I loved Grace Lavery’s work — I had proposed this epistolary email exchange — so why was I putting off writing her . . .
Grace had written to me while traveling, back when you could do that.
My avoidance became a way of talking about what even is avoidance, which was neat. But was it still relevant?
We were all supposed to avoid each other now anyway; the things I was supposed to “do” felt dumb or had been indefinitely postponed.
I fantasized about a version of this piece that would fit literally perfectly with what we all now euphemistically, casually referred to as “this moment.”
“Under the conditions of crisis,” wrote Grace in our deferred correspondence, “avoidance takes on an ethical dimension — avoidance impedes progress towards any kind of goal, even the goal of revolutionary nonproductivity/strike/riot.”
Transgenders often love to avoid. (Centrists do also. Trans centrists do also.)
We didn’t slaughter our fantasy of what this piece might be, but we did have to put it aside eventually. If this were a podcast, I would segue into how this dovetails with Grace’s work on “reality.”
March 7, 2020
I’m sorry that it's taken me so long to reply. I’m . . . ..EXTREMELY avoidant, and so I put off writing back. The more you put something off, the more it gets wrapped up in shame. The shame of the object itself and also the shame of having avoided the object. Of course, there is yet another analogue to transition here lol.
In your earlier message, the one about your childhood dream house, you described it as follows: “there was no bed, or bathroom, etc. in this fantasy, just a sort of panoptical vantage point, and the capacity to self-soothe.” Is this one way to think of avoidance as well? Avoidance as less about creating a place to live, which would involve decisions, and instead: the fantasy that one could get out of having to decide at all. I feel this less as wanting a kind of Decision Top — for Daddy to just swoop in and make the decisions for you — and more as wanting, again, “a sort of panoptical vantage point” where you can look at all the decisions and maybe even flit between them while delaying, in the last instance, having to commit. The problem is less “I desire a bad object” than “I fantasize that I can get out of having to desire at all.”
Of course, asking others to do your desiring for you is an unfair way to actually treat people, and yet, if it’s an appealing fantasy, it also brushes up against something I’ve lived as an inability to feel that I can authentically desire at all. Which is perhaps one way to describe dissociation — or, perhaps, a specifically trans experience of dissociation. For most of my life, I remember being asked low-stakes questions like, “What do you want for dinner?” “Which pair of pants do you prefer?” “Do you want to go out or stay in?” And just feeling totally helpless, like, literally nothing I answer will feel like “me” and so all the options are the same. And because they’re all the same, I won’t be able to pick the right answer. So why doesn’t somebody else just decide?
I still sometimes joke that my fantasy is to be a brain in a jar. It’s obviously racist and fucked in that it reifies Sylvia Wynter’s conception of Man, but some part of me dreams of being the Cartesian mind that you described in “Descartes Is My Starfish,” namely: “an autonomous and rationalizable mind, independent from the body that housed it.” I felt grateful for that newsletter entry when I read it because instead of shaming me for not . . . living life as a fully liberated queer-theory monist or whatever . . . it seemed to say, “No, feeling like you live a mind/body split is very . . . dysphoric. Which isn’t to say that that feels good. At all.” I wondered if you could speak a bit about the mind/body problem that you touched on in the newsletter entry.
You also spoke about “waiting,” which could be a way to take a positive spin on avoidance? Though I’m also wary of those kinds of quick queer-theory reversals, as if reparative reading just meant taking the bad thing and making it good again; in practice, this often becomes a way to re-center things that we could just . . . throw . . . away . . .
This question feels very big but idk how to ask it lmaoooo but: Where are you at with queer theory these days? I’ve been feeling . . .oedipal? Is the word for that just “ambivalent”?
March 9, 2020
No worries — I’m flying to Oakland again, so we’re setting a nice pattern of corresponding while traveling.
Avoidance is a mechanism by which we represent time to ourselves. Unlike anxiety, which is concerned with phantom presences (for Lacan, anxiety concerns the presence of the social as a felt limit), avoidance is organized around a negative capability, around the nonhappening of an event, rather than its potentiality or certainty. (The question of whether the thing I’m anxious about is definitely going to happen is a big one.) Under the conditions of crisis, avoidance takes on an ethical dimension — avoidance impedes progress towards any kind of goal, even the goal of revolutionary nonproductivity/strike/riot. Most left accounts of political change depend on some notion of intensification — whether in the accelerationist “amplify the contradictions” sense or in the more managerial/bureaucratic metaphor of “organizing,” which, when we use it now, we use intransitively. I organize, you organize, she is an organizer; we know what this means, even if we don’t know what kind of labor it entails. I have, at various different points, “organized” and “been organized,” or allowed myself to become “an organizer” — though I am not, at present, especially organized or actively organizing. I am avoidant, instead.
I think about my own avoidance whenever I hear people talking about the neoliberal exhortation to “civility,” as a racializing call to compliance, professionalism, acquiescence. Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Tavia Nyong'o have written very astutely about this: “Civility is not care, but it pretends to be; civility is the affective shape of administrative violence.” On the other hand, I do think it is worth saying that, for most of us in the academy, “militant” is a metaphor. Not all: Angela Davis is the primary counterexample, obviously. And I realize there are different forms of militancy. There is the kind of militancy that consists of placing one’s bodily mass in the mass of resistant flesh that liberates a campus building, or stands between a campus and fascist militants, and of course those militants (both students and local anti-fascist organizers) who defended UC Berkeley against fascist invasions in 2017 are people to whom our community owes a debt. But I don’t think that’s what Tompkins and Nyong'o are talking about, or not exclusively; I think they’re mostly talking about discourse, rhetoric, what they call “political aesthetics.” And I think my political aesthetics just doesn’t handle rage well.
I’m always returning to the part of Cruising Utopia where Muñoz puzzles over Warhol’s interest in camouflage print, given his own squirmy (one might also say faggy) relation to his Cuban father’s proud, homophobic militarism. The payoff is such a liberating reading of Warhol’s camo as a kind of queer pastoral — Muñoz finds through Warhol an oblique and abstract relation to the mimetic representation of nature. Refusing to recuperate the political aesthetic of militancy in its own terms, Muñoz displaces it into a terrain where its abstraction, its difference from the “real” of violence, is exactly what makes it necessary to preserve.
There’s an individuating/isolating explanation for me too, though with a different trajectory than Muñoz’s father’s machismo: I was raised by two women for whom rage was inseparable from honesty, who only felt intimacy when shouting in my face, who planned and plotted opportunities to yell, and, in the case of my mother, still sees her rage as one of her dignifying virtues. And when I have been mobbed online, it has been by white feminists who have adapted the language of “colonizer” to describe the position that trans women assert in respect of “women’s space,” which is more or less a phantom abstraction that the gender criticals use, obscenely, to depict the mass incarceration of women as some kind of girl-power utopia. The two dominant political challenges faced by the British left in recent years — Brexit and trans feminism — have both produced pastoralizing fictions of spatial purity, the women’s bathroom (free of penises) and the nation-state (free of immigrants).
The characterology for such a fantasy would revolve around the bloody-minded woman, the “difficult woman” who is glorified in the phrase “nevertheless, she persisted” — obdurate, capable of roughhousing, perhaps slightly tomboyish. I have little doubt that the terfs who, for example, published names, faces, and contact details of my colleagues in an attempt to shame me, and who are succeeding in depriving trans people, including children, of access to health care, think of themselves as admirably persistent, and remind each other that well-behaved women never make history. Kyla Schuller has argued that this form of female persistence is exactly the consecration of white femininity, which feels totally right to me.
To the extent that avoidance instills a negative relation to temporality, avoidance is totally a trans affect, if one could risk a potentially cringe formulation whose parallel with “queer” as an infinitely generalizable predicate is exactly what we’re all trying to avoid here. But I do think an experience that a number of us have is the feeling that there is something we have been putting off, time that we have stolen from ourselves, as though our post-transition future selves were corporations requiring us to punch in and out. When I told my mother I was using hormones, and asked her to refer to me by the name “Grace,” her first response was, “Well, I’m glad you’re finally looking at that” — and there was something about that response that was literally unimprovable. She didn’t imply “I always knew," which was a kind of presumptuousness others found unavoidable, and she didn’t pretend this was coming “out of the blue.” There was just a sense that I had put this off long enough and it was time to do my homework. That’s where Descartes begins too — having put his affairs in relative order, he begins the work of philosophizing. Which means, among other things, that bread comes before books.
I’m really interested in strong formulations of substance dualism, like “I’m a woman in a man’s body.” You’re right that queer theory, in all its coolest modes, is resolutely anti-dualist — and that is part of Sedgwick’s Buddhism, too. And I think about how much energy has been expended trying to mitigate/obfuscate/repress/sublimate that phrase over the last century and a half. Foucault has taught us to see that moment as the speciation of the homosexual, but what is really speciated? Or rather, is there an account of sex available to us that would enable us to listen to Ulrichs without flinching?
Where am I with queer theory? Sigh. I dunno, man — I don’t even know what queer theory is, anymore. I’m not sure it was ever one thing. I’m sort of terse with the tranche of trans studies that is closest to queer theory, though I’m aware that my own work has been in that neighborhood for most of the last few years. I have really been moved by recent trans critiques of queer theory by Emma Heaney, Eva Hayward, and Cáel Keegan. I could spend this whole flight talking about trans scholars whose work I love, though — C. Riley Snorton, Trish Salah, Kay Gabriel, Marquis Bey . . . and I am just nuts about Jules Gill-Peterson’s work — she’s brilliant, and I feel a really deep sisterhood with her.
I guess this is a way of saying, I also feel ambivalent about queer theory. I feel worse than ambivalent — I feel pissed off — when I read Jack Halberstam explaining that the problem with kids these days is they don’t respect their elders or spend too much time online. I want trans thought to be taken seriously, because there are so many serious scholars doing very serious work in the field, but it sometimes feels like we’re stuck in the boom-bust cycle of personal charisma, overhyping, and eventual disappointment. I’m sure there are people who think of me in those terms too. And then I feel much better than ambivalent — I feel like I need queer theory, and I need it to overwrite my life and my body, when I feel femme sisterhood with Jules and Kyla and Beth, or when I feel queer theory as the axis in which Sara Ahmed’s anti-transphobic feminism is expressed, in all its mess and loveliness.
Anyway, more anon —
March 13, 2020
I am emailing you from inside your apartment lol (or when I started this email I was lol). Glad Danny and I got to spend the very beginning of covid together, coworking . . .
I wonder also how realism and realness could be looped back to the “affect theory people, whose work seems utopian — Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Ann Cvetkovich are the three I keep returning to." (Would you place Muñoz in this camp also?) I’ve been wondering if my frustration with this camp — who, like you said, I nonetheless also need, like the Winnicottian “good enough parent” — is its emphasis on futurity. When I first read Cruel Optimism, I was closeted and, thus, also attached to that which blocked my personal thriving. Perhaps that’s why the book appealed. It didn’t throw me away. It knew I was locked into something I couldn’t get out of, and said, being there now is okay. This is corny, but it made me feel seen precisely by acknowledging the fact that I didn’t quite exist (I wasn’t yet “real”?). When I interviewed Lauren, they told me that they used they/them, and since then I’ve wondered to what extent what resonated with me about Cruel Optimism was its own sort of not-quite-there trans.
But — I don’t just want to stay afloat anymore!!! I actually want to live!!!!
Precious said that Cruel Optimism doesn’t actually want the good life.
Is it too rash and oedipal to wonder if queer theory and trans studies sometimes exist as projects with two different temporal . . . vibes . . .? One focused on a future that definitionally never arrives, and the second, on what needs to happen now, as soon as possible. We need both of course, and yet I sometimes feel — is it within queer theory itself or how it’s deployed, both theoretically and ideologically, within the academy — like the desiccation of the present gets waved away because . . .
The future is utopian and thus can never arrive.
The most we can hope for in the present is a small rupture in relation.
Thinking also of these fields as reflections of their political moments, when the political discourse (at least in the U.S.) was much less left. In 2011, when Cruel Optimism was published, Medicare for All and police abolition, e.g., weren’t on the mainstream American political horizon the way they are now. Going from the aughts — where, in the popularized U.S. academy, no one said “class,” let alone “class war” — to the financial crash in 2008 (which is when The Female Complaint was published, Cruel Optimism in 2011), maybe repair was all they felt there was.
Perhaps this deferral of the good life is its own form of avoidance. I’m thinking of this both in the classic psychoanalytic sense (we defer the good object because getting what we want scares us), but also via the connection between avoidance and civility that you brought up. As my editor Lou Cornum pointed out, there is a specifically white mode of avoidance, one in which conflict is racialized. In this framework, whiteness = peace, while POC = instigators of conflict, and lack of conflict = inherently good, while conflict = inherently bad. Avoidance thus becomes a way to protect white feelings above all else.
As you pointed out earlier, “Under the conditions of crisis, avoidance takes on an ethical dimension — avoidance impedes progress towards any kind of goal, even the goal of revolutionary non-productivity/strike/riot.” Within the context of both queer theory and the present, perhaps we can argue that avoidance thus often operates as reformism as well.
Okay this email isn't perfect but
April 12, 2020
OK, here we go. Nearly a month has passed since my last email, in which, once again, the world appears to have ended. I got sick shortly after I sent that message. I don’t know what it was, and since my fever never reached 103º, I didn’t qualify for a covid test. Still, I think it was probably covid — I had a fever of between 100º and 101º for about 10 days, accompanied by mild breathing problems and, for a short time within that, limited senses of taste and smell. Anyway, I’m trying to explain why I’m late — it’s not just that the world appears to have ended, and I’m therefore aware of the uselessness of every opinion I have, but I have been ill. And then since I was ill, during which time I’ve been outside only a handful of times, and never for longer than an hour, I’ve felt so utterly drained, so foggy, so unable to think or write.
How to think about realness, was the question you asked me. And I think the first thing to say, and this is something that we know from Paris Is Burning onwards, is that it is a term with specific racial mediations and connotations, and when Janet Mock uses it she means something resonating with her particular experience as a Black trans woman that both desires and is wary of universalization. There’s a lot about that mode that feels very compelling to me. I think most trans people I speak to these days have a fairly straightforward account of trans politics: Demedicalize and deregulate all transgender and transsexual social practices. By “demedicalize,” we mean depathologize transness, and remove the medical monopoly on provision of synthetic hormones and other trans treatments — we don’t, generally, mean “stop physiological transitions” — I certainly have known people who take that position, but I think it's rather eccentric, and certainly it’s not my own position. Mostly, trans people don’t like to talk about what makes us trans, because we worry about the gatekeeping position of the “transmedicalists,” who apply some rather arcane formula to determine if one is “really trans,” whatever that means, and perhaps because we have internalized Eve Sedgwick’s line that the only reason one would be interested in where homosexuality comes from is if one wanted to eradicate it. I’m a bit skeptical of that line of reasoning, but the voluntaristic politics is clearly the one to pursue, both ethically and strategically.
The problem is that while “because we want to” is more than adequate as an explanation for why someone should pursue transition, the tradition of psychoanalysis teaches us that desire is a complex concept undergirded by a drive that doesn’t yield explanations, and impeded by contradictions and complications at every turn. So, as someone whose thought is somewhat permanently disfigured by psychoanalysis, I actually am interested in the question of how transness represents itself psychically, which is often not as a mere preference but as a force of overwhelming necessity that brings us into contact with the truest thing we have ever known. This is where I think “realness” is helpful, and how I think Mock’s reading of Paris Is Burning, while not necessarily universalizable, offers a scalable theory of what Freud called the “bedrock” of psychic life — which is the condition of living with a sexed body that he describes as either castration complex or penis envy. So realness is what we find there, if we find anything — which some of us evidently do.
I love what you say about the not-quite-there-yet dimension of Cruel Optimism, and Berlant’s half-articulated relationship to transness. I wish I could hear more about this from them, but then I also admire their ability to disappear into the systems they create. Even in a New Yorker profile, they appear committed to their ideas, their feelings, their abstractions — but the facts of biography seem very remote. I wish I was more like that, but it’s not how I think, it’s not what it means to be me. I’m always unsure about my relationship to affect theory, because I don’t quite understand how affect theory understands itself in relation to psychoanalysis, which is a discursive technique with which I’m much more familiar. But what I can say — and maybe this is going over old ground — is that the affect-driven queer theory as a discourse seems especially primed to express the condition of the leaf before it falls, so to speak, or the tendency before it becomes language. Whereas psychoanalysis is, in certain of its formulations, expressly concerned with the interpretive and signifying practices we bring to bear on the positions in which we find ourselves — despite its reputation as a highly rarefied scholasticism, psychoanalysis is in some respects merely an unusual species of pragmatism.
Now I’m hitting send. I have to roast a chicken, with lemon, tarragon, and garlic.
I hope you are very well, Charlie — thank you for continuing this conversation with me.