I went to the bookstore last night, which is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world.
I came across a book that fascinated me when I was a kid. It's Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid," which came out when I was 18.
I remember reading it, and being completely and utterly fascinated, though I didn't understand much of it.
Godel was a mathematician who proved that any mathematical system must necessarily be built on unprovable elements. Escher was a painter who drew optical illusions that seemed to put elements both on top of, and underneath, the rest of the picture. Bach was the famous musician, whose works often made harmony from elements that were overlaid on top of themselves backwards, upside down and inside out.
It's not a book about mathematics, art and music. Hofstadter was an early computer scientist (and still one, over at Indiana University). It's about how how meaningless elements get arranged into sequences full of meaning that we call thinking and creativity. Its fascination lies in its tying together of a wide range of seemingly unrelated subjects, all of which show how thought and creativity get expressed through elements that, in and of themselves, have no inherent meaning.
It reminds me a lot of the work of Judith Butler on gender.
The book is 742 pages of goodness, filled with mind-blowing stuff about how thinking and creativity relies upon the concept of infinity. Like this:
Mathematicians were among the first admirers of Escher's drawings, and this is understandable because they often are based on mathematical principles of symmetry of pattern...But there is much more to a typical Escher drawing than just symmetry or pattern; there is often an underlying idea, realized in artistic form. And in particular, the Strange Loop is one of the most recurrent themes in Escher's work. Look, for example, at the lithograph Waterfall, and compare its six step endlessly falling loop with the six step endlessly rising loop of the Canon per Tonos. The similarity of vision is remarkable. Bach and Escher are playing one single theme in two different keys: music and art.
..Implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way?
If you look at Escher's picture "Waterfall" above, and you follow the water with your eye, you see that it is very odd, indeed. It seems to flow upward and sideways at the same time.
Below is Bach's Canon per Tonos. It's the same rising and falling melody on top of itself, but each ending stops on a higher note, until it reaches the same ending note as the first iteration, and continues.
Of course, Lamb Chop's "This Is The Song That Never Ends" does the same thing.
I remember Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble" saying something similar about sex and gender.
"Sex" is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize "sex" and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms. That this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled. Indeed, it is the instability, the possibility for rematerialization opened up by this process, that mark one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law.
In English, this means that both "sex" and "gender" are a function of physical differences, but these physical differences are invested with meaning by culture.
This is not to say that culture causes sexual differences. Rather, the culture promulgates an ideal -- standards of "normality" for our bodies and how we think about them.
At the same time that we create this unreal ideal from our bodies, this ideal forces our bodies into the standards of the ideal.
Thus, "sex" is a continuing process, like Hofstadter's Strange Loops.
We could make it into a verb: "sexing," as Riki Wilchins suggested. Constant "sexing" is necessary because how we think of our bodies never quite conforms to the standards. The process of creating the standards automatically calls into question the authority of the standards. The standards can be (and are) re-created slightly differently in every generation.
That's why Gloria Brame's pictures are so interesting -- I see these antiques and most immediately notice how different the standards of physical beauty and sexuality are.
Therefore, while "sex" is in one sense a physical fact, it is also an ideal in the sense that we create artificial standards of normality to which we must continually strive to conform.
This is, I would argue, similar to Hofstadter's Strange Loop, wherein meaningless elements become a pattern, and the pattern is looped infinitely but in a different key each time, to become a recurring but constantly shifting theme. The theme appears to be real and solid because it is supported by all of these elements and patterns, but the theme itself is what gives meaning to all of the elements and patterns.
She goes on to say
When the sex/gender distinction is joined with a notion of radical linguistic constructivism, the problem becomes even worse, for the "sex" which is referred to as prior to gender will itself be a postulation, a construction, often within language, as that which is prior to language, prior to construction. This "sex" posited as prior to construction will, by virtue of being posited, become the effect of that very positing, the construction of construction. If gender is the social construction of sex and if there is no access to this "sex" except by means of its construction, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that "sex" becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access.
In other words, "sex" may itself be an artificial concept.
The idea that different people with the same organs are ipso facto the same in certain predefined ways may be as pseudo-scientific as phrenology.
We don't argue that people with green eyes are inherently different from people with blue eyes, even though these are immediately noticeable physical differences.
As Riki Wilchins more colloquially said:
Maybe the formula is reversed. Gender is not what culture creates out of my body's sex.
Rather, sex is what culture makes when it genders my body.
The cultural system of gender looks at my body, creates a narrative of binary difference, and says, "Honest, it was here when I arrived. It's all Mother Nature's doing."
We make all sorts of patterns of meaning out of anatomy, social conditioning and behavioral difference, but the theme we call "sex" is as meaningless as any Strange Loop.
But no less powerful.
Thank you, Douglas Hofstadter. I feel positively high when I read this kind of stuff. I can't wait to sit by the pool and read more.