Sunday, January 8, 2017

Theory-Bombing

I've begun reading Transgender China, edited by Howard Chiang, published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan, but I'm not sure I'll finish it.  What I have read, however, crystallized conclusions I've been moving toward for some time now after reading academic queer theory and its relatives.

Editor Chiang begins the introduction to the book with a brisk summary of Euro-American scholarship on gender, beginning with "Magnus Hirschfeld's Die Transvestiten (1910)" (page 3), and proceeding to various twenty-first century landmarks.  "These newer studies," he opines, "demonstrate a remarkable measure of analytical sophistication and maturity, whether in terms of critical ethnography, synthetic history, clinically based psychoanalytic theory, materially grounded phenomenology, or social scientific empiricism" (4).

As I read those words, it occurred to me I would never use "analytical sophistication" to describe the works I've read among those he lists.  I've complained before about scholars who do good research in the field, whether ethnographic observation or oral history in the metropole, or in the archives, but do not understand the theoretical frameworks they invoke, so that their analysis never makes contact with, let alone accounts for, their data.  This makes reading their work extremely frustrating for me, as the authors keep intruding on fascinating accounts of their subjects' lives with undigested and often irrelevant theory.  It's an academic version of what's called "photo-bombing," where someone intentionally or accidentally ruins a photograph by walking into the field of view or making rabbit ears from behind the subject.  In theory-bombing, scholars randomly drop chunks of theory into their texts: a reference to Foucault's paragraph about the Modern Homosexual, say.  It ruins the picture but they can't resist.

In Chiang's case, one problem is the inflation of the term transgender.  He acknowledges that as
transgender studies came to be consolidated and widely recognized as an independent area of academic inquiry ... debates ensued among activists, popular authors, academics and other writers regarding what transgender means (and the more general question of who fits into what categories has deeper historical ramifications in gay activism, feminism, and the civil rights movement).  But with an expansive (even ambiguous), institutionalized, and collective notion of transgender, the actors shared a commitment to advancing the political and epistemological interest of gender variant people [5].
It would be interesting, if probably not fruitful, to borrow Foucault's approach to the medicalization of sexuality and apply it to Chiang's account.  What seems to be going on here is something very similar to the nineteenth-century turf wars between doctors, the church, and the (more or less) secular law over who would get to define, surveil, and police women, erotic outlaws, the mad, Jews, "natives," and other troublesome groups.  The proliferation of academic fields of study exhibits similar conflict over authority (including the authority to name) and, not least, budget appropriations.  That's why I say such analysis wouldn't be fruitful, in terms of publication, tenure, and promotion: as Rita Felski noted mischievously in The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015), the critical tools one applies to one's subject matter must never be turned on one's own institution, department, or self.

I've noticed that numerous scholars, including trans ones, have inflated "transgender" so that it applies to almost every human being.  In The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia, 2011), for example, Ginny Beemyn and Susan Rankin wrote:
To be inclusive of all gender-nonconforming people, we defined “transgender” broadly as “anyone who transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories” [22].
In Transgender China, Pai Kee Eleanor Cheung wrote:
However, as the influence of the transgender movement is becoming stronger in Hong Kong, more people have begun to use the term ‘transgender’ as ‘an umbrella term including many categories of people who are gender variant,’ ranging from cross-dressers to intersexed people to transsexuals [263].
The most obvious objection to this expansive use of "transgender" is that almost everybody "transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories" in some respect, so almost everybody could be classified as transgender by these criteria.  When I've had the opportunity to point this out, I've been told that "transgender" doesn't really mean that, and that it only refers to a specific, limited population.  Yet the scholars to whom many trans and trans-supportive people point for intellectual and academic legitimacy disagree.  I suspect that most of the trans advocates I encounter have not read any of the literature, or at best ignored the more inclusive definition these scholars posit; besides, having given their definition, these scholars then mostly ignore it, focusing on the kind of people the term was coined to denote in the first place.  Cheung, for instance, goes on to say, "I adopt this latter definition of transgender throughout this chapter, but the emphasis of my analysis will be on those who were about to, or had already undergone, SRS [sex-reassignment surgery] at the time of the interview" (ibid.).

Another problem is that "transgender" originally referred not to gender expression but to subjectivity:
What it means to be transgender is that your innate gender identity does not match the gender you were assigned at birth. This might be the case even if you are perfectly happy and content in the body you possess. You are transgender simply if you identify as one gender, but socially have been perceived as another.
Yet in "transgender studies," the term is applied to people who lived in the distant past, about whose subjectivity we know nothing.  Or scholars simply ignore the issue and refer to any behaviors or expressions that "that look 'transgendered' to contemporary Eurocentric observers," as trans historian Susan Stryker puts it in her contribution to Transgender China (292).  Cross-dressing for Carnival, for example, will be adduced as transgender behavior without any evidence about the celebrants' motives or subjectivities -- they must be transgender, I suppose, or they wouldn't do it.  This sort of thing can hardly be lauded for its "analytical sophistication."  It tells me something about the observers' subjectivity, but nothing about the subjectivity of the people they're writing about.

Chiang admits that there could be objections to slathering the very Western concept "transgender" over non-Western cultural phenomena and (to use the trendy word) bodies.  He quotes the trans scholar Susan Stryker, who suggested that "the conflation of many kinds of gender variance into the single shorthand term 'transgender,' particularly when this collapse into a single genre of personhood crosses the boundaries that divide the West from the rest of the world, holds both peril and promise" (7).  Myself, I'm not into these East-West binaries, and I think Stryker should have left out "promise."  What she said could as easily be said (and probably was) about the previous candidate for World Assimilation, "queer."  There too a potentially useful term was stretched and inflated by people who hadn't thought with any care about it, even though it was their profession to do so, and who violated the principles they invoked in its favor.  For example, it was supposedly an improvement over the supposedly culture-bound "gay" despite the dispersion of "gay" around the world among people who'd adopted it rather than had it imposed on them. "Queer" was imposed on cultures and periods where it wasn't used, and to describe people who would have rejected it as a label for themselves -- who indeed had local labels of their own for themselves. What's going on here, I think, is not analysis but the very Western practice of branding.

Chiang also quotes the scholar David Valentine: "The capacity to stand in for an unspecified group fo people is, indeed, one of the seductive things about 'transgender' in trying to describe a wide range of people, both historical and contemporary, Western and non-Western" (6).  "Seductive" is double-edged, and I wonder if Valentine was being as celebratory in context as Chiang wants him to seem.  But you could substitute "queer," or even "gay," for "transgender" in this sentence and get a vague feeling of nostalgia for the terminological nostrums of yesteryear.  I'd love to know how "transgender" is different from "gay" or "queer" in this respect, but that question doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

Having paid lip service to these questions, Chiang breezily ignores them.  Later he writes of "trying to imagine China in a transgender frame," and I wonder how he can justify imposing a culturally imperialist Western category on the helpless people of the Middle Kingdom.  How does this differ from subjugating China as "the sick man of Asia," helpless before foreign cultural and political domination?  His own contribution to Transgender China is a long piece on Chinese eunuchs, who were seen by Western observers and Chinese advocates of modernity as symptoms of China as "a castrated civilization."  The piece does include a Chinese eunuch's account of his own castration as a child by his father, which doesn't seem to have been the result of the boy's gender identity; rather, it imposed one on him.

I can imagine that throwing around an unspecific term could conceivably be justified by the results of the discussion; but not only don't these discussions shed any light on their subjects, the initial caveats are simply forgotten once they've been uttered.  I have the impression that they are like crossing oneself or kissing one's scapular before beginning a fateful project, to ward off misfortune.

I've also discussed and praised scholars who avoid these pitfalls, who really make sense of their subjects; but these people are outliers in their fields.  I'm glad they exist, though, so that I know it's possible to do meaningful work without making the mistakes I'm criticizing here.  But Sturgeon's Law evidently applies to critical theory as much as it does to science fiction.