The “Real Problem” Critique and Other Ironies

This post is about trans studies. But I suck at making catchy titles. Also, these are more notes to a common theme toward the genre of the trans complaint.

In the weeks following Andrea Long Chu’s New York Times op-ed about how her bottom surgery, opinions proliferated. Chu’s tendentious claim (if it is indeed tendentious to have any feeling whatsoever about one’s own body) was that her new vagina would not make her happy. Further, transition and gender-confirming practices will not secure the state of being happy. Such an outcome, in so many ways, is impossible. And so Chu bore all: about her depression, her own experiences transitioning, the questionable medical ethics of happiness. Read it.

And there were proliferating feelings in opposition to her op-ed. They were written and spoken and included the new genre of the activist “Tweet-thread.” The whole thing, I felt, was a validation of Chu’s own theories about social and political theory that she had written in an article in N+1 just a few short months before. There she argued that feminist texts (but theoretical texts specifically) are so many occasions for feeling. They are not about feeling right or wrong, necessarily. These feelings can reaffirm old lines of thought; can branch out into new lines of inquiry; can alter one’s adherence to fantasy; can crank up the desire to feel a part of something larger than oneself. I think Chu was right. The cultural text, the theoretical narrative, is a powerful locus for generating those feelings. And make no mistake. The op-ed was as much theory as practice, thought-piece as narrative act. I poured over the reactions just one Tweet at a time (or thread, rather). Many linked to blogs. But one contribution caught my eye. It proclaimed to illustrate the “real problem” with Chu’s op-ed (if not the oeuvre that was underscoring her content). I’ll focus on that.

I. Pussy, or the Real Problems with Cisnormativity

Gwen Benaway, Canadian writer and theorist, wrote “Pussy” for the blog carte blanche. She opens, arguing that “trans girls have surgeries for many reasons” because, as one reads on,  Chu’s op-ed overlooked how her narrative can become a placeholder for all others. Benaway’s text is itself is an excellent excursion through the poetics of desire. Poet Anne Sexton’s lines are used in the epigraph to sum how Benaway felt, touched, and opened up herself for love and sexuality. That her vulnerability (both physical and emotional, if ever the two can be dissimplicated) was something shared. And so she finds her sense of wellbeing through the intersubjective, the powerful invocation of an other, and the construction of a tangible self. (Note: The epigraph is an excerpt from Anne Sexton’s confessional poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” Not that there is a canonical read here, but the poem itself reflect a mood and meditation about her father’s funeral and the death of both her parents, of feeling and touching in the genre of traumatic loss, of such closeness that “men would kill for.” Benaway would alter Sexton’s lines to reflect a kind of intertextuality to orgasm.)

And so Benaway gets through her story with a caveat: She isn’t out to offer a rebuttal against Chu. It’s just that she proceeds to do exactly that. Some of the argument is that Chu should have thought more diligently about the forum of her op-ed. In that sense, Chu had opened up to a world of readers who would simply take those experiences and appropriate them onto the experiences of all other trans women. Benaway: “Like most rhetorical and symbolic objects, trans women’s bodies are always up for debate in the public space. When Chu made a single negative remark about her imagined post-operative body, it became commentary on all of our post-operative bodies, whether she meant it to be or not.(I’ll bracket for now her problem of making the trans body a theoretical object on the one hand and a matter of living singularity on the other.) For now, the “real problem.” Benaway writes that Chu engages in writing and narrative symbolism that cisnormative publics can metabolize. (These are the “cis overlords,” Benaway’s readers are invited to contemplate.) In this sense Benaway can argue that Chu “wasn’t being provocative or radical.” She was writing as a matter of course for a consumerist, bourgeois culture. “The real problem [my italics] with Chu’s piece isn’t that she gave an uncritical and damaging account of herself, but that anyone required her to explain herself in the first place.” Her point is not entirely clear. But if this is meant to draw our (and here I mean trans writers and critics) attention to the the relationship between a mass-mediated cisnormative public and its problematic expectations and that the locus of actually existing misrepresentation is there–then yes, Chu’s op-ed (in itself) isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that Chu’s “new” pussy now speaks for all other “new” pussies. And so Benaway’s pussy becomes a problem for others to contemplate, to ask about, to become points of everyday conversation. In so many words, the “real problem” is cisnormativity.

Benaway’s critique of cisnormative culture is powerful in spite of itself. The argument seems to go something like this. Cisnormative discourse, like any supremacist discourse, is about relationality. It’s about how History has determined the what, when, where, and how of non-dominant people. The trans body is thus a sign, one that is inscribed from its very inception by norms that deprive the trans person an opportunity to speak. This is a familiar and powerful discourse that thinkers like Gayatri Spivak (1988) have made staples in critical theory. And so Benaway indicts Chu of being duped into textualizing the cis-genre of discourse. Chu is more a liberal rube than a radical trans critic. Benaway, on the other hand, seems assured that she has literalized something Chu merely mediated through theory. Not texts here. It’s the body (Benaway’s pussy) that is the source of feeling–orgasmic, powerful feeling. I agree with Benaway. Our bodies are the means through which so many forms of pleasure and discover take place. She argues that “my body isn’t a theoretical argument which unifies the disparate complexities of being a trans girl.” But nowhere in view are her comments about trans bodies being sigils, canvases upon which cisnormative cultural production represent its ilk. She just proceeds to theorize. It’s about her relation to things and the world. She seeks to standardize what is perceivably a really trans narrative, especially about “trans girls” and SRS. This is precisely the practice of theory and the theory of practice.

II. A Question of Transness

The difference is in forum. Chu’s narrative appeared in the so-called public sphere of a widely read newspaper. Benway wrote for carte blanche. (This isn’t my judgment on which forms of writing merit publication. I’m writing on a personally run blog.) But there is something to be said about the intimate public and affectworld that Benaway’s vehicle promises. Affectworlds are spaces that hold feelings together without fear of imminent rupture. Back in 1988, commenting on the state of a then-feminist politics, Lauren Berlant wrote that “with few exceptions, these [consciousness-raising, affectworld-like] projects assume a singularity of female spectatorship or subjecthood, and would ask us to recognize one kind of subject activity over another as the distinguishing mark of femininity” (p. 239). Gender was (rightly or wrongly) being “defined as a category that absorbs certain questions about the historical life of the subject” and as something “to be deployed” (p. 239). This kind of deployment, along with its historical absorption and political uptake, encouraged a particular American phenomenon of the history of women’s culture and, more broadly, “gendered industries.” It was a history of fantasy, feminine power, and the abjection of private/domestic life. The very multiplicity and fragmentation that such mass-mediated cultures produced invited a sense of anxiety. Who controlled which narratives? Which feelings were really, truly women’s feelings? Other questions had to surface. How would lesbian desires fit with those of the suburban hetero wife? Was motherhood still a sign of feminine power? For that matter, where were Black women, indigenous women, and other women of color in this discussion? What of the poor or near poor? The homeless who could not inhabit what was traditionally private (the home) nor the public (as visible persons)? Mass media opened the door to misrepresent what constitutes a class “woman,” as well as women’s politics and especially feminism. The oppressor was patriarchy and its persistence in masking the oppressive exclusion of women from public life. This genre of mass-mediated culture  related to the white bourgeois woman defined the contours of what Berlant called the “female complaint.”

In many ways I find parallels between Berlant’s notion and what is unfolding in trans studies today. As more trans narratives and experiences begin to appear on the scene of mass-media, ordinary lifeworlds are being confronted with ideological contest. Identity and the symbolic integrity of the self’s essence are challenged. Consider the phrase, more politically salient than ever, that trans women are women. Chu was held in contempt for asking how it is possible that she could want to be something she already was. And Chu’s provocative op-ed was a moment of rupture within what was being persistently corralled into a narrative cohesion of transness. In a sense, the op-ed was a quasi-event that underscored the multiplicitous ways that trans women might relate to their bodies, their selves, and the culture that provides (and simultaneously denies) them intelligibility. Benaway perceived the op-ed as a failure in politically meaningful performance. It had been contaminated by cisnormative patriarchy. So to borrow a bit, the “trans complaint” (or perhaps the “trans female complaint” as it is unfolding here) is an amalgamated complexity of anxieties (from Chu’s to Benaway’s) about what constitutes the symbolic power and narrative diversity of transness. What is unfolding now is  an urgency to “align ourselves, in our differences from each other, to perform, theorize, constantly intensify the rupture of the private, and inhabit, as much as we can, the constantly expanding negative terrain that will transform the [cisnormative] patriarchal public sphere” (p. 254). Part of this means interrogating the (bourgeois, white, privileged) attitude that equates publishing an op-ed in a widely read publication with the “good little trans writer” as its trope. What is unfolding demands that we (trans people, trans communities more generally) cannot be “horrified” when a trans woman repurposes parts of an otherwise cisnormative cultural imaginary in order to make sense of their lives, their ordinaries, their crises. The heart of the trans complaint seems to be about recognition. And recognition is the gift that keeps on taking.

III. Final Thoughts on History

Benaway ends her discussion with a rare kind of accusal. She argues that Chu views SRS and transition versions of escapism. This is based, in part, on Chu’s revelation that women have vaginas and so she wants one, too. But for Benaway, this kind of escape is not possible. She references critical theorist Saidiya Hartman’s (2017) elaboration of aesthetics and the racialized slum, arguing that there is no life outside the “trans girl streets.” Those streets, Benaway argues, have a permanent residency in subpersonhood. Now, say what you will about the persistence of subpersonhood, but my sense is that “The Terrible Beauty of the Slum” is about an historical relation where Hartman draws lines among geography, good-life fantasy, and the various allegories of Black (female) life in America. For Hartman, History is what hurts. No matter how your frame it, no matter the audience, and no matter what words you use to gloss your narrative of it, History is what you live in. It is the “elsewhere” as much as the “here” of being. That is why breaking with History means breaking with what has made you a self. That is terrifying. But it is also beautiful. Perhaps this is a point that Benaway fails to consider in her critique. Chu is willing to break with her relation to a History about trans women. She is willing to deal with all that is traumatic and ordinary, both ugly and beautiful, in the terror that such a break will inevitably invite. 

Epilogue: Redemptive Critique

Admittedly, Benaway references one of my favorite Anne Sexton poems. “The Truth the Dead Know” kept me together after my mother’s passing, a lifetime of battling cancer ended in 2004. Sexton’s final lines ask “And what of the dead? […] They refuse/ to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.” Benedictions make no difference to those who have died. They matter only for the rituals of the living. Perhaps reading this poem in relation to History one might be argue that there is an invitation to militate against empty gestures that embolden homogeneous relationships with the past. We should favor a redemptive critique instead. This critique calls upon the past, to be an expressed “now,” that dislocates History out of its private ritual in textbooks and classroom discussion–but a public avowal of what could be otherwise.

References (without Hyperlinks):

L. Berlant, 1988, “The Female Complaint,” Social Text (Autumn): pp. 237-259.

G. Spivak, 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, pp. 271-313, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

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