Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble




RECENTLY I STOOD in the binary-gendered bathroom line at New York Penn Station, a site already made affectively intense by its operation as a gauntlet — the military and NYPD assembled with machine guns and dogs scanning for threats of terror underneath American flags. In addition to the racialized figure of the “terrorist,” they also honed in on another threat to the sovereignty of the settler colonial nation-state — the potential disruptor of the binary bathroom. It was not me whom they read as a threat, though; it was an older nontrans white woman. She had decided to merge into the men’s room line because it was shorter. When she entered the threshold of the “men’s room,” the cis men in the bathroom — all white — protested: “Get her out of here!” One of the bathroom facilities attendants called to the police. The “offender” was physically sacorted out of the men’s room by a police officer: “You’re in the wrong line,” he said. He refused to hear her plea: “I just want to go to the bathroom!” (Althusserian interpellation indeed.) She experienced the violence of policing that gender nonconforming and trans people — especially of color — are subjected to on a daily basis.

Gender nonconforming and trans people have been organizing against that violence since even before Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson articulated an unapologetically insurgent trans political horizon in the early 1970s. Expansion toward this horizon continues now in the collective work of trans abolitionist knowledge, power, and theory.

In his recent essay for The Philosophical Salon, “The Sexual Is Political” (what an epiphany!), Slavoj Žižek claims that what he calls “transgenderism” in his pathologizing political grammar is a product of a futuristic “postgenderism.” He claims:

The vision of social relations that sustains transgenderism is the so-called postgenderism: a social, political and cultural movement whose adherents advocate a voluntary abolition of gender, rendered possible by recent scientific progress in biotechnology and reproductive technologies.

In fact, trans and gender nonconforming people are situated (like the violence of the gender binary which we oppose) within the theoretical and political coordinates of history and history’s present tense — the afterlife of slavery and colonialism.

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Žižek ignores the fact that we can’t think the gender binary outside of the context of racial slavery and colonialism within which it was forged. Žižek also leaves unthought the entire scope of trans studies in general and trans of color critique in particular. He ignores the ways in which the gender binary is imbricated in racial slavery and colonization, and he perpetuates an epistemic erasure of the entire scope of trans studies in general, and queer and trans of color critique especially. He also enacts a historical erasure of queer and trans left theory and praxis — especially of color — as eroticopolitical worlding. How does one manage to write about trans subjectivity with such assumed authority while ignoring the voices of trans theorists (academics and activists) entirely — especially when the very issues of psychoanalysis and neoliberalism he discusses have already been subjects of scholarly inquiry in trans studies itself? Finally, Žižek never seems to consider that the very object of critique — such as neoliberal trans subjectivity — is actually what trans left movements have been organizing against and beyond for many years.

Judith Butler cautions, in her discussion with Žižek and Laclau in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, against the treating of sexual difference as a transcendental category:

Thus, sexual difference in the more originary sense operates as a radically incontestable principle or criterion that establishes intelligibility through foreclosure or, indeed, through pathologization or, indeed, through active political disenfranchisement. […] Sexual difference thus functions not merely as a ground but a defining condition that must be instituted and safeguarded against attempts to undermine it (intersexuality, transsexuality, lesbian and gay partnership, to name but a few).

The transcendentalizing of sexual difference also forestalls an understanding of how sexual difference itself has been weaponized as an instrument of antiblack and colonial power and of white sovereign embodiment. In American and European culture, binary notions of sexual difference and gender are indissolubly tied to the sovereignty of whiteness. Who gets to assume a body? Who gets to assume the integrity and security of that body? In our times of Black Lives [still] Matter the answers to these questions are thrown into historical relief, as they were for Fanon and so many others writing about the psychic life of racism in the afterlife of slavery.

The contemporary wave of anti-trans bathroom legislation — part of anti-trans lawfare — across the United States cannot be disimbricated from the legacy of racial slavery and the criminalization of trans survival. The bathroom with its gender-binary regime of sexual difference is one of the signatures — along with hyperincarceration, mass deportation, racial capitalism — of the afterlife of slavery. The bathroom signs of the Jim Crow era referred to “men,” “women,” and “colored” — dramatizing how the Lacanian “sexed body” is always already a racialized body and a colonized body, and how Black and/or indigenous peoples have always figured as sexual and gender outlaws to be disciplined and punished. Trans of color prison abolitionists — from Miss Major to CeCe McDonald — are part of an ongoing political struggle against the prison as a gendering racial and colonial apparatus. These struggles have been at the heart of queer of color critique and critical ethnic studies. Taking a cue from Fanon’s commentary on Marx, Lacan must also be slightly stretched in the racial and colonial context. Hortense Spillers shows how the Black body under the regime of racial slavery was ratcheted down to the “zero degree of social conceptualization” and was rendered flesh via racial capitalist logics of commodification. Flesh, Spillers argues, was “ungendered”:

The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body — a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.

Blackness troubles gender. As non-sovereign and metapolitical, Blackness makes for gender trouble. Sora Han discusses Blackness as nonperformance in her brilliant essay “Slavery as Contract,” where she conceptualizes Blackness as a “a performative against all performances of freedom and unfreedom dependent on the historical dilemma of a lack of meaningful distinction between freedom and slavery.” This provides a means to think about the gender trouble caused by Blackness as well: Blackness as gender nonperformance. Visibility politics, or the kind of queer and trans politics we might call neoliberal, cannot account for the ways that Blackness ghosts and haunts the normative, the way it exceeds representational fixity. Black studies and Native studies as trans studies open outward toward insurgent trans worlding.

Writing on white settler sexuality, sovereignty, and genocide, Scott Morgensen asks: “But what historical dynamics produced Native peoples as queered populations marked for death, and settlers as subjects of life”? Native sexualities and genders were figured as deviant, vulgar, and non-livable, their bodies designated for death while white colonizer sexuality and gender binaries signified the moral and social future. In the 1770s, Native third-gender people, known as “joyas,” were marked by the Spanish colonizers and missionaries involved in the war of settler sovereignty over California for what Eric A. Stanley in a brilliant essay “Near Life, Queer Death” names as “overkill.” Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation, Chumash) writes in “Extermination of the Joyas that:

the genocidal policies of the Spanish Crown [led] to a severe population crash: numbering one million at first contact, California Indians plummeted to about ten thousand survivors in just over one hundred years. Part of this massive loss were third-gender people, who were lost not by “passive” colonizing collateral damage such as disease or starvation, but through active, conscious, violent extermination.

The primary mechanism of this necropolitical colonial violence was to throw the joyas to the dogs, literally. Anticolonial trans politics and studies throw colonial power into relief, allowing us to see clearly the ways in which indigenous life is targeted through biopolitical and necropolitical technologies — be they dogs, priests, or soldiers, or, more recently, policing, prisons, and laws. This is the gendered legacy of colonialism, which Žižek fails to consider or mention.

In the last part of his essay, Žižek juxtaposes a Middle Eastern context (in which sexuality is criminalized) against Western sexual liberalism (although he ignores the ways in which normativity is undergirded by racism):

While in one part of the world, abortion and gay marriages are endorsed as a clear sign of moral progress, in other parts, homophobia and anti-abortion campaigns are exploding. In June 2016, al-Jazeera reported that a 22-year-old Dutch woman complained to the police that she had been raped after being drugged in an upmarket nightclub in Doha. And the result was that she was convicted of having illicit sex by a Qatari court and given a one-year suspended sentence. On the opposite end, what counts as harassment in the PC environs is also getting extended. The following case comes to mind. A woman walked on a street with a bag in her hand, and a black man was walking 15 yards behind her. Becoming aware of it, the woman (unconsciously, automatically?) tightened her grip on the bag, and the black man reported that he experienced the woman’s gesture as a case of racist harassment …

What goes on is also the result of neglecting the class and race dimension by the PC proponents of women’s and gay rights […]

Žižek focuses so narrowly on the political utopianism and (neo)liberal fantasy of what he calls “the PC proponents of women’s and gay rights,” who of course “[neglect] the class and race dimension,” that he totally misses how “the class and race dimension” was exactly what launched trans activism by street queens like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the first place. Rivera, Johnson, and others formed the insurgent collective Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries from within the violence of racial capitalism, the anti-queer and anti-trans violence of criminalization and left-movement exile, to oppose the very queer and trans liberalism that Žižek is now belatedly writing about without even acknowledging the legacy of queer and/or trans struggle that shapes our current political landscape and that’s still happening now.

Furthermore, Jasbir Puar has critiqued these forms of homonationalism and pinkwashing in her book Terrorist Assemblages, and intersectional feminism has proffered a direct response to white, feminist, single-issue–oriented framings of sexual violence that posit Black and brown men as threats. From the Combahee River Collective (a collective of Black feminists meeting since 1974) and its critique of biological essentialism as a “dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” to trans genealogies of Black feminism — Black feminism as always already trans — many writers have problematized and troubled the categories of binary gender and of binary, medically assigned sex. Žižek’s framing is not only disappointing but also symptomatic of a larger dismissal of trans studies in general — he never consults any trans studies scholarship — even as trans studies scholars are writing about sexual difference, trans subjectivity, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Rather than accepting Žižek’s thought style, which leaves the racialization and colonization of gender unthought — a real analysis of trans subjectivity in our neoliberal times begins in and as Black and Native theory, knowledge, and power.

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Heart felt appreciation for Maryse Mitchell-Brody, Margaux L. Kristjansson, Eva Hayward, Eric Stanley, and the LARB editorial team for their encouragement, editorial support, and generous feedback. The header image is by J. Bob Alotta. The feature image of Marsha P. Johnson picketing Bellevue Hospital to protest treatment of street people and gays (taken between 1968 and 1975) is by Diana Davies.

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Che is a Gender Studies PhD student at Rutgers University and is working on a project titled “Blackness, the Beast and the Non-Sovereign.”


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