Monday, April 14, 2008

"Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter

Fully titled: "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K. N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin," this fantastic short story and Tiptree Award winner is styled in the form of a scientific paper. It is, of course, infinitely more readable than any real scientific paper on such a topic would be. The fundamental topic of the paper is: where do our categories of gender come from? Are they things that the brain creates, or are they objective facts of the universe that our brain learns to recognize? As the authors of the paper point out:

The days are past when questions such as this were argued using reason and introspection; now we solve them by magnetic resonance imaging and DNA sequencing.

We've all heard of studies involving people with intriguing forms of brain damage: blind-sight is an old favorite, which even inspired the title of a recent Hugo-nominee by Peter Watts. In blind-sight, a person who is convinced that he is blind can still point to a light or catch a ball that is suddenly thrown at him. The unconscious brain is still processing visual input, but none of it is getting to the level of conscious awareness.

So now imagine a small population of people who cannot "correctly" process gender. In one Indian family, they do not "correctly" gender new adjectives. This is the sort of study you couldn't do in English, since we don't use gendered forms of verbs or adjectives. It turns out that this family also may not identify the gender of people that they meet - one assistant mentioned that they treated her as if she were male, given the mores of their society. They deduced that the issue was the family members were not identifying the "male" and "female" illustrations used to give a visual clue about what to do with the new word.

Another family was found in America with similar problems: asked to identify the "actress" on the screen, they would write: "The actress is Arnold Schwarzenegger" without correcting the gender form. They had only 50-50 success on identifying genders from pictures of people's faces, and in interviews simply could not associate "female characteristics" with the female pronoun.

The last case involves identical twins. They shared genetic characteristics with the two previous families, but no problems with gender identification. In fact, they were so accurate about it that at a glance they could identify photos as male, female and other, with a total of roughly 22 gender categories. The "others" involved women with XY chromosomes, men who were XXY, various forms of hermaphrodites, etc. As children they had made up their own words for these different categories, but were generally able to "map" them to the usual binary categories.

The conclusion that the study leads to us to imagine is that our brains evolved with a "gender identification" module, but it may not function the same for all people. Likewise, we have a "animal species" ID module. For every-day life, two genders is all we need, but the ability to distinguish between many kinds of animals (wolves, dogs, bears, horses, etc.) could mean the difference between life and death, so we need to be able to see more categories there. What if some people can see a broad spectrum of genders like we can see many kinds of animals? What would that imply about how we've constructed our ideas of binary genders?

This is a completely fascinating story, and its language of presentation almost makes it hard to remember that it is fiction. It is so easy to accept these conclusions when presented in language that we associate with "science" and "authority." It is a much different way of presenting ideas than is common for short stories. It draws attention to the way that gender gets fuzzy out on the borders (as I mentioned in my last post), and suggests that maybe we keep insisting on ignoring these margins simply because of how our brains are structured. It is always interesting to confront the idea that if our brains were different, a lot of what we think about the "objective" world would be radically altered.

The introduction mentions that this is the only short story to win the Tiptree Award, an award dedicated to works that "explore and expand" gender. This is a deserving winner: it packs more exploring and expanding into 15 readable pages than most novels do in 300. Of course, I say readable because I'm used to reading technical papers, and compared to those this is an absolute joy to read. It may not be as readable to folks comparing it to Gene Wolfe. However, if you find the format difficult, just stick with it for all 15 pages. Your efforts will be rewarded with a different way of looking at the world. That's about the highest praise that one can offer to any story.


Anonymous said...

Where can I get a copy of the short story? I haven't been able to track it down on the web.

Steve said...

Try the anthology depicted above, Tiptree Awards Volume Two; or try STARLIGHT 2, ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden (New York: Tor, 1998). Carter's story itself is not online.