DEFINING ORTHOGONALITY

 
The term "orthogonality" is a major conclusion to this research project in relation to the sexual interactions of gay men but I believe it is important to define the meaning of the term and establish its methodological value prior to the reading of the Thesis notes and the project as a whole.

 

 

During my bibliographic research I read the quotation below by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

"Masculinity and Femininity are in Many Respects Orthogonal to Each Other.
Orthogonal: that is, instead of being at opposite poles of the same axis, they are actually in different, perpendicular dimensions, and therefore are independently variable ... If we may be forgiven a leap from two-dimensional into n-dimensional space, I think it would be interesting, by the way, to hypothesize that not only masculinity and femininity, but in addition effeminacy, butchness, femmeness, and probably some other superficially related terms, might equally turn out instead to represent independent variables - or at least, unpredictably variable ones."
1

Thinking about this quotation in relation to my collection and analysis of empirical data from in-depth interviews with 31 gay men that took place in Melbourne, Australia over the period 02/08/1997 to 23/09/1998, and my bibliographic and theoretical research I found that (with a little development), the term fitted a phenomenology of sexual experience, how gay men experience their needs and feelings in sexual encounters, and the fluid situations that arise in these encounters.
In development of the term, I would probably agree with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's hypothesis but would say that the term "orthogonal" can sometimes be independently variable but also sometimes unpredictably dependently variable because I believe that all the terms mentioned in the above quotation are interconnected through many variable actions and interactions which, while unpredictable are (in)dependent in nature, not working in isolation from each other and not standing alone. I believe this is especially true in respect of the n-dimensional intersections and interactions between the many micro/macro conditions that occur in the sexual encounters of gay men, and the effect of these actions/interactions have on subsequent outcomes arising out of the sexual encounters.
It is important to note that not all conditions, contexts, actions/interactions and consequences that occur may be present in the sexual encounters of gay men and if they are, they may act at different times or simultaneously, and in varying degrees of intensity in relationship to the concepts involved and the people present in the encounter. In other words they may be (in)dependently variable and unpredictably variable, or orthogonal. For example the concept 'embodiment of desire' may be enacted prior to 'meeting/interaction' through the visual desire for the body image from a distance, but it may also occur simultaneously at the same time as the meeting/interaction where the desire is for the body image as part of an overall personality package. Similarly, 'justifications' for having unsafe sex may occur before, during or after the (f)act of unsafe sexual intercourse taking place.
Crucial to this understanding of the term "orthogonality" is an understanding of how the body is integrally involved in the construction of discourse. This concept is embodied in the term "experiential realism." Of experiential realism Chris Schilling observes that,

" ... it is based on the assumption that experience and knowledge is structured by the human body in a significant way which is prior to and independent of discourse. Far from discourse determining the body in a Foucaldian sense, then, the body is integrally involved in the construction of discourse.
The relevance of this
[Lakoff's] work ... is that it implies that the concepts and classificatory schemes which inform our understanding of women's and men's bodies do not stem purely from disembodied categories we utilize as a result of some externally located dominant ideology. Instead, they are based in avery important way upon our multiple experiences of embodiment. These involve seeing, experiencing and imagining our own and other people's bodies."2 (My bold).

 

Personally I do not believe that discourse and the body lie at the opposite ends of the one axis, either one thing or the other. I believe that they are orthogonal, that they intersect and interact at various points that can change depending on the situational context, and that they are unpredictably (in)dependently variable. Our understanding of experience and knowledge does not stem purely from the body but neither does it stem purely from discourse.
I believe that our understanding of men's bodies emerges from a combination of both disembodied categories (being 'other determined') and our subjective multiple experiences of embodiment. This is the lived reality of our bodies; the textu(r)al feel of our bodies, both the text (the signs they emit and their meanings), and the texture (the embodiment of desires and feelings), are vital to the understanding how gay men feel and interact in various sexual encounters. My analysis of the interview data has provided me with a valuable insight into the phenomenology of gay men's sexual experience; about how gay men feel and act in sexual encounters. As David Smail has commented,

"We find it more important to preserve and foster the myth of sexuality as mechanical process than we do to develop any kind of detailed or sensitive phenomenology of sexual experience (ie., establishing how in fact people experience their sexual needs and feelings)."3

In this sense, my use of the term "orthogonality" as a major conclusion of this research project fits perfectly with the fluid macro/micro conditions and actions/interactions that occur during gay men's sexual encounters, establishing how gay men experience their sexual needs and feelings, how they interact with their partner(s), and what happens after that.

 

 

Footnotes

1. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Gosh, Boy George, You Must Be Awfully Secure in Your Masculinity!" in Berger, Maurice and Wallis, Brian and Watson, Simon. Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp.15-16.

2. Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp.112-114.

3. Smail, David. Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984, p.113.