingers in the nose with a fragrant greenness. Boston has very business-like water. New York water doesn’t give a shit. In them all, I can taste the material personalities that flow through the geography and its people. The story of the human species is a long love-affair between a primate and water. Our densest population centers and our most magnificent industrial works gravitate around water-sources. And as my aquatic pallet reveals, there is much more to water than H20.

Water is defined by the things floating in it. It’s what gives water it’s taste or apparent lack of it. Pure H20 is incredibly rare and very difficult to produce. It’s uses are limited, as any living thing that drank it in would find themselves seized by convulsion, shock and sickness as the pure water actually sucked all the minerals out of the body. This heavy water has one primary use: the production and cooling of nuclear materials. Thus, despite our fantasies and phobias, we actually don’t want perfectly pure water; it’s too lonely and anti-social for our interests.

We like water because of what appears to give water its life: its capaciousness for friendship. It invites things into it. Its most common and perhaps favorite partner is easy to imagine for anyone who is an avid swimmer. On this planet, it’s hard to find water not arm and army with its best friend salt; and for good reason.

Salt makes things more themselves, a cook friend once told me. It makes meat meatier, vegies vegier. Salt infuses and slows us down. It enhances flavor and it preserves. It raises our blood pressure and in solutions it can hydrate. It sticks to our butts when we lay on the beach and it crusts our hair as we soak in the ocean. It's on our glasses as we drink our summer drinks. It's on our meat as we grill under the evening sun. We kill for it. Saline is medical. It’s political. It’s culinary. It drowns and it washes away civilizations.

The ocean, a giant saline basin, thus serves as the spring and the graveyard for life-system upon life-system. If water obsessively relates and seeks to cut out new passages, salt emphasizes and remembers, highlights and preserves. Salt holds onto water and that's one of the many reasons we find it in saline solutions that are designed to hydrate us. For those who have lost a lot of blood or water, taking in salt water allows us to hold on to the water when the solution gets into our veins. 

Saline performs the simultaneous function of holding fast and keeping things together and spreading out and integrating with the world. It is hardly surprising then that sailors are famous for their songs and their stories. For those that listen to the sound of the waves, the creeping of the tides, the drizzle of ocean spray, and the murmurs of water apparently at rest, (as with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's upcoming Stories of Stone) Saline is full of tales to tell.


Storied Oceans
Across the Ages

On one dark night in Oahu, away from the light pollution of tourist traps and hotels, my partner and I sat in her car watching the stars slowly appear over the jet black ocean. We could make out the changing shape of the waves as mountains of water and foam raised up and fell into valleys, creating a dancing and inconstant horizon of stars as its shapes cut them off from our sight. It was like the ocean was waging war against the sky. Into this deep and ancient conversation we waded. It was my first time swimming since my transition. As the salt-water sucked the heat from my ribs as it washed over my bikini, I became elated. 

Standing still was impossible but I tried to at least quiet my motions so I could listen to it as it prodded, explored, and caressed my body like an aggressively curious friend. Water is defined by what is in it. That night, I had never before felt more feminine; more in touch with a long and expansive history of femininity. The saline that soaked through my skin, coated my hair and which got breathed into my lungs in a thousand little droplets had once ran through and touched billions of my sisters of so many species, peoples and gender formations. The story of woman is one the sea has been telling for millennia. From Venus, to Viola, to me.

The first book of the Torah and the first book of the metamorphoses share a common feature: out of chaos, when the first words are spoken and things begin to form, we are told they are carried across an expanse of dark water. From this all things came: sea-creatures, whales, dinosaurs, civilization. From the sea-foam Venus was birthed and took one of her names. In turn, her daughter-son, the progeny of Mercury and Venus, the dawn-star and the dust-star, the god of transitions and the goddess of gender, Hermes and Aphrodite, took the name Hermaphroditus. Ovid tells us how as a youth, the child wandered in the wild alone and came upon a pool. Descending into it, he was grappled by the waters dangerous friends, the material agency of the water nymph which dissolved into the youth’s body until they became one. Rising from the waters, the child was a boy become a woman, both masculine and feminine, and yet neither.

The transformative powers of saline were remembered and hallowed throughout the medieval period. Recorded and commented on by alchemists such as Michael Sendivogus, they believed water to be the source of all life and all forms. Preserving the medical texts of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen until the early modern period, these early scientists and medical doctors believed that all bodies were defined by four elements & four humors. The human body itself was not fundamentally divided into races or sexes, but existed in a competing balance of fluids that in different ratios changed skin color, temper, and sexual characteristics. 


Changing Waterscapes
in Shakespeare's England

A manly man had the right amount of fire & earth, he was hot and dry. A woman was a body that literally cook in the womb long enough; thus women were cold and wet. Because these differences are matters of degrees and material balances, however, a woman could theoretically become a man with extreme effort and legal, scientific & literary accounts evidence that this occurred intermittently for hundreds of years. Perhaps more dangerously for early modern London, was that men, sufficiently wet, such as by a life at sea, could become feminized. 

Early Modernists & eco-theorists Steve Mentz and Lowell Duckert demonstrate how vital water-scapes were not only to the cultural imaginary of Shakespeare’s London but to the materiality reality of the stage. Theater presented enough inconstant forms to give the most sensual Reformation preacher, like William Prynne, enough anxiety over the categories of being so as to go write a book-length treaty on the Unlovilness of Love-locks where he worries that the wearing of long-hair, extensions, and wigs, such as found both on and off the stage in London, had “hermaphrodit’d” English manhood. 

It is critical to understand, however, that this is more than simply concerns over performance and the play of signifiers. Deconstruction alone will not give you the keys to unlock this Puritan’s complaints. Rather, Prynne was a sensible early modern bio-chemist. Hair, as it was believed was the result of heat and dryness leaving the body; that is why we have hair, he said, in places that are often the warmest: the arm pits, the pelvis and the head. Hair, chemically, it was believed, was the crusty “excrement” of the watery brain, itself merely a giant radiator. As a result, long hair, literally was a sign that a body had lost the defining heat and dryness that made it male and put it on the course to wet womanly coolness.

What we see then on Shakespeare’s stage when the young boy playing Viola puts on his wig and performs a transfigured body, this is more than illusion, but cutting edge humoral theory at work. The technologies of the stage materially, according to the science of the day, metamorphosed the bodies of the actors. When gender was not merely what was between your legs but what formed the whole assemblage of elements that made you, the prosthetic hair, especially doused in water, such as would have been in the opening scene of Twelfth Night, performed the wonder of making a boy into a woman, of literally and literality recreating the birth of Hermaphroditus. The men of London were being hermaphrodit’d indeed! 


Inundated Bodies
in Twelfth Night

“Be my aid for such a disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent” the soaking wet Viola instructs her fellow cast away as they climb from the sea-coast, their bodies inundated with saline (1.1.55-58). Her twin brother lost at sea, Viola, by altering her hair, adding a wig, fuses their identities and bodies as Salmacis the water-nymph had with Hermaphroditus. Viola takes on a new name and identifies as a eunuch; another kind of scientifically, medically feminized body. 

Becoming the servant of Orsino, she listens as he swears that as a man he could consume the whole ocean (the material & symbolic fountainhead of women), until Viola interjects that another body might do so as well or better, making suggestive allusions to his transfigured state as a child of sea-travel and the sea-foam, Hermes and Aphrodite, masculinity and femininity. When Viola lays herself bare to Orsino and he takes her as his wife, we do not get an easily resolution of genders. 

Once transformed, gender will forever remain inconstant and in motion, however material it may remain. While her lord begs that she might change into her womanly attire, Viola begs that they are currently lost to her and she must remain in her mixed gendered state for the time being. Orsino, in response, pats her on the back and confesses that as she is a man, she shall be his companion, and as she is a woman, she shall be his “fancy’s queen.” 

Seeing the narcissistic game Orsino played with Olvia, staring at her as though she was a pool of water, reflecting back only his image and imaginings, we might understand why Viola prefers to remain the embodiment of choppy, mixed, impure water; to hold onto his friendship, and her own manhood, just as water holds onto salt in a saline solution. Not only a kind of early modern feminist, but science as well. Shakespeare, through the sailor and mixed body of Viola, dressed in her long soggy prosthetic love-locks presented to his audience a vision of London’s gender: somewhere at sea between masculinity and femininity, using its powers of dynamism, friendship, preservation and story to rise from the sea as a nation.


Alchemic Waters
and Trans Bodies

Only a few hundred years later, across less time and space than the ocean carried the stories of Ovid to Shakespeare’s London, I emerged from the ocean in Oahu. The salt-water kissing my skin and crusting in my hair, I lay out on a blanket under the stars with my partner. Feeling the saline sting my lungs, I dream of Venus, Hermaphroditus, and Viola. Salt-water had transformed their bodies and their gender. One day, it might transform mine in new and innovative ways. 

Saline implants remain a popular material for breast augmentation. Literally packaged as kinds of salt-water-balloons,  they are surgically placed into the chest, under the muscle, raising and forming the breasts. This material metamorphosis continues to resonate with women and femininity across time and space. The very salt-water that fills them and filled my gendered body, may have once passed through Ovid’s bathwater or been splashed on the actor that play Viola on Shakespeare’s stage, may even be somehow related to the water dripping off my body as I lay there on the beach.

Water is defined by what’s in it. Salt floats in our the cycle of waters-life, so does gender, so do the trans and transformed bodies of god, mortal, Greek, English, and American. Saline forms not only the meeting place of our friendship, but the very material and language by which we speak and related to one another. In human speech, we form myths, poems, plays, alchemical treatises, surgical procedures, anecdotes, conference papers. The stories told by Saline are however even more manifold because of their inhumanity, and yet they are nonetheless gendered. If gender is a line of flight and a way of relation, then saline follows femininity in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Gender embodies; Gender transforms; Gender preserves; Gender flows; Gender speaks; and Gender matters.