rax: (Twilight and I both hate writing papers.)
[personal profile] rax
Okay, so. This isn't super honed but I have to pack to be on a plane at 6 AM so I'm posting it as is.

A bunch of folks on twitter are talking about Jack Halberstam's article "You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma." I saw it, I thought it was some belunkus, I moved on. There was another article going around (This one, by Justin Vivian Bond) where the author made similar allegations that people against the use of "tranny" were conservative, young, neoliberal, &c. and I read that recently and rolled my eyes too. (I think, but am not sure, that Halberstam mispronouned Mx. Bond in his article.) I just read a response to Halberstam's piece by Katherine Cross, and the two of them combined I feel like are ultimately presenting some duality where I don't see a duality. Y'all know I hate those. So I'm going to connect these two pieces and try to fill in the gaps I'm seeing. In particular, I think that both authors are invested in criticizing what they see as a tendency to hyper/focus on the individual as opposed to fighting "new, rapacious economic systems" (Halberstam) --- Cross shares his opposition to neoliberal [0] trends in activist/academic circles but feels his methods and core philosophy are part of the problem: "to whatever limited extent Halberstam’s article is in any way correct, the problems it identifies are the result of postmodernism and queer theory, not something that happened in spite of them." This is grade A academic smack talk, and I love me some academic smack talk, but um. Reductive?

Let's talk about this.

I sort of want to quote Cross's argument in its entirety, and encourage you to read it if you want the full context to what I'm saying here, since it's deep and summarizing it won't do it justice. That said, an unjusticey paraphrase: Postmodernism (& poststructuralism & some postcolonialism) are hyperfocused on the individual as the site of resistance in a way that leads to infighting, dismissing of useful forms of organizing, and ultimately some crap like Halberstam spouted. And, read a particular way? Sure. She's right to say that Foucault offers a maze rather than a path out of the maze. She's right to say early Judith Butler is too focused on the individual in some ways. [1] She's identifying a real thing, but she's not identifying the entirety of the thing. The question that I feel Foucault, Butler, and especially Deleuze and Guattari posed to me, one that I'm trying to figure out how to answer in the way I live my life, is this: Given that oppressive structures are built around us, shifting to contain us, and taking advantage of our actions to sustain themselves even when the goals of those actions are to dismantle them, what can we do? If this is how The System is operating to contain us, and organized resistance as we previously knew it is being re-appropriated by the system, how can we shift our resistance to be effective? What does effective even mean?

For me, it is poststructuralism and its various post-bros that offer me answers to those questions. I'm sure there are folks out there calling for an entirely individual-focused activism that is only about the microscopic details of each person's practice, but to me that's only the beginning. One of the most important things I learned from D&G was the idea of assemblage: that each of us is not a singular unit. Instead, we move sometimes together sometimes apart along lines of flight/potential plans/whatever language you want to use. I don't think post* analysis of individual behavior is always or even often "ruthlessly pointillist" as Cross suggests. My body is a site of resistance, whether I want it to be or not, but my body is also the body of my community, the body of the people dear to me, a piece of a larger puzzle that cannot be distinguished from other parts of itself. Later Butler I read as all about framing (collecting different data points, different people, different experiences in an assemblage that casts light on the operations of both individual pieces and larger systems) and relationality (I forget if it's in Undoing Gender or not, Krinn has my copy, but she goes to actual pyschoanalytic therapeutic practice to look at the way people are fuzzy at the boundaries). Cyborg theory (Haraway and others) leads into questioning what exactly is human, where we begin and end, how the individual is also technology is also knowledge and so on. Chela Sandoval's differential consciousness (Methodology of the Oppressed is an amazing book) suggests that there are multiple approaches to take and we need to take all of them when they're appropriate, and one of those approaches it itself figuring out which approach to take. It's way more complex and useful than I'm making it sound --- or maybe it's as obvious in retrospect as it sounds and that's why it's so brilliant. I don't know.

So what does that giant pile of words have to do with the debate over "tranny?" I'm gonna restate some basic arguments here: Halberstam (and Bond kinda) are saying that objecting to the word is conservative, hyperfocused on individual injury and "hierarchies of woundedness," and assimilationist. Bond in particular suggests that maybe folks who don't like the word want to assimilate, leaving behind their transness, rather than inhabit a non-binary space. I'm not sure where that leaves me, since I don't like the word, am not terribly interested in reclaiming it, and respect other folks' right to try to reclaim it if they want to. The thing that bothers me --- it's hilarious since Halberstam thinks objecting is neoliberal, and here I agree with Cross --- is the systemic problems with using the term in a publicly reclaimed way, especially by people who are neither the initial group of people using the term or the folks the term's been applied to as a slur since. Like, sure, I'm upset when people use the word casually, when it's something that people have shouted out their car window as they threw things at me. And that is about me, and my body and my experience, in particular, and I don't think it makes me a conservative or a censor for saying so? I can see a me, or a person not far from me, who would be in favor using the word, since I have basically no problems with "queer," and there are some similarities between the histories of the words. Maybe when trans women are the butt of fewer jokes and objectified in porn in creepy and gross ways that I feel the term props up and reinforces. Right now, no thank you.
(There's also a huge argument that Cross and I could have about whether or not objective and subjective truth exist, the nature of knowledge, &c. &c. &c., but I don't think that's germane to the point I'm trying to make here. I'm already stepping into an argument where I don't know what's going on to begin with.)

[0] I'm not going to try to define neoliberal here. My favorite definition is "Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science" by Lave, Mirowski, and Randalls, which I have a PDF of I'm pretty sure it's illegal to share here. Snarkily I could say "the thing gender studies PhD students call each other where using a slur would be policed by department administration," but there is a real and (to my mind) dangerous strain of thought here that deserves critique. I'm just not taking that on right now. :P

[1] In fact, that helped me to understand some of my itchiness with it. Thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-08 05:51 am (UTC)
3rdofjune: (ryujin)
From: [personal profile] 3rdofjune
The idea that an unusual degree of sensitivity is grounds for mockery and dismissal is super toxic. Savage, Sullivan, Halberstam, Bond, ect. can dress it up as calling out political distractions, but I get the feeling they're all too happy -- some more than others -- to have an excuse to get their bully on.

Also, I find it darkly hilarious that an article on neoliberalism is paywalled.
Edited Date: 2014-07-08 05:53 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-30 06:48 am (UTC)
lhexa: (literate)
From: [personal profile] lhexa
It does seem that postmodernism is to academia what furries are to Internet denizens... their notoriety far outstrips their actual influence. I've seen all sorts of things blamed on postmodernism, although hyperfocusing on the individual (and thus ignoring larger-scale systems) is a new one to me.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-08 12:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] daharyn.livejournal.com
Jack Halberstam's writing has been annoying me for a decade so when I first encountered this blog post (all over my Twitter feed as well) I read it, thought "well, same old same old," and waited to see how the comments would play out. I found Cross's response one of the more helpful, but there's also a great comment on the original post by "alejo" (who I thought was an LJ person, but that account seems to have been purged, so perhaps not). Anyway, that person makes reference to "the notion that there’s political and ethical good to be found in interpersonal decency and thoughtfulness," which they say Halberstam's piece is definitely lacking (I agree).

At the end of the day, what value is there in being antagonistic towards one another? If by politely changing my behavior to accommodate someone with an excessive sense of victimization, I'm somehow coddling that person, I think I'd rather coddle them than act in ways that continue to make this world a cruel place. While there were pieces of Halberstam's post that were a good window onto the perniciousness of neoliberalism (especially the safety/security stuff, which I hadn't seen in alignment prior), there's a way in which its macho asshole tone is neoliberalism at work, yeah?

In the end the revolution is going to be about civility and respect. I'm convinced of that. When we get to that point when our economy truly and finally caves in, probably over issues of mass unemployment and economic inequalities, the way we're going to get growth out of that chaos is by a focus on human dignity. Right now, I think some communities are trying to implement early iterations of this (safer space, etc). One of the reasons I became a historicist (and generally don't respect/use my extensive theoretical training) is because I felt like queer theory capitulated to the power of global capitalism, and because I still still still think that you live in a world like this one by mobilizing energy to make something better. Sure, it's nearly impossible to articulate anything outside of expansive and patriarchal power structures. I grant that. But someday that will not be the case. I gotta believe.

(Also no love to Halberstam for making fairly misogynistic arguments related to students at UCSB, weeks after a mass shooting there that was fueled by misogyny...)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rax.livejournal.com
n the end the revolution is going to be about civility and respect.

Huh. I'm with you on respect, but I'm not sold on civility. Something to mull over, thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 01:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jessiehl.livejournal.com
I'm bewildered by Halberstam's use of "neoliberal" here - to me, "neoliberal" is not "the thing gender studies PhD students call each other where using a slur would be policed by department administration," but "the thing Occupiers and left-radicals call each other where using a slur would cause a lot of intra-movement Internet argument about oppressive behavior." Or possibly (and similarly) "the thing that leftist blog commenters call Matt Yglesias." Like, an economic philosophy, pro-globalization and all that. I guess, from what I get out of your post, I can see how these two definitions of neoliberalism would relate to each other - both philosophies that are hyperfocused on individual benefit?

I find it even weirder that "young" would be associated with "conservative". I guess I can see the chain of reasoning that would lead someone to equate being against slurs with assimiliationism*, but...no. Reclaiming ought to come from the people at whom the slur's been directed, for one thing, and what I've seen with the debate over "tranny" has been cis gay men (hello Andrew Sullivan), drag performers, and transmasculine people, none of whom were really the primary target of that slur in the first place, wanting to reclaim it on behalf of trans women and other transfeminine people.

The idea that individual trauma is exalted in activist circles makes me think of that awful recent George Will column claiming that young women on college campuses are going around falsely claiming rape to get privilege and prestige, which is apparently something that George Will thinks that people who speak out about sexual violence on college campuses get. I have to wonder what some of these people would think about my seeing a connection between their work and George Will's. In any case, I'm pretty unconvinced that my experiencing physical symptoms of panic upon unexpectedly seeing the video to Kanye West's song "No Church in the Wild" (or asking close friends to be a little more careful about playing stuff like that for me without warning me) has anything to do with being neoliberal or conservative? Like, triggering is just triggering, it isn't restricted to people of certain ideologies.

It is probably evident here that I have not had any formal training in philosophy, queer theory, or gender theory.

*Side note: I twitch whenever queer people start railing on about assimilationists or assimilationism because in angsty US Jewish discourse (and sometimes other countries' Jewish discourse as well, I gather) this is a (highly negative) euphemism for intermarriage and families created by intermarriage, and as the child of a Jewish intermarriage, I have pretty negative associations with the use of this term as an insult.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 12:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gaudior.livejournal.com
The idea that individual trauma is exalted in activist circles makes me think of that awful recent George Will column claiming that young women on college campuses are going around falsely claiming rape to get privilege and prestige, which is apparently something that George Will thinks that people who speak out about sexual violence on college campuses get.

Yeah. I mean, I can see a reflection of a shade of something it might be talking about, which is that everyone understands and uses political thought through the lens of their own experience/beliefs/understanding of the world/understanding of themselves, etc. So most people's political views and activism are also serving some psychological function for that person, whether internally or socially. Nobody's political activism is entirely "selfless" or divorced from their own egos and social relationships.

But that doesn't mean that the problems people are talking about aren't real; just that we interact with them on multiple levels, and our activism serves multiple functions both for us and for the rest of the world. Whether or not outspoken activism gets us social capital in our social circles is irrelevant to how important that activism is, or whether the problems we're talking about need to be fixed.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 05:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rax.livejournal.com
I guess, from what I get out of your post, I can see how these two definitions of neoliberalism would relate to each other - both philosophies that are hyperfocused on individual benefit?

Both individual benefit and individual responsibility.

Like, triggering is just triggering, it isn't restricted to people of certain ideologies.

I think Halberstam is not thinking about people with PTSD triggers and is thinking about people who are "merely" upset by something. (Either that or he doesn't respect the possibility of PTSD triggers, but I'm giving the benefit of the doubt.) I'm hesitant to describe my reaction to all but a small number of things as a trigger, but that doesn't mean I want to experience them or that I'm a boring censorious neoliberal for having a reaction to them.

(There are trans women who are in favor of the use of the word, some of them pretty famous --- Kate Bornstein, Sandy Stone, &c. I consider Mx. Bond to be in valid position to reclaim the word if ve really wants to. I don't think it's a closed issue and I wouldn't be shocked if in twenty years I was like "yeah whatever fine." Right now, though, I don't think it's worth reclaiming, and feel folks like Dan Savage or Andrew Sullivan who use it are at absolute best being rude. I'm a little more hesitant to say trans men / CAFAB folks / drag performers shouldn't be able to use it, since I'm pretty sure it _is_ leveled at them sometimes even if that's not the initial context. But I do recognize a difference there, and cis gay men should step the heck off.)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 08:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jessiehl.livejournal.com
Yeah, being upset by something that's been used to hurt you, and not wanting to hear it thrown around casually, doesn't seem particularly ideological to me either.

I guess my issue isn't primarily with trans men/female-assigned folks/drag performers reclaiming it for themselves if they want, but that I've seen a bunch of examples of their being complainy that trans women and other transfeminine people would be upset by the word. And then cis gay men (again, I am thinking of Andrew Sullivan*, who has been very valuable to me over the years as an aggregator and bubble-piercer but who is exasperating, to put it mildly, on most things LGBTQ-movement-related), jump on those examples to say "See, look at this [trans man/drag performer] who said it was okay!*" I also think female-assigned trans/GQ/GNC folks (especially white ones) need to be careful in general about dominating discussions about oppression that is most commonly targeted at not-them (for instance during TDoR).

*This is especially annoying given his strong reaction - which I agreed with, and sent him an email telling him so when a lot of other people were trashing him for it! - to Alec Baldwin's use of slurs that have been primarily directed at gay men.

**You may not be surprised to hear that one of Sullivan's readers sent him the Halberstam piece and he posted a thing about it and linked to it.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-10 03:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rax.livejournal.com
To be honest, I'm surprised you find Andrew Sullivan worth reading or thinking about. I filed him in an ignore bin years ago.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-10 05:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jessiehl.livejournal.com
A large portion of the political writers that I really appreciate (like TNC back in 2008 or something before he was famous, Adam Serwer, the Lawyers Guns & Money crew, Corey Robin, Melissa Gira Grant) I discovered because of Sullivan linking to them. And his right-wing re-axes give me a decent sense of what my political opponents are arguing without my having to go read the entire National Review or something, which is nice, since I don't really want to do that. The guy is an obnoxious reactionary narcissist a lot of the time but he's been unparalleled as an aggregator and gateway to new and better things on the Internet for me. Also, I make a practice of reading the thoughts of at least some people that I frequently disagree with (from various directions), and whatever else I would say about Sullivan I'd rather read him than a lot of other people who fall into his general category.

This also means, of course, that I end up muttering "Oh God Andrew Sullivan, please stop being so Andrew Sullivan about this" fairly often.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 03:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tasha18.livejournal.com
This is a bit of a digression, but the book "methodologies of the oppressed" sounds fascinating. As a sighted-identified but congentally blind person, I stand on the margins of the margins. I sometimes worry that I'm hyperfocused on my own individualism because I don't yet have a community around my transability. I am working on that and also on trying to frame the idosyncratic issues I experience in more universal terms so that they are not so tied up in the territorialness of my transabled identity. .

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 05:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rax.livejournal.com
I strongly recommend Sandoval's Methodologies of the Oppressed, then! She talks about intersection in a very territoried way that I'm not sure how to explain because it's been a number of years but I think it would offer you both tools and food for thought.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-09 12:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] gaudior.livejournal.com
Wow, I feel like I should read all the articles you're in dialogue with before commenting on what you said, but also like I'm at work so amn't going to. Alas.

What I do think is that I really like your use of assemblages to break down the false dichotomy between individual and societal/political impacts of slurs. Cuz yeah, that's not really a distinction it makes much sense to make, not without really discounting one's own lived experience as a valid source of information about the world, which I think is a bad idea.

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