In The Postmodern, Malpas says:
at the heart of identity there is a ‘thinking I’ that experiences, conceptualizes and interacts with the world … This ‘I’ has been questioned, challenged and problematized by more recent modern and postmodern theorists. (57)
This ‘thinking I’ is certainly problematized by Jeannette Winterson in Written on the Body. By withholding the gender of the narrator and writing that narrator into numerous sexual experiences, the reader is left to his or her own devices in decoding the mystery. Faced with two choices, the reader can insert the association of his or her choice and move on or allow shifting assumptions to wash over the conscious mind.
As Malpas explains, according to theorist Hélène Cixous in her critique of modern subjectivity “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”:
Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition … a culture’s values are premised on an organization of thought in which descriptions of the feminine are determined by masculine categories of order, opposition and hierarchy. (72)
To consider Winterson’s audience, reader reactions within our class seem fraught with desire to code the narrator’s gender. Some folks are downright frustrated and combing sentences for any give-away. Obviously to reveal the strength of this desire is important, but why? Without a gender definition, is it impossible to contextualize the significance of the novel’s events?
Having read the book’s back cover, I knew that the narrator’s gender would never be revealed. This could be why I never grew frustrated. Certainly it was an odd experience seeing my perceptions slip from one gender to another. I became increasingly aware that situations and characteristics attributed to the same character conjured different results. By no means did I “get” what was happening to me, but the following passage by Malpas outlines that experience rather well:
One is not simply a woman or man, with all of the cultural coding that goes along with this. Instead, Cixous argues that a feminist criticism must explore the ways in which differences within a subject can be continually opened up to new forms of exploration and challenge. To this end she presents the idea of a feminist writing, an criture f’minine, that is able to affirm these differences, resist the closure of a male-oriented logic, and present subjectivity as a structure of continual renegotiations that transform the categories of patriarchy. (73)
Allowing myself to ride the gender wave with fluidity, I found what Winterson hasn’t written is most important. Where power exists and determines what is “acceptable, or at least “attributable,” lies in our perception of how the masculine and feminine are defined by language. (Hello Saussure, my old friend.) Winterson’s brilliance demonstrates the subversive by using that very device. The notion of the free-‘thinking I’ is exposed for all its cultural baggage. The reader is offered an opportunity to see how their own assumptions are based on linguistic code, the power of Western culture’s structure of ordering. Within the story, while the narrator is able to convert Russian to English as a professional translator, he or she is also betrayed by the failings of language as it applies to the properties of love. The resulting awareness of linguistic confines illuminates the more naturally occurring bisexuality or grey areas within the gender dichotomy, i.e. recognizing in masculinity the presence of sensitivity, or within femininity an ambitious determination. (73)
The questions now is, what do we do with our new awareness? Do we get all radical and create an entirely new language, or do we collectively assign new meaning to old words? Before answering, maybe we should read “Is There Anything Good About Men?” by Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology & Head of Social Psychology Area, Florida State University. As he argues, if men are perceived to occupy positions of power, it must also be recognized that they occupy the majority of prison cells, make up the greater portion of the homeless population, and are often portrayed by the media as buffoons. Culture is a tool employed by all for daily understanding. It is not necessarily bad in its limitation, if only we take the time to study what it reveals about our thoughts and motivations.