Prepositions Sexuality and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles

Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles is the title of this episode of The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast with Heather Rose Jones

Episode 31d

A really geeky philosophical discussion about the semantics of prepositions across different languages, and how we can use that as a gateway to thinking about different cultural models of sexuality and gender. This is the first part of a two-part series that looks at the complex differences in how gender and sexuality has been understood in different times and places, and what that means for the search for identification and connection with historic figures.

In this episode we talk about

  • Thinking of prepositions (and gender/sexuality categories) as bundles of distinct meaning-features that can be combined in different ways in different languages/cultures
  • Picking apart some of the types of meaning-features that are used to build gender and sexuality categories.
  • An example of different ways in which the same bundle of gender/sexuality features might be interpreted based on cultural models and assumptions
  • A transcript of this podcast is available here.

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Listen to this episode here


please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

[Music] this is Heather Rose Jones with The Lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment I had this epiphany a month or two ago when I was trying to work out ways to talk about how the social understanding of sexuality and gender has varied and shifted across time and space I was trying to think of a way of talking about how you can have specific focused concepts but individually have an objective reality in the world concepts like feeling romantic or erotic desire in the presence of a person with certain characteristics or preferring to engage in certain behavioral patterns or enjoying how a certain aesthetic presentation engages with those around you yet at the same time where we always interact with those concepts in bundles bundles that we perceive as having a unified objective reality but the composition of those bundles varies in different cultures or at different times within a culture I wanted to find a way to talk about how the nature of those bundles the choice of the specific features that are included or not included the features that are considered important or irrelevant the features that are considered to be automatically understood or that need to be explained how the nature of what gets bundled together affects how we understand the overall set of ideas and yet we’re open to the understanding that someone else in a different culture might bundle the features together differently and it’s not a matter of right or wrong of true or false but simply a different way of interacting with the world it turned out to be a hard thing to tackle it was hard for me to tackle it internally and it’s been a long journey one big issue is that our experience of gender and sexuality is so subjective and so embedded in our own cultural expectations that it’s hard to shake off the idea that it represents some sort of objective truth as I pondered this question it occurred to me that I had the perfect illustration to introduce the subject the meaning and use of prepositions the very topic I did my PhD research on so bear with me for a while because we will eventually get back to the topic of sexuality and gender if you’ve ever studied a language other than your native tongue chances are you came to the conclusion that prepositions or whatever equivalent set of were or grammar the language used we’re frustratingly arbitrary and made no sense there were just something where you had to memorize all the meanings and when to use which one and the most important thing was never ever to try to learn a one-to-one correspondence of meaning with the prepositions in your first language now at their heart prepositions and I’m going to use that term even though some languages have words that do the same thing that get a different label prepositions are a fairly restricted set of functional words that indicate the relative spatial relationships of two or more entities they can also indicate relationships in time and the spatial census can get applied to more abstract relationships but let’s start with relationships in space think about the English words on over and above to keep things simpler we’ll skip the compounds like on top of or upon these all have in common that we use them to talk about the relative vertical position of one object relative to another but the choice of which one we use tells us things about whether the objects are in contact with each other whether they are vertically aligned or simply at different absolute elevations and in some contexts they provide information about the shape or nature of one object or the other the traditional method linguists use to figure out the map of a words meanings is to see what sort of picture or story people understand when you use them or which combinations simply don’t make sense or only make sense with a really bizarre backstory so think about the following examples the cat is on the table this is a very salient example to me as a record this at my dining room table the cat is over the table the cat is above the table what are the images you got from each example for the cat is on the table you probably imagine my cat sitting there in contact with the upper surface of the table top but seems weird to specify it in that much detail how about the cat is over the table if you use the word over the same way I do chances are you have to make up a little story about why you’d even say that like you have an annoying friend who is holding the cat in midair above the surface of the table allowing it to eat something from a plate and you say the cat isn’t allowed on the table and they say it isn’t on the table it’s over the table and you would acknowledge that they were technically correct and then you’d say get the cat away from the dinner table how about the cat is above the table for me this invokes an image of a cat sitting on top of the bookcase or some similar perch where it can look down at the top of the table but it isn’t necessarily vertically aligned with the space occupied by the table so now how about the following examples put the tablecloth on the table put the tablecloth over the table put the tablecloth above the table in this case the word over can clearly mean in contact with the surface of the table top but we also expect it to mean and the cloth is spread out to cover the entire surface this time the annoyingly literal friend might put the tablecloth on the table still in its folded up state and claim to have followed directions but they couldn’t take that position if he used over once more we’d have to make up some sort of highly specific story for the sentence put the tablecloth above the table in order for it to make sense you couldn’t really say put the cat over the table and have it mean arrange the cat in a spread up position in contact with the table top because regardless of the cat’s cooperation it doesn’t have the physical shape to be used with over in the spread out to cover sense how about these examples the chandelier is on the table the chandelier is over the table the chandelier is above the table on clearly means that the chandelier is in contact with the table top perhaps waiting for an electrician to install it but both over and above would make perfect sense for talking about an installed chandelier positioned vertically in alignment with the table but not in contact with it in this case it probably wouldn’t make sense to say either over or above if the chandelier were simply at a higher elevation than the table top but located in the living room how come three little words convey such different types of meaning one part of the answer is that the interacting with our understanding of the nature and uses of the objects and with our image of the default organization in the world but a big part of that range of meanings comes from the differences in the bundle of meaning features that they carry so for example in addition to all sharing the feature located at a higher elevation the preposition on normally carries the feature in contact with well the other two are silent about this feature or in the case of above carries the implication of long contact over carries a feature that implies but does not require some sort of extent in space so it’s used for something that either has significant surface area with respect to the thing under it or if movement is involved something that moves along an extended path that crosses above the other object thus for example we get very different pictures from don’t jump on the table and don’t jump over the table and when we look for other uses for on we find that the feature in contact with is more important than the above this because a picture can be on a wall or a spider can be on the ceiling while neither of them is above the thing that they’re on and that’s just in English now talk about tables cats tablecloths and spiders in some other language and you’ll find that the features get bundled in different ways that mean you can’t just do a search and replace to translate from one language to another for example in German you can use elf to mean on in the sense of the cat is on the table but if you want to talk about the picture on the wall or the spider on the ceiling you use on spelled a in the languages are focusing on different features German elf similarly focuses on contact with a surface but walls and ceilings are a different type of surface than tables they represent an edge or border and that’s considered a feature important enough to be encoded in a preposition in German we could describe the same idea in English but we’d have to use more description rather than it being an automatic part of the spatial relationship those are just a couple of illustrations of a much larger principle one of the things that may prepositions difficult to learn is that we’re accustomed to thinking of the bundle of meanings in each preposition as being a natural set as being features that automatically go together because that’s the way we learned them as a bundled set but there isn’t necessarily anything natural or true or better about certain bundles of spatial relationships being encoded in a single word now I could go on about prepositions for days and days in fact I went on and on about them for about 10 years before I finished my dissertation but that isn’t the point of this podcast the point is that in trying to understand the many different ideas people have about gender and sexuality throughout time and space it could help to break down our understanding of gender and sexuality categories into their component features and to think about why certain features get bundled together and give it a label while other possible bundles don’t get labels or are considered impossible or unnatural why are certain features considered important enough to define gender and sexuality categories while others are considered optional or irrelevant and is there an objective truth or rightness to certain ways of bundling those features or is it more a matter of equally valid cultural practices that serve certain functions within the larger society the lesbian talk show relies on support the support of you our listeners the support of those who like and review our show on their favorite podcast app the support of our patrons on patreon and the support of our sponsors we hope you’ll continue to enjoy and support the lesbian talk show when you start unpacking concepts and categories of gender and sexuality throughout the ages you can start identifying a set of those building blocks those individual features that have been bundled together historically many cultures use a set of building blocks that assume only two genders male and female more rarely a culture may identify more than two genders even more commonly than that a culture may have a model of gender is existing on a sliding scale from male to female whereas allowing for a variety of intermediate states between the two regardless of this variety it’s probably safe to say that all historic and modern cultures include male and female as prominent organizing categories and that the central prototypes for those categories draw strongly on specific building blocks of anatomy procreative role socioeconomic role psychological experience and performative behavior when individual persons vary from these prototypes their society will perceive and categorize them according to how those building blocks are bundled within that particular culture which features are considered more significant and which are considered to be incidental that doesn’t mean that the culture in question doesn’t contain or have a way of discussing persons who don’t fit neatly into its existing categories but it means that the existing categories will affect what features are considered more meaningful and relevant the English language after all is perfectly capable of distinguishing the following a large thin sheet of something is extensive contact with a vertical surface that it is permanently fastened to in an integral fashion or a large thin sheet of something is aligned with and attached to a vertical surface but is not integral to it or a small object is in contact with a vertical surface or a small object is in contact with the upper side of a horizontal surface or a small object is in contact with the lower side of a horizontal surface or a large thin sheet of something is an extensive contact with but not fastened to the upper side of a horizontal surface or a large thin sheet of something is an extensive contact with and permanently affixed to the upper side of a horizontal surface of course we’re able to distinguish all those relationships I just did but if I weren’t trying to make a specific point about those features I’d simply say the wallpaper is on the wall I like those draperies on the wall hang the picture on the wall put the plates on the table there’s a spider on the ceiling but the tablecloth on the table and there’s a lovely birch veneer on the table the word on encompasses all these possibilities and to some extent suggests that the other features of the scenarios are less relevant than that honest in the same way a culture can be perfectly capable of describing a highly specific set of gender and sexuality features but it will consider certain subsets of features to be more relevant than others and will tend to have categories in vocabulary the center around those subsets consider for example that our modern Western categories of gender-based sexual attraction and desire assume that the gender of both the desiring person and the desired person are relevant to defining the category for example the identity category lesbian in its most restricted sense is defined as a person of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the female gender but when we look closer we observe that we have a more general category of persons who desire persons of the same gender as themselves and not a more general category of persons of any gender who desire persons of the female gender so a more concise and accurate definition of the modern category lesbian might be a prison of the female gender whose desire is for persons of the same gender on the basis of pure logic might it not make just as much sense to have a category persons of any gender who desire female prisons perhaps and yet we don’t have a single simple term to describe that or at least not one that’s in common everyday use and that says something about the larger conceptual structure of our society even when a category is assumed to be the case unless we’re told otherwise what we call an unmarked default it tells us something about the conceptual structure we live in the unmarked default for contemporary Western culture is a person of any gender who desires persons of a different gender than their own we can describe this category explicitly but it will also be generally assumed if we don’t mention a category this is what makes it the unmarked default within our culture it’s relevant that the unmarked default isn’t a person of any gender who desires persons of the same gender or a person of any gender who desires persons of the female gender or a person of any gender who desires persons of any gender even though based purely on formal logic these are equally valid defaults each culture will have its own particular unmarked default and it will have a set of variations from that unmarked default that are considered relevant enough to have category structures and labels it will have a much larger set of variations from all those categories that can be described precisely if desired but that don’t match an existing category structure and labeled closely persons falling outside those existing categories will tend to be read as belonging to an existing category depending on which of the bundled category features are considered to be most important or which features are considered to be irrelevant they may fit awkwardly into the category they may contradict some of the features but once they’ve been classified they will tend to be assigned all of the bundled features associated with that category let’s consider another example of a highly specific feature clothing that is arbitrarily assigned to a particular gender of course all gendered clothing concepts are arbitrary we’re all born naked the most cultures will struggle to try to come up with some sort of objective basis for the assignment or more often will act as if there is an objective basis without even working to justify it if we accept for the moment that in any given culture there are garments that are considered to have a specific and unalterable gender assignment then we can look at how those cultures categorize people who appear to be dressing contrary to their assigned gender on a purely logical basis one might consider four possibilities fun clothing choice has no bearing on gender category the act is recognized as contrary to the understanding of who ought to wear the garment but it is not interpreted as saying anything meaningful about the person wearing it to at the opposite end of the scale would be wearing a garment assigned to a specific gender places one in that gender category gender is defined entirely by what clothing one wears number three a third option might be thought of as clothing as a symptom wearing a garment associated with a gender different from the assigned gender is considered evidence that the gender assignment was an error that the desire to wear the clothing of a specific gender is an innate characteristic tied to one’s true gender identity this coexists with an assumption that people who are happy wearing garments associated with their assigned gender do so out of innate preference for the fourth option could be called clothing as appropriation in which gendered clothing stands in for aspects of status or identity associated with the garment gender but where society does not consider that wearing the garment confers any valid association with the gender persons who dress contrary to their assigned gender are therefore in some sense antisocial they are trying to steal the status or identity or doing it for deceptive purposes or because they have antisocial personalities whether you call it sin or rebellion or criminality or mental illness all of these options have existed historically outside of these possibilities would be a hypothetical culture that didn’t assign gender associations to clothing or accessories at all but I don’t know that we’ve ever found such a culture intertwined among these options our culture’s that allow for more gender categories than the binary the options I’ve mentioned here are over simplifications in terms of how specific cultures respond to transgression against garment gendering but Heather you asked what does all of this have to do with interpreting sexual orientations in history I’m working my way there slowly I have a couple more individual features to consider let’s think about the feature of similarity versus difference there is a pervasive theme across cultures regarding the dynamics of interpersonal relationships driven by similarities between the two parties or contrasting differences between them how is one expected to relate to a person with whom you have a great deal in common possibly including gender how was one expected to relate to a person from whom you are significantly different how does similarity and difference interact with sexual or romantic desire what types of similarity and difference are considered relevant to that attraction this feature can be very complex and how its implemented in a cultures categories in vocabulary if emotional connections and physical desire are considered to be separate phenomena then the culture may emphasize similarity for one of them and difference for the other if the culture assumes that the categories male and female necessarily imply difference then it follows that heterosexual erotic desire must be predicated on difference and if heterosexual desire is the only licit type of sexual desire that has implications for how relationships based on similarity are viewed if a culture assumes that certain types of relationships can only derive from similarity of the participants that will affect how they interpret relationships between persons viewed as having difference or to put it in more concrete terms are men and women considered to be fundamentally different from each other or minor variants of a similar sort of being is sexual desire assumed to derive from contrast or from similarity do opposites attract or do birds of a feather flock together is romantic love interpreted differently depending on whether the participants are considered to be similar or different what types of similarity or difference other than gender will affect those models differences of class of ethnicity of Education of physiology and for the final feature we’re going to consider today and though we’ve by no means exhausted all the relevant ones let’s talk about what gets classified as a sex act and how sex acts are gendered is an activity classified as sex or not based on the anatomical part involved based on the specific combination of anatomical parts is a sex act classified based on the assigned gender of the parts or on their simple spatial configuration or do body part to get gendered based on the activities they participate in how does one’s role in a sex act relate to one’s physiology to what’s perceived social gender to one’s internal gender identity or activities classified as sexual based on sensory response that is is it a sex act if you get turned on regardless of what body parts are involved or not does the presence or absence of sex acts affect the categorization of other aspects of a relationship this would be a natural stopping point in setting up the categories for further discussion but I have a sneaking suspicion that my listeners are still a bit skeptical about how all this relates to gender and sexuality identities so I’ll leave you with a hypothetical example of how cultural categories affect the understanding of gender and sexuality a person is assigned as female at birth based on physiology she grows up apparently comfortable with female identity presentation and performance as an adult she experiences and expresses romantic desire for a woman her culture responds in which of the following ways number one this is considered utterly normal and does not result in her culture assigning her to any special category other than woman number two romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait because desire is understood to be driven by difference with respect to gender she is examined for signs that she has male physiology with a view to recategorize her as a man number three she is assigned to a subcategory of woman defined by romantic desire for the same sex number four romantic desire for a woman is considered to be an inherently masculine trait therefore she is expected to changed presenting and performing as male number five romantic desire is to find is occurring only between man and woman therefore her emotional experience and the expression of it is categorized as something other than romantic but is accepted number 6 the concept of a woman feeling romantic love for a woman is incompatible with the available categories but gender categories are considered immutable therefore she has recategorize dis belonging to neither the category woman nor the category man the answer all of the above at various times and places and sometimes multiple possibilities coexisted while others were not on the cultural radar at all and this only addresses one very particular scenario the path that woman’s life takes it will depend not only on the bundle of experiential features that she brings to it but on the ways in which your culture emphasizes and prioritizes those features in how she is categorized and what authorized options are offered to her more to the point the available cultural categories will affect how she understands and categorizes her own experience this is why the study of gender and sexuality in history must struggle against the idea that specific bundles of experiential features are fixed constants of human existence and it must struggle against the idea that specific cultural category structures have objective truth value whether those categories are the ones we’re studying in this historic past or that the ones were familiar with today recognizing this doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to identify with historic people based on sharing certain features of our experience of gender and sexuality but it means that we need to be aware of assuming that complex structures of experience or categorization have been constant through time and space that because we share certain features with the historic person that either their entire experience or the way they understood and categorize that experience will align with our own if something as simple as describing the relationship of a tablecloth to a table needs to be understood through varied cultural lenses how much more so the relationships of human beings in love with each other having set up a way of looking at these cultural categories in next month’s essay I look at some historic examples of people who fail to fit neatly into their cultures available options and have the process of sorting out the conflicts can tell us about how those options were structured and about how well or badly they fit the person in question in the end I hope to have demonstrated why the simple question of was this historic person a lesbian or not is misleading and far less interesting than the glorious complexity of human experience I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please rate it and subscribe on iTunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on Facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music] you [Music]