Transition: Toward a New Evaluation of Historical Consciousness and the Transgender Subject of History

[Note: Totally needing revisions, but hell–why not post it somewhere? This is my work, and any attempt to reproduce it without my permission is strictly prohibited. If you like it, ask me about it. If you hate it, let’s still talk. :-)] 

Let’s “Make” History Together

In this transition/interlude I hope to provide some notes toward rethinking the role of history in the construction of transgender subjectivity. If a transition/interlude is a pause in the normal production of things, a movement toward another related act, then I would like to (re)consider and to “play” with the historical and phenomenological assumptions in the preceding chapters and find irruptions within them. It uses Marx’s observation on the constructed-ness of history and his historical and social ontology as points of departure. Animating this departure is the peculiar question of gender. What is peculiar about the question of gender? It is announced in the forgetfulness we experience when the question is posed. We seem vaguely aware of gender’s transparency. We “know” what gender is now. There “are” transgender people in the world. This “is” what it means “to be” transgender. Have we forgotten how to interrogate those assertions? Can we reopen the field of interrogation to penetrate the veil of our inherited, albeit more “progressive”, views of gender? Have we been so overcome with our admiration for historical analyses and social construction of the human body—in particular of the theories ranging from performativity to subjectivity of the 90s and 2000s? Perhaps these questions about the phenomenality of trans became superfluous, or obvious, or (more than likely) simply too theoretically out of place to ask.

            But history, like any set of human affairs, is not a sphere of isolable influence and autonomy. It is also not a collection of facts that researchers simply access through a consolidated record. It remains an important aspect of human life, of course, as conceptualizations of the past tend to (re)shape our present. But so many conceptions of history stun our attempts to apprehend it. History is a march toward progress (but what is progress?). History is one made by class struggle (why are classes so ontologically prioritized?). History is a ruse of reason (does this mean that no history is, in itself, possible and real?). In a remarkable passage, Marx (1978) asserts that “Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as the please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (595). History is “made” but is always bound up with the vestiges of a past that constitutes its “making” even after the some of that past has fallen out of memory. But this influential observation prompts more questions, conceals more than it intended to unveil—not least of which concerns the givenness of the past’s tyranny, its nightmare-like hold over the presumptively sleeping masses (which, a fortiori, reduces history to tradition), and the how of a people’s forgetfulness for its own historical sake.

Marx’s theory posits the engine of history as class struggle(s) ones that act on the present in ways that have “knowable” consequences. Grasping the power of this engine is an important step toward articulating present and future events that will bring about human emancipation from traditional forms of control. For Marx, this emancipation is from capitalism and its socially atomizing effects. It kills social and political power of the dispossessed. His philosophical forebear, Hegel (DATE), had already posited that history and the historical subject (hu/man) were both geared toward the realization of Absolute Knowledge, or Spirit. This epistemic achievement would emancipate the hu/man and become the end of history. Heidegger, Benjamin, and Foucault all shared a similar attitude toward either of these commonplaces in the philosophy of history and history’s role on the construction of the subject. Their contributions, though not reducible to the term, can be seen as genealogies and archaeologies that challenge history’s “unity”. Rather, these last three thinkers saw power where others saw the machinations of manifest reason or the outcomes of class struggle. Nietzsche (1968) perhaps sums these alternative (and perhaps more radical) views of history as cause and effect, of a series of events recorded in time: “the unalterable sequence of certain phenomena demonstrates no ‘law’ but a power relationship between two or more forces…[i]t is a question, not of succession, but of interpenetration. […] We need unities in order to be able to reckon: that does not mean we must suppose that such unities exist (Nietzsche 1968, pp. 336, 338)” These insights had been consolidated between Nietzsche and Foucault in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s (2003) rethinking of history within the human sciences in Truth and Method (pp. 218-231).

In Chapter 1, I argue that the feminist epistemological method requires a coherent ontology of gender (see Alcoff [1996] for a considerable analysis of coherence theory). But this ontology needs to be radically reassessed. The being of transgender has been reduced, as it were, as the other of cisgender. But this “othering” has the consequence of shaping the theory of transgender knowledge through a constant return to cisgender consciousness, definition, categories, and modes of presentation. Indeed, it leaves no room the equiprimordiality of cis and trans as disclosures of, and thus co-constituted within, the phenomena of gender(s). In that chapter, the historical record had been partially interrogated through the archive, and will be further interrogated theoretically in Chapter 4. Yet, those who write within historical methods are caught within a “turn” toward language that overemphasizes its constitutive power, falsely denying its power to disclose phenomena (for examples of this “turn”, see Valentine 2007; some might be found in the considerable historical researches in Meyerowitz 2006). I also suggest there is confusion in epistemology as to the role of the historical a priori—or the discursive practices that mold a thing’s (il)legibility as phenomenon. It is particularly striking concerning the way transgender consciousness is formed, persists, and is/was consolidated as identities through time.

Although the two thinkers I have in mind may be taken to be at odds in terms of their theoretical commitments, both Benjamin and Heidegger share the belief that history is not isolated in a dead “past”, nor is it a sovereign driving force of the present and future. As much as Marx would like to have history “weigh” on the living as a nightmare, Benjamin (1999) argues that history is itself a series of “nows” that offer legibility to things. If history is indeed a dream, then the waking is the now. Radically, there is no singular truth to an existence, in history or otherwise. It is a thing’s “movement in [its] interior” (ibid., p. 462) that privileges history’s profusion of “nows”. This thing’s “interior” refers to the concealed, plural truths within phenomena (for Benjamin: images, events, and subjects) inhabiting the world. Indeed, we work to forge the constellation of nows, such that “each ‘now’ is the now of a particular recognizability. In [the now], truth is charged to the bursting point with time” (p. 463). The now is the flash of the past and present together. Departing from Marx, Benjamin argues that the past doesn’t “cast light on the present”. His demanding postulate is that past and present fuse together in an instant to form the constellation of meaning, bridging the known, to-be-known, and knower. In this way, “timeless” truths do not exist. Truth is not predicated on the knowing subject’s apprehension of a thing as it has been, nor its being-ness. Rather, truth is bound within a nucleus that conjoins the knowing and known. It is ephemeral.

What does this mean to the historical subject, or to the human who is both the maker, and made, of history? The knowing subject is cast within a non-linear time. S/he is not constructed by the past, but is brought about within conditions of h/er own legibility. This, however, does not suggest that phenomena are bound, in terms of their existence, to humans. Further, phenomena that the knowing subject seeks to comprehend are not bound by circumstances. They are always already present in some form or other, but are brought into view by power and forces that shape the phenomena’s disclosure. For this reason, that phenomena take on plural forms that are subject to power, or the interpenetration of Niezschean forces, phenomena must be “rescued”. Benjamin (1999) calls the bind of phenomena the “enshrinement in heritage” (p. 473). Benjamin does not consign past interpretations of phenomena as “historical” only. Rather, phenomena are perennial engagements with subjectivity. These engagements, the attempt to understand and interpret phenomena, reveal that within each phenomenon are fissures—irruptions of meaning that are not reducible merely to the time in which they appear. Seeing history through what he calls Messianic Time—that is from the viewpoint of both local contingency and the possibility transcendent disclosure—Benjamin restages phenomena in terms of their “now”, but also in terms of how the present may engage in the “brutal grasp” of rescuing them from constraining traditions of thought, culture, and discipline (ibid., p. 473).[1]

On these preceding points, Heidegger (2010), as I read him, does not dramatically deviate. Benjamin’s (1999) sparse notations of Heidegger—written before Heidegger’s political disfavor—generally illustrate his phenomenology in dull tones. He admits that Heideggers had secularized history, a move that doesn’t fit within the theological cosmology that guided Benjamin’s thinking (p. 472).[2] I do think that reading these thinkers’ views on phenomena’s historical grounding would be productive. Heidegger (1999) assesses the conjecture that what is “now” is the only version of “reality” that can be said to exist. We cannot know the past as a living thing in the present as much as we can say that future exists as a living state. Only the living moment matters. But this does not arrogate the importance history plays in the formulation of Being. He argues that history itself, or “being in history” does not ultimately transform phenomena. In this sense, history shouldn’t be the starting point for the interrogation of what the meaning of phenomena is. To do so would be to sever Being from the process of its disclosure. Phenomena do not come into existence historically. They are disclosed as a result of multiple elements that make them legible (language, time, place, culture, etc.). These axes are all important as they all occur “in time”. But Heidegger (1999) adds that “history does not so much mean the kind of being, the occurrence, as [much as] the region of beings that one distinguishes…” (p. 379, emphasis my own). Phenomena and their being are thus placed within a “region” of intelligibility and disclosure, partitioned for some significance—but not wholly constituted by it.

Heidegger’s emphasis of being’s “historicity” is important. History and time are not the same. “Beings do not become ‘more historical’ as we go on to a past ever farther away, so that what is most ancient would be the most authentically historical” (ibid., p. 364). What is past is no longer, or what has been. He poses the question of how the “past” is to be found in the “present”. When one says that the past is present, or that the hu/man is a product of the history, how is this justified? There is nothing historical in an phenomenon’s objective presence (that is really existing in the “now”)? If a “world” can be said to no longer exist, for instance that of the ancient Greek or Persian civilizations, then how can one assert that is this world of antiquity juts itself into the present? For Heidegger, these probing questions open up the possibility to think of Being as always already existing, coming into view and understood and interpreted as phenomena through the course of history. That is to say, humans within a region of history not only define phenomena in this way or that. Phenomena also “act” on humans in such a way that disclosure runs both ways—phenomena appears, is concealed and hidden, or “thrown” into the world. Being “thrown” into the world, phenomena do not as such shape history. “[h]istory is neither the connectedness of movements in the alteration of objects, nor the free-floating succession of experiences of ‘subjects’” (ibid., p 369). History occurs, so to speak, as a product of being-in-the-world. It is neither an autonomous sphere that operates linearly toward an inevitable end (Hegel), nor is a purely constitutive factor in the modes of human existence (Marx). History is linked with modes of Being. Historical sciences take their task to uncover the “truths” of these modes of being, of those that “have been” within a world that is “gone”. In this way, the existence of these being’s truths must already be presupposed as history’s objects.[3] Beings are “thrown” into the world, the truths to which are not to be found only in their “age” or “epoch”. For Heidegger, however, such beings’ historical facticity is based on uncovering their rootedness in life as lived, in its everydayness, but not in the move toward generalizing about an age, its constitutive hold over phenomena, and the eternal “truth” that is grasped by the statement “that is how it was”.

When I argue that David Valentine’s (2007) ethnographic work, animated by an historiographical motive, limits “transgender” within regions of time (and for that matter space), I implicate his inattention to transgender being outside method. His consideration of trans/gender sees the history of transgender as only possible because of the disclosures of gender in the 20th century, which itself contains the potted history of sexual difference, sexuality, and burgeoning social justice movements for race and class. His paradoxical appropriation of Foucault’s historical methods (which itself borrows from Heidegger) puts transgender as a mere byproduct of historical consciousness. It thus enshrines “transgender” because, as a term, it only has modern meaning. But the phenomenal aspects of transgender are concealed in this modernizing view. That transgender is “thrown” into modern view does not limit historical investigation. Valentine summons into historical relief that category “transgender”, full stop, without interrogating the cisgenderist assumptions that conceal transgender life in its plurality.

Foucault’s own methods concerning history borrow not just from Heidegger’s phenomenology and critiques of historicism. They offer an insight into just how one goes about rescuing phenomena. His term, “subjugated knowledges” stems from the observation that certain kinds of enunciations and discursive practices do not reach the “level” of knowledge because it is disqualified. It doesn’t meet certain parameters that are set forth within the boundedness of a historical region’s “episteme”, or subjects making statements about the world, their bodies, their lives, may be deemed unfit to make such enunciations. His theorizing of psychiatric knowledge in The History of Madness (DATE), attests to this idea. Particularly striking is an observation Foucault made in a response to Derrida’s (DATE) philosophical critique of the work. Hearkening to Descartes’s passage on madness and dreams, Foucault notes that for Descartes’s historical moment the law would often disqualify certain men and many women from speaking in civil hearings, criminal proceedings, and the like. They didn’t possess the necessary “mind” to make reasonable statements about the world. They were not “insane” but rather inadequate to the task. Where do these holders of knowledge, those would-be speakers who “know” but cannot express their knowledge, go within the course of history? Foucault (2003) suggests that attention to discursive practices (local embodiments of and resistances to discourse) retain traces of these knowledges and its bearers (see p. 7).

My pointing toward Foucault’s work in The History of Madness is deliberate. Trans from its beginnings was considered a psychiatric illness. Trapped in the wrong body, those who felt deep discomfort with their gender/sex alignment had to seek out surgical, hormonal, or other non-medical means of attaining an embodiment that “matched”. They were considered in a certain sense mad on the part of the medical establishment—and in everyday life, often interpenetrated by medical discourses and coherent beliefs about the biological givenness of sex (anything other than what would be “cis” was freakish, monstrous [see Styrker DATE]). Medical commentators spoke of the “subjective” idealities of transsexual embodiments (Drake 1974). It is no wonder that many cis scholars who wrote on the issue during the latter half of the 20th century, often seeking to emancipate the transgender person and transsexual from the iron cage of illness, nevertheless spoke in explicitly “physiological” terms. Ann Bolin (Undated, “Transcending and Transgendering), in a chapter draft spoke of sex and gender in biological and social terms, respectively. She made clear the distinction between the “physiological” woman and the transsexual woman (ibid., p. 5). Her concepts of gender identity and social identity further wedge the private experience from those within public view. Her work develops the concept that social construction and medical discourse has disclosed transgender subjectivity to the world, making possible the “scripts” by which transsexual people could then utilize to obtain necessary medical recourse for their embodied identification. It even rejects the essentialism built into the medical discourse that govern the sayability of trans identifications. But, “[t]he transsexual identity from its inception was a medicalized one…” (Bolin, Undated, p. 17).

True enough. Gleaning the historical record, one would attest to the disclosure of transsexuality through medical discourses only in the 20th century. But this cannot end an investigation that conceives of the study of trans history and being as one beginning with any preoccupation with gender. Indeed, this history is a parsing out of interpenetrating forces that deny independence of trans from its narrative in science and cis. If medicalization created the terrain in which the world could “speak” of trans, this grammar did not constitute the its entire disclosure. “First, let met state that ‘gender dysphoria’ has never meant confusion of who I was or am” (Undated, The Quest). Perhaps I could tweak Marx’s critique of the “now”. Our modern understanding of gender is indeed haunted by dead generations like a nightmare. It treats trans/gender as if the subjects slept, waiting until an autonomous science in history cast light on it. But this history only does so by weighing trans/gender being with both biological determinism and social construction. These two discourses root themselves in inquiries that privilege must necessarily understand gender as cis. This history is a refusal—namely that trans being could not, by fact of words and biology, have existed as such before the 20th century’s disclosure of such a human condition. If my project at least hints at desubjugating trans knowledges from their capture in histories told in cis terms, it must be animated by the “insurrectionary power of knowledge” (Foucault, 2003, p. 9). Rather than hinge on a science of history, the dual projects of genealogy and archaeology upend established continuities and historical developments that seem naturally connected. My project would seek to challenge assumptions “or power-effects characteristic of any discourse that is regarded as scientific” (ibid.). It would have a political aim at liberating trans from an account of gender that has as its historical a priori the ontology of cis/gender.

Thus, trans as an equiprimordial mode of existence, as always already “there”, one coequal to cis and thus co-constitutive of the phenomenon of gender in the west, needs considerable ontological refiguring. It means that trans folx, though not disclosed as being such in historical terms, shaped the historical record that is lost or hidden beneath the sediments of other narrative powers that define not only identity but various phenomenal states of human being. A “transsexual first” would not be the surgical and medical, but the lived, local, and conscious (cf. “A Transsexual First”, Undated). This project is aimed at combating the “confessional” isolation of subjectivity that Foucault traced from monastic cell to psychiatric office (DATE; cf. Berg, 1957) It would mean the recognition of the considerable advances in archaeology that have discovered trans-oriented identities as phenomena in other cultures centuries old, as spanning histories and geographies that escape the reclamation of psychiatry (Trans Studies Reader 2, CITE).

It is unfortunate, however, that Foucault’s (2003) immediate optimism that students of history should continue to “accumulate” without fear that “we will be colonized” would be quickly circumvented (p. 11). Colonization of trans studies has been underway for some time. Transgender is treated categorically as self-present identity–the “I know who I am”. Identity categories tend toward not only porosity, taking in various other terms of existence, lived realities, but also the uninterrogated assumptions of those positioning themselves within it. Categories also tend to be self-disciplining. This dialectic constitutes its own forms of refusal. Further, treated as a category, as a text or script, trans is no longer lived in terms of actual life, but lived in terms of expected enactment. Seen through the lens of this performance (not performative), trans loses it autonomy to speak for itself. In terms of that enactment, only certain kinds of enactments are legible within the “text” of the trans category. Trans becomes susceptible to white-washing in a culture that extols whiteness. It is subject to cis-passing in a culture that praises public appearance in terms of “respectability”, “dignity”, and “recognizably” in binaristic ways. In short, even scholars who write about trans in broad and self-described emancipatory ways that trans no longer speaks (Spivak 1989). It succumbs to the powerful forgetfulness of those who, now believing trans can exist on co-equal terms with cis (but always on and within cis terms), can leave gender’s coeval ontological status alone. Could it be the case of that the question of gender, the particulars that have been “wrested from [the] phenomena [of gender] by the highest exertion of thought…has…been trivialized” (Heidegger, 2010, p. 1)? We must seek not just to ask the “right” questions, but clear the ground of assumptions that trans/cis is merely dichotomous. They are both built in elements of gender’s being, equiprimordial. Gender has come to mean only cis-, only naturalized bodies, only transitions from this to that if one is to “be” “authentically” trans. Gender’s grounding must be cleared.

[1] In the “convolute” regarding his theories of knowledge and progress in The Arcades Project, Benjamin makes frequent references to Marxism—but generally avoids extolling orthodox historical materialism. He rejects that all history and consciousness can be reduced to class struggle. He situates the hu/man within the machinery of capitalism, and critiques modern liberal theories of knowledge as symptoms, but departs from Marxism’s interpretation of capitalism’s foothold in modern everydayness.

[2] “My thinking is related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 471).

[3] If there were no presupposition of unknown truths, there would be no need of interrogation for any science!


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