What are preferred pronouns
Gender and grammar : The pronoun is body free - but it is not gender free
At the beginning of the year, Judith Butler reminded us in her speech at the TU Berlin that pronouns are a phantasm. We are imagined as girls or boys, a gender is projected onto us. And we have to deal with the question: What does this gender phantasm want from me?
A parallel question is derived from this: What does the phantasm of the pronoun want from me? Which pronoun do I prefer? Butler laughed at this point and admitted that they too must "decide" - as a personal choice, as a political statement, as a task - which pronoun to use. "It's they," said Butler, making this choice of a genderless pronoun the first Times in public.
It's 2020 and Butler comes out as "they" - a truly historic moment. Not least with the book “Gender Trouble”, Butler initiated the current debate about pronouns himself.
Pronouns are tools of identity politics
Pronouns are important. Whether we want it or not, we are marked with pronouns. They are important for many language systems. They are also tools of identity politics; they can be turned into weapons, they can be used to create visibility, audibility and space. This goes hand in hand with narrowing, defining and boxing.
Pronouns are more important to some people than others. But they cannot be meaningless to all of us as long as they are important to some people. As long as some of us have to explain our own pronoun. And as long as pronouns can be used as an insult.
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Because pronouns are present in our language system, we are all confronted every day with which pronoun is imposed on our body. When we are "lucky", our pronouns "suit" us, just as the name our parents give us feels good or not.
If we are "lucky" we can decide that pronouns are not important to us because they never seem to be out of place. But when a particular pronoun doesn't fit, or sometimes doesn't fit, or doesn't encompass everything we want to say or be, then we face the challenge of explaining (or not explaining) our preferred pronoun.
Feminists and queers have liberated the pronoun
Presumably, the pronoun is meant to refer to the gender we were assigned at birth for a lifetime. Presumably the pronoun "he" means that the body has a penis and the pronoun "she" means that the body has a vulva. Of course, these binary, biological, "simple guesses" are by no means easy, and they are no longer reality, if they ever were.
Thanks to the work of feminist and queer theorists such as butlers and generations of LGBTIQ + activists, the identity of a body has successfully detached itself from its assigned or changed gender. The pronoun has been freed from gender. Once you have accepted this, you can no longer look at another body with the assumption that a preferred pronoun says something about a person's physicality.
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In certain contexts - especially artistic and queer communities - it has therefore become common for about 15 to 20 years to ask each other what their preferred pronoun is.
More and more people are starting to use this practice, but there is still a majority who use the pronoun as if it were indicating the gender assigned (with some flexibility once someone has undergone a recognized and visible assimilation of the opposite sex). As a result, our collective notion of the pronoun falls apart. There is no longer any shared knowledge on this subject.
Despite everything, we are stuck in the old forms
Some social circles have even moved so far in the direction of pronoun freedom that the act of asking questions seems a little old-fashioned to them. As if the practice wasn't radical enough. These vast differences indicate the threshold state the pronoun is in now.
The pronoun is so free that it may be as irrelevant as our middle names. Yet we are stuck and wade on through the tired old forms. In spite of everything, the pronoun still refers directly or indirectly to gender, which, like it or not, retains the ghostly imprint, the phantasm, of the biological gender. And that fact remains a prison.
The pronoun "es / she" (plural) resonates with neutrality and genderlessness. The pronoun "they" (plural) - my personal favorite - can imply the presence of multiple bodies in one. It works for me personally because that's exactly how I understand my gender identity: diverse and dynamic, changing from day to day.
Whether fluid or non-binary: gender identity remains the frame of reference
But that confuses a lot of people. Other pronouns like "ze" are a kind of neutral copy of he and she, the form of which nevertheless always implies a reference to the gender. Even if it should be expressed that a person is gender fluid or non-binary or trans or something else - the frame of reference always remains the gender identity.
It seems that there is some common knowledge about the pronoun. This means that the pronoun is about gender identity. That is why we queers, and perhaps many who do not call themselves queer, still have so much trouble with them.
If we take a step back, there is absolutely no apparent reason that a pronoun should denote a person's gender identity beyond any other attribute. We wouldn't accept a pronoun when it comes to ethnicity, class, or nation-state.
What if our pronouns related to our skin color or our relationship to white or black? What if our pronouns related to our citizenship and our relationship with the nation state?
I would then have to keep explaining that my pronoun was changed to "ex-American" or "not living American in America" or "nation-state neutral". The example shows how impractical, illogical and also derogatory such a charging of the pronoun would be. And yet we allow gender identity to be used in this way all the time in a linguistic practice that is fundamentally unrelated to gender.
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I ask myself: When I see other people for the first time, do I judge them in terms of male, female, queer, trans? Is that what I think about first? Aside from the obvious difficulty in discerning which exactly comes first, I could argue that some or some of it naturally gets into my eyes and mind.
How I “read” someone can be gender specific, but not necessarily. I am doing an evaluation. But I also notice many other things when I first see a person, many other things that are just as important, if not more important. I see class from the clothes and accessories someone wears.
I see a sense of self-esteem, in part from the way a body moves through space. I see skin color. I see what I could call "style". I see affect. I see (and hear) language. I feel energy. I could say "the person who laughs a lot". I could say "the person who was very calm". "The person who looked upset.
Think beyond "he" and "she"
I would rather be "the person over there who appears to me as ..." than he or she, she or ze. I would prefer my pronoun to say something about space, audibility, visibility, energy. The person over there, that seems to be gentle.
The person over there who seems tough. That seems shy. That seems nervous. That seems confident. Overly confident. Who is apparently about to speak and wants to speak, but does not speak.
But is that even what I want? Wouldn't it be better if my pronoun had nothing to do with how I am read, nothing to do with how I understand myself? Wouldn't it be nice if the pronoun could easily break free of identity?
The question is, can the pronoun do that? Do we have the opportunity to free it from these conditions ourselves?
Is it possible to find new forms?
My partner, who is an English teacher, reminded me that pronouns were invented simply to make communication easier so that you don't always have to name a person or noun. They are meant to be a reduction in brain bandwidth. The obvious problematization of pronouns has obscured this fundamental role, she says.
She thinks we need a pronoun that has the function of "saying what I was referring to before" without categorizing that thing, and suggests that we use a pronoun for (1) subject-singular , Select (2) object singular and (3) plural. For all situations not covered by this, the noun should simply be renamed. She suggests it to you and ze for its primary functions. Since these pronouns have been labeled as "gender neutral," I'm afraid that their relationship to gender has already affected them.
The question is whether we have other candidates who don't keep reminding us of the relationship between the pronoun and gender. Or are we just always stuck?
Translated from the English by Jasko Fide.
Kathryn Fischer is a sound and performance artist. Together with Adrienne Teicher, Fischer forms the avant-garde electronics duo Hyenaz.
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