Here is an excerpt of a piece I submitted, the beginning of a potential idea. Words are clusters of ideas, and the meaning of a word is contingent, never necessary. But trying to view the meaning of a word through one, or two specific lenses can be more helpful than trying to find some general, broad, overarching idea:

Nonetheless, here is my idea:

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.


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