A Dream of the Indefinite

Jacek Kochanowski

You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one.

I hope someday you'll join us […].

John Lennon, Imagine

We are the kind of people we want to be, not the kind our society wants to see – this would seem to be the message of the life/art of EVA & ADELE. It intersects with the postulates of queer theory, which discards all normative categories, including those of gender and sexuality, so as to show them to be sources of violence and injustice. The obligation to negate autonomous desires that go beyond what is considered “normal.” The violence that excludes people who can or will not subordinate themselves to unambiguous definitions of gender or sexuality, people living outside of all categories.

Queer theory is often accused of being bloodless, “academic” (in the negative sense of the word), apolitical, speculative, and unconnected with life. It is simultaneously accused of being utopian and anarchistic. It is utopian because it dreams a society which does not force an individual into any kind of stable self-identification, allowing him/her to freely develop the “project of themselves.” Critics say that such a project is impossible, because the majority of people feel the need to have a clear, precise, and stable definition of their own identity. On the other hand, adherents of a vision of a world that is neatly structured and divided into categories to allow its easy governance charge queer theory with anarchy.

We might polemicize with these categories in terms of pure theory. Or we can put forward, for instance, the example of EVA & ADELE’s life/art, their daily revolt against the categories to which our bodies and our actions are subordinated. Their “living art” actions demonstrate that strict and unambiguous definitions are not needed in order to be happy; on the contrary, only going beyond certain categories gives us access to self-fulfillment. The artists also make us aware that uncategorizable individuals are not dangerous, unpredictable, or threatening. Life beyond categories does not mean anarchy. It means freedom. Even more importantly – the life/art of EVA & ADELE demonstrates that this freedom and self-fulfillment are only possible at the scene of our confinement. In everyday life. In our everyday use of the body. A real revolution is not a one-time event or a holiday. It is a reacquisition – piece by piece, gesture by gesture, desire by desire – of one’s body that is immersed in the everyday. My body belongs to me. These are the stakes.

It is said that EVA & ADELE are staging a show in which their bodies and lives – both public and private – have become works of art. Their own works of art, whose essence is in crossing boundaries, and above all, gender boundaries. A transgression show. A staging of contempt for normative cages that saturate the body and obstruct it. EVA & ADELE’s show is scandalous because it undermines something that is meant to be incontestable: the reigning categories of gender and sexuality, which define not only our bodies, but our selves as well. The androgynous, camp, pink and joyful styles that EVA & ADELE wear are a slap in the face to the solemn seriousness with which we approach the “correct” body models. It is unimaginable: overt mockery of something that we are meant to give the highest respect. The transgression of something which – as the world tries adamantly to convince us – is natural and biological, and predetermined once and for all.

The scandal of EVA & ADELE’s non-normative show involves revealing the almost unlimited creative potential in everyone’s life, following one’s own, fluctuating desires, dreams, and needs. We need not lead our lives to fit your conceptions of how “men” and “women” ought to behave, these artists say. We need not adapt to the definitions (of masculinity or femininity) we receive at birth, with no chance to make an appeal. Our bodies belong to us. Our bodies can express our own project. Our only limit is our imagination. Our life is a work of art, a work in progress, a work of the indefinite. This is the scandal of disobedience. A scandal that undermines all the modern principles of rationality, health, and subordination that bind our hapless society.

It is not only EVA & ADELE who perform their show of everyday life. We all do. It is not by accident that our daily life is standardized to such an extent. Our gestures, our desires, our interests, our aesthetic preferences. The body is not a biological creature. The body is socially manufactured, along with the habits and routines that organize its daily functions. To be precise: we produce our own bodies, writing them into scripts that decide what use of our body is healthy, normal, correct, or aesthetic. These scripts are not written by us, they are foisted upon us from early childhood; we cannot recall the moment of their implanting and we believe ourselves to be fulfilling “our nature.” These scripts are absurdly detailed and precise. They define what a woman or a man is to desire.

We all perform in a show. EVA & ADELE are among the few who have plucked up the courage to question the script and to construct their own. This is why they perform a play which might be called their own life-play. We who cannot afford to emulate such a gesture of revolt, perform every day in a play of normalcy. This is not our play, there is nothing in it to call our “own.” It is merely an unwitting copy of standards, materializing them in the body’s daily gestures, reproducing the illusion of subjectivity, autonomy, illusion, “me.” Can a character on stage, who follows the script and the director’s instructions to the letter and makes sure that the audience accepts his/her performance, speak as an “I” in any sense of the word? In a situation where his/her “I” is composed of the chance expectations of others?

We are all performing a show, but only EVA & ADELE are performing the life-show on their own terms. Most of us agree to play it normal, and for this we are often rewarded by the system. But we cannot say that we exist. We are merely “nodal points” of the normative narrative. In other words, we are no more than the norm incarnate. Our bodies do not belong to us – they are merely screens to show other people’s projections of femininity or masculinity, sexuality, race, and so forth. We can only retrieve our existence through retrieving our own body. As in EVA & ADELE’s life/art.

The stakes, however, are greater than our individual freedom, or than gaining an opportunity to be more than just a standard incarnate. The stakes are a chance to disrupt the play of domination, the system of social power based on subordinating individuals’ behavior and their ways of thinking and feeling, to make them turn themselves into captives.

The system of male domination that is responsible for female discrimination is only possible because we obediently play our roles in our daily show of masculinity and femininity. Creatures named “males” at birth feel duty-bound to enact the script that matches the label, reserving for “masculinity” such attributes as aggression, a tendency to dominate, rationality, courage, or rivalry. Apart from, of course, a fondness for watching sports, drinking beer, and reading car magazines. And apart from a tendency to cheat on their spouses, which is allegedly inscribed in the “male” genes. Creatures named “females” at birth feel an obligation to enact the script ascribed to this label, which assigns to “femininity” such attributes as conciliatoriness and a tendency to be submissive, emotional, weak or reticent. Apart from, of course, a fondness for gossip, dressing up, and reading fashion magazines. And apart from a proclivity for being faithful, which is allegedly inscribed in the “female” genes. These scripts not only regulate how “femininity” and “masculinity” are meant to be enacted, but also the mutual relations between “femininity” and “masculinity.” Relationships based on female submission. Enacting this script creates the illusion of a “natural” gender – this “naturalism” is achieved through incarnating the norms of masculinity/femininity. The body is regarded as a biological creation, therefore the incarnated norms can be considered “natural.”

Here, then is the effect: the more faithfully we execute the script in our daily show, the more every tiny movement of our bodies, every one of our most intimate desires is subordinated to this script, the more powerful and ruthless the system of domination becomes. Meanwhile, the more courageously we step outside the script, the more effectively we oppose the system. The submission of our bodies is the condition for the perpetuation and reproduction of the play of domination. In discarding the normative script and living in accordance with their own androgynous and genderless one, EVA & ADELE acquire not only space to roam and self-determination for their bodies; they also effectively strike out at the unjust system of gender segregation. This is why EVA & ADELE’s project is not merely aesthetic. It is chiefly political. A project to liberate bodies from the fetters of gender constructs. It is a liberation that opens a path to questioning the whole system of gender domination.

The system of obligatory heterosexuality, which places all non-heterosexual desires in the sphere of non-norms, is only possible through our segregating our desires, abandoning those which are incompatible with the script of subordinated sexuality. In our culture being a man means desiring women, and being a woman means being an object of male desire. The gender play boils down to a play of (hetero)sexuality. Sexual “misfits” are thus as dangerous to the system as gender misfits. How to define EVA & ADELE’s sexuality? Their bodies have been not only “unsubscribed” from the framework of gender definitions, but they also evade sexual classification. Language, and in particular the allegedly precise scientific terminology, throws up its hands in defeat. But if something cannot be defined, can it be assigned to any sort of script? Sexuality outside of gender categories becomes a nameless sexuality. A sexuality in whose framework all is possible, and no desire need be banished for not adhering to the script.

In the 1950s and 1960s Herbert Marcuse wrote that the imagination is the individual’s basic weapon of defense against the mechanisms appropriating our body and our desires. This was at the heart of the counter-culture revolt in Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s; young people imagined how their lives might be if they did not have to conform to all the normative limits that society imposed. Then they truly believed that they could live as they liked. In Poland such a moment is approaching. The example of EVA & ADELE’s life/art is here right on time. It is an example of how to create your physicality in accordance with your own imagination, with a total dismissal of normative expectations wherever they contradict your own desires. You might call EVA & ADELE dreamers, but they are not the only ones dreaming of a world where we can be our own projects. Maybe one day you will join them? Maybe one day you will join the revolution of the imagination?

* * *

Two near-identical androgynous creatures, dressed up camp and “in character,” appear in a public space, often causing a sensation, raising interest, sometimes aggression. What effect would they have if they suddenly appeared on the streets of a Polish city? They would certainly have to count on aggression. In December 2011, a young boy was assaulted on a train station platform for wearing red trousers. The normalcy squads are patrolling about the country. Squads for uniformity, guardians of the world they know, where everyone is more or less the same, and diversity is shoved to the despicable margins.

In Poland something is changing. Transsexual Anna Grodzka and the well-known gay activist Robert Biedroń are members of the Polish Parliament. The present writer has functioned as an openly gay professor at Poland’s largest university, while a recent doctoral student of the same academy was a known activist in the transgender and transsexual communities. Poland, however, remains a country where dozens of people die or are seriously wounded every year in attacks that are racially, ethnically, or sexually motivated. It is still a country where an image raising doubts about gender or sexual correctness guarantees oral or physical aggression. It is still a country where public figures are expected to display total gender and sexual correctness, and divergence from the norms is punished with at least a loss of respect. Barack Obama as President does not mean that the United States has ceased to be a racist country. The success of Anna Grodzka and Robert Biedroń does not mean that there is no more sexism, homophobia, or transphobia in Poland. The ever-mighty Catholic Church teaches us that homosexuality is not only a sin, it is also a sickness, while a sex-change operation is an assault on a healthy body, as transsexuals are mentally ill.

The reigning Polish political strategy for those with different sexual or gender orientations has little to do with queer theory. Many gay and lesbian activists would surely be reluctant to accept a visit by EVA & ADELE to the Polish Parliament. The dominant policy in Poland is to evoke empathy and to make “equivalency” strategies. The latter involves attempts to convince the society that non-heterosexual or transgender people are just as “normal” as heterosexuals. EVA & ADELE’s life/art might be seen to illustrate many things, but bourgeois normalcy is not one of them. It illustrates the exact opposite: the right to non-normality, in other words, to one’s own, autonomous normality (insofar as the word “norm” still has any meaning). In trying to convince us that they are “normal” people, Polish gays and lesbians also try to build compassion on account of the shows of injustice they encounter in everyday life. This policy can only be minimally effective. It might improve things only for those gays and lesbians who want to match the standards of the heterosexual norm as far as possible. This means practically only those who create long-term, steady monogamous homosexual relationships and who may soon be able to register their partnerships in some form and acquire the relevant benefits.

The domination play remains unchallenged, however. The only thing that shifts are the limits of acceptance, and the price is an even stronger exclusion of those who continue to be called abnormal. Lesbians and gays who want to confirm their status as “normal,” decent, and stable, who want to secure themselves a place on “the other side” of the normalcy divide, distance themselves all the more from non-monogamous relationships, from non-heterosexuals who prefer casual sex, from people in multiamorous relationships, and also, as experience in the United States and western Europe tells us, from transsexuals. Neophytes to the norm condemn the insubordination of “the immoral ones” with particular rancor. As neophytes will do.

EVA & ADELE’s life/art project shows both a theoretical and a real possibility of choosing another strategy: refusing to serve the norm, transgression, crossing the borders of gender and sexual structures. The project ties in with Judith Butler’s writing. If a correct gender and a correct sexuality are produced through repeatable stylization of the body, which is the execution of a normative script, then the only effective resistance is a repeatable non-normative stylization. Life then becomes the execution of a project that Michel Foucault called the “aesthetics of existence.” It is a stubborn, daily refusal to obey the norms and to transgress their limits, encompassing those spheres of life we call “private” or “intimate,” perhaps even primarily so. If the norm is made incarnate by subordinating the body in all its aspects, it is precisely in everyday life that it must be undermined.

Gender is a lousy invention; it serves neither those creatures defined as “men,” nor those who happen to fit the term “women.” Being a man means constantly rejecting everything that is feminine. Rejecting “feminine” emotions (in principle, a real man neither has nor expresses emotions, and is more a machine than a person), discarding interests, desires, and needs that might be seen as too “feminine,” showing “manly” attributes, including aggression and a proclivity for rivalry, and so on. Manhood is a task to be fulfilled, a task which is constantly verified in its smallest detail. It is easy to imagine that it must be stressful and frustrating. Femininity, meanwhile, conceived as the flip-side and opposition of masculinity, is a category that places the individual in a position of dependence, making her a second-rate creature which deserves condescending treatment, contempt, violence, and discrimination in many walks of life, merely owing to her label.

This whole system facilitates a structuring of the social space in such a fashion that it guarantees men the power and the profits that come from it, although – as I have mentioned – they do pay the price of stress and frustration for their place of privilege.

EVA & ADELE give us a solution that is plain and simple, but fundamental: don’t take gender so seriously. Let’s discard it as a basis for segregation, and make it a field for fun, experimentation, whimsy, and mockery. Take what you want from gender, process it, cross boundaries. Act out the gender script wrong, make conscious mistakes, get carried away. The less seriously we treat the script, the less significance gender will have, the less we will feel obliged to enact gender models, and – even more importantly – to call others to task for their gender correctness.

If Poland were swarming with people executing the project of gender transgression in various ways, if such people functioned in various walks of social life, sooner or later this would inevitably lead to the nullification of gender models. Or at least to the collapse of the enormous and harmful significance of gender in social life. Like eye color or the shape of one’s nose, gender would become a “transparent” attribute, with similarly negligible impact on the individual’s living situation.

A utopia? EVA & ADELE often call themselves “visitors from the future,” and call their art/life strategy FUTURING, bringing us closer to a post-gender future world. And this is most surely no utopia, because observing the changes occurring in contemporary societies, Poland inclusive, the changes in what the gender models present, and the degree to which they are compulsory, shows us that EVA & ADELE’s project is prophetic, at least in our corner of the world. Gender is losing its significance, gender models are taken less and less seriously, and transgressions do not bring the woeful consequences they did fifty, or one hundred and fifty, years ago.

Happily, it turns out that EVA & ADELE are not the only ones dreaming of a post-gender world. The gender play has claimed enough victims, pain, and suffering. EVA & ADELE are prophets of new times that must come if we are to disentangle ourselves from gender and sexual domination. Times where gender becomes fun. Pink, joyful, creative. And nothing else.

* * *

The indefinite. In many people, this notion raises suspicion, if not outright panic. We are used to thinking that what is defined, contained and stable is predictable. Or rather, we have been taught to think that way. In reality this stability and definition is never total. Cultural patterns – fortunately – are never so assimilated that there is no room for the unpredictable.

The coming of modernity meant the beginning of an era of almost compulsive standardization of all aspects of human life. A standardized life was meant to be utterly subject to authority, which, in turn, was meant to remove all phenomena regarded as pathological. Ironically, this project ended a total failure, because with the end of modernity came an explosion of risk on an unprecedented scale. We were meant to become a society of general safety and happiness. What we have is a society of risk we cannot control.

The standardization of life was a failure; it was meant to establish an iron boundary between what is “normal” and what is “pathological.” So this is why serial murderers so often turn out to be model citizens, husbands, and fathers who regularly pay their taxes. And this is why a gay man who enjoys sexual conquests so often turns out to be a splendid and doting friend. Simple formulae and classifications based on binaries (normal/pathological, health/disease, sound mind/madness, civilization/barbarism) have shown themselves to be worth precious little.

The one enduring legacy of modernity is an attachment to standardization and an affiliated sense of security. We expect that others carry out normative standards, and we ourselves carry them out. Standardization does not mean predictability. It only means the suffering of those who will not or cannot be up to the standards. It means the obligation to discard what is currently regarded as sick, mad, perverse, or criminal. It means the production of submissive bodies. Body/machines of normalcy.

This is why it is high time we recalled that the original human state is the indefinite. This lack of definition is suppressed in the name of power and domination by multifarious mechanisms to structure life. Difference is regarded as dangerous, and identity as a quality the social space desires. We are persuaded that difference and variance are dangerous, and in this way, fear prevents us from breaking the standards. Fear makes us discard diversity – both that which we find nearby, and above all, that which we discover inside of ourselves.

EVA & ADELE assimilate transgression and difference; they show that treating your life as a work of art, as an open-ended project, can be a lot of fun, a source of joy, happiness, and satisfaction. And that such a project is possible in a capitalist world based on the ideals of efficiency and productivity. That dreams need not be relegated to the realm of the unreal. As Maria Janion wrote years ago, we can choose between an evasive position, a retreat into an inner world and a life of dreams that will never come true, and a Tyrtaen one which manifests a struggle for the materialization of one’s fantasies. The dream of freedom is certainly worth fighting for.

This message is, I believe, of particular value in Poland. Not only for the reasons I have outlined above. Not only because the system of gender and sexual correctness is the source of suffering for innocent people. Also because the Polish model of capitalism is particularly ruthless, producing with special rapacity the utterly formatted and enslaved “corporate personalities” which it needs to survive. At the same time, the capitalist machine needs its production of goods and services to be met with demand. Hence, the consumer offensive to squeeze from the impoverished the last cent for brand-name shoes or the latest model of telephone.

After 1989, freedom came to Poland. But did it really? Compare your life with EVA & ADELE’s life/art. They are themselves. Themselves – their own project. Creative, spontaneous, joyful. They travel in their pink bus, appear in various places, allowing us to “visit” their lives. This was their decision, this was their project. It also encompassed the everyday appearance of their bodies, based on the notion of gender transgression. EVA & ADELE are dreamers who have had the courage to carry out their dreams. They are not the only ones. Maybe you’ll have the courage someday to join them?