Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Unconfessing Gender: Dysphoric Youths in Gower's Iphis

"Dicunt accidiam fore nutricem viciorum, Torpet et in cunctis tarda que lenta bonis: Que fieri possent hodie transfert piger in cras, Furatoque prius ostia claudit equo. Poscenti tardo negat emolumenta Cupido, 
Set Venus in celeri ludit amore viri"

John Gower
Confessio Amantis

The following is a transcript of a paper,
"Unconfessing Gender: Transgender and the Medicalization of Sin in John Gower's Iphis and Ianthe,"
presented at the International Congress of Medieval Studies
at Kalamazoo, Michigan. 2015.

After a period of gender ambiguity, a child is assigned male at birth, but as he reaches puberty and falls in love, the boys feelings and embodiment raise gender trouble, so an authority comes in and prescribes a more radical operation that will transform his genitalia to fit with socially prescribed norms and correct the child’s perceived chemical and mental imbalance. As a youth in an increasingly medicalized Christian society, the child has no voice in the decision. Like so many trans and intersex children, his body is treated as the property and problem of his parents, doctors, and Church leaders. The idea of letting the child freely chose a gender would be considered medically irresponsible, socially irregular, and legally unlikely. The child’s body and voice is taken from him, given away to other authorities who decide how to best tell their story, how to frame it, and where to pin authority and culpability. In this case, the trans youth being managed is Iphis (from the 14th century Confessio Amantis) and the storyteller who at once exploits and critiques the narrative is John Gower.

What do we do with the silencing of the transgender child? How do we sit with the omission of choice at the end of Gower’s adaptation of Ovid’s "Fable of Iphis and Ianthe?" In the “Prologue” to the Confessio Amantis and “the Tale of Iphis and Ianthe,” Gower testifies to sin as an embodiment of collective “division” or dysphoria of the body’s humors and political environment. While scholars may be tempted to describe these as exempla, defined hiearchally with a narrative facta evidencing claims about an ethical dicta, I take seriously Gower's decision to describe and frame his work not as an Exemplum on Sins but as a Confession of Love. I contend that confession as Gower performs functions more horizontally, as a “speaking together,” challenging readers to look to the wider social systems that dysphorically produce all bodies. For Gower, the conflict over the gender of Iphis is not a matter of personal choice but the confession of violent social management. 

In Unconfessing Gender, I trace how Gower tackles how the medicalization of sin creates a double-bind, where the isolate and pathologized trans bodies are framed as constituting a crisis of gender that excuses authorities to take extraordinary measures to cure that body, irregardless of the will of the trans subject. By framing the tale of Iphis by an examination of accidiam, or Sloth, Gower presents how society establishes the compulsory production and reproduction of cisgender (as well as compulsory heterosexuality, as Diane Watt has previously examined) as a demand that the inherent dysphoria of creation makes impossible. This failure of lives to conform to a fixed structure of gender casts individuals as suffering from accidiam, literally carelessness, in relation to the production of specific gender norms and the heterosexual reproduction of the proper gender ideal (i.e. men). By establishing such bodies as a crisis in the order of nature, extraordinary measures are excused in order to fix the trans queer body into a proper cis-hetero subject. Through the medicalization of body and soul, these measures justify the subjugation or outright disregard of the will of the trans person as an inherently diseased subjectivity.


The Depression of
Dysphoric Youths

"If aversion to the medieval period as primitive, benighted or premodern underwrites models of science," writes Ann Cvetkovich, "then acedia is indeed relevant to the search for alternatives to the medical model of depression" (Depression: A Public Feeling 89). Turning to the Confessio, diagnoses such as depression and dysphoria meet medieval alternatives. By presenting Iphis through the medieval social model of Sloth, Gower turns depression and dysphoria from a personal failure to a public feeling. 
"Dicunt accidiam fore nutricem viciorum," Gower writes concerning Sloth in the introduction to Book IV (Gower IV.i). By asserting that acedia is the nurse of all vice, Gower establishes depression as a symptom and an operation of wider systemic practices. Medieval disability scholars have demonstrated that for pre-modern thinkers, religion and medicine were inextricable. The symptoms of depression, despair, and sluggishness span categorizes of physical and spiritual. Thus, in this study, I utilize the term dysphoria as genealogically related to Gower's conception of "division." The development of dysphoria as divisioun in medieval confessional discourses occurs in Gower and elsewhere within literature on acedia. "In its original Greek," writes Cvetkovich, "acedia means without care or careless" that "should be viewed as a social and cultural phenomenon, not a biological or medical one" (Cvetkovich 88-90). This movement from political ethics to private pathology arose as a conflict explored in Gower's Confessio.

"Divisioun" marks that makes all bodies dysphoric, then manages the production of trans bodies as specially marked by sins such as acedia to be managed by the literary and social operations of confession. Division in this way functions like depression, “a category that manages and medicalizes the affects associated with keeping up with corporate culture and the market economy, or with being completely neglected by it." (Cvetkovich 12). The medicalization of sin makes trans populations and makes them isolated and expelled and/or divested of power and exploited.  
In his investigation of acedia, Gower affirms the dangers of this medicalization of divisioun where "Depression is another manifestation of forms of biopower that produce life and death not only by targeting populations for overt destruction, whether through incarceration, war, or poverty, but also more insidiously by making people feel small, worthless, hopeless." (Cvetkovich 13). Dysphoria as a systematic disease can take on a variety of particular symptoms from suicide to social erasure. Gower demonstrates this slow death through the impossible isolation of pride in Narcissus's ignored cries and the impossible demands of sloth in Iphis's loud silence.

Divisioun becomes defined by Gower in the prologue as a form of dysphoria which all humans share as a result of their creation. “Man," writes Gower, "The which, for his complexioun / Is mad upon divisioun / Of cold, of hot, of moist, of drye, / He mot be verray kynde dye,/ For the contraire of his astat / Stant evermor in such debat” (Gower Prologue 974-980). "Mad" here functions both as "made" and "mad," a pun possible perhaps only in Middle English. Madness marks all bodies as corporately dysphoric due to a collective failure to embody the fixed unified ideal of cis-gender. Each body is made up of many “kindes” (or genders) of matter: the feminine cold and wet, and the male hot and dry.  This madness is however not of the dysphoric person's own making. He is "mad" because of the division and debate in the physical and political environment. In this way, all trans bodies are in a sense dependent on social discourses for their making and remaking. 
Extending this further, every body (not just one marked as especially dysphoric) contains multiplicities that bring about debate. This "debat" suggests the impossibility of escaping discourse for some sort of meta-language. Debate, like confession (as speaking together), requires two or more interlocutors where neither is presumed to above the other.

Establishing Iphis under the sin of Sloth (carelessness, non-productivity) underlines 
childhood through young adulthood as period in which a person's gender goes through significant shifts that may be in contradiction to what society wants or even the person's own desires. A dysphoric youth has a slothful relation to gender, "this propreliche of kinde, / To leven alle thing behinde"(Gower IV.5-6). He is "careless" about reproducing the past, is willing to leave cis-gender forms behind, because he cares too much about the alternatives his dysphoria opens. Likewise, the slothful "everemore he seith, 'Tomorwe'/ and so he wol time borwe" (Gower 8-10). Youths have an ability to defy having a fixed "kinde" of gender, prolonging a period of gender ambiguity that allows them to take greatest advantage of bodily dysphoria and in exist in what J.Jack Halberstam calls "the wondrous anarchy of childhood" (The Queer Art of Failure 3). Instead, the dysphoric youth might live only in the present, "Of that he mihte do now hier / He tarieth al the longe yer" (Gower). Refusing to move forward into a fixed gender, trans youth are enamored of the dysphoric present. This lack of movement in a single recognizable direction towards the "the plogh" and "labour" of cis-gender leads authorities to fear and discredit trans youth as directionless or slothful. In reality, the opposition arises out of the youth having too many directions and producing too many alternative "kindes" of embodiment. 

In this way, Gower affirms the critically Trans understanding of the unnaturalness of cis-gender and violent management systems that produce trans bodies as depressed. Gower's formulation of acedia is intimately tied to the dysphoria caused by the failure to properly produce and reproduce the "lenta bonis" (good seed) of cis-gender (Gower IV.i). Like the alchemists’ practice of solve et coagula,  that is described alongside Iphis in the confession of acedia, the transitions of trans gender are considered a waste of time. As a corporate sin, the community that helps encourage the trans youth have a dysphoric relation to gender, they "hath this propreliche of kinde, / To leven alle thing behind" (Gower IV.5-6). That “thing” that society fears trans lives will leave behind is cis-gender. Dysphoria is too inherent in our make-up and the dysphoric have too much potential power for change. As a result, society targets those particularly marked by dysphoria, trans youths, to be isolated into oblivion, to kill themselves like Narcissus or become docile participants in cis-gender, to be depressed and silenced like Iphis. 

Two Natures

Turning to the tale of Iphis, I contend that Gower offers a debate between confession and of the medicalization of sin, presenting the problem and cure of the dysphoric and slothful trans body as humorally and socially managed. By attending to the medicalization of sin, we can see how sloth, sexual desire, and the transformation of a female into a male are all signs of an excess of heat in a body’s humors and controlled by environmental influences, suggesting a deeper allegory operating in the tale's key characters of Isis and Cupid as representations of a dypshoric Nature
and an erotic Nature. The opposition of these two figures echoes the debate over Sloth that Gower establishes in the introduction to Book IV. "Dicunt accidiam fore nutricem viciorum," writes Gower, establishing Sloth as being like Isis, the midwife of all division and dysphoria (Gower IV.i). This dysphoria resists the unity promised by Love but will supposedly be undone in the end. "Poscenti tardo negat emolumenta Cupido," concludes Gower, "Set Venus in celeri ludit amore viri" (Gower IV.i). While many dysphoric youths may wish to remain in the ambiguity given by Isis, the cure of Love works rapidly to overcome the slow intrenched resistance of the patient's will. In this way, Gower forecasts later conclusions that if Eros and Unity cure the madness of division, it is by a violent Love.

A goddess of "childinge," or childbirth, Isis governs transitions. When she helps Iphis to be born first "in privete" as "a dowhter" and then again as publicly as "a sone," her presence marks pregnancy and birth processes of transition & bodily transformation (Gower IV.460-466). While Ovid's Metamorphoses provides a central text on which the Confessio is based, both follow in the tradition of the Metamorphoses of Apeleius. At the conclusion of the frame, Isis appears and calls to the protagonist, " I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen of the ocean, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are" 
(Metamorphoses of Apuleius. XI.47). Like the Nature of Roman de Silence, Isis is a craftswoman. Unlike her, Isis's Nature is mad, unstable, and many faced. As with Osiris, when Isis puts together her dead husband, following the alchemical dicta, solve et coagula, dissolve and remake, Iphis is mad(e); an image of Nature & Transition. Because of Isis, it is the father who demands to only have and see cis-masculinity is said to be "mad so to wene" made to understand & mad to understand Iphis’s masculinity (Gower IV.469). It is a madness constituted by divisioun, or dysphoria, in his understanding; a corporate detour into non-productive transness propelled by the “debate” of father, mother and nature.

Following the promise in the prologue to his Confession of Love, that love will unify and fix a world mad by division, Gower replaces Isis as the doctor that operates on the youth at the end of Iphis, making Cupid the divine agent to correct the dysphoria and produce the proper cis-male subject that the Father demanded from the start. "Forthi Cupide hath so besett / His grace upon this aventure," accounts Gower, "That he acordant to nature... Transformeth Iphe into a man" (Gower IV.496-501) Marking Cupid here as an agent of Nature aligns him with Isis, yet the masculine nature of Eros does what the trans feminine nature Isis cannot or will not. "For love," writes Gower, "hateth nothing more / Than thing which stant agein the lore / Of that nature in kinde hath sett" (Gower IV.493-495). These two gods represent two competing natures: the nature of dysphoria and the nature of cis-gender (“nature in kinde”). The law and dysphoric feminine nature (represented by Isis, Iphis & her mother) are fixed when Iphis takes on the nature of the law and the masculine humor of Love.

The supposed cure is no less material for being also social as Eros's cure signals a surge in sanguine masculinity, where the humors of Iphis’s blood change like any trans man on hormones. 
The "grace" that he bestows means an increase in blood corresponding to the already wet body becoming warmer (Gower IV.497). In the process, Iphis takes on the gender and humoral register of Love. "Wherof the kinde love he wan," continues Gower, "Of lusti yonge Iante his wif" (Gower IV.503-504). He is of the "kinde" of "love" (the gender of Eros) because of the circuit that Iphis and Ianthe form. Humorally, it is because of Iphis's state of arousal with Ianthe that the change takes place at the point of the mutual "kest" (Gower IV.478-500). Iphis’s loins fill with blood as he grows an erection. Changing him from melancholy (cold & dry) to lustful (hot & wet) is a turn of fortune's wheel as "aventure" reproduces Iphis as a man. These biopolitical discourses participate in the production of trans lives that embody them as a form of depression. "Even if depression is understood as spiritual or political and not just a biochemical disorder," writes Cvetkovich, "it affects the body and requires physical forms of healing, whether drugs, exercises or meditation" (Cvetkovich 113). Even today, hormone replacement therapy usually comes with hot flashes and changes in mood (or humor).


Mad for Iphis

What then do we do with the intolerable silence at the end of Gower’s Iphis? Ovid’s Iphis is given the power of voice in choosing how to manage his dysphoria. “Telethusa [Iphis’s mother] had recourse to pray'r,” writes Ovid. “She, and her daughter with dishevel'd hair; / Trembling with fear, great Isis they ador'd, / Embrac'd her altar, and her aid implor'd” (Ovid IX). What do we make of Gower’s omission of the trans voice in his confession on the improper productivity of dysphoria? I contend that the answer can be found in Gower’s other omissions. While boasting half a dozen tales of trans or cross-dressing figures, Gower surprisingly omits a prominent Classic trans narrative, Ovid’s story of Aphrodite’s other child: Hermaphroditus. Unlike the silence at the end of of Iphis, or Narcissus, or Roman de Silence, or the Pardoner’s Tale, or even Twelfth Night, where once society undresses, un-names, and un-mans the trans figure leaving them mute for the rest of the story, Hermaphroditus ends with a cry, a complaint, of fury against the gods that changes the world around him (Ovid IV.317-345). Where is this trans voice in the Confessio?

This is question critical today, following the medicalization of sin and confession that Gower left in debate with older ethical models, the systematic isolation and silencing of trans youth now commonplace in society. In the 1990's, Dylan Scholinski, a trans man, accounts having been committed to the mental health ward under the name Daphne and confined against his will throughout most of his adolescence for what is now called Gender Dysphoria (Scholinski, The Last Time I Wore a Dress). 
On the brink of the 21st century, Judith Butler argues in Undoing Gender that the psychiatric condition known as “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Gender Dysphoria” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), that supposedly describes an illness or failure in need of correction, is primarily a mode of controlling biological diversity and constructing a marginalized identity, transgender. This fits with how Michel Foucault defines post-medieval confession as “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage” (Foucault, History of Sexuality I.59). Here we see the danger of unconfessing gender, for while un-confessing means that sin is handled corporately, unconfessing is not letting voices speak together, losing confession for medical authority.

In his memoir, we see that trans self-narration are already looking back to medieval models. Contrasting the doctors speaking medical discourse at him, Scholinski and his fellow youths came back to a speaking together, giving voice to one another. Perhaps this contrast is most striking in Dylan's accounts of speaking with Jesus Christ, a fellow patient (Scholinski 18-20). Despite sharing a medical diagnosis likely similar to Dylan, dysphoria long held as a kind of schitzophrenia, he recounts that the man who claimed Jesus was one of the most reasonable people he met. "The more I talked to Jesus, the I liked him, and the less crazy he seemed" writes Scholinski. "Zealous, but not dangerous. I could imagine him in the outside world, preaching. He'd probably help some people" (Scholinski 18). 
Yet on a day that Scholinski admits to being particularly "depressed," he watched Jesus pinned, swore at, whipped about because he wouldn’t stop pacing the hospital where he was kept captive. No one listened to his cries as they gagged & silenced his voice. “So what if Jesus won’t go into his room?” (Scholinski 33) Dylan asks on behalf of the other, pointing back to a more social mode of confession by affirming a collective understanding of each another's claims to their identity and body. "If I thought he was sane, what does that make me?" wonders Scholinski. "Mental hospitals are rife with this kind of debate" (Scholinski 18). As with Gower, division and dysphoria may lead to madness but also to confession and debate. Suddenly categories change and blur: gender, disability, spirituality, time period. As a result, new things are "made" out of such dysphoria. Medicine tends to work against this remaking of discourse. "The staff discouraged this sort of questioning," accounts Scholinski. "They liked the line between sane and insane to be perfectly clear" (Scholinski 18). In this way, the battle between medicine and madness is not over productivity but what are the proper products, who are the makers and who are the mad(e), who gets to speak and who gets silenced.

So where is this trans voice for Gower? I argue that by omitting the voice of the trans youth in the Confessio, Gower makes a point about how society confesses, speaks together, about dysphoria at the expense of silencing those vulnerable bodies most evidently mad by division. Without the tongue in cheek humor or irony of Chaucer’s tales of queerness, Gower, like other trans feminists, are not afraid to be a kill joy by holding up a mirror, even a broken mirror to reflect on the corporate sins of trans misogyny. The role of readers and teachers then is to hold up that mirror to see how it reflects both the past and the present to us (click for more information on creating an accessible classroom). The medicalization of dysphoria silences trans youths and that is what Gower tells us in his confession. In doing so, he challenges us to beg the question of who and what is being omitted from our discourses, to insist that medieval studies and trans politics to speak together, to collectively speak back against silence, to identify with the dysphoria as a public political feeling we share, to be mad for trans youth, to be mad for Iphis.


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