The Limits of the Bit

By Kay GabrielNovember 25, 2019

The Limits of the Bit

Females by Andrea Long Chu

TOWARD THE START of Females, a book-length essay of media criticism and gender theory, Andrea Long Chu admits that she doesn't mean what she says. The content of her claims, she suggests, matters less than the fact of saying them. Chu relates an incident from an academic event: someone asks what she means by ethics, and she replies, “I think I mean commitment to a bit.” “To commit to a bit is to play it straight — that is, to take it seriously,” she continues. “A bit may be fantastical, but the seriousness required to commit to it is always real.” This passage presents something like a how-to guide for reading Females, a book that, as its own publisher’s copy states, defends “the indefensible.” Chu articulates something less than an argument and more than an attitude. If what counts is doubling down on what you say, no matter if you really believe it in the end, then the point of saying it becomes convincing someone that you really feel how you feel. Your argument is a front for your tone. Females therefore doesn’t so much present a theory about gender as an affective stance toward it, one derived from a politics but without political claims per se — at least, not claims that, in the last instance, the author is really prepared to defend the truth of. “[M]aybe I’m just projecting,” she ends one chapter, throwing a rhetorical stink bomb in the air and ducking for cover.

Considering the content of her claims, Chu’s willingness to back off — not to commit — at the last moment seems prudent. Her bit, after all, is contained in two theses: that “everyone is female” — not in the everyday sense of that word — and that “everyone hates it.” Chu intertwines these claims with a reading of a play by Valerie Solanas, a curious figure of the 1960s downtown scene. In 1965, Solanas began writing the SCUM Manifesto, a pamphlet arguing that every form of social misery — war, work, disease — derives from men’s drive to disguise their social and biological inferiority. In 1968, she shot Andy Warhol, pled guilty to the attempted murder, and was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution for three years after a diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia. Chu’s book upcycles an essay she once wrote on Solanas’s 1965 play Up Your Ass; in its second life, the essay becomes a tract about gender, sort of.

Chu’s two theses don’t concern biological sex at all, she says. She means “female” in an idiosyncratic — as she says, ontological — sense. Being female means “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another. […] To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense.” Chu is not the first person to describe this experience. In fact, she taps into a well-mined philosophical vein. In the Kantian tradition, Chu just describes heteronomy, the experience of being subject to another’s will. In the language of psychoanalysis — significantly closer to Chu’s own territory, given her lexicon of desire — she describes castration.

Jacques Lacan’s formulation that “desire is always the desire of/for the Other [le désir de l'Autre]” presents a version of the same thesis: to be a desiring subject means to be confronted with a social world that you inherit, and that shapes, constrains, and continually exceeds the desire you have toward it. In that regard, the six or so chapters at the center of Chu’s book on incels, sex, and pornography addiction are straightforwardly a series of footnotes to a Lacanian theory of castration: tops turn into bottoms, powerful men are always begging for sex, anyone who claims command of the phallus actually wants to get fucked, et cetera. From whichever perspective, becoming a subject means pursuing limited means of agency in the midst of vast external determination.

Chu isn’t the first to understand this relationship between self and other as somehow violent, either. Following a certain materialist tradition — from Du Bois, Fanon, Silvia Federici, or David Harvey — you could just as easily describe the experience of “[letting] someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense” as a dispossession: a forfeiting of your own capacities and agency into someone else’s control, whether exchanged by force or sale. Chu’s contribution to theorizing this experience of being “hollowed out” for another’s aims and agency therefore takes two forms. First, she redescribes the material experience of dispossession in the basically psychoanalytic terms of desire. Second, she transforms a series of psychoanalytic theses about becoming a subject among other subjects into what she calls an ontological, or an existential, condition — “the one and only structure of human consciousness.”

Still, why call this experience — not one of gender or sexuation per se — “being female,” rather than any of its more familiar names? “Because everyone already does,” she answers. This is a head-scratcher: before galleys of Females began to circulate, nobody referred to this experience by a name that the author simultaneously acknowledges is a “wildly tendentious definition” of being female. “Women hate being female as much as anybody else,” she explains, “but unlike everybody else, we find ourselves its select delegates.” This argument takes, to put it mildly, some reconstruction to understand. Chu argues for a position like the following: by whatever historical accident, women have been, so to speak, synonymized with the experience of dispossession vel sim. The social dynamic of misogyny, a critical term in Chu’s lexicon, doesn’t express the abjection of women so much as the abjection of abjection itself. This argument reverses a more common — and more convincing — order of explanation: instead of arguing that women experience social abjection because of the contempt that various institutions, practices, and social codes hold for them, Chu argues that the object of society’s misogyny isn’t women at all, but the experience itself of being “hollowed out” for another’s desire. Women are only its accidental, but universal, targets.

Whereas the various theorists alluded to above make claims about the social order, or the historical record of expropriation and exploitation, about processes of becoming a subject, or of the alienation constitutive to selling your labor-power, Chu makes a claim about what she calls an ontological, or an existential, condition. Being female, in her account, is a subject position outside and against politics; politics as such — all politics — rebels against that position. Redescribing this experience in terms of ontology rather than social relations removes both the experience and its possible causes and redresses from the order of history or social struggle. It’s a just-so story about total antagonism. Indebted once more to a psychoanalytic tradition, Chu presents something like a drive theory of social relations, only darker, even nihilistic: if all politics positions itself against acting on another’s desire, then the point of any politics couldn’t be a society founded on, say, mutual aid. There’s no collectivity here, no sense of social liberation. Really, there’s no liberation, period, only a Hobbesian war of all against all, in different social disguises: feminism, men’s rights. It’s hard to reconcile any of these arguments with a politics in which life and the means for living it — for whom, by whom, and at whose expense — are actually at stake.

Sifting through someone else’s political nihilism is one challenge; doing so when the writer admits she isn’t speaking in good faith is another. Chu’s book is littered with indefensible syntagms, sentences designed for maximum shock value. “Females masterminded the Atlantic slave trade,” she writes in her preface. Given her commitment to arguing that “everyone is female,” hers is a tautologically true sentence — but one that refuses in advance an encounter with the arguments of critical race scholars, including Hortense Spillers, Alexander Weheliye, Saidiya Hartman, and others, about gender and sex as both objects of dispossession and imposition through the world-historical cataclysm of chattel slavery. (Chu stages a late encounter with C. Riley Snorton’s argument that the distinction between biological females and the social category of women emerged in order to allow Black women to be the objects of biological study without receiving the benefits of legal personhood. Chu concludes that “in this sense, a female has always been less than a person.” But this is a rhetorical sleight of hand: Chu has already insisted that she doesn’t mean “female” as a category of biological sex at all; her arguments are categorically irreconcilable with Snorton’s.) Chu’s flippant sentences dismiss any conceptual encounter with the actual consequences of what she’s saying — in this case, its implications for racialized gender, a target and device of state-sponsored and extralegal violence on a mass scale well into the present. Then again, maybe she’s just doing a bit: the book’s dodge of last, and every, resort.

Whether or not she believes them, Chu’s initial theses lead her into a series of chapters in which she theorizes, among other things, gender transition according to the recuperated principles of her personally curated second-wave feminism. Chu quotes her icon Solanas on Candy Darling (1944–1974), an actor and trans woman associated with Warhol’s Factory scene: “[A] perfect victim of male suppression.” (Chu says the epithet was spoken “admiringly”; it’s hard to see how.) Females inclines toward this view, with a twist. Trans women come across as the dupes of patriarchal gender norms, consuming and reproducing the stereotyped and anti-feminist images of the beauty industry. In that mode, Chu describes the YouTube makeup artist Gigi Gorgeous as “in the most technical sense of this phrase, a dumb blonde.” She only recuperates this, frankly, sexist jeer by universalizing its principle: “From the perspective of gender, then, we’re all dumb blondes.” Trading on an alt-right lexicon borrowed from The Matrix, she refers to hormone therapy as “plugging […] back into the simulation.” The charge that gender transition reinforces sexist stereotypes and retrograde gender norms is an old accusation; it doesn’t get more convincing when the person saying it happens to be trans herself. Chu updates this anti-trans feminism by generalizing its theses: she agrees with the accusation that transition sustains the objectification of women, and submits that there’s no way out, for trans people or anybody else.

Females regurgitates the anti-trans ethics of earlier decades — including the notorious second-wave tendency to refuse any acknowledgment of the subjectivity of trans men — blended together with its own particular political fatalism: transitioning is politically bad, Chu argues, and so is every other gendered disposition. This conclusion follows from Chu’s attempt to turn a Lacanian theory of sexuality into an ultimately nihilistic drive theory of social relations. For all the dubious uses of Lacanian psychoanalysis in the medicalization of transsexuality, [1] Chu’s rendition of this theory offers significantly fewer conceptual resources for thinking about gender transition with respect to agency, autonomy, or the renegotation of gender and sexual relations. Oren Gozlan, for instance, argues that “Lacan’s captivating concept of sinthome points to a different route out of endless suffering.” [2] The Lacanian sinthome sutures together the spheres of real, symbolic, and imaginary — the world as it is in itself, the discursive representation of that world, and its conceptual and fantastical representation in thought and identification. For Gozlan, along with Patricia Gherovici and Susan Stryker, the sinthome offers a conceptual model for gender transition, a “rebirthing” of the self that “holds the threads of the real, symbolic and imaginary. […] It is a transition that accepts failure as inevitable and is willing to live creatively with the ‘between zone’” — the interval between the fantasy of a complete and satisfactory identification and the self’s acknowledgment of its own lack in the face of that fantasy.

None of this complex acknowledgment of the creative potential of the subject or the mourning of a fantasy survives into Chu’s rendition of castration as the “one and only structure of human consciousness.” There’s just inevitable failure, and the taunts that follow it. Chu’s signature conceptual moves eventually become pretty clear: she subscribes to the dubious theses of so-called radical feminism — the anti-trans theorist Janice Raymond and the anti-sex work feminist Catharine MacKinnon appear in Females with approving citations — so long as she can transform its formulations into a description of a universal gendered disposition; and she happily throws trans women under the bus, demonstrating her neutrality by including herself as the object of her own contempt.

It’s not like there aren’t other ways to think about transition and transsexuality. There are. I could start listing items off a bibliography — say, Snorton’s Black on Both Sides, or Stryker’s introduction to the recently released diaries of Lou Sullivan, or Gayle Salamon’s Assuming a Body. I could go on; by the time you closed the tab I wouldn’t be done. It’s not clear what Females achieves in the warmed-over theoretical truisms of a prior cultural moment, beyond the “projection” that it promises, or a scandalized reaction to the comedic bit. And the problem with the bit — the problem for comedy in general, a genre that Chu more than once expresses an affinity for — is that its theses have conceptual consequences and social implications, whether or not, in the last instance, Chu really means what she says. However tangentially, Females addresses political problems with significant stakes: bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, gender liberation, sexual violence. In the face of those struggles, maybe it makes somebody a killjoy to hate feeling like they’re being fucked with. But so what? Instead of the carte blanche of the bit, we could opt to commit to the concepts that we mobilize, and to being accountable to their consequences.


Kay Gabriel is a poet, essayist, and PhD candidate at Princeton University.


[1] Witness, for instance, Catherine Millot's Horsexe (1991), which argues that trans people have a clinically psychotic relationship to subjectivity.

[2] Gozlan, Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning: A Lacanian Approach (New York: Routledge, 2015)

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Kay Gabriel is a poet, essayist, and PhD candidate at Princeton University.


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