Recently, Andrew Cuomo’s daughter got more attention than she perhaps wanted by coming out as a “demisexual,” defined as someone who does not feel sexual attraction without serious emotional involvement. She was attacked, predictably enough, as a member of a set of privileged young people who play self-indulgent identity-politics games with pretentious words, an impression reinforced by her statement that in her crowd it was cool to be non-hetero.
I have nothing but sympathy for Andrew Cuomo’s daughter. Michaela Kennedy-Cuomo. What intrigues me, given my ongoing theme of imagination as the home of human life, is the role of labels in defining our identity. Why should this young woman feel a need to find a label for herself? After all, we often resent it when we are labeled by other people: it is an act of aggression, of what Abraham Maslow called “rubricizing” (okay, not his most elegant coinage, but the concept is important). Why do we need to label ourselves?—"Hi, my name is, and I’m a demisexual”? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and all that.
But I think it is important, because to label or to name something is to categorize it, and categorizing is a primary act of human understanding, one that we cannot do without, despite the numerous dangers attendant upon it. From Plato, most of whose dialogues consist of the attempt to refine the meaning of various categories such as “love” and “justice,” to modern semantics, there is an assumption that we understand something by putting it into a category. And categories are always comparisons of similarities and differences.
The simplest kind of categorizing is binary. The movement known as structuralism claimed that the human mind has an inherent tendency to understand reality in terms of binary oppositions: black and white, good and evil, love and hate, reason and feeling. But you do not have to major in philosophy to know that in real life, there may be black and white, but there are also fifty shades of grey.
The potential reductionist dangers of binary, either-or thinking are so great that structuralism spawned a counter-movement, post-structuralism, which attempted to prove that all categories whatsoever are illusions subject to “deconstruction,” to “demystification.” The result was a radical skepticism that, at its most thoroughgoing, denied the possibility of human knowledge altogether. The illusion of knowledge is what Nietzsche called a life-giving lie.
If we restrict our discussion to the area of gender and sexuality, what we are looking for is a middle way between binary reductionism and radical skepticism. Here, the traditional binary is of course heterosexuality, and it has retained its position as the social norm because until recent times it has been the only means of reproduction. This has given rise to the conservative position that any kind of sexuality unrelated to reproduction is “unnatural,” or, as Freud notoriously put it, “anatomy is destiny.”
However, that social fiat has little to do with zoology: it does not take extensive observation of the animal kingdom to find examples of homosexual and masturbatory behavior. And what are mating dances, colorful plumage, the firefly’s luminescent code but “fetishism,” the use of symbols to communicate and excite desire? Their extravagance and aesthetic quality have little to do with simplistic notions of “animal rutting.” Nor are animals always driven by some implacable instinct that does away with all the complicated games of sexuality: the poor turkey cock who struts for an hour in our yard with his magnificent fan of tailfeathers, circling a bored female who is only interested in food, has thousands of male counterparts in the human sexual tragicomedy.
In other words, sexuality, even on the animal level, is never entirely natural, meaning biological: to a greater or lesser degree it has an imaginative component. And the imagination’s imperative is not simple need but desire. The imagination’s limit is not the possible, let alone the practical, but the conceivable (no pun intended). For that reason, my discussions of gender, sexuality, and love in The Productions of Time begin from the assumption that both gender identity and sexual orientation are potentially polymorphous: they may take myriad forms, and are determined not by biology but by a combination of individual choice and social conditioning. The term “polymorphous” is taken from Freud, where it is one half of the phrase “polymorphous perverse”: to Freud, any sexual expression not fully “genital,” that is, having reproduction as its goal, is a “perversion.” Which would mean that most human sexuality is at least residually perverted, an attitude that has been assimilated in the general population and accounts for its guilty uneasiness about sex, especially in the United States.
But biological essentialism, seemingly so commonsense, is mistaken. Gender identity and sexual orientation are acts of imagination. We create our identity, or it is created for us by social forces. The presence or absence of reproductive organs does not determine our identity any more than any other kind of physical difference, such as height or eye color—or skin color. The body we have been born with is a given, and its abilities and limitations of course have to be taken into account. But those abilities and limitations do not define us. This is part of a broader revolt that is one of the few hopeful signs of our time. It is a very good thing that a label such as “cripple” can no longer be used to define the likes of a Stephen Hawking. The fundamentalism of the body is being challenged in the name of a human spirit capable of recreating itself.
I am a literary critic and not a social scientist, but the arts have their own authority in any conversation about the nature of human nature. Little that I have been saying is a new discovery of gender theory. Look at Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It is a play about masks, and there is an actual masked ball in the middle of it. But the dialogue makes clear that the real masks are the verbal masks we call labels. One of its two couples, Benedick and Beatrice, is determined to wear the “merry” mask of cynical wit and detached unconcern about love rather than the “melancholy” mask of committed and therefore vulnerable romantic lovers. The other female lead, Hero, is falsely accused of infidelity and is therefore labeled a “whore,” even by her own father. The social power of a label is such that it nearly destroys her. Claudio, her beloved, if that is the word, is a young and immature soldier who repudiates Hero based on “evidence” that should not deceive a five year-old because of another label, the macho label of “honor.” Critics point out that the title would have been pronounced “much ado about noting,” and what everyone notes in society are the labels. Contemporary social media have only accelerated the pace and widened the range of the noting.
Speaking tentatively (as one always should when speaking about labels that are not one’s own), it may be that labels like “non-binary,” “gender fluid,” and “asexual” imply a liberation from the reductionism of either-or labeling, the assertion of an identity that exists beyond labels, any labels. On the other hand, the word “demisexual” caught me because it signals a multiplication of labels. There may at times be a need to escape labels, but there may at other times a need to find a label. The coinage LGBTQ+ is itself a multiplication of labels, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. In examining the “demisexual” controversy, Arwa Mahdawi, whose column in The Guardian I always read with pleasure, provides a link to an LGBTA Wiki page defining “demisexual” which expands that label into an entire constellation of what it calls “microlabels”: “Demisexual may be considered a type of mesi asexual, greysexual attraction, and aliquasexual attraction. Fraysexual is often described as the ‘opposite’ of demisexual. Counterparts to demisexual for other forms of attraction include: demiromantic, demiplatonic, demisensual, demialterous, and demiflectic.” Wow. There are suggestions about how you can even construct your own flag of identity: I claim this territory in the name of myself. Again, just wow—said with awe and not with irony.
It would be all too easy to dismiss this as self-indulgent nonsense. But isn’t that like saying, “You’re not going to get me into one of those fancy restaurants where I don’t even understand the menu. Meat and potatoes is good enough, and should be good enough for everybody who isn’t just decadent”? Here is my attempt at looking at the matter differently. The recent partial lifting of normative social controls has caused some people to become more aware that, at times, impulses, desires, fantasies, intuitions emerge from beneath their socially conditioned surface persona that suggest that on a deep level their identity is polymorphous. This can inspire two types of anxiety. One is of course the fear of being “deviant,” “abnormal,” or other words for unconventional. But a deeper one may be the fear of having no reliable identity at all.
When I teach Much Ado About Nothing, I point to passages in which Shakespeare seems to be questioning whether there is any such thing as a core identity beneath all social masks. As a man (and possibly a gay or bisexual man) of the theatre, he is clearly thinking about social masking in terms of acting. But, beneath the mask, is there only another mask, the mask we call “authentic self”? Students often find the idea that there is no core self, nothing beneath the layers of the onion, perturbing, and understandably so. It may be liberating, or at least cool, to embrace one’s polymorphous truth (“non-hetero” isn’t the half of it). Such a stance affirms the dynamic, transformative aspect of the imagination: our identity isn’t fixed; it can change and even evolve. And flexibility of identity, as I point out in Productions, can be a real survival technique in a world that is also polymorphous. The example I use is the one I am beginning to treat in the Expanding Eyes podcast, that of Odysseus, who in the opening lines of the Odyssey is defined as polytropos, the man of “many turnings.” Odysseus has always fascinated me (and many others) because he is a hero of the polytropic imagination.
But the other aspect of the imagination is pattern, the definitions and labels that give form and therefore reality. The proper use of definitions and patterns is to expand our eyes, to sensitize our perception so that we see with greater degrees of discrimination. There have been studies showing that teaching more names for shadings of color enables people to see subtler variations. Because of fashion and cosmetics, women tend to have more color discrimination than men, many of whom have no idea what “teal” and “puce” might be. In my class on language, I have taught a wonderful essay by Nancy Lord called “Native Tongues,” dealing with her attempt to learn and help preserve the language of an Indigenous people in Alaska. Why should she bother? Because learning the labels of that language changed her perception of reality. The Dena’ina people have, she says, “words for ‘ridge broken up into knolls, almost bare,’ ridge with knolls pointing up,’ ridge sloping to a point,’ ‘pointed up mountain, and ‘sloping mountain.’ There are “words for the way trees grow on the mountains: ‘they grow on the upper mountain slope’; ‘they grow up the mountain in strips’; ‘they grow up the mountainsides’ ‘they grow through the pass.’ The translations are awkward but precise. They make me look more attentively at mountainsides now, see with more exactness their shapes against the sky and the patterns of their vegetation.” These people live by salmon fishing, and, in another place, Lord offers a catalogue that goes on for seven lines of specialized words pertaining to salmon: there is a word for “the fatty part just in front of the king’s dorsal fin.” She concludes: “To know these words is to share in the universe of salmon.”
The moral is very simple. Perhaps what we need is a multiplication of terms, “awkward but precise,” that enable us to share in the universes of other people, to see as they see and feel as they feel. And perhaps by doing so we may be able to deal with our own inner polymorphous nature, our own difference, and so come to feel that what is inside us, our “core,” if there is such a thing, is a creative power rather than a dangerous threat.
Note: Nancy Lord was Alaska Writer Laureate in 2008-2010. Her essay “Native Tongues” originally appeared in Sierra, November/December 1996. Her website is http://www.writernancylord.com/.