Having it both Ways

Adam Phillips

  • Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety by Marjorie Garber
    Routledge, 443 pp, £25.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 415 90072 7

Describing the two sexes as opposite or complementary, rather than useful to each other for certain things but not for others, promotes the misleading idea that we are all in search of completion. Bewitched by the notion of being complete, we become obsessed by notions of sameness and difference, by thoughts of what to include and what to reject in order to keep ourselves whole. But maintaining this icon of ourselves confronts us with a paradoxical question: if we have an identity what are we identical to? It is as though we need to know where we are by never being anywhere else. And one fundamental means of orientation, of self-recognition, is the difference between the sexes, despite the fact that in practice they keep leaking into each other. Once you stop pointing to body parts and start talking, the apparent differences between men and women begin to dissipate. So if we aren’t different from the opposite sex, what are we?

The one thing we never know about people when we meet them is their history, but the one thing we cannot help knowing, or assuming, is their sex. It is not clear, though, as common sense and psychoanalysis tell us, what we think we know, what we imagine the signs are telling us. Marjorie Garber suggests, in this exhilarating book, that with the idea of fixed sexual identity, of being too knowingly male or female – terms, she remarks archly, ‘that overwhelmingly proclaim their own inadequacy’ – we may have got ourselves into something we are always trying to get out of. Indeed, what she calls the ‘pitfalls of gender assignment’ that Vested Interests is so loosely and lucidly about, make one wonder why it is so difficult to imagine a person now not preoccupied by difference, a person for whom the problem of difference – of identity itself, and the war between purity and danger – has disappeared. Vested Interests implies, with a light but well-researched touch, that our most intense erotic attachments are to our categories. That we hold ourselves together by keeping things apart. Garber wants us to wonder what our lives would look like without this project, without our endless concern about the categories of male and female. She wants to find out what we can do without, and what we might do then.

Her last book, the underrated Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers – like Vested Interests, about people of uncertain status, ghosts as liminal creatures that confuse categories – asked why we need to hold on to Shakespeare, why he has such a grip on our imaginations. Vested Interest asks, as an echo, why we have made a fetish of sexual difference, why we have turned it into the indispensable preoccupation that keeps us and gets us going? The implication of both books is that there are some disillusionments we think we cannot bear, some things we are unable to mourn. Mourning is painful not only because it is an acknowledgment of loss, but because it confronts us with the knowledge that we never were the possessors of what we have lost, but rather, the inventors, which is different. Through the figure of the transvestite – the opportunist with no alternatives – Garber shows that our categories are themselves ghosts, or ghost-writers, and not the reassuring commodities which we, and a long philosophical tradition before us, pretend that they are. We don’t own them, nor do they own us: we are simply attached to them. Because of the ‘power of the transvestite to unsettle assumptions, structures and hierarchies’, the transvestite ‘tells the truth about gender’. Anti-essentialists like Garber, of course, cannot help occasionally falling back into the old language but what distinguishes Garber as a critic is that she obviously likes all the things she demystifies and invites us to relinquish. Her truth is not told with sadistic relish: she really wants to have it both ways.

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