The Step That Isn’t There: Gynesis and the Necessary Failure of Falling into the Horizon

Lauren DeGaine

Much of the language of this essay is in the form of anonymous quotes from experimental interviews in which a diverse group responded poetically to open-ended conceptual ambiguities focusing on horizons, voids and the feeling of stepping down when you think there’s a stair and there isn’t. While the words are presented here in quotes because the language is not my own formulation, they were curated with authorial agency.

Text: an act of gynesis: pointing towards the places language fails. That strangling relationship—sign, signifier, signified—is torn apart. A radical act of witness occurs: the semiotic trauma caused by the oppression of any discourse not privileged by a patriarchal narrative. Gynesis is a rupture: that momentary sensation of stepping down when you think there is a step and there isn’t: failing: a gravitational release into the void: somatic, inherent, maybe. That void (“the open space I emerged from in form and will merge with again when form drops, it both has no qualities and is fertile, creative, and energetic”) is marginalized; the horizon (which is “kind of like” “an answer” “or a limit to sight,” or something unknown, something other—maybe it’s a trap, maybe a cocoon) is marginalized. Failure can be the momentary freedom from the concept of success. When literature, gesturing towards the horizon, performs subjective experiments with the text that denature the concept of “author” while remaining inseparable from the body it emerges from, it enacts this necessary failure.

What is the role of the body in an act of gynesis? In an interview with Selah Saterstrom, Chris Kraus says, about writing her book, I Love Dick, “The writing came out of my life. I thought my head would fly off. I didn’t know ‘how’ to write, I didn’t know any other way of writing. The only thing I thought I could offer was a willingness to report on my subjective experience with some precision.” That willingness is an urge, a shaking, an invitation or entreaty from the horizon. The horizon has a body, and it reaches.

Hélène Cixous offers another articulation in Coming to Writing:

When I say “writing” seized me, it wasn’t a sentence that had managed to seduce me, there was absolutely nothing written, not a letter, not a line. But in the depths of the flesh, the attack…

How do you make meaning circulate when what comes forth is the signifier, the scene, the unfurling of hallucinating carnal sounds? Who surges up in your throat, through your muscles?

The performance of writing or the moment of poetic utterance, is an arrow that extends toward. Sometimes it doesn’t extend toward any thing. Gynesis happens when one is transparent about the inherently somatic and physical nature of this text-arrow (it pushes like the space between two bodies, its gender is not traditional, its grand narrative is something “other,” its reading is multiple). To relinquish control over the language and acknowledge its faultiness—the sweet failure we commit every day as we turn to each other and make sound—pushes it closer to the void, closer to the breath. A process. A text. A body. A (body). (A) Body.

The role of gender in a discussion of gynesis can be illustrated in the cultural phenomenon whereby we habitually take for granted, when we come into contact with an individual, that we might understand what gives meaning to their gender. This system normalizes an incredulity: that the individuated self can contain the potentiality for otherness. Gynesis re-imagines that narrative. Jardine writes that, “The assurance of an author’s sex within this whirlpool of de-centering is problematized beyond recognition…. Gender (masculine, feminine) is separate from identity (female, male). The question of whether a “man” or a “woman” wrote a text…becomes nonsensical.” This is the important role of failure: gynema requires a resistance to expectation, like stepping out onto a step that isn’t there: “first in freedom from the expectation that there is stable ground.” “Sometimes it’s a relief, not having to step down. An unexpected hello from the pavement.” The voice lives in that moment of freedom from expectation; we must press—press—against the walls of that space, allow the void to breathe.

The grand narrative is complicated and threatened by this invitation for something else. Jardine, again: “This other than themselves is almost always a space of some kind, over which the narrative has lost control, a space coded as feminine.” The “feminine” as the other: “nothing…tulips draped in snow or the red button on a heavy piece of machinery…something whispered between tongues”: any space in which the grand narrative of Self/I/author is problematized, shaken. We are discussing a writing that points, at least generatively, towards a space-body that has a horizon-ness: a “welcoming silence and emptiness.” Contraction has become a constant state for the dense other, and poetic utterance can be the witness that provides breath.

Developmental psychology posits that in order for there to be development, there has to be dissonance, which creates a differentiation from something that has been embedded into our system of being. When we commit an experiment of failure, we (un)learn what Saussure explains: “the linguistic sign is arbitrary.” In an instance of gynema, the signifier doesn’t point at the signified. Cixous writes, in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, “I too believe we should only read those books that…do and don’t do us good, that don’t do us good in doing us good…. A book ‘must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us….’ Writing is not arriving. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure?” Through any sort of dissonance (and, of course, through pleasure—for that, too, can be a kind of dissonance) there is a change in the relationship with our conditioning, defense mechanisms or stories that protect the fragile identity: we “go away” from a particular quality or identification as self, and move into a process of curiosity. This is Rosmarie Waldrop’s “vague nucleus of energy moving to words” and when this process happens with language it creates incredibly singular work. Singular. Each text has a body or is one.

In “The Nature of the Linguistic Sign,” Saussure writes, “Only the associations sanctioned by that language appear to us to conform to reality, and we disregard whatever others might be imagined.” Experimental writing consciously arcs around those limitations, nurtures the fault lines, emboldens articulation. Take, for example, this excerpt from Waldrop’s Curves to the Apple:

But maybe the knots were a picture of my faint unrest at having everything and not more, like wind caught in the trees with no open space to get lost, a tension toward song hanging in the air like an unfinished birdcry, or the smell of the word verbena, or apples that would not succumb to the attraction of the ground. In a neutral grammar love may be a refrain screamed through the loudspeakers, a calibration of parallels or bone structure strong enough to support verisimilitude.

Dominant discourse would object: tension cannot move toward something, especially music; words cannot have a scent; apples don’t have agency; grammar cannot adopt a policy of neutrality. However, courageously, in the space of this text, they can: they do. This is poetics that contains its own ‘grand narrative’ (it articulates a new body, a new space). And it gets closer.

Furthermore, and on the horizon: we’ve made a circumference around a dot: what is gynesis? Gynesis points to that space of the feminine/other/horizon. One contemporary poet writes,

The term horizon has poetic potential through its reference to infinity. However, infinity for me is internal, is red. I think of Jardine. I think of the smoothed stone on Brighton Beach, and the burnt pier that haunts that coast. The horizon is the possibility for meaning, a constant approach. Then again, this approach is entirely dependent on my own relative disposition, as is meaning.

The possibility for meaning can be felt as a poetic urge to express or exhibit, to get closer to the smoothed stone on Brighton Beach: the space between, the curve of the apple, the sensation of a question mark inside a body, a cheek turning away, the folds in the sheets. The horizon is inside the body: it has matter. It walks with you. And at the same time it can be conceptualized through sound, can be gestured at with grammar and syntax. It seems, most essentially, to value subjectivity but highlight something that exists outside the subject.

Text: activism, rebellion, pleasure (to push), failure. Inhaling, we push onto the page. One role of a text is to create a reader-witness who can be touched: the text is volatile and physical, able to effect sensation: a failure-triumph, an un-learning, a continuance of emptying, a step that isn’t there. As such, there is something implicitly vulnerable about writing/reading (or there isn’t) (this writing, too, is subjectively occurring in a specifically located cisgendered queer female body). Contradictions, the discourse of femininity: a conclusion: to go further: a text: a body: “you could have a ship” “a void in someone’s heart” “a blank canvas.” “Limitless possibility and potential exploration” “is always hard for the mind to handle.” “Sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and then balance, spatial awareness, how we understand.” (“I remember the stress of being singled out.”) “I wandered twin peaks and excelsior.” “First of all sometimes it hurts.” Inherent is desire—energy moving toward.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Project Gutenberg, 5 June 2008. Web. 17 April 2015.

Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
—. “Coming to Writing.” Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. Pg. 1-58.
—. “The Laugh of The Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-893.

DeGaine, Lauren. “Interview 1: Interview with a mother.” 14 April 2015. Experimental Interviews, Denver.
—. “Interview 2: Interview with a colleague/friend.” 16 April 2015. Experimental Interviews, Denver.
—. “Interview 3: Interview with a raver or a welder.” 15 April 2015. Experimental Interviews, Denver.
—. “Interview 4: Interview with a lover.” 15 April 2015. Experimental Interviews, Denver.
—. “Interview 5: Interview with a woman.” 14 April 2015. Experimental Interviews, Denver.

Jardine, Alice. “Gynesis.” Critical Theory Since 1965. Eds. Adams and Searle. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1986.

Saterstrom, Selah. “Q&A: Chris Kraus” Tarpaulin Sky. 4.2.(2006). Web. 9 May 2012.

Saussure, Ferdinand. “From Course in General Linguistics: Part One.” Critical Theory Since Plato, revised edition. Ed Hazard Adams. Fort Worth: University of Washington, 1992.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. Curves to the Apple. New York: New Directions, 2006.
—. “Thinking of Follows.” Electronic Poetry Center. University at Buffalo, 24 April 2000. 6 Feb 2015.