Trans-ing Time: Reflections on Derrida
I’ve been avoiding writing for quite a bit of time now. The irony is that I’m going to write about time, and its effects, its importance in gendered identities, to subjectivities. In phenomenology this experience of time could be referred to as temporality. That’s what I want to elaborate for a bit, a concept of temporality that isn’t decidedly “queer” but perhaps trans, since it is overcoming a common sense of time that has recently caught my interest. I will say from the outset that we are obviously caught, grammatically, in a conception of time. Our writing is, therefore, limited in all meanings of that word to such a conception.
In a preliminary way, let me address what I would understand as the experience of gender, as a movement from one point to another “in time”. From the normative point of view, that is to say a cisgender point of view, gender is “synced” with the body. There is a match, a coherence, between the moment that sex is declared at birth and the identity of which one is conscious of at some time after–usually adolescence but not always. Sex is then not only fixed in terms of a biological anchor, the body as a part of its appearance “in space.” It has a temporal root of building a consciousness as well. Thus, gender–if taken as the social roles and feelings we maintain about bodies as male or female (to remain with the confines of cis-)–refers back to that defining moment of in order to justify itself. For example, I argue that I am non-binary. Declaring “I am” requires my thinking backward, through the succession of events to that moment where, outside my own control, the medical and social worlds declared my sex, and ensured by engendering (by engendering I mean the process by which I “become” this or that gender). I make a stance as to my present identity to the one that occurred “in the past” and make a statement that suggests an incoherence. This is a personal account. If I take the autobiographies of trans people who proclaim in a similar way that their gender identity does not cohere with their sex assigned at birth, then it seems there is a similar relationship between their “I am” and that fixed moment in the constellation of their sexed life. Consider that “transition” itself contains in its radicality a reflection of both space and time–moving from this point to another point.
So, to have any “normal” feelings of gender one must identify within a normal conception of time. This seems to be doubly insidious. On the one hand is the need to justify one’s own gender identity through recourse to an established biological truth of the body. On the other is the need to justify one’s identity through recourse to an established truth of temporal coherence. I can’t exist as this or that gender unless I can make the claim to a previously situated point in my narrative that fixes, as it were, a moment where my claim to difference can be made legible. The now of a person’s identity is a kind of illusory bond between the fixed moment of the past and the otherwise fluid moment of the present. But it is precisely that bond that keeps our identities locked into an ongoing privileging of the present, of the now and its continuous successions, such that escaping this “past” is impossible.
This is more than a metaphysical problem since, as we craft our own narratives and keep up with our relations to others, we must always refer to time. “OK, see you tomorrow”; “Last class we discussed…”; “I love you”–these are all located in a configuration of time as ongoing, stream-like, and always present. We refer to the future as a future-now. We refer to the past as past-nows. And thus we refer to consciousness, as such, as now. But insofar that we accept this as our starting point, we narrow the limits of experience by suggesting anything that goes outside this field is nonsensical. We cannot, in practical language, exist as both a sex we once were and a sex we are now not at the same time. This defies common sense and thus would obscure the truth of our situation as humans. To that end, it would obscure our political ties and connections, our ethical obligations, because we would have to bend the rules of this time in order to accommodate identities that compose themselves as contradictory moments outside the normative experience of time.
Indulge me here. If a transgender person must be “corrected” in the sense that their body is “out of sync” and needs medical intervention–does this not ask that we reframe that person’s conscious experience of their own bodies? Does this not only privilege the discourse surrounding a moment in their life (birth) over their entire narrative of life? If it does privilege something, does it drain the agency of that person to have some kind of capability to be conscious of their bodies in ways that we–as outsiders, as those whose conception of time we impose–arrogated that person’s voice in particular and the trans voice in general? These are obviously loaded questions. They imply that the medical communities, the legal practices, and the social relations that have “represented” trans people have done so in such a way as to condition the limits of consciousness itself. Representation is temporal.
So when a court hears a plea as to the the discrimination of a transwoman in employment, does it hear the voice of a trans person as conscious construction through multiple points in time? Or does it hear the fragmentary moments of pre- and post- operative “transition” that gives that person’s gendered and sexed appearance “meaning”? It would seem the latter, as I’ve written about elsewhere–but I have not written in a way that closely examined the temporal elements of constructing a transgender legal subject. This applies to the politics of the day. Bathroom bills are themselves a despicable way of connecting a transphobic conception of biological functions to social relations. They also privilege the temporal element of transitions, operations, appearances, and Being. Only at a given point in time does any trans person become an authentic person, as such. Until then they exist outside of this temporal normativity and are further reduced in their sense of humanity: they are not the gender they proclaim; they are not equal to those who, by accident, were born with those organs they most readily identify as their (cis)gender; and they stand outside a framework of time in such a way that it freezes them as frauds in the present. This concept of time closes all beings, not just trans people, in a circular consciousness doomed to reproduce the conditions for its own internal violence. It traps the way we conceive time in our social worlds as a bending backward of the so-called now to justify itself with a past now, a moment, creating a circular movement that thrusts itself forward under the delusion that it can think of the future–when in truth it is only reconstituting its own justifications.
I think trans–to the benefit of any and all human–politics calls for a certain kind of temporality: a reconception of how we view our conscious understanding of time as merely a succession of events. Perhaps we can re-think our-selves by thinking time not as a series of movements–movements that require fixed positions in order to make sense of anything at all. We could conceive of time as a plurality of moments without pure linearity. We could conceive, out of that, a politics that does not justify itself on a past series of events–but as ruptures with and challenges to that very chain of successions. Then we would not merely exist as beings who must always refer to a past for meaning, but as narratives and stories whose times vary and require no justification for their own identity. Then, perhaps, we could think of our differences in terms of the widest possible array of relationships that bring meaning to bear on the world. Maybe, in that way, we can stop the forgetting of history (Cornell West’s historical amnesia) simply because it’s “all in the past” or “water under bridge” but rather as moments always being dealt with, somehow otherwise than “now.”
My ramblings are indebted to varying insights from Jacques Derrida’s “Note on a Note from Being and Time.”