Count the scare-quotes

Another entry, this one by Ani Dutta. What’s interesting about this one is the nested hedging and qualifying, which is so recursive that you end up unable to figure out what the claim is.

I have a feeling that I’m not going to be riding any popularity waves with this one, but I wanted to register my discomfort with the way in which ‘trans / gender non-conforming’ and ‘people of color’ voices have often been essentialized and homogenized in the wake of the controversy on Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article that defends ‘transracialism’ and makes analogies between ‘transgenderism’ and ‘transracialism’. I do not say this ‘as’ a trans/gender non-conforming person of color (categories I use with discomfort given their US-centric hegemonic senses), as I don’t believe that occupying those positions necessarily justifies or gives more credence to the points I’m about to make. But I am referring to these categories, in which I’m often socially placed, simply to make the point that some of ‘us’ (though there’s no ‘us’) might have differing takes on both the Tuvel article and the question of transracialism than the general stance of condemnation and dismissal that ‘we’ have been associated with.

Between scare quotes and talk of essentializing and disavowals followed by avowals…we get lost in the forest. Dutta either is or is not a trans/gender non-conforming person of color, and either does or does not speak as such; I can’t tell which it is. Maybe it’s both. There is no us, but some of us might have differing takes – except that there is no us. Or ‘us.’ (If there is no ‘us’ does that mean there is an us?)

It’s one academic style, I guess, but my god it seems pointless. There might be a good point in there but I can’t tell what it is.

There’s the obligatory rebuke of Adichie, and an acknowledgement that identity is complicated, and then we get to Tuvel.

This brings me more specifically to the Tuvel article: I agree that it is simplistic and problematic on several fronts, and especially fell short in its understanding of trans issues. As critiques point out, it reduces trans identities to a medical-surgical model of transitioning to another “sex” and ignores the trans-GNC critique of sex assignment (using phrases like ‘biological sex’ and ‘male genitalia’); further, it admittedly ignores non-binary subjectivities or practices, makes the sexed body the basis for both cis and trans identity, etc. Ideally none of this should have made past peer review, but these are far wider problems with entire biomedical discourses of transsexuality and are replicated across many academic disciplines, and even in some trans activism, rather than just this article in itself, and her article is not fundamentally making claims on trans identity anyway so they do not necessarily invalidate her main argument (which could still be critiqued, but that is a separate question).

Yikes, that last sentence ran away. But what I’m wondering is what kind of peer review it is that “none of this” should have made it past. The discipline in question is philosophy, so I’m wondering what philosophical peer review has to do with any of that. What field or discipline is the authority on “non-binary subjectivities” or “the trans-GNC critique of sex assignment” or why it’s wrong to use phrases like ‘biological sex’ and ‘male genitalia’? Is any of that an academic subject at all?

Also, specifically responding to a public post by a colleague, the Tuvel piece has been accused of managerial whiteness and the violence of abstracting and controlling differences, deciding which differences are equivalent or not, etc. I do appreciate and agree with the argument that philosophy, and academic theorization more broadly, is often guilty of managerial violence and the violence of abstracting differences over material bodies and experiences that theorizers don’t inhabit or share.

The violence of abstracting differences? I think that’s an agreement too many. On the other hand Dutta does say Tuvel shouldn’t be singled out for that.

Last but not least, moving beyond the specific Tuvel case, it seems important to introspect about why many of us (POC or not) have such a gut reaction to ‘transracialism’, racial self-determination and the analogy between racial & gender identity, while gender self-determination seems to be much easier to accept (even Adichie who generalizes male privilege onto all trans women seems to accept some degree of gender self-determination). Going by my preliminary and not entirely fleshed-out train of thoughts, part of it may have to do with the different ways in which ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are socially constructed, and these differences need to be interrogated more than they have been in recent debates. Broadly speaking, there is a relentless social demand that ‘gender’ be personalized and interiorized. Both conventional cisgender and more trans-inclusive epistemologies of gender (especially in the West) *demand* that we associate gendered embodiments, expressions, behaviors, words / terms, with a deeply *interior* identity (recalling the argument that Foucault famously makes about sexuality) – our gendered actions or embodiments must *mean* something in terms of the ontology of our inner selves, must correspond with a deeply held personal identity (even if that is genderqueer or fluid or agender, inasmuch as these are ‘identities’). Much of our hard-won struggles against biological essentialism and for gender self-determination often remain imbricated in this potentially oppressive ideology, being in some sense the obverse of the cissexist idea that social sex assignment ‘naturally’ corresponds to a gendered essence…

And yet that’s the exact opposite of what the hated radical feminists think. We think there is no “gendered essence” and that saying there is is what’s oppressive.

‘Race’, in contrast, is etymologically linked with ideas of common descent and collective lineage, deriving from one’s position within a collective rather than a deeply held personal identity…

Now there we’re onto something. We’re onto why trans activism is revealing itself to be such awful politics: it’s because it’s about “a deeply held personal identity,” which is about as opposed to the political as you can get. Basing a politics on an intensely anti-political idea is a recipe for disaster, and disaster is what we’ve got.

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