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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Queer Theory  

2009-09-12 00:14:36|  分类: 同性恋理论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Final Exam (Take-home)

Student Essay

I Do Have Something to Tell You

 

In his essay “Is There Something You Need to Tell Me?” William S. Wilkerson adopts Satya P. Mohanty’s theory to explain “coming out”[1] of a homosexual and argues against essentialist and postmodernist views of experience and identity.

Before introducing Wilkerson’s argument, first of all, we need to have a general idea of Mohanty’s theory. In his essay “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity”, Mohanty argues that experience is not self-evidently meaningful but “socially and ‘theoretically’ constructed”, and knowledge gained from experience is ideological; however, “there are better or worse social and political theories, and we can seek less distorted and more objective knowledge of social phenomena by creating the conditions for the production of better knowledge” (Mohanty). That is to say, by adopting a less distorted ideology, one can have a better understanding of one’s identity.

Wilkerson agrees with Mohanty and further emphasizes that “experiences do not have meanings apart from mediation, but they are not without latent meanings that can be interpreted, and, moreover, the accuracy of these interpretations can be measured by continued verification” (254). In other words, experiences are not self-evidently meaningful as essentialists believe, but mediated and with latent meanings.[2] One can get an accurate or inaccurate interpretation of experiences and thus gain an accurate or inaccurate understanding of one’s identity. What is more, one can validate one’s interpretation by future experiences. For example, if a straight person one day comes to realize that he is gay, this new identity he takes according to his reinterpretation of his former experiences can be right and be wrong as well. Whether it is accurate or not can be tested by his further experiences (as a gay) in life.

Here, Wilkerson, like Mohanty, denies the foundationalist view of identity that it is stable and is based on shared, self-evidently meaningful experiences. Instead, he agrees with postmodernism at the point that experiences are culturally constituted, but he does not agree with the postmodernist view in claiming that such mediated experiences cannot be a source of knowledge nor identity. According to Wilkerson, by denying foundationalist theory, postmodernism goes to another extreme: both of the two theories “assume as a starting point a false dichotomy between an absolute and self-evidently meaningful experience and an experience that is produced, contingent, and typically ideological” (274). In other words, they view experiences only in two categories: “totally mediated and therefore inaccurate or totally self-present and without outside mediation and influence” (275). When one view (self-evidently meaningful experiences can be a source of knowledge) falls (experiences are proved to be not self-evidently meaningful), postmodernists are forced to take another view that such experiences are not reliable and thus cannot be the starting point of knowledge.

However, when taking such a route, postmodernism fails to find a way to distinguish ideology from truth, since all experience is ideological production. Moreover, postmodernist theory also fails to provide the origin of knowledge, since knowledge, as it claims, does not come from experience. These two arguments are also the bases of Wilkerson’s evaluation of two essays by postmodernists Diana Fuss and Joan Scott.

Judging from Wilkerson’s introduction of Fuss’s points,[3] he is right in saying Fuss has loopholes in her discussion.[4] However, when critisizing Scott, we think on the one hand, Wilkerson does not work on her central point, meaning he does not argue against what she argues for; instead, he questions (actually, he poses the same questions as those he does on Fuss) the source of her coming to such an idea.[5] On the other hand, we think Wilkerson has misread Scott’s opinion. Scott does not “commit herself to a contradictory position”[6](274); in fact, she is consistent throughout her discussion. When discussing the case of Delany, she says “the available social categories aren’t sufficient for Delany’s story,” this is not what Wilkerson understands as an implication of some meaning of Delany’s experience awaiting better interpretation; instead, Scott, in the following paragraph, explains this statement: there is also something personal in his story apart from social categories, for

he makes entries in a notebook, at the front about material things, at the back about sexual desire…Although one seems to be about society, the public, and the political, and the other about the individual, the private, and the psychological, in fact both narratives are inescapably historical; they are discursive productions of knowledge of the self. (795)

Scott’s point is to claim that the social and the personal are both discursive and ideological, even the meaning of experience is discursive, too. Therefore she is not contradictory to her former statement.

Wilkerson tries so hard to claim that Fuss and Scott and all other postmodernists are trapped in their own theory, in order to introduce a realist theory that both avoids the pitfalls of foundationalist epistemologies and evades postmodernist aporias, because realist theory views “experience as mediated from the start,” and the mediated experience is a source of knowledge. In addition, the realist theory regards “mediated knowledge as the only kind of knowledge that we have,” which serves as a solution to distinguish ideology from (mediated) truth (276).

When discussing coming out, Wilkerson points out that it is impossible to explain coming out with Cartesian or Freudian theory, since in both theories, it is impossible not to be aware of one’s own “sexual and emotional desires and needs” (256). To be more specific, Cartesianism, first of all, stresses the superiority of mind: “‘nothing can be more easily or more evidently perceived by me than my mind’; that I know the nature of my mind ‘more distinctly’ than any body (AT VII, 275-7; HR I, 156-7)” (Wilson 93). To Descartes, “the mind is in some sense transparent to itself: ‘there can be nothing in me, that is in my mind, of which I am not conscious’ (AT III, 273; PL 90; cf. AT VII, 107)” (98). Namely, if one is gay, he cannot be unaware of it when he poses the question about who he is. In other words, the knowledge that the mind perceives is not mediated and thus is true, which makes it impossible to be wrong about one’s identity and therefore makes coming out inexplicable.

As for Freudianism, sexuality as “the internal stimulus is said to be instinctual” and cannot be run away from since “a stimulus of internal origin defines need” (Mullahy 3-4); therefore one cannot be wrong about one’s sexual orientation, because when one realizes one’s sexual desire, the instinct will tell him/her the most potential group of people that can best satisfy his/her desire. Even if such sexuality is sometimes an unconscious impulse, it is still

forever pressing toward expression instead of being passive, static and inert. The unconscious mental life manifests tendencies striving towards a goal. Thus, sexual impulses when repressed still press toward some kind of fulfillment and are said to manifest themselves often in devious forms such as in the symptoms of mental illness. (15)

That is to say, sexuality is forever trying to find a way to influence one’s activity and to declare the existence of its being. So if one is gay, it is impossible for him not to know it. Thus, for the Freudian explanation, there is no such thing as “coming out” in one’s process of understanding one’s identity.[7]

   

     Works Cited

     Mohanty,Satya P. “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the

Postcolonial Condition.” 11 June 2009 <http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/ mohanty.html>.

     Mullahy, Patrick. Oedipus: Myth and Complex. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.

     Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry, 17.4 (1991): 773-797.

     Wilkerson, William S. “Is There Something You Need to Tell Me?: Coming out and

the Ambiguity of Experience.” Ed. Paula M. L. Moya and Michael R. Hames-Garcia. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 251-78.

     Wilson, Margaret Dauler. Descartes. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.



[1] According to Wilkerson, “coming out” is “neither the recognition of one’s self-evident and immutable essence nor an arbitrary and fragmented reinterpretation but instead the simultaneous recognition and reordering of experiences along the lines of a new identity that is simultaneously discovered and constructed” (266). That is to say, first of all, one’s identity is not stable; experiences, the basis of one’s interpretation and recognition of one’s identity, are not self-evidently meaningful, and the process as well as the result of understanding one’s identity is mediated and socially constructed.

[2] Here, by “latent meanings,” Wilkerson does not mean that the meaning of experience is simply self-evident like what the experiential foundationalist believes but something can be figured out only when we relate the elements of our experience to one another. While, as Wilkerson also points out, sometimes “we lack the keys necessary to unlock their interrelation and see the meaning that emerges” (264), then the adoption of a less distorted ideology enables us to realize the formerly “unrealized meaning.” Here, what Wilkerson tries to emphasize is the interrelation of experiences and one’s act of interpretation.

[3] Fuss, according to Wilkerson, claims that experience itself is ideological, but this does not mean that experience cannot provide evidence; instead, it can still be used to understand “processes of identity formation and distortion,” but not as a reliable evidence of understanding identity (Wilkerson 271).

[4] Actually, Wilkerson is using postmodernist logic to argue against postmodernist thoery. According to him, firstly, if Fuss means, which we think she does, that all experience is an ideological production, she owes us an explanation of how we get such knowledge, because our knowledge of the world “must come from some source.” If the knowledge comes from experience, and experience is ideological, knowledge then is ideological. Thus we can come to a conclusion that everything is ideological, but when everything is ideological, we will not be able to distinguish ideology as ideology. To make his argument invulnerable, Wilkerson further assumes that there may be a possibility that Fuss means that only some of our experience is ideological, but then she will have to explain how we can distinguish ideological experience from nonideological one and how it is possible, which she certainly does not mention in her essay.

[5] Scott focuses on analyzing the discursive characteristic of experience and identity. She also claims that the meaning of experience is not fixed. However, “treating the emergence of a new identity as a discursive event is not to introduce a new form of linguistic determinism, nor to deprive subjects of agency.” She points out that “subjects do have agency,” but this “agency is created through situations and statuses”, meaning the agency is ideological, too (Scott 792-93). She does not discuss the relationship between experience and knowledge which Wilkerson questions. Wilkerson is not evaluating what Scott is claiming, instead, he is questioning how Scott has got such knowledge which is discursive practices that produce experience and identity. So the later evaluation is basically his argument against his own hypothetic possible answer to his question. He points out that Scott’s knowledge of discursive practices must come from some source. If it is from experience, it will go back to the point that experience is the starting point of knowledge, which is certainly unacceptable to postmodernism; if it comes from some nonexperiential source, either innate (which is refused by postmodernism) or learned (meaning knowledge comes from a third party apart from experience and innate capacity), according to Wilkerson, it comes from “an inference to the best explanation of the source of my knowledge” (273). But such a hypothesis makes it impossible to test the reliability of the understanding of such a source. Wilkerson’s explanation is that if knowledge comes from an inference of the best understanding of the source of my experience, I could not verify the credibility of my understanding, because I could not use my experience to test it since experience is mediated. Apparently, such an explanation falls into an either-or fallacy: either my understanding can be tested by experience, or it cannot be tested at all; it is inexplicable.

[6] Wilkerson stresses that on the one hand, Scott implies Delany’s “experience does have some meaning awaiting better interpretation; on the other, she implies there is nothing there but the production of historical discourses” (Wilkerson 274).

[7] Here, we should pay attention to a crucial difference between Wilkerson’s “coming out” and Cartesian and Freudian understanding of one’s identity. Wilkerson’s “coming out” is that, for example, if I were lesbian, before coming out, I would not know it. That is to say, although I have feelings that are very like a lesbian’s, I do not want to admit that they are because of the homophobic ideology, i.e. I am afraid that I may be a real lesbian. However, for the Cartesian or Freudian picture, I know I am a lesbian, but because of the homophobic world, I pretend to be straight.

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