Collect

Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Gender Jamboree, Part Two

I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
where it scratched itself in the blank between
the queen’s substance and the queen.


—Charles Williams, ‘The Coming of Palomides’


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CW: genital injury, suicide



The Rebuke of Adam and Eve, Domenico Zampieri, 1646 (source).
Gotta love Adam's 'What?' shrug.

So! God made mankind in his image, male and female, and that’s normally pretty straightforward, but in a small minority of cases we find male and female characteristics mixed; we call this physiology intersex. Accurate estimates of how many people are intersex are difficult to find, as the subject isn’t well-studied, but an estimate of about 1% seems to be a safe generalization from studies that have been done to date, making it only a little less common than red hair.1

Ironically, this knowledge was actually a little more common until a hundred or so years ago. The twentieth century saw an extensive use of surgery on intersex newborns, modifying or eliminating their unusual characteristics; when these surgeries had yet to be developed, and most babies were delivered at home and by midwives, it was familiar enough to them to deliver the occasional intersex baby. Legal cases right down to the eighteenth century make occasional mention of intersex people.


Nor has intersexuality been wholly unknown to the Church. Although there are few references to the phenomenon in Catholic history, they are mentioned in passing (under the title androgynes) by St Augustine, and Gratian, the foremost canon lawyer of the Middle Ages, discusses them briefly. Those canonists who addressed the subject stated that if one sex could be determined to be predominant in an intersex person, that person should be treated as being of that sex (up to and including that a principally male intersex person could be validly ordained2), while allowing that there might be cases in which it was impossible to judge for certain which sex predominated in a person’s body. At least one cleric at that time gave the opinion that, in cases where someone’s physiology was evenly mixed, they were to be given the choice, under irrevocable oath (no pressure), of which was their sex.



However, to the best of my knowledge, only canon law has directly addressed intersexuality to date, and it’s done so rarely. Theological reflection on what defines male and female is not the same thing, though the two are related. St John Paul II’s extensive meditation on male and female in Theology of the Body may, after adequate unpacking, speak to the question; but even understanding, let alone unpacking, that tome is going to be the work of generations. And in the meantime, the sciences do have something more to say, which theology needs to operate upon. (Like any science, theology operates upon facts: the differentia of theology is that some, though not all, of those facts are provided by God’s revelation. The rest are derived from observation and inference, the same place we get most facts.)


The surgical correction of intersexuality has come under fire. Initially developed in the 1950s, it was thought at the time that it would be easier for the child to develop as whichever gender they were raised, and that a confused identity would be avoided if the confusing body were adjusted. Nor was the practice even limited to intersex children. Anatomically typical male children who exhibited a micropenis,3 or whose genitals were irreparably damaged in infancy, in some cases received vaginoplasty and were raised as girls.


One notorious and particularly tragic case was that of David Reimer, born in 1965. His penis was destroyed in a botched circumcision4 a little before the age of two. His parents took the advice of Dr John Money (I swear I did not make his name up), a pioneer and advocate of performing sex reassignment in infancy, on the grounds that infants healed much more easily and completely and that surgeries of this kind would be less traumatic if they could not be remembered. Their son was surgically reconstructed as a girl, and raised in a thoroughly female environment. The much-crowed-over success of the procedure, accompanied by some very weird follow-up creepiness from Dr Money, lasted until he was 13. Reimer had never felt like a girl, he had become suicidally depressed, and he told his parents he would kill himself if forced to see Money again. The next year his parents told him the truth about his history, on the advice of his psychiatrist. Reimer then shed his feminine identity and began living as a boy again, seeking multiple medical interventions to restore his physical masculinity, including hormone treatment, a double mastectomy, and phalloplasty. He went public with his story late in 1997.


That story came to an end just over six years later. His relationship with his parents, naturally enough, remained difficult, and he struggled with unemployment; his twin brother died of an overdose in 2002; and in 2004, his wife of over thirteen years asked for a separation. Two days later Reimer shot himself in the head.


A superficially similar, if somewhat happier, case is that of Christiane Völling, born in 1959, who in 2011 became the first intersex person to win a suit for damages over non-consensual sex reassignment surgery. Born with XX chromosomes, her phenotype was unclear at birth: she had ambiguous genitals but was assigned and raised male (an unusual decision at the time, since, to use a very crude phrase, it was considered ‘easier to dig a hole than build a pole’), and experienced a relatively early, vigorous, masculine puberty. Völling was found to have an undeveloped but complete set of female reproductive organs during an appendectomy at age 14; she was told only that she was ‘60% female,’ which caused her severe psychological distress. Her female reproductive organs were removed four years later, despite the fact that the full details of her diagnosis had been withheld from her in the name of protecting her mental health. She continued for some time after that to live as a man, but eventually transitioned into life as a woman. She was awarded €100,000, nearly forty years later, for receiving an unnecessary surgery without being able to give informed consent.




So cases like these are clear-cut evidence of original biology over imposed sociology, right? Proof that no matter what you do to a person’s body through surgery, you can’t make a man into a woman or vice versa, and that trying to only makes them miserable. Right? Well … hang on. Before we can address that, we need to talk about gender dysphoria.5


Gender dysphoria is the distress a person feels due to their physical sex characteristics not matching their inner sense of gender identity. Most people who identify as transgender experience gender dysphoria, and vice versa, but the two aren’t the same thing. Reimer and Völling exemplify both the experience itself, and the therapeutic and medical steps generally taken to address it; the difference is that they were identifying with sexual characteristics that had been excised from them, whereas gender dysphoria is generally used to talk about people whose bodies have developed normally but whose identity or sense of self is in conflict with their bodies. And the thing is, both transgender identity and the dysphoria that typically accompanies it appear to be just as persistent—just as deeply rooted and intractable to all psychotherapy and socialization—as the gender identities that Reimer and Völling display.


This doesn’t mean that trans identities are therefore automatically valid and unquestionable, no. What it does mean is that our analysis isn’t finished yet. I'll discuss dysphoria and identity further in my next.


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1That the intersex minority is a small one is not, philosophically speaking, significant. What makes intersex bodies important to the discussion is that they exist at all, not how common they are.
2The canonists did say that intersex men could not be licitly ordained, due to canonical requirements forbidding the ordination of men with physical deformities. However, requirements of this kind could in principle be changed (as, e.g., the Church can and occasionally does relax the Roman ban on ordaining married men).
3A micropenis is a penis that is at least 2.5 standard deviations smaller than the mean. It is not a health risk, although it can be caused by growth hormone deficiency, androgen insensitivity, and certain other conditions, as well as by intersexuality.
4The late circumcision was an attempt to treat phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin is too constricting and impedes penile function. Treating phimosis is not generally considered necessary until after the age of three.
5Though it appears in current DSM manuals, this term is controversial in some circles, as some people consider it pathologizing and stigmatory. I can’t really get into that discussion right now; the thing that the term ‘gender dysphoria’ is talking about does exist, and the term is already in use, so, with apologies to any readers who are bothered by it, it’s the term I’ll use for the present.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review: "Good Omens" (Miniseries)

So I watched the Amazon Good Omens miniseries, and I hated it so, so, so, so much. Hear me out.


A note before I begin. I don’t do ‘They changed it, so it sucks’ reviews of adaptations. Sometimes changes are very much for the better—the book version of Jumanji is eminently forgettable, while the movie (if a little dated) is great. Moreover, because film and page are different media, some changes are intrinsically necessary to suit the language of the new medium. But changes that take out good things that could have been included are defects, and changes that add bad or irrelevant things are defects. And changes aside, an adaptation should be able to stand on its own as a work of art. Make a movie with plot problems that are only resolved in the book you based the movie on, and what you’ve done is make a movie with plot problems. Having source material is no excuse for poor craftsmanship.


And to be clear and fair, two things I did not hate about the series were David Tennant and Michael Sheen as Crowley and Aziraphale. Their performances were exquisite, and almost carried the piece; in fact one of the things I hate about Amazon's Good Omens is that these two were squandered on such a dumpster fire of an adaptation. The chemistry between them is fantastic, and fits beautifully into the ‘Are they friends? Are they lovers? Are they enemies after all?’ ethos that the book conveys (the reason they’re not lovers being, in the book’s words, that ‘Angels are sexless unless they really want to make an effort’). Bravissimo to them both for outstanding performances.


Josie Lawrence's cameo as Agnes Nutter also deserves a better series than this, and I'm not 100% sure Miranda Richardson could do a bad job acting if she tried, so her Madame Tracy is very winsome indeed. But Tennant and Sheen between them couldn’t quite save it, and Lawrence and Richardson can’t either.


What I hated was, above all:
- the narration;
- nearly every other performance;
- many of the textual and character changes made from book to screen;
- the significant plot changes between the book and the script.


The second worst-handled aspect of the miniseries is the narration. Now, I don’t share the hostility of Cinema Sins et al. to narration as such, and I really like Frances McDormand. But her performance is, on this occasion, not good: it sounds like the voiceover for Blade Runner, uninvested in the story and irrelevant to it, and not at all like the narrator is having a good time. And that’s a tragic waste, because the one thing that narration, and nothing else, could have translated to the screen from the book is the merriment of its narrative voice. That merriment, the tell-tale quality of anything Pratchett touched, is almost entirely absent in the series, because so much of it comes from tone that McDormand didn’t capture and jokes that Gaiman didn’t include. And he came so close to so many, and it would have been so easy to put them in the voiceover! For instance, one of my favorite lines in the book is the isolated paragraph: ‘It has been said that the devil has all the best tunes. This is broadly true. But heaven has all the best choreographers.’ There were two scenes (one in heaven, one between Crowley and Aziraphale) where I felt sure we were going to hear that line in the narration … any minute now … nope.


And joyless cuts like this are legion: gone is most of the drunk conversation about how long eternity is, gone are the details of the Chattering Nuns of the Satanic Order of St Beryl, gone is the allusion to a wave of low-grade goodness emanating from the destruction of a telemarketers’ office, gone is all of Dog’s internal monologue, gone is the explanation for why there’s so much Queen playing.3 As a result the whole tone of the script is so much less funny and light than the novel, while at the same time not landing its punches nearly as well. But we’ll get to that.


The actress playing Anathema Device gives a lifeless performance, without any of the aura of wit and keen good sense that Anathema possesses in the book. She just sort of says lines while facing the relevant character. But this may be at least partly because she wasn’t given a real character to work with. There’s no sense that she’s straining to make sense of her ancestress’ prophecies because she has a sense of mission and purpose, and no hint that she’d rather not be psychic, as there is in the book. She’s completely flat. They ,try to give her a sense of arc by including Newton’s line near the end, ‘Do you want to be a professional descendant your whole life?’ But since being a professional descendant has had no negative consequences for her to date and she’s expressed no dissatisfaction with it, it doesn’t represent a resolution of anything she wants as a character, and the emotional payoff is accordingly zero.


Shadwell, being a character defined as much or more by description than by words, is pretty gutted on a screen. Michael McKeen ,is a good actor, but it’d take an Anthony Hopkins or a Cate Blanchett to make the depiction work. Brian Cox as Death was also specially disappointing. Of course, it’s hard to convey just how delightful Death as a character is when he’s in Terry Pratchett’s deft hands; but Brian Cox isn’t the man to do it, and it isn’t done. The other three horsemen, War, Famine, and Pollution, aren’t terrible, but their lines are (it was during Famine's first appearance on screen that I began to notice how uninteresting most of the dialogue was). Mostly they just say over and over that they’ve been waiting for the apocalypse for a long time, like a really long time, man, and they’re super into it. Let them tell you, they are super into the apocalypse, just stoked. I mean, they’ve been waiting for it for thousands of years, and now it’s here, and they are in. To. It. You don’t even know. They’re very big fans of the apocalypse, man.


As a sidebar, this is one of several examples of the incredibly bad pacing of the series. For a few episodes it’s fine; then, about halfway through, as the eleven-year-old Antichrist levitates into the air and begins scaring his three friends, the plot just sort of parks there for a nap. He promises them that his new friends are coming … and then adds that his new friends are going to come real soon … with the extra detail that it won’t be long before his new friends are here. An entire episode passes without anything, you know, happening (and there are only six episodes in the series). This would be bad enough for a peripheral subplot, but it lies soggily at the center of the action, both structural and temporal.


Returning to the acting, the child acting of the Them is bad. Really bad. This is common enough for child acting, although cinema like Signs,2 IT: Chapter One, and Stranger Things have proven that it is not actually a necessity; and when four of the ostensible principals of the story, including the Antichrist, are eleven-year-olds, it's pretty momentously important that they be talented actors. The Them’s performances are not only stilted and unconvincing, but boring; you can't engage with them as characters at all.


This is partly because of big problem number three, which is a big number two: with the exception of Crowley and Aziraphale themselves, the characters are mostly left out. This might be forgivable in a movie; in a miniseries, and one with the leaden-footed, repetitive plod of this one, it isn't. The Them’s funniest and most believable lines and scenes in the book (notably their Spanish Inquisition) are all whittled down almost past recognition, and often robbed of their significance when they do make it in. A perfect example is the description of the precocious Wensley: in the book it’s mentioned that his parents ‘called him Youngster, in the hope that he might take the hint.’ In the miniseries, it’s mentioned that his parents called him youngster, and that’s it. No payoff. Just a fact about Wensley’s life, with no relevance to literally anything. The children are not the only characters to be thus maimed, but, given that they are at the center of the convergence of the other disparate plot threads—the Horsemen, Anathema Device, Aziraphale and Crowley, and the representatives of Hell and Heaven that are trying to force the apocalypse—it shows worst in the Them.


Maybe some of these abbreviating changes were made in the name of giving Jon Hamm's Gabriel more screen time? Which would be a really odd choice, because Gabriel isn't even in the book and serves no narrative purpose in the adaptation that book-originals couldn't—for instance, the Metatron, whom he replaces in the crucial (anti-)climax for, to all appearances, no reason whatsoever. Or if they were dead-set on getting Hamm for star power, why not cast him as, I don't know, the Metatron? It’d be a wrench to give up Derek Jacobi’s appearance in anything, true, but the Metatron is an actual character who fits into the plot and themes of the book, in a way that Gabriel doesn’t. This is a pointless change that adds nothing. People who haven’t read the book don’t benefit by it, and assholes like me write two thousand word screeds denouncing it.


Speaking of the themes—I can hardly believe I’m saying this about a script written by one of the co-authors of the original novel, but it botches them badly. The theme is summarized pretty well in the moment at the book’s climax, when Aziraphale grabs Crowley by the wrist, staring at Adam Young with a light of joy in his eyes, and says that (despite everyone’s best efforts), ‘He isn’t good or evil. He’s just—human.’ This is transposed to Aziraphale and Crowley telling Adam this in a weird video game cut scene, an emotional punch that has no force behind it, because Adam has never raised the question of his own goodness or badness and knows nothing about the efforts of others to control him.


This meandering blandness washes into the showdown between Adam and Satan, another adaptation addition, where Adam rejects Satan because … Satan’s not his real dad, because he wasn’t there for him as a kid? Yeah, that’s the reason. Huh. Okay. This big-lipped alligator of a clichéd let-me-explain-this-with-my-words motive has no setup, no relevance to anything that happens, and no character payoff since Adam had already made his pivotal decision, but there it is. Humans aren’t fundamentally good or evil! but if Satan had been emotionally available to Adam Young then maybe the world would have ended on schedule. Plot!


And then we’re still not done for some reason because Aziraphale and Crowley have to be punished by their respective sides, because it’s not yet sufficiently clear that heaven and hell are actually both full of jerks, I guess. This isn’t terrible, and honestly almost any pretext to get Sheen and Tennant on screen as these characters is worth the contrivance, but—particularly though not only because of the twist it’s resolved in—it adds nothing and goes nowhere, since both the information and the character development it ostensibly represents are things we already had from the first five and a half episodes.


So, yeah. Thing Bad, or at best Thing C+ (I’d have said D- but Tennant and Sheen really are that phenomenal). I’m almost pissed I signed up for Amazon Prime to watch it.




1Not to be confused with Michael Sheen.
2Yes, I will fight you: the child acting in Signs is excellent. I admit I did start hating M. Night Shyamalan pretty late; I even enjoyed Lady In the Water, though I did and do acknowledge that it has some major problems and, ahem, dubious casting decisions. This doesn’t change the fact that Abigail Breslin and Rory Caulkin gave remarkably good performances in Signs.
3To be clear, the use of Queen does not require explanation in any context whatever; but when an explanation is (1) offered, (2) funny, and (3) one of the running jokes of the whole book, mayhap it belongs in the narration.
Also yes, I realized while copying this into blog post form that I'd moved a paragraph without correcting the footnote numbers. Sorry.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Gender Jamboree, Part One

Now I know your heart, I know your mind
You don’t even know you’re being unkind
So much for all your highbrow Marxist ways
Just use me up and then you walk away
Boy you can’t play me that way

Well I guess what you say is true
I could never be the right kind of girl for you
I could never be your woman

—White Town, Your Woman (lyrics by Jyoti Prakash Mishra)

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Due to Reasons™, the new hot-button issue of the kulturkampf seems to have moved to trans issues rather than gay issues. Due to most Catholics understanding trans issues even more poorly than they understand gay issues—an unenviable accomplishment—I feel it’s worthwhile to do some mansplaining here at Mudblood Catholic. However, before I begin, I wish to make two disclaimers. One, which technically is a disclaimer appended to this entire blog (see the ‘About the Mudblood’ box at the bottom of the page), is that I submit everything I say to the final judgment of the Catholic Church. I contend pretty strongly that the Church has not in fact defined her final judgment in these matters, but if and when she does so, by ecumenical council or pontifical definition, I will accept that.

The other is that I write this primarily because I know a lot of Catholics will listen to a cis1 person more willingly than they’ll listen to a trans person. I am not writing this because I’m any kind of expert on trans issues. I’m very much an amateur, and I urge anyone who’s willing to do so to go to trans sources rather than me. Natalie Wynn of the Contrapoints channel on YouTube, though she wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste stylistically, is an intelligent and engaging exponent of trans theory whom I recommend; Daniel Ortberg, a columnist for Slate, is another prominent source on trans issues2; and though I haven’t read their work, I understand that Thomas Page McBee, Imogen Binnie, Raquel Willis, and Akwaeke Emezi are generally well-regarded by the trans community.


Right, now that those are out of the way, what’s up with this left-wing genderist stuff anyway?

A review complete revision of high school biology is in order to start with.3 The format we were taught was that, at conception, XX chromosomes make a girl and XY chromosomes make a boy. This is roughly true, but it is an oversimplification because it was high school biology. Without touching the other aspects of gender (social, psychological, and spiritual), we may consider at least three on a strictly biological basis: chromosomes, gonads, and phenotype. This is going to get kind of technical, so bear with me.

There are two basic sex chromosomes in Homo sapiens, codified as X and Y. Most humans have two sex chromosomes in their cells, of which one is always X: thus, a vast majority of people have either XX chromosomes or XY chromosomes. XX people are female, XY people are male. Clear, but not quite accurate to all human biology.


The other two biological components of sex are gonads, or reproductive organs (either ovaries or testes), and phenotype, or the shape and appearance of the body (including the external genitals, the breasts, and secondary sex characteristics such as body hair and voice). Most of the time, these three things develop straightforwardly and together, but occasionally they do not.

There are several ways and reasons that chromosomes, gonads, and phenotype can diverge from each other. Sometimes the divergence comes in the reproductive cells themselves. For instance, there are a tiny number of XX males: the sex-determining SRY protein, which is normally attached to the Y chromosome, in rare instances gets exchanged to an X chromosome during the production of sperm, thus producing persons who are genetically female (XX chromosomes) but who frequently appear entirely male (male phenotype) and have testes rather than ovaries (male gonads). This is one of many intersex conditions,4 biological states in which male and female characteristics are mixed. Sometimes intersex conditions produce visible ambiguities, sometimes not.

Another example of intersex biology is CAIS, complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. People who have CAIS have XY chromosomes and testes, but their cells do not respond to androgens at all (androgens are the hormones responsible for masculine sexual development and characteristics; testosterone is the best-known androgen). Hence, their phenotype is wholly female: the testes don’t descend, but remain where the ovaries would be in the abdomen; a vagina rather than a penis forms—often the passage is shallower than in cissex1 women, but it’s there; the breasts develop in feminine form; body hair and voice are typically female. CAIS typically isn’t discovered until puberty, at which point the absence of menstruation generally prompts a visit to the doctor.5

There are other intersex or otherwise unusual biologies in human beings, and I won’t linger over them, interesting though the subject is. The point I’m making here is not that gender is a social construct because biology is a confusing science—we’ll get to that discussion—but simply to point out that, even though it covers a majority of people, the black-and-white idea that male and female are totally obvious in every case just isn’t true. That doesn’t mean that male and female don’t exist, any more than the phenomena of dawn and dusk mean that day and night don’t exist. But it is a very good reason to be patient and cautious and ready to learn, before we make snap judgments about other people. It certainly calls for theological examination and reflection, as distinct from simply quoting Genesis 2 and calling trans people Satan.

As a matter of fact, Genesis 2, and the rare passing reflections on it made by St Paul, seem to hint at the coïnherence as well as the distinction of the sexes. Adam is caused by God essentially to give birth to Eve6; he is male, and yet he is maternal, as is artistically proper to a person formed out of the earth (which is always Mother Earth in myth). And the Apostle says frankly, in the very act of confirming the distinction between women and men in the symbolism of liturgical dress, that nevertheless woman and man depend upon each other and each comes from the other, and both from God—harking back, maybe, to his earlier7 letter to the churches in Galatia, in which he said rapturously that there is no male or female in Christ. Indeed, the Virgin Birth itself, re-rooting the human race and the Second Adam in a sinless woman, reverses the pattern of the creation narrative: again birth takes place by the direct intervention of God, but this time it is a woman who is given the role then appointed for the male, and the flesh of her flesh, whom she also names, is the male—the same Man who, once again in sleep, gives birth from his side to the Church.



Again, none of this is to say that sex or gender don’t really exist. It is to say that we may not always understand them perfectly, and that God is apparently prepared to do surprising things with them sometimes. There’s a great deal more to be said—we haven’t even gotten to trans identities as such yet. But I think this forms a good period for the moment.

Go here for Part Two.

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1For those not familiar, the prefix cis- is simply the opposite of the prefix trans-; both are derived from Latin: the former means approximately ‘on this side of,’ while the latter means ‘on the far side of, beyond.’ (For example, when a part of the Gaulish people settled in northern Italy, the Romans referred to that region as Cisalpine Gaul, i.e. ‘Gaul on this side of the Alps,’ and to the area of modern France as Transalpine Gaul.) Cisgender, or cis for short, is thus simply the contrary of transgender.
2Because qualifiers are necessary for friggin everything: I’m not saying I agree with everything these people have written (e.g., both are firmly pro-choice, and Wynn at least is an atheist). But it’s always better to learn about a human experience from the horse’s mouth.
3In starting here I am not saying that biology is the only thing to consider, nor the most important thing. But I do think biology is moderately accessible to people of all political and religious views, and it is something that (to be blunt) some churchmen do not seem adequately acquainted with, so it seems like a decent starting point.
4Intersex people used to be called hermaphrodites; the word comes from a myth about Hermes and Aphrodite having a child together, who had male genitalia, feminine breasts, and long hair, whom they uncreatively named Hermaphroditus. However, the word never really signified all intersex conditions in the first place, and is found insulting by some intersex people.
5There’s an incredibly problematic House episode about CAIS, if incredibly problematic House episodes are your thing.
6Perhaps we see here the faintest of hints from the Holy Ghost of our own future scientific discoveries, a sort of Easter egg. Adam has XY chromosomes, and Eve is made from Adam but is not simply a copy of Adam; she is made from his X side alone, which is then doubled, forming a person who is reflective and yet different. Thus man, in meeting his fellow, meets himself and becomes fully human by relationship. (Whether and to what extent Genesis 2 represents historical as well as mythical realities is for our purposes immaterial.)