I am a Rhiza

I have begun my PhD dissertation and this after having done background research into musical memes, tropes, history of images and imagining the “other”.

But before beginning this thesis I have decided that people are no longer going to call me a woman, or female, or lady, or a girl because these are words that bear with them a history I can unchain myself from.  Perhaps for many years to come people will call me this in their minds.  Perhaps they will still say female.  Perhaps they will still believe that a woman is appropriate to call a person of my sex.  This is something I cannot prevent, and, yet, if I start somewhere, the tiny somewhere of my own mind, if I deny those words power in my own life then perhaps a change can occur.

As part of the background research for my thesis I read (for the first time at 33 years old…) The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.  I have been researching how the way we think about things, the order in which we organize our thoughts around the people and objects of our lives gives shape to those people and objects in both imagination and reality.  There are a lot of powerful words in The Second Sex but I become haunted by two passages in particular because though her book was written in 1949, and fully available in English (albeit via a contested and arguably inadequate translation) by 1953 still these passages ring true for my experience of my “sex” and the perception thereof for me today in 2016.

Women’s actions have never been more than symbolic agitation; they have won only what men have been willing to concede to them; they have taken nothing; they have received.  (De Beauvoir trans. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier 2011: 8)

Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.  “Woman, the relative being,” writes Michelet.  Thus Monsieur Benda delcares… “A man’s body has meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas the woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male.  Man thinks himself without woman.  Woman does not think herself without man.” And she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called “the sex,” meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute.  She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential.  He is the Subject; he is the absolute.  She is the Other.  (Ibid. 5)

I would make a change even to this most excellent translation, but rather, I would make the change to De Beauvoir’s original text, arrogant creature that I am.  Rather than saying “Elle est l’Autre”.  I would have driven home my point further saying, “Elle est SON Autre.” She is HIS Other.  Woman has always been the Other belonging exclusively to the male.  I refer also to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s words in her lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” when she says that the language of marriage is a language of ownership.  I contend that we, the collective we of all who bear this anatomy, this designation, this status that the language itself in referring to us is a language often of ownership.  We are the Other that belongs to the Essential but still does not derive essentiality therefrom.

In doing my first MA thesis on musical tropes built off the musicking traditions of slave songs I came across the works of Jacques Lacan, a theorist in psychoanalysis.  I am well aware that his work is disputed among intellectuals and basic readership alike, and, yet, I cannot discard from my mind the way he organized his description in psychoanalysis of the means by which humanity lives in our societies.  We dwell in three mental/spatial realms, two of which are used chiefly to avoid lasting contact with the third.  The imaginary and the symbolic realms, argued Lacan, were lingual realms, realms in which humans assigned meaning, created significations, and accorded voices to its denizens.  The Real is what you would expect, but it is a terrible place that humans seldom come into contact with unless it’s against their will– being too horrifying to endure for long periods on end without doing lasting damage to the psyche.  (Yet there is a longing as well for The Real which creates much of the tension of our minds and lives.)  The origin, Lacan wrote, of much psychosis and mental illness was living or encountering The Real too frequently.  It rendered life meaningless and poisoned existence or created the need for still stronger mental phantasmagoria to go on living.  This is all fairly deep for a basic blog post, but suffice to say that the idea that as humans we live primarily amongst our words, our ideas and the structures we have built to maintain those historical entities was a theoretical construct with a good deal of merit for me.  It is a framework I still cannot let go of.

I deeply believe that part of the problem that has faced feminists all these long years since the middle 1800’s is that the language itself constructs our otherness, and it is an otherness that is owned by the essential subject.  When I brought this idea up to my Dutch husband he suggested that rather than inventing a new word for all those who identify as my sex I use a word from another language.  He then modestly suggested the Dutch word “vrouw” and I invited him to look up that word’s historical usage (having already done my research).  He wrote back with, and I quote “That’s disgusting.”  In Russian the word woman is akin to “hens” in English it means the weaker form of the male.  In French femmes is almost the same as the word female.  In Italian donna comes from the Latin for the female head of house la domina, but here too she is derived from the male that runs the house: domine.  In Latin the case is still more pronounced, mulier being derived from mollier which is “soft” or “tender” in opposition to the male vir.  I cannot claim to be able to look into languages beyond this with any knowledge of my own, but the languages with which I am cognizant ascribe to woman first, that she is related to the male, second that she belongs to him in wedlock once she is grown.  The order of the world has been chained to the word itself.

“Why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, but we don’t teach boys the same?”  Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie We Should All Be Feminists.

I want no more part of this hierarchy and so I went looking for a word to describe my function, my body, and something I could agree to be called that would posit my otherness as a Subject which could not be subjugated without my consent.  It was not long before the word Rhiza came to mind.

Rhizomes are a form of plant that grow outwards from the root, and new shoots then are part of the old yet differentiated enough that once a system (say of peonies or even irises) has grown too big to be housed comfortably in an area they can be successfully split in dormancy.  In searching for a word, I was thinking about the genetic researches into the human genome.  They don’t go back in time through male lines.  Research in the human genome can only be done through matrilineal mitochondrial DNA research.  Those who share my sex leave forever behind a genetic trace of their mothers, their grandmothers, their mothers from ancient times and it struck me that this is very rhizomatic that we can look from young shoot to young shoot and somewhere find the parent’s stem all the way back.

So dear readers I am not a WO-man and I am not FE-male nor am I a lady (though I might at times be a bitch) and I am not a girl.  I am a rhiza.  Perhaps there are more rhizae, who, like me, will differentiate yourselves from men radically and break forever with the lingual chains that have steeped us in an ancient order of ownership and absolute otherness.  I am essential in myself.  My anatomy does not refer to the male.  I am human and I am rhiza, and my counterpart is the male of the species.  For looking back through all the generations that my sons shall spawn, therein shall they find me at the root, with all the rhizae I descend from.

Works Cited:

Beauvoir, Simone De, Constance Borde, and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage, 2011.

“Symbolic, Real, Imaginary.” Symbolic, Real, Imaginary. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolicrealimaginary.htm.  University of Chicago, Media Studies

TEDxTalks. “We Should All Be Feminists | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TEDxEuston.” YouTube. 2013. Accessed March 30, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on March 30, 2016.

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