You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘identity’ tag.

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!

Advertisements

I’m generally very critical of what I kind of see as the market fetishization of the individual and of individualization. Peter called me out the other night, though, on my tendency to also validate the importance of individual identity. In many ways it’s very important to my picture of social justice and of movement building. I’m kind of in serious conflict about this now.

On the one hand, I think the fact that the market has co-opted our radical individuality into an advertising tool is very screwed up. I am nervous about the way we are sold individualization — whether it be in the form of the newest gadgets for your mobile phone that are highly customizable, or in the form of being sold privileges — like gay marriage. (I’m mostly here talking about the simple fact that the marriage question diverts attention away from segments of society — and who fall under the queer umbrella — who are so far underserved that marriage isn’t even on the radar. I’m also concerned about the argument for gay marriage that says that gay people are affluent and therefore will spend a lot of money on their weddings if they can get married. Blargh!)

The fact of the matter is, being an individual in this sense has been taken from us. It’s now being used to sell us stuff and thereby keep us complacent.

On the other hand, I detect a problem with abandoning this kind of attention to individual identity. I don’t think that it’s necessary to completely ridding ourselves of these ideas — maybe of the rhetoric. After all, I am continually frustrated by the impossibility of addressing historical injustice if we don’t consider identity. Further, how do we have a conversation about power if we don’t think about the lived experiences of individual people?

So, ultimately: is there a balance between the acknowledgment of individual identity and lived experience and the ability to flout the control structures of late capitalism?

This might not actually make any sense. I welcome your input on the matter. I think this is a pretty big problem!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about late capitalism as a form of political control, especially in unconventional environments. We talked on Sunday at brunch about how the sale of the experience and the sale of “individual identity” is a form of control peculiar to our day and age. There are a couple of disparate things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to this.

I.

I remember being in China two summers ago, a couple months before the Beijing Olympics, and wandering through the botanical gardens with my dad. We saw a young couple running through the gardens with their toddler-aged child. It was cute. The dad was laughing, taking pictures of the mom and the kid, wobbling around next to some flowers.

“People here look so happy,” he said. “They can buy clothes, food, cars, in the colors and styles they want. They can express themselves through the consumer goods they buy. Five, ten years ago this was not true.”

I remember talking to some other students at Peking University, who told me that people were content so long as they could have the material goods they thought of as part and parcel to the material wealth of the West. The right to assembly was not as important culturally as the right to a Chrysler 300.

II.

What constantly weirds me out about the “green” movement is how consumption-oriented it is. I don’t mean that in the sense that it is concerned with our consumption, because obviously anybody concerned with the state of the environment should be worried about our consumption. What I am constantly struck by, and grossed out by, is the co-opting of the rhetoric of the “green” movement to sell products. New products. Products that are manufactured using traditional methods. Products that may or may not have any positive impact on our “carbon footprint” at all.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that “green” marketing is anything but marketing. And the weird thing is that we’re willing to buy the experience of feeling like we’re making a difference in the world. We might each have our own reason for doing so, but we’re buying it. The selling of an experience, as opposed to an item, is something peculiar to late capitalism. I have been thinking about this since Zizek lectured here at the beginning of the semester.

III.

Yesterday in my class we talked about the development of society and economy in Second Life, and what that means for our society and economy in our first lives. I think one of the things that always strikes me is how mad excited everyone gets about the economic opportunities and innovation that come along with Second Life growing as a kind of “3D internet,” as one of my students called it. Nobody is really discussing the way in which Second Life is actually run. (Which is the way the vast majority of virtual worlds are run, through an administrator oligarchy.)

Now I understand that some people will say, “Wait a minute, Cayden, Second Life isn’t about forming a government. After all, it’s run by a company that is interested in using its software to make money — and to enable people to connect, to create things, and to play.”

At the same time, in Second Life you can be anybody and do pretty much anything you want. Except liberate yourself. What’s easy to forget about it is that you’re being sold an experience in an ultimate way — people spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on ethereal piles of pixels in order to have an experience in the game. You’re being sold a deeply consumeristic experience, no less. The main tabs on the Second Life website are “What Is Second Life?” “World Map” “Shopping” “Buy Land” “Community” “Help” and finally the join button, which emphasizes that joining is free. Which is funny. Considering two of the six main tabs are about spending money.

IV.

So what does all this mean? I think these three things are symptoms of a bigger issue. Something about how too much wealth begets complacency. Or that our priorities aren’t quite what they used to be, or rather that our priorities were never what we were made to think they were. And also something about capitalism as culture, not just as economic system.

The symptoms speak to an environment where economic freedom is mistaken for individual and political freedom. Think about it.

I said no more after that. On the way home from hanging out at the bar with my friends, a group of black students were leaving the Fifth Quarter, a pretty mainstream club that is no more than two blocks from my apartment. One of the women in the group looked me in the eye and told me, “you have to go, you’re gonna get your ass beat.” I said no more after that.

To me, what happened before that spoke so loudly to the problems I have with the liminality of my own identity. I am not white. In communities of color, I pass as white. The reason I opened my damn mouth in the first place is because the person in question said aloud (and loudly), “look at that girl! She is trying to look like a guy, but she is a girl.” Which was preceded and followed by declarations of hate for white people (oddly enough, I had been talking about how annoyed I’ve been with white people on campus not an hour earlier over beers with my friends — who are white…).

I couldn’t really help myself — maybe a function of my drunkenness, also certainly a function of my self-righteousness, and undoubtedly a function of the spirit of my evening. “You don’t know shit about me,” I said. “I’m not white. And you don’t know shit about my gender.”

One of the women in the group stopped me and pushed me, saying, “you don’t talk to my brother like that.”

You don’t talk to — and about — me like that, I wanted to say. Which was when the other woman intervened. I wasn’t looking for a fight. I am just so sick and tired of being sick and tired; so annoyed with the community of white cisgender academics I am surrounded with; so desperate for a community of allies I search for in the faces of virtually everyone I pass. Maybe I was looking for a fight — I wanted to fight the guy. I won’t lie.

But I kept walking. I kept walking as he laughed about my gender identity.

A few days ago I was part of a community panel of queer people of color. It was odd, being the only transgender and one of only a handful of multiracial people at the table. I had all kinds of things to say about passing, belonging and safety, but for some reason I wasn’t ready to talk about them there. Even with people who supposedly understand me. Who supposedly share my struggle. I said something about access to trans-friendly healthcare. That was it.

Passing is the most important — and least important — thing. Passing is not just about gender. It’s also about race. It’s about the privilege I get because I pass as white. The oppression I experience because white people know I’m not one of them. The oppression I experience because I’m “not” a person of color. Because even in communities which experience oppression I’m still not allowed to claim the identities that I know are mine.

Such are the difficulties of liminal identities: I’m not one or the other, but I’m certainly both. I’m neither white nor a person of color, but I slip from one identity to another depending on who I’m with. I’m neither a man or a woman, but I slip from one identity to another depending on who I’m with. I am still denied, regardless of community, the right to claim my own identities. And that is frightening. The fact I was about to get in a four-on-one fight over it is even more frightening. And more frightening than that? I wouldn’t have backed down.

categories

twitter me