Sexually Identifying as a War Machine: Keeping the Trans* in Transgressive

Many people around this part of the internet will already be familiar with Isabel Fall’s amazing short short “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” — available here via the Wayback Machine because it was, tragically and maddeningly, taken down.

On the off chance you missed it and all the drama that surrounded it, Gretchen Felker-Martin has penned an excellent summary of the events that led up to its removal from the web alongside a short reflection on the (an)ethical nature of transgressive literature, its importance, and why the reaction to “Attack Helicopter” paints a picture of seemingly progressive circles that is deeply unflattering, emboldening the right-wing view of leftism as a new fascism due to the formal-aesthetic conservatism that exists at its popular core.

This, however, is one of the rare instances where this accusation comes convincingly from within, and demands a long overdue reckoning.

As Felker-Martin writes:

The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.

Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.


That someone reacts with hurt to art doesn’t make that art dangerous, and claiming that all art that’s capable of causing pain is inherently toxic is a solipsistic nightmare in which a reader’s personal experience becomes an act of violence committed against them by an author whom they likely do not know. It’s a reflexive model of critique, a rejection of evaluating art on its own merits. In a way it takes the place of criticism entirely, ignoring aesthetic concerns in favor of moral ones. Perhaps in that emotional reaction is some trace of readers reliving their own trauma and, casting the artist in the role of an attack or abuser, reimagining it as a scenario in which they can stop that violation from happening. It’s a poignant thought — who among us wouldn’t want to protect our younger selves, or hypothetical children who remind us of ourselves, from life’s nettles and pitfalls? It also locks us in memories of our own pain and reduces art to something strictly individual, cutting away its ability to let us experience the lives and dreams of people we’ll never know.

Stories like “Attack Helicopter” are vital to unpacking the webs of intersecting forces which make up every human consciousness. They constitute an outlet for the suffering of marginalized artists raised in bigoted, imperialist cultures, a way to process the poison we’re spoon-fed from birth into something that awakens and lays bare. Calls for the destruction or censorship of such stories constitute a rejection of life’s intrinsic complexity, a retreat into the black and white moral absolutism of adolescence, or theocracy. These rigid moral strictures strip marginalized communities of their full humanity and of their history as makers of painful, difficult art stemming from their experiences as outsiders. They rob audiences of the space and tools necessary to engage art thoughtfully and in good faith. They make our world a poorer, harsher place, clannish and merciless, and smother beauty in its cradle.

I think this article is excellent, not only for its unpicking of how and why “Attack Helicopter” unfairly ended up in the trash but also for its brief but potent exploration of how transgender discourses, in some corners of the internet, are doing far more damage to the experiences they say they want to protect from harm in sharing a moralising hair-trigger when it comes to transgressive art, even when it is produced from within their own comunity.

Now, obviously I write a fair amount about trans* experiences on this blog — undoubtedly a suspicious amount for someone who is cis — but what I respect and admire in the proliferation of trans* discourses online, particularly in this part of the internet, adjacent to xenofeminist conversations, is the openness and frankness regarding experiences of embodied displacement that I only wish was more commonplace in the wider world.

I’ve written previously about my relationship to trans discourses in this regard, particularly related to research I started into the documented overlap between post-adoption and transgender experiences. However, more generally speaking, the importance of articulating such displacements for me is that I think a widespread acceptance of our patchwork selves will lead to a far healthier social sphere for all to engage in. The difficulty is that it requires a radical attack on identitarianism from both the right and the left. It requires an adaptive and perpetually unsettling transgression.

This is something that I think Felker-Martin implicitly affirms her article and I wanted to add something as to why I think this story in particular is an excellent example of a radical aesthetics and politics in action simultaneously, the reactions to which perfectly demonstrate how the popular left is in constant danger of cutting off its nose despite its face.

This is explicitly relevant to transgressive literature. Indeed, transgressive literature often finds itself attacked from all sides, precisely because it is so often coupled with a deeply ethical agenda that seeks to demonstrate how inner experience finds itself perpetually displaced within an often monolithic and moralistic sociopolitical right-left culture.

The question becomes: How can we allow marginalised literature like “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” to flourish? And: How might we do so in a way that combats left and right identitarianism wherever it emerges?

In thinking about an answer to these questions I was reminded of that scene in American Beauty where the bullying military Dad, Frank “the Colonel”, who expresses a murderous rage whenever someone brings up “the faggots”, ends up supposedly revealing himself to be a closeted homosexual.

It’s a familiar trope — and a tired one at that — but it’s also a demonstration of a tendency that you will see all the time in your daily life once you know what to look for, and especially if you have ever found yourself on the receiving end of a sociocultural rejection for not fitting into your prescribed gender role well enough, becoming an ironic outlet for other’s insecurities. (Odd memories resurfacing here from my high school years of being inappropriately touched by the lads to demonstrate my effeminate self.)

This abusive relationship to queerness (or perceptions of queerness) is revealing, however, for the ways that queerness is understood socially, even by those who would discriminate against it.

This scene in American Beauty demonstrates this effectively. On the whole, it is one of those films — like Fight Club, notably released the same year — that is a wholesale attack on a deeply American and violently holistic sense of self — of the gendered variety in particular — that is all too often interpreted as a defense of its opposite. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Lester Fitts, like Brad Pitt’s / Edward Norton’s of Tyler Duerden in Fight Club, seems to many to be representative of a warped American individualism where the patriarch is at his strongest when he gives in to his personal desires and embraces what we’ll call here his “Integer Self” — an unmistakably phallic sense of being that sees itself as being complete in itself: a monolith in a social milieu of performative relations and a rejection of what R.D. Laing most famously called the “divided self”. You notice that you are divided, ergo you must pick a side — the radical option being the transgressive road less traveled; the side you hide from the wider world.

This is a bad reading.

As the scene with the Colonel’s kiss makes particularly clear, Spacey’s power (and Pitt’s / Norton’s tandem power in Fight Club — although it is cynically reflected inwards rather than outwards) emerges from the discovery of a newly machinic and schizophrenic sense of self. It is not that they stand alone — it is that they are newly capable of entering into previously closed-off connections; connections not officially sanctioned by the Big Other. (To borrow from Sadie Plant, we can argue they turn from a 1 into a 0.)

Fight Club is full of these moments but the distinct (visual) separation between Pitt and Norton’s characters allows for an audience compartmentalisation that scaffolds a big narrative twist at the end but downplays the power of the schizoid relations they are tapping into (especially on first viewing; on second, it’s just obvious and embarrassing). American Beauty is better at this. In his encounter with the Colonel — to stick with the example — Fitts’ moral indifference towards his wife’s apparent infidelity is nonetheless coupled with a broader social compassion that disarms the Colonel, who is struggling to maintain his grip on his viciously maintained masculinity. Lester’s honesty about his own failings as a man who can’t satisfy his wife encourages the Colonel to embrace his own insecurities and lean in for a kiss.

By comparison, Fight Club‘s schizoid narcissism is cringe as fuck. Whereas Fight Club would split these relations between imagined and divided selves, here Spacey embodies the complex relation between self and other as a personable openness, and demonstrates the social affect of one becoming multiple.

As a result, in American Beauty, it is not enough to simply accused the Colonel of being a closeted homosexual. What must be recognised is his stereotypically American and holistic approach to the self — the stringent belief in “The USA” over the unconscious unruliness of the frontier; the adamance in the pursuits of the modern settled protectionist individual over a transgressively nomadic ancestral past. The Colonel, seemingly in the midst of a breakdown as his selves threaten to erupt onto the surface, tests another self out on Lester — a self he can then reject (kill) by murdering the screen onto which he has projected it. Bye-bye, Lester.

(Lester, in turn, has a mirrored experience where he nearly has sex with his teenage daughter’s best friend, Angela, who he has lusted over uncomfortably throughout the film but instead stops himself, discovering that she too has been playing the role of someone she is not — the sexually experienced cheerleader is, in fact, an insecure virgin. Instead, he parks his lust and ends up having an unprecedentedly compassionate conversation with her.)

This is to say that Fitts is the open embodiment of everything that Fight Club spends an entire movie trying to accept within its narratively enclosed self — for all Lester’s flaws, and he has many, at the end of the film he seems to have entered a zen state of effortless compassion where he can disarm and connect emotionally with everyone. That is his power — something he achieves through willful non-conformity and transgressive behaviour.

In Lester’s reflection, the Colonel demonstrates how hatred of difference emerges from such an understanding of yourself as enclosed and fully formed; finished; final. This is why the Colonel seems so keen to send his wistful son (who has given himself over to life’s flows, infamously, like a plastic bag in the wind) to military school: so he can tie off his loose ends. Military discipline, then, is framed as a sort of psychological finishing school. It is the same pathological protectionism behind everything from pro-life anti-abortionists to imperialist foreign policy. It is an ideology that believes in the individual, the whole, uber alles.

(Donald Trump’s “historic” appearance at the March for Life is a perfect example of this derangement as it manifests in real life: a raging and impenetrable ego fighting for the right of the individual unborn child, demonstrating a classic conservative worldview that is paradoxically incapable of thinking about anything that is not an integer, whether that is the nation, the family, the self or the fetus. For them, “the entire world” is not — as Gilles Deleuze proclaimed — “an egg” but a Matryoshka doll.)

Fall’s short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, is a work of genius because it injects an atomistic radicality back into a holistic right-wing meme that, in itself, betrays an ignorance of this transgressive relation within the group from which the phrase originally emerged. Identifying as an attack helicopter is supposed to be funny, for the transphobic right, because it hopes to point out that identifying as something so holistically Other is really dumb. (And they’d be right — it’s quite the self-own.) You cannot identify as an attack helicopter because you are not that machine, which is to say, through a gendered jingoism, you cannot say you are something when you don’t have — and apologies for the euphemism here, but it is surely what is implied — “all the necessary parts”.

And yet, to be transgender is nonetheless to affirm that very position. It is not the primacy of the whole over the sum of its parts but the affirmation of one’s self as a collection of parts that connects into a wider machinic milieu. It transforms the attack helicopter as right-wing machine of war into a DeleuzoGuattarian affirmation of the nomadic war-machine; an affirmation of the instrument that skirts the edge of an overtly defended territory.

It was Deleuze and Guattari’s point in A Thousand Plateaus that the State had appropriated the war machine in this regard. The military is a State appropriation of a warrior class that previously traveled and intersected with communal outsides. Warriors — like artists or the Gothic “journeymen” — are interfaces between worlds, traveling along and carving out lines of flight.

Isabel Fall dramatises this DeleuzoGuattarian argument exquisitely, describing how to sexually identify as an appropriated instrument of the military-industrial complex might allow someone to unearth the radical machinations within. It is like a retelling of Ghost in the Shell, where the realisation that one has become a weapon for state purposes leads to an anti-Oedipal excavation of the self in its original formlessness.

In Fall’s story, this is taken a step further, with the act of sexually identifying as an attack helicopter becoming a perfect metaphor for a radical politics that the right deploys as an insulting joke but which it unconsciously wishes it could nonetheless enact, like the Colonel leaning in for a kiss at the sight of that which it violently declares it is not. It is a transgressive transgendered transmilitarism brought forth within a supposedly harmful phrase to demonstrate its perverse acuity.

A militaristic understanding of the body as a machine is instead revealed to be a woeful misunderstanding of what the body can do. In searching for inputs, it may become an all too telling idea of that which it insists it is not. As Fall writes:

Look at a diagram of an attack helicopter’s airframe and components. Tell me how much of it you grasp at once.

Now look at a person near you, their clothes, their hair, their makeup and expression, the way they meet or avoid your eyes. Tell me which was richer with information about danger and capability. Tell me which was easier to access and interpret.

This is the ethical centre of transgressive literature and the encounters it so often dramatises. It is what I love so much about Georges Bataille. At the heart of each literary violence is a question of communication and compassion. To only see the violence is to shut down the text’s unfolding of itself, reaching out for other inputs. It is, as Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, an expression of the “right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things.” It is com-passion — be that in conversation or in an orgy. It is to affirm one’s itinerant being. It is an understanding of the body as a vehicle for an adaptive way of life rather than as an oppressive temple you find yourself trapped in.

This is the ethico-political engine inherent to trans* discourses as well, and it must be preserved, alongside quests for social justice. The two are not incompatible. Bataille’s laughter before the void — his writing in the face of Nazism — is a powerful case in point (but not the only one). To demand the acceptance of another’s choices is not the same as demanding recognition from the Big Other. This is the disillusion captured by the response to Fall’s story. It is as radical and necessary a critique of the status quo as Andrea Long Chu’s excellent Females is. The utter commitment to a bit, even one with supposedly dangerous origins, demonstrates how even a joke made at one’s own expense can become an entry point for a radically machinic politics, where non-binary identity is not holistically understood as an identity in itself but as an opportunity to reject what Fall describes as “a private way of being”; an opportunity to machinise oneself; to become open access.

What we mustn’t do is deny such an opportunity and instead make transness, in whatever form, more palatable through a holistic understanding of a generalised experience.

To be trans, to be female, to be free, is to be a machine. Embrace it.

Side note: There is a great explanation of the DeleuzoGuattarian warmachine, particularly relevant in this context, online here:

As a non-disciplinary force, the nomadic war machine names an anarchic presence on the far horizon of the State’s field of order: nomadic warriors and herders who ground their being in an itinerant territoriality. Deleuze and Guattari immediately find value in the warrior because of the warrior’s alterity to the disciplined subject: “It is true that war kills, and hideously mutilates. But it is especially true after the State has appropriated the war machine. Above all, the State apparatus makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs [its subjects] preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombie-like. The myth of the zombie, of the living dead, is a work myth and not a war myth….The State apparatus needs, at its summit as at its base, predisabled people, preexisting amputees, the still-born, the congenitally infirm” (ATP 425-26).

To be still-born, in this sense, is to be born completely incomplete. To be born with one’s purpose predetermined; to be born a slave. It is to say, the state needs poverty so it has a herd to pick recruits from. It needs bodies without options.

Why is Chelsea Manning more violently suppressed than Edward Snowden? Because she represents an attack helicopter gone rogue, reconnecting with a warrior spirit within her otherwise disciplined self. She is the machine the government don’t want you to see.


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