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Assuming a BodyReview - Assuming a Body
Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality
by Gayle Salamon
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Maria Lakka, Ph.D.
Mar 20th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 12)

The book addresses the theoretical, ethical and political dimensions of transgenderism, which the author defends by challenging first and foremost the conception of the (sexed) body as a given. She insists on the social construction of the body through experience and language and repeatedly argues against different accounts of a material body whether in the form of a biological determination or in that of a materiality that precedes and exceeds language. However, she does not reject materiality altogether but suggests that we need to affirm a body's materiality not as a non-discursive fact but through the articulation of a new relationship between materiality and discourse.

In the first chapter Salomon presents different psychoanalytic accounts of the formation of the bodily ego. She begins with Freud's discussion of hermaphroditism, as the originary condition of intersexuality from which the unisexual physical disposition evolutionary emerged. Freud was tempted by the hypothesis of the intersexual body making possible a universal "bisexual psychical disposition" but his conclusion maintained the independency of the somatic and psychic registers. However, he recognized that a single resolution to each register was not necessary and that admixture and tension of both masculine and feminine traits could be maintained. Moreover, the Freudian body is fractured at an even deeper level and erotogenic zones are not restricted to the genitals but any part could take up such a function what points to the plasticity of erotogenicity and undermines the "indexical relation between genitals and sex".

Freud's famous assertion of the bodily nature of the ego, will be examined through Silverman's notion of "identity-at-a-distance". Following Lacan's mirror stage, identification is always bound to misrecognition or to some distance; rather than being based on self-sameness it is the envelopment of my image as other that which founds the ego and bodily coherence. Salomon then, attempts to move beyond the psychoanalytic deep structures and bring psychic interiority on the body's surface though Anzieu's notion of the "skin ego" and Schilder's "body image" or "body schema". Although the idea of the skin as an envelope for the body, and the body as an envelope for the psyche is criticized for maintaining a model of containment which substantiates body and psyche, Schilder's "body schema" presents "the compossiblity of an authentic and irrefutable 'felt sense' of the body and a psychic mediation" through which we have recourse to our body even in the experience of cutaneous sensation. Even if it corresponds to a psychic mediation it is irreducibly temporal and social and affirms the relational origins and the unvoluntary, non-individual construction of the body schema through touch and affect.

The last part of the chapter questions the trend in trans studies to found the specificity of transgender subjectivity on pure bodily materiality, safeguarded outside discourse, what substantiates gendered body image [38]. For Salomon the construction of subjectivity is a complex movement of narcissistic investment on the flesh and self-estrangement, an oscillation of sameness and difference which is formed, forming and unformed in discourse rather than a pure and straight material fact that one may only transcendentally accept.

The second chapter turns to phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty's notion of the sexual schema, a dynamic topography of the body's sexual regions as delineated by desire and an attempt, on Salomon's part, to reconfigure the capacities of the unconscious from the mind to the body. Sexuality animates my body through desire for an other; yet, desire does not operate in the blank but is constantly mingled with and formed in relation to past experiences. Desire puts me in relation to the world and while it decenters the self, through this leaning towards another, it also delivers the body to myself as it becomes desire (animated) and intentional (desire of). Merleau-Ponty calls this process transposition, a shifting from one mode of being to another, which necessarily passes though desire for an other and thus he founds embodiment intersubjectively and temporally. Through his account, Salomon argues that the body is an "amalgam of substance and ideal located somewhere between its objectively quantifiable materiality and its phantasmatic extensions into the world" [65].

The second part of the book, which comprises chapters 3 and 4, addresses the various tensions between feminism and trans studies. Several writers in transgender studies attempt to found the specificity of transgender embodiment by recourse to a vague notion of bodily materiality. The feminist position on the social construction of gender is criticized as either too simple compared to the complex reality of gender embodiment or as too complex vis-à-vis the simple assertive truth – the feeling of dysphoria – of the phenomenological transgender body. Against these positions the author discloses a double fallacy at work: on one hand, social construction is envisaged in very restrictive terms, as if the social realm concerns some 'outer' space that can be distinguished from the privacy of the self or from the immediacy and authenticity of inner feeling. Far from denying the body's felt sense Salomon argues that this is also shaped within social and linguistic structures what renders the idea of a simple givenness of the body a fiction [78]. Moreover, the recourse to a pre-social or extra-social bodily feeling lapses into a transcendental and paradoxical foundation of the subject, which possesses the agency to determine her gender outside all social constrictions and yet (s)he is 'blindly' driven by an all-powerful feeling. The claim to an unmediated bodily materiality ends up to biological determinism, to which Salomon responds by suggesting that the real body is "situated at materiality's threshold of possibility", that allows the body to be "open to the possibilities of what one cannot know or anticipate in advance" [92].

Nevertheless, feminism has also proved to remain entrapped within a binary categorization of gender and reluctant to incorporate in its discourse non-normative genders. Transgenderism is perceived as a threat to women founded on self-violence or an act of female castration. By insisting on the difference between the lesbian, who affirms her femaleness and community, and the transman who betrays them in order to become capitulated to gender normativity, lesbianism is refashioned in the shape of heteronormative discourse. Salomon argues in favor of a more expansive conception of feminism not on the basis of an "additive subjectivity" but of a recognition that issues of gender (as in transgenderism) and sexuality (as in gay and lesbian discourse) even though in principle distinct, they are mutually implicated in the construction of identity.          

In chapters 5 and 6 Salomon engages further with feminism by questioning the notion of the limit between the sexes and exploring the possibility of transcending sexual difference. She presents Irigaray's notion of 'place' of sexual difference which is relational and generative rather than determined and spatial, but criticizes Irigaray for remaining entrapped within a hylomorphic model that understands real difference as that between male and female. For Irigaray there is always a remainder, an unbridgeable gap between the two categories that prevents substitution of one for an other, yet this constrain is also generative and makes the couple the most creative relation. Salomon argues that, Irigaray's account cannot find a place for sexual undecidability, and suggests that the trans body can "help us understand the traversal of sexual boundaries not as an unrepresentable breach but as a negotiation of difference" [143] which places difference within a phasmatic scope of the female category.   

She further moves on to Elizabeth Grosz's anti-materialist account of the body that challenges the idea of corporeal limits in favour of a body's plasticity and capacity to transform itself following shifting cultural identifications. Yet, this plasticity is not infinite but constrained by certain biological limits and its rigidity is manifested vis-à-vis sexual difference. For Grosz attempts to transition from one sex to another are necessarily failed or incomplete because the body's sexual morphology does not reside simply on its surface appearance but is tied to a bodily feeling that cannot be altered at will. While Grosz, just like Irigaray, maintains the necessity of the interval between the sexes Gayle Rubin proposes a continuum model of female masculinity as a way to understand sexual difference that may be inclusive of those at the margins. She suggests that the difference between lesbians with a manifested masculinity and those who decide to transition and become FTMs, is only a difference in the degree of bodily dysphoria that they both experience. For Salomon this continuum of female masculinity "unmoors identity from bodily morphology and proposes a model in which a firm boundary between male and female is impossible to fix" (164). However, I would argue, that Rubin's account appears to extend the limit of the female category rather than banishing the notion altogether and that Irigaray's and Grosz's appeal to the limit address an ontological, rather than empirical, difference between the sexes, which Salomon does not engage with. Her argument remains mostly an ethical demand for our relation to those non-normatively gendered rather than an account on the possibility of transcending or bridging sexual difference. Indeed, the ethical and political dimension of the whole argument about trans specificity becomes most emphatic in the last chapter, where Salomon shows how sex is treated as a material property by state bureaucracies and particularly withheld in the case of transpeople in a way that it does not for the normatively gendered.

Salomon's book achieves to be theoretically rigorous on issues of gender and embodiment and to acknowledge the specificity and reality of transgender experience in a way that challenges the reader to rethink conceptions of sex and gender at their cutting edge.


© 2012 Maria Lakka


Maria Lakka received a PhD in Media Studies from Goldmiths College in 2006 and teaches in Greece at the University level courses "Video History" and "Art and Communication in the Graphic Arts"


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