Abstract: This paper proposes to explore how the notion of beauty is qualified en face transgender identity and experience. In her lecture titled On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry associates the experience of beauty with the desire for justice. So far as beauty is experienced in terms of ideality, however, the asymmetrical non-ideal sexualities continue to be excluded from the experience of beauty, and thereby, the realm of justice. The paper explores how the intersubjective third space functions as a space where such lateral disregard for the other is overcome by the act of re-garder (in French, both, viewing and protecting). This leads to the recognition of beauty in the other followed by the desire to protect it, and brings justice to the group.
Keywords: (trans)gender, sexuality, beauty, justice, post-structuralism, intersubjective third space, recognition of beauty, space of interaction, gender identities
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – (Keats 282)
This paper proposes to explore how the notion of beauty is qualified en face transgender identity and experience. It argues that the existence of an intersubjective third space is conductive of a ‘re-vision’, revising and expanding of the perception of beauty in sexuality, literally by the act of ‘re-viewing’. This re-vision serves as the corridor leading from the recognition of beauty in this marginalized group, to the desire to protect it by bringing about justice for it.
In her lectures titled On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry analyses ‘symmetry’ as the core characteristic of beauty; one that it shares with justice (65). However, the essential attribute that gives rise to symmetry, and which forms the obvious node for connecting the realms of beauty and justice is ‘equality’. This is also attested to by Scarry when she argues that when Augustine is thinking about musical rhythm, the conviction underlying his mind is “that equality is the heart of beauty” (Scarry 67). The question that arises, then, is why Scarry chooses to employ the concept of ‘symmetry’ rather than ‘equality’ to propel her comparison of beauty and justice. One answer would be that the concept of ‘symmetry’ captures a specific manifestation of equality in the spatial dimension. However, the use of a different term on these grounds is unnecessary, as the specification could be easily retained by making a differentiation between ‘beauty’ as ‘equality in the spatial-visual domain’ and justice as ‘equality in the moral and social domain’. Matthew Graham Scarsbrook argues that confusion must always be avoided if we wish to think clearly and efficiently on a subject and “[o]ne effective way to prevent confusion is to use the fewest terms possible when discussing concepts, that is, we shouldn’t use entirely different terms to express closely related concepts when we can simply add a small amount of specification to a single one” (139). The justification for using a term other than ‘equality’, therefore, is offered by the secondary conceptual association of ‘ideality’ enshrined in the word ‘symmetry’. ‘Ideality’ also strengthens the conceptual ties of beauty with justice. George Hagman attests to this connection when he defines beauty as “an aspect of idealisation in which (an) object(s), sound(s), or concept(s) is (or are) believed to possess qualities of formal perfection” (7). He adds by viewing idealisation as “forming the basis of self-esteem, love, and moral judgement” (4; emphasis added). Indeed, it does not seem to be a mere co-incidence that Freud maps the human desire for perfection and ideals in the realm of the superego, where the desire for beauty and justice co-exist. This notion of ‘ideality’ emerges as a crucial factor in realigning the relationship of the beholder of beauty with the experience of beauty when the object in question is the phenomenon of transgenderism.
I attempt to delineate how the psychological bases and biases of the idea of beauty and the parameters of the experience of beauty come to the fore in the domain of sexuality, specifically with respect to the phenomenon of transgenderism. According to one of the most recent definitions provided by Namaste (2000), “ [a] variety of different identities are included within the ‘transgender’ label: cross dressers, or individuals who wear clothes associated with the ‘opposite’ sex, often for erotic gratification; drag queens, or men who usually live and identify as gay men but who perform as female impersonators in gay male bars and leisure spaces; and transsexuals, or individuals who take hormones and who may undergo surgery to align their biological sexes with their genders (1).” All of these gender identities fall outside the ambit of the heterosexual framework and within the realm of a taboo – sexual, (and thereby translating into) social and moral. How does this sexual taboo arise? The answer lies in the notion of ‘ideality’ that structures the social construction of gender.
While sex is a biological concept, gender is achieved in social interaction with others, and to achieve accountability as a social actor, one must enact gender in ways that are socially recognisable and decodable (West and Fenstermaker 1995). Two aspects of the concept of gender become clearer here: one, that it is based on relationality, and its corollary, two, that it is governed by a social contract. (Relationality and contract are two features that also underlie the concepts of beauty and justice – a phenomenon that also underlies the experience of beauty (emerging out of the interaction between an object and its beholder) as well as social arrangements wherein the concept of justice emerges). These two features bring into relief the ek-static nature of the self – that is, defined by that which lies outside of itself. This ‘outside’ comprises of other individuals as well as social arrangements. Therefore, formation of the social self requires gaining intelligibility in two parts – first, interdependence between and interaction with other individuals (relationality), and second, conformity/ approximation to norms that constitute the social contract, in other words, the ‘code’ that in the first place allows us to ‘decode’ the gender in ‘socially recognisable’ ways.
Gayle Rubin has established how the social contract of gender requires institution of a gender binary comprising of the heterosexual male and female, in order to uphold the mechanism of gift-exchange and incest taboo using which social relations and movement of capital in the society is regulated (179). It is this social contract that turns a heterosexual framework into a heteronormative one. The question then arises as to what is the mechanism whereby a particular sexual relationality places itself at the centre around which sexuality in the society is organised, pushing alternative sexualities to the periphery.
An answer emerges in the psychological basis of social formations. Sigmund Freud places the human desire towards perfection in the psychological realm of the Superego. Plato’s mimetic theories trace a similar association between the ideational and material realms, so that a circle drawn in the physical realm attempts to approximate to an idea of the ideal or perfect circle that exists in the Realm of Eternal Forms. A similar ideal exists with respect to sexuality, what is termed as the ‘phantasmatic plenitude’ of heterosexuality. According to this ideal, the union of the male and female entities is considered perfect. And thereby, such a union is considered acceptable, therefore, beautiful. This is because, as George Hagman suggests, “[b]eauty is an invariant characteristic of anything that is experienced as ideal” (6).
Scarry observes that the experience of beauty inspires the act of duplication, of “terrestrial plenitude and distribution” (5). The heterosexual ideal also engages in the act of duplication and making copies of itself. However, this duplication is inspired less by the motive of promoting beauty in the sexual landscape, and more by the motive of preserving its position of power, as argued by Judith Butler. She calls this act of reduplication as ‘compulsive’ and ‘frantic’ (313). Through the constant reduplication, this ‘ideal’ form of sexuality and the related gender roles it generates, establishes itself as the norm. This normative behaviour then comes to be deemed as normal. This reduplication further continues so that slippage into alternative sexualities/ gender variant roles may not occur and become normalised. This is because a norm is perpetually guided by a double movement – it possesses the power to command its duplication or approximation to it for an entity to be called ‘normal’ or even socially intelligible, but also needs to ensure this duplication to be carried out consistently to keep itself established as the norm. With respect to the heteronormative framework, the norm acts as a form of social power that produces a field of intelligible (those recognised/ identified by the norm) gendered subjects, and an apparatus by which the gender binary is instituted. A norm that appears independent of the practices that it governs, its ideality is the reinstituted effect of those very practices (Butler 48). In this way, ‘ideality’, ‘normativity’, normalcy’ reinforce each other, and govern the idea of beauty in the realm of sexuality. A secondary effect of the functioning of heteronormativity is the establishment of a ‘perception’ that biological sex and social gender performance must be perfectly aligned. Thereby, the non-heterosexual population is deemed ‘not beautiful’ owing to the asymmetry between the biological sex and gender. In this way, the ideal of heterosexuality engages in a constant reduplication, thereby projecting itself as the recurring instance, and thereby the norm.
Conversely and ironically, the non-heterosexual is not the ideal, thereby not beautiful, thereby not duplicated, thereby also not normal owing to ‘scarcity’ of instances. Thereby, we can observe the nefarious effects of beauty, here. While Scarry argues that beauty enters into a life-granting pact with its beholder, we observe that it wields a destructive effect on other entities here. Thereby, in this instance, ‘beauty’ seems to uphold the meaning of symmetry as sameness and accords life and protection to that manifestation of sexuality displaying similitude with the ideal, the norm. Here symmetry as sameness dominates over the notion of symmetry as equality. The latter notion, symmetry as equality, would lead one to accord life and protection to all forms of sexuality and gender behaviour. An impasse seems to have been reached, where, instead of recognition of beauty leading one to the impulse to justice, it is the perceived absence of beauty that leads to denial of justice to the gender variant population, which includes a denial of the right to social recognition. In this particular case, then, it seems that legal acceptance through amendment in the law – the direct material manifestation instantiating the abstract concept of justice – is what will lead to gradual social acceptance of the transgender population.
However, Scarry’s notion of lateral disregard helps create a difference between primary or superficial experience of beauty, and the secondary deeper realisation of beauty in all forms inspired by the primary brush with beauty itself. Just as the urge to protect and perpetuate beauty arises out of the desire for it, deep-rooted justice can only be bought about when the desire for it is felt first. This desire has the experience of beauty as its point of departure. Just as the experience of beauty creates a will to observe the beauty in the hitherto unnoticed things, the experience of beauty in the ideal must lead one to look for it in the non-ideal as well. But how could this be brought about? Just as the self is defined by the other, that which lies outside it; so is the ideal defined by the non-ideal, and the norm by the non-normative. The urge to make our world ‘fair’, in terms of, both beautiful and just, one must step out of one’s self/ position at the centre to reach out to the other.
Scarry attaches great importance to the availability of beauty in a physical space which allows one to materially perceive its ‘fairness’. This palpable experience of the eternal and immortal in beauty plays a crucial role in triggering the impulse to creation – that is, to find and protect the immortality found in beauty, encased in other entities as well, such as justice. However, within the realm of sexuality and gender, the heteronormative framework guards its position as the power centre, as the ‘ideal’, by preventing attention towards that which lies outside it. Therefore, the movement of regard from the ‘ideal’ to the ‘non-ideal’ does not occur as readily in the physical space perceived by a beholder whose psycho-social space is organised by heteronormativity.
The transgender pose an alternative spatial ‘ideal’ in this respect, of a person who inhabits the liminal spaces between well-defined gender identities of male and female, who undergo and embody the process of transition during the process of gender assumption. This process is painful but ultimately rewarding. Their physical-psychological-social landscape and journey serves as a useful metaphor for the intersubjective third space which one inhabits as one’s lateral disregard gives way to expanded recognition of beauty. This expansion of horizons arrived at by consciousness of and cognizance of the other is what marks the process of education. As Scarry remarks ‘beauty is a starting place for education’ (22).
I shall now attempt to explore this process of education and the nature and role of the intersubjective space therein, by employing the movie 68 Pages (2007) by Sridhar Rangayan as the text anchoring the theoretical inquiry.
Within the social realm, relationality may only be formed between intelligible subjects. The standards of intelligibility are set by the normative framework that governs the parameters of commonality. And it is not just that there are laws that govern our intelligibility, but ways of knowing, modes of truth, that forcibly define intelligibility (Butler 57). Thereby, the prospect of embracing that which is not recognised by the norm is feared as it is considered against ‘truth’, or in the case of gender, ‘natural’. The norm, therefore, admits only one possibility, that of following it or not. This is not to presume an autonomous subject. Therefore, there are not simply two subjects that mutually recognise each other, but a normative framework that either allows or denies it. Thereby, the third space is the determining factor here. Space is the most crucial concept here as relationality can only be formed in a certain space.
The idea of a space of interaction is at the centre of the movie 68 Pages. It is based on the true incidents recorded in the diary of a counsellor working at an MSM centre and her experiences with her counselees suffering from HIV/AIDS and/or facing problems owing to their non-normative gender identities. However, the counsellor is portrayed to be a female heterosexual and therefore the space of interaction is structured by the normative – non-normative forming the two nodes with absence of mutual intelligibility. It is absent because the non-normative entity in the space is what lacks recognition as the space is implicitly conditioned by the normative framework. With reference to the functioning of the norm discussed earlier, the non- normative is therefore present but invisible in the space at this point. Therefore, the focus of analysis is “the process of creating thirdness – that is, in how we build relational systems and how we develop the intersubjective capacities for such co-creation” (Benjamin 2004). Paradoxically, it is only the norm that is capable of according recognition to the unintelligible as the norm pre-exists the subject.
When the primary interaction between the normative and the non-normative takes place, the presence of the norm governing ideas of normalcy is evident. When Mansi, the counsellor interacts with a transgendered individual, the norms of communication work in a different fashion to reveal the limits of the heteronormative framework. The interaction also reveals the insidious hold of normative sexuality on the mental horizons of a person like a counsellor, who is professionally inclined to empathise with and recognise the ‘non- normative’. Mansi is bent on discovering strains of abnormality or distress in the ‘non-normative’ individual, while the latter continues to affirm the opposite. The counselling session, therefore is a space of interaction that is marked by complementarity. In the complementary structure, dependency becomes coercive; and indeed, coercive dependence that draws each into the orbit of the other’s escalating reactivity is a salient characteristic of the impasse (Mendelsohn, unpublished) (Benjamin 2004). The only relation left in such a situation is the doer/done-to relation. The counselee speaks and the counselor responds immediately. This process can be viewed as a parallel of the experience of something beautiful, which invites an immediate reaction of the capturing of our attention, taking it away from all other entities in our ambit. It is a moment of complementarity where one is only aware of the presence of oneself and the beautiful object. However, immediacy of the reactions, gives way to a deeper reflection on the evidence of beauty hitherto unnoticed in one’s field of perception and an expanded and extensive experience of beauty. The passage of time between the moment of experiencing beauty and gradual expansion of one’s perception is crucial. I would term this the moment of deferral – the span of time where immediate judgement of the beauty of an entity (“This is the most and only beautiful object”) is deferred leading to the realisation of beauty in other entities (“This is also beautiful”). This moment of deferral is the third space – where one surrenders one’s senses to the search for potential beauty in the world – where the experience of beauty becomes an inclusive rather than an exclusive phenomenon, admitting more and more entities in its fold. Such ‘surrender’, according to Benjamin, is the precondition for intersubjectivity to emerge, as the third space constitutive of intersubjectivity “is that to which we surrender, and thirdness is the intersubjective mental space that facilitates or results from surrender” (Benjamin 2004). Further, this definition makes the crucial acknowledgement that the third space is not a static arena created tentatively by the two subjects involved in the mental/physical interaction as an extension of their psyche allowing free play to their thoughts and therefore remaining under the subjects’ control. Rather it is a dynamic space that takes on a life of its own and reciprocally influences the subjects transforming from an entity into a quality, from the third space to thirdness.
This third space – where the moment of deferral and tentative suspension of judgement and normative framework occurs – is dramatised in the form of the diary of the counsellor. In the diary, the experience with the counselees, their thoughts, emotions, ideas, arguments and opinions and views of the counsellor Mansi get written, evaluated, reflected upon and weighed upon by the parameters conditioned by the socio-cultural norms. The temporal delay in judgement before the reiteration of the non-normative ideas, thoughts and feelings allows for a greater understanding and critical reflection, in a way that, in the process, we observe the parameters undergoing a change. Such a delay or deferral is what is also crucial for justice to prevail. “Does justice demand that I decide? Or does justice demand that I wait to decide, that I practice a certain deferral in the face of a situation in which too many have rushed to judgment?” (Butler 69).
The process of formation of the thirdness can be explicitly observed in the story of Umrao – a transgender, caught in the struggle of coming to terms with her gender identity, and survival in an underprivileged economic background. She is denied recognition in the very space of the house where her heterosexual brother is in the practice of inflicting her with abuses and even subjecting her to violence as she refuses to conform to societal expectations and her gender identity can lead to the brother being ostracised in the society in turn. The conditions of existence in the space is dramatised in the words “Mere ghar mein rehna hai to mere hisab se rehna hoga” meaning “If you want to live in my house, you will have to live by my rules.” The space in which Umrao co-habits with her brother is animated by complementarity – the dyad of doer/ done-to, victimiser/ victim, one-against-one, marked by the conjunction ‘either-or’. Therefore, gender variance is not allowed recognition, as recognition of the Other may lead to obliteration of the Self. In the space of the MSM centre, Umrao gains recognition as gender variance is the norm there. However, in the counsellor’s diary the creation of the third space takes place as the counsellor attempts to rationalise Umrao’s identity through writing. The conditioning presence of the normative framework can be seen at work as the counsellor writes “What would be a more appropriate… to call him Umesh or Umrao? What do I ask? How is HE how is SHE?” These words mark the passage of time and reflection at work. Here, the intersubjective third space gradually gets transformed by recognition of the other. The next step of the process is sealed when the title given to the section of the diary is “Umrao.” Thereby, the first step in the recognition of gender identity has been taken. In the clinical situation, Pizer analysed transference not in terms of static, projective contents, but as an intersubjective process: “No, you can’t make this of me, but you can make that of me.” Accordingly, in the next shot we see an excerpt of Umrao expressing her preferred identity to the counsellor: “If you call me Umrao and treat me as a girl, I feel very tender within, just like a woman.” Finally, we see the counsellor faced with a question in response to Umrao’s exclamation : “Everyone needs love, don’t they?. Mansi asks “Does Umrao too have a right to love?” and adds “Such a simple question, but from Umrao’s viewpoint, it sounds so difficult!” It is here that we see the thirdness having been successfully constructed as “This ability to maintain internal awareness, to sustain the tension of difference between my needs and yours while still being attuned to you, forms the basis of what I call the moral third or the third in the one” (Benjamin 2004). Thereby, the transformative effect on perception of beauty brought about by the moment of deferral effected in the intersubjective third space becomes evident. Thereby, from an entity it has turned into a quality, a psychic character trait – that creates greater understanding and wider acceptance. From the object world, it enters the subject world. This does not imply that the third space has some palpable reality as an object outside the two subjects. Rather, it signifies a departure from the object relations theory where “One person is subject, the other object” (Benjamin 2004). The recognition that the object of our feelings, needs, actions, and thoughts is actually another subject, an equivalent center of being (Benjamin 1988) constitutes a transformation of the psychic experience bound by a dyadic structure. It is an opportunity to open up the psyche through surrender to a different possibility of co-existence, rather than struggle between the Self and the Other; of recognition without destruction as proposed by Benjamin. Therefore, the counsellor here is not simply an object of or a cathartic outlet of the counselees’ subjectivity but participates in the dynamic exchange herself – a fact demonstrated explicitly when Mansi identifies a section for her own self in the diary, that is seen as the personification of the third space. In this space the two subjectivities dynamically interact in a manner that transforms their own subjectivity. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the space not only anchors the interaction allowing the two subjects to influence each other, but the intersubjective space too gets influenced and transformed in turn.
In this dynamic third space, the normative framework which delimits one’s association of or identification of beauty with the ‘ideal’ undergoes a transformation. The process of decentering that follows one’s experience of beauty occurs. As a result, the ‘ideal’ at the centre is not dislodged, and replaced by another entity, but it is dismantled. It is no more a ‘full’ sign, being constantly presented with phenomena that it lacks a definition of. As normative and non-normative instances of beauty come together, the norm undergoes expansion, leading to expansion of and recognition of beauty in hitherto ignored or screened gender identities. This is because the attribute of beauty is deferred from the phenomenon of gender to the phenomenon of humanness. When Mansi poses a rhetoric question in her diary, about Umrao not deserving love, the transition is clear. It is realised that what is eternal and immortal is not the heterosexual framework and the sex-gender determinism it propounds, but the fact of existence as a human. That which is ‘true’ and ‘eternal’ is not the ‘ideal’ but the ‘real’, the ‘truth’. Therefore, the need to protect this ‘immortality of truth’ creates awareness about injustice to life, to different human existence; realisation dawns that justice and protection were hitherto denied to this different human existence which was considered to be ugly. Beauty is now seen in the life-granting phenomenon of justice and equality to all living forms, and not in ‘similitude’ with the ideal.
In the primary analysis, the seamless reduplication of heterosexuality, owing to its ‘ideality’ seems to hold the social fabric together, making the tapestry beautiful to look at. However such a fabric is only oppressively homogenous. Further, as the experience of its beauty expands one’s perception, it becomes evident how maintenance of this homogeneity requires violent pushing of the plural threads to the seams or simply ripping them apart. The dyadic framework of complementarity ensures that the non-normative be deemed unintelligible or abnormal by the normative framework. However, built in the concept of relationality is the existence of the other, and built in the concept of the norm is the presence of the ‘non-normative’. As one overcomes the phenomenon of lateral disregard, attention shifts to the presence of this ‘other’. The violence comes to the fore and this error in beauty propels the need to protect, to accord justice, and therefore to capture the truth. As Reimann observes with respect to Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood, ‘there is beauty and power in the unknown. Within the tattooed body of Nikka the black circus man, Barnes gives readers a message to “Garde tout”, meaning look at everything, and see the beauty in so-called barbarity, and, consequently, to see the beauty in ‘the unknown, the oppressed, and the different’ (5).
It is interesting to note how the verb ‘garder’ in the French language means both ‘to view’ and ‘to protect’. Thereby, weaving the pluralities in the social fabric, requires first viewing them, learning to appreciate them, and allowing beauty to educate us to look at the other at the seams and allow all threads to be equally woven to make a truly fair (beautiful and just) social fabric.
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