Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Children of Hermaphroditus: Intersex in Medieval Pilgrimage Tales

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

Hermaphrodites with Attitude
Cheryl Chase

Hermes and Aphrodite

In our debates of genitals, gender, and who gets the dignities of being human, what is left out of our places and discourses can be more important than what is included. Today, North Carolina's House Bill 2 (HB2) and other anti-transgender bathroom laws do more than attack trans lives. By regulating who gets to go where, who is excluded from where, legislators are turning the bathroom signs of male and female into boundary stones that regulate who get to be a man and woman, and who is left out entirely. What is left out of this binary and left out of these discussions are the intersex persons who as common among us as the number of redheads we see. Not long ago, intersex activists were in headlines educating the public about the terms "hermaphrodite" and about the need to take discussions of so called "corrective surgery" from the place of the doctor’s office to the public space. Yet during the rise of transgender debates and discourses, we forget how to look for our intersex siblings either as activists, the monsters on the edge of gender, or as the signs beside our sexist bathroom debates.

In a foundational intersex studies essay, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude,” Cheryl Chase asks, “Why... have most first-world feminists met intersexuals with a blank stare?” Why are intersex bodies not only misunderstood but outright ignored? What has led to the erasure of intersex from discourse? To answer this blankness and incomprehension, Chase examines the spatial logic that has literally and metaphorically marginalized intersex biopolitics, locating it in foreign places, out of the way of the globalized western community. While 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 post-colonial places such as in Africa were pervasive. The inability to read intersex bodies is not an inherent anonymity  between discourses of gender but an active shift in the conversation from a local to a foreign issue. but  “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 re-imagined and forgotten as a problem of another time and another place. This movement from the here to the there, and from the now to the then functions as a figurative and literal marginalizing of intersex.

What can medieval studies (scholars of elsewhen times and elsewhere places) say to current refusals to read intersex with anything but a blank stare? To answer this, I will chase after Chases’s "hermaphrodites with attitude" to argue that today’s marginalizing laws have genealogical roots in medieval pilgrimage as a narrative and social practice. Chases’s use of the word "hermaphrodite" is key to this work. An outdated medical term, hermaphrodite points to a critical intersex and critical medieval cultural models of sex and genres of boundary crossing. I take seriously the medieval cultural model that states hermaphrodites are the children of Hermes (the God of Travel whose name means 'boundary stone') and Aphrodite (the God of Beauty and Love). By this sign, intersex people are marked as wonders that spur travel and lust (if not love). I assert that the genre of pilgrimage, as in the Book of John Mandeville, uses herma-aphroditism to marginalize intersex, while drawing cisgender men from loca sancta of patriarchal models of sex, creating anti-loca sancta that disorient the flow of power from centers to margins.



The Center and the Margins

In medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives, hermaphrodites functioned as the children of Hermes, set as boundary stones (herma) on the edge of the world. For medieval pilgrims who reference T in O maps, such as John Mandeville, the Mountains of Jerusalem operate as the center of Mappa Mundi. In the process of establishing centers of geopolitics, subjugated peoples and places become eschewed to the margins. This marginalization occurs when locations considered central to public life are framed in the center and less central locations are framed on the edges. These marginalized places are sidelined in parts because of who lives there and those who live there are sidelined because of where they live. Transgender, disability and ecological scholar, Eli Clare proposes "Mountains" as places par excellence, loca sancta that by their centrality displace difference to the margins. Clare asserts, “The mountain as metaphor looms large in the lives of marginalized people. How many of us have... measured ourselves against it… lived its shadow?”  In this bio-cartographic line of thinking, the concept of such “places” works to take intersex bodies out of the shared “space” of gender conforming persons, placing them in an isolated elsewhere. Intersex people are not pictured on public signs of maps because they are not considered to be the common, normative, or ideal embodiment. Instead, medieval and modern bio-cartography uses cisgender forms of embodiment to represent different gendered spheres and those who may pass through them. Intersex bodies, if signified at all, are imagined as outliers, existing in non-essential and non-central to public places and politics. They are considered extraneous and their representation peripheral to centers of biopolitics. As a result of being marginalized on medieval maps, hermaphrodites come to signal the failure of embodiment and narrative if you wander too far from centers of patriarchal control.

In other critical ways for medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives, hermaphrodites functioned as the children of Aphrodite, hyper-sexualized as untouchable, if beautiful, wonders on which the public may gaze. Pictured on texts such as Hereford's mappa mundi, intersex bodies are drawn on islands in the margins. Care is taken to represent intersex as a doubling hybridity of male and female. Usually, as in the Hereford map, one side is drawn with breasts and a vulva while the other side is flat-chested with a penis. Rather than representing intersex bodies as whole genders according to their own standards, the message of such images is that intersex is literally half-male and half-female. The unknown is signified only by what is known. The marginal are signified only in relation to what is central. Such bio-cartographic alienation is evident in pilgrimage stories that recreate these visual cues in their narrative maps. Within this translation of visual to verbal logic, texts like Mandeville's not only mirror the physical sex of the mappa's hermaphrodites but the marginal isolation of the isle on which they live. Unlike the Amazons who maintain sexual relations with continental men and live on islands with land-bridges that facilitate this intercourse, the hermaphrodites are sexually segregated in culture as well as place on a completely water-locked island. Mandeville writes of the hermaphrodites’ self-enclosed sexuality, "they gete children when they usen the mannes membres, and they bereth children when they use the membre of the womman." While this doesn’t necessarily preclude mating with the continent, it gives an impression that the hermaphrodites exist in a closed genealogical system. Without other bodies pictured among them, including Mandeville’s, readers are led to conclude: hermaphrodites only fuck other hermaphrodites. Despite the Amazons’ independence, they interdependently mate with non-Amazon men. Hermaphrodites on the other hand can exist as an enclosed people. On one level, this signifies a sexual power withheld from the Amazons. On another level, the danger of this lack of dependency is that it can become an excuse to withhold relations between the island and the rest of the world. 

On the surface, the medieval practice of using hermaphrodite boundary stone as limits on proper gender embodiment seems just as bad or worse than modern habits of excluding intersex bodies from discourse all together. Setting the isle on the margins the farthest distance from Jerusalem these maps establish hermaphrodites as distant objects to be glimpsed but not identified with in body or space. Distance and alienation work together to marginalize intersex bodies. As a result of becoming wonders just beyond the normal world, hermaphrodites become monsters who lurk on the boundaries of public space. Gazing outwards from the inside is safe but suggests underlying fears of those on the outside desirously, even jealously, gazing in on those who enjoy the privileges of world society. As in Freudian theory, Mandeville's texts seems haunted by patriarchal fears of trans, intersex, and cis women who might envy cisgender men's phallic embodiment and will attack him for it. Of course the fear is not only to protect the exclusivity of male embodiment but its social position at the center of public life and on the top of patriarchal structures of power. By locking out other genders, the patriarchy is not only securing their sex but their biopolitical control over place and narrative. The danger of sharing physical space with sexual others, at work, in bathrooms, or the public sphere is that the patriarchal cisgender control of sex and narrative will be forever changed. By understanding how political segregation (as in HB2) functions to control embodiment as well as space, the rhetorical significance of medieval maps and narratives that picture hermaphrodites on isolated islands is better understood.  Mandeville inscribes hermaphrodites as boundary stone by placing them on an island that is not only on the margins but is confined on an island environed by water, isolated from the shared space of the continent. This begs the question: what is lost when we forget to look for intersex? What is gained by being monsters who despite marginalization still get to signify in genres of sex and travel?



Travel and Orientations

Can we imagine other ways that medieval maps and pilgrimage narratives position hermaphrodites as children of Hermes, calling pilgrims to travel to the margins? In the Travel of John Mandeville, the centralizing structure of Jerusalem’s as loca santca can be seen in the first half of his pilgrimage text. Mandeville follows the fairly quintessential Christian pilgrimage narrative on his journey from England to Jerusalem. Following this predetermined line of flight, the Englishman moves from one marginal island to the center of Christian life. 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 to the lands of the East. On this second journey, Mandeville inverts the traditional direction and expectation of the medieval pilgrimage narrative. Mirroring the movement from margin to center, he moves from the center of Christianity to the margins. In this narrative formulation, the Mountains of Jerusalem are replaced by the like of the Isle of the Hermaphrodites. Around this cast-off place, Mandeville writes, “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" and "bothe." as well as whole beings that exist between definable states. Mandeville puts intersex bodies on the margins of his world map yet becomes caught in their gravity, pulled across boundaries of center and margin, man and women, to dwell among those who emphatically “beth.” Instead of recalling the great sacred places of Christianity, the loca sancta, Mandeville details the wonders of the intersex places and peoples as sorts of anti-loca sancta; i.e. alternative destinations that lead away from rather than to the center. Stated another way, these marginalized places become centers in their own right. They "beth" for their own sake and call others to share in their existence. The mappa mundi becomes reframed and pilgrimage is disoriented. 

Likewise, can we imagine other ways in medieval pilgrimages that hermaphrodites are children of Aphrodite, bodies that call us to love and reflect on our own diversity of gender embodiment? Despite isolating them on an island of their own, for Mandeville, the multiple genitalia and reproductive capabilities leave intercourse between the continent and hermaphrodites an open question. The pilgrim does not give a history or anthropology of intersex culture but does detail the sexual capacity of the hermaphrodites; sexual capacities which could give grounds for other kinds of social, economic and political intercourse. In his imagined world, a hermaphrodite could mate with man or woman. The reproductive capacity of Mandeville's hermaphrodites could leave them hyper-isolated or hyper-relational. The difference between intersex as disability and hyperability depends on whether or not the cisgender community permits permeable borders. If intercourse is allowed and are allowed to share space and sexual life with the public, then they could radically diversify possible sexual identities and relations. What would Mandeville call a ciswoman who loves a hermaphrodite? What would he call a cisman-intersex relationship? To begin these questions, what is the name for hermaaphrodite-hermaphrodite relations? And are there different varieties of intersex genders and sexualities? Going beyond an exterior physical description of the hermaphrodite's bodies into the socio-sexual implications of intersex life and culture immediately disorients the supposedly set gender binaries. What begins as a crisis of category turns into a demand for a new system of sex and society based around critiques implicit in the island and gender of the hermaphrodite. In the end, Mandeville's silence on intersex culture may arise from fear of his own desire for joining with them as Ovid’s tale, where a lover assaults the traveler the two merge into the first hermaphrodite. Perhaps we put gender diversity on islands because we love and fear it too much.  



Here and Elsewhere

There may be much lost and gained by being children of Hermes and Aphrodite. Yet unlike today’s eschewing of intersex politics, the hermaphrodite as a cultural sign disorients the structures that divide and conquer our sexed bodies and genres of discourse drawing across borders to other spaces and bodies. Such veering suggests that if intersex is placed in the margins, then that is where we should go. From the margins, the anti-loca sancta of hermaphrodites, we see an alternative vision of a common world. Such a vision is imaginable in Mandeville's medieval vision of a world full of diversity, yet has further roots in Augustinian thought. Regarding a question on the existence of hermaphrodites and their place in the world, in the City of God Augustine argues that God's mappa mundi is  greater and more inclusive than ones made by the world. “For God,” writes Augustine, “the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs.” From Augustine to Mandeville is a tradition of using hermaphrodites to disorient readers' sense of the world as a determined place with fixed natural forms of life. Mandeville's second pilgrimage begins with an invocation of the world's seemingly endless diversity and ends with a call for further travels and stories to fill in the gaps which his pilgrimage narrative inevitably leaves incomplete. Such authors open an interconnected world greater than the dived places constructed by those whose view of sex and the world is woefully small. Hermaphrodites do not simply challenge the binary of gender, falling between two established sexes, but force readers to imagine a world map big enough for many kinds of gender and a world narrative big enough to find meaning for and through them all.

In the end, we can return to a world of gender diversity by becoming  hermaphrodites again, children of Hermes and Aphrodite. Through the critical imaginative work that medieval pilgrimage tales such as Mandeville's demands, we can return to a more dynamic and diverse understanding of space. This is important work. With intersex children continually being born, arising out of the ever changing forms and genetics of human gender, the ability to see diversity not only in marginalized places but all around us is just as critical in the fourteen century as it is today. The result of this cultural work is to form a more livable relation between gender and space, as Chase writes, “to create an environment in which many parents of intersex children will have already heard about the intersex movement when their child is born” (203). By imagining the anti-loca sancta of hermaphrodites, these alternative elsewheres and elsewhens can turn intersex from an insular minority into living evidence of the diversity of gender embodiment around the world.  Under a critical intersex lens, pilgrimage narratives such as Mandeville's tales disorient our bio-cartographic maps of gender and space, begging the question the stability and the justice of our boundaries around gender and gender segregated spaces. By reading like a hermaphrodite, medieval scholars can ally with medieval pilgrimage narratives in the work of making a better world for non-binary bodies. It is not enough to begrudgingly admit transgender or intersex bodies access to public spaces but to want the diversity they represent and the beloved people they are. Or we can double down on our a gender policing and segregation, leading to the alienation of trans, intersex, queer feminists from our patriarchal medieval world, sending us to islands (isolated organizations, academic journals or panels) where we talk only to each other like a close academic genealogical system. Yet even on the margins, we continue to invite travelers to cross boundaries, like Mandeville, to step out of your sense of cis security into a more dynamic world. And if and when you find us, yes, you may share our bathrooms.

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