“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo
We started off Wednesday’s class with a discussion of society’s fascination with transgender sexuality today and why we thought this fixation exists. I decided to take a broader approach by examining what we see as “human” and why we are sometimes uncomfortable with individuals who don’t conform to our standards of what it means to be human. To begin, I decided to look at society’s historical fascination with creating or recreating life.
By Christian Schussele, 1824-1879
The concept of creating life from living or non-living materials first appeared in the stories of Greek mythology dating back to early history of mankind, i.e. the story of Prometheus, and such stories may be considered the first reports presenting the idea that independent life can be generated without sexual reproduction. The Biblical tale of Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib is a further example of this concept. As humans grew to understand nature more and more, they imagined the artificial generation of living specimens via biological or chemical techniques. These ideas that circulated through society eventually gave rise to literary works such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust completed in 1831 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1818 (interestingly subtitled The Modern Prometheus). One of the central themes in Faust’s struggle to become all-powerful is the deep desire to create life through various artificial processes, namely alchemy, while Shelley’s novel describes a creature made of reassembled body parts that is brought to life.
What is it that makes us uncomfortable about the changing or recreating of what is “natural”? A conversation at the hairdressers about dying one’s hair doesn’t evoke the same reaction as a debate about organ regeneration and the prolonging human life to an indeterminate point. Taking synthesized drugs to relieve oneself of cold systems doesn’t evoke the same reaction as announcing one’s gender reassignment surgery. What is it about such acts that either makes us turn away without batting an eye or makes us uncomfortable? Perhaps it lays in the permanence of the changes. Artificial hair color is only temporary and one can always revert to one’s natural color. Advil relieves suffering and nurses one back to an original healthy state. However, long-lasting or permanent changes to the natural body grab our attention and make us think. Is there any justification in imposing lasting modifications to our bodies? Let us consider two cases: organ regeneration and gender reassignment.
One of the main aspects of organ and tissue regeneration that makes society uneasy is the potential to extend the human lifespan to an indeterminate amount of time. Some would regard this extension of lifespan to be artificial and not human, which forces us to consider what it means to be human in the first place. Through the course of human history spanning across several different cultures, mortality and an innate sense of dignity seem to be defining features of our humanity. Death is as much a part of humanity as life – a fact that is supported by the wide variety of burial rites and funeral services unique to each religion or culture. To extend the average human life expectancy towards an undefined limit through constant regeneration of the cells would not only cause problems with regards to population density, it would redefine humanity; mortality would no longer be a definitive feature of human life. Furthermore, extending the human lifespan towards a hypothetically unlimited amount of time could blur the line between a hubristic quest for immortality and genuinely compassionate healthcare. The natural human life is finite and to extend it towards infinity would be to tamper with a quality reserved for gods. However, if the purpose of organ regeneration technology is seen as relieving the suffering of people and not necessarily granting virtual immortality, the idea becomes a lot more appealing to the general masses.
Can the same “concessions” be made for gender reassignment and other acts associated with transgender sexuality? If gender reassignment surgeries are seen less as cosmetic procedures and more as procedures to relieve the suffering of people, would that make them more acceptable? It still seems to be a large leap for society to make due to a fascination with people’s presentations of gender and sex – both qualities which we associate with humanity. Perhaps what makes transgender sexuality an uncomfortable idea for some is the ambiguity of the individuals who do not conform to society’s view of gender and sexuality as binaries. Such an ambiguity can be seen as monstrous and deviating from the norms and standards of what it means to be human. Like Frankenstein and Faust, trans* people are seen as dabbling with a power that should not be left to human control: the creation or modification of natural life. This offers another interpretation of the typical decadent theme of the union of the sacred and the profane; life the way God intended is sacred and any attempt to change or recreate it is profane. However, the transformations of Raoule and Jacques – or any transgender individuals for that matter – can also be seen as a chipping away of the marble to reveal the natural form of the sculpture already existing within the stone.