Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Island of Hermaphrodites: On Mapping Intersex & Disability

“First-world feminist discourse locates 
[intersex politics] not only ‘elsewhere’ 
...but also 'elsewhen' in time"

Hermaphrodites with Attitude
Cheryl Chase

Dis-Orienting the Place of Hermaphrodites

Crip theory asserts that the location of disability is in the environment, not in the body. Disability is how biopolitics limits, manages, and marginalizes the diversity of embodiments. It determines who has access to where - what bodies may move through space and what bodies are relegated to specific out of the way places. To illustrate how this works, I begin with a recent story from my life. I am standing in a private room after being pulled aside by airport security in Washington DC - the USA's political epicenter, a national loca sancta. Two TSA agents are staring blankly at me. They share coded messages between the two of them before explaining to me that the body-scanner on which their usual screenings depend was unable to read me. I learned that these scanners have two settings: male and female. The machine effectively reads you, produces an essentially naked image of your body (much like the images of heremaphrodites and amazons found in medieval exempla and maps). The machine then compares it to standard body maps looking for anomalies. It turns out that I failed to pass either scan on both the male and female setting. I was unreadable to the TSA's biopolitical machine. As a result, the TSA would have to "more intensively" search my body by hand. For a while they just stood there, waiting for me to submit to a further policing of my gender. The TSA stared blankly at me. The machine stared blankly (unknowingly) at me. I was unmappable to them, off the pioneered and civilized world of gender, and here there be monsters.

In “Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism,” Cheryl Chase asks, “Why… have most first-world feminists met intersexuals with a blank stare?” [i] To answer this question of tacit uncomprehending exclusion, Chase examines the spatial logic that has literally and metaphorically marginalized and provincialized intersex biopolitics, locating it in foreign places, out of the way of the globalized, mobile, western community. While the compulsory surgical reconstruction of intersex children ebbed in the 1990s, afterwards seeing a decline in intersex visibility and activism, at the same time the publication on such practices still occurring in colonial and post-colonial places such as in Africa were pervasive. “First-world feminist discourse locates [intersex politics] not only ‘elsewhere…’ but also “elsewhen” in time,” notes Chase. As a result of the western public slowly erasing intersex in the shared global space, it is being re-imagined as a provincial problem of another time and another place. In the next few minutes I will chase after Chases’s “hermaphrodites with attitude” supposed to be located in the past, in another place, to argue that modern marginalizing structures of power have roots in the genealogy of pilgrimage as a narrative and social practice. As a genre, pilgrimage features crip and gender non-binary bodies coming from the margins of the geopolitical world towards centers of authority, the “loca sancta,” to pay deference to material and symbolic powers. In return pilgrims were promised healing and betterment, to become more whole, more like people of privilege.[iii] I consider these motions of social erasure alongside alternative modes of pilgrimage as narrated in John Mandeville’s "Travels," where central bodies who find themselves in positions of power (i.e. able-bodied cis-gender men) travel to the margins and on the way become more crip and intersexual, and returning to the center to bend maps of space, power & embodiment.[v] 

The concept of “places” itself as a relatively stable categories of locating persons, has historically worked to confine crip and intersex bodies on the margins by taking them out of the shared “space” of gender conforming persons and placing them in special sites. Eli Clare considers this in Exile and Pride, where he proposes “the Mountain” as the loca sancta par excellence, a metaphorical place that by its centrality, places difference on the margins.[ii] "The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people. How many of us have struggled up the mountain, measured ourselves against it, failed up there, lived its shadow?” asks Clare. A metaphor for our various “loca sancta,” the Mountain functions as an over-determined orientation point, structuring the flow of power from the margins to the center & associating centrality with normate embodiment. For medieval Christian pilgrims, the Mountains of Jerusalem functioned as the center point in the circular map of the Christian Mappa Mundi that positioned all other places, including the island of the hermaphrodites, as monsters on its margins.[iv]  In comparison to centralized movements of the body, crip and intersex lives create crises of category that are combatted by the making of places of exception (freak shows, islands, prisons, medical theaters) where they are contained. “The history of freakdom extends far back into western civilization,” Clare recounts on the practices of showing lives and their places of exclusion as points of interest on the margins of the normate world. Over time the motions of marginalization are copied over and again, and the crip & intersex internalize a place in the world as monsters and freak-shows on the margins of society. “To myself, I was a freak, incapable of loving or being loved, filled with shame about my status as a hermaphrodite and about my sexual dysfunction,” writes Chase on the de-globalization of herself as a self-exile from her body; a provincializing, a freakening.



Two Pilgrimages: On the Anti-Loca Sancta

Thus  while pilgrim narrators often work as “showmen,” exhibiting social mobility to maintain distance & difference from the limits of place set on the shown, the monstrous crip & intersex bodies, pilgrimages reveal that these boundaries aren't stable enough to maintain this difference, leading to lives existing, interacting and shaping one another in what Michel de Certeau calls the dynamism of shared space. [vii] Moved from a circumscribed “place” in the margins into the shared space, crip and intersex pilgrim narratives bend the map of geopolitics, opening lines of flight & biopower around the world (197). “We seek to create an environment in which many parents of intersex children will have already heard about the intersex movement when their child is born,” writes Chase. “Such informed parents we hope will be better able… to find their way to a peer support group and counseling rather than to a surgical theater” (203).  In the history of pilgrimage in marginalizing disability and intersex, Mandeville’s travels both follows and undermines the structures of movement and place. This dual effect is evident in the text’s two half, representing two pilgrimages. The centralizing structure of Jerusalem’s as loca santca can be seen in the first half of his pilgrimage text, on his journey from England to Jerusalem. Yet numerous scholars have noted, in the second half of his pilgrimage and world mapping, Mandeville swerves. Instead of going back to England, Mandeville starts a new pilgrimage, from the center of Christianity to the margins and back. In the process, his body is transformed, his privileged mobility is infected, and he brings the effects of the margins back to the center. Mandeville starts with a model of place that puts crip and non-gender binary bodies on the margins of his world map yet after visiting the place of hermaphrodites, his sense of his body and map break down, overwhelmed by experiences of interconnected difference.
The island and bodies of hermaphrodites inscribe a challenge to the project of mapping space by resisting easy boundaries of gender or embodiment. Around this cast-off place, “beth peple that beth bothe man and womman, and have membres of bothe." The monstrous here is not simply a metaphor but a material and social body. These are at once hybrid bodies with two natures, man and woman, represented by the repetition of the word "beth," as well as whole beings that exist between definable states. While the hermaphrodite remains an object on the margin to be glimpsed at by not identified with, to share a place in his world but not share his space, by traveling to an island on the margins, the farthest possible distance from Jerusalem (in the center), Mandeville suggests that hermaphrodites exist in and as an anti-loca sancta, a center of their own that possesses the power to draw people away from the center on new winding paths. Unlike the “first world feminists” who look at intersex with a blank gaze, Mandeville’s body is redirect and changed by his pilgrimage to the margins. On his return, Mandeville and his text come to embody of the diversity that is erased and marginalized when he travels to Rome to present himself and his text to the Pope as evidence of the worlds diversity, "marvels I had seen in different countries." Referencing a Mappi Mundi in Rome as authorizing his body and account, Mandeville affirms the role of pilgrim narratives in deferring to central loca sancta as governing the geopolitics of those on the margins. In the process, he affirms his own privilege as a sign of that central power, as a cis, Christian male with the mobility to exercise spatial power. Yet this 2nd pilgrimage from the centers of the Christian world to the margins and back, sustains a tension with a heterodox provincialism that keeps its story open at its ends.

Becoming embodying the margins on his pilgrimage, Mandeville brings its monstrosity, its freakishness, back to the loca sancta. By the end of the book, after several chapters in which dozens of diverse lands and peoples are viewed very quickly almost as though Mandeville is speeding up in his travels, his narration becomes an orgy of difference, trying to jam as much in as possible, almost gasping for air: "There are many countries and marvels I have not seen, therefore I can’t describe them correctly." By his travels, Mandeville loses the ability to speak. In the Cotton manuscript, he writes that he has lost the ability to walk because of "arthritic gout." The pilgrim’s ableist attempt to be everywhere and all things proves impossible. Mandeville concludes his travels leaving room for other pilgrim narratives. "I wish to say no more about such marvels as are there, so other people might travel there and find new things to describe." In an alternative there & then, crips and Hermaphrodites look back at the blank stare of white feminism & western patriarchy waiting to break into the shared space of here & now.



[i] Cheryl Chase. "Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Activism." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 1998. pg 207.
[ii] Eli Clare. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. 199.
[iii] Sabine MacCormack. "Loca Sancta: The Organization of Sacred Topology in Late Antiquity." The Blessings of Pilgrimage. 1990. pg.1.
[iv] Hereford Mappa Mundi. Hereford Cathedral. c1285.
[v] The Book of John Mandeville. c1357.
[vii] Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. 1980. pg. 71.

No comments:

Post a Comment