“To rephrase Derrida, through jurisprudence of equality, the law that seeks to include trans subjects within the framework of liberalism is a cisnormativity thinking itself as anti-cisnormative, a cisnormativity in the consciousness of a liberating progressivism (original quote is ‘ethnocentrism’ in Derrida, 1967, 120).”
“What law seeks to do is to cast light, as Derrida asserts, through the use of reason, through legal rationalism, upon sets of otherwise confused facts and render decisions that best suit those facts. In other words, the court enacts justice. A line from science fiction will help clarify: “Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time.” The quote is from Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Captain Picard is asked to answer whether Data, an android (a machine built to look and imitate humans), is in fact a sentient being. He seeks to utilize the court as an instrument through which ‘irrelevances’ are ‘burned away’ for a ‘purer product’: the truth, that is to say the truth of Data’s being. Luckily for Data, his being is prefigured—for there are standards of sentience in the future, of humanity, that ultimately set him free as a ‘unique’ individual–the universal subject, the bearer of rights.
But what are these irrelevances and how do they differ from valid points in the construction of a person’s being? And Picard’s metaphor captures the essence of what courts do in this regard: That outside the light of the court’s reason is an unwanted and, in fact, irrelevant darkness. But does this darkness have any bearing on being, on the subject, the human, on the person being constructed in the court as a process of fact collection? Distinguishing the illegible, the law seeks to make known only a universal sense of a being. And thus legal theory, written as justice, is nothing more than a masked essentialism. It creates a universal subject—a transcendental subject—that burns away, or rather casts out, the ‘irrelevances’ that reason cannot ‘know’ and thus commits epistemic harm and violence to the subjects (read humans) whose lives are often lived in shadows that the light of law casts. Where are transgender people?”
I will try to keep this entry brief, since so much of it can come across as mansplaining (which is really just cis-splaining—but I’ll save that for another day). It’s in reaction to several blog posts concerning appropriation and expropriation of black femininity by cis gay men (I’m assuming the Time piece was referring to cis gays and not trans gay men, or asexual men with feminine identifications, or any number of gender-sexual pluralisms that cross-cut one another). It’s also in reaction to the general conversation about white feminists. (Can we call it white feminism? The blogosphere is agog with critiques of this amorphous thing we call feminism.)
First off, appropriation. It’s not cool. I think that much is certain. If you appropriate or expropriate identifications or epistemic practices for affectation, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not only demeaning to the individual who engages in said practice (hair swinging; weave wearing; earring dangling; tight pants donning; catwalk walking) for the purposes of enacting an identity, it demeans the purpose of the practice and the entire group.
However, as this piece seems to indicate, there is a certain ownership that is being cast of over some enactments and not others. When I say enactments, I’m referring specifically to the practices of everyday life that constitute identity—the habits that, through repetition and interiorization, become the foundation of self-knowledge. Thus it is epistemic. My problem is the notion that any specific practice can be owned by any single person, or any single group.
Ownership. The word, so western and neoliberal, is now being applied to identity categories and subject positions within the discourses on feminism. Why does this not dismay more people? Let me give an example. If a subject is engaging in a set of epistemic practices that ze feels is emancipatory/cognitively necessary for ze’s well-being, I sincerely believe that we should respect ze’s practices and let ze live within those self-knowledge creating practices. Ze is not commodifying the practice of, say, Beyonce feminism. Ze is living and engaging in the practice at the epistemic level, creating the beautiful and unique ze.
This level of cognition, of practice, differs from the cis white gay boy who seeks to endear himself to his black friends by catwalking, throwing his ‘hair’ back, or pretending to take off hooped earrings. Those actions commodify the practices of the black lived experience. He seeks to take this commodity and deploy it in ways that for him do not work at the level of the epistemic. Rather, he takes them as humorous, as affectations, as representations of things he cannot (and probably should not) be. He, like the author of the Time piece indicates, doesn’t have to worry about coming across as an angry black woman; or being harassed on the street by police or any number of men; or any number of statistically relevant injustices that being an ethnic minority in this country necessarily entails. The cis white gay boy can return to being white; to being gay; to passing within a culture that tends not to police his body in the regular amounts that it does for, say, a trans woman of color.
But notice the distinction. Ze’s actions are epistemic, constituting a set of identifications that ze incorporates into the everyday. Ze is white. Ze is genderfluid. Ze is also gay. The gay boy of the Time piece, however, commodifies. Yet, is ze as guilty as the gay boy of expropriation or appropriation? That cognitive distinction seems important in the ongoing deliberations we have about identification/identity, about being/becoming. Because if a particular practice is always already owned by another group, then so much for intersectional epistemology, and there goes attempts of de-rigidifying the patriarchal and racist edifice of social categories.
Second, and lastly, white feminism. Is there such a thing. Sure radical feminism. I can’t speak much about my appreciation for radical feminists these days, most of whom are decidedly white. They tend to be TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) who seek to ‘tear down’ the gender binary yet have no compunction when doing so simultaneously denigrates transmen and transwomen. They are collateral damage.
But not all white feminists are decidedly radical. I admire black/poststructural/trans- feminism alike. I’m certain that J. Butler wouldn’t call herself radical in the sense indicated above. Nor would J. Halberstam. bell hooks is off that list, alongside Michelle Alexander and a host of others. And though the last two are black feminists and the former are queer white theorists/feminists, they are all intersectional readers and thinkers. Yet, will they or do they speak past one another. Does being white, or black, carry with it arrays of knowledge that are inherently incommensurable? Perhaps. Perhaps not. And so it becomes important to self-reflexively revise what we think to be virtuous in our own epistemic evaluations of others, theories, experiences, and facts. Anzaldua may have said that sometimes she’s a bridge, and sometimes she isn’t. But we not always withdrawn from one another–hence the importance of revisability.
The demands that we make on each other must (and I stress must) incorporate within them the self-critical realization that our epistemic values may in fact be vices, not virtues. That when we consider ourselves already right because of our social positions as either oppressed or privileged within the discourses of feminism, we have already begun a losing battle that, let’s face it, simply feed into dominant power relations.
I was taking a bath earlier, enjoying a cold beer, listening to this song—but specifically watching this video, nearly on repeat for about half-an-hour. I had a few thoughts about it I wanted share.
Now, off the bat, as a cis-queer guy, I can’t speak for my trans* identifying friends, colleagues, and community members. I can only speak for myself and do the best I can to admit of the privileges that give me passage through this sometimes shitty culture. White + Cis = One extremely potent combo. As such, I can often take up positions that seem authoritative, to the point of obviating other voices within the various communities I represent in my discourse. Doing so contributes to epistemic injustices, as I have elsewhere explained. Be warned, then. I’m attempting to mobilize a huge number of identities in this brief entry—and trying not to do injustice to a single one.
But this video. It did something to me. Andrew Garfield gave something that other cis-actors have not in their representations of queer and transgender people—a look at pain, and denial, the non-triviality of the introspective bodily gaze, in a way that doesn’t play into stereotype. If only we could have more transgender actors playing these roles, and telling their stories—that would be ideal.
What I mean to say is that this video, I think, is not of Andrew Garfield in drag. Sure, that’s who is acting, and that’s what he’s doing. But the child in this video seems to be experiencing something far more personal than what color blouse to wear. Rather, “what color blouse to wear that allows me to pass in this shithole town”? Scant makeup. Long hair. Painted nails. Her eyes ache and her lips tremble. She seems in pain. This portrayal of pain poses a potential problem, putting a ‘trapped in the wrong body’ narrative forward that a number of activists condemn (see the latest entry on it in TSQ by Ulrica Engdahl). As Engdahl argues, however, this narrative does serve to destabilize the gender binary through the lived or situated-ness of a trans* experience. Is the person in this video a part of that narrative?
I’m not saying this is a go-to pop cultural reference for trans* studies. I’m not even saying that this is an excellent representation of trans* being or becoming. I could push further and say that although this facilitates a potential dialogue about the trans* experience for white folks, it doesn’t cover the spectrum of race. It leaves out the violence that queer and trans* people of color face daily. Too, it may yet be taken only as a ‘drag’ performance.
But it touched me. It reminded me that these sorts of stories are more frequently getting told and that that’s a good thing. But in that more frequent telling, whereby our cultural scripts about gender, sex, sexuality, and identity become more unstable—it behooves us to learn what it does mean to be trans*, or non-binary, or all within the umbrella of what Paisley Currah calls gender pluralism. These pop-culture representations, however beautiful and touching, are only the surface of a much larger part of our diverse social-collective.