Trans/War Boy/Gender: The Primitive Accumulation of T
The Coma-Doof Warrior, lashed to the front of the War Rig, his mother’s face gunked onto his own, is mowing down the open desert, plumes of sandvapour cresting over his head, swallowing the backside of the rig and the whole war train following behind.
That mask he wears is his dead mother’s screaming visage – the typically deranged bootlicky ‘feminism’ of the serial killer. But the compulsion-to-repeat is really your only option once someone saws your mother’s head off and tosses it into your little pre-adolescent lap and you cradle her head there in a freaked-out stupor for three days, the way the Coma-Doof Warrior did, and you weren’t old enough to know not (for a variety of reasons) to do that. I mean you’re really so fucked that they might as well staple you to the front of a War Rig so you live out the rest of your days on repeat, like some post-apocalyptic Kate Winslet figurehead on the bowsprit of your landbound, sand-chewing War Rig, just thrashing at your ‘guitar’. I mean, everything’s kind of screwed and chopped for you now, just a slooooooowed-down version of those three days, decelerated so much, in fact, that they come out the anus-end of Oedipus shriekingly fast: some accursed, precipitous velocity untranslatable into language. But this jacked-up dragged-out traumatime is your whole life now; that’s it, you’re always going to be some version of sitting there with your mother’s head in your lap – so why not just literalise that endless looping-three-days-guillotine-blowjob-cradling-her-head moment and go ahead and be her. Sew her face onto your own, Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb-style, except you’re not ‘transgender’ (or whatever the transphobic trainwreck Silence of the Lambs presented us with) so much as just gendered. I mean fully hetero, fully cismale – you’re so fully hetero cismale and you love your mother so much you just need to crawl up inside her face and become her.
So you’re strapped to the front of a War Rig with your mother’s scream plastered onto your own for the rest of your life, and all you can do for forever now is just thrash the shit out of your guitar.
That’s cismale for you. Or (like Judith Butler said) that’s the melancholic desire at the heart of hetero cismale for you: a bunch of hopped-up macho figureheads bulldozing through the desert, their mothers’ death screams frozen onto their own faces, their guitars spewing their own endless screams.
In case you didn’t get it, George Miller will give it to you twice:
Max Rockatansky, bound and gagged Takashi Miike-style, another figurehead.
But the Coma-Doof Warrior’s the Frank N. Furter souped-up version of all of them – all the War Boys of the oil refineries and aquifers. And fuck them anyway, here come the Vuvalini of Many Mothers with their replendent weatherbeaten faces and white hair and bags of seeds and homegrown knowledge of the body and nomadic clan-commons straight out of a Sylvia Federici screenplay.
They probably give each other sexy manual abortions with their beautifully gnarled suntanned hands. They’re exquisite.
But it’s been so long already that you haven’t exactly been a woman any more. It’s been so long already, and while you can imagine it – I mean you can picture the Vuvalini seeing the dyke inside you, stroking your face in recognition; you can imagine sitting there in the backseat with them, languid and tuff like it’s a Saturday night and you’re all just driving around in shitty cars drinking and singing – you’re not one of them any more, and while you might be able to imagine it just fine, you don’t experience it the same way. All you can think is how you’re a War Boy now, and feel sick about it.
It’s very obvious that the War Boys are whiteness gone rampant: a superwhite, ultraviolent, resource-hoarding deathcult†. Whiteness is that thing that transforms everything else into raw material for its own self-realisation: it’s like that Cheryl Harris argument about ‘Whiteness as Property’, court-protected status property that substructures the right to self- and national identity. Which is a conceptualisation of whiteness dependent on a shift in how property itself worked, back in the eighteenth century, when capitalist property laws got codified. If for Locke you could consider something your property because you laboured on it directly – so property depends on use or ‘enjoyment’ of the thing – by the time you get to Bentham, actually using the property isn’t the point (see, the ruling class would like to own property all the way across the Atlantic, without having to necessarily be there to so ‘enjoy’ it directly, because they would like to be somewhere else entirely, enjoying stuffing their faces with mutton). For Bentham, property gets defined not by use, but by the ‘expectation of use’ – the feeling or affect of possessing.
You get the dialectic here? Use becomes no longer necessary for the legal definition of property, but as it recedes, it puts in place the feeling of possession, like the white curd leftover on the sand when the ocean drags its frothy lip back into the deeps.
This frothy lip of curd is white privilege – well, privilege as an affect of entitlement and expectation.
At issue here is the question of the uneven development of consciousness as entwined with the property form, such that the relative diminution of possession as a legal justification for property ownership reworks itself into a characteristic of subjectivity. Put another way, what Harris asks is: does the waning of possession as justification of ownership take up residence somewhere else? And the answer is that it does so within/as the racialised subject itself – the subject who, as Brenna Bhandar puts it, possesses ‘particular qualities and attributes that give rise to a sense of entitlement and security.”
And so, the affective dimension of subject-formation finds itself situated in the rather twitchy crosshairs of the property form. The frothy lip of history leaves its mark on subjectivity and consciousness: a white scum of possessiveness, the remainder of possession a property of the subject, a carapace of privilege.
There’s something else here too, something Bhandar’s been asking: does possession as the sine qua non of ownership really in fact wane, or does it continue to exert force in ways that have been overlooked or clouded over? Is there an uneven development to the property form itself ? In ‘Possession, Occupation and Registration: Recombinant Ownership in the Settler Colony’, Bhandar’s term for this is ‘recombination’.
[C]ontrary to … [the] developmental narrative of property law … the settler colony remains characterised by a colonial animus to both possess and control indigenous lands. In the settler colony, a more ‘modern’ and abstract mode of ownership, embodied in a system of title by registration … co-exists alongside and is sometimes displaced by a mode of ownership that is rather more antiquated and primordial: possession.
Recombination, in other words, is essential to understand the intertwining of settler-colonial modes of ownership with the legacies of the plantation system and propertisation of bodies: the combination, in other words, of ‘the materialist–capitalist logic of title by registration and the ethno-racial logic of subordinating the natives’.
Here, the co-constitution of racial ontologies and the property form represents a ‘real abstraction’ and a set of material effects. Robin Kelley, in ‘The U.S. vs. Trayvon Martin’ illustrates this point in urgent contemporary context.
Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism – an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege.
The continuing force of property-as-possession (occupation, resource-plundering, dispossession), then, is a structure of racial capitalism, characteristic of both imperial and domestic landscapes.
As for the War Boys – they parabolise a certain function of this whiteness. They are not financiers, speculators, expectationers: this isn’t The Wolf of Wall Street. They are resource-hoarders, possessors, occupiers. They work one particular angle: the transformation of natural resources into raw material. Their domains are water, oil, gasoline, and – of special interest to us here – blood. Hooked up to ‘blood bags’ – their caged slaves, their blood siphoned as a source of health, living stimpaks – the War Boys are juiced up and ultrawhite, which you could say is the movie’s way of signalling that function of whiteness-as-propertisation. The War Boys see aquifers, petroleum, or other bodies, and their aim is to transform those natural resources into raw material for their own consumption.
On this topic, in a passage underappreciated for its macabre sensibility, Marx argues that,
[e]very object possesses various properties, and is thus capable of being applied to different uses. One and the same product may therefore serve as raw material in very different processes … [A] particular product may be used in one and the same process, both as an instrument of labour and as raw material. Take, for instance, the fattening of cattle, where the animal is the raw material, and at the same time an instrument for the production of manure. A product, though ready for immediate consumption, may yet serve as raw material for a further product, as grapes when they become the raw material for wine.
His point is that both raw material and the commodity are products of labour; neither is ‘natural’. Both are defined by their position in the production-consumption cycle. But War Boys – reeking of psychotic, water-and-blood-hoarding whiteness – don’t need to read Marx to know anything can be repurposed as raw material. And while you may want to be identifying with the Vuvalini and their kindly satchels of seeds, maybe you’re recognising something in these War Boys – or recognising something about raw material too. Something about needles and resources; or something about testosterone, masculinity, and the ethno-racial function of the property-form. And – following Bhandar – along with acknowledging that whiteness propertises, you also want to understand the function of abstraction here. That is to say, you may be starting to wonder: what dispossessions turned the natural resource of testosterone into an exchangeable commodity?
How did testosterone become a raw material of gender? How did gender, for that matter, become the product? Is testosterone a grape, and you(r gender) the wine? The War Boys’ secret talent is driving this set of questions into the forefront – not due to any subtlety of vision per se, but simply because they’re this really really loud kind of parable about racialisation and the transformation of natural resources into raw materials. And watching the Coma-Doof Warrior screaming away inside his mother’s face, you’re recognising something about the intersection of raw material and the paroxysm of gender. Because this whole time, you’re realising if you don’t identificatorily stir at the sight of the gorgeous ancient Vuvalini any more, maybe it has something to do with the specifics of being this permanently juiced-up, resource-hoarding body, kind of screaming through the desert on top of the War Rig of history.
Galactic Visuality: an Anti-Bildung of How to Take a Shot
How the hell did you get here? Who cares. Far more important than your particular Bildung of testosterone is the question (pace the War Boys) of the differential capacitations of whiteness through exogenous hormone application. I mean if, as Stuart Hall once said, race is the modality through which class is lived, we might add that the application of exogenous hormones makes one very aware of the gendered dimensions of that modality. But – as Nikhil Singh has so indispensably explained in ‘Note on Race and the Left’, if this argument of Hall’s emphatically does not (as some on the ‘left’ have been known to interpret it) mean the ‘relegation’ of race as a secondary political effect of class, but rather must be understood as a ‘political ontology’, singular and primary in its effects – we ought to be very clear that ‘awareness’ is not really the point. You can be aware all you want, but awareness in itself does not constitute a form of resistance.
Put another way: consider this list of chants from the Tenth Annual Transgender Day of Action, June 2014. None of these chants is asking for your ‘awareness’. These are demands, and they do not require any further explanation from me.
Look, if testosterone is a kind of capacitation, or – as Jasbir Puar argues in ‘Bodies with New Organs’ – if testosterone has a tendency to get troped as a kind of hypercapacitation of the body, what’s to say it will always capacitate those aspects that contribute to a radical project? Sometimes testosterone is a War Boy. So you need these chants, and you need to chant them together.
Remember that thing Marx says near the end of Capital about how our struggles are excised and erased from dominant narratives, but how ‘the history of this … expropriation [of the oppressed], is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire’? We’re still looking for that bloody reading practice, aren’t we.
But let’s not mistake testosterone itself for either blood or fire. Because it’s the struggle that put it here – just watch Sylvia Rivera shouting down the crowd at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, or read Reina Gosset’s ‘Star People are Beautiful People’ – and that continues today.
So with all due respect to Paul Preciado’s extraordinary work chronicling the pharmacological history of testosterone production, we must take some exception to his claims that ‘hormonal self-experimentation’ can function as a ‘technique[…] for de-installing gender’. This extension of operaismo’s leap from the factory to the territory – and then the extrapolation of the territory as the body… well, it’s ingenious. Frankly, it’s brilliant. But the relation between territory and body is not exactly analogical. Really, doesn’t this fascination with the molecular structure of resistance risk mistaking the view from inside for the view from below?
Or, put another way, perhaps now is a good time to remember that there are lots of things molecules can do – not in ‘themselves’ but when collectively deployed, as in the ’92 Act Up Ashes Action, that mass political funeral in which the ashes of HIV-positive loved ones were scattered on the White House lawn, a tidal flood of grit jamming the machine‡. But a molecule on its own? How do you differentiate a molecule that resists from a molecule that complies?
In case you think being able to make this distinction doesn’t matter, consider Sekula’s argument about the rise of fingerprinting technology in the early twentieth century – its having surpassed and replaced ‘juridical photographic realism’, as a technique of state power over individuals.
With the advent of fingerprinting, it became evident that the body did not have to be ‘circumscribed’ in order to be identified. Rather, the key to identity could be found in the merest trace of the body’s tactile presence in the world.
What’s very clear here is that the project of deterritorialising (“deinstalling”) sexuality from identity – or resistance from subjectivity; or gender from bodies – is more complicated than dissolving that body into its constituent particulate matter. Even if we centrifuged the body into a squalid soup of molecules, that soup can still synechdocalise the subject perfectly well, and thus function as a mechanism of discipline and control. The history of the fingerprint suggests as much.
Or, more succinctly: Soylent Green is people!
And if the molecule is the twenty-first-century fingerprint – as Dorothy Roberts has shown, in tracing the legalisation of the extraction of genetic material from incarcerated populations – then we must locate methods other than molecular unruliness for remedying the paroxysms of gender to which the body has for so long now been subjected. Clearly, we can’t escape the question of the collectivity (which is to say, of resistance). And of history.
And why would we want to? There’s this great line – actually, it’s two lines that got mashed together in my head. The first part is Fredric Jameson, who has this thing about ‘galactic visuality’ being that moment when your perspective swivels and you realise that ‘it is the stars that look down on us’. And in that moment, from that perspective – as Ruth Jennison says in The Zukofsky Era – ‘you begin to count yourself amongst the data of history.’
I don’t think Jameson intended it this way, but this galactic visuality is a kind of love event (pace Badiou). And it’s no news that the recruitment to politics can be a kind of seduction. How many alarms have been sounded about the spiralling into it, the catastrophic deviance of it, the loss of self in struggle. Why debate it anymore. Should we be rational? Why should we, when it may take a seduction of some sort to be able to commit to the expansive concept of a future unconfined from the telos of the capital-accumulative family? A future that may never know our name or remember us personally. Radical anonymity. I am not talking about anonymity in the present. I am talking about anonymity to the future. I mean politics.
The jouissant dissolution of self-into-others is a time-honoured element in committing oneself to a project with aims that are disjointed from the simple iteration of the self through familial structures. But it’s too bad that, within a certain tradition, it is Badiou who is the closest to wanting to admit this, because his theory of love is so irremediably fucked up – not only in its separate-spherification of love and politics, but its excoriation of online dating via orientalist parody (read that love book he wrote, if you want; you will see what I mean).
Clearly Badiou could have benefitted from that really spectacular je ne sais quoi of butch-femme exchange. Remember before the T, and all of it, women who saw you a certain way? How (gendered) embodiment was something you made together? Remember how secret it felt? Can’t you take that secret you used to have and let it seed other things? (Soundtrack: Prurient, ‘There are Still Secrets’). You’re really going to have to. Because testosterone wants you to be a War Boy. It wants you to hoard resources and forget where they came from. But you can’t share confidences with testosterone. You can’t have secrets with testosterone or have a love-event to which you swear fidelity with testosterone. And women are so good at holding secrets for/holding the(/your/their) body for/giving their(/your/the) body to you. (I mean just as an aside, you were a ‘they/we’ before you ever were a ‘they’, now weren’t you/we? Yes. We were, and in more ways than one). That form of radically-dependent embodiment is one history that Badiou – with his bizarre distinction between a filthy shameful attraction to ‘breasts, buttocks and cock’ and the rarified embrace of ‘the very being of the other’ – seems not to have known, and a history, moreover, that testosterone seems to want you to forget.
On the other hand, if you look at it certain way, perhaps taking testosterone can be a form of galactic visuality. Or really, maybe arriving at testosterone can be the result of a form of galactic visuality. Let’s say you’re of a certain age and may have spent many decades as a lesbian, never considering such a thing as testosterone, and were even a fully grown adult person before taking the stuff, and even might have had a lot of resistance to taking it – in the name of not remaindering lesbian subcultures, and in the name of some concerns around the way that the pronoun ‘she’ had suddenly, and at a widespread level, become so verboten. Whatever made you think you could stand outside it all and never have your desires be infected by the movement of history (which is where Badiou’s elision of the body makes his equation-but-separation of fidelity in love and fidelity in politics specious)? Did you think that all your life you would just carry your same old form of desire around with you like a piece of luggage? Untouched by the conjunctures you inhabit?
On this point, Deleuze and Guattari had something to say. Desire can be, and is, recoded in the social, deterritorialised by the broader movement of history. Maybe such desires weren’t written in your stars, but it is from the perspective of the stars that some desires might come into focus.
The Gendocrine System
If you admit you’re among the data of history, and thus by definition non-immune to all the desires it sweeps towards you, and you’ve decided you want to take a shot of testosterone, then you should familiarise yourself with its secret history and figure out what debts you owe to the past and future.
For some people, testosterone is a natural resource but not a raw material (the distinction in Marx is that between Rohstoff and Rohmaterial): but somewhere along the way, through the application of science/industry – but more importantly, violence (more about that in a minute) – testosterone did become a raw material, and an object of exchange. This brings us back to the way Bhandar traces the binding of race to the property form as a kind of abstraction, and the violence of that binding/abstraction, which is fundamental to the origins of capitalism, and produces objects of exchange that are ‘deracinated of the lived, social relations of occupation, multiple use, spiritual significance, and prior histories that attach to the land’. She’s talking about the turning of land into an abstraction, an exchangeable commodity; and while the production of the endocrine system as an abstraction is not analogous, Bhandar’s framework allows us to raise some questions about the production of testosterone as a raw material, and an object of exchange, and to ask how far back that lineage stretches.
Obviously, all the way to the eighteenth century. Not just because that’s when the property form takes root, but because that’s when a certain formulation of the body takes root, one acutely illustrated in a very grisly set of debates that had to do with the utility of incarcerated bodies.
You can see that what we’re aiming at here is a history of the production of the abstraction of the endocrine system itself. Or, to be more specific: the gendocrine system (that abstraction that sutures gender and the endocrine system to one another; or produces them, anew, together). This is a history that needs to be entered askance, or galactically. Here, the question is about the production of ‘testosterone’ as a deracinated object of exchange – and indeed, the production of the body-in-parts, as well: ‘[t]he violence of abstraction … lies in the production of an object of exchange deracinated of the lived, social relations of occupation, multiple use, spiritual significance, and prior histories that attach to [it]’.
Interlude: The Primitive Accumulation of T
So what are the prior histories of testosterone? Like China M once said to me, particularly given your still-unfolding state and status, they are everyone’s, but they’re pointedly yours. Like all history, this one’s a nightmare, sure – that’s about to become vividly clear – and/but it’s one which you’re still learning to dream, so from which you’ve no(t yet) any desire to wake.
But thankfully you don’t have to wake to understand it: maybe it’s easier if you don’t. We’re a way yet from any formal derivation, any point-by-point exposition of the sufficient and necessary, but we can at least get to grips with the preconditions for testosterone’s specifics, the emergence of its prehistory.
And we’ll find the matter of this matter, in large part, in the eighteenth century, in the bloody abstraction of the criminal body. Here is the foundation for the whole story – the uncovering of the primitive accumulation of testosterone and its secret.
To understand the production of the abstraction testosterone (aka, the gendocrine system) we have to get our genre right. This history is not science fiction – not a dystopia of soaring mirrorblack high-rises housing corporate headquarters and barons of industry; ‘Testosterone’ is a soaked and reeking horror story. It opens in the choking filth of Newgate Prison, with a debate that is both grotesque and bureaucratic – Cronenbergian avant-la-lettre – between political economists, jurists, and even some novelists, about what to do with prisoners: whether to execute them and then dissect them for scientific knowledge; or to transport them to the colonies as indentured, living labour, to do the work of dispossessing the indigenous people of North America. In this petrifyingly lose-lose proposition, we’re circling the question of the relationship between bodies and raw material (and thus are Tom Six-ian avant-la-lettre?).
The first position in this revolting debate – that the criminal body is best used as a raw material for research – may be best represented by Bernard Mandeville. He was so enamored of Dutch capitalism that he came running back to England harping on about how it wasn’t fair that at the University of Leyden they got to dissect all the criminalised indigent people while in stagnant, backward England they didn’t get to surgically rape dead bodies nearly enough.
The University of Leyden in Holland have a Power given them by the Legislature to demand, for this Purpose, the Bodies of ordinary Rogues executed within that Province; but, with us, it is the general Complaint of all Professors of Anatomy, that they can get none to dissect: Where then shall we find a readier Supply; and what Degree of People are fitter for it than those I have named? When Persons of no Possessions of their own, that have slipp’d no Opportunity of wronging whomever they could, die without Restitution, indebted to the Publick, ought not the injur’d Publick to have a Title to, and the Disposal of, what the others have left? And is any Thing more reasonable, than that they should enjoy that Right, especially when they only make use of it for commendable Purposes?
A screed hateful and menacing enough on its own, but far more dreadful to recall with Thompson that by 1723, capital offenses in England included ‘wearing a disguise’ while committing a crime, or harvesting turf.
The loading of Mandeville’s argument with its syrupy legitimations of both execution and dissection in the form of the attribution of indebtedness – in which the criminal pays off a debt to the public with his dead body – or the ‘fitness’ of the criminal to dissection (an encoded justification of the division of labour by ‘fitness’, anticipating Smith by several decades), and in the vertiginous sleight of hand by which lack of ownership of possessions is catachrestically substituted for an ontologically-barred relation to self-possession (an argument that in some ways echoes a plantation logic), is worthy of a longer investigation. But it’s the shift of ‘enjoyment’ from enjoyment-in-use (Locke) to enjoyment of a ‘Right’ that interests us here.
It interests us because now we’re remembering Harris and Bhandar’s arguments around racialisation and property. And recalling Bhandar and Harris on property as enjoyment/possession and property as expectation/speculation, we’re noticing that Mandeville’s (rather smug) version of this has to do with the enjoyment of a right to knowledge about the body. This liberal formulation generates oodles of language from Mandeville who finds it just so utterly reasonable to want to open up the bodies of the criminally poor and take a look inside.
I have no Design that savours of Cruelty, or even Indecency, towards a human Body; but … as Health and sound Limbs are the most desirable of all Temporal Blessings, so we ought to encourage the Improvement of Physick and Surgery, wherever it is in our Power.
It’s not – says Mandeville – that we (so-called reasonable citizens) want (as in salivate over) the actual bodies of the criminal (dothent he protest too much?), but that we desire ourown ‘health’!
That other, vulgar, awfully handsy desire for the corporeal body itself – well, this is the desire of ‘the Mob’, that gathering storm of common people who attend executions for the purpose of rescuing the body after death from the hands of the surgeons and dissectors in order to give their comrade a proper burial. On Execution Day, Mandeville tells us,
a Torrent of Mob bursts thorough the Gate. Amongst the lower Rank, and working People, the idlest, and such as are most fond of making Holidays, with Prentices and Journeymen to the meanest Trades, are the most honourable Part of these floating Multitudes. All the rest are worse. The Days being known before-hand, they are a Summons to all Thieves and Pickpockets, of both Sexes, to meet. Great Mobs are a Safeguard to one another, which makes these Days Jubilees, on which old Offenders, and all who dare not shew their Heads on any other, venture out of their Holes; and they resemble Free Marts, where there is an Amnesty for all Outlaws.
Upon execution, the crowd surges forward, resulting in ‘a Squabble between the Surgeons and the Mob, about the dead Bodies of the Malefactors that are not to be hanged in Chains.’
For Mandeville, the vulgar desire for bodies is counterposed to the civilised, anticipatory ‘enjoyment’ of our right to our own health – which right requires gaining knowledge from the dissection of these bodies – the enjoyment, that is to say, of the transformation of the criminal body into the raw material of knowledge-production.
Jailbreaks/the Body I
There were others, Daniel Defoe among them, who were more interested in the living capacities of the criminal body than in its corpse. Hot Topic, in this regard, for basically the entire English eighteenth century, was Jack Sheppard: wily prison breaker, beloved lothario, and petty thief.
Defoe and other anonymous scribblers put out a whole slew of stories, plays, and graphic renderings in which the likeable and nimble Sheppard pulls off numerous impossible prison breaks only to be tragically executed, and his dead body rescued by the commoners from the waiting hands of the dissecting surgeons. In one account, the desire for Sheppard’s body is so oozy and excessive that the battle for its possession becomes its own theatre of dangerous foibles.
Sheppard, still alive, is snatched from the execution theatre by the Mob and inadvertently smothered by their ‘Love’.
[I]n open Violation of the Law [he was] cut down … and delivr’d as ’tis thought, Alive, but ’tis suppos’d very Faint, into the Hands of his Friends, who hugg’d him about with so much preposterous Love, that in all probability, they kill’d him with Kindness.
This mob of ‘preposterous’ lovers constitutes but one example of a densely-populated field of publications on Sheppard in which his body is the location of spectacular and complex desire – whether through the numerous graphic illustrative renderings of his escapes –
– or through the detailed textual gaze on his nimble, almost ethereally capable form as it penetrates the most seemingly sealed spaces.
Sheppard’s remarkable dexterity hovers somewhere between apparition and exemplary labourer. Sheppard is a ‘proteus, supernatural’, an uncannily apt craftsman who saws through his chains in Newgate with, according to Defoe, ‘unheard of Diligence and Dexterity’.
And yet this ‘slight man of 5’4″’ does not come naturally to his life of crime. Rather, as it is told, he is seduced from his apprenticeship with a master carpenter by his lover, the mastermind, Edgeworth Bess. Thus, per Defoe, was ‘lay[ed] the foundation of his Ruin’.
We’d love to pursue further the question of seduction and recruitment to rebel positionalities – not to mention the transgendering of dainty Jack by the ‘mannish’ puppeteer, Bess in the process – but this is a thread too far for now. For Jack’s desire for Bess is just one strand in a tangled braid of desire structuring Defoe’s text: not only Jack’s desire for his lover, but the desire of the state to repossess his body for the dissectors, and the desire of the Mob to save him from dissection, to bring Sheppard to his burial at St. Martin’s in the Fields. It’s this play of desire – the equation of the desire of the Mob for the body with the desire of the State and the dissectors for Jack’s body – that we’re interested in here. Because it’s this play of desire that, at least at first glance, functions as a direct retort to Mandeville’s cruel language of ‘civility’ and ‘enjoyment’ of knowledge and rights.
Defoe’s text shines a light on Mandeville’s: in the glare of the equation of the desire of the State with the desire of the Mob, we see that the concept of ‘Enjoyment’ that Mandeville deploys to naturalise criminal dissection in fact veils a gruesome, and quite handsy desire on the part of the State for the body itself, a desire that makes it no different from the Mob which it seeks to differentiate itself from – and indeed police.
So, great! Someone thought Mandeville was a monster, and basically showed how.
And yet, as both you and I know, one of the more nauseating tricks of liberal ideology is its ability to cover all the bases of the so-called public sphere of so-called intellectual ‘debate’ (lucky for most of you that you aren’t eighteenth-centuryists by trade and don’t have to deal with this kind of shit all the time. But this is not the place for me to kvetch about that). For this reason, I am sure you will not be surprised to know that the apparent opposition between Mandeville and Defoe itself puts in place an even more insidious logic.
At first glance, then, it seems that Defoe’s text is on the ‘side’ of the convict, exposing the gruesome nature of bodily dispossession. Through Defoe’s lens, we see dissection for what it is: the making-raw of Jack’s body, a form of resource-extraction and profiteering. Defoe renders visible the death sentence’s horrific face. Far more ‘reasonable’ – it is implied – would be the commutation of a death sentence to one of indenture and transportation to the colonies. We should expect nothing less from the author of that other utopia of transportation and self-reinvention, Moll Flanders.
This is the dialectic, but I won’t go on at length about that. Suffice to say this: the opposition between the death sentence and the sentence of transportation hides their dynamic integration on another register. Through the fictive juxtaposition of the threat of Sheppard’s tragic dissection, with his bodily self-mastery and skill at excarceration, Defoe’s narrative makes an argument in favour of the translation of the death sentence into the durational, interest-bearing death of living labour. Who would kill a nimble servant – a sexy lithe being who can slither through the narrowest of cracks – when his labour could be turned to such profit? And so the more profitable outcome, indeed, is not Mandeville’s but Defoe’s. For here, the gruesomeness of dispossession associated with dissection is not overcome but in fact perversely multiplied. Skilled apprentices like Sheppard ought not to have been subjected to the horrors of execution, Defoe’s narrative implies, but put to labour in the colonies doing the work of land-dispossession and imperium-building.
And indeed, Defoe’s extolling of Jack’s capabilities as a labourer (even as a prison-breaker, for it is here that his skills as a carpenter and apprentice shine most vividly), is revealed to be what it is: an extolling of the interest-bearing sentence of labour over the punctual sentence of execution. A crucial node in the inception of the fiction of ‘free’ labour.
In the texts, Sheppard is always running, breaking through walls, shimmying up chimneys, hiding, escaping, fleeing. We’d love to say that his virile body is the object of revolutionary love in Defoe’s text, but let’s be honest, Defoe wasn’t a revolutionary, and it’s up to someone else to write that story. Instead, in Defoe, Sheppard’s fleeing, shimmying, running body is always haunted by the possibility of its dissection: and this haunting is not simply the spectre of a rejected and inhumane (Mandevillian) Dutch capitalism, but of the abstraction of dissection foundational to capitalist development: what Marx described as the ‘separation’ integral to the act of primitive accumulation by which subjects are excised from a relation of subsistence on the land and ‘freed’ into wage labour. From thence flourish the multiple, simultaneous temporalities of toil that eventuate in the extraction of surplus-value; the foreclosure of ontological being (the institution of difference as skin-colour) that is secured through the racialisation of colonial labour; and the dispossession and occupation of indigenous peoples and lands.
It’s this squabble over the utility of the criminal body as raw material in death and/or as labouring body (to transform the land into raw material) in life that, in time, the Murder Act of 1751 would ‘resolve’ by joining the two poles into one efficient and dastardly legal logic.
The Act made it criminal to bury a person accused of and executed for murder. The destination of the dead body is not to the ground, but to the surgeons. But the Act performed its work not through a simple Mandevillian legitimation of the ‘enjoyable’ quality of surgical forms of knowledge, but rather through the propertisation of the dead criminal body simultaneously with the propertisation and dispossession of colonial land. And this suture is only accomplishable through the apparatus of the Law: that precision-weapon of violent equivalence known as sentencing. The ‘Mob’ who rescues their comrade from the hands of the dissectors are cast, by the Act, as thieves, seeking to steal the property/body back from its ‘legally’ self-proclaimed possessor, the state and the surgeons. And for this crime, their sentence will be transportation and indenture.
For better preventing the horrid crime of murder…some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment … in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried … [and] Punishment of 7 years transportation for anyone attempting to rescue the body from the surgeons.
The Murder Act makes overly clear the ways in which, as the body is anatomised, new regimes of property jockey to lay claim not only to that body, but also to its potentialities in the form of labour. The propertisation of the dissected body is thus one moment in a broader movement of abstraction that sutures together (so to speak) anatomy and raw material. Put another way, anatomy is an abstraction (a making-raw of the body) that joins together the potentialities of the labouring body and the dispossession-projects of the New World, rendering the natural resources of the land into colonial raw material.
What we should be getting here is this: for ‘testosterone’ to emerge into history, the foundations for the conception of bodily anatomy as raw material had first to be laid. The catachrestic andmaterial relationship between the propertisation of the body as the raw material of scientific knowledge, and the propertisation of the labour of that body as capable of transforming territory into raw material, forms a dynamic prehistory of the gendocrine system. For only once the body itself can appear as a form of raw material can the endocrine system by conceptualised, bound to ‘gender’ as its primary motor, and the particular experimentation necessary to extract and synethesise the molecule as such begin.
A series of such histories could be performed, of different commodified corpse-juices, etc, of which the gendocrine system is one. This is the prehistory not only of the gendocrine system but of all such ‘metabolicism’ (see, for example, Henrietta Lacks). What we have here isn’t – and doesn’t purport to be – a full history of the gendocrine system. Rather, it is a prehistory followed by a recent history. We’re not claiming to present the specific derivation of the gendocrine system from the Enlightenment vivisectionism – although this would be an interesting research project. What we do mean to do is outline a sufficient grundnorm history of the later development of the gendocrine system.
So then here it is: the history – no, the pre-history – of testosterone is the pre-history of the extraction of the corpse, its juices, its parts; and the simultaneous abstraction of labour on the model of that dissection. Labour; the division of labour; labour’s division of the body/the body’s capacities/bodies from one another; from the land; from the means of production: all of these dissections. The institutions of this dissection are the surgeons, the state, and the prison. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if this entire pre-history gets entirely literalised at the site of the prison (again; or, again and again) at some point or another.
Since the capture of the lifeless criminal body to the state as a form of property – as well as the disturbingly ‘efficient’ relationship between the lifeless criminalised body and the labouring criminalised body – is one of the US’s many gruesome inheritances from the British penal system, we could have anticipated this would be the case. But I’m not sure we would have known it quite so thoroughly without Ethan Blue’s recovery of the ‘Strange Career’ of San Quentin’s prison doctor Leo Stanley and his testicular experimentations on the incarcerated. During Stanley’s tenure at San Quentin (1913–51),
prisoners became subjects in a series of eugenic treatments ranging from sterilization to implanting ‘testicular substances’ from executed prisoners – and also goats – into San Quentin inmates. Stanley was convinced that his research would rejuvenate aged men, control crime, and limit the reproduction of the unfit. His medical practice revealed an underside to social hygiene in the modern state, where the lines between punishment, treatment, and research were blurred.
Finally, we are grasping the violent pre-history of testosterone: both the forced anatomisation of the incarcerated body (as both object of scientific knowledge and, as Federici might have it, ‘factory’ of labour), as well as the quite literal forced extraction of the hormone testosterone as raw material. Such horrors inflicted upon incarcerated bodies in the name of ‘virilisation’ exemplifies the history we’ve been trying to sketch out all along: the perverse
combination of the propertisation of the executed body with the labouring capacities of the living prison population.
A New York Times article from 1919 makes this point for us:
SAN FRANCISCO, Oct. 17. – Thomas Bellon, a young murderer, was hanged today at San Quentin Penitentiary, and after his death, interstitial glands from his body were transferred to a man of 60, also a prison inmate, to test the efficacy of the theory of restoration of youth.
Bellon was pronounced dead at 10:36 A.M, the body was hurried to the prison hospital. There on an operating table lay the aged convict. The body of Bellon was lifted to an adjoining table and his interstitial glands were removed.
Then the glands were transferred to the other’s body. Unable to feel pain, because of anaesthetic injected into the spine, he talked with the doctors as they cut and sewed. The surgeons believe that new strength, mental as well as physical, will follow the operation. Similar results, it is said, have come from such operations previously performed at the prison.
The ‘new strength’ gained from the ‘gland transplant’ is an extraordinarily precise rendering of the complex of social forces that – we’ve been trying to suggest – began with Enlightenment ideologies of prisoners’ bodies, and the rise of the transportation and indenture system of labour. What we must be beginning to glean here is that the gendocrine system– that material abstraction, linking gender to the endocrine system – is preconditioned on a carceral logic and history, one for which the body has long been a raw material as well as the tool for creating the raw. Recall Marx on cattle both as that raw material and as ‘instrument for the production of manure’. To paraphrase: the history of testosterone is inseparable from the history of shit.
But this history, as fascinating as it is, lacks an aim unless we understand it in terms of a politics of the present and its unwritten futures.
Stealing the Body Back
Alongside the now-familiar rallying cry for gender self-determination, we hear its under-whisper. To recall the Murder Act and its prohibitions, this whisper exhorts us: steal the body back.
The gender self-determination we desire for ourselves and others is not possible to effect, in other words, as an individual act. There is no hermetic, lone Bildung of self-determination.
In fact, ‘self ’-determination is a theft: one that we mount, and that has been mounted, collectively. The collective stealing of the body back from the apparatuses of its capture. This is not a theft we can accomplish alone, nor was it ever accomplished alone, not in the eighteenth century, and not today. The only way to steal the body back is to steal someone else’s body back for them. Maybe you’re thinking of the original Christopher Street Liberation March – its gathering finally in a mass rally at the women’s house of detention with the chant, ‘free ourselves, free our sisters’. Or maybe you’re thinking of the recent blockading of the corporate Pride parades in Boston and Chicago.
Please don’t take from this some new historicist nonsense that contemporary forms of transgender resistance owe their particular configuration to the Enlightenment past. The point here is quite the opposite: only through the lens of the political present does the past take on the dimensions that it does, and begin to inform us about itself in ways previously uncomprehended.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Enlightenment history sketched above is only known to us now through the lens of transgender justice.
I want to close with the Audre Lorde Project’s points of unity for the Eleventh Annual Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice, its own deeply militant love-event, in fact, to which I am only very lucky to have been initiated.
- We demand an end to profiling, harassment and brutality at the hands of the police.
- We demand access to respectful and safe housing.
- We demand access to the NYC LGBT Center without fear of harassment, or censorship.
- We demand the full legalization of all immigrants.
- We are in solidarity with all prisoners, especially the many TGNC POC people behind the walls.
- We oppose the US ‘War on Terrorism’.
- We demand health care.
- We demand safety while utilizing public transportation.
- We demand that all people receiving public assistance be treated with respect and dignity.
- We demand that TGNC POC people have equal access to employment and education opportunities.
- We demand justice for the many TGNC POC who have been beaten, assaulted, raped, and murdered.
History is not, at its heart, some telic journey where we track the wretched annals of capital accumulation into the present. Rather, ‘history’ is nothing more than the political contingencies that have interrupted and shaped it. To derive an anatomical genealogy of criminal dissection, then, we begin with the present: its seizures and openings, its political upwelling, acts, movements, breaks. I suppose this is something of what Benjamin meant about looking backwards while being blown forwards: that the past awakens only under the pressure of the political present. If only now do the insurgent, collective burials of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seem part of some transgender genealogy, it is because today’s insurgent, collective relationship to counterknowledges and practices press down upon the past to release its hidden message. We are in solidarity with all prisoners.
The secret history of your body has very little to do with what you inject into it. This is because the secret history of your body is not the same as the secret history of testosterone – the one we detailed above, the soaked and reeking horror story. It’s not unrelated to this horror story, but it’s not contained by it. Your history – the one written in letters of blood and fire, the one whisperwritten inside you, and to be written still – well, this history has been the work of the collectives who stole it back from the clutches of the dissectors and the indenturers, the collectives who liberated Christopher Street, and the collectives of the future whose name we can never know, but for whom we will need to steal some bodies back as well.
† It’s so rampant, in fact, throughout that movie, that you have to admit you can only really see the film as an unqualified feminist triumph if your feminism looks like a shitstorm of whiteness tearing back and forth across Australian backcountry.
‡ For more on this, you should watch Eric Stanley’s Blood Lines: AIDS, Affective Accumulation and Viral Labor.
Jordy Rosenberg is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is the author of Confessions of the Fox (June 2018, Random House US/Canada; July 2018 Atlantic Books UK/AUS/NZ), as well as Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion. He is the co-editor of Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism, and The Dispossessed Eighteenth Century, and has published theory and fiction in Theory & Event, PMLA, Fence, Avidly, The Common, GLQ, World Picture Journal, and other places.