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.

No comments:

Post a Comment