The Transfiguration of our Collective Symbols

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Written by Jori Sackin

The metaphor I'm going to discuss in relation to Peregrine Honig's two pieces pictured above is: vibrancy is health.  Let me begin by first giving a brief physical description.  On the left you have an American flag and on the right you have a rainbow (LGBT) flag.  Both are presented in the least vibrant colors possible.  Almost white.  They're jutting out of the wall on traditional flag poles and are presented in relation to one another, as they are both the same size and hung in the exact same way.  The American flag's title is "#transfiguration".  The rainbow flag's title is "#transgenderflag".  They are currently on exhibition at the Haw Contemporary gallery in Kansas City (10/24/2014 - 12/06/2014).

To look at the metaphor vibrancy is health, we first need to understand how it is rooted in our bodily experience.  Sick people are often described as "loosing color" or as "white as a ghost". Regardless of skin tone, there is a loss of rosiness or vibrancy from our skin when we are ill. People look unhealthy the less color they have, whether it's the loss of their "rosy cheeks" or if they're on their death bed with "all the color drained out of them".  

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This relationship between illness and loss of color can be transferred to symbols as well.  If a symbol is portrayed as having lost it's color, we can think of it as sick.  The question we are left with is, "What's making it sick?"  In this particular case, one possible cause is the mistreatment of transgender people, or their lack of representation in American society.  This explanation supposes a role for our flags, which is very different from the one they've had in the past. Historically flags define boundaries, as well as instruct us on who we are to become.  They point us towards the ideals that we imagine as part of our identity.  This can be unhealthy and limiting when those ideals are tied to things like ethnicity or genealogical heritage, or they can be motivating and life-affirming when they are tied to human ideals such as courage, loyalty, intelligence and creativity.

Recently, the expectations for our collective symbols has begun to shift.  Instead of them being instructive, instead of them requiring us to mold ourselves in their image, we want them to mold themselves around us.  The highest ideal we seek from them is an all encompassing inclusivity, an embrace of everyone.  If our symbols of collective identity fail to do this, they are failing to do the one thing we are asking of them.  It is in this sense, that you could say that our collective symbols are sick, that they are failing in this new role that we have given them.

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There is no better example of how our collective symbols are failing at trying to be all inclusive to everyone then the continuing addition of letters from LGBT to LGBTQIA.  There is no amount of letters that will completely include every possible variation of human sexuality.  The need to try to include everyone by defining them as a single letter is itself the modern conundrum of, first, trying to understand the world through segmented categorization, second, wanting to be apart of collective identity but not wanting it to define or restrict us, and third, creating specific symbols of identity but not wanting them to leave anyone else out.  The inability for flags to encompass all of these paradoxical desires is reflected in both flags being sick, both flags being unable to accomplish this new ideal we have set for our collective symbols.  

This trend is further evident in the fact that there are two differing flags which are trying to be the identifying flag of trans people.  The first is the rainbow flag, sometimes known as the "gay pride" flag but other times referred to as the LGBT flag.  There is also a separate transgender flag which is pictured to the left.  A transgender person might not be gay, so if they imagine that the rainbow flag is a gay pride flag then they might not feel represented by it.  However, not everyone thinks of the rainbow flag this way.  Some people have other interpretations of it, and see it as representative of trans people.  To me, this shows the struggle that our symbols are going through.  On one hand you have the rainbow flag which is trying to be more and more inclusive, and yet with a larger inclusivity, it risks loosing its overall meaning.  A symbol has to draw the line somewhere, and in this particular instance, it draws it at heterosexuality.  On the other hand, you have the transgender flag, which is trying to be more specific, but in doing so, is being less inclusive.  It is segmenting transgender people away from everyone else, as if they are something completely different. This division can either be celebrated as identity defining or mourned as isolating, depending on how you perceive it.

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The title "#transfiguration" also points towards a spiritual aspect and one I think is easily relatable to the vibrancy is health metaphor I've presented.  In medical terms, death is often thought of as the end result of sickness.  Spiritual paths portray death as a metamorphosis, a change in state, rather then an end to something.  These flags, these symbols of collective identity, are sick because they are in the throws of a major transformation. They are undergoing a reconfiguration in what we want them to do and what we want them to mean. Sickness, in this sense, is good.  It means that we as a culture are ready for the inevitable larger embrace of who we are and what we mean to each other.  

This embrace can be better understood by examining the differences between (trans)cending, (trans)itioning and (trans)lating.  Lots of trans words here.  Trans means both "to span across" which implies a horizontal reaching, as well as "to go beyond" which implies a vertical embrace.  A trans gender person is horizontally translating the self, what they would call transitioning. They feel as if they have been put into the wrong body and are correcting that mistake.  This process is the horizontal translation of self that, to some extent, we all go through, trying to understand who we are and how we fit into the world.  It makes sense to talk about gender on a horizontal plane, not putting one above the other, and having a line connecting them in which someone can move back and forth.

Transcending is the vertical movement of embracing everything that came before and then going beyond.  It is including the idea that we are all individual beings with our our own separate awareness, and then, additionally saying that we are all participating in awareness as one complete thing.  Both ideas remain true.  But where as before, you could only see yourself in one way, as a isolated individual, now you can see yourself as both.  It transcends and includes.  The sickness, the loss of color, is the ill feeling of isolation that the continued anxiety of translating the self causes.  That sickness can propel us further, to look for a more encompassing, larger conception of who we actually are, or, we can get stuck, and continue translating, trying to find that one thing that will take away the anxiety we feel about our position in the world.

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We are living in the middle of the all important stage of symbolic transformation, which in one sense, means death, sickness and loss.  The old ways of understanding our identity are dying, not making sense, and struggling to maintain their dominance.  To people that are tied to this narrow conception of who we are, this is ultimate death, and it might feel as if the world is collapsing in on itself.  To people who view the role of our symbols as a means for greater inclusion, this redefinition means the birth of a more encompassing view that gives everyone a larger share in life.

This new conception does not negate "American identity" or "gender identity" or "sexual identity" but goes beyond them. It transcends AND includes.  It however, has it's own problems, the main one being, that as human beings, we have some unrealistic expectations for what our collective symbols can do, and have a yearning for many conflicting desires.  We are unrealistic when we can imagine that our symbols can possibly contain us.  We are conflicted in that there is an uncomfortableness in defining ourselves.  We want to be defined and restricted by the symbols we create and also desire the freedom to be able to move beyond them.  We want more out of our symbols then they can ever possibly give us, and we seek to define ourselves in an infinite amount of ways that can never truly convey who we are.