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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.
It is, by now, a cliché to suggest that transgender people of most any stripe are somehow acting […]
One of the rather fun things about being trans is that you live in a world where doctors poke and prod you hoping to find deep answers about why you exist- deep, award-winning, and powerful answers that will at last enable them to explain what the hell is up with us; because it’s not like we’re authorities on our own lives or anything.
To set the snark aside, I’m of course talking about the endless quest to find an etiology- or medical explanation of origin- for trans existence, a recent example of which can be found here. It is a particularly transfixing matter that seems to occupy the place of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth in the eyes of our medical masters. A Lost Ark of the Covenant with which to at last claim final dominion over us. The ultimate Holy Grail being a “trans test” whereby folks in white coats will be able to objectively prove that someone is trans.
Yet like all the foregoing it is a myth, a legend. There is not likely to be any one coherent, purely biological/neurological explanation for our existence. The drive to research the matter is not inherently evil, mind, but the resources being dedicated to it come into question when studies of this sort appear to be to the exclusion of more directly beneficial research, like longitudinal studies on the long-term effects of hormone treatment on trans people.
Recent studies have been justified by asserting that they will benefit young trans people with early identification of trans-ness. But let us be as honest and realistic as possible for a moment, shall we? What would make things easier on young trans kids is not an MRI scan or some kind of trans test. It would be a world where having a trans child would not be a terrible thing, where bullying of children who defied gender norms would be frowned upon and actively discouraged, where parents raised their children to accept a multitude of gendered possibilities. A “trans test” would not even be a stopgap measure to help young trans people.
When I first came out to my father I naively waved studies in his face that spoke of this thing called “Gender Identity Disorder.” But his first reaction to me was not to say that my gender was valid. It was to say that since it was a ‘disorder’ there must be a ‘cure’- you know, one to make me into a boy again, like he wanted.
Transgender does not need a medical etiology in order to be accepted morally. The entire issue is a massive red herring that deflects a necessary moral and philosophical argument into whether or not we objectively exist by the standards of a game we are rigged to lose. We are already on the backfoot because we live in a world where our voices do not count, we merely concede more ground when we suggest that narrow, incomplete studies that reveal- at best- a small piece of the puzzle should speak for us.
The critical moral argument that we must never lose sight of is whether it is okay to discriminate against someone because there isn’t a biological explanation for their existence. For most any situation, the answer is a resounding “no” among decent people. We do not say that people of faith bring discrimination upon themselves because they ‘chose’ to be a part of a given religion, and when people do say this, they are rightly derided for being assholes. We do not get sidetracked into asinine arguments about how some people are born Jewish and have Jew brains and, y’know, they just can’t help it and that’s why we should be ‘tolerant.’
No, actually. You should avoid bigotry because it’s simply the right thing to do.
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In analysing the place of transgender and transsexual people in the theorising of various disciplines one finds several common threads that link together the entire enterprise. Society can often be quite messy and yet paradoxically can also be found to have identifiable mechanisms of operation that grind certain social forces inexorably forward. So what am I getting at with this? What are the common threads? Well, with the invaluable assistance of an expert social theorist who happens to be a trans woman, I believe I have found four.
Trans people are not the only group of people hard done by social and political theory; there is a lot to be learned from analysing how theoretical paradigms have utterly excluded other marginalised peoples. In her 2007 book Southern Theory, sociologist Raewyn Connell articulates an excellent exegesis of Western social theory that lays bare its deeply Eurocentric assumptions as well as the colonial enterprise that underlay it. The colonised world, she says, was merely a data mine whose raw numbers would be exported back to ‘the metropole’ (Europe and America) for theoretical production that would then come together as a definitive vision of the colonised. In this way the relationship between coloniser and colonised is no different when regarding the academic realm as opposed to, say, the political or industrial ones.
The links to how academics conceptualise and (more importantly) use trans people are quite clear here. Metaphors of colonisation are quite useful for discussing vastly unequal social dynamics within Western countries as well; histories of appropriation and exploitation are certainly not limited to the majority world and ‘data mines’ can be found just down the street from where I’m sitting as surely as they can in Ghana or Pakistan or Aboriginal Australia. What’s more the trouble with such theory is not just that they appropriate, misuse, and distort the experiences of the colonised, but that in other instances (particularly in the weaving of generic theories of society) they are ignored altogether. Connell has identified four movements of colonialist academia that she says characterise most attempts to theorise about society: the claim of universality, reading from the centre, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. I will go through each in turn and discuss their relevance to gender theory and trans folk specifically.
In her pathbreaking paper The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto , trans woman cyborg-feminist theorist Sandy Stone articulates in brief summary an idea that structures both this article and a lot of my thinking in general about trans people’s relationship to medico-juridical establishments and the academy:
I wish to point out the broad similarities which this peculiar juxtaposition suggests to aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitation. …
Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practises within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorising are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorising about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency.
This all makes itself manifest in the fascination some theorists have with us, fetishising the exotic trans people they see in their mind’s eye as either innately radical or conservative, denying that trans people’s individual self-understandings are meaningful (unless they comport with a dominant cis narrative), and a belief that the ideas expressed either in patriarchally-controlled medicine, psychiatry, or the academy can somehow save us. Thrumming beneath it all as a foundational gloss is the idea that we can neither speak nor act for ourselves, that we could never be adequate producers of knowledge about our own lives.
This is accomplished in the following ways: