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Mar 16, 2006
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Imagining Deregulated Desire

Written on the Body's Revolutionary Reconstruction of Gender and Sexuality

Christy R. Stevens
San Diego State University
http://www.ags.uci.edu/~clcwegsa/revolutions/Stevens.htm

The ungendered narrator in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body is one of the text's most talked about features, garnering ambivalent responses from the majority of its reviewers. One critic describes it as the "book's principal conceit, its greatest weakness, and perhaps its greatest strength" (Van Kirk 604), while another claims that the "plot hovers dangerously on the precipice of device" (Farwell 20). Other reviewers have dismissed the ungendered narrator as a "gimmick," viewing it as a trivial narrative strategy employed to assert the point that gender is unimportant to lovers. These critics claim that the popular romantic notion that falling in love is a connection between souls or the inner selves of two individuals is a trite sentiment that would have been more effectively conveyed through means other than a somewhat disconcerting device. However, critics who dismiss the importance of the ungendered narrator, reducing its textual function to the expression of a cliche, are ignoring its subversive implications. The ungendered narrator does convey the idea that gender is unimportant to the lovers in the text, but at the same time it implicitly highlights the fact that within contemporary dominant discourses, gender is not only important to lovers, it is what constitutes desire and sexual object choice. In other words, contrary to popular romantic notions, the process of falling in love does not occur independently of socially constructed gender positions. Instead it occurs within systems of gender and sexuality which regulate both desire and sexual object choice. As a result, the ungendered narrator is not a trivial device, but rather it is a subversive narrative strategy that challenges traditional gender binarisms and compulsory heterosexuality, inciting readers to imagine a world in which desire has been dislodged from these regulatory regimes.

Judith Butler's theories of gender provide insight into the subversive status of the ungendered narrator. According to Butler, gendering, or assuming sex, is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, ushering them into the symbolic and allowing the appropriation of the "speaking `I'" (Bodies 3). Butler goes on to explain that the formation of the subject simultaneously produces a "domain of abject beings, those who are not yet `subjects,' but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject" (3). Butler uses the term "abject" to describe the "unlivable and uninhabitable zones of social life" populated by those "who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the `unlivable' is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject." She claims that this zone functions as a "site of dreaded identification against which_and by virtue of which_the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claims to autonomy and life." (Bodies 3)

If assuming sex is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, then Winterson's ungendered narrator would belong to the category of abject, unlivable bodies. Even the language available to describe the narrator excludes the possibility of an ungendered person's existence. I am forced to use "s/he" or "him/her" since calling the narrator "it," reinforces the idea that such a person could not exist as a subject, but only as an abject, unlivable body. However, using "s/he" and "him/her" also seems to be inappropriate since they too reinforce, through language, the binary understanding of gender. The narrator is not part "she," part "he," but rather is something other, which perhaps could be described as the slash between "she" and "he" rather than as the words on either side.

In contrast to Butler's formulation, the ungendered narrator in Winterson's text is a subject, a "speaking I." The narrator is not positioned in the text as a "site of dreaded identification," but instead is shown to be a person who attracts and is attracted to many types of people. S/he describes him/herself as a Lothario, a traditionally privileged subject position akin to the Don Juan character type. However, because it is theoretically impossible within current hegemonic discourses for an ungendered person, who necessarily stands outside the domain of the subject, to occupy this narrative position, the ungendered "Lothario" can only exist within the realm of fantasy. To state that Written on the Body is a fantastic or utopic text in no way robs it of its importance and subversive potential. Rather, the fantastic and utopian tendencies of Winterson's text are subversive because they imagine alternative possibilities that have been denied by oppressive discourses. Winterson imagines a character who is ungendered and a world in which the ungendered body matters.

This subversive strategy also challenges the heterosexual imperative because gender is not what constitutes sexual object choice. Butler claims that the process of gendering works in the service of compulsory heterosexuality, which attempts to construct a "natural" link between gender and sexuality. She explains that heterosexual logic conflates identification and desire: "If one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender" (239). Homosexuality functions similarly: if one identifies as a given gender, one desires the same gender. In other words, both heterosexuality and homosexuality are constructed around gender difference; both identifying as a gendered person and desiring another gendered person is what constitutes both heterosexuality and homosexuality. In this framework, lesbian and gay identities, although far from compulsory, are considered problematic in that they too reify gender difference, which compulsory heterosexuality constructs as part of a causal line "between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice, fantasy, and sexuality" (Butler "Imitation" 315). In other words, homosexuality is not only not a threat to heterosexuality's hegemony, it also works to reinforce it. Butler argues that the regime of heterosexuality "mandates the compulsory performance of sex" and that "the very categories of sex, of sexual identity, of gender are produced or maintained in the effects of this compulsory performance_disingenuously lined up within a causal or expressive sequence that the heterosexual norm produces to legitimate itself as the origin of all sex." (318). According to Butler, the solution, or the way to expose heterosexuality's false claim to originality and normativity, may be "a matter of working sexuality against identity, even against gender," a strategy that Written on the Body employs. In addition to the text's construction of an ungendered narrator, sexual identity labels, such as homosexual/heterosexual, are conspicuously absent from the text. Terms like gay, lesbian, and heterosexual would have very little meaning in the text because sexuality has been dislodged from both gender and identity in Winterson's fictional world. In short, Written on the Body deregulates desire, constructing sexuality as fluid, multiple, and nomadic.

Lisa Moore, in her analysis of Written on the Body, discusses the ways that gender and sexuality are constructed in the text, claiming that Winterson's ungendered narrator is a figure (or perhaps a narrative space or category) that appropriates the experiences and investments of variously gendered and sexualized beings in a structural enactment of Winterson's particular Virtual Reality. This is a figure constructed of disparate body parts, desires, identities and histories, put together in a postmodern pastiche (110) Virtual Reality seems an appropriate metaphor for Winterson's textual world because it highlights the fact that the world of the text is in many ways familiar, while at the same time strange, in that dominant discourses are less regulatory than in contemporary Western society. However, Moore's description of the narrator as "a postmodern pastiche" is inaccurate. The narrator is not Winterson's cut and paste project consisting of multiple contemporary notions of masculine, feminine, lesbian, gay, and heterosexual desires and identifications. Instead, s/he is constructed within a discursive domain in which these regulatory oppositions are no longer operable. In other words, the narrator is a product of a radically different textual world; s/he is produced and made possible through the absence of the contemporary hegemonic norms that Moore uses to describe the narrator. Although the narrator may appear to be a "postmodern pastiche" because s/he exhibits both traditionally masculine and feminine attributes and behaviors, s/he is not merely a combination of existing identities, but rather a construction that might come to exist in a world where the formation of the subject is not based on avowing and disavowing identifications. In other words, the narrator is possibility; s/he is the potential subject of a discursive domain in which heterosexuality is not compulsory, and gender is fluid and multiple. As a result, by refusing terms like homosexuality/heterosexuality, Written on the Body avoids reproducing the logic of compulsory heterosexuality.

The very existence of an ungendered narrator, who functions as a subject within a larger domain of power, rather than within some utopic space where the character's have sought refuge from oppression, illustrates that gender and sexuality are constructed as fluid and multiple in the world of the text. The narrator does not assume a sexed position because there is no legislative norm requiring her/him to do so. By failing to repeat, or cite what the reader considers the norm of sexed positions, the narrator exposes them as "citational practices instituted within a juridical domain_a domain of constitutive constraints" (Butler, Bodies 108). Also, because the narrator does not have to claim labels like man/woman and gay/straight, s/he does not have disavow parts of his/herself, nor foreclose certain kinds of connections and experiences. Butler points out the cost of identity, claiming that it "is purchased through the loss and degradation of connection" (114). In this light, the narrator's incoherent identity can be seen as the affirmation of connection. This notion is also supported by Winterson's text, in which the narrator describes having had relationships with both men and women, displaying an openness to various forms of relationships and desires.

In contrast to the narrator, Louise, the narrator's lover, in not only gendered, but is also portrayed as excessively feminine. Winterson's construction of Louise's excessive femininity can be viewed as an attempt to create a space between androgyny and extreme femininity in which multiple degrees of femininity can exist. Instead of creating two ungendered lovers, which might be viewed as the promotion or elevation of androgyny, Winterson depicts a range of gender possibilities through a variety of characters who display different degrees of femininity and masculinity. There is more slippage between masculinity and femininity in Winterson's textual world than in our contemporary society. Many characters in the text who are gendered by the pronouns "he" or "she," exhibit both traditionally feminine and masculine character traits.

Winterson's formulation of a range of gender possibilities is reminiscent of Cixous' statement in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa:" "There is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman_But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can't talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes_" (1090). Winterson's text plays with and even exaggerates this conception of woman as multiple and heterogeneous through descriptions of the narrator's previous female lovers, all of whom perform various gender roles. The fluidity of gender reveals that in the textual world Winterson has constructed, masculinity and femininity are not configured in an either/or relationship (either one is masculine or one is feminine), nor is power and dominance associated with masculinity. Instead, gender categories are constructed as more open and less confining and regulatory than in current hegemonic discourses, allowing for considerable slippage between the two. Through the construction of a range of gender possibilities, the power dynamics of gendered binarisms are diffused.

For example, Jacqueline, the woman with whom the narrator had settled into a comfortable though passionless relationship before meeting Louise, is described as a nurturing, motherly type, one who "was good with parents, good with children good with animals, good with disturbed things of every kind. She was good with me" (25). The narrator later gives the reader more insight into Jacqueline's character, "She never bothered me when I said "Don't bother me,' and she didn't cry when I shouted at her. In fact she shouted back. She treated me like a big cat in the Zoo. She was very proud of me" (28). In contrast to the descriptions of the narrator's other lovers, Jacqueline is clearly positioned as a motherly, somewhat submissive type. Despite the fact that the narrator leaves Jacqueline, Jacqueline's "femininity" is not positioned as inferior to the narrator's androgyny, nor is it the cause of the narrator's rejection of her. It is the relationship's lack of passion in conjunction with Jacqueline's intellectual and emotional simplicity, rather than her nurturing and motherly attributes, that leads to the relationship's demise.

The text's construction of Jacqueline's "feminine" attributes_particularly her motherly and nurturing traits_provide a contrast to the text's other constructions of femininity. In other words, the motherly, submissive woman is just one among many "feminine" positions. Most of the narrator's other lovers who are gendered by the pronoun "she" seem to frequently slip among a variety of gendered positions, exhibiting behaviors and beliefs that are in conflict with traditional constructions of femininity. The female characters who perform various gender roles, slipping back and forth between traditionally feminine and masculine positions, work to denaturalize dominant conceptions of gender difference, deconstructing the link between gendered positions and expected social behaviors. For example, Bathsheba, a dentist, was married but promiscuous, a behavior which resulted in the narrator contracting syphilis, Estelle had a scrap metal business, Catherine was a writer who ended their relationship because she said "It's only a matter of time before I become an alcoholic and forget how to cook" (60), while Inge was "a committed romantic and an anarcha-feminist" (21) who fought patriarchy by blowing up men's urinals. The extreme differences among these women function to expand traditional constructions of femininity, posing a challenge to the notion that there is, to use Cixous's words, "a general woman" (1090).

The men in the book, including the narrator's male lovers, also exhibit various gendered positions. Elgin, Louise's husband, is closely aligned with contemporary phallocentric discourses. He is a doctor who is comfortable with the language of science, as well as with numbers, formulas, computers, and other technical equipment, but who is without both passion and compassion. He is not capable of satisfying Louise emotionally or sexually. For him, a woman is either a show piece, or a sexual object--someone to make him look good (Louise), or someone to make him feel good sexually (a prostitute). However, he is also depicted as a small, weak man, who does not stand a chance of holding on to Louise. The text's construction of Elgin as unattractive and as lacking both physical strength and strength of character, is one of many indications that the Law of the Father is not as strong and pervasive in the world of the text as it is in our contemporary society.

In contrast to Elgin, Crazy Frank, one of the narrator's ex-lovers, is not aligned with phallocentric values. As a child, he was adopted by midgets, a situation made more odd by the fact that he eventually grew to be over six feet tall. As an adult, he took his adopted parents with him everywhere, carrying them on his shoulders because, as he explains to the narrator, they helped him to make friends. Crazy Frank's untraditional upbringing and his refusal to separate from his adopted parents positions him outside of the traditional nuclear family. Winterson's use of hyperbolic imagery, midget parents and a huge son with the body of a bull, can also be viewed as a textual strategy that attempts to expand restrictive constructions of the nuclear family.

In addition to his unusual family life, Crazy Frank is also positioned outside of traditional constructions of masculinity; although he is described as having the body of a bull, "an image he intensified by wearing great gold hoops through his nipples," he is also described in feminine terms: "Unfortunately he had joined the hoops with a chain of heavy gold links. The effect should have been deeply butch but in fact it looked rather like the handle of a chanel shopping bag" (93).

The final character that deserves mention in this analysis of Winterson's construction of a range of masculinity is Carlo, another of the narrator's ex-lovers, who made the narrator shave off all body hair, and who eventually left the narrator for another man: "We lasted six months and then Carlo met Robert who was taller, broader and thinner than me. They exchanged razor blades and cut me out" (143). Carlo is the only character in the text who is explicitly described as having a relationship with someone of the same sex. This passage draws the reader's attention back to the issue of the narrator's gender and sexuality. Is the narrator a man in a homosexual relationship with Carlo, or is the narrator a woman involved with a bisexual or gay man? Or, are these even the right questions to be asking?

Because the text frustrates any attempt to answer these questions, it is perhaps more productive to consider how confusion, both textual ambiguity and the readers subsequent puzzlement, itself functions in the text. The confusion over the narrator's gender and sexuality works to highlight the constructedness of both categories, inviting readers to imagine a world in which gender and sexual object choice are not linked. As a result, the passage that describes the narrator's relationship and break-up with Carlo can be viewed as explicitly challenging both the heterosexual imperative and the notion that a coherent identity is desirable and necessary. Because it is not mandatory in the textual world to adopt identity categories, characters are not forced to avow one identification at the expense of another. Sexuality, as well as gender, is fluid and multiple, irreducible to binary oppositions, which are exposed, through their absence, as unduly regulatory and exclusionary.

The text's construction of sexual object choice as functioning independently of gender could be viewed as an affirmation of bisexuality. Although the text clearly refuses monosexuality (a label that ironically lumps heterosexuals and homosexuals together), it seems to me that it also goes beyond contemporary constructions of bisexuality as well. Even if bisexuality/monosexuality is configured in a binarism, as opposed to locating bisexuality in some narrow range between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the term itself linguistically reinforces the binary opposition (homo/hetero) that it supposedly transcends. Perhaps Winterson is attempting to construct a way of thinking about gender and sexuality that transcends contemporary constructions of homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality. Although it is true that the narrator, as well as other characters, have relationships with both men and women, more attention is paid to each character's individual sexual idiosyncrasies, practices, and pleasures, than to differences based on gender. Each sexual experience is distinct. The text does not highlight any similarities in the described sexual experiences that could be attributed to the gender of a sexual partner.

Instead, the disparate characters in the text, exhibiting a range of gender possibilities, work to construct a new way of thinking about gender and sexuality which approaches Derrida's formulation of a "sexual otherwise:" "At that point there would be no more sexes_there would be one sex for each time. One sex for each gift. A sexual difference for each gift" (199). Wittig possesses a similar vision: "For us there are, it seems, not one or two sexes but many, as many sexes as there are individuals" ("Paradigm" 119). The narrator, ungendered, androgynous, is not necessarily bisexual, but rather is at the center of a heterogeneous array of sexual differences. S/he is a foil in a sense, who highlights the multiplicity of gendered positions and sexual possibilities.

Although all the other characters, except the narrator, are gendered, their sexual object choices, the ways in which they like to have sex, and the feelings they bring to relationships and sexual encounters, are all distinct. Each individual's different desires and needs, which are constructed as functioning independently of gender, make each sexual experience unique, recalling Derrida's notion of "One sex for each time. One sex for each gift." The uniqueness of each sexual experience is highlighted in the text through descriptions of the narrator's ex-lovers' individual sexual quirks. For example, the narrator explains that one ex-girlfriend only liked to have sex outdoors, while another female lover could only achieve orgasm between the hours of two and five o'clock. Carlo made the narrator shave off all body hair, while Crazy Frank, who had a passion for miniatures, told the narrator after having sex, "You'd be perfect if you were smaller" (93). Through descriptions of the narrator's ex-lovers' sexual differences, the text disrupts traditional ways of thinking about sexuality. No longer configured in terms of man/woman and gay/straight, sexuality is constructed as pure difference, the coming together of unique bodies possessing different desires.

In sum, the ungendered narrator in Winterson's Written on the Body is not a mere gimmick, but rather is a device that challenges dominant constructions of gender and sexuality. Winterson's text constructs a world in which obtaining the status of subject is not contingent upon gendering, or assuming sex. In other words, Winterson imagines a world in which the ungendered body has come to matter. In addition to the fact that gender roles are less confining and regulatory in Winterson's text than in contemporary dominant discourses, heterosexuality is no longer compulsory. The hetero/homo binary is replaced in the text by a conception of sexuality as difference, the coming together of unique bodies possessing different desires. Written on the Body can thus be viewed as an imaginative attempt to deregulate desire, freeing it from the regulatory and disciplinary binary regimes of gender and sexuality. In their place, the text imagines a freer, more fluid view of sexuality based on difference. In this way, Winterson's text not only encourages readers to reflect on oppressive discursive constructions that are so pervasive that they are often accepted as "natural" or inevitable, but also to imagine a world in which the absence of these structures allows for exciting new possibilities

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

_____. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-320.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989. 1090-1102.

Derrida, Jacques. "Women in the Beehive: A Seminar With Jacques Derrida." Men in Feminism. Ed. Alic Jardine and Paul Smith. New York: Methuen, 1987. 189-203.

Farwell, Marilyn R. Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Moore, Lisa. "Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson." Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. Eds. Elizabeth Grosz & Elspeth Probyn. New York: Routledge, 1995: 104-127.

Van Kirk, John. "Fiction Chronicle." The Hudson Review (1993): 604.

Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. New York: Vintage International, 1992.

Wittig, Monique. "Paradigm." Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts. Eds. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1979. 114-121.

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