[This was almost a Twitter thread, but I am desperately trying never to do those again. Thus, some reading notes about today’s curious overlaps on the timeline.]
on the ghost of ourself
I’m not sure if I’m “performing” my identity so much as cosplaying it, engaging in a kind of performance once-removed, an amateur-hour escape from the reality of the flesh that I’m stuck in, something I do as much because I enjoy the company of my fellow fans as I do the source material itself. My Twitter timeline seems to tell me I’m not the only person spending the first day of Trans Week of Awareness on these sorts of musings or their artifacts, and while I’m not particularly interested in tracing back patient zero of this discursive tendency (that’s a game for Twitter; I’m coming here to avoid playing it), I think it’s worth musing aloud about it for a few moments, more as a distraction from the crisis motivating these thoughts than as an intervention.
We begin at the end of the line, with the intervention that made me finally start writing: Emily Van der Werff asking this question near the end of a poignant meditation on transness and self-continuity: “How do you function within a life that feels built for you by somebody else?” It left me startled to think that someone else has landed here, at this question that motivates so many of my present dilemmas; it’s a punch to the gut to consider it. There is a part of me that sees the story of my transition thus:
One afternoon, I woke up from a nap, and Scott had vacated the premises, and Emmeryn was here, and she was terrified to find that he’d left the place a fucking mess. His body was weak and constantly in pain from lethargy and poor diet. His job felt like a dead-end concession to the idea that, as bad as things were, he had to be doing something so he wouldn’t starve. All of his relationships were in free-fall, largely because he hated himself so much he was hell-bent on convincing everyone else that they should too, and it was starting to work. So I emerged, broom in hand, to start clearing out the wreckage, and whatever I am and whatever he was, our similarities are only present in the sense that two different people could have some things in common (like a body). I write about him like he died. I think he did die. I think he had to.
Of course, I am very much myself in some senses: legally I am a continuous person; medically I retain the same body, give or take the corrective work of estradiol; intellectually, I retain most of Scott’s predilections and tendencies, save for those I’ve thrown out because of his poor taste. But there remains a sense of total discontinuity that evades a purely rational approach: I am not him, on some unreachable level. At some point, there was a severance. And yet, as Van der Werff posits, “the wrong life” (his life, my life) “is still following me around like a ghost.” He had to die so he could haunt me, and it does feel like a kind of haunting more than anything else, because like a ghost, I cannot convince myself that I really see his presence. He is dead, I am assured by my loved-ones and lovers, and good riddance, he was shit. I laugh because I’m relieved, and I blanch because I swore I just saw him right behind you.
on technologies of selfing and their regulation
“Only celebrities,” tweets McKenzie Wark, “are allowed to create distinctive selves. Because there’s a conventional agreement to allow them and only them to become so. They become on behalf of those who bind themselves to convention.” This, of course, in the context of a short thread about transness and the “art of selfing” (a phrase I am delighted by if only because it evades the citational suggestions of other terms one would, and will, use here) that I’m not sure was motivated by this other thread about transness without transition (
I said I wouldn’t play the game of trying to figure out who started the discourse, and yet here I am, because Twitter has broken me) but that seem to pair nicely together. The discussion of allowance, or permission to self, is enticing, and here we have two ways of looking at the same, very social-scientific question: who gets to self, or to have a self (besides celebrities, which I’ll grant Wark as a given, and beyond whom she expressed an interest in writing)? How is access to, not the art necessarily but the technologies of selving, or “really” self-fashioning, regulated? Transition – at least, medicalized, rationalized, orderly gender transition – is a school whose sole knowledge to impart is the regulation of technologies of self-fashioning, and spending more time thinking about it as such.
Enter, of course, Sir Ewan Forbes, whose emergence as one of trans-Twitter’s memes of the week, in part because of Zoe Playdon’s book, in part because of the sale of its television rights, and otherwise because of the coverage of said book and its breathless baiting about “secret court cases” that point to some sign that, as far as gender self-identification goes, things were not always thus! Finally, a ray of hope, we can claim that we have a history, that we “aren’t some new degeneracy as the liars pretend” as Christine Burns so forcefully put it. And I would love to be able to uncritically celebrate this history, and the shockingly enthusiastic attention the British press is heaping on its so-called rediscovery, except that, like most things about being trans, it’s neither that simple nor that satisfying – it does, however, let us start gesturing toward our question.
Thankfully, like every good cooking show, I have one made in advance; the conceit here is very similar and the wording more honest, because like on a cooking show, I didn’t do it. Os Keyes hits all the marks I had hoped they would:
- The Forbes case is necessarily influenced (one might want to say determined) by class (both by its having only happened because of the specifics of British primogeniture, and by Ewan’s “family contacts and wealth” being essential to his ability to access both legal and medical transition);
- The Forbes case’s lasting historical impact is seen in the Ashley case, where again, because of matters of class and property transfer, the state acts to resolve the question of self-identification of gender, this time to curtail it;
- Forbes’ experience is not some kind of better imagined past where one could freely self-identify as whatever gender and access whatever legal and medical remedies necessitated by that self-identification (as long as it’s one of the two, just as one could buy a Ford or rent a telephone in any color one wanted, “as long as it’s black”); and
- Perhaps most usefully, readers want the Forbes case to be about self-id because at the moment, the right to self-identify is a contested ground in trans politics and there is a sense that being able to lean on history to provide some kind of evidence that self-id is something that has historically existed without incident (the fact of there even being a Forbes case, let alone the subsequent Ashley case, belies this) and to which we can and ought to return.
There are some byproducts of this reaction that are worth attention, but perhaps most vital to our own engagement is the acknowledgement of class as the unstated and perhaps most vital factor in this discussion, and I would extend that only by saying that we can speak of class as a regulating force applied to medical and legal gender transition as technologies of self-fashioning. Storytelling is another, or put more directly, “having one’s story told,” and I share Keyes’ conclusion that we are hearing this particular one because of the disproprotionate availability of archval material about the aristocracy, and because this particular piece of aristocratic family history is seen as useful in our present predicament. I am also tempted to note that masculinity is also at play here; we are hearing about Ewan Forbes because he won, and and further that the only reason a case went to trial was to determine whether Forbes could claim access to sufficient masculinity to thereafter claim the disputed baronetcy. We are also hearing about Forbes because of masculinity in a second, somewhat more delicate sense, in that there at least appears to be less hesitancy to tell transmasculine stories that have non-negative endings (and I only say “appears to be” here because I really, really do not want to get into the discourse about whether transmisandry exists to parallel transmisogyny) at least on the part of the British press, and at least in this particular case.
Again, I feel a need to stress my own caution at wanting to talk about transmisogyny, when we are of course talking about class, a thing people actually believe in.
- Van der Werff and I both seem to be leaving behind bodies of written work we owe to our phantom selves: she a body of well-beloved television reviews, I a binder full of undergraduate slop that seemed to impress everyone but myself. I share the feeling of having “puppeted another person” while writing those, except I might invert it to say another person was puppeting me, insofar as I am my body? Unsure.
- A couple of fun uses of language today: “selving” from Wark is evidently developed in Philosophy for Spiders, which will be en route to my porch as soon as I get paid; “fuckery” from Keyes (“self-ID,” they note, “is partly desired not only because of the fuckery of gatekeeping, but also because that fuckery is differentially distributed”) which I note could serve as a kind of low-theoretical shorthand for a kind of impeding or complicating bureaucratic, cultural, or institutional behavior that does not necessarily rise to the level of gatekeeping (and that, in naming, doesn’t invite the same sort of political consequences as naming “gatekeeping” as such) and that is distributed differentially or is otherwise engineered to ensure predictably inequitable outcomes.
- None of this has anything to do with the telephone book, still in progress; I’m awaiting mailed (!) comments from my self-appointed editor because I imagine that’s going to create all manner of work (even if it is just mailing back a letter in reply that just reads: “Dearest φ, Stet. Yours, Emmy.” This, I suppose, is the price of knowing people who care more about your work than you do.
- This is the first in what I hope will be a generative process of public sketching of ideas, something I think we used to do with blogs but stopped doing once people started paying bloggers and all the exploratory, draft-y work moved to social media walled gardens that now, themselves, seem so inhospitable to incomplete thoughts.
- I’m still not sure I didn’t see him right behind you.