Feminism, Philosophy

Complex Personhood

//2 March 2017

Complex Personhood is a term which aims to describe the fluidity and ever-changing properties of the multi-dimensional identities every person possesses; it is a term which effectively captures the intricacies of humans by acknowledging that there is more to each person than what is evident on the surface.  Coined by Avery Gordon in her 1997 novel, “Ghostly Matters,” this term encompasses the various possibilities, realities, and contradictions every person who has ever attempted to define themselves and their identity has faced. The term ‘Complex Personhood’ is applicable to anybody and everybody – as an abstract concept, it can be used instrumentally to help better understand and validate the deep nuances and contradictions of both personality, and identity in relation to larger structures, and human interaction.

To define Complex Personhood, dissecting the term word by word provides a deeper explanation to decipher why these exact words were chosen to construct this larger concept. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word personhood is defined as: “the quality or condition of being an individual person.” Note how personhood isn’t referring to merely one segmented, temporal state of being, like the words childhood or adulthood allude to. Rather, the word personhood includes potentially all temporal states of a person’s life. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade court case, Justice Blackmun uses the term personhood to emphasize the core argument driving the case, namely, at what point the temporal state of a person necessarily begins. Thus, personhood includes the potentially infinite temporality of a person’s identity – from, arguably, the time they are conceived, throughout their life, and even to the way they are remembered when they are gone.

The word complex is the powerful, underlying element which motivates Patricia William’s phrase, “life is complicated,” a phrase which Gordon uses as a basis for generating the term Complex Personhood. Complex is an adjective defined as: “consisting of many different and connected parts, not easy to analyze or understand; complicated or intricate.” However, the word complex has an additional definition with a meaning influential and instrumental to the theme of Gordon’s novel, “Ghostly Matters,” where the term Complex Personhood was first introduced. Undeniably, “vocabulary is a social practice of producing knowledge” (Gordon, 8), so considering the different uses of a word provides deeper context on how this word informs an entire linguistic culture. The second definition of the word complex, which I posit is an extremely useful lens to consider the term, lies in the realm of mathematics, and refers to a certain set of numbers – the complex numbers –  with the property that each number of the set is comprised of two parts: one real, and one imaginary.

Observing the characteristics of complex numbers as a set, and how the numbers interact with each other provides a deeper understanding and contextualization of how this mathematical definition is so pertinent to Avery Gordon’s idea of Complex Personhood. Taken as a set, the complex numbers are well-ordered; or in other words, for any two numbers, one is always smaller than the other, or else they are equal. This is property of complex numbers has an interesting observable analogue in society – people have been historically ordered by higher structures of power with respect to how their identities are perceived and valued in their respective cultures. An example of this ordering is easily observed when considering the societally structured scale between masculinity and femininity, and the different privileges and disadvantages assigned to certain bodies identified along this scale.

However, the aspect I find most pertinent and interesting is how the properties of complex numbers fail to meet the criterion of being an ordered field.  When two positive complex numbers are multiplied together, due to how their imaginary components react, their product can be negative, which violates one of the axioms of being an ordered field. Analogously, when the hidden, ghostly, properties that transcend what others can necessarily empirically observe interact with the ghostly properties of others, the results often violate what is generally expected or tolerated in society. What isn’t perceived by others can affect us through our interaction with the world just as much as what is perceived can. Further, consider how larger structures of power aim to assign us values, and control our actions by limiting what we are able to do. Complex numbers violate these rules required by the axioms of an ordered field, just as complex people violate what is expected of them.

Complex Personhood is an important concept in the context of feminine discourse for these reasons; the term is constructed from two powerful, intricate, deep words whose individual meanings span across multiple fields within academia, yet can be tied back to struggles of power in the societal ordering of gender and other identities. Additionally, complex personhood provides a pathway to understand that no layer of a person’s multiple, intersecting identities fits nicely into a definable, closed box. Because people are complex, they naturally and perpetually defy the unnatural and oversimplified assumptions that stereotypical identities try to impose on them, assumptions which don’t allow or expect any deviations from the societally imposed norms associated with certain identities.

Works Cited

Gordon, Avery. “Her Shape in His Hand.” Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2011. N. pag. Print.

“Roe v. Wade.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Rudin, Walter. Principles of Mathematical Analysis. New Delhi: McGraw-Hill Education (India) Private Limited, 2013. Print.

Weiner, E. S. C., and J. A. Simpson. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Print.


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