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So I’m a little stuck, and I like to think out loud here, so here I go. Because it’s here, I’d love to hear what you think about my thinking. I’ve been ruminating on this for a few days now and I’m not quite ready to conclude.

In Homo Sacer, Agamben describes the concentration camp as the most perfect implementation of biopower in human history, which, of course, implies that it is the outcome of any biopolitical environment, whether we are talking about totalitarian dictatorship or a liberal democratic welfare state. If this is what we face when we are facing down biopolitics, it’s clear that we need to break the cycle. The problem is, of course, that Agamben effectively proves that all politics have been biopolitics since the beginning of recorded Western history. In light of that, how do we “solve” the problem of biopolitics?

I’ve been thinking about this a little obsessively because the issue has become deeply personal. I don’t want to offer some kind of sophistic solution. I’d really like to — at least — point in a direction that might be fruitful for further investigation, or gesture at what I think might lead to politics beyond biopolitics. In thinking about the biopolitical situation, I couldn’t help but go back to Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” because she writes of biopolitics: “Michel Foucault’s biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field.” [Emphasis mine.]

What could this mean? Is the cyborg a product of the concentration camp? Another possibility that has crossed my mind is — the cyborg is both a product of the technology required by the concentration camp, and produced by the concentration camp. Which would mean that the cyborg springs from the same source, and grows alongside, the concentration camp.

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This talk presented 2/13 at Pecha Kucha Buffalo, Western New York Book Arts Center.

I am a game designer, theorist, and hacker. You might say that game design is my artistic practice. But I don’t really want to talk about games tonight, because I spend a lot of time talking about them in other venues. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a more personal aspect of my practice, one which is based upon my complex set of social identities — compiled into a single identity that we might call cyborg identity. This is the first and foremost way in which I am a hacker.

We are all cyborgs in a Harawayan sense. We are amalgamations of complicated histories of violence, socialization, and the internalization of the oppression that surrounds us. In her 1989 “Cyborg Manifesto”, Donna Haraway writes about the ways in which feminism has failed women of color and women in the Global South. She neglects to mention the group which has been failed most violently by feminism, transgender people. Feminism has a nasty history of erasing transgender people: denying the humanity and womanhood of trans women, fetishizing and degendering trans men, and rejecting legitimacy of all people who queer gender. This is a topic for another talk entirely — what matters tonight is that Haraway is not trying to squeeze all non-men into a certain framework. She is trying to pull apart the tangle of identity.

The interesting thing about Haraway’s exclusion of transgender identities from her discussion of cyborgs is that we are perfect examples of cyborg praxis. By that I mean, we have bodies mediated in complex, meaningful ways by technology which, in many cases must be separated into component parts (and we are often examined as medical curiosities and rarely treated as holistic people); we have a preoccupation with the technologies of writing and language; and regardless of the complex gender identity we claim for ourselves, we represent an embodied experience of dissonance, language-play, Deleuzian multiplicity, and mediation. Trans people are living rejections of a dualism that separates the mind from the body: by virtue of our trans-ness, we refuse that there is any division at all.

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Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

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So, in thinking about what I ought to do as a project for my wearable media course, I’ve been thinking a lot about how what we wear deeply influences the way people read our gender identities. Also, the committee for the DSM-V has been publishing proposed changes to the DSM-IV’s gender identity disorder (GID) section on the web. There are a lot of issues surrounding the creation of these diagnoses and identifying GID as a mental illness at all. There’s also the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which requires the patient to “live cross-gender” for a certain amount of time before hormone therapy or surgery can be prescribed.

Ultimately these diagnoses and requirements and standards are gatekeeper tools which are, more often than not, tyrannical and harmful to the patients they’re supposed to be designed to help. They force folks into boxes, discredit them when they don’t conform (especially with regard to who they date and how they behave in society), and generally make it difficult — cost-wise, time-wise, and physical-safety-wise — to get the care that they need. They’re historically a source of pain for many trans people, and present major roadblocks to a variety of cross-sections of the trans population.

Another source of inspiration for this project is Constraint City, which is a vest that constricts when the wearer is near more closed wireless networks. It can be worn while walking through urban environments, allowing a new kind of consciousness of things you cannot see. (And it hurts.)

My thought is that I should create a user interface that “assists” the wearer in “living cross-gender.” The garment itself will be a kind of corset — already a kind of torture device — that you can set up to be male-to-female or female-to-male. (There are only two kinds of transsexuals, don’t you know.) Depending on a number of feedback sources that determine how “well” you are living in the “opposite gender,” the vest will constrict you (if you need “help”) or loosen. Depending on your gender setting, it will either constrict the waist (to “feminize”) or chest (to “masculinize”).

Possible metrics for “success” include: feedback from others, posture, voice pitch, mannerisms, way of moving, talkativeness, and perhaps others. The vest will also track the amount of time you spend successfully living “cross-gender,” and perhaps report out to a website that will allow you to keep track of the time you spend. This information will, of course, be public, and kind of embarrassing.

So the SOCVest is public, humiliating, painful, and essentializing. Sound familiar? I thought so. I plan to use it for a performance about my own medical care and medical history. The document will remain on the SOCVest website for all to see.

Feedback would very much be appreciated, maybe I will post some sketches of the vest design.

Last weekend I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is a small but important book about the way in which we become spectators when presented with photographic representations of war. While the photograph is still an enormously powerful, pervasive medium, and indeed one of the primary ways we see the things that happen abroad, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which we “see” things that happen abroad in other ways. Sontag discusses films very briefly, and mentions video games but once. (She is, after all, probably best known as a critic for On Photography.) But I also noticed that, in the later part of the essay, she critiqued her own view that we become desensitized to violence through overexposure to images of suffering.

This idea is problematic on a number of levels. First, she writes that it is difficult to say with any certainty that image-glut does, in fact, create the kind of callousness that critics claim it does. Second, the virtualization of war is a phenomenon restricted to those for whom war is not real and immediate — that is, spectators in the West. Sontag makes a point of calling these claims “platitudes” and tearing them apart as ungrounded and provincial. The effects of these kinds of images need to be reassessed.

Of course, my thoughts turned to video games. Much is often made, in the mainstream media, of the damaging effects of video game play on the minds of youngsters — the desensitization to violence and suffering can now be taken to a new level, where the player is virtually involved in the violence, instead of just a spectator. (But is not the video game player still a spectator, in some way? And how is viewing art on a wall not in some way interactive, perspectival, and affective? This relationship is complicated.) And within the game studies community, many scholars have written on the propaganda value of a good, clean first-person shooter, the gore turned down and the stakes lowered through the very nature of the gamic medium.

But I think in many ways a new generation of first-person shooters is problematizing the assumed relationship between the video game, the gamer, and the suffering of others. I’ve been trying to come up with useful cases, and I think we could examine the controversial “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) as a starting point. [Basic spoilers follow.]

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By now I imagine most people who are interested in what I write about have seen Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, A Rant About Women. While the title of the blog entry itself is a bit of a misnomer (I don’t think Shirky is really ranting about women so much as he is ranting about femininity) it’s also a bit of a hot-button topic for a lot of people. I’ve read several smart critiques of the general thesis, but I haven’t seen a critique from the specific angle I would like to tackle. The assumptions that Shirky makes about the way society should be are a little bit frightening, but I’ve been thinking more and more about where these ideas come from, and some of them are more well-formulated than others, but I’m going to give it a go.

The one thing I’ve not been seeing explicitly is the idea that Shirky is taking issue with femininity. In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano discusses how our entire society — many feminists included — treat femininity as something to avoid. This is manifested in many ways. Consider how it’s generally okay for little girls to play with action figures, but when a little boy wants to play with a baby doll, suddenly red lights go off in his parents’ heads and the boy is punished. Or consider that when women were first allowed to enter the working world they were expected to assimilate with men. Or consider that because I’m a trans man I get certain privileges over trans women, like acceptance in more cis queer circles or the freedom to not worry about violence constantly.

What Shirky completely misses in his post is that he’s becoming part of this problem — the oppression women (all women) face in our society is not just income ceilings (or being locked out of employment altogether) or socialization into subservient roles, but that anybody who conforms in any way to that notion of femininity is viewed as weak, inferior, and, often, problematic. By saying that it doesn’t matter that his blog post asks women to be more like men, Shirky is essentially cosigning the erasure of feminine identities, which is completely and utterly unacceptable.

I think danah boyd raises a great point, too, when she points out that diversity isn’t just about arranging “diverse-looking” people in a room and calling it a job well done. (Also if we were all self-aggrandizing jerks nothing would ever get done! Too much infighting!)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the commitment to non-violence, and what that means when squared with the idea that oppression is violent. I think it’s very easy to point to the successes of non-violent movements, and I think that it’s also really wonderful that non-violent resistance to oppression has worked in the past. However, I also have mixed feelings about how resistance to oppression has changed tactically since the advent of social media.

On the one hand, social media enables non-violent protesters to circumvent institutional media, thereby allowing them to depict, say, police brutality at a protest from their own point of view. However, these points of view often only get picked up by people who support them in the first place. They are merely preaching to the choir.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that non-violent protest seems to be losing traction in many ways. People are jaded with the format of most protests — although this does offer exciting opportunities for people working on social media projects to use their technologies to respond to this need — and very little is sensational about people with signs marching on anything these days. On the other hand, many experiments with using social media to intervene in situations has been largely very ephemeral, which is a big complaint about social media-related justice work in general. And the internet in general.

So what are we to do? I think it’s a many-faceted problem, but I also don’t know about ruling out a certain degree of militancy in responding to certain situations. I don’t think armed conflict or violent aggression is, in fact, the solution to every problem, nor am I advocating meaningless violence. However, in cases where all legal and civil resistances have failed, sometimes you have to raise your fist. Stonewall was a riot, not a candlelight vigil.

Post-protest at the Bella Center, Copenhagen (Matthew McDermott/Treehugger)

I’ve been following the proceedings at COP15 with some degree of suspicion, especially since the leak of the Danish Text last week. I have to say, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Voz has been saying on Twitter about how climate change is a convenient target, and ignores a lot of the more fundamental problems with our environment that continue to screw over both the Global South and poor people in this country, too.

Living in Buffalo, it’s hard to avoid some of these facts. My friend Katy is the environmental justice coordinator for the Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper — when it’s warm enough to fish, she often goes out and talks to local anglers, warning them about the risks of eating the fish they catch. Unfortunately, and tragically, many of them tell her that they need the fish to feed their families. It’s a destructive cycle of environmental and human rights abuse. It’s happening in our backyards, to our neighbors, and it’s a direct result of our completely flippant attitude toward the environment.

It’s not just about carbon emissions, people. It’s about dumping heavy metals into our waterways. It’s about the island of plastic in the ocean. It’s about being able to live in and with our environment, and climate change is the last thing on my mind when I think about environmental justice. By correcting a lot of these other problems, the whole climate change issue might even be resolved.

So when I saw the above photo on Treehugger’s Bella Center protest slideshow, I just about blew a capillary in my brain. It really doesn’t look like this particular site was near where protesters were beaten by police, and the slideshow suggests the rest of the demonstration was largely quite peaceful, including intentional de-escalation on the part of the Copenhagen police. Why in god’s name would environmental activists leave so much shit lying around on the streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world? How do they expect to be taken seriously if they leave trash in their wake? THIS is an aftermath of COP15 that we have every right and leverage to avoid. I’m just saying, and I am seriously disappointed.

Yesterday I re-read Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” [PDF hosted by AAAARG.ORG]. The first time I read it was when I was starting to think about what it means to be post-gender, but I have to say that this re-reading was so much richer and full of interesting stuff than that first reading could ever have been. My context has been strengthened and my own thinking has become more sophisticated, as well.

One of the things that means a lot more to me now is Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as a being who does not strive toward totality of theory, or ultimate all-encompassing explanation. Something I have struggled with has been this demand placed on me, especially as a public face of trans advocacy, to come up with some nugget or essence of what it is to be a transgender person. I guess there isn’t a kernel that some fundamental “trans-ness” can be boiled down to.

And maybe that is part of what resonates so strongly with me about this anti-imperialist critique of feminism. Unlike other critiques of feminism I have read, Haraway identifies a very particular characteristic of most feminisms (and most -isms, really), especially of the radical variety. Haraway writes

The feminist dream of a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve contradiction.

And I think this gets at something very important about what it means to me to be a transgender person — many cis people tend to read into my self-identification an attempt to resolve the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between man/woman, whereas I think putting the weight of such a reconciliation on an individual is basically harmful and sort of, well, imperialistic. It is the use of a differently (and intentionally) gendered body to negotiate a certain gendered social reality that has come to be thought of as oppressive.

I suppose ultimately what excites me the most is the idea of an ideological system that is content with its incompleteness, that being a cyborg or being post-gender (post-human) is about a kind of becoming as opposed to a being. It seems to me that this is about shifting lines of definition, not just of oneself but also of one’s society and social categories, regulations, and expectations.

In attempting to formulate a cyborg politics, Haraway asks, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective — and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” The rhetoric of both socialism and feminism don’t give room for incomplete, in-process identities. An in-process identity requires an affordance for what Haraway calls “polyvocality.” I think Haraway’s critique of Marxism and feminism is on point in ths way — and why feminist theorizing about transgender bodies and identities has a historical tendency to be screwed up. I don’t think that transgender selves or any semblance of totality.

On the contrary, I tend to think if there is anything at the core of trans-ness, it is a joyful expression of “permanently unclosed” identity if I’ve ever seen it. What feminist theorists get wrong about transgender selves and transgender bodies, then, is trying to squeeze a process (i.e., a temporal metaphor) into a spatial metaphor of categorization. I think this idea needs a little working out, especially since our understanding of time is spatially mediated, but the point is you cannot make a process or even a series of relations into a category because it is ongoing, open-ended, destabilized, and generative.

Trans people are the ultimate cyborgs. “Our” postmodern identities are predicated on an acceptance of the partiality of our perspectives and selves, even as a collective. I also think that in “our” constant contemplation and manipulation of language, “we” live Haraway’s “struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.” She even goes so far as to say that this struggle is a subversion of “the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so [subverts] the structure and modes of production of Western identity.” (emphasis mine)

What I’ve learned in the past year or so is that the struggle for postcolonial identity, transgender identity, and a complex conception of multiple overlapping identities is a matter of struggling against exactly that structure. Complex multiple identities — at play in both the theorization of the postcolonial self and the transgender self — make it impossible to theorize about a totality of people. Who, after all, are the “transgender people” of this world? Who are really the “subaltern”? Who do we intentionally or accidentally exclude by naming these things?

Haraway’s critique of feminism translates directly in this way to (my) transgender critique of feminism. Re-reading this in light of everything that I have learned in the past two or three years was a total joy. I am sure I will be revisiting many of these ideas soon, hopefully a bit more rigorously. Thanks for playing!


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