Brief Review of Paisley Currah’s Sex is as Sex Does

Paisley Currah’s newest book-length analysis offers an incisive and well-executed blend of cultural studies and feminist legal theory for eager readers in Trans Studies. It is also a book that excels at making otherwise technical legal and theoretical jargon accessible and, in many moments, relatable. And this, I believe, is a welcome change from a norm in scholarship within Trans Studies or Women’s and Gender Studies, which can often forget a book’s publics might also tend to be non-academic. It is an ordinary assumption recalling Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim and first axiom in Epistemology of the Closet that people are different from one another. And this rather obvious point guides the theoretical infrastructure of Currah’s analysis with persistence.

The premise is this. The critical object is not gender. It’s not even gender identity. It is sex, or as the classification has been variously defined and adjudicated by the states. Identifying this as a critical object—that is, by tracking its institutional effectivity in a self-aware manner—is throwback to Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons. Currah is expanding how we understand the meaning-making power of sex within the American legal and administrative fragmentations. Currah’s goal is to provide a different vantage from which to think about trans recognition, rights, and impediments current social justice movements are facing as we stand to connect transphobia to a cisnormative violence and ideological logic of the carceral. Sex-as-critical-legal object promises to do this as Currah tracks the enactments and annulments this term confers as it makes its way through a labyrinthine system of American governance. As a critical object we can understand the extent we, as invested scholars desire to make “sex” a relation of power. It ends up being a bureaucratic limit-condition on many hundreds of thousands of trans people whose lives are conditioned by identification cards, ID numbers, and other technologies of government under the term, governmentality.

US federalism all but ensures that “sex” remains incoherent as a relation between discourse and federal classification. Instead, sex classification becomes locally (city, county, state) promulgated interpretations and acts of human agents. And here Currah deploys a double movement. Sex is both a prior limit-condition with social implications. But administrators carry out quotidian tasks—and this is a critical point. They make sometimes idiosyncratic statements that move our critical object away from or closer to what had been set by state legislative and executive agencies. The administrative mechanics of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics is lived materially. Marxist critic Raymond Williams and cultural theorist Stuart Hall persuasively argued that all ideology is lived and mediated ideology. Currah discovers the means of tracking this analytic claim through a network of discontinuous but material infrastructure. The latter is the often underdescribed texts that go beyond court decisions. These include effects (and affects) of city council hearings; the actuality of ID cards and their cross-state validity; the application for a passport and all related experiences of traveling while trans; such objects go down to the very files that testify to biopower’s administration of trans life. We know this administration of life is hardly neutral. A good reminder of this is Hortense Spiller’s evergreen “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.”

Through Currah’s lens, this vantage from a less telescopic point of view that ideology critique tends to occupy, we are able to make a series of bold observations. First might be that transphobia and cisnormativity are better understood by starting with the inscribed object-texts that flow with real movement through time and space. In this, Currah recalls the work of Bruno Latour in The Making of Law or the anecdotal temporality of judicial affect in Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights. These movements produce files and effects that differ across and through US state jurisdictional pathways, a fragmented regulatory zone that colonizes nonnormative spaces where identity and identification are not theoretically divergent. The refer to literally different phenomena. Thus, phobic norms leave material traces. We find them in objects comprising a state’s micro-technologies of management. These objects can be grasped, argued against, wielded as part of contemporary social justice discourse that often remains, well, largely discursive. Second might be that there is much more to be learned from the inevitable torsion that internal contradictions and social antagonisms produce—an inherent part of our administrative incoherence. Third, and finally, might be this. Critical objects of study can disclose much about what are observable mechanics of power. But they also disclose our desire to make sex do what, to our minds, it ought to do—at least from a more Leftist theoretical position. We might therefore make and connect our statements empirically so as to get at the heart of “sex” as it is and does. It can index our desire to adequately measure and account for violence we all know too well that continues to be unevenly distributed across other classificatory processes and regimes like race, class, disability and access, sexuality, and age.

These are all very much thematic in Currah’s book. But I think it stands as testament to the possibilities of what can be traced with varying degrees of precision back and through what Michael Taussig might call the “nervous system” of an American legal and administrative disarray of work. And here ideology critique might again enter to animate that line of empirical (not positivist) connection by making “the state” an iterative entity: prisons, DMVs, or the local pharmacy. Sex is a polymorphic object. And sex classification attends to the sense animating this much needed book: sex exists as both cause and condition for what it does and will continue to do if ideological criticism retains, in its cyclic way, hegemony in academic studies of the state, culture, and transness.

Read the book.

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