Monday, April 30, 2018

The Cisgender Turn: The Scribe's View of Eleanor Rykener

" seperali examinatione coram dictis maiore et aldermannis super premissa fienda et audienda etcetera."

The Interrogation of Eleanor Rykener
London 1394


On December 11th, the scribe of the Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m2, observed and composed the interrogation of Eleanor Rykener and John Britby. Unlike John Britby who only recounts his turn upon Rykener, the scribe maintains a longer gaze and records multiple turns in her life story. The scribe is not named within the text but his presence and actions are made evident by the document he composes.

Considering the scribe as a viewpoint given for Eleanor Rykener is important in two respects. First, it acknowledges that the document which records the interrogation is not unbiased and neutral. The text has a subjective view point, embodied, composed, and facilitated by the scribe. It is likely that the scribe would have been male and would have been cisgender. Even if he was not, his text demonstrates features that follow cisgender conventions. The scribe participates in and reinforces the cisgender turn even if he himself was not cisgender. Second, by marking the scribe as an active subjective cisgender viewpoint, this brings the habits and alliances of subsequent scholarship by cisgender medievalists into a new light. For instance, if the trans woman calls herself Eleanor but the cisgender scribe calls her John, then generations of scholars call her John, this suggests an impulse among cis scholars to take the word of a cis scribe over that of a medieval trans woman.

Just like the scribe writes himself out of the record, the scribe also participates in unwriting, unspeaking, and un-transing transgender from the medieval record. By considering the relevance of the unspeakable vice, the "nephandum," we can understand how medieval trans lives are made inarticulate and insubstantial by scribes and scholars that articulate cis history (cistory) at the expense of trans history.




Cisgender history (cistory) has made much of sodomy and transgender being unspeakable, what the scribe calls, "nephandum." Yet the inability for speech and language is not essential to either the sexual acts or gendered being of Eleanor Rykener. Rather, this silence demonstrates the way in which trans language has been disabled by the cisgender turn. Cisgender history (cistory) is thus a work of composition which comes into being as much by what is selected for inclusion or articulation as what is excluded. In this way, cistory is like the image of the woman picking dicks from a tree in another infamous medieval manuscript. Such an image represents how the cisgender turn sees all fruit as penises ripe for the picking but ignores both the other fruits, the other possible interpretations of the strange fruit, and the pickers who is forgotten in favor of penises they pick. Everything looks like a nail from the point of view of a hammer. Everyone with a penis looks like cisgender men from the point of view of a cisgender man, including a transgender woman. Such a perspective and account must then be considered not as an unbiased and neutral recording of history but as the subjective construction of cis history through the un-transing of trans history which is rendered unspeakable.

In the first case, the cisgender turn cannot articulate language for transgender because of a certain surprise which indicates both disgust and desire. This surprise is evident in the various genres in which transgender tends to be represented in cisgender media, all of which incite the body in some way, called body genres: horror (fear), detective stories (anxiety/suspense), pornography (arousal), and comedy (laughter). We see how this impulse is present both in the presumably cisgender scribe and cisgender scholar of Eleanor Rykener when Carolyn Dinshaw argues that the Plea and Memoranda roll has all the characteristics of a "fabliau." In cisgender literature in the Middle Ages and today, it is a given that there is something funny about realizing that one's sexual partner is a trans woman. Yet the courtroom setting of the interrogation also suggests something of a crime procedural and detective story, as the scribe records how the cis man and trans woman were detected, "detectus," by law enforcers. This suggests a sort of anxiety or suspense which the confessions will resolve. Yet the sexual exchange at the center of the interrogation also reflects the pornographic genre of the text. Not only is the unspeakable vice being named, it is being elaborated to an extreme degree by Rykener's prolonged confession wherein she names her numerous partners. The scribe's recording becomes something like the writing of an erotica as he puts Rykener's numerous unspeakable acts into language. Indeed, even the interrogation of her gender as a trans woman demonstrates the cisgender turns unspoken interest in her embodiment. Does the scribe look at her and describe her with anxiety or fear? His choice of Latin suggests an ambivalence in regards to pronouns, as Latin allows him to compose her story with minimal references to her gender. Is he aroused by her speaking the unspeakable? Is he amused or laughing? If the word unspeakable, "nephandum," is truly central to the scribe's view of Eleanor Rykener, then it is a word that defines how the cisgender turn often stands wordlessly stunned and affected by the transgender body.

In the second case, the cisgender turn composes the transgender life as unspeakable because cis scribes and scholars do not want to have to find a way to speak (or read) trans life. Transgender is made unspeakable, "nephandum," in cistory. Then insofar as it finds its way into cistory, transgender becomes un-transed. The scribe participates in this un-transing by identifying Eleanor Rykener primarily by her deadname, John Rykener, "Johannes Rykener." Although she introduces herself into the record as Eleanor, "Elianoram," the scribe choses to name her previously as John and then to repeat the name John no less than twenty-five times. Thus, despite the ambivelence that the scribe records regarding Rykener's gender and pronouns, the name, "John," is unambiguously decided upon by the scribe. It might be argued that the scribe was compelled by the societal norms and language, giving him no extant alternatives. Or that the scribe was compelled by the professional and legal demands of his job to refer to Rykener by her name of record. Yet that defense would only further emphasize how the scribe's view of Eleanor Rykener participates in the cisgender turn. The suggestion that the scribe was compelled by preexisting conditions which default to cisgender standards and erase, exclude, or correct transgender facts demonstrates how the cisgender turn is a powerful idealogical force. Transgender people in the twenty-first century still have to deal with medical and legal authorities referring to them by their deadname because of the excuse or compulsion to use the given name of record. A trans person's deadname is given to them first and their chosen transgender name is given second. Chronologically, the cisgender name gets its turn first and the transgender name gets its turn second. But the insistence on the deadname even after the trans person corrects the record, such as when Rykener names herself as Eleanor for the court, demonstrates how the cisgender turn is an active force that distorts the facts in order to bring them in line with cisgender standards. Eleanor Rykener is un-transed by the record into being John. Cisgender scholars, even queer cis scholars, further participate in the cisgender turn by following the naming conventions of the scribe, likewise calling Rykener, "John," despite Eleanor's recorded act of self-naming. Cistorians prefer to follow the pattern of cis authorities and scribes rather than follow those offered by trans persons. This is why cistory is not merely history written by cis people. If history is the ideal presentation of the past as it was, this is not what cis scribes and scholars do by manipulating facts and narratives to fit into cisgender norms. Rather, the warping and un-transing of the past to accord with cisgender stories and histories is not history but cistory. Perhaps the transgender turn likewise presents a subjective view-point in contradicting and correcting the cisgender turn, yet meeting turn for turn will be necessary if we are ever to begin to see the ways cistory has warped our collective histories and made our past unspeakable.



No comments:

Post a Comment