Trans Forming Time

Susan Stryker’s 1993 performance piece, “Transgender Rage” later became “My Notes to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” (Rage). Sometime later, after queer theory had been declared dead, resurrected, dismembered and sutured together again several times, Elizabeth Freeman completed a book focused on befores, afters and monstrous patchworks of temporality. This response to her book – a very good text to think with – seeks to “trail behind actually existing social possibilities,” (Freeman 2010, xiii). It evokes an erotohistoriography of Time Binds (TB) with Styker’s piece, so key to the history of trans studies. Patching together Stryker’s older piece with the fascinating insights – one hesitates to call them exactly new, for all its evocations of brands and spanking, as Freeman herself points out (TB, xiii, xxiv) – of Freeman’s text creates a monstrous body. It is this body that I share here as an example of the “counterpolitics of encounter in which bodies, de-composed by the workings of experimental film and literature [not to mention trans and theory] meet one another by chance, forging – in the sense of both making and counterfeiting – history differently” (TB xi). This response seeks to demonstrate the ways that trans history, connecting to Freeman’s text, is both longer and more monstrous than is frequently imagined, especially by those radical feminists who treat trans as a recent threat.

At least one limb of this counterfeiting, monstrous body – or is it the circulatory system? – comes from Mary Shelley. In Time Binds, Freeman revisits the Frankensteins and the doctor’s monstrous creation, mapping the extent to which the familiar and familial rhythms of time are what are at stake in the questions of life, death, erotics, knowledge and science that the novel traces. But in the monster that is this response, these two texts suture to Stryker’s piece, in which she forges, across time and the supposed lines between fiction and non-fiction, a re-making of history. Stryker, tracking a bodily genealogy back through Mary Daly’s disapproval (1990, 69) to Frankenstein’s unnamed monster, speaks back to the order that science, some forms of queer activism, and the chronobiopolitical demands of neoliberal capitalism continue to make of trans bodies.

For all the recent celebration regarding the shift from Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria in the psychiatrists’ bible (Beredjick 2012), the diagnosis remains part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association 2000), an ordering tool for aligning distress, or even rage, with pathology. The anxieties expressed about the surgical “mutilation” sought by (some) trans bodies can take different forms: often concern about the alteration of the “natural” body (see especially the work of Sheila Jeffreys), or, in more sophisticated accounts, mixed in with concerns about “sex reassignment surgery” as a political means of rendering resistance to gender norms individualized and depoliticized (see for example Janice Raymond). Such anxieties ignore the multiple trans movements – political, bodily, erotic and, usually less well recognized, temporal – and thus the ‘deformations’ of the resistance involved in embodying transness.

Freeman writes that chrononormativity consists in “the interlocking temporal schemes necessary for genealogies of descent and for the mundane workings of domestic life” (TB, xxii) that bind “naked flesh… into socially meaningful embodiment through temporal regulation” and through the “implantation… of institutional forces [that] come to seem like somatic facts… organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity” (TB, 3). Freeman refers to Judith Butler’s notion of performativity as an example of how chrononormativity functions, specifically in the ways that “the rhythms of gendered performance – specifically, repetitions – accreted to “freeze” masculinity and femininity into timeless truths of being” (TB 4).

These accreted gendering performances are key to the deformation enacted by transness. Susan Stryker elaborates the way that bodies become significant, and are consequently made to signify gender:

Authority seizes upon specific material qualities of the flesh, particularly the genitals, as outward indication of future reproductive potential, constructs this flesh as a sign, and reads it to enculturate the body. Gender attribution is compulsory; it codes and deploys our bodies in ways that materially affect us, yet we choose neither our marks nor the meanings they carry. This was the act accomplished between the beginning and the end of that short sentence in the delivery room: “It’s a girl” (Rage, 249–250).

Yet this authorized reproduction of sex, apparently already fixed, also necessitates ongoing intervention, disciplining the developmental potentialities of childhood (see also Castañeda 2002). In Dean Spade’s analysis, the DSM plays a key role in delimiting authorized gender, through specifying its transgression:

Normative childhood gender is produced – normal kids do the opposite of what kids with GID [Gender Identity Disorder] are doing. Non-GID kids can be expected to: play with children of their own sex, play with gender appropriate toys (trucks for boys, dolls for girls), enjoy fictional characters of their own sex… Because gender nonconformity is established as a basis for illness, parents now have a ‘mill of speech,’ speculation and diagnosis to feed their children’s gender through should it cross the line (Spade 2003, 24–25).

These ideals of childhood gender (non-)conformity are in turn used to test the authenticity of a desire for access to sex “reassignment” technologies (the scare quotes used here to make space for the use of those technologies for the actualization of “non-normative” sexes). The authenticity of the transsexual here revolves around temporal regulation in the form of narrative. Medical gate-keeping in the past produced the grapevine of transsexual patients (Meyerowitz 2002, 226), who shared successful ways of storying their lives, to convince clinicians that their transsexuality was life-long. These stories, with highlights such as early maternal deaths which necessitated enacting the maternal role to younger siblings, act as “accretions” taken to evidence a notion of sex as permanence, as essence.

These forms of temporal regulation ensure that accounts which involve different or “unfrozen” experiences of the temporality of gender become impossible. Dean Spade’s narrative, for example, precludes him from access to trans surgeries:

I want to avoid… the narrative of a gender troubled childhood. My project would be to promote sex reassignment, gender alteration, temporary gender adventure, and the mutilation of gender categories, via surgery, hormones, clothing, political lobbying, civil disobedience, or any other means available. But that political commitment itself, if revealed to the gatekeepers of my surgery, disqualifies me. One therapist said to me, ‘You’re really intellectualizing this, we need to get to the root of why you feel you should get your breasts removed, how long have you felt this way?’ Does realness reside in the length of time a desire exists?… [I]n order to be deemed real I need to want to pass as male all the time and not feel ambivalent about this. I need to be willing to make the commitment to ‘full-time’ maleness, or they can’t be sure that I won’t regret my surgery… (Spade 2003, 21, my emphases)

This demonstrates the way that the regulation of trans bodies is actualized through the regulation of temporality: impermanence is unacceptable; sex and/or gender must be “frozen” to be the legitimate grounds of transformation.

The demands of permanence of sex and/or gender here demonstrate the institutional labor that goes into maintaining the fantasy of sex as essence through temporality. The “institutional force” that orders “somatic facts” are manifest in “the inability of language to represent the transgendered subject’s movement over time between stably gendered positions in a linguistic structure” (Rage, 241). Chronobiopolitical forces bind bodies to essences fantasized to be unchanging, pre-existing and untouched by the vicissitudes of temporal life.

Except of course, this ahistorical, permanent, unchanging essence separated from a temporal and specific body, is a fantasy too. Freeman describes such adventures in impermanence through concept of temporal “dragging up”:

If I disseminate my mother’s body in all its former glory onto the surface of my own in clothing, hairstyle, gesture or speech patterns, I don’t look or sound normative at all. As ‘Mom, circa 1969,’ my appearance writes onto my body not only the history of my love for my mother (or even the spending of her youthful body on the making of my own) but also and crucially at least two historically distinct forms and meanings of “womanhood” (TB, 70).

The illusion of a singular, ahistorical essence of “womanhood” is undermined here, because (at least) two essences are performed and enacted. Temporal drag for Freeman is doubled: a phrase evoking drag in Butler’s sense, as a politicized parody of sex-as-essence (Butler 1990, 136), but also the sense of dragging one’s heels against chronobiopolitics. In place of the inventive impermanence evoked by Dean Spade, the concept recalls the creative potential that lies in the resistance to the institutional, reproductive teleology of childhood development, and demands of progress, consistency and permanence that binds contemporary genders to the fantasy of ahistorical, essential sex.

Trans, too, drags its heels in this respect. The very meaning of the term “trans” is extraordinarily changeable. Across time, the word has and is capturing extraordinary diversities of anachronistic, temporary, permanent, “early” (such as trans children subject to the temporal abeyance offered by adolescent hormone blockers), “late” (such as those which have come later in life, sometimes following decades of a conventional chronobiopolitical trajectory), and even melancholic or never-passed-the-gate transformations. The simple histories of transsomatechnics – from the “hard” technologies of continually developing surgery, through to the “soft” technologies of continually changing medical, social or subcultural knowledges – make the term ‘trans’ both continually changeable in meaning, and evocative of various moments of time, dragged up.

The diversity of experiences of transness thus enacts temporal drag. This drag, through different temporal “deformations,” demonstrates that sex is not an ahistorical essence declarable through birth assignment and naturally unfolding through time in accordance with chronobiopolitical imaginings of life progress. This can mean that trans people “are compelled to transgress… the highly gendered regulatory schemata that determine the viability of bodies, of being compelled to enter a ‘domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation’ that in its unlivability encompasses and constitutes the realm of legitimate subjectivity” (Rage, 240).

But this does not condemn trans to the pain that Freeman suggests queer theory has been so bound to (TB, 11). Rather, as Stryker puts it:

I defy that Law in my refusal to abide by its original decree of my gender. Though I cannot escape its power, I can move through its medium. Perhaps if Imove furiously enough, I can deform it in my passing to leave a trace of my rage. Ican embrace it with a vengeance to rename myself, declare my transsexuality, and gain access to the means of my legible reinscription. Though I may not hold the stylus myself, I can move beneath it for my own deep self sustaining pleasures (Rage, 250).

This deformation of gender through an anachronistic recollection of earlier ways of doing sex, history, monstrosity and embodiment is manifest in Stryker’s adoption of Shelley’s stylistics, itself an argument for Freeman’s erotohistoriographical understanding of “history [as] a use of physical sensation” (TB, 100). When Freeman drags up through adopting her mother’s “on-trend” 60s glasses and clothing, Stryker drags up through adopting Shelley’s monster’s “feminine, and potentially feminist” (Rage, 241) style. This style evokes the gothic, speaking both of emotion and grandiosity, of the body and questions of the cosmos. Just as she moves beneath the stylus – or is it the scalpel – she, like Frankenstein’s own monster, refuses to abide by Frankenstein’s discursive murder, “I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity” (Shelley 2008, 178).

Stryker “does not write the lost object [of the monster] into the present so much as encounter it already in the present, by treating the present itself as hybrid” (TB, 95). The monster is thus a hybrid of herself and a creature produced in fiction, in a time long past, and in one of the oldest challenges to “masculine” fantasies of dominance over the “feminine” productivity of nature. Stryker, speaking both as and through this dragged up monster, says:

Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself (Rage, 240–241).

The temporal and physical hybrids fold into each other, the density of a history made erotic: Frankenstein’s monster, already a hybrid, into Stryker’s transness, into the “fellow creatures.” Freeman’s exploration of temporality drags up Stryker’s early contributions to trans studies, drags out the hybrids and recollects for us the centrality of chronobiopolitical temporality to the freezing and frozen accretions of sex and gender – and the erotohistoriography that melts them, with all the risks of abjection and pleasure.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition: DSM-IV-TR®. American Psychiatric Pub.

Beredjick, Camille. 2012. “DSM Replaces Gender Identity Disorder With Gender Dysphoria.” (Accessed October 5, 2012).

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Castañeda, Claudia. 2002. Figurations: child, bodies, worlds. Duke University Press.

Daly, Mary. 1990. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Beacon Press.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press.

Meyerowitz, J. J. 2002. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. 2008. Frankenstein: Complete, Original Text. Forgotten Books.

Spade, Dean. 2000. “Mutilating Gender.” Makezine. (Accessed October 4, 2012).

———. 2003. “Resisting medicine, re/modeling gender.” Berkeley Women’s LJ 18: 15.

Stryker, Susan. 1994. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix—Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1(3): 227–254.

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