[11:59] john: so u r a natural woman?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Like the song?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe?

[12:00] sarahlizzy: Because I like to think so.

~Activist Sarah Brown having a bit of fun with a “tranny chaser”

 

As a trans woman, one sees herself reflected in academic texts as if peering into a cursed mirror; the woman, if she is allowed to be called such at all, stares back with a postmodern face.

It is a thought that has struck me as I have made my rounds through journal articles and discussions about trans women—written by or conducted by cisgender people, and occasionally by trans-masculine folks—when I am left wondering where precisely I am meant to stand in this increasingly fragmented movement of ours. What seems to arrest the academic luminaries most concerned with transgender people are questions of identity and transgression, of political meaning neatly cleaved from political reality.

In characteristically gentle and cautious prose, Raewyn Connell makes this point well in her recent paper “Transsexual Women and Feminist Thought: Toward New Understanding and New Politics” :

“The first is that major issues in transsexual women’s lives, especially social issues, are not well represented by identity discourses of any kind. These issues include the nature of transition, the laboring transsexual body, workplace relations, poverty, and the functioning of state organizations including police, health policy, family services, education, and child care.

The second difficulty is a powerful tendency in transgender literature to degender the groups spoken of, whether by emphasizing only their nonnormative or transgressive status; by claiming that gender identity is fluid, plastic, malleable, shifting, unstable, mobile, and so on; or by simply ignoring gender location. A great deal of recent research and writing, while acknowledging diversity at an individual level, lumps women and men into a common “transgender” story (e.g., Couch et al. 2007; Hines 2007; Girshick 2008). It is difficult to find in any of this the intransigence of gender actually experienced in transsexual women’s lives.”

The emphasis here draws deeply on the work of Viviane K. Namaste, who Connell repeatedly cites approvingly, and on Connell’s own avowedly structure-conscious perspective. For Namaste trans people are more than the sum of their identities, but people with complex relationships to institutions, the state, citizenship, rights, and politics more widely. We have something to do with both bread and roses. There is a practical dimension to trans lives as lived that the unsubtle instruments of abstraction-for-the-sake-of-abstraction cannot possibly comprehend.

Namaste and Connell both see trans women’s interactions with the neoliberal state, to give one example, as being of considerably greater importance than our “transgressive” value; the obsession of a philosophy that sometimes seems to forget what it is transgressing against in the first place.

None of this should be quite so controversial. After all, social science makes a none too subtle demand that our theorising should arise from the practise of everyday lives. Yet it is precisely this issue which remains very controversial in academia—in the social sciences and elsewhere—and trans women’s bodies are one of several battlefields on which this battle is being fought. Time and again we are talked about as if we are unreal; simulacra of ourselves floating context-free among great minds unmoored by the trivialities of social practise.

Put more concretely, postmodern thinking on trans women seems to argue that because something can mean anything in theory, it actually does mean everything in practise. The word “tranny” is a perfect example. This past year, friends of mine had to listen to a cis queer male professor piously intone about the infinite variability of “tranny’s”  meanings, and why the word was not in any “real” sense offensive or prejudicial. It was “just a word,” after all, and words can mean anything. Therefore they mean everything.

Therefore they mean nothing.

Visual metaphors! M.C. Esher! Giant ants! This picture has it all! (Giant ants– at least I like to pretend they’re huge– walking around a wire-mesh mobius strip).

It’s been quite a while since I updated here. I’ve been exceedingly busy working on a research project in my sociology department and with some of my other commitments as well as a few personal problems I had to overcome. But, I’m back, and I thought that in the wake of Anita Sarkeesian’s struggle with a cavalcade of trolls over her proposed webseries it’s worth digging up a recent piece of writing I submitted as a final paper in one of my classes (Gender and Geography). This paper sought to chart out the geographic dimensions of cyberspace, particularly gamer subculture, through the lens of “the space of exception”.

I’ve excerpted a part of the paper that I think is quite relevant to what had just transpired with Feminist Frequency. In a section entitled “It’s Just a Game” I describe how the “unreal” nature often imputed to gaming space gives licence to abuse that would be intolerable outside of it. This “unreality,” I argue, is on the flip-side of a pleasurable “reality” that also manifests in gaming culture. It feels like the real world, and yet isn’t; because of this, many  gamers feel able to express themselves in a deeply violent and prejudicial way. It feels like reality, and thus being a bigot provides all the perverse pleasure that asserting dominance over another person often provides, but the “unreal”/”fake” virtuality of the space provides moral and ideological cover for this behaviour. What follows is my attempt to draw together various sociological, geographic, and philosophical ideas to provide a thumbnail sketch of how all that works.

Enjoy!

Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, and one that is consciously constructed in defensive opposition to a rapidly changing world. Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for modern young heterosexual men “the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism that defines a space of exception. He goes on to point out that this “reality” is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered,” (Kimmel 2008: 150). His analysis of men’s relationship to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it” (156).

It is hardly surprising that some men wish to perceive this as a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. It is often constructed as a refuge for hegemonic masculinity, particularly as expressed through technological mastery. Connell identifies two hegemonic masculinities that she argues have diverged and are sometimes in tension with one another: dominance-based masculinity, and expertise-based masculinity (Connell 2000: 194-195). It can be theorised that gaming in cyberspace folds these two back together with a violent world of hierarchical rankings, which allows for the virtual embodiment of conquistador-style masculinity through the mastery of technology, thus reuniting two patriarchal symbolic universes. The conflict between these two masculinities may play out more widely in the physical world, but in the space of exception furnished by cyberspace they combine to form a unique but also familiar expression of gender

But it is here that we come to a very critical distinction between the space of exception constituted by, say, the [internment or prison] camp, and the space of exception the virtual world represents. The marked difference between “exception” and “normal” is important for all such spaces, but only in the virtual world is there an equally clear, aggressively policed, distinction between “real” and “unreal” that constitutes both cyberspace and its social practises. This is a nontrivial distinction, but also a connection between the two– cyberspace and social practise therein. The purported exceptionality of time and place surrounding the internet as a whole gives licence to the abuses within, and the ostensible unreality of gaming, more specifically, licences abuse within its boundaries.

Speaking truth to power. This description is almost cliched by now; indeed, it gave its name to Prof. Hill’s autobiography. But like the best cliches it derives its overuse from its utterly trenchant accuracy.

Not long ago I attended a conference at New York City’s Hunter College commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings where Professor Hill, in damning detail, publicly testified to her experience at the hands of now-Justice Thomas which included sustained sexual harassment. Her courage caused open discussion of sexual harassment to burst violently onto the national scene, unapologetically breaking the silence felt by millions of women who had been shamed, threatened, and cajoled into pretending what had happened to them was business as usual. The conference sought to honour Professor Hill and featured a variety of speakers, activists old and new, commentators, reporters, academics and friends who all offered their perspective on the matter. It was elucidating and, to turn that blessed cliché, empowering.

The volunteers at the university all wore T-shirts that read “I Believe Anita Hill.” It was a powerful and dangerous message,as much now as it was then: to suggest that one accepts a woman’s reality as real.

It is a cosmic irony that just a little over two weeks after this conference, one which at first felt like it was summoning up something confined to the misty history of the early 1990s, I should discover that Politico posted a special report about how Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain had sexual harassment allegations levelled at him by at least two women some fifteen years ago.

It is as if I attended a special seminar on handling emergency situations and then, practically upon leaving, I find myself having to use all of the tools given to me therein with the utmost urgency. Within the last 48 hours events in the commentariat have spiralled out of control and old revenants that haunt American politics now shriek with window-shattering violence. Clarence Thomas’ sins have been resurrected, countless commentators on the right have resumed bashing Anita Hill, the words ‘hi-tech lynching’ took less than a day to appear at the very cusp of the breaking news froth (on the BBC, no less), and a cavalcade of racism and racist appropriations have gushed forth from the mouths of every white talking head within shouting distance of a satellite link-up.

Yet what is of special interest to me, and what prompted me to say something, are the particulars of what a well-known white conservative woman has been saying about this scandal:

Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, called the claims “another high-tech lynching”, saying liberals couldn’t stand strong black conservatives.

She has quite a lot to say about Clarence Thomas, up to and including her beliefs about where accusations like this originate from:

 “If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these uptight white feminists,”

I’ve just returned from the washroom and after careful examination I have concluded I’m not white. But, moving on:

“Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” she said, speaking of Democrats. (Source.)

I could just end the article right here as this, in some ways, can say everything that needs to be said about how white conservatives have handled this latest issue with Herman Cain. But much more should be said.

In my last article I talked about some of the ‘sorrows’ of gender activism (and they could apply to activism generally, to be sure) centring primarily on how one knows when to do the right thing and how one knows when to stay the hand of one’s righteous indignation and rage.

Yet as any of us know, perhaps all too well, this is scarcely where the problems end and I would like to examine a few further issues through the lens of the Shadow as understood by Carl Jung, a very helpful psychological metaphor that I thank Sady Doyle for introducing to the conversation. Let us begin with a fairly acceptable Wikipedia definition of the thing in question:

In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. It is one of the three most recognizable archetypes, the others being the anima and animus and the persona. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”[1] It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts,[2] which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to projection: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” [3] These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Sady Doyle used this concept to suggest that what we as activists are most keenly aware of in others is often as not something we suppress and fear in ourselves, to the point where we- in essence- project the failure onto other people. The more virtuous we seek to be, the more we define ourselves against the evil in the world, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time seeing the shadow in ourselves. Or, to resurrect my own metaphor, to see the shadow being cast by our swords.

This often works in very particular ways in activist communities and is precisely at the heart of many problems we all confront; it is one of the reasons that being a radical activist always leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth, that perhaps your real ‘enemies’ are your comrades at times. It is an interesting take on that old saw about the British Parliament: the Opposition sits in front of you, and your enemies are behind you. Yet while some people become disillusioned with activism for these reasons, for that ever pervasive sense of having to fight harder with your fellows than against the very oppression you’re purportedly organised against, the opposite has happened with me. It’s actually entrenched my radical trans feminism because what I see is not some depressing and noxious ‘truth’ about what feminism actually is but how it fails often to live up to its own ideals.

The issue is not feminism itself but the world in which feminism is necessarily situated. Our Shadows are internalisations of patriarchy itself that then become projected outwards into our work in bizarre ways. But they are not so bizarre that they are unintelligible.

At my university, for instance, I have dealt with some rather awkward situations with the faculty where a particular pedagogical vision held sway among certain members of the department: shock value and discomfort were important teaching tools. That the people who advocated this were white and cis did not matter as much to them as the fact that were feminists and radicals who sought to include everyone and criticise everything. Noble, mighty, swords of truth thrust defiantly into the air.

This, of course, leaves aside an important question: for whom does the shock have value?

When you have a professor telling a rape survivor to “suck it up and stop being such a baby” because she fears an assigned film with violent sex may trigger her, what does his feminism mean in that moment? It means something rather patriarchal, although he just won’t admit it. This is where every activist movement runs afoul with “the ends justify the means.” For this professor, his radical feminist project involves colonising the experiences of others, harvesting their emotions for the greater good and using them to teach. This comes at the expense of those who feminism claims to fight for, but never mind. There is a radical goal in mind and that matters most: to unsettle, to discomfit, to drag people out of comfortable illusions and delusions.

All well and good, never mind a woman whose comfort comes in precious islands of luxury that she struggles to hold onto.

What does feminism mean in this moment? It means there is a shadow of patriarchy being cast. If a white cis male Economics professor were doing such a thing to his students, perhaps this feminist man might well have a justifiable conniption fit and speak loudly and proudly (and truthfully) about the entitlement and privilege of that professor. But if the culprit is a gender studies prof? Well, he’s doing it for the right reasons.

The ends justify the means.

A recent article by Sady Doyle about the problems that inhere to conflating feminism with virtue (or indeed any belief system) and other struggles with morality and activism, inspired me to finally give voice to thoughts that I had suppressed and kept well hidden from view for reasons that I will describe shortly. But as I am so fond of saying, “it’s time to say something.” This is a long story with a very long epigraph but the meandering thoughts therein are, I think, of some significance.

Not To Be Spattered By His Blood by Edna St. Vincent Millay

(St. George Goes Forth to Slay the Dragon — New Year’s, 1942)

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, even then,
This, while I kill him, even then, this, when I slice
His body from his head, must be my nice concern.

This, while I kill him, whom I have hated purely and with all my
heart, for he is evil,
This, while he dies, for he will strive in death, for he was strong
(I say “was strong,” for I shall surely kill him; he is numbered
Already with the dead) .

Yes, although now with all his shining scales, the one above the other
fitted in symmetrical
—Oh, in most beautiful—design, he moves,
And his long body undulant is looped in many loops most powerfully
flung from side to side over the world—
Yet is he numbered with the dead, for I shall kill him surely.

Not to be spattered by his blood—this, while I kill him,
Must be my mind’s precise concern.

Though the dungeons be empty; though women sit on the door steps
in the sun
And sigh with peace, because they fear him no more—because they
fear no one;
And old men in their rocking chairs sing;
And strangers meet in every street of the world and greet each other as
friends;
And people laugh at anything—

Not here my mission ends.
I must think of my return.
I must kill him with gloves on.

For Hatred is my foe, and I hate him and I will kill him—but oh,
I must kill him with gloves on!

Not to be spattered by his blood—for what, should he be slain,
Done to death by my hand, and my hand be stained
By him, and I bring infection to city and town
And every village in our land—for he spreads quickly—
What then, shall we have gained?
Why then, I say, sooner than that, why, let him live, and me
Lie down!
For it is fitter that a beast be monstrous than that I should be.

Not to be spattered by his blood! —For I know well
What I must conquer.
Can I with seething hatred kill him, and return
And be myself, hating no man,
Once he is dead?

Yes. With God’s help, I can.

Not to be spattered by his blood—Oh, God,
In the great hour of my supreme engagement,
Wherein, by Thy just will
And with what strength and skill I can to the endeavor call
I slay our common foe
(For Evil didst Thou never love),
Lest in the end he triumph after all
And what I all but died to kill
Loop his length still
Over the world; lest I inherit
Most hated Hate, and be his son in spirit;
And Evil in my veins froth, and I be no one
I ever knew—Oh, God, lest this be done,
Bless Thou my glove!—
This one!
And watch that in the moment of my supreme encounter I wear it, I keep
it on!

Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head.

My first D&D character was a Paladin, a young woman from the race of angelic Nephilim who sported broad and beautiful white feathered wings. In service to her Goddess as a shieldmaiden, hers was to fight for truth and justice against all comers. The setting? The D&D equivalent of Hell, a plane known as The Abyss whose inherent moral alignment was listed as Chaotic Evil. This plane had layers. Infinite layers. This Paladin, Zoe, was on the four hundred fourth. One woman against an endless plane that was the home of demons, soul eaters, monsters great and small, and every terror imaginable.

There was Zoe with her limitless faith, her sword and shield, and her endless quest to spread not only love, but to find yet more pie.

One might well say that from a psychoanalytic perspective it was interesting that I chose this character, and that it is exceedingly interesting that in my roleplay I rather adore paladins and priestesses; women of faith whose beliefs guide their weapons and their spells into the heart of Evil in their quest to protect the Good, save the world, and find more pie. What is most interesting to me is that this image has long accompanied me on my journeys into the politics of the real world, my own mission out into the Abyss we know of as Earth and has necessarily become infused with my vision of feminism.

It is a beautiful image, as inspiring as a cathedral fresco, with the moral force of the statue of Lady Justice, sword held high in the air, ready to avenge all sin and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Yet she also holds scales aloft; balance, equity, fairness and compassion. Not a shield, but the scales on which Maat weighed the hearts of the judged against that oh-so-light feather. It was those scales, I came to realise, that were much more ponderous than the sword. It was the scales that would determine whether that sword would be shortly stained with blood.

For me, trans activism, feminism, trans feminism, and indeed academic inquiry into society, were always part and parcel of learning to use the scales. Knowing how best to judge, knowing when to judge, and having a sense of honourable ethics; to know when to use the sword and only when necessary.

What Sady Doyle captured so very well, however, is the dark side of all of this. The Jungian Shadow of it all. Your sword casts a very long shadow indeed and the tighter you cling to it, the harder it becomes to notice its shadow, to be wary of it, to draw it back and sheath the weapon. I am not the first woman to stand up and speak tentatively of the fact that she has seen things on the internet within the canon of net-feminism that have disturbed her, that have caused her to swallow thickly and keep quiet in the hopes that she would not be slain by the swords of her comrades-in-arms. But even harder to admit is the fact that I have sometimes used that sword when I shouldn’t, coming down with all the righteous fury of a Paladin, and slaying without mercy. Without error. In the deep of night I ask myself ‘was I right?’ ‘did they deserve it?’

Yet the shadow is longer still.

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylised schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realise it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

In my recent article for The Border House I took on a number of the arguments made by a few starry eyed technophiles in favour of ending the practise of online anonymity. This is a significant issue for me that, in its many facets, presents me with the ultimate intersectional landscape on which to grow my ideas about interpersonal politics. In other words, it is very easy to talk about sex, race, power, class, and a range of issues surrounding both individual and group behaviour (group psychology and sociology), identity, and just plain old techno-geekery. It touches on a myriad of issues that are important to me.

What follows is a refinement of what I wrote for The Border House and an expansion of it.

I.- Setting Information Free(?)

It is very much worth mentioning that the central idea behind the anti-anonymity advocate’s vision is the firm belief that the death of anonymity will allow information to flow more freely. The reality, however, is that the end of anonymity means a significant lever of personal control will be wrenched away.

To explain what I mean by this I should go into greater detail about the nature of the information being hotly debated at the moment. Invariably the two pieces of information most prized by the Zuckerbergs and their ideological fellow travellers are, in order of importance: legal names and recent, tasteful photographs. This is what I’ve long referred to as “driver’s licence info” and it is information of a very particular and discrete (if not discreet) type. Driver’s licence information actually has very little to do with your personality and who you are as a person. Such information can, in the case of some, affirm who they are (such as in the case of us trans folk) but even that is only the result of the primacy placed on this otherwise relatively un-telling data.

The reason it is so vitally important, the reason it is fought over like the bloodied scrap of earth it is, is because people in power have made that information a matter of life and death.

A name is what you decide to call yourself, and secondarily what others agree to call you. The ‘legal’ codification of it was merely a forerunner to the 20th century invention of serial numbers which are used to ‘identify’ us ever more finely as the owner of a legally sanctioned identity. Legal names are the foundation of this particular form of identification and are the essence of it. Their legality arises from governmental sanction, but it says nothing immediately genuine about who you are. The reason my own name speaks so powerfully to me is because I chose it. I sought to have it legally recognised because in our society where legal names are gold standards and wherein we must all have one, I felt the most self-empowering thing I could do would be to choose it. So indeed I have and my name is now recognised at various levels of officialdom.

But it was no less mine and no less true to me when it lacked legal recognition. It was my name from the moment I chose it in the company of a dear friend as I tepidly set out to claim a name as my own for the first time in my life. If anything my old legal name actually signal-jammed a good deal of truth that may have eminated from me years sooner, and equally blocked a lot that I might have otherwise taught myself. Obviously my old name was not solely responsible for this– a welter of other social conditions played their parts– but it had a starring role to play. We can discuss and debate the particulars but the fundaments of the matter are these:

My old legal name hid far more than it revealed, hindered more than it helped, and stifled far more than it liberated.

In other words it was actually an impediment to the free flow of information for it to be known and in the public record. It was an obstacle to me forging my own identity, right up to the multiple legal rigamaroles I had to endure in order to change it publicly.

Forcing me into a particular ‘legal identity’ closed doors, it did not open them. Who, precisely, is Mark Zuckerberg to adjudicate on which name is a person’s true name? These legal names are important, yes, but only for the same reason that, say, the institution of marriage is important: so many unjust privileges are bound up in it that we cannot help but pay close attention to its use. For precisely that same reason control of that information must remain in the hands of those with the least power. More broadly, it should remain in the hands of those who are the rightful adjudicators of such information: the people themselves.