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EDITORS: Canakis, Costas; Kantsa, Venetia & Kostas Yiannakopoulos TITLE: Language and Sexuality (through and) beyond Gender SERIES: Studies in World Language Problems 1 PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing YEAR: 2010
Irene Theodoropoulou, Department of English Literature & Linguistics, Qatar University, Qatar
SUMMARY This edited volume comprises linguistic and anthropological papers on the relationship between language and sexuality with reference to and moving beyond gender, with a heavy focus on evidence from Greek (8 out of 10 chapters use Modern Greek data). In this sense, it is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive collection of English-written essays reporting relevant research in the context of contemporary Greece. This collection stems primarily from a one-day workshop titled 'Women and Genders: Anthropological and Historical Approaches', organized by the editors at the Department of Social Anthropology and History of the University of the Aegean in Lesvos, Greece. The thematic palette includes topics as diverse as the gendered and sexed materialities of heterosexual, homosexual and queer identities, on the one hand, and associations between sexuality and topics including nationalism, the unconscious, voice, and silence, on the other.
In his Introduction, Costas Canakis contextualizes the issues addressed in the volume by delving into significant debates pertaining to language and sexuality research, such as the competing theoretical and methodological orthodoxies between (socio)linguistics and anthropology as well as the desire vs. identity debate. Regarding the former, it is claimed that while (socio)linguistics tends to have a rather tenuous grasp of the dynamic social processes which construct identities, such as gender and social class, anthropology tends to treat language as a social phenomenon, and thus it erases the linguistic aspects of the social, a state of affairs which leads into the lack of providing anthropological evidence in support of the cognitive processes involved in linguistic categorizations. With respect to the desire-identity debate, it is argued that, while both terms can serve as useful analytical tools for descriptive accounts of language and sexuality, they fail in being applied for the purposes of a thorough theorization of this relationship. The reason is not only the apparent discrepancy between scholars' self-identification with homosexual or gay identities and the sexual identity politics pioneered by the gay movement; rather, the theoretical, methodological and rhetorical gap that separates linguistics and social sciences in general from psychoanalysis can be seen as a conundrum in the (socio)linguistic theorization of the notion of 'desire', whose psychoanalytical dimension is a sine qua non for its understanding. Another key piece of context is the explicit assumption that the cognitive dimensions of social practices, such as the (socio)linguistic performance/performativity of sexuality, and the social aspect of cognition should be seen as two sides of the same coin rather than two aspects of language in tension. It is exactly this assumption, which makes the field into an experimental one, namely into a field which is trying to develop its own analytical tools, which in turn will not only pave the way for a vigorous theoretical investigation of issues relevant to language and sexuality research but also create the circumstances for a critical self-appraisal of the field.
The chapters are organized into four parts: the first, 'The Language of Recognition and Categorization', consists of two chapters dealing with language and sexuality terminology and its diffusion of self-identifying and derogatory meanings. The second part, 'Predicates of Desire and Heterosexual Identities', comprises three chapters, which share a social linguistically-minded approach towards the performance of heterosexuality. The third part, titled 'Liminally Positioned Desires: Between Words and Non-Words', contains three chapters whose common thread is a focus on specific practices, whereby sexuality gets constructed, while the use of language is auxiliary, contrary to the second part of the volume, where the role of language is dominant. Finally, the fourth part, 'Desires Firmly beyond the Word', consists of two chapters dealing with voice and silence as imbued with a rich range of complex meanings, which are not articulated via words, as is the case with the contributions found in the first three parts.
In the following section, I offer a brief description of the chapters following the structure of the book.
First part: 'The Language of Recognition and Categorization' In the first chapter, Venetia Kantsa provides us with a historical anthropological account of the meaning diffusion pertaining to the word 'lesvia' in the Greek context. Combining ethnography and research on written archives, including magazines, literary texts and academic volumes dealing with homosexuality, to name just a few sources, she presents compelling evidence, which lends support to the idea that even though the originally Greek (i.e. women from the island of Lesvos in the Aegean sea) noun 'lesvia' and the adjective 'lesviaki' are used to refer to female homosexual groups, same-sex desiring women are hesitant about their use, because these two terms are not associated with a lesbian (political) culture in Greece. This state of affairs differs significantly in other contexts, and most prominently in the U.S., where lesbian culture is not limited to its same-sex orientation but it also has a strong political background. In light of this, it is argued that the transnational word 'lesvia' achieves its often pejorative local meaning(s) through its association with imported discourses on same-sex desiring women's practices and cultures associated with the western tradition.
Along the same lines of a commitment to ethnography, the second chapter by Anna Apostolidou delves into the gendered and national anxieties of insulting language with reference to linguistic depictions of Greek male homosexuality. She focuses on insult and verbal violence as means of subjectivity construction and community building among self-identified gay men. With an interest in the origins, expressions and effects of linguistic abuse, she argues that male (homo)sexual activity, already talked about in Plato's Symposium, is a powerful metaphor in Greece indexing power relations and touching upon larger-scale pursuits, including nationalist aspirations. In this context, Apostolidou claims that there are basically three categories of humiliation and disgrace terms: a) insults with a predominant link to femininity, often achieved via the demeaning use of feminine endings (e.g., 'lugra' [= very mean homosexual man]), b) insults with an accentuated focus on the ridiculed somatic subjectivity, entrance from the rear being a favorite topic (e.g., 'pisoγlendis' [= a man who has fun from the rear]), and c) insults pointing to the (spoilt) moral character of the agents (e.g., 'bines' [= passive-active homosexual man/frigger]). In addition, regarding the most commonly used derogatory terms 'aδerfi' (= gay; lit. sister) and 'pustis' (slang word for gay; lit. fucker) in Modern Greek, the former draws its abusive power from its indexed female component, which in turn reflects the stigmatized feminization of men in the Greek context; the latter, on the other hand, with an etymological connection to the Persian word 'pusht' (= ass) and coupled with synonyms of Turkish origin (e.g., 'bines' <Trk. ibne [= passive homosexual], and 'kolombaras' <Trk. kulambara [= active homosexual of older age] is used to index homosexuality as nationally shameful, given these terms' association with the Ottoman empire and with the latter's thorny role in the discourse on the formation of the Modern Greek nation. Overall, this chapter shows that the linguistic appropriation of insult is both subversive and politically salient in the discourse of gay men.
Second part: 'Predicates of Desire and Heterosexual Identities' The third chapter, by Argiris Archakis and Sofia Lampropoulou, focuses on the sociolinguistic ways the body is narrativized as a stimulus of desire and on how this narrativization contributed to the construction of sexual identities. Through the narrative analysis of two different episodes -- one by a male and one by a female adolescent, both native speakers of Modern Greek -- it is argued that both informants display their heterosexual identities through different ways at two levels: a) at the level of how they narrativize the body, and b) at the level of how they position themselves through this process. The male’s narrative indexes emotional restraint and also makes references to body as a stimulus of desire. In terms of positioning, he constructs himself as a sexually experienced hegemonic male, who can control his girlfriend. On the other hand, through her narrative the female participant constructs herself as desiring and being sexually attracted to her boyfriend in terms of emotional involvement. In this way, she self-discloses and thus constructs a feminine identity, enhanced by her interactants via evaluative/emotional and supportive comments. Finally, the aforementioned aspects of the sexual identities of the two informants resonate with (and reflect) heterosexual gender stereotypes circulating in the Greek society, which translate into male manhood, macho-ness, and toughness, and female vulnerability and reservation, respectively.
Along the same lines of heterosexuality, chapter four by Konstantia Kosentzi fleshes out the ways power and ethnicity are constructed in the Greek TV series Schedon Pote ('Almost Never') -- for many the Greek equivalent of the American series Sex and the City - and in their recontextualizations by female viewers. By adopting a Faircloughian Critical Discourse Analysis framework, she argues that there seems to be a discrepancy in the construals of women's sexuality between the series and her focus groups: on the one hand, the series seems to be framed by a 'permissive' discourse, meaning that sexual activity outside monogamous marriage is socially acceptable, and hence the heroines enjoy their sexuality and objectify men sexually, assertively seeking their own sexual satisfaction. Such an agentive character of the permissive discourse renders the latter empowering. On the other hand, the focus groups tend to be more conservative in terms of their moral judgments vis-à-vis women's sexual activity, inasmuch as they link permissive sexual activity to promiscuity (extremely derogatory relevant terms in Greek, including the words 'ksekola' (= jerk-assed sluts) and 'ksekoliara' (= butt-fucked woman), both of which target women's morals. Similarly, instead of aligning with the aforementioned permissive discourse, the focus groups opt for a theme of 'restraint', in the sense that they should not have sex early or have a lot of partners. Such beliefs are argued to echo dominant stereotypes and sexist ideologies, and thus result in women's powerlessness, as women are victimized and deprived of sexual pleasure or agency. Last but not least, permissiveness found in the TV series is dismissed by the focus groups on grounds of its incompatibility with the 'expected' Greek women’s behavior; the latter translates into not being easy or sexually liberated, contrary to other non-Greek ethnicities, where demanding a serious relationship after engaging in sexual activity is not compulsory.
Chapter five, by Alexandra Polyzou, analyzes masculinity constructs in three Greek men's lifestyle magazines. With a focus on Status, Playboy and Nitro, she examines cognitive models and beliefs on gender and sexuality as elements of social cognition, as well as how and why relevant ideologies figure in texts providing advice as assertions, advice/commands, presuppositions and presupposed assumptions. Her findings suggest a prevailing presupposed hegemonic assumption of heterosexuality underlying the analyzed texts, which however is dealt with differently in the three magazines in relation to non-hegemonic constructs of masculinity. More specifically, the laddish and 'rough' Playboy presupposes a stereotypical crude and rampant masculine sexuality, while the more 'cultured' and less chatty Status is trying to keep a balance between promoting a consumerist lifestyle, usually associated with the New Man construct, which has been criticized for not being masculine enough, and retaining the readers' masculinity by providing assertions of heterosexuality. Finally, the more reflexive and ironic Nitro breaks the general taboo of homosexuality in men's magazines, but only to exorcize it through humor and exaggeration. Overall, notwithstanding these differences in the magazines, the chapter concludes by suggesting that heterosexuality is linked to attraction, desire and sex, while homosexuality is desexualized and constructed as a set of lifestyle choices, therefore it is associated with consumerism and reflexivity, traits stereotypically associated with femininity.
Third part: 'Liminally Positioned Desires: Between Words and Non-Words' Chapter six, by Costas Canakis, delves into the ways male homo-subjectivities are eroticized in online personal ads (so-called 'profiles'). Focusing on data from the website www.gay.gr, Canakis shows how along with sexual desires, user profiles express aspects of their 'subjectivity', a term used in this chapter rather than 'identity', because it is seen as a more encompassing and more dynamic sign. Through a linguistic analysis of the indexical relationship among gender and sexuality, it is shown that the men who pursue same sex relations and whose data are analyzed tend to index who they are through talking about their desires. In addition, rather than eroticizing body types and sexual acts alone, in their confessions about what they look for in others, they eroticize subjectivities, namely characters that hinge on bodily or practice-related materialities. In light of this, this chapter argues for the (challenging) analytical need for dissociating the study of sexuality from sexual identity and the relevant identity politics.
Chapter seven, by Kostas Yannakopoulos, raises two theoretical issues: the use of appropriate (psychoanalytical) terminology and that of a suitable method used to conduct ethnographic research on the conceptualizations of the unconscious of power relations involved in the formation of erotic desires and subjectivities. Taking a psychoanalytical anthropological and a poststructuralist queer/feminist stance vis-à-vis the formation of homoerotic desires, he shows how fieldwork in which the ethnographer participates directly can sometimes prevent researchers from understanding those male sexual desires which are not consciously identified by the actors as homoerotic. This 'sexuality without a name' (Valentine 2008) is analyzed by means of the Greek example of 'poniroi', a group of men with manly appearance who 'understand', i.e. intuit, but 'do not know', i.e. lack conscious knowledge of, the erotic character of a communication in a meeting between two men. It is argued that contrary to psychoanalytic conceptualizations of desires as 'latent', the latent situation and the cultural devices of the unconscious of the 'poniroi' essentially postulate the existence of the particular desire both culturally and historically, constituting, at the same time, both a strategy of power and one of resistance.
Chapter eight, by Liopi Abatzi, examines the language of heterosexual desire in hostess bars. With a focus on the monetary-sexual practice of 'consomation', namely the practice of male clients seeking erotic satisfaction through buying women employees (hostesses) drinks, it is argued that hostess bars can serve as arenas for the 'situational instability' (Butler 1991) of the heteronormative model usually expected; what this means is that some hostesses can develop an aggressive-like, masculine sexuality, threatening to men, while some men can exhibit docile or passive behavior vis-à-vis women. Such instability is reflected in words like 'trochanas' (= porridge) or 'keftes me podia' (= meatball with legs), used to refer to man-sucker, the man-victim, subjugated to his nature. Similarly, the use of heavy swearing expressions on behalf of women, including 'stin archodomunara' tis (= its Excellency their cunt) in the context of the so-called 'kavlanda' (= speech act related to horniness), an essential part of small talk in the bar, points towards this instability.
Fourth part: 'Desires Firmly beyond the Word' Chapter nine, by Panayotis Panopoulos, focuses on the gender of voice, namely how voice can be theorized as a trope of presence and as a gendered and sexual symbol, metaphor and performance. Drawing on anthropological and musicological studies of voice, the chapter argues for viewing voice as an object of desire, as a field for the redefinition of gender and sexuality and, in a nutshell, as a dynamic framework for the creation, performance, and negotiation of sociocultural boundaries. More specifically, the understanding of the gendered structural polarity between voice and language is achievable through the sound perspectives of the 'sapphonic' voice, ritual lament, 'arabesk' performances, the hymns of Hildegard von Bingen and the vocal performances of the songs of Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas. The polyphony of the aforementioned sources pledges for not only the meaningful and politically dynamic role of voice as gendered performance but also for the variety of sexualities attached to voice -- either emerging or latent.
Finally, chapter ten, by Athena Athanasiou, investigates how the disquieting silence of women's mourning stretches the boundaries of the linguistic by actually making political and sexual performative statements. Using as her focus group the Serbian branch of the transnational feminist and antimilitarist movement Women in Black (Žene u Crnom), the author argues that silence is in fact an event in language, rather that the lack thereof or a state that entails quietness, stillness or peace. More specifically, the speech event she analyzes is the silent mourning of the aforementioned Serbian activist group, for which she concludes that paves the way for the possibility to bear witness to unwitnessable life and to mourn unmournable death by means of contesting the ethnocentric and phallogocentric violence that the mother tongue carries in itself. In light of these, mournful silence essentially challenges conventional binaries, including the ones between the affective and the political, the political and the performative, speech and silence, and the one between body and language.
EVALUATION Many of the chapters prove particularly revealing in terms of their analyses and certainly lending solid support to the claim made in the introduction that research on language and sexuality has managed to claim visibility for a field that goes against both social and academic 'respectability' (p. 7). This is the case not only because they report on original research in underground contexts (such as those on 'poniroi' and on 'hostess bars'), but also because they scrutinize the detailed and not always apparent indexical meanings of several taboo words and expressions (like chapters one, two, five and six), whose analysis might be considered provocative -- if not shocking -- by conservative readers. It is exactly such analyses, which shed light on the volume’s 'sexuality beyond gender' aspect. In addition, of particular merit are the last two chapters, which suggest the incorporation of interdisciplinary perspectives (including, among others, musicological, psychoanalytic, and sociological ones) in understanding the relationship among language, gender, and sexuality; such an expansion can definitely result in the formation of fresh, interesting and multidimensional research questions in language and sexuality research. Finally, the chapters which analyze heterosexuality succeed analytically in reflecting what has been observed about it in the real world: namely, that heterosexuality occupies the center stage in real life (p. 8).
On the other hand, the absence of cross-referencing over the different chapters in the book (the introduction is a notable exception) makes it at times difficult for the reader to make connections between the chapters that have been clustered together as parts of the book. This becomes evident especially in part three. In addition, resonating with the binary presence-absence which underlies the whole volume, one topic that I would expect to see delved into in a volume on the relationship between language and sexuality is a-sexuality and the ways language is (not) employed in its construction, both as a voiced realization and as an unvoiced, i.e. silent, meaning indexed in communication. As I have noticed in one of the editors' academic web-pages, such a topic is not a fruitful focus in the theorization of the relationship between language and sexuality; in that case, the reasons for this could have been included either as a separate chapter or as part of the volume’s context. In this way, that is to say by juxtaposing issues of sexuality and a-sexuality and how they relate to language, the 'experimental' character (pp. 8-9) of the field would be enhanced, in the sense that the theoretical tools that need to be either refined or developed from scratch would be tested on both 'control' groups or contexts (the ones associated with sexuality, given that sexuality is considered to be the norm) and 'experimental' groups or contexts (the ones associated with a-sexuality), a state of affairs which would secure 'validity' of the theoretical tools in question.
Nonetheless, with its diverse and deep analysis of interesting aspects of the relationship between language and sexuality, the volume can be hailed as a landmark in the field’s development. It will definitely appeal to scholars working not only in (socio)linguistics and (social) anthropology of gender and sexuality but also to people interested in other fields, such as political science and/or Modern Greek studies.
REFERENCES Butler, Judith (1991). Imitation and gender insubordination. In D. Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out. Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York/London: Routledge, 13-31.
Valentine David (2008). Sexuality without a name: Mapping unnameable desire into studies of language and sexuality. Paper presented at the conference 'Language and Sexuality (Through and Beyond Gender). Mytilene, 7 June, Department of Social Anthropology and History, University of Aegean.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Irene Theodoropoulou is an Assistant Professor of sociolinguistics and
discourse analysis at Qatar University. Her research interests include
Modern Greek and Gulf Arabic sociolinguistics and discourse analysis with a
focus on speech styles, registers, genres, social identity construction
(primarily social class and gender) and globalization.