Friday, November 4, 2016

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Close Reading

Midnight is a Southern Gothic novel about real people in Savannah, Georgia involved in a murder trial in the 1980's. John Berendt spent some time in the city, fell in love with it, and wrote about the colorful characters he met there. The book was hugely successful, and has come to define the town where it is known as "The Book" and social rankings are determined by how well you know people who were mentioned in it.

There was a movie version, starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey. It's nothing to write home about, except that the very fact that a movie was made shows how big a deal this quasi-non fiction portrait of a sleepy southern town was.

For instance, the most vibrant character is the Lady Chablis, a black drag queen. Not only does her commentary dominate the novel, but she plays herself in the movie. Apologies for any pronoun confusion or antiquated uses of various words in this post. Language has evolved a lot since the 1980's when this was first written. Chablis certainly did not treat her self-identification the way the modern transgender movement would.

In fact, terminology is what is so fascinating here. In the middle of an otherwise bourgeoisie gossip-novel, Chablis stands out like a sore thumb. In particular, the way Chablis talks about herself is super interesting. Roughly:
CHABLIS: Don't you tell them about my T.
JOHN: Your T?
CHABLIS: You know, my thing. My truth.
She mentions her T a lot as describing her transgender state. And like in her vague reply, it's never clear or stable what "T" stands for. Thing, or Truth. It's also implied that it's a reference for testicles (or other teste* word), transvestite (or other trans* word), tootsie roll (a term she uses for her penis), or the way a penis can look like a t. "My T" can stand for all of these, or none of them. It's really interesting to read the book and see the vague, effervescent way this term is used without clearly, concretely referring to one specific word, and presumably she picks so many t-words because of how they tie to "My T" and not the other way around.

It's not even consistent whether "her T" as her truth or thing refers to "I present was a woman but truly I am biologically a man" or "I have male genitalia but the truth of my self is that I am a woman."

And yet, despite the lack of a concrete referent for it, it's never unclear what "my T" stands for. It stands for... whatever the deal with Lady Chablis is, which does not need much more explanation. We get it.

In a post on Saturday Night Live, I explained how the S in David S Pumpkins stands for "Signifier with out signified", the acknowledgement that words exist on their own and are not necessarily tied to anything real in the world. "My T" is the opposite of that, we all understand there is some Thing about Lady Chablis that we can not put properly into words (certainly not polite words that respect her subjective identity.) It's not like thing or truth are really concrete words on their own. There is a signified, but a proper signifier is impossible.

Which of course is why this occurs in the character of the drag queen. In psychoanalysis language is a system of differences, that gives us the ability to define and categorize the world based on somewhat arbitrary distinctions. This is why it is in the symbolic realm, and not the realm of the real... where everything is messy and undefined. And one of the first, most basic differences anyone and any language learns about is the difference between male and female. The sexual difference underlies all our other abilities to define the world.

We could easily just say that Chablis is a drag queen, or AMAB transwoman, or other specific terms but she wriggles out of them. She does not want to be defined, because gender is not simply a social construct, it is the social construct.

Collapsing the contradiction of sexual difference - acknowledging there is no real line between boy and girl, male and female - evokes not only our sexual anxiety, but our anxiety about all the arbitrary distinctions we make about the world. It means that language itself may be impossible (which of course, it is - language relies on defining a lot of fairly undefinable things, like "love" or "life" or "crime" or even "I".)

The radical goal is not to break down "the gender binary" but to break down binary itself. That opens the way a terrifying, and true, world.


  1. Are you going to do a series of these "MITGOGAE Close Reading" posts? I like MITGOGAE a lot, am interested in your thoughts on it, and am disappointed because the title was broad and sweeping ("MITGOGAE Close Reading") but this post is brief and focused on Lady Chablis to the exclusion of all the other characters. I'd like to hear some more of your thoughts about MITGOGAE overall.

    No particular comments on signifier v. signified, cept yes, language is a problem.

    1. Thanks. I've found that putting a political direction in my posts about where they will go ruins the flow of the post itself. So most post titles will sound vague.

      I may write more, but am unsure. The movie is unfortunately not really anything to analyze (except as part of the large ecosystem.) The book is very good, but I don't know that I have very interesting thoughts about most details in it. (Maybe about how it treats conservatism, and of course, Minerva.) I may write a larger review and mention various things short handedly.

      Or whatever inspires me. Most of my posts lately are spur of the moment things inspired by a particular thought. The amount of discussion about transgender issues, and their focus on the proper use of labels, made me think about the sublime mystification of "My T".