This essay was originally published on September 3 2019.
The way to have the most fun with the writings of Andrea Long Chu is to read them as satire. Most of her texts work by taking some familiar habits of thought and pressing them to extremes, to the point where they disintegrate. Their virtue, as texts, is what Chu calls “commitment to the bit.” She pursues the seemingly mad consequences of a proposition all the way to the end.
To write in satire as genre about gender as topic is to follow in the swaggering footsteps of Valerie Solanas, author of the Scum Manifesto (1967), that “satirist without a sense of humor.” It’s not so much a political manifesto as a burlesque of one: Underneath the fascinator of cognition, the banality of the body. As in Solanas, so too in Chu: “Readers would be confronted by desire, not truth, peeking out of the text like a tattoo from a sleeve — a reminder of the flesh behind every idea.” Read as satire, Chu, like Solanas, confronts us with a series of barely defensible claims that expose the gap between the ambitions of reason and the convulsions of desire.
The most outrageous bit in Chu’s writings, the one around which all the others cluster, is that everyone is female. Maybe I just have a taste for wildly counter-intuitive arguments, but this seems quite plausible to me, if read within the terms in which Chu frames it. Oddly enough, the words male and female may not even be etymologically related, in the way the words man and woman are. Female is something said of livestock — and slaves. Borrowing from C. Riley Snorton, Chu reminds us that gynecological experiments central to a medical knowledge of women’s anatomy were performed on female slaves who were not granted the status of womanhood. The female is flesh that falls short of the hubris of the human.
How the bit works is that Chu separates femaleness from an exclusive association with women. Chu: “I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.” [5 What is female is self-negating, self-sacrificing, and puts self aside in the name of the desire of the other and desire as the other. “The self is hollowed out, made into an incubator or some alien force. To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense. This means that femaleness, while it hurts only sometimes, is always bad for you.” ‘Our’ desires are not actually our own.
Here is where this gets interesting: defined as such, being female sounds like something nobody would want — including, or especially — women. “Women hate being female as much as anybody else, but unlike everybody else, we find ourselves its select delegates.” To be a woman is to embody what nobody wants. And so: “there is no object worse than a woman.” While women have to be the representatives and representations of femaleness, they are not the only females. “To be is to be female: the two are identical. It follows then that while all women are females, not all females are women.”
Here we have to stay committed to the bit, as there’s more: If to be female is to be dependent on something or someone else, then in that case, that applies to any gender. “What makes gender gender — the substance of gender as it were — is the fact that it expresses, in every case, the desires of another.” I think substance is standing in there for the word practice, as is clearer here: “Gender is not just the misogynistic expectations a female internalizes, but also the process of internalization itself, the self’s gentle suicide in the name of someone else’s desires, someone else’s narcissism.”
I prefer the concept of process or practice here, or as I’ll propose later — technique. I don’t think it’s helpful to claim, as Chu does once in passing, that femaleness could be an ontological category. Perhaps it’s more helpful to say that, like all categories that seem to be foundational, this one too is produced in and through practices. Some of those might be medical practices, but perhaps there are others. Gender is the process of internalizing that one has one, and regardless of which one, it’s still female, because it has to be internalized from elsewhere, whether you like it or not. Hence: “All gender is internalized misogyny.”
Chu might be excavating from Solanas the inherent logic of her writing. In Solanas, men are already the most female — and just project their own femaleness onto women. “For Valerie, the single greatest hoax in the history of human civilization was the simple idea that men are men.” The cultural division of male and female traits between men and women is a scam. Men are more female in all the ‘bad’ ways. They are vain, submissive, passive — so they’ve got to go. Solanas’ project of abolishing men is actually a project to “defeminize the human race altogether.”
Men are such pussies, always afraid to lose their dicks — who would envy that? In Freud, castration anxiety happens to both genders. Women are supposed to be vain and self-absorbed because knowing they lack dick they have to depend on some dickhead to validate them. In Solanas, vanity is the figure of the Daddy’s Girl, who tries to make herself the perfect object of another’s desire. She makes herself nice, self-absorbed, insecure to make herself for men, but in the process adopts the pathetic traits of femaleness that men have in spades.
For Solanas, it is not women who have penis envy, it is men who have pussy envy. She inverts the originary myth. This opens up the other side of castration: what if one does not fear it — but desires it? Where transphobes think trans women are really men, Solanas thinks all men are just closeted trans women. All of their frantic — and often violent — attempts not to be female are just attempts to disavow their own desire. The incel whose futile fantasy is to dominate women is dominated by this fantasy — and is female. He makes an uncanny double of the trans woman, dominated by the fantasy of being a woman — and giving in to it — who is also female. Maleness is the most abject kind of femaleness. Chu: “I like to say that being trans is the second worst thing that ever happened to me. (The worst was being born a boy).”
Any gender is a matter of desire, over which one has no agency. One incubates gender in the hollow of one’s body, like an alien face-hugger. And so all gender is female. The key to any gender is desire. Chu: “Most desire is nonconsensual; most desires aren’t desired.” And: “we rarely want things we should.” In terms of sexuality, it may at least seem like I have some agency over the choice of the object of my desire. Gender, not so much. Even at the simple level of pronouns, I need others to call me she in their sentences. I can’t do it alone. “Gender exists, if it exists at all, only in the structural generosity of strangers.”
Like Chu, I’m a transsexual woman. We are confronted, all too often with the refusal of others to address us as the gender we desire. Sometimes this is done with malice, by transphobic ‘feminists’ for example. Ironically enough, nothing could be a more female experience for us than this refusal to call us women. Being dependent on, and refused, by the other as agent of our desire is female.
Sometimes, others address us as trans women but not in the terms we want, which again is very female. Chu gives the example of crackpot pseudo-psychology that thinks some trans women are guilty of ‘autogynophilia’, which means getting off on the gender euphoria of imagining yourself as a woman. But for Chu, “autogynophilia describes… the basic structure of all human sexuality.” Most people have has an erotic image of themselves that might feel like it is one’s own but invariably comes from without. Far from being ‘empowering,’ it’s a power over us. “At bottom, everyone is a sissy.” Everyone is owned (in gamer terminology, pwned) by the image of the body. In this sense autogynophilia is not unique to trans women.
An erotic self-image could come from anywhere, but more often than not, from pornography. Porn might give the viewer the impression of some sort of agency, over the bodies of the actors in it, for instance, but really watching porn is just being penetrated through the eyeball. “Pornography is what it feels like when you think you have an object, but really the object has you.” And so, to stay with the bit: All porn feminizes. Men, like all watchers of porn, become female. Incidentally, this was already the tension in Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. The pleasure of looking — scopophilia — might be the fantasy of a controlling gaze, but it is already an anxious one, dicked through the eyeball by what it wants.
Porn feminizes men. Its most evident in that subgenre known as sissy porn, or forced-feminization, in which what is presumed to be a male body is made to become female or do female things. Like a lot of trans women, I have a complicated relation to porn, although sissy porn was not my thing. Sissy porn shows up in some of the most interesting trans work these days, such as the visual art of Río Sofia and the fiction of Torrey Peters, and perhaps for structural reasons.
Chu: “Sissy porn did make me trans. At very least it served as a neat allegory for my desire to be female[.]” A desire that for Chu, as for me, was not one I had any choice about having. For Chu, sissy porn is a kind of “meta-pornography.” This is how all desire works, and the way desire imposes gender. Perhaps one could say that all desire is castrating. Sissy porn is the ur-genre of desire as castration to the state of femaleness.
Not all trans people consider themselves to have gender dysphoria, but it’s pretty common among us. It’s a hard thing to explain to cis people, who by definition feel no need to cross over to another gender and are perfectly fine on the side of the gender they were always obliged by others to be. Chu: “Dysphoria feels like being unable to get warm… It feels like hunger without appetite.”
For Chu, when we transition, it is not that we choose another gender, but rather than we have another gender imposed on us by desire, felt negatively as dysphoria or something like it. Chu: “gender transition… is always a process of becoming a fantasy for someone else’s fantasy.” Perhaps that’s why, although transition can help a lot, it doesn’t always make us happy. If we are wedded to the institution of gender as being in the gift of the other — it can’t. It’s a realignment, not an escape, from the impositions desire makes on us. “People transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong.”
The common narrative is that transition is a decision which brings one’s gender expression into true conformity with one’s gender identity. But for Chu, even transition leaves the job of overcoming one’s femaleness necessarily incomplete, precisely because transition responds to a desire that isn’t chosen. Transition escapes one impossible relation to the negativity of desire for another one.
Chu: “It must be underscored how unpopular it is on the left today to countenance the notion that transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire. This would require understanding transness as a matter not of who one is, but of what one wants.” This moves the emphasis in thinking transition to it being an othering, irrational desire rather than a rational realization that one’s outer shell should be brought into line with an inner essence: “As if the cure for dysphoria were wokeness.”
On the other hand, if we commit to the bit, we can think transition to womanhood as escape from a particularly abject form of femaleness. Masculinity is the worst kind of femininity: self-denying, always projecting its failings onto women. Chu has a particularly astringent view of her own — pre-transition self: “Being a man was my punishment for being a man.” It can be a hard feeling for us to escape, although I wonder if the sentiment that all men are trash, including our former selves, might not be an impediment to reconciling with all of one’s past male selves. Here I’m hearing in my head the voice of my tough-love trans big sister, who sees that reconciliation as part of successful transition.
In Solanas, transition, for those assigned male at birth is, paradoxically, to step out of being female. Chu: “This was a vision of transsexuality as separatism, an image of how male-to-female gender transition might express not just dis-identification with maleness but disaffiliation with men. Here, transition, like revolution, was recast in aesthetic terms, as if transsexual women decided to transition, not to confirm some kind of innate gender identity, but because being a man is stupid and boring.” I find this shift from the political to the aesthetic useful, although I might want to a different conception of the aesthetics of gender. One than includes the comedy of reconciliation and the reconciliation that is comedy.
In any case, none of this conforms to the narratives trans women are supposed to tell about ourselves, for cis gatekeepers or voyeurs. Nor does it conform to the norms for being trans as a mere subset of queer theory. “Trans studies is the twin that queer studies ate in the womb.” Chu responds to a widely felt need to think trans experiences in their own terms, outside of cis queer fixations on us as “mascots for their politics of transgression.” Chu’s approach is to attempt to move trans theory on by seeking disagreement. Commitment to the bit brings out satire’s vocation to sling the wrecking ball through existing structures of thought.
What queer theory is least comfortable with are those of us who think of ourselves as transsexuals. Sure, one can accept anyone who calls themselves trans as trans, and have a big tent approach to the transgender community that includes non-binary and gender nonconforming people as our brothers, sisters and others. But I might still have a sense of belonging at the same time to a smaller world, of transsexual people who have irreversibly medically transformed our bodies, and who don’t necessarily consider that a subversion or queering of anything.
In the case of transsexual women, the desire to refuse our claims to womanhood then looks quite perplexing, particularly when voiced by so-called trans-exclusionary radical ‘feminists’, or TERFS. It is not us who are the men here — its TERFS. They act as if they possessed the agency to deny us something. They dick us around. We act like females: as if we lacked agency and were appealing to others to help realize the desire that compels us. Which is ironic, given that, in Solanas’ terms or Chu’s, “We are separatists from our own bodies. We are militants of so fine a caliber that we regularly take steps to poison the world’s supply of male biology.”
The TERFS act like men in their political persecution of us, but maybe this is the model of politics in general. Politics might be the attempt to escape from femaleness through acts of sovereignty. Chu: “Politics is, in its essence, anti-female.” Because: “… femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels. Put more simply: everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” Which presents something of a paradox, both for trans women and for feminism: “To be for women, imagined as full human beings, is always to be against females. In this sense, feminism opposes misogyny precisely inasmuch as it also expresses it.” The TERF hatred of trans women projects their own misogyny onto another.
Politics becomes a problem when it attempts to escape from femaleness by imposing controls and sanctions on desire, either the desires of others, or one’s own. Take the example of political lesbianism, from which TERF-ery in part descends. Maybe it’s no accident that this current contributes a lot to transphobic feminism, such as the argument that transsexual women are forcing lesbians to fuck them. It was a current that believed, after all, that feminists should only have sex with women regardless of their own desires, because men are trash. For Chu, “Nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to a political principle. You could sooner give a cat a bath.” Politics acts against femaleness, but femaleness comes from desire. Gender is one of the objects of desire and is not amenable to control. Even feminist politics becomes ‘manly’ — and that’s the worst way to be female, as it projects its submission to desire entirely onto others.
If there’s to be a gender politics, “start from the premise that everyone’s gender is a political disaster and refuse to fix it.” Could we have a politics of coping with the messiness of gender without imposing norms on it? But the question of norms might not even a political question, but an aesthetic one. The aesthetic is a distinct set of practices, inevitably entangled in politics but not reducible to it. If politics is always necessarily against femaleness, what if aesthetics was something else? What if aesthetics had the agency of designing the form for a desire? And what if, when it comes to transsexual women, we just want to be pretty? These would be the questions I’d want to ask in order to attempt to disagree with Chu in some interesting way.
Being a pretty transsexual need not mean either submission to normative models of beauty as the TERFs charge. Nor need it mean some resistant, subversive alternative, which paradoxically affirms the norm by differing from it — which is something of a cliché now in queer theory. To think this might mean attending to a phenomenology of desire that does not invest the other with power, and the one seized by desire as simply lack and void. Just as not all politics needs the other as representative, not all aesthetics needs the other of representation.
Let’s consider an aesthetic of normative transsexual beauty, as Chu does, via Youtube star Gigi Gorgeous, who has perfected herself as all thin, blonde, tanned surfaces. She is, in Solanas’ terms, a representation of a perfect Daddy’s Girl. As Chu notes, it’s not so much that she is copying cis women. She exceeds them. The transsexual woman becomes the model for cis women’s beauty rather than vice-versa. Hence the transphobes confusion as to whether the problem is that someone like Gigi fails cis womens’ beauty standards or that cis women are supposed to live up to her standards. But perhaps one could have a trans aesthetic that isn’t about beauty at all, as an always-failing approximation to some representation of beauty.
Chu describes Gigi, at one point, as an emblem of “submission to technique.” This to me would be the point at which to introduce a third term. Where Chu collapses both genders into the female, I’d rather propose that there is another kind of gender altogether, outside the binary or spectrum chaos-space of merely human gender: the gender of the technical. What if technique is not a means to a gender, but is itself a gender?
The technics of gender often appears to just transparently mediate the appearance of one gender to another, revealing their asymmetry and hierarchy. In treating genders as transparently submissions to desire, the agency, practices and techniques disappear in favor of an assumed ontology. But what if gender is produced by technique, and could be produced by technique otherwise? Maybe it’s the technics itself that not only mediates gender in general but produces it as a special effect?
Oddly enough, both TERFs and trans women can be chary of thinking too much about technique. The TERFs don’t want to think about their own gender as propped up by technics. How many of those older TERFs are, like most transsexuals, on hormone replacement therapy? How many of the younger ones regulate their fertility with hormone-based drugs or mechanical devices, such as condoms and IUDs? And so on. As Paul Preciado usefully observes, the cis body depends on technique as much as the trans body. But trans people don’t always want to linger too much on technique either. Technique is supposed to be a just means to realize an essence of the body — not to be what produces that body.
Like a lot of transsexual women, I rely on technique. Before transition, this included making selfies of myself cross dressing, and looking for a porn to which this body might respond. It now includes exogenous hormones, among other things. Was this a desire as lack submitting to another? Maybe. Or you could think of a self not so much split between its hollow self and the desire it hosts and more as a cluster of dividual parts, some of which make connections with images, devices, techniques, forming lateral assemblies, to plug-and-play. It just felt better to plug parts of this body into a different technics of a gender, other than the original factory settings I came with.
Maybe all gender is just technical special effects routed from component parts of the body back to itself via technics. I think of this in relation to Chu’s sissy porn example, which really works as a theoretical object if one takes femininity to be submission to the will of another. Sissy porn is feminizing because it is submission to porn itself and a kind of porn that thematizes that submission. But that wasn’t the porn for me. What worked for me was the opposite: a porn of female bodies, of one kind or another, who had agency over their own penetrability.
Just speaking for myself, I feel my own femaleness not in terms of submission, but in terms that are just as absurd: penetrability. There’s slippage between those two categories in Chu. They need not be the same: penetrability can also be an agency, what Bini Adamzsac calls circlusion. The body experienced as penetrable is female, not in any ontological sense, but through practices of opening one’s body. That body can be any kind of body. What penetrates can be anything. Preferably something (or someone) pretty. At least that’s how it is for me — perhaps our theories are only ever abstractions from our practices.
One can highlight these conceptual differences via an example Chu gives: performances by the comedian Jamie Loftus where she ate pages from David Foster Wallace’s book, Infinite Jest. She got tired of literary dudes telling her she had to read it. So she ate it, or in one performance: shoved it up her ass. What if what she is doing is a circlusion of David Foster Wallace, and by extension all the dicks who think he’s so great? It’s a pretty paradox: that of penetrability as a kind of agency — perhaps what causes pussy envy in the first place.
Castration appears in a different light this way too. Maybe what appears to possess the dick is not masculinity, but technics. Maybe both human genders fear loss of agency to technics. Maybe what is confronting about the transsexual is when she willfully connects to technics. It reveals all too readily how all the human genders are special effects, held together by flows of hormones, images, and so on.
When Andrea presented her work at The New School, the most interesting remark to me was when she said “performance of my own impotence is a big thing with me.” I think what I did all along and finally worked out is not unconnected to being trans is performing my own penetrability. But then if that’s my practice, then for my theory I’m not doing satire, with its deflationary ground tone. I have to go in search of another form that is not satire, but preferably also not the romantic or the tragic — the official genres of cis stories about us. A genre for a writing that is about making seductive statements in public and really secretly wanting someone smarter than me to fuck them up. I too sometimes like a writing which affirms what it desires rather than what might be true, perhaps in a more utopian and less satiric mode.
I’m left wondering whether Chu’s negative model of desire might be optional, and if other practices might yield another one. Rather than desire as lack impelled towards an (impossible) object; one could imagine desire as an affirmative lacing together of dividual parts of a self with particular technics, letting some in, keeping some out. Thus: this transition happened (to ‘me’) because of impulse to get away from masculinity — but also to make connections to various technics both at the level of my body and also at the level of its connections to the social-technical world of trans culture and aesthetics. To me at least, that seems plausible. But then I wonder if our theories of desire are also something that we can affirm or if they just seize us.
If I was to thematize desire, gender and transition through an aesthetic experience, it wouldn’t be sissy porn, or any genre of porn, or even of the moving image. It would be dancing to techno at a rave. The beats compel me viscerally. I feel them resonate through my whole body. I must dance. Techno is a very abstract music. It doesn’t represent anything. Maybe it’s not even quite music, but a technics of sound. Nothing in it makes me dance any particular way. My body has to find its own groove, where it feels like it wants, oscillating in the dense, pulsating air, with all the other bodies. I find the way to shape myself via this alien, abstract sound as a technique, and with the others, all of us penetrated by the beat.
And so: there’s always technics. All the human genders assemble themselves via the means of a third. What appears to be in the power of the other isn’t really there. It’s in the apparatus, but the apparatus isn’t something separate and other. We’re woven into it and out of it. Here, contra Chu, I find Donna Haraway instructive. Maybe the transsexual can too neatly become the hood ornament of the political myth of the cyborg. But maybe what Haraway overlooked, and what forms as an autonomous space within which for us to play, is transsexual cyborg aesthetics, where we become pretty, each in our own ways, and together.
McKenzie Wark (she/they) is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School for Social Research. Her most recent book is Capital is Dead (Verso, 2019).