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Realism vs. Idealism

Should we afford primacy to reality or to mind? What a foolish question! How could we do one without the other in either case?

I try not to buy into the presumed dichotomy between “realism” and “idealism” in philosophy. “Realism” is supposed to express the idea that reality is mind-independent. “Idealism” is supposed to express the concept that for us, ideas are all that can be. Either of these perspectives, swallowed naïvely, will lead us astray. In this respect, I always found Robert Anton Wilson’s use of “zetetic”, which express the idea that there is an objective reality but our only access to it is via our mind, to be apposite. But really he was just paraphrasing Kant without realising it.

I do not see myself as a “realist” nor an “idealist”, although if I was significant enough to incorporate into the records of this philosophical sporting  match it’s a safe bet I’d be assigned to team “idealist”. But ever since encountering Heidegger’s account of “thrownness” – the fact that we are thrown into this world and it makes no sense whatsoever to doubt its reality – I’ve wanted to retire gracefully from the ring on this particular battle.

Monster Manuals

I was invited by Jon Cogburn to submit a chapter to the new collection of essays combining Dungeons & Dragons with philosophy, but my chapter overran. Here’s a segment I had to cut.

Monster ManualWhat do Dungeons and Dragons monsters have to teach us about fiction and prop theory?

What the character sheet does for the representation of the player characters, Gary Gygax’s 1977 Monster Manual – whose truly dreadful original cover is depicted to the left – and Don Turnbull’s 1981 Fiend Folio did for the creatures they are pitted against. As with attributes on the character sheet, the capabilities of the D&D monsters are laid out in numerical detail – including purely representative elements (size, weight) as well as the statistics (HP, THAC0) required to beat them into a bloody pulp, not to mention props for explaining their behaviour (alignment). In addition, an illustration of the monster helped provide a depictive prop to help either the players imagine their foe, or the Dungeon Master to describe it.

The Monster Manual and its less elegantly titled alliterative descendents are more than just reference books for game statistics (although this is their principal role), for the Monster Manual is also a bestiary of the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Of course, specific campaign settings make variations one way or another, and there perhaps is no single campaign of D&D anywhere which has used every single monster in every single published guide, but by listing a menagerie of menacing monsters in one manuscript an impression of the kind of world in question is inescapably provided. The Monster Manual unequivocally prescribed players to imagine that the fictional worlds of D&D were deeply weird places, filled with an ecology of utterly bizarre beasts that would make no sense in any other context but high fantasy.

No fantasy novel ever written has contained such a heterogeneous hodge-podge of heinous horrors – the reader would simply have no way of dealing with such eclecticism in a conventional narrative. Yet somehow, the fantasy role-playing game dodges this criticism – or at least, Dungeons & Dragons (and the computer role-playing games it has inspired) avoid this complaint. For it must be said that a great deal of latitude is extended towards D&D’s ramshackle collection of foes; a commercial RPG published today with such widespread disregard for cohesion in the resulting fictional world would be subject to criticism. D&D is immune to it.

There is something about the megatextual collision of monsters from every conceivable mythological source that serves to buffer the inherent nonsense that results from criticism. To this day, I am unsure quite what it is. Is it that D&D was the first of its kind, and is thus afforded a certain latitude? Perhaps. But I rather suspect that there is a craving for this kind of massive intersection of otherwise distinct folklores. We see the same theme expressed in a movie such as Shrek, which combines all fairy tales into one fictional world, or indeed in Neil Gaiman’s adult comics The Sandman, which conduct the same kind of mythic collision with more delicacy and panache. Deep down, we can’t escape the feeling that all stories are one story, and the curious concordance of creatures in the Monster Manual speak of the same urge.

Metaphors, Make-Believe & Mythology

glimpse Metaphors are interesting examples of games of make-believe, ones that we seldom notice we are playing. Yet our languages are saturated with metaphorical content – we can barely communicate at all without recourse to them. Why should this be?

Our usual make-believe games are concerned with the content of the fictional worlds, with what happens to the fictional things within those worlds. Walton calls these kinds of imaginary games content oriented. Novels, films, paintings and digital games are all by their nature content oriented. Against this, Walton recognizes an alternative kind of make-believe he calls prop oriented, and as an example he describes a way of learning to tie a particular knot:

A small fiction can help one learn how to tie a bowline. First, you make a loop. Then you say to yourself, "The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes under the log, and back into the hole," as you manipulate the rope accordingly. This is hardly a gripping story. I certainly wasn't caught up in it when I was taught how to tie the knot, as a child might be caught up in the story of Peter Rabbit... I wasn't interested in the fictional scamperings of a rabbit. I just wanted to know how to tie the knot correctly.

Here’s another way of getting at Walton’s distinction between content-oriented and prop-oriented make-believe. Consider a costume that a child wears to play in with an adult's fancy dress costume. If a child dresses as a member of The X-Men it is likely they imagine they are a mutant superhero – a content oriented game. However, if an adult goes to a fancy dress party dressed as a member of the X-men it’s rather less likely that they are going to play an imaginary game like the child’s. Their interest is in the way the costume functions as a prop prescribing that other guests imagine they are adopting an alternative identity – a prop oriented game. In this latter case, the costume itself is of greater importance than any game of make-believe being played: the fictional world the costume implies is not important in the fancy dress party, but it is central to the child’s imaginary game.

This distinction between content and prop-oriented make-believe helps explain how we use metaphors in language. Metaphors can be understood as props intended for use in prop oriented games of make-believe, ones in which the implied fictional world is not our principal interest. Walton notes that the use of metaphor allows for extensions to the associated game in quite natural ways that do not have to be explained or made explicit. Thus the make-believe implied by the remark that “we are all in the same boat” leads naturally to the suggestion that “since we are all in the same boat, it behooves us to row in the same direction.”

We often fail to notice just how deeply embedded into our language metaphor  is – in many instances, it is difficult or even impossible to communicate without recourse to metaphor. Stephen Yablo, drawing from Walton’s work amongst other things, has explored the philosophical implications of our use of metaphor, and has noted that “the boundaries of the literal are about as blurry as they could be…” Far from being clear cut where metaphor begins and literal utterance ends, we constantly make use of metaphorical language that cannot easily be resolved into literal alternatives.

Yablo notes that when we talk about average entities, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand what we are referring to literally. If we say “the average star has 2.4 planets” we are not really describing a rather weird object “the average star” which has – bizarrely – a fractional number of planets. Frankly, 0.4 planets is not something plausible to imagine in any context other than “an average star”. We can paraphrase to something like “the number of planets divided by the number of stars is 2.4” but this is still effectively a metaphor – and a clumsy one, too. The “average star” gets at the relevant idea more directly, and suggests natural extensions (e.g. “how many moons does the average planet have?”) Yablo suggests metaphors such as these are representatively essential; we can’t communicate the same idea effectively without a little make-believe.

Furthermore, metaphors such as these “pack a cognitive punch no literal paraphrase can match.” Yablo notes our dependence upon scientific metaphors like ‘feedback loop’, ‘underground economy’, and ‘unit of selection’ – there is almost no field of science which can operate comfortably without recourse to metaphors in order to communicate key concepts. Even our most literally-minded endeavours depend upon metaphor for their usual operation.

Oddly, metaphors seem to have a life cycle. They come into being with an artistic flair, and gradually, through repetition and use, they lose the explicit make-believe element and become dead metaphors. When we talk about the hand of a watch, or saving time, these are phrases that once had metaphorical force (the mechanical arrows on a clock face are not literally ‘hands’; time is not ‘saved’) but now lack any real imaginative element. Phrases such as ‘hopping mad’, ‘frozen with fear’, ‘dark secrets’ or ‘sour notes’ are similarly reduced to dead metaphors.

David Hill suggests that our overriding principle in respect of metaphors is “make the most of it” – that is, construe any metaphorical utterance in terms of the make-believe games that fit to it in the most plausible or instructive ways. The kind of games that offer the best fit in any given case may not be clear and unequivocal; they may be forever ambiguous. Even the literal meaning of the metaphor may be a legitimate interpretation of its meaning in some cases – despite our intuitions, some metaphors are literally true (‘no man is an island’, for instance). When we make a metaphorical utterance precisely what it means is always open to interpretation.

As a consequence, we can’t ferret out the literal aspects of language, because there are no end of cases that defy this kind of resolution. Yablo observes:

Is ‘calm’ literal in connection with people and metaphorical as applied to bodies of water, or the other way around – or literal in connection with these and metaphorical when applied to historical eras? What about the ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ of animals, houses, pieces of paper, and parades? Questions like these seem unanswerable, and not because one doesn't understand ‘calm’ and ‘front’.

We communicate with metaphor in language, but why is this? While there are many possible answers to this question, one approach that is amenable to make-believe interpretations of metaphorical language use can be found in the German idealist philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. In Language and Myth, published in 1925, Cassirer observes that – despite the difference in content – myth and language use the same kinds of mental conception, namely metaphorical thinking. Verbal and mythical worlds have a strange kind of unity, despite their obvious differences.

Cassirer traces an anthropological history of the way words seem to have come into being by examining primitive languages and concludes (following Usener) that words originated as “momentary gods” – unique events that distinguish themselves as against the background of experience. The flash of lightning comes from nowhere and is interpreted as a spirit, a god,which comes to have a name. Spirits and words are one and the same in many tribal languages, and similar roots can be found in our modern languages.

On this account, language and myth are significantly coextensive, and since mythology is quintessentially metaphorical, this  makes it far less surprising that language is suffused with metaphor. If the origin of words is essentially rooted in a mythical perspective of nature, it is less surprising that modern language is suffused with metaphor – words themselves relate to experiences as prop oriented games of make-believe. Words are always already metaphorical.

Herder, Schelling and the Romantics saw in language “a faded mythology”, one which preserves in its abstract distinctions what mythology considers concrete, living distinctions. Conversely, the comparative mythology of the late nineteenth century, epitomized by Max Müller, took the opposite perspective, seeing mythology as a faded language. Either way, this connection between mythology and language is the relationship between Walton’s content and prop oriented make-believe: mythology is the content oriented game and language the prop oriented game.

Words are props that we use to communicate; sometimes our interest is in the props themselves and sometimes our interest is in the content of the fictional world they imply. But those fictional worlds are always there to be referred to, whether or not we play any imaginary game within them. There is no escaping the influence of metaphor – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have observed, the very foundations of our thought is metaphorical in nature. No wonder metaphor is so central to language! Never mind Wittgenstein’s language games, where language-use is to be understand on the model of a game, language is itself fundamentally a game, a game of make-believe, where metaphors are the inescapable condition of play.

The opening image is Glimpse by Vitor, which can be found on his website, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implict permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.

Was Gay Ever Sinful?

I Love Her Was it ever a sin to be gay? This question cannot be adequately addressed by denying there is such a thing as sinfulness altogether, for there are billions of people for whom the hermeneutic of sin is an important aspect of their understanding of life. This kind of outright denial is like trying to persuade a bank to let you off a debt by convincing them that money is just a fiction: you may be right, but you certainly won’t convince the bank.

Kierkegaard suggested that sin could be understood as despair, the “sickness unto death” that can only be conquered by faith, specifically faith in oneself. He saw this despair as originating in an intensified weakness or defiance; a failure to be what one knew one truly was, a hopeless longing to be what one is not, or a denial of one’s true nature. Sin for Kierkegaard was the heightening of despair, and this is a reading he was able to develop well within conventional Christian doctrine. He particularly noted the verse in Romans (14:23) which says “whatsoever is not of faith, is sin” and thus observed that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith. Faith in oneself was the antidote for despair and – for Kierkegaard and any other theist – faith in oneself had to be anchored in God, or at least in one's idea of God.

(I personally find a gainful parallel in Kierkegaard’s account with the Dharmic concept of karma and karmic burden, but this is not the time to pursue this thread).

What I find particularly interesting in connection with the question being asked here is that on a reading of sin that follows Kierkegaard being gay was sinful, at least for many people whose sexuality was of this nature from the mid-twentieth century backwards through history until at least ancient Greece. Being gay for all but a precious few in those sadly restrictive times inevitably meant either denying one’s true nature or despairing of expressing it – gay meant being in despair, which for Kierkegaard is sin. It’s easy for us, looking back, to rage against the circumstances that caused this suffering, but it doesn’t change the despair that gay people living in these times had to endure.

But now the dignity of homosexuality has been renewed and with this has come the possibility of two lovers of the same gender declaring their love publically, and committing to a loving bond on the strength of their faith in each other. Faith, according to Kierkegaard, is the one cure to despair, and the very opposite of sin. And as long as gay lovers have faith in each other, then their love cannot be sin.

Elisabeth Sladen

Elisabeth_Sladen On Tuesday 19th April, actress Elisabeth Sladen passed away at the age of 63. Beloved for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in the British science fiction series Doctor Who between 1973-76, she reprised the role in the revived version of the show and starred in a spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. The news comes just eight weeks after the passing of Nicholas Courtney, whom she performed with in Doctor Who; both had been living with cancer for some time. Speaking in an interview last year, she said of her association with the classic sci-fi show: “It is really bizarre because I never tried to hang on to the programme but it kind of hung on to me and I'm forever grateful for that because I never ever expected to be known for a particular role. I'm a jobbing actress and how lovely to work in something that I love doing.”

Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.

A Game of Gender

Here’s a game for you.

Let’s pretend gender fiction can be understood as having just three dimensions – behavioural, sexual and physical. Now let’s say that we have three values in each dimension. ‘Ma’ for male-esque, ‘Fe’ for female-esque and ‘Ni’ for any ambiguity therein. (For the sake of this game, behaviourally male-esque means something like ‘butch’ or ‘masculine-behaving’; sexually female-esque means ‘attracted to men’ and physically male-esque means having a penis).

You can now make a word to describe your gender in glorious 3D – by combining these three syllables (‘ma’, ‘fe’ or ‘ni’) three times, once each for your behavioural, sexual and physical circumstances in that order, and then adding the suffix ‘le’ at the end.

So if you are a butch lesbian your 3D Gender is “mamafele”. If you are a behaviourally neutral bisexual with a penis your 3D Gender is “ninimale”. If you are a feminine-behaving person who is attracted to men and have no penis your 3D Gender is “fefefele”. While if you are masculine-behaving man-lover with a penis your 3D Gender is “mafemale”.

What 3D Gender are you today?

A Toy Chest for Game Design

Over on ihobo today, the first of a two part series looking at videogame props. Here’s the introductory paragraph:

How can prop theory assist game design? One potentially illuminating application is by narrowing the gap between what the developer sees and what the player experiences by conceiving both the assets and the play in terms of toys – specific props for play. In this piece (and its companion which follows next week) I present a slightly different way of thinking about game design – one in which every game is effectively a toy chest – and encourage game designers to think about digital games more playfully.

You can read the first piece over at now, with the second part following next week.


shiva_and_shakti Is gender a fiction?

Thus far in the Fiction Campaign, I’ve been focussing on some fairly familiar Only a Game topics, but I’d like at this point to take a wild diversion into a slightly different space. Although I have made a few remarks concerning gender in the past, it hasn’t been a bull I’ve grasped by the horns (or a cow I’ve grasped by the udders) to any great extent.

If I suggest that gender is a fiction there are at least two ways I can be misunderstood. Firstly, I can be taken as being an idealist – in suggesting that our physical body doesn’t matter, only our mental categories for gender. But our physical body clearly does matter in the issue of gender, this is not irrelevant to the issue – it is central. Secondly, I can be taken as suggesting that gender roles are entirely socially constructed, and hence that there are no significant differences between the genders beyond the physical. This objection encodes the very problem I want to address in this piece: the concept of exactly two genders is precisely the fiction I want to expose.

In keeping with prop theory, I want to look at how gender fictions come about, and this begins with the physical body as a prop. The obvious difference between a male and a female body – the primary and secondary sexual characteristics – prescribe different imaginings, first and foremost that someone with a penis “is a man”, while someone with a vagina “is a woman”. The principles of fiction at work here are, as ever, culturally instantiated, but the difference in the physical prop (our human bodies) make for a great deal of authority in respect of the game of gender.

Those for whom scientific fictions hold even more authority have the Y chromosome as an extra degree of vindication in the male-female fiction. As a matter of fact, if this game were determined solely by genetics the gender fiction would be essentially binary – since either you have a Y chromosome (male) or you don’t (female), not counting a few borderline cases that are significant but tangential to my discussion. But despite the mythology, genes do not make people, they make proteins, which make animals, which people “live in”.

Headlines like “Revenge, Brain Study Finds, is a Male Partiality. For Women, the Emotion is Empathy” are a common way for newspapers to grab attention. We love having easy ways of bearing upon issues, and gender is such a familiar game that playing into it works brilliantly to get our attention. But every time we encounter a ‘men x, women y’ scenario it is not necessarily taken in its safest interpretation – namely “statistically speaking men have greater incidence of x, women have greater incidence of y”. It is actually more likely that we simply file the new information into the two boxes the gender fiction dictates to us: thus men want revenge, and women feel empathy. And if, like myself, your physical gender is male but you feel empathy more strongly than revenge, you face a disparity between the facts of your experience and the claims of the gender game.

Nowhere has this been felt more strongly than in the case of sexual identity. What is a gay man to think with respect to gender? They’re body prop says “boy”, but their brain isn’t so sure. In fact, brain studies of the anterior hypothalamus and amydala have shown that the gender-differentiated qualities of these brain region are “almost reversed” in the case of homosexuality. In other words, and again in a mostly statistical sense, homosexual men have part of the neurobiological wiring of heterosexual women and homosexual women have part of the neurobiological wiring of heterosexual men.

So now we have already some problems with the binary gender game. If we accept brain imaging scans as props (or, perhaps as an easier route, the experience of our everyday interactions) we have four ‘genders’. Taking body and brain gender terms as our point of reference we have male-male, male-female, female-male and female-female as gender translations of heterosexual male, homosexual male, homosexual female and heterosexual female. This is already starting to make the gender game look very messy.

But that’s not all, because the dimensions of binary gender by no means end at sexual identities. Consider as just one more example the role of testosterone. The normal game of gender expects aggression, competition and revenge to end up in the male box. But as it happens, testosterone affects men and women in the same essential way – female bodies produce less testosterone but are more sensitive to its effects. And for various reasons, some physical some cultural, we end up attaching the effects of testosterone to gender – such that aggression, competition and revenge are “male” behaviours, not testosterone behaviours. (After all, how, at the level of everyday life, could we possibly have access to this kind of neurobiological reading?)

Does this relate to sexual identity? Not really. It turns out that lesbians are not statistically different from heterosexual women in terms of the proportion of people with elevated testosterone levels – although “butch” lesbians do show elevated levels of testosterone with respect to other lesbians. Which isn’t exactly surprising. But if we want to throw our net wider and include every female body with elevated testosterone, then we have to add marketing executives and all sorts of other statistical cases that just don’t relate to sexual identity at all. So here we have another aspect of the gender fiction that seems in a naïve appraisal to fall into the binary gender boxes but which is nothing of the kind. The testosterone related behaviours don’t even seem to favour physical male over physical female in quite the way we might expect – there are plenty of “tom boys” who are just as competitive as their physically male peers.

Previously, I’ve thought of gender as a pair of overlapping Gaussian distributions such that there are peaks for ‘male’ and ‘female’ but individuals can land anywhere in the gender landscape. But even this is a simplification, because there is more than one dimension at work in the gender game – I’ve singled out three already that on the surface seem to be gender issues (physical body, brain wiring, testosterone levels), and there are certainly many more that could be counted if we start taking into account other aspects of the gender game such as clothing, jobs, parental roles and so forth.

Ultimately, what this shows is that if we strip away the gender fiction (as best we can) what we’re left with is an eclectic landscape of gender, in which there may well be two well defined regions, ‘male’ and ‘female’, and there may indeed be many people who can settle quite comfortably in these established spaces. But there is also a vast rolling countryside of diverse gender identities that will never comfortably fit into the binary gender fiction. Tension surrounds this game from within and without – from people who cannot make the fiction work for themselves, and from people who believe in the fiction so completely that they suffer cognitive dissonance in the face of anything that violates its rules.

What’s the answer? Well we aren’t going to be putting aside the game of gender any time soon, but we do need to begin recognising that it is a game, that is fictional that there are two genders in anything but the trivial sense of there being two basic styles of sexual organ. The discussion of sexual identity as a separate topic to gender only serves to reinforce the binary fiction of gender, and the ridiculous rag tag fleet of assorted identities becoming gradually appended to LGB’s originally tightly defined remit (now anything from LGBTQI to QUILTBAG) reinforces the original fiction by making another binary division into ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ gender identities. Politically, this might serve certain immediate purposes; conceptually, it might not be the most helpful approach, particularly if the goal is acceptance for the full range of sexual identities.

The problem goes right to the heart of the project of individualism – on the one hand, we are all individuals; on the other, we assert our individuality by conforming to group identities (including outsider identities that are defined in contrast to orthodoxy). A new mythology, a new game of gender, might be just what we need to take us into new cultural spaces. But how this new fiction might be constructed is, at the moment, anyone’s guess.

The opening image depicts the Hindu gods Shiva and Shakti, who embody the masculine and feminine principles. I do not know to whom it can be attributed.