Artwork by Ned Asta, used with permission.
In one of her Revolutionary Letters, Diane Di Prima instructs: “Remember you can have what you ask for, ask for / everything.”
1 Di Prima ushers possibility into the space cleared and composed by the demand. She even breaks the line to prove it.
I want to open here, on the terrain of creative opposition, where we discover in our needs and desires something more than equal to the creative destruction of the capitalist life-world. Call it the potential of a collective, an enthusiastic mutuality. Its strength derives precisely from its proximity to addressing our needs as we understand them, in a full and anti-ascetic conceptualisation of their possible extent. Where the crises of the present—let’s name them: capitalogenic climate change, nationalisms fascistic or conservative, the growth of surplus population worldwide and a concomitant crisis of social reproduction
2—seem to foreshorten the future, and to force us to settle for something “less than a nightmare,” our first strength is our ability to conceive of demands equal to our ambition. Their common object must be nothing other than a life worth living for everyone.
What contribution does the struggle for trans liberation have to this communist horizon? To pose this question raises immediately the vexed relationship between class struggle and so-called identity politics. In this essay it’ll be my aim to understand the totalising, rather than particularising, force of political movement from one or another standpoint of social identity. Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács introduced standpoint as a category in order to think the differential perspectives onto capitalist totality that class positions enable. In a Lukácsian attempt to account for the capitalist production of sexual identity, Kevin Floyd in The Reification of Desire has argued that this production of identity—a reification in the sense of the freezing and solidification of a stable position out of a historical process—enables a particular, historically situated, and critical knowledge of capitalist totality: “To think sexuality in reification’s terms is to begin to see the way in which reification refers to a social dynamic that opens critical vantages on the totality of capital as much as it closes them down”.
3 Here I’ll pursue an analogous argument from a specifically transsexual perspective. I say transsexual, versus trans or transgender, advisedly. My aim is to foreground the sphere of embodiment that transsexuality bears upon—where “embodiment” signals the social dimension of signification that any particular body partakes in.
In the essay that follows, I claim first that, for capital, gender as an ideological regime functions as an accumulation strategy. Second, I argue that the project of trans liberation looks to the aesthetic and sensuous qualities of gender as a dimension of bodily autonomy, an intensive dimension of disalienation, and that this in turn discloses its totalising relationship to class struggle.
In broad strokes, these formulations sketch the concerns of my approach. Let’s say that the poles are abjection at one end, at the other a series of high-stakes desires and pleasures. I mean abjection in the sense proposed by Rosemary Hennessy: “In devaluing some bodies abjection helps to produce subjects who are worth less—that is, subjects who forfeit more of themselves in the labour relations that produce capital”.
4 On the other hand, my focus on pleasure will probably raise some eyebrows: according to a certain strain of “Left puritanism,”
5 pleasure appears already as a suspect dimension of experience, and not without reason. The main form of appearance of pleasure in a consumer society dominated by the tyranny of the commodity-form is the promise of satisfaction that capital parasitises in order to circulate goods and realise profit. In that regard, the relationship of pleasure to class struggle is at best obscure.
Meanwhile, relating pleasure to the projects of gender liberation risks either a wilful false consciousness or shilling for the kind of aesthetic experience available only to the materially secure. To speak of gender at all invokes at minimum a system of social differentiation whose form of appearance is primarily abjection, in the sense described above, unevenly racialised and variously distributed, and whose function for capital is the enabling and maintenance of an unequal division of labour. When the Endnotes collective, for instance, names gender as a “misfortune” and a “powerful constraint,”
6 they correctly identify in this form of differentiation both its deployment by capital and its imprint as a species of immiseration.
On the other hand, the desire for a disalienated life-world—as envisioned in the slogan bread and roses—is if nothing else the demand for everyone to enjoy the kinds of aesthetic contingency that capital cordons off for the wealthy. As a result any genuine revolutionary politics will orient itself towards a radically pleasurable future. As Fredric Jameson argues, this orientation necessarily recentres the body and its mediations: “Pleasure is finally the consent of life in the body, the reconciliation—momentary as it may be—with the necessity of physical existence in a physical world”.
7 The minimal demand of trans people, then, to exercise autonomy to the fullest possible extent over our own relationships to the signification of sexual difference foregrounds pleasure as a critical dimension of social movement.
8 The point of this politics is to attend to the body as a site of struggle over the intensive disalienation of mental and manual labour. This thesis, meanwhile, discloses a certain determinate ambit to an abolitionist politics: the abolition of gendered abjection, not—at least, not in the abstract—gendered signification. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gender as Accumulation Strategy
At a moment marked by the vigorous alignment between repressive state apparatuses and crypto right-wing feminists,
9 it has become especially critical to identify the object of a liberatory gender politics. This means making some claims about gender as a dimension of both social and subjective experience. Consider the following theses:
- Gender belongs to the sphere of ideology—not in the pejorative sense of false consciousness but in the descriptive sense of the conceptual representation of social relations.
- As such, gender names the subjective imprint of the symbolisation of sexual difference—a formulation that provisionally captures both a subjective valence of desire and identification together with the objective determinations of the structural, systemic and historical formations that enable these desires and identifications in the first place.
- The secondary signifiers of gender, together with other social codes, inflect social relations at every turn. In its capacity as an axis of difference, then, gender serves as one of the instruments by which capital unevenly compels and exploits labour.
The partial list I’ve advanced here responds to the critical mandate of marxist- feminism to think simultaneously the social dimensions of oppression on the one hand and exploitation on the other. It takes a cue from queer theory, to the degree that the theses above displace any would-be ontological ground of the operations of gender in favour of an account of its social origins. But this purely social phenomenon nonetheless doesn’t admit any voluntarist attempt to simply “undo” its determinative force. By way of analogy, the value-form, too, is only a “product of the human brain”.
10 The challenge is then to theorise the gendered contours of immiseration and violence without the clumsy wish-fulfillment of opting out of the totalising and abstract force of ideology—or indeed supplanting the project of a materialist transformation of the social with ideology-critique.
To be clear-eyed about the techniques by which gender contours labour and vice versa, to confront gender as a mediating term of class and property relations—this account sounds a basically consonant note with the analytic of social reproduction theory (SRT). SRT works outward from Lise Vogel’s critical insight
11 that the social oppression of women derives primarily from the outsized burden—maintained through the historically contingent institution of the family—of reproducing labour-power, which Marx defines as the sum of the manual and intellectual capacities of human beings.
12 Tithi Bhattacharya writes:
"Simply put, while labour puts the system of capitalist production in motion, SRT points out that labour power itself is the sole commodity— “the unique commodity,” as Marx calls it—that is produced outside of the circuit of commodity production."
SRT steps forward as an attempt to wrestle with this unique commodity—to comprehend “the processes necessary for the reproduction of the workforce, both biologically and as compliant wage workers”.
14 This initiates a step into what Jordy Rosenberg has named capital’s “hiddener abode,”
15 the sites and institutions—from households to schools to prisons—that reproduce an exploitable labour force.
SRT updates an insight of 70s autonomist feminism: the feminised category of reproductive labour, occulted in its capacity as labour, aids capitalist accumulation. In her classic pamphlet on the wages for housework movement, Silvia Federici argued that “just to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.”
16 Federici’s “us,” of course, splits on the racial unevenness of the category of “women”; similarly the sphere of reproductive labour is scarcely entirely or even mostly unwaged, never mind delimited by the boundaries of the home and the family—more or less the force of Angela Davis’s critique of the wages for housework movement.
17 But the kernel of Federici’s claim—that capital has “invented roles” for the social categories it abjects, and uses these as a lever of exploitation—enables a fourth thesis in addition to the three advanced above:
- Gender for capital assumes the form of an accumulation strategy, an ideological scaffolding that sustains an unequal division of labour, contours practices of dispossession and predation, and conditions particular forms of exploitation, including and especially in the form of un- and low-waged reproductive labour.
My formulation here riffs on Neil Smith’s claim that nature, the sphere that capitalist society secretes as ideologically other than itself, functions for capital as an accumulation strategy;
18 Smith’s thesis itself derives from Donna Haraway’s provocation that the body functions as an accumulation strategy in light of the advent of biocapital.
19 The point in pushing this polemical formulation is then less to proliferate an ultimately empirical list of the diverse tactics of the production of value—tactics that are, anyways, widely recognised and elsewhere recorded— than to highlight a commonality among these various strategies: the exploitative repurposing of the residual, of pre-existing ideological structures and social practices, which capitalism tightly aggregates to itself as co-extensors of its operations. This strategy of repurposing the residual generates a theoretical challenge for marxists: to think capital’s instrumentalisation of gender without reducing the latter to the former as epiphenomenon or, indeed, a handmaiden.
One consequence of this thesis is that the forms of gendered exploitation and dispossession cannot be captured by reference solely—liberally—to the distinction between women and men, or for that matter cis- and trans identity. Viewing gender as an accumulation strategy therefore aligns with an approach sensitive to the strategies of the dispossession and reinscription of gender through colonialism.
20 In that capacity, the simultaneous imposition and racialisation of European gender norms has historically enabled primitive accumulation, the violent compulsion of colonised peoples into labour, waged or not. Hortense Spillers, for instance, insists that the commodification of African persons through the trans-Atlantic slave trade assumed the form of an “ungendering” whereby “one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into ‘account’ as quantities [emphasis in original].”
21 Here a gendering episteme takes the form of dispossession through commodifying and attempting to realise value from human life. By way of provincialising the domestic as a racialised site of social reproduction, Spillers’ critical example inflects and transforms the privileged strategies of marxist-feminism in theorising (white) women’s unwaged labour within the home together with a fuller and more keenly historicised comprehension of the objects and processes of gendered exploitation.
Ideology and its Antonyms
In any case, something like an equivocation between gender and capital occurs in the transphobic canard—repeated by such politically distinct figures as anti- trans feminists, right-wing shills for the ruling class, and queer theory darlings— that transsexuals shore up the oppressive operations of gender via the biomedical interventions into the body that travel under the category of “transition.” A secret moralism lurks in these various attacks. Implicitly or not, they target transsexual desires—to have a certain embodied relationship to the signification of sexual difference, and to assert autonomy over that relationship—as misguided or regressive or disgusting. The left-wing version of this moralism might go something like: once the operations of gender in reproducing an immiserated world are disclosed, what could gender transition accomplish if not an entrenchment of the normative force of heterosexuality? According to the arch bad faith of this accusation, transsexual desires assume the cast of false consciousness in the extreme, a particular susceptibility to the ideological allure of a commodified gender persona in apparently willful ignorance of the violence and precarity that gender asymmetrically distributes—as if transsexuals weren’t ourselves variously and violently subject to these effects. This wildly misplaced moralism scapegoats transsexuals to disguise its own failure to come to terms with the roots of gendered oppression in the present, grounded in the capitalist production of value.
Meanwhile, the other side of this bad-faith accusation appears in the contrary assertion that transition actually destabilises or denaturalises or undoes this ideological force, just like that. That’s more or less the thesis of Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie (“I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me”
22 —words penned, somewhat infamously, before the author’s transition). But Preciado isn’t alone in his spin on the voluntarist thesis, which simply bears out in its most naked form a tendency of queer theory to treat gender as something whose social dictates are as possible to denature as eggs in a pan. Preciado transvalues a moralistic code of values until transition appears as politically good rather than politically bad—but the common term this thesis shares with the moralism it rejects is its commitment to the malleability of ideology, and the determination of ideology over the subject.
In effect, the debate splits into two contraries: either transition sustains gendered abjection, and per Janice Raymond should be “morally mandated out of existence,” or transition subverts gendered abjection, and should be pursued as an attack on normative modes of possible subjectivity. Not coincidentally, this antagonism recalls the contrary positions of sex-negative and sex-positive feminisms: either women’s sexual desires are a kind of ideological coercion from without and deserve suspicion, or feminised sexual pleasure is an ideologically foreclosed aspect of human life and deserves embracing. Both contradictions are, effectively, homologues of each other, historically situated in second-wave feminist debates on trans identity, pornography and sex work from the 1970s and 80s. Both ignore the enabling of bodily autonomy as a critical dimension of social life and political struggle, opting instead to prescribe the correct positions to take towards ideological dictates. Both are moralisms, and both are equally useless.
Let’s start instead from an anti-moralistic premise: transition pertains to something entirely other than holding a politically virtuous position within, or towards, the signification of sexual difference. In a widely read intervention for n+1, Andrea Long Chu
23 asserts that “transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire.” Articulating a theory of subject formation, Chu offers a basically psychoanalytic thesis, if not explicitly in psychoanalytic terms. But at a certain Lacanian level of abstraction, the opposition between “the truth of an identity and the force of a desire” turns them into identical formulations, united in the priority of desire over the subject: desires mediate between a psychic ideal and the unrepresentable Real of sexual and embodied experience, the tether that allows the development of subject formation at all. Consider, for instance, Oren Gozlan’s anti- pathologising attempt to align gender with “fantasy and imagination”:
"The body in psychoanalysis is a sexual one and therefore a relational body that interacts with and is affected by other bodies, that takes other bodies as its own and that finds its own corporeal experience through its relation to others... Considered in this way, gender can function as a transitional object or as fetish. Like the fetish, gender cannot be given up; however, like a transitional object, it provides an intermediate area of experience between discovery and creation, between subjective and shared experience."
Gender, in other words, is “a fantasy object that mediates between the drives and social reality... a construction that links, through fantasy, subject and object.”
So transsexuals aren’t unique in bearing a desiring relationship towards our own embodied relationship to gender and sexuality—just the opposite. Gozlan writes, “every gender disposition carries a kernel of helplessness, anxiety and guilt, and therefore is vulnerable to dissociation, splitting and idealisation.”
26 Non-transsexuals too are hailed into subjectivity by the ideological operations of gender; non-transition expresses the force of a desire also. The pathologisation of specifically transsexual desires marks out, and re-sexualises, only these configurations of gender according to the normative force of the history of the clinic,
27 bearing out the Althusserian chestnut that “being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself.”
In short: gender on the scale of the subject names a desire that mediates between drives and the real—between idea and actuality. The point isn’t a defence of libertinage, of an anti-social indulgence in the ethically suspect or politically quietistic. Transsexual desires aren’t either good or bad, they’re real. Ideology has no antonym, and the ultimately aesthetic decisions that mark conformity to or departure from the dictates of gender norms are, in every possible sense, immaterial. The critical question is then not whether transsexual desires are appropriately counter- ideological but what is to be done given that we have the desires we do. What demands do these place on the structure of the world as it stands? And how do they relate to and oppose the instrumentalisation of gender in the service of accumulation? When a trans politics steps outside the tug-of-war over the political virtue of our desires into the material world of the forces that precaritise our lives and others’, what resources do we find for both liberation and solidarity?
Transsexuals in the Hiddener Abode
Any provisional answer to these questions needs to emerge out of an encounter with trans life as it’s actually, materially lived. How does the asymmetrical abjection of transsexuals square with capital’s deployment of gender as an accumulation strategy? Hennessy draws our attention to the role of abjection in deepening the exploitation of the labour process, but the force of her insight doesn’t stop there. Hennessy argues for understanding social identity as a “second skin”
29; the secondary signifiers of that identity inflect social relations according to the intangible and frequently unconscious manoeuvres of ideology writ large. Abjection in this sense seeps beyond the wage-labour relationship (manifest, say, in lower pay, longer work, poorer conditions and so on) to the precarity of not being able to get or hold onto a job in the first place or secure access to other means of subsistence—housing, healthcare, education.
Abjection contours not just what you do for a wage, then, but un- and underemployment, and the social precarity that follows. Trish Salah emphasises the “crisis of classification wherein a suspicion as to the ontological (sexed) status of the trans subject may preclude the assignment of value; certainly, non-passing trans people’s difficulty in accessing paid employment within the legal economy is directly tied to transphobic repudiation of not only trans people’s sex of identification, but of their value as people within the sex of assignment.”
30 Salah’s attention to the relationship between wage labour and passing divulges the critical insight that vulnerability to phobic abjection tracks the disclosure, discovery and/or legibility of trans status—the point in a social encounter when the “second skin” of identity becomes perceptible.
This impact of phobic abjection extends beyond the wage relationship into the reproductive sphere, variously constraining the ability of transsexuals to reproduce ourselves. Considering the critical role of the family in regulating social reproduction—a role that, following Mohandesi and Teitelman,
31 has only expanded in the “crisis of social reproduction” in the post-1980s global north—the uneven alienation of trans people from the family unit further exacerbates our social precarity. As Kate Doyle Griffiths writes, “In the interstices of increased rights, the elaboration of family networks and a right-wing backlash, queers serve as a category of ‘last hired, first fired’ with respect to the family... an optional category of reserve reproductive labour for a working class increasingly pressed in our efforts to self- reproduce”
32; Griffiths’ remarks pertain with particular force to transsexuals, who by and large cannot avoid disclosing trans status to family members.
Call this an inconsistent downward mobility, highly racialised in practical terms.
33 It’s this above all that contours the historical alignment between transsexuals and the underground economy, sex work above all. This isn’t to repeat the stigmatising myth that sex work is, as Nihils Rev and Fiona Mae Geist dispute, a “labour of last resort.”
34 Rather, barriers to legal employment together with the ideological coding of legibly transsexual bodies as sexual commodities—if anything, the private and illicit face of the public abjection of trans embodiments—enable the trans sex industry, a field characterised by unequal criminalisation and vulnerability to harm that nonetheless “offer[s] greater autonomy and financial stability compared to more traditional workplaces, with few barriers to entry.”
35 Monica Forrester, Jamie-Lee Hamilton, Mirha-Soleil Ross and Viviane Namaste argue that “a history of transsexuality is a history of prostitution,”
36 contending that the social enclaves that have historically enabled trans communities are predicated on the political struggles of trans sex workers, a category largely
37 made up of women of colour.
The thesis that a history of transsexuality is a history of sex work helps point towards two critical insights: first, in transsexuals capital discovers a reserve category of disposable reproductive labour in the form of sex work. Hennessy registers the effect of “feminisation” on the sale and purchase of labour-power: “all subjects who transgress this prescribed distribution of gendered bodies are feminised, whether they are men or women... To be feminised is to bear on your embodied second skin the mark of (de)valuation, which is indeed quite valuable to capital.”
38 Sex work is then the primary form that feminised labour has historically taken for transsexuals—albeit differently depending on race, geographic location, transmasculine or transfeminine status, and other sociological factors. But second, and from the standpoint of labour, trans sex work has been the grounding condition for the emergence of politically mobilised and culturally active trans communities, capable of determining what we need and identifying pressure points of solidarity with other social and political movements.
To ground a liberatory trans politics in its historical configuration alongside and emergent from sex work skirts both (1) the epistemology of the clinic and its attention to the appropriateness or authenticity of transsexual desires and (2) an emerging trans-inflected homonationalism focusing narrowly on rights and representation centred on easing the lives of white bourgeois subjects of the imperial core.
39 The point is precisely to frame politics from the side of those with only their labour- power to sell—to determine, from the standpoint of labour, the coordinates where the needs and demands of a trans politics inflect and are inflected by class struggle.
Hedonisms, utopian and scientific
What are these demands? Let’s start with a provisional list: decriminalisation of sex work, to start, together with the abolition of prisons and borders, free and comprehensive healthcare, universal housing, the routinised affirmation of the autonomy and development of children and adolescents, and the socialisation of reproductive care, including care for the elderly.
But complementary to these I want to urge that transsexual demands to exercise autonomy, however enabled by social or medical interventions, over our configurations of embodiment and sexuality pertain to a category of high-stakes desires and pleasures, whose utopian core is the demand for the body to be a site of affirmation over and against routine abjection. On the one hand, designating pleasure as a site of political struggle recognises, with Jameson, the inevitability of sensuous life in a material world. Being hungry, or tired, in chronic pain or constant grief, routinely fearful or simply bored—these textures of everyday life matter politically, if only because they name the miseries that one class inflicts on another in order to access nourishment, rest, health, safety, company, or aesthetically engaging experience. Opting for an ascetic stance towards these dimensions of experience isn’t good enough; why shouldn’t the object of our revolutionary dreaming include a world where everyone can sustain a full, disalienated life—fishing in the afternoon, criticising after dinner?
But a transsexual hedonism designates more than sensuousness. “Transsexuality scares us,” the poet Stephen Ira writes. “It confesses how much / beauty matters to life.” A transsexual hedonism recognises that the signification of sexual difference mediates every relationship between people in the social world, including one’s relation to oneself; it insists on embodiment as both the mediator of that social world and the enabling of agency towards and autonomy over desiring interventions into that process of mediation. Finally, against the prurient interest in spectacles of trans suffering that the culture industry has ruthlessly capitalised on for a buck since the so-called tipping point,
42 such a politically interested hedonism suggests in the opposite direction that the subjects of trans liberation are not passive victims of our own supposed pathologies but rather political agents who more or less know exactly what we need and have every intention of securing our access to it, in solidarity with each other and in broader left movement.
As discussed above, my emphasis on the political valence of pleasure will probably upset a left conscience that sees in sexual difference only the differential strategies for the extraction of surplus-value. But the ground of this scandal arises in part through the residue of previously dominant, and surprisingly hardy, transphobias: the feminisms that have emphasised the pornographic and supposedly revolting image of transsexuals taking pleasure in our bodies, or the objectifications of Ray Blanchard’s debunked category of the autogynephilic trans woman who derives sexual satisfaction only from her own feminisation.
In their own way, these fantasms combine with the left puritanism Jameson described in 1983 to produce a deep-seated suspicion of pleasure—as, say, the mental silt of a late-capitalistic civic imperative to consume and enjoy that consumption. Jameson’s reply to the double-bind of an insensate asceticism on the one hand and a non-politics of bourgeois leisure on the other is to insist on the allegorical function of pleasure, its capacity to suggest the dimensions of a transformed social world: “the right to a specific pleasure, to a specific enjoyment of the potentialities of the material body—if it is not to remain only that, if it is to become genuinely political...—must always in one way or another also be able to stand as a figure for the transformation of social relations as a whole.”
Taken as an imperative over consumption, Jameson’s claim sets the bar a little high (like: okay, dad). But I think the force of reframing pleasure in terms of its allegorical function consists instead in restoring pleasure to the revolutionary project that Kristin Ross more recently has called “communal luxury.” For Ross, the slogan of communal luxury opposes a bourgeois luxury of consumer goods in imagining a world “where everyone would have his or her share of the best.”
44 In Jameson’s approach pleasure has at least the potential to body forth the force of this slogan in the image of a world thought otherwise.
From this perspective, the aesthetic gains a valence altogether different from the tug-of-war over ideological versus counter-ideological configurations of the body and its sensations. For transsexuals this aesthetic project is basically an embodied one—which is to say it’s social, but irreducibly mediated by the body. The minimal demand to assert autonomy over one’s own sexed disposition bears down on the capacity of the body to be a source of continuous pleasure over and against routine alienation. Needless to say, the liberatory horizon of a pleasurable, disalienated life matters to transsexuals and non-transsexuals both. A specifically transsexual standpoint then discloses for a liberatory gender politics the critical insight that the body, including its capacities within the signification of sexual difference, is an indispensable site of struggle over the creation of a disalienated life-world available to all. Where Bhattacharya urges that the “demand by [working class] communities to extend their sphere of pleasure is a vital class demand,”
45 the foregrounding of the body as a mediation between desire and the social appears as the intensive side of this extensive demand.
Gender and its Sublation
The desire of any revolutionary left politics must be for a world where these politics are no longer necessary—where all the tools at our disposal for understanding the capital and colonial relations no longer have an object to understand. In a word, the theoretical end of any marxism is its own Aufhebung. So when I suggest that the aesthetic edge of trans liberation both discloses certain coordinates for political struggle in the present and orients itself towards a radically pleasurable future, I also mean that the horizon of such a hedonism would necessarily belong to a world where the aesthetic would not be distinguishable from life as such. That accords with the horizon identified by the Endnotes collective, “a life in which all separate spheres of activity have been abolished.”
In a sense my project here has been to identify the operations of gender at two different scales—the subjective scale of interpersonal relations and the scale of political economy—and to urge that one scale offers a way to think about the determinations of the other as well as the dimensions of liberatory struggles in both. To that degree this project accords with gender abolition at the vanishing point of a world where, as the Xenofeminist manifesto states, “traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender no longer furnish a grid for the operations of power.”
47 At the furthest utopian point of the world we’re fighting over, we can imagine that the signification of sexual difference would matter only on the level of contingency. If we understand abolition in the sense of an Aufhebung, not an evacuation, we begin to grasp the project of trans liberation in the Lukácsian sense of a “movement of mediations proceeding from the present to the future.”
I want here, however, to suggest a departure from the understanding of abolition as theorised in the Endnotes “Logic of Gender” essay, and to do so on the basis of the arguments I’ve furnished above. I’ve argued that on the scale of subjective relations, gender names the imprint of the symbolisation of sexual difference, a desire that mediates between the drives and actuality, and therefore discloses an aesthetic orientation towards the world that on the scale of political struggle helps to determine some of the coordinates for liberation.
Endnotes offers a somewhat different, if not entirely competing, formulation: that gender just names “a separation between [social] spheres” as a mediation of the production of value. They distinguish the sphere of directly and indirectly market- mediated activities, DMM and IMM for short. Gender then names the “anchoring of a certain group of individuals in a specific sphere of social activities. The result of this anchoring process is at the same time the continuous reproduction of two separate genders.” In this capacity gender turns out to be, in strict terms, a marxian real abstraction on analogy to the value-form, in which the sex of the material body occupies the position of a use-value. The analogy generates an imperative of abolition, “just as exchange-value and use-value will both have to be abolished in the process of communisation.” Trading on Butler’s idiom, Endnotes advances an essentially Hegelian claim that the denaturalisation of gender enables a form of consciousness about its operations: “the process of de-naturalisation creates the possibility of gender appearing as an external constraint. This is not to say that the constraint of gender is less powerful than before, but that it can now be seen as a constraint, that is, as something outside oneself that it is possible to abolish.”
In a comradely vein, and sensitive to the clear-eyed realism about the miseries of the present that Endnotes sustains, I object that to synonymise gender with the production of value obviates the subject, or rather the entire subjective scale. Endnotes enables us to grasp capital’s instrumentalisation of gender as an accumulation strategy, but makes the critical error I urged against above: comprehending gender as merely epiphenomenal of and accessory to capitalist political economy. This account raises a number of problems, both analytic and political. Analytically, it fails to account for the subjective moment either as an irreducible dimension of experience or as the site of politically inflected desires. It also operates on a presentist conception of gender, which poses a problem for both an accounting of history and the imagination of a future politics: to identify gender just as a function of the value-form offers us few resources for thinking about gender anterior to and outside of the global domination of the capital and colonial relations. Further, if gender is only an instrument for the production of value, and therefore shares in its fate absolutely, then maintaining or acting upon a desiring relationship towards gendered difference can only take the form of false consciousness, the politically misguided embrace of an “external constraint.”
As discussed above, the diagnosis of false consciousness tends towards, at best, a sympathetic misrecognition of transsexual desires, and at worst, an antipathetic accusation that trans people, insufficiently critical of gendered abjection, are “more royalist than the king.” My claim is less that the collective has forwarded a hostile argument than that their account of gendered abjection is insufficiently attentive to, and flexes away from, the stakes of bodily autonomy that trans liberation foregrounds and insists upon.
In effect, Endnotes correctly identifies that and how capital instrumentalises gender, and derives a mistaken conclusion: capital uses gender to exploit people, and therefore the object of abolition would be not that exploitative instrumentalisation, but gender itself. (In personal correspondence, the writer Cam Scott identifies this argumentative move as a reverse syllogism, and analogises it to an accelerationist misprision: capital’s bad for people, let’s get rid of them.) Ultimately, I submit that the reflexive attention to gender purely in terms of abjection testifies to something like a failure of imagination about a liberatory reworking of sexual and gender relations, coextensive with any revolutionary project worth fighting for.
Consider a different staging of abolition. Jules Joanne Gleeson helpfully identifies the roots of contemporary abolitionisms in gay liberation-era thinkers including Mario Mieli and Monique Wittig.
49 Mieli’s Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique
50 advances an idiomatic “trans-sexuality”
51 as the name for the reclaiming of wide-ranging capacities under the mode of a polymorphous perversity. Some of his formulations may embarrass—think of Mieli’s comrade Guy Hocquenghem on the anti-capitalist universality of anal eroticism. But Mieli instructively attends to a hedonistic utopianism at every turn, defining the “revolutionary homosexual moment” through its “particular pleasures”.
52 He further apprehends pleasure taking place not just through the liberation of sexuality – though he clearly regards the decriminalised ability to exercise eroticism in public as a demand of gay liberation
53 – but also the proscribed transgressions of drag, a further “dimension of pleasure covered by a taboo.” Elements of a Gay Critique sustains the argument I urged above: a revolutionary politics of gender and sexuality will foreground the autonomy over the capacities of the body within the signification of sexual difference as elements of the struggle over intensive disalienation. He says as much:
"[T]he achievement of trans-sexuality can only follow from the work of the women’s movement and the complete liberation of homoeroticism, as well as the other components of human erotic polymorphism; nor must the utopian ideal of trans-sexuality, if it is to serve as a “concrete utopia,” be divorced from the concrete dialectic presently underway between the sexes and between the different sexual tendencies... If trans-sexuality is the inherent goal, it can only be achieved when women have defeated the male ‘power’ based on the sexual polarity and homosexuals have abolished the Norm that prohibits homosexuality. Besides, given the very important functional role for the perpetuation of capitalism of the subordination of women and the sublimation of certain “perverse” erotic tendencies in labour, the (re)conquest of trans-sexuality will coincide with the fall of capitalism and the rejection of alienated and alienating labour: the struggle of homosexuals and women is essential to the communist revolution."
Mieli thinks of mediation as a way of articulating a politics grounded in the now, and turned towards the future. This is just the point—to throw us back into the here and now of foreclosed configurations of human life and the struggle over their liberation. We can’t narrow the horizon of this struggle to the exclusive terms of trans liberation, which could only result in the racist and imperialist allegiances of a trans-inflected homonationalism—but equally we can’t ignore it. In view of a politically urgent hedonism, the question becomes: what would it mean for gender to function as a source of disalienated pleasure rather than an accumulation strategy?—a question that, mobilised in practice, helps us to engage the world at every relevant scale.
- Diane DiPrima, Revolutionary Letters (San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2005), 32.
- See Salar Mohandesi’s and Emma Teitelman’s “Without Reserves” in Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya (London: Pluto, 2017), 62–67.
- Kevin Floyd, The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 20.
- Rosemary Hennessy, Fires on the Border: The Passionate Politics of Labour Organising on the Mexican Frontera (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2013), 131: “These values and the affective charge that accompanies the abjection or recognition of embodied subjects of different sorts are embedded in the capacities that produce surplus value during the working day.”
- As named by Fredric Jameson in “Pleasure: A Political Issue,” in Ideologies of Theory (London and New York: Verso, 2009), 377.
- Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection,” Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes (2013).
- Jameson, “Pleasure: A Political Issue” (381).
- See for instance Edinburgh Action for Trans Health’s manifesto, which forcefully demands the intentional enabling of trans bodily autonomy together with the freeing of trans prisoners, decriminalisation of sex work, fully socialised reproduction, and exhilaratingly more.
- See Melissa Gira Grant, “Beyond Strange Bedfellows: How the ‘War on Trafficking’ was Made to Unite Left and Right,” Public Eye, 6 August 2018, and Sophie Lewis, “Julie Bindel and the Wrong School of Abolitionism,” Verso Blog, 24 May 2018.
- Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1 trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 165. 23
- Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013 ), 141-156.
- Ibid., 270.
- Bhattacharya, “Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory” in Social Reproduction, 3.
- Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, Marx’s ‘Capital’ 6th ed. (London: Pluto, 2017), 60, quoted in Bhattacharya (2017), 8.
- Jordy Rosenberg, “Becoming Hole (The Hiddener Abode),” World Picture Journal 11 (2016).
- Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975), 4.
- Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1983).
- Neil Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy,” Socialist Register 43, (2007).
- Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.Female_Meets_OncoMouse(tm) (New York and London: Routledge, 1997).
- See especially Maria Lugones, “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System,” Hypatia 22.1, (2007).
- Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987), 72
- Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press, 2013), 11.
- Andrea Long Chu, “On Liking Women,” n+1, 2018.
- Oren Gozlan, Transsexuality and the Art of Transitioning: a Lacanian Approach (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 41.
- Ibid., 103.
- Ibid., 13.
- Routed, as Trish Salah has forcefully argued, through the vexed history of the Freudian and post-Freudian interpretation of the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber; see e.g. her “To Return to Schreber: Trans Literatures as Psychoanalysis” in Current Debates in the Field of Transsexual Studies ed. Oren Gozlan, 169-180. See also Griffin Hansbury’s claim that the pathologisation of transsexual desires and embodiments develops out of the analyst’s transphobic countertransference—specifically, the anxiety of being brought into proximity with homosexuality: “Unthinkable Anxieties: Reading Transphobic Countertransference in a Century of Psychoanalytic Writing,” TSQ, 4.3-4, (2017), 384-404.
- Louis Althusser, Essays on Ideology, (New York and London: Verso, 1984), 49
- See Hennessy, Fires on the Border, 125-150.
- See Trish Salah, “Notes Towards Thinking Trans Institutional Poetics,” in Eva Karpinski, Jennifer Henderson, Ian Sowton and Ray Ellenwood (eds.), Trans/acting Culture, Writing, and Memory: Essays in Honour of Barbara Godard, 167-189.
- Mohandesi and Teitelman, 62.
- Kate Doyle Griffiths, “The Only Way Out Is Through: A Reply to Melinda Cooper,” Verso (blog), March 26, 2018.
- As the National Centre for Transgender Equality demonstrates, rampant poverty among trans people in the US cleaves heavily along racial lines.
- Nihils Rev and Fiona Mae Geist, “Staging the Trans Sex Worker,” TSQ 4.1 (February 2017), 118.
- Erin Fitzgerald, Sarah Elspeth, Darby Hickey, Cherno Biko, and Harper Tobin, Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015), 7.
- Monica Forrester, Jamie-Lee Hamilton, Mirha-Soleil Ross and Viviane Namaste, “Statement for Social Services Agencies and Transsexual/Transgender Organisations on Service Delivery to Transsexual and Transvestite Prostitutes,” in Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions and Imperialism (Toronto: Women’s Press, 2011), 105.
- The results of the NCTE survey show that 20% of respondents who had done sex work in their lifetimes were trans men and a further 23% of respondents were non-binary with female marked on their original birth certificate.
- Hennessy, Fires on the Border, 130.
- On which see C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn, “Trans Necropolitics: a Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife,” in Stryker and Aizura (eds.), The Transgender Studies Reader, Second Edition (New York and London: Routledge: 2013), 65-76.
- For an ambitious description of the socialisation of reproductive care, see especially Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now (2019).
- For the sake of intellectual honesty, I would have to admit that these formulations derive from a kind of humanism, in the sense that they presuppose certain limits to the possible and historically situated dimensions of human experience. I don’t have the space here to defend any given conception of humanism, so I’ll just say that humanism is less wedded to a static and therefore reactionary concept of the human than its detractors allow—while the conceptually available and currently popular anti-humanisms, from the so-called new materialisms to accelerationism, basically suck. As Nicholas Brown suggests, the proper response to the unhappy contraries would be to determine an anti-anti-humanism sufficient for understanding both determination and the subject.
- On this point see Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton in their introduction to Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (2017).
- Jameson, “Pleasure: a Political Issue,” 384-5.
- Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: the Political Imagination of the Paris Commune (New York and London: Verso, 2015).
- Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labour and the Global Working Class” in Social Reproduction, 92.
- Once again from the “Logic of Gender” essay (2013).
- Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, reprinted as a pamphlet from Verso Books (2018).
- As Lukács writes in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” (1923), 32.
- See the first of Gleeson’s two essays for Blindfield Collective: “The Call for Abolition: From Materialist Lesbianism to Gay Communism,” 2017.
- Mario Mieli, Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique, trans. David Fernbach (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1980 )—recently retranslated and released as Towards a Gay Communism, trans. Fernbach and Evan Calder Williams (Pluto Press, 2018).
- Not to be confused with actual transsexuals, whom Mieli also addresses.
- Ibid., 204.
- Ibid., 194: “Even today we can’t make love freely wherever we like it, on the buses or in the streets...”
- Ibid., 38.