Henry Rubin’s concerns and starting point here are very close to those of Viviane Namaste, highlighted in my previous post. Rubin, however, frames his argument within a rift that has developed between a Foucauldian genealogical approach to discursivity and phenomenology. As trans has emerged within feminist and queer fields of enquiry, these fields have repeated the by now well-established “dead ends on subjectivity and embodiment” as well as the schism between post-structuralism/discourse analysis and phenomenology (279). This rift is doubled, within trans scholarship, with a growing gap between academic and nonacademics whose lives it portents to describe.
Rubin’s goal in this article is to show that phenomenology and discourses analysis are ultimately not incompatible. In fact, Rubin believes that
“the tension between the historicity of genealogy and the authority of phenomenology need not be counterproductive. Discursive genealogy can historicize phenomenological accounts, while phenomenology can insert an embodied agent-in-progress into genealogical accounts” (278-279). In short, Rubin believes that phenomenology and genealogy can be “complementary methods that augment one another’s strengths” (279).
To show this, Rubin provides an example from his own interviews with FtMs. When asked to provide an account of their identity, Rubin notes that these accounts were most often ahistorical: “many FtMs described their identification process with little reference to a historical framework” (278). Moreover, Rubin points out that the FtM that participated in his study do not understand their experience as a moving or migrating from one body or gender to another, as has often been theorized by feminists. Rather, they have always felt their essence (to use an essentialist, but also a phenomenological term) to be male, and their transition served to “become more of whom [they] always felt [they] were to begin with” (interviewee, quoted on p. 277).
This notion, that a person’s (subjective) sense of their own body does not match objective observation from the outside finds echo is Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the body image. Rubin reminds us that Merleau-Ponty developed this helpful concept after observing the twin-phenomena of phantom limbs and anosognosia—respectively, patients who still feel limbs that are gone, and those who ignore or do not recognize limbs that are there. Both notions, of phantom limbs and anosognosia, tend to pathologize the sufferer. To avoid this, Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of “body image, which he defines in different ways:
“1) as a map or a means of knowing the location and relation of one’s body parts
2) as a ‘compendium of our bodily experience, capable fo giving a commentary and meaning to the internal impressions and the impression of possessing a body at any moment’ or
3) as a form, ‘a total awareness of my posture in the intersensory world’ (98-100).
“The body image, Rubin sums up, “is more than just a map of the corporeal body as it is materially; it is a psychical representation of the body as it is for the subject. The body image need not correspond directly with the physical body. It is no more and no less than one’s body consciousness as it will be of use to the I in its lifework” (270).
Transsexuals could, according to Rubin’s analysis, be conceived in the same way as anosognosic and phantom limb(ers?), as they “fail” to see what others see, or see their body differently than what outside observers see (although they are painfully aware of the presence of breast and female genitalia).
The concept of body image indeed seems extremely helpful to understand one’s relationship to their body, for trans, as he successfully shows, but also for cisgendered people, as we can easily see that a body image that diverges from objective representation need not limit itself only to genitals, but could in fact include other attributes as well.
I find this concept of body image tremendously helpful. My next post will most pursue this with Gayle Salamon’s Assuming a Body, a book that also uses this concept to fruitful results.
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.