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Becoming and Be/Longing: Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw and My Gender Workbook

From: Biography
Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 2001
pp. 35-56 | 10.1353/bio.2001.0010

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Biography 24.1 (2001) 35-56

The oppression of love, sex, and desire are built into the very nature of the kind of communities in which we huddle. . . . We do all this stuff, I think, because we're so afraid of not belonging, so afraid of being alone.

-- My Gender Workbook 93

I. Subject(ificat)ion, Be/longing, Autobiography

It is perhaps only fitting that one of the key tenets of autobiography criticism at the dawn of the new millennium -- that we become subjects through the workings of a constituting social order within which, however, we can still exercise agency and self-determination -- should echo the teachings of the ancients. A Midrashic commentary of the seventh century has it that "a man is called by three names: one given him by his father and mother, one that others call him, and one that he calls himself." Here are two contemporary autobiographical articulations of this logic of self-naming. "I am neither man nor woman," affirms Michael Hernandez in a short self-portrait included in Leslie Feinberg's TransLiberation: Beyond Pink or Blue, "I just am" (76). And in her Foreword to the collection Boys Like Her: Transfictions, Kate Bornstein reflects on the pain she would have been spared if, as a youngster, she could have simply told the world: "'I'm a girl, but I'm a boy, I am'" (11). The texts by Hernandez and Bornstein foreground issues of vital interest to contemporary autobiography studies: the "existential necessity" of having a sense of self -- of affirming "I am"--and the function of self-narration as a medium of/for such self-creation (Eakin 46); the range of culturally and historically specific "vocabularies of the self" through which subjects are constituted (Bjorklund 7); and the possibility that a subject so constructed (here, through a binary gender discourse) may defy and re-define the terms of its naming. These, then, are the broader questions that motivate the present essay. If, as social psychologist George Herbert Mead was already arguing at the turn of the twentieth century, "the human self arises through its ability to take the attitude of the group to which he belongs -- because he can talk to himself in terms of the community to which he belongs" (Movements 375; emphasis added), what happens to the self and to self-narration (talking to oneself) when the terms of the community and the group are no longer applicable or acceptable to the self, and belonging is jeopardized? What can non-hegemonic subjects like Hernandez and Bornstein teach us about the interrelationship of subjectivity, belonging, and autobiography?

The contemporary theoretical scene, in which philosophical, sociological, psychological, and textual perspectives have been brought together, provides a fertile ground for such explorations. Drawing out the psychic implications of Foucault's and Althusser's theorizations of the subject as paradoxically constituted by and in subjection, Judith Butler has argued that "no subject emerges without a passionate attachment to those on whom he or she is fundamentally dependent" (7). Since it is the internalization of social norms that produces the subject's "interiority" in the first place, the subject depends on these interpellations to bring it into being and confer upon it a recognizable and enduring social existence. Such attachment, therefore, is both enabling -- it is necessary if the subject is "to persist in and as itself" in a "psychic and social sense"--and a mark of subjection -- to be, the subject has to submit to "a world of others that is fundamentally not one's own" (Butler 8, 28).

In this essay I would like to suggest that be/longing -- the longing to belong so that one may be--is a primary manifestation of the subject's conflicted, passionate attachment to the very grids of affiliation that work in the service of its subject(ificat)ion. Be/longing is the "longing for social existence" of a subject constituted by social categories that signify its "subordination and existence at once" (Butler 20). Not all subjects, however, are equally subjected by the regimes of power that regulate the conditions of their existence. "How do you begin to be/long when everything around you conspires to keep...

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