‘I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.’
Major Motoko Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell
In the 1995 anime version of Ghost In The Shell, we’re offered both the dream and the nightmare of trans politics. Ghost In The Shell is particularly incisive, in that it won itself a place in millions of young minds, including mine, without openly presenting itself as a film about trans lives. Yet the cyborgs, and Motoko Kusanagi in particular, are undoubtedly transgender: they choose and change their bodies based on what relationship they desire from that body. But the near-future Japan of Ghost In The Shell is horrific, an increasingly feasible mesh of neoliberal militarisation, racism, and class stratification. Except that the process of classing is expressed through how much self-determination, how many augmentations, people have over their body. Major Kusanagi, our protagonist, is essentially a killer cop, a spook, a witchfinder general, only slightly redeemed by her willingness to question whether she actually ever existed.
Those questions – Am I really real? Have I ever existed? Or am I a ghost of an identity? – are ones many trans people will recognise: the visceral confusion that comes about from knowing how you feel and experience your body, but having that experience jar so powerfully with what meaning other people and society give to it. It is a question that Ghost In The Shell’s non-cyborgs never really have to ask: as long as cyborgs exist then a certainty in their humanity is assured. In the same way, cis society rarely has to justify its claims to gender normality. Maybe it would be useful if it did.
A materialist transfeminism offers us a way to understand what capitalism attempts to do to the body, and Ghost In The Shell reminds us that there is no technological teleology escape hatch out of gendered oppression; a world where the apex of cyborg technology is utilised primarily to infuse certain bodies with more power for social control is a nauseating one, which determines which bodies are ‘real’ and accepted as authentic, and those which, through their transgressions, are deserving of violence.
There is something important in the relationship between how those at the margins are presented and interpreted, and the way that the body, the surplus body, is used as a means of managing the reproduction of social relations. The dream of a world without surplus, illegitimate bodies is not feasible without a society that relies on surplus. When it comes to the political task of class recomposition, in the autonomist sense of something that is both imposed by the changing drives of capitalism, and that we do by feeling our way through struggles, there has to be an incorporation of bodies-made-surplus. The delegitimisation of surplus bodies isn’t unique to trans people – and the mobilisation of that revulsion-politics, of not being real, is transferable. And not just because those discourses could mutate and contaminate others. Capitalism reproduces itself by making and re-making surplus humanity.
What can we take from the oppression and corresponding agency of trans lives to bolster an understanding of class composition? I hope to offer some questions that, in the exploration thereof, point towards potential answers. It is an approach rooted in the reality of gendered oppression. And it is rooted in the recognition of agency: that trans people are not deluded, or mendacious, but are actors capable of understanding themselves. I want to look at transgender lives as things that are done, acts on the body that only make sense due to social relations: the labour of human life that is at the core of Marxism. Bound to this is an idea from queer theory – that we can and should question the permanence of all identities, all genders, whilst also trying to see the messy contradictions of bodies as they are – which makes for an enjoyably awkward adhesive.
This is not because identity is irrelevant to the discussion, but rather that its use obscures what is arguably more important: why and how those identities are made, and which bodies are legitimate enough to deploy them. Anyone looking for a definition of what trans people are won’t find one here. After Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors, this is not an attempt to seek self-justification; it is ‘not aimed at defining but defending the diverse communities that are coalescing’. In the time I’ve taken to write this article, the reins of the capitalist order, previously donning a more tolerant and ‘inclusive’ liberal-democratic guise, have been (in places and to differing extents) snatched by a far more revanchist group of politicians. Whilst we should remain skeptical of the idea that this somehow marks the end of that shapeshifter ‘neoliberalism’, it does suggest a further splintering of whatever hegemony exists – and hence a need to re-weigh our assumptions. It is precisely because of this – the fragility, in crisis, of the concept of progress – that we need a hope of assault as much as defence. And so this article is also an attempt to invoke that much-neglected dream – liberation.
The Tussle over Gender
Gender is a way of regulating and disciplining the relationship with the body. It is imposed on every body at birth, and often before. That imposition is oppressive in that the horizon of one’s action is suddenly limited, and for those assigned female this is violently oppressive. You are socialised, cajoled, encouraged and in some ways coerced to understand and use your body in a certain way, that may have no relationship to the way you perceive and experience it. In a sense, we are all alienated from our bodies, in that we have the ability to determine it seized from us. Alienation hurts differently depending on the body and the gender assigned, and the particular role that particular genders play at that point in history[*].
Gender is something done, in the first instance and thereafter, to the body. And the ways in which things are done to the body changes over history, over lifetimes. The spheres of legitimate activity, and what defines activity that can be punished by violence, change. Gender is mobilised and reformulated through history to serve or reflect particular needs. As Peter Drücker details in Warped, the maturation of capitalism, from European city-states to Late Victorian empire, was probably one of the most severe and structural periods of gendering. Though much has changed, popular common sense is still imbued with the binaried, heterosexist values of that era. What is often missing from our common sense understanding of that era was its disciplining function. It constituted an attempt to undermine the kind of sexual licentiousness, gender non-conformity and disavowal of gender roles that we see as progressive today. And a reaction to the joy-seeking behaviour of millions of people torn from the land and large feudal families into cramped, proletarian slum lives. There had been a crisis of social reproduction; the old forms of child-rearing and care-giving were cast to the wind, and the efficiency of the workforce suffered as a result. As Eleanor Burke Leacock showed in Myths of Male Dominance, the new, morally clean Victorian family, with man and wife in clearly demarcated roles, ‘the monogamous family as an economic unit’, was a historical novelty, something that bore little relation to the families these new proletarians had left, but which was lashed to the newly ascendant class society. Chance and conspiracy combined – the interplay between the needs of capitalists, unwilling to cede profit to the material demands of reproduction, and the ideological work of middle-class moralists, enthusiastic to demonstrate their own virtue through the denigration of others, helped cement the normality of the nuclear family and the corresponding instance of patriarchy.
What accompanied this moral crusade was the classification and othering of activities that people had participated in for centuries, but which proliferated in the expanding communities of industrial centres. Thus, homosexuality was defined before heterosexuality, and femininity and masculinity concretised into a chasm-separated pair of genders.
Colonialism implemented this process on a genocidal level. Indeed, the relationship between racialisation and gendering is often underplayed. People who did not understand their bodies in a binaried fashion were subject to devastation from colonising forces. As Feinberg outlines:
Antonio de la Calancha, a Spanish official in Lima … wrote that during Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s expedition across Panama, Balboa ‘saw men dressed like women; Balboa learnt that they were sodomites and threw the king and forty others to be eaten by his dogs, a fine action of an honorable and Catholic Spaniard …’
Freshly minted, the concepts of homosexuality and ‘abominable’ effeminacy became, in Drucker’s words, weapons ‘in the imperial arsenal’. The fact that colonised people engaged in same-sex desire and gender non-conformity could be weaponised to justify deadly violence against them, and to establish gendered norms as the basis for racial superiority. The genocide of native American people, says Feinberg, was justified through their ‘“devilish”… acceptance of sex/gender diversity’, and, concurs Drucker, ‘persecution of indigenous same-sex relations were widespread in Britain’s African colonies’.
Given that historical research is revealing, or rediscovering, more and more instances of same-sex desire and gender non-conformity dating back before antiquity, we should be wary of trying to understand the social function(s) of trans lives purely from the perspective of the Western present.
Whilst this may be pertinent when a response is needed to the reconstituted bigotry of claims – such as those made by Angela Epstein in a particularly abominable Telegraph piece – that trans is somehow ‘fashionable’, why does it matter in a discussion about liberation?
Much of the opposition to the legitimacy of transgender lives relies on a recourse to biological, scientific truth. This is, it should be remembered, a rationality that was produced in a specific historical context – one which its claims to objectivity can sometimes mask. Science, the story goes, shows us that there are male and female iterations of countless species, and therefore if we are to tolerate transgender people, we must understand them as mentally ill, confused. Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t a particularly rigorous application of an otherwise useful methodology – the scientific one that is – it ignores the fact that both in animals and in humans, the borders between bodies are not nearly as clearly demarcated as such a duality suggests. Research – outlined, for instance, in Claire Ainsworth’s ‘Sex Redefined’ in Nature, and Samantha Olsen’s ‘Challenging Gender Identity’ in Medical Daily – appears to confirm what was, for some, already evident: that even in science’s own terms bodies can’t be defined by genitals. A whole variety of biological factors, as well as the existence (despite violent attempts at making them invisible) of millions of intersex people, should lead us to question both the idea that the body has to be one of two categories, and that this categorisation is innate and immutable. How much of our science over the last few centuries has been so structured by the social role of gender that it has structured its findings to fit, and reinforce, the idea of an immutable gender binary?
It is, perhaps tellingly, easy to slip from a discussion about gender to a discussion about sex, and whilst the difference is not meaningless the fact that the slip can take place with such ease says something important. The idea that the two things are separate, that gender is an abstract conceptualisation of the material body, doesn’t help explain why the body can change as a result of historical changes to gender. Why is it that gender has developed to conjure a binary of discrete sexed bodies to serve as an authenticating or delegitimising concept? Appropriation under capitalism requires the regulation and measurement of the things to be appropriated – gender has been tooled as a means for class society to appropriate bodies and mechanise the forces of social reproduction. It is in this sense that Christine Delphy’s claim that ‘gender precedes sex’ in her essay ‘Rethinking Sex and Gender’ is so valid.
Jason Moore has shown, in his Capitalism in the Web of Life, how the development of the idea of the natural, again a modern phenomenon, has lead to a conception of technology as something exterior to an innate humanity. Yet, as humans, do we not change our social conditions, and in doing so, ourselves, including our bodies? And have we not always done so? What are we doing when we eat cooked food, if not technologically modifying our bodies? And, aside from indulging in the burgeoning sadism of survival reality shows, how can we possibly return to a state where we did not?
Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, a text remarkable for its prescience, and yet also purposefully, farcically hyperbolic, gives us something to work with when thinking about these ideas. She talks about a burgeoning ‘border war’ between ‘organism and machine’, and the cyborg, her political avatar, is ‘a creature in a post-gender world’. Statements like this in Haraway are both true and not true[†]. The idea of the natural makes less and less sense with the lived reality we experience and embody – how could an increasing enmeshing of flesh and technology ever live up to such an idealised purity? Yet Nature is still mobilised. The old world has not slipped away. It keeps us in its thrall, claiming to be the only thing that can make us happy, yet at the same time curdling the future.
These rapid technological transformations are not neutral – to make this point has become a cliché – and faced with destruction through militarised AI and the deprecation of fleshy labour workplace, nostalgia is not inherently reactionary. Indeed, as Mälm suggested in his essay in the last issue of Salvage, it can be a safeguard for dreams of emancipation. And trans people have just as much reason to be skeptical of accelerationism as they do the political weaponisation of the natural. Neither, though, present a convincing way to respond to capitalism’s current mélange of crisis and technological overdrive. And neither present a particularly compelling basis for class (re)composition. If social reproduction relies on making bodies surplus, on exclusion, how can we think about the formation of new collectivities of power in ways that overcome that process?
Our ability to perform vasectomies, mastectomies, HRT-therapy for women passing through menopause, precisely in order to make people safer, or because they want the procedures, is a fantastic use of technology. The fact that using the same technology to improve transgender lives is seen differently, that trans needs are attributed to pathology, is confusing, and confused. However, recognising the lack of innateness to gendered binaries is in no way enough for their power to dissolve. Again, we have to ask, what do we need to do to gender in order that it can no longer be used as a means of disciplining violence?
Why does society allow cis bodies to pass as natural and normal with next to no interrogation? It may punish those bodies for the assigned ‘natural’ qualities – a woman’s ‘weakness’ or ‘emotional irrationality’ – but not because the reality of that body is up for question. The key mobilising principle for violence against trans people seems to be that the claims suggested by their acts are unnatural, deluded and wilfully deceitful (accompanied by the pop cultural meme of men vomiting once they realise they’ve been ‘fished’ by a trans woman)[‡]. The implicit, and explicit, accusation: ‘You’re not real’. This reaction, often uttered with too much threat to have its own contradictions analysed, is worth unpicking. What it suggests is that a key part of gender’s role under capitalism is of identifying and categorising the bodies of worth. In Ways of Seeing, a series that dissected the development of images under capitalism, John Berger spoke about the ways in which changes to social relations structured the production of oil paintings:
What was real was what you could put your hands on … At the beginning of the tradition of oil painting, the emphasis on the real being solid was part of a scientific attitude. But the emphasis on the real being solid, on being what you could put your hands on, became equally connected with a sense of ownership.
Moore argues that categorisation and cartography were essential to the early waves of appropriation necessary for capitalism to successfully profit from wage labour. The appropriation of domestic and reproductive labour was just as vital as the appropriation of coal deposits – both required making distinctions and separations that could be used to determine value and worth. Hence, if something is to be owned, its value is up for question. The anger of those who realise and resent the ‘reality’ of transgender bodies is a form of buyer’s remorse – it arises from social categorisations that value bodies based on reproductive and productive worth. And those categorisations are ones we rarely have control over – we are alienated from any self-determination of the value and meaning of our own bodies.
There seems good reason, on that basis, to understand transgender lives as attempts made by people, who experience that pain of alienation, to seek some determination of their own bodies, principally to address that pain. Of course, this is not the only means by which people address that pain, though it is one that meets a particularly violent response. That said, we should be careful about imbuing the act of trying to live trans with a sense of political transgression – it is not brave, it is certainly not a shot at being edgy. It is an attempt at survival. Survival in this sense is not at odds with joy, but rather requires it. Anger needs joy as a complement, or else it folds into despair.
‘In a pass/fail situation, standards for acceptance may vary, but somebody always gets trampled on.’
Mattilda, aka Matt Bernstein Sycamore, Nobody Passes
Trans people are often criticised for perpetuating a concept of the gender binary. Whilst it is certainly the case that trans people, like all people, should and could be won to a project of eroding the edifice of gender, it’s difficult not to feel that there’s a problem with situating trans people as the source of blame for their own precarity. The terms of legitimacy are always up for negotiation – this is a good thing. Yet when that is weaponised against trans people, it can result in or legitimise transphobic violence. Those who make these critiques may want to join us in asking why the medical establishment is so hostile towards anyone who doesn’t do the binary dance for them. Similarly, refuges, hostels, foster homes and prisons continue to place harsh binaried boundaries on what constitutes a legitimate body, leaving trans people vulnerable to violence as a result.
What seems more worthwhile are the interventions by organisations which highlight and confront the particular oppression of trans people whilst combining that with a general critique of the institution in question. For instance, Action for Trans Health’s criticism of the prison system for its role in the deaths of transgender inmates is powerful for its refusal to accept the idea that prisons are necessary in the first place. In a climate where some – including in Pink News, in a piece titled ‘Government urged to build dedicated “transgender prison” after women sent to men’s prisons’ – respond to these deaths by demanding new prisons dedicated to caging trans people, this is a crucial point of distinction.
A world where gender no longer exists, or at least where the rigidity of gender is no longer used to exert violence and power, is a feature for our liberatory dream. Post-genderism has been explored as a political goal, in various guises, including by the xenofeminists of laboriacuboniks.net, by feminists, transfeminists and queer theorists alike. It would certainly be a horrific mistake, though, to mobilise a desire for such a world as a stick to beat trans people with, when they are faced with the pressure to fall into a binary. Not only is such policing simply bad politics – maybe an equivalent would be shouting at a picket line for preserving the factory, or reproducing the capital-labour relation – it’s also rarely practiced on those who see themselves as cisgender.
It is not merely, for a start, that many trans people would prefer not to pass, were it not for the violence. It’s that passing involves failing, as Mattilda explains above. There is a trade-off involved: of securing yourself safe passage home, whilst another is battered. But this isn’t simply a question of how brave individual trans people feel – it’s a question of how society uses gender to discipline and punish bodies. It’s a question that every body has an interest in, because the policing of bodies, by state or by vigilante, is violent, destructive and undermines all of our agency.
A Moment Without a Movement: Collective Transgender Agency
In this sense, any campaign for greater safety is, or at least should be, coupled with an attempt to affirm our claims to bodily self-determination. Campaigning for better access to healthcare, for less gatekeeping by GPs and Gender Identity Clinics, involves taking a collective stand against the bitterly pernicious idea that transgender lives are a mental illness. The legal recognition of non-binary people, as well as healthcare provision that doesn’t question the ‘agenda’ of non-binary people, would seem to be a goal in everyone’s interest.
However. We also need an imagination that overreaches immediate issues of safety, rights and health. Not because these things don’t matter, but rather because formal rights and structured oppression can happily co-exist – regimes of neoliberal democracies have increasingly sought to absorb the claims of oppressed people into a more effective tool of domination. We should be deeply skeptical of placing value in the acquisition of formal rights when they are used to incorporate people in the legitimisation of a violent border regime. The fact that feminism and LGBT rights are used as ideological lubrication for imperialism and colonialism, aided and abetted by the calcified remnants of social movements, does not end oppression, but successfully refashions it. Whether in the feminist case for invading Afghanistan, or through the endorsement of Israeli apartheid for its ‘Gay Rights’, regimes figureheaded by the Clintons, Obama and Blair attempted to garner additional ideological ballast for violence, by assimilating sections of society that Thatcher and Reagan actively fought. Or at least, those who claim to be their representatives. This process is hard to avoid, but it can’t be something we accept.
Understanding and defining this kind of process is, however, less simple than identifying it. Neoliberalism appears to be the operating force behind this incorporation of ‘minority’ identities, with emphasis on ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’, yet rights are at odds with the reality of neoliberalism at the frontier. And whilst figures like Trump demonstrate a reactionary turn, and a rhetorical opposition to globalisation and inclusion, their willingness to use the state to operate on behalf of capital is not at odds with neoliberalism’s historical, Pinochet-pedigreed practice – a class strategy that seeks to restore and increase profitability. When faced with movements of oppressed people at the core, successful hegemony requires a degree of consent-building. And so we get liberal common sense, where history becomes a smooth curve, and ‘rights’ exist like monoliths across the plane of infinity, and the individual (or their family) can be valorised as the structural unit of society without too much concern for whether their material needs can be met – this is a key component of neoliberal hegemony, in the absence of collective organisation such as mass party membership.
Trans politics, or trans lives at least, are in a contradictory place. We have a moment without a movement – a dramatic spike in media interest that has allowed for greater levels of sympathy, understanding and solidarity, but which at the same time has provoked a backlash. Twenty-two trans people, predominantly black women, were murdered in the US in 2016[§]. Without a social movement of trans people for themselves, it is difficult to imagine a strategy that leaves us in a robust place when the media interest inevitably diminishes. Yet, as Richard Seymour wrote recently, we cannot act ‘as if one can just summon a political movement into existence, or as if it’s just a matter of the correct techniques.’
What has happened though, is Black Lives Matter. Founded by queer women of colour, certain BLM chapters have worked to protest the deaths of trans women of colour, identifying their murders within a nexus of racialised and gendered oppression. BLM is probably the closest thing to a social movement, in the global North, we can currently witness. As Heatherton and Camp show in Policing the Planet, the ideological ‘good sense’ forming among activists is that ‘the whole damn system is guilty as hell’. Namely that the policing of poverty, of the incarceration of everyday life, of making the poor pay for a crisis of social reproduction, is something intrinsic to capitalism, something not fixable by more diverse cops or by body cameras. Struggles against the daily violence of police racism then begin to take on a desire for an entirely new form of social organisation, rejecting the very legitimacy of the classes and state apparatuses that run the US. Despite the liberal ‘good sense’, BLM is the most coherent challenge to oppression and inequality in the US today. The contests for the ideological ‘good sense’ of BLM should inform what we understand as a successful movement: namely the movement has been strongest when it identifies the nexus of oppressive social violence, when it mourns all the people of colour who have been murdered. The relevance of trans politics will likely be determined by its relationship with BLM. Failure to recognise a shared goal, or a willingness to participate in their delegitimisation, will produce a reduced, confined trans politics.
And what does the ‘good sense’ of BLM suggest? That the goal should surely be not simply to limit the violence, or gain the right to challenge the violence, but to eradicate society’s need to discipline bodies with gender in the first place. That’s not something that can be achieved within neoliberalism, nor simply by the end of neoliberalism, but which can only be fully realised when a social order, which relies on a rigid form of social reproduction for runaway accumulation, has been superseded.
The painfully obvious fact is that we cannot supersede capitalism at this time. We can’t step outside of it. We don’t have the alternative available. Most of our practice involves moving and learning, using the limited models we have to gain power and determination to reach a point where alternatives begin to form. Similarly, to supersede gender, or the use of gender as a means to discipline bodies, we will have to grow and learn from genders that exist. Let a thousand genders bloom is a great slogan, but how? Recognising the importance of solidarity and safety for those who are punished for transgressing the gender binary, or imputed gender roles, is vital. That is to say, if you don’t like the fact that some trans people rely on the gender binary for safety: a) work to make it safer; and b) help improve access to healthcare at the point of need.
‘Why is there so little explicit, organised effort to repurpose technologies for progressive gender political ends? XF seeks to strategically deploy existing technologies to re-engineer the world. Serious risks are built into these tools; they are prone to imbalance, abuse, and exploitation of the weak. Rather than pretending to risk nothing, XF advocates the necessary assembly of techno-political interfaces responsive to these risks. Technology isn’t inherently progressive. Its uses are fused with culture in a positive feedback loop that makes linear sequencing, prediction, and absolute caution impossible. Technoscientific innovation must be linked to a collective theoretical and political thinking in which women, queers, and the gender non-conforming play an unparalleled role.The real emancipatory potential of technology remains unrealised. Fed by the market, its rapid growth is offset by bloat, and elegant innovation is surrendered to the buyer, whose stagnant world it decorates.’
Technology is us, and we change ourselves through changing the world around us, though not necessarily in a revolutionary way. Whilst reading glasses and a chip in the brain might have different effects, they are both ultimately about manipulating our bodies. And gender is contested – a tool, or perhaps machine, that is produced, dynamically, through history by active manipulations. Yet we always move within limits – by both historical accident and design we find ourselves with limited gender-shells in which to make sense of ourselves – even our rebellions are constrained. The Xenofeminists talk about ‘seiz[ing] alienation to create new worlds’: accelerationism perhaps, but on the terms of the oppressed, not despite them. Alienation is a two-faced thing: it hurts, and the freedom it gives is not on our terms, but there is also the germ of liberation – we are offered the chance to relinquish any investment in a self-destructive society. The pain felt from our alienation can’t be alleviated by a return to an ethereal state of nature, but has to be embraced, and retooled.
In an exploration of the role and meaning of digital labour, Jamie Woodcock encourages us to think about re-tooling emergent tech to ‘sketch out the ‘possible construction of a rationality opposed to capital … Instead of looking at the wasted opportunities of digital technology under capitalism.’ One lesson from trans struggles is this: our side is stronger when technical knowledge is both recognised as a contested site, and tooled for our purposes. The choice of self-medication, whilst vehemently opposed by the gender identity clinics, has made life safer for thousands of trans people, by allowing them to bypass gatekeepers and embark on hormones before getting approval by their GP. Of course it is not without risk, but faced with what are now three-year waiting lists, it’s a means to address the pain, to take agency. Techniques of self-medication could potentially blossom if people could start forming their own lab co-ops (crowdfunded research into this has already begun). From there, it’s worth considering the weaknesses the Left will face if it fails to understand how the technology of automation, logistics, computation and surveillance work. Or at the very least, fails to fire the imagination of those who do. At its best, trans politics bridges the need to maintain social life, and the need to tear down the structures that continually recreate gender. Faced with increasing devastation, collapse and ruin, this difficult manoeuvre is something all emancipatory politics desperately needs to be able to do. Ghost In The Shell may be fiction, but the world depicted is far from alien.
All the Healthcare You Could Desire
A social movement cannot be willed into existence, although you could imagine a trans and gender-non-conforming movement arising to more openly and aggressively challenge the state on healthcare. But clearly there is a need for a broader rebellion against gender; or at least, against the violence that accompanies gender; or at least, against the way that gender is reified and weaponised by neoliberal capitalism. Trans people have a stake in undermining the rigidity of gender as a binary, have a stake in self-determination of social reproduction. The world is currently experiencing a massive attack on the social wage, and a crisis of social reproduction, the tearing apart of social infrastructure; accumulation by dispossession. The more you look at it, the more transgender liberation needs to be understood within a nexus of attacks on people’s determination over their body and health, whether by gender, race or ability.
In just the same way that pinkwashing and homonationalism buy rights at the expense of the lives of people of colour, if trans bodies are excluded from the group of bodies that matter, it will not make it easier to affirm the right of other bodies to exist. Moreover these kinds of political trade-offs lend themselves easily to a denial of those bodies doubly pathologised: homonationalism has been effective in ignoring and erasing the non-normative bodies and desires of those beyond the civilised razorwire borders of Western liberal democracies.
It’s important to dream of queer futures; of a fully automated luxury communism that is not merely iPads-for-all, but also all-the-healthcare-you-could-desire, of a thousand cyborg genders blooming. The potential of an alternative future is a spur to reject neoliberal common sense. But it’s important not to get lost in those dreams, or to think that they would have any meaning or joy without a corresponding dismantling of police, or an end to structural adjustment. If we are to successfully weaponise those dreams, we have to be able to name the beast: a nexus of oppression and exploitation, where each vicious horror is dependent on the other. With that said, the actualisation of desire and expansion of joy deserve a place in our futurity – what José Esteban Muñoz, in Cruising Utopia, sees as queer utopia. ‘Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.’ The ‘warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality’ is a purgative for assimilationist pragmatism; we don’t wait for ‘progress’ to work its magic; we take each moment of pleasure as a mere kernel of body communism.
There can and should be joy from our relationship with our bodies, in a way that is not reducible to our sexuality, but clearly encompasses it. The demand to end gender is only relevant when we recognise that its power comes from the way it is welded and wielded as a weapon. Like so many social relations, that way is in no way intrinsic – it is not the body that innately causes oppression – but something we choose.
[*] Saying that everyone is alienated from their body is not to say that for some it isn’t far worse, and racialisation and disability are also component parts of this alienation: I hope that the choice to focus on the specifics of trans politics and oppression isn’t something which places any hierarchical valuation of different forms of oppression.
[†] At least, I assume that’s what she means by opening with the line, ‘This chapter is an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.’
[‡] This is in some ways the weakness of the ‘born this way’ meme-idea. Admittedly, for many people this phrase-idea is a quick and powerful explanation of the relationship they have with their body. I don’t think that the problems with that conception need to be a reason to blame trans people – certainly within a liberal discourse it gets you somewhere. However, given that it is the act of assigning gender that trans people then act against, in order to reject, I think it’s important to frame things more in terms of our agency.
[§] One could compare that number to the 2000+ people killed by police this year in the same country and remark on its relative smallness. Leaving aside the fact that, as a proportion of a community, it is a dramatically high number, such number-crunching ignores the key fact – that oppressive ideas around trans people have a murderous, material effect.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.