For International Transgender Day of Visibility, 2023
There was a wonderful presentation given by Juliet Jacques at Newcastle University last night, organised as part of its INSIGHTS public lecture series to coincide with LGBT+ History Month (which was last month but the event was rescheduled due to strikes).
Jacques spoke about her work to date, specifically her three books on transgender experiences: Trans: A Memoir (2015), the short story collection Variations (2021), and a collection of her trans journalism from 2007 to 2021, Front Lines (2022). (Of course, Jacques has done much more than write alone, also working as a broadcaster and filmmaker.)
What struck me most during the lecture were Jacques’ comments on how others might undertake the kind of work she has become known for, in a new way and in the here and now. She spoke of not wanting to be typecast; of wanting media representations of trans people that aren’t simply “mundane” or “incidental” or, as is the case right now, so painfully topical, but rather a world in which trans experiences are seen simply as a part of “the tapestry of life” — a weaving that I interpreted as multidirectional, rhizomatic even, affirmed from both within and without; a world that allows not just for one’s own appearing but also the freedom to explore one’s many interests, which may stray from the enforced existential questioning that is made foundational to trans identities by a wider and innately hostile world. Not just trans “representation” as such, then, but the expressive freedom to be trans and to create like anyone else.
Now in her early 40s, in order for her to do this, Jacques felt it was necessary to move on from such an existential questioning, to explore those other interests, of which she has so many, and pass on the baton to a younger generation of trans people who are necessarily more preoccupied with building a world in which they want to (and can) live. (Jacques did not feel like she had to relinquish such a responsibility absolutely, she said during the Q&A, but felt, when it came to discussions of trans experiences explicitly, she may have said all that she has to say.)
But to take up such a baton seems harder to do now than ever, in the midst of a transphobic “media-political complex”, which Jacques sees as “the biggest political problem in the UK” today, since it is the primary blockade that stops all other change being imaginable — a communicative-capitalist realism, perhaps.
On this point, she made me wonder about how the blogosphere has waned in recent years. I often think, perhaps blogs have just fallen out of fashion. But when framed within a broader “media-political” context, such a waning seems less incidental than it does intentional.
Both the left and the right, Jacques argued, have restricted themselves to “exploiting loopholes in liberalism”, advocating for one’s own appearance in the “marketplace of ideas”, which is fatally adjudicated and refereed from the centre. In the 2010s, there was a proliferation of new media platforms on the left, but many may rightly feel that these platforms, in order to survive, have had to cosy up closer to the “mainstream” media and its centrist mode of comportment than seemed necessary at their inception. (This may be because the right themselves have followed suit, such that the peripheries of a centralised — and, of course, centrist — discursive space are now populated by many more reactionary websites and online magazines as well, all fighting for influence, and so we can note how the proliferation of new discursive spaces is now something that our media-political complex is more willing to accept than it was a decade ago.)
What is to be done?
Every few years — probably a lot more frequently than that these days — I take this kind of question personally. I wonder if I’m doing things right. I wonder whether this blog is redundant, whether I should have “progressed” to new spaces. There is an unspoken expectation, it seems, to write independently only for so long, build a profile, and graduate from blogs to books and columns, op-eds and TV appearances. (Something it is assumed I have done simply by virtue of being published, but nothing is so simple…)
Whether this is achieved or not, it is all too often the case that, on Twitter at least, to have any sort of profile is to be seen as part of the fabric of that same overarching media-political complex. Semi-regularly, I find myself denounced by cynics and haters as a careerist or a sell-out, as if I’m out here only to make money from my opinions, which never quite appear as “commitments” but are rather reduced to positions that are advocated for merely to fill a role in the totalising complex of politicised multimedia.
Just last night, some idiot made a remark I’ve heard all too often, which is that my work on Mark Fisher is simply a cash-grab, such that an acknowledgement of the “work” I have done on Mark Fisher’s thought — and it is undoubtedly work of a certain type — obscures its point of emergence from an abject and personal grief. I understand the point: it is necessary, for one’s own survival, that all work be remunerated. But the writing life is wholly unsustainable without funds from other sources. I say it all the time and it always bears repeating: writing does not pay, and so writing can hardly be done for money. But when seen through the lens of a totalising media-political complex, there is a prevailing and cynical assumption that no one does anything except for money and clout.
This is because, ultimately, we’re all talking to each other. There is no discursive outside. We are trapped in what Deleuze calls a corrupted communication; what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism.” In an interview published under the title “Control and Becoming”, Deleuze says:
The quest for “universals of communication” ought to make us shudder … You ask whether control or communication societies will lead to forms of resistance that might reopen the way for a communism understood as the “transversal organization of free individuals” …
(Communism understood, as Blanchot once enigmatically wrote, as the “material search for communication”.)
… Maybe, I don’t know. But it would be nothing to do with minorities speaking out. Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They’re thoroughly permeated by money — and not by accident but by their very nature. We’ve got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating. The key thing is to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.
It is hard to know what such a noncommunication would even look like today. Everyone seems to think they are engaged in an elusive dance with apparatuses of capture, which seems wholly unmeasurable beyond certain public and private self-assurances. My feeling is that there are plenty of examples of noncommunication that exist, but “universals of communication” cloud our eyes nonetheless. Whether something is resistant or not, we cannot see it, since we see everything through the prism of the media-political complex.
This is made readily apparent on Twitter, when people do their utmost to deconstruct any vocal individual’s communicative “authenticity”. After Jacques’ talk, a few of us went out for dinner and drinks. Peter Mitchell was present and we were laughing about a familiar accusation sent to him on Twitter that evening: that the fact he’d published a book on Manchester University Press somehow equated to an “academic sinecure”.
No matter how precarious you may remain, being visible alone makes you, in the eyes of the ignorant, immediately complicit with a general media circuitry. But in so many cases, it is not remotely true. We remain on the periphery, in actuality, such that the death of the author produces a zombified virtual avatar — quite literally on social media — who is somehow more affluent and complicit with Control in the minds of others than an individual writer could ever be. You are left feeling damned if you do, damned if you don’t — materially and financially ostracized, contrary to the perception you’re somehow on the “inside” now.
With all of this in mind, Deleuze’s argument above warrants some unpacking. Speech and communication may be “thoroughly permeated by money”, but that money is generally unseen by those who speak. They are permeated, perhaps, with the idea of money, more than anything else. Bank is reserved for the few who find a position at the heart of the media-political complex, or are more securely situated within its distributive entities. And perhaps not even then — I don’t know how well-off other people really are. But the result is that there is a false equivalence constantly made between writing and grifting, where all philosophy (in the broadest sense of the term) appears indistinguishable from either an imagined academic security or popular sophistry, unless you reduce your existence to an errant and inconsequential “posting”.
Jacques’ advice given, with regards to how we can remedy this situation, was familiar (although it is a piece of advice I have not heard for a few years now, since the height of the blogosphere): it is better to set up your own platforms and not rely on cultural gatekeepers, she said. It is better to just do what you want.
I’ve been thinking about this as I (very prematurely) think about what I want to do next. My PhD is going to take up most of my time over the next few years, and I should let that be the case — I already pitched a new book draft, in a recent but brief period of manic procrastination, which was rightly turned down as it was suggested I stew for a bit, feed my mind, see what comes up later — but I’m left really wanting to do something new, something different, and to do it immediately. The end of every book project, for me at least, is always met with a desire to deform the author-function that is soon to be made public — a desperate desire to immediately counter any compartmentalisation by renouncing what I have just finished but which many have not yet even read.
Now, as I must commit to returning to the academic fold, I am left longing for an immersion in a mode of writing that I explored more emphatically last year, which was more fragmentary, improvisatory, deformed — to my mind, more “literary”. I’m not sure when (or where) I’ll find the opportunity to do that in the near future (other than right here on the blog). And I already know that, should I hope to have my efforts published elsewhere, such a writing would not be an easy sell, unless I become more confident in its less academic and more generally literary and experimental merits.)
This is a conundrum specific to my present circumstances, of course, with my prevaricating and anxiety probably being of little interest to others, but I am without doubt that it will resonate with others too. The question of what is to be done next never leaves you alone. But there is hope — and it is a hope to can found with a writer’s life that is also lived whilst being transgender.
Jacques spoke at length on her book Variations, a project some two decades in the making, she said, which is made up of short stories that each explore a different space-time in transgender history. It is an inspiring project, and one that clearly means a lot to her, which contains stories that cover a multitude of styles, places, times and registers. In speaking to some kind of transhistorical (pun intended) experience, the book is so wonderfully varied, as per its title.
Discussing and summarising the book during her lecture, Jacques made reference to Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back, which is an essay, Stone herself says, that is
about morality tales and origin myths, about telling the “truth” of gender. Its informing principle is that “technical arts are always imagined to be subordinated by the ruling artistic idea, itself rooted authoritatively in nature’s own life.” It is about the image and the real mutually defining each other through the inscriptions and reading practices of late capitalism. It is about postmodernism, postfeminism, and [dare I say it] posttranssexualism.
All trans writing plays explicitly with genre/gender in this regard — a francophonic injunction once associated with Jacques Derrida, particularly his essay “The Law of Genre”, perhaps, but which has become more closely associated with trans literature since then, which Juliet herself discusses here.
Trans writing is a “formally inventive writing”, and necessarily so, since, as Jacques put it in her lecture, the trans experience is itself an experiment with form — “life-experimentation”, as Deleuze might say. It is a function of LGBT writing in general, she adds, arguing — according to someone referenced whose name I’ve already forgotten; perhaps Stone again or maybe Susan Stryker — that LGBT discourses were born of the industrial revolution, of industrialisation in general, and the breaking of feudal bonds.
It is an argument explored in my forthcoming book, Narcissus in Bloom, such that the pathology of narcissism, “invented” at the end of the nineteenth century, was initially an attempt to pathologize homosexual relations and the “love of the same”. But as Steven Bruhm argues, “Narcissus, who is said to aspire to that which is the same, is continually destroying the political safety promised by sameness.”
Narcissus in Bloom is a positive book, about (self-)transformation. It could just as easily have been a more negative (and perhaps Deleuzian) text, however, about (self-)deformation. But how to deform when you feel like you are still only just building a life? How to deform life in its making? How to deform writing in its very construction?
On one or two occasions, across yesterday evening, we spoke fleetingly of poetry. (Jacques mentioned that she was particularly interested in trans poetry at present.) As Michael and I walked Juliet to her hotel, I asked her about her experience of lockdown, how she felt about Variations being released in the midst of Covid. She said it was strange and that publishing took an unexpected hit over those years. We might have assumed that, since we were stuck indoors, we would turn to reading as an activity more readily. But she, like so many, could not bring herself to read much at all. I felt the same way too.
When I moved to Huddersfield at the end of the first lockdown, I explained how I found a new appreciation for poetry, living in the Yorkshire landscape that inspired Emily Brontë and Sylvia Plath. Poems, in their often quintessential brevity, were easier to read and reread at that time, whereas other tomes repulsed. The distillation of life into stanzas felt as much like a deformation as it did a crystallisation, at a time when life itself felt painfully deformed and distilled in equal measure.
It was then that I first read Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (discussed in my recent Dublin lecture), in which he argues that “the noble failure at the heart of every great poem” emerges from “the impulse to launch the experience of the individual into a timeless communal existence.”
It is an argument I’ve found resonating with much Caribbean literature more recently. Reading Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse whilst waiting for a friend before Jacques’ lecture, I underlined the following:
The author must be demythified, certainly, because he must be integrated into a common resolve. The collective ‘We’ becomes the site of the generative system, and the true subject.
In his introduction, J. Michael Dash argues that the “point of departure of Caribbean literature has been the effort to write the subject into existence”, but Glissant subverts this task into a deformation, emphasising “the structuring force of landscape, community, and collective unconscious”, far beyond any subject’s nascent individuality. Glissant was influenced, in this regard, by Aimé Césaire, for whom “the subject was not privileged but simply the site where the collective experience finds articulation” — a “decentered subject, central to the poetics of the cross-cultural imagination”. The power of any writer, then, Dash continues, is found in their “capacity … to descend, like Orpheus, into the underworld of the collective unconscious and to emerge with a song that can reanimate the petrified world.”
There is a wonderful resonance, I think, between the writings of a black diaspora and the requirements of any other marginalised subject that must proceed by corrupting a wider hegemony, simply by existing. (Binaries of sex, gender and race are acutely related in this regard, as others have more recently argued.) But whereas Caribbean literature has the Creole language to create “vacuoles of noncommunication”, what does gender, more generally, have today? How do languages of resistance make themselves heard in the midst of a totalising media-political complex, beyond the specificity of Creole culture? Is it in the language of blogs? Not anymore, it seems. Such a suggestion feels immediately parochial. But perhaps this is made possible in other ways…
There is something to be said for simply speaking your own truth, regardless of its compounding by a wider media hegemony. Jacques demonstrated this, perhaps without even meaning to, in the Q&A that followed her talk.
Although the atmosphere in the lecture hall felt jovial, as Jacques cracked wise before her attentive audience, the event was briefly overshadowed by a final question asked by an audience member, before we filed out to buy books and have them signed.
Moments prior, Jacques had responded to a question from a young trans woman in the audience, who asked how Jacques felt about a more flippant and colloquial language used by many public trans figures: the “whatever-being” of those who may not speak so eloquently on trans politics, and notably by choice. Jacques had no problem with this, and added that a certain flippancy regarding an expected rhetoric was itself important. Speak however you like. Trans people may often find themselves pulled into debates on their own existence, but no one needs to take TERFs and other transphobic people seriously, nor engage with them in a style of debate that is constructed by a pervasive centrism, at least if they don’t want to.
This young student’s question was ironically followed by a comment made by a more elderly woman, who raised her hand and began, “I am a feminist, and a lifelong socialist”, with the “but…” implied if not announced explicitly. (I am certain that I recognised this woman as a supporter of Posie Parker’s recent #LetWomenSpeak event in Newcastle, but I couldn’t say for sure.) She rambled on for a few minutes, giving anyone who might have wanted to play TERF bingo a rapid ‘full house’ — biological essentialism, single-sex spaces and prisons, etc. — before the event’s chair, Kate Chedgzoy, interjected to ask if she wanted to ask a question or simply make a rambling statement. Things, for a moment, felt heated. (“Whose got a can of soup?” someone asked, speaking over the woman as she continued to ramble.) Encouraged to get to the point, she rushedly concluded by asking Jacques to speak to the “tensions” that exist between trans and women’s rights, to which Jacques (and the rest of the room) succinctly replied that no tension exists. Then the event was over.
It was an interjection that upset everyone, as it was a sad and combative conclusion to a talk that had otherwise been so joyful. But the woman’s argument was also illustrative of what Jacques had been saying for much of the last hour. This woman was clearly and totally immersed in the talking points amplified incessantly by the media-political complex that Jacques had previously denounced. There was no original comment made, no reflection on any part of Jacques’ 40-minute lecture, just the mindless regurgitation of TERF talking points. Hers was a “comment” that was woefully restricted to a perspective that Jacques had pushed far beyond. There was no sense of fanfare or transgression or defiance in Jacques’ words, in this sense, only the unfurling of her own traversal of the tapestry of life, of her life and career, through which she has explored so many topics in print, as well as on radio and television. In stark contrast, this final part of the Q&A was embarrassingly myopic, as if this woman had heard nothing at all, her ears blocked by a sad agenda that was so rehearsed (even if poorly) as to hardly even sound like her own at all.
Jacques did not come back at this woman with hostility or even bother entertaining her position at all. There was no need. Her expansive interests and body of work, explored over the previous hour, made few direct references to the media furore that overshadows trans experiences today. She spoke of navigating it, at times, particularly as a former Guardian columnist, but in conversation spoke instead of her fascination with British towns in general, their architecture, their football stadiums; the strange stories to be found in any exploration of local politics; the writers and politicians produced by spaces and landscapes so often overlooked, who appear all the more radical and inspiring having emerged from “nowhere”. Places are strange. The specificities of certain localities, and the ‘We’ that may populate them, humiliates any genericised worldview. The tapestry of life is so complex and intricate, filled with imperfections and deviations, unsettling any “common” sense or norm. Life emerges there, and feels innately experimental, in the margins that are in fact centres for the vast majority of us.
In this way, Jacques’ writings on trans politics and experiences reveal the lifeforce of so much more besides. To be confronted and asked to address illusory tensions was completely inapposite, even if the talk was advertised as an account of the trans writing life. But rather than encase her writing in a specific subject position, this was only the starting point, outwards from which the world came to life in Jacques’ journeys through its wonderous incongruities, lingering in the memorial vacuoles of underrepresented stories and times, creating space for that which struggles to be communicated.