I became a migrant twice over. I left a country and then a gender. In neither case did I ever quite arrive. Now I’m a resident alien in femininity, too. My green card is valid.
What do we do with what’s left over, with what is in excess of bare life, if we have it? Denounce it as privilege, perhaps. I’m not a particularly moral person. Sure, that’s bad. I’m not very moralistic either. That’s probably good. With what’s left over in my life, I’d rather expend it on pretty things, and books, and friends, and going dancing.
When I emigrated to New York, I really didn’t make enough friends. When I emigrated to womanhood, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I wanted sisters, brothers, and others, like me, to like me. I wanted to give and be given.
And I do, I am.
The very first time I met Torrey, she said, “Read T. Fleischmann’s book when it comes out.” Torrey calls T. Fleischmann “Clutch,” and so I will, too. She said she’d see to it that I got a galley proof of the book, Time is a thing a body moves through (Coffeehouse Press, Minneapolis, 2019). I forgot about this until it came in the mail.
Torrey also gave me this: I didn’t know why I couldn’t drink anymore. “It’s the spironolactone,” she told me, the drug a lot of trans women and femmes take to suppress testosterone. I read in this book that she gave Clutch the same information. Clutch writes: “And it’s always friends of friends, where knowledge like this originates, accumulating like the residual of the pills, one at a time, until eventually something clicks together in the social and it can be known.” Maybe the surplus, what’s left over from bare life, is not surplus at all. Maybe it’s essential. Even to getting bare life right.
I want more than this, though. I want to belong somewhere, but I don’t want an identity. As Clutch says, “Categorization isn’t how we acknowledge difference, but rather its enforcement, to keep things apart that could well be together.” I want to belong and yet be free of category. I want to belong with those who are without belonging. I’m suspicious of certain offerings, like the acceptance of those cis women who say, “Welcome to womanhood,” as if they were its keepers. “Inclusion is sometimes just more people performing labor to hold up the bullshit.”
There are experiences that feel like instincts but are painfully learned behaviors that make this seem like the only way one can live. The odd feeling that the fiction these experiences generate rubs against the grain of the languages in which one is supposed to take up residence. For the longest time I felt alien to my own skin. Perspectives could not be squared.
Clutch: “The distinction is between narrative and something else, between the way a town looks in a photograph and the way a town looks when you play flashlight tag in it and you are nervous. Sometimes it takes so much momentum to escape your context that you seem to never stop straining to escape after that.” One becomes a migrant, the not-one of being. The not-one also of genre, of form.
Here’s the part of the book I underlined twice: “My relationship to who I was is tenuous. Is this true of all people? This is why it seems important to me that all people create, make art, practice their imaginations, exercise beauty. When we fill the world with artifacts of what we dreamed we begin to learn from who we wanted to be, an imagined people who might know enough to stop making the same mistakes.” This makes me feel happy. There’s joy in making different mistakes.
I gave this book, that Torrey gave me, to Jessie, and I used the quote above as an epigram when I wrote about her film. She read the book and asked me, “Is this enough?” We are tenuous people. Emigrants from masculinity. Is it enough that we make ourselves as makers of artifacts that confabulate sideways out of this world into other spaces where there might be room for us to breathe?
Maybe that’s not the right metaphor. I’m not a moral person so I’m careless with language. You could say “creative” but maybe that’s just another word for careless. It’s careless for my white settler colonial ass to be inscribing itself along vectors of imagination to elsewhere. I forget I’m part of the problem and don’t escape it through flight, through claims to being liminal, being beyond the names. Particularly here, with my green card in the safe. Clutch: “Whatever the horrors of the United States should be called, they never lack for disguises, new ways to hide in plain sight.”
It’s hard to write about this book, and for more than one reason. It’s a book about an artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I’ve seen, or rather been with, some of his work, including the famous Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). This wasat the Sydney Biennale, in another city, in another life. It starts out as 175 pounds of candy (Ross’ weight) heaped in a corner. You can take a piece of candy and pop it in your mouth. The portrait diminishes as people are with it, but becomes part of them, a gift.
This book is not really about Gonzalez-Torres at all. It is written with rather than about. That seems useful here, too. As Jessie often says, we’re not “unmarked subjects,” so we can’t really be critics, as if our particular enthusiasms for art or the world could be in the currency of a universal conversation. In any case, what’s the fun of judgment? I’m not a moral person. I don’t want to pass judgment on art any more than on people. I want to play with them. To share meals, bring gifts, text pics. Fuck. So how to play with a book that plays with others?
Clutch is a player, but discreet: “The spare nature of Gonzalez-Torres’ art is not just an opportunity to face the power of our own imaginations, to extrapolate what we will from the taste of a candy, but also an occasion to honor that part of the artist’s life that I’ll never know. He makes something of his desires, but that does not grant us any right to those desires, only to the specific thing he has shared with us.”
This is the thing I take from Clutch, the thing to which they treat me: the gift of not giving some things to another, so they might be free to travel with less baggage. In the excess of art or the bareness of life: “Just love people for who they are, and for all the things they’ve chosen to keep away from you.” The sentence starts out as a commonplace, before turning on itself. How can I love others for who they are, when I can’t know what they are? I can know that they keep something back. I can know their restraint. That restraint is an art of life, is a gift to the other. This book is a panegyric to ties that don’t bind. “What a relief that is, that any touch will end.”
This is an aesthetic of holding things lightly, of the touch that ends but could come again, of the sugar high that passes. In a world of prisons within prisons, there’s something to that. For those of us not reduced to bare life, not condemned to civil death, there’s a fine luxury in the open-handed gesture. There’s the thrill of getting out of a government name, a government gender, for one thing. Clutch: “I know how painful it is to be defined by something so large that it seems to swallow every bit of who you are. That’s why feeling joy is so revolutionary.”
The revolution of everyday life: “The police want me dead to make sure their children don’t end up like me, so I guess every time I fuck and I’m happy and I do what I want I would like to call that an anti-state action,” Clutch writes. “The people I love alive — yes, we weaken the state. But also every time after I have felt pleasure and played pool with a bunch of transsexuals and smoked weed and then eaten a taco and gone home, when my body is at its best, then I need to set myself to contributing to the coalition, which is already underway, which has kept me alive, the work of liberation being one of the ceaseless things.” A coalescence more than a coalition, perhaps.
I’m back with Jessie’s question: “Is that enough?” I’m not a moralist, so I’m not going to scold Clutch about not doing more. I do much less. But I think maybe Clutch is a moralist in ways that I am not. Maybe one doesn’t need an ethical alibi for a life making art, or the art of making life. Elsewhere, Clutch seems close to this: “isn’t some information about being alive beautiful enough?” My answer to Jessie’s question is that art is enough for me, maybe sometimes for us, but not for the world. The world demands more of us. Or so the moral people tell us, who claim to speak of the world. But I won’t use the blackmail of what the world needs against my friends.
It’s hard to imagine what art gives, or what the art of giving ought to be. The gift, like art, is an impoverished thing, barely ongoing. Should the gift be where suffering finds a distributed form? Or does that just make suffering a communicable disease? Maybe art should not be anything in particular, as that demand already makes one a moralist.
Maybe it’s just about what art could be. This is where the Gonzelez-Torres work becomes interesting. It never insists, never says too much. And when it does, it’s with something in which you might actually delight. His Untitled (Orpheus Twice) is simply two full-length mirrors, next to each other, affixed to the gallery wall, giving you back yourself, twice. You get to be Orpheus and Eurydice, glancing back at yourself, across the mirror of gender, and returning the gaze, before the gods snatch you away.
As Clutch says of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, “It’s just a man deciding he would rather see his beloved than any future the gods could promise.” This is a sublime, impossible version of the gift, one that gives up any possibility of being returned — and yet is magically returned, to anyone, in the form of the myth itself.
Time is the thing a body moves through is not that kind of sacred offering to the reader, and probably just as well. Perhaps we’ve had enough of writers whose gesture is to render themselves like a sacrifice to their own material. Writers are not solitary, mythical creatures, giving up life to art, to artifice. Neither are transsexuals.
Clutch: “Can you be alone with language? What a dream that would be, what a nightmare.” This is literature that understands it is not sacred, that it is quotidian, everyday, even ordinary. “If I am adding myself to the crowd of people who write, I would like it sometimes to be me when I am warm. I would like people to know I am happy, sometimes.” A book as a gift that is not sacred but is honorable. This is rare territory for trans aethetics.
Writing could be a place for you to go that isn’t where you’re from, for when you can’t be where you’re from. Writing could be a place to go that isn’t a territory to claim, even in metaphorical terms. Writing could pass lightly through its own landscape and not claim any sovereign rights. Writing could acknowledge others already persisting where it enters. “I was writing instead to see where my excess desire would go. I tried to write in such a way that there would be room for that buzzing along my words, even if I did not always find room for it in my life.”
Walking in the countryside, Clutch comes across a litter of baby possums — abandoned, homeless, thrown to the world, barely alive — and kills them. It seems the right thing to do. This event just is what it is. It isn’t a metaphor for something else. “I’ve been getting bored with metaphors anyway. I’ve decided I don’t like them because one thing is never another thing, and it’s a lie to say that something is anything but itself.” For instance, “Water is a bit like the moon, in that if we are not careful, it will accumulate our ideas to a measure that obscures it.” A quotidian writing is wary of the leap out of itself, wary too of awaiting a justice that never comes. What is good is immanent and imminent.
“Isn’t language always too much?” That’s what Jessie asked when we talked about this. Maybe the kindness of withholding on the part of the writer, the artist, or the lover can’t compel a reciprocal restraint upon the reader, viewer, or lover’s other. Let alone compel restraint on the world — always extra. There’s always too much. There is too much here, too: “what I’m really writing is a love letter to prose, a book that is slutty about it. Like how pleasure, written into the structural, open field of prose, is so lively — the first description of green life and friendship in Century of Clouds, a pestle and mortar in Zami.” That there’s always some excess in any relation is maybe all we have left with which to escape the commodity form — something that is in the gift of both those namechecked books.
Yet even the restraint itself can be too much. Restraint — with love, with language — is a gift that paradoxically gives the most pleasure when offered with excess. Restraint enables another to be free in it, and free from it. I hold back to leave room for you, for how you feel, need, want. For those of us who had to be someone else, somewhere else, it’s a special gift. Even if it’s not clear who the top is in this situation. Clutch: “But I do know what it means to be unfixed from narrative, an unfixing that feels something like claiming power. I feel grateful for it, really.” And so: “I guess that’s what the story is. A story of bodies that are different, of people who fuck up and make each other happy and then die. Where everything is impossible and so we try to make it real.”
Stories tie time together for us, but best in a light knot. “What can one do with a past? What I mean is, what can we do with our bodies.” It could be an ethical or an aesthetic question. Or a sexual one. Can there be an aesthetics of the sexual as well as an ethics? “The desire for the top and the lack of a top, a torque of specificity and hope. But on this bus moving south, I think of what is not written, the silenced past and the terrifying future that weigh on autobiography.” It’s maybe a way of thinking and of writing that might come to someone trans, or with some other complicated relation to gender. There could be a writing of what of the body comes along for the ride to another place.
When I talk to Andrea about desire, she says it’s all about how desire tops us. But as a power bottom, I’d like to think I have some agency in how desire tops me. Here, maybe I’m closer to Clutch: “The desire I’m working with now is a thing that I shaped, rather than an inchoate mess, a clumsy what.” Pardon me while I turn up the metaphor: desire is like some hard-driving techno beat that sends your innards quivering, that has form but not sense, that you can’t help but dance to, but to which you learn moves — for which you sculpt gestures.
There are gestures to a lot of casual hook-ups in Clutch’s writing. But what it gives me has more to do with love, because: “you need that traveling in your mind that love brings.” Love as the condition of possibility for migrating to somewhere like a home. “The best version of me isn’t the person who falls in love, but the person who takes love squarely for what it is, an occasion to know someone else…”
This, too, veers close to a commonplace. What’s interesting are the kinds of occasions for love as knowing others. Clutch is always traveling, hanging out, doing curious projects. “I’m always flustered to explain myself when I’m using carpentry materials for some gay art project instead of whatever it’s intended or, when I need concrete blocks to elevate the altar to our dead pets.” Are these occasions of love? Why not? “How absolutely silly that we name some things as romantic, some as not.” The romantic moment is, curiously enough, a withholding one, where better selves gesture, unburdening others of our baggage. Maybe I forgot how to live this way.
Clutch: “I miss the love faggots share together, a kind of soft and hard friendship that endures.” At lunch with Harron. When our pretty waiter walks away, I watch his ass while she says, “I like being around gay men again since I transitioned.” We talk about how we didn’t find the kinds of intimacy we needed in a gay male world. I don’t know about her, but I was bad at being a gay man. As was Clutch, it seems: “Most people just figured I was bad at being a faggot, which was better than nothing, as far as that goes.”
I think of myself as a faggot, even if I’m trying to dial it down in my t-girl presentation. “But babe, faggotry is one of a trans woman’s powers,” Jessie says. Pasts and futures; breaks and sutures. The tenuous autobiographies of transsexuals. We are all artists who make things, and selves, so that maybe next time there will be fresh mistakes. Clutch: “I take pills to soften me.” So do I hun, so do I. “I’m interested only in people with complicated genders.” Me too hun, me too. Even if our pronouns are different, and I’ve become a rather boring medicalized transsexual woman, I too am not the kind of trans that wants to make of us an identity. It doesn’t even make us an “us” in that sentence, or this, other than by negation. Including ourselves out.
Time is the thing a body moves through doesn’t really announce itself as a trans aesthetic, and need not be taken as one, although it has some very pretty moments when it opens to it. Here’s Clutch retelling a childhood memory: “I used to gather my sister’s Barbies and bring them to my Ninja Turtles… acting out complex, sexualized dramas. The Barbies were often upset, and the Turtles a bit naïve in their good intentions. I didn’t know what the tensions were, between these women who towered over these guys, only that things were tense and that I had to hide to play. It was many years later, walking to the beach-bound bus in New York, the girls all taller than the guys, that this game came back to me like Oh, of course.” The pleasure is in the play, the making, of a current self out of past ones, challenging as that can be for some of us.
Sometimes I think of myself as an antipodean, but that’s neither here nor there. At best it is comic, at worst, dangerous, and usually it is just tedious to encounter people who really imagine themselves to be straight-up here or there. “The way people react, I know that they are thinking about what they would call my gender, and, in the way most people find gender and bodies to be irreducibly the same, that they are thinking also of my body, the small weight of my breasts, maybe visible in a sweater.”
How can there be a trans aesthetics that isn’t reducible to a style, or a topic, or a stock set of stories and characters? I think all I want to say for it is that there are some quite strange perceptions that migrate with the crossing. If art is making the familiar strange, then feeling alien to habits of gendering might be the place from which to work, but work outward, rather than get stuck on gender as topic or whatever. A trans aesthetic collapses into commonplaces when it renders the strangeness familiar. The purpose of transition is generally to have done with the strangeness and to become bored and ordinary in one’s gender again.
On the crossings of trans women and femmes: we cross over. We look back. We see Eurydice. We become her. We can pretend we were her all along. Maybe we were. I don’t know. Clutch: “There are all the mysteries to a body. Why, or how. This sense that I’m an experiment, that I am coming together. That I need someone else to tell me about me. Within the parameters of myself, it has always been what is unknown, actually that most bleeds into my other dimensions. That is present.” As Andrea says to me, “Gender is always in the gift of the other.” Even in the banal way that I need another to call me “she.” For me, the gamble on getting that gift will never end.
But there’s something else here, too. Maybe I don’t want to lose too much of the strangeness of the crossing. I want to be a resident alien in femininity. I’m not applying for citizenship. I don’t recognize the authority of the cis to police the borders of gender. I don’t look to them to validate parking myself in the lot of femininity. I want to settle into the boring, antipodean strangeness of my second migration like I did with the first. But let’s not get too comfortable where you are, hun — is what I sense Clutch say to me. Clutch takes more risks than I do, and I honor that.
Maybe this odd friction of the in-between, once you get used to it — bored with it even — is a place from which to insist, in art or ethics, that identity is the least of anyone’s problems. “An annoying thing about gender is that it always gets in the way of people understanding context. Gender confuses people. They are being transformed by it and they don’t pay attention. They focus on the language too much and forget to get everyone housing and healthcare.”
Jessie texts me a picture of a page from Clutch’s book, her pretty finger pointing to this: “I stand by only a quarter of what I said when I was queer. Queerness, when I first encountered the idea, aspired to a life away from identity categories, eroticizing what lies outside them, but today it seems the word often points to a reification of identity, to new rules.” Can there be a strangeness to trans aesthetics that is not necessarily queer? To be trans is more quotidian, for one thing. It’s in the everyday tedium of getting clocked on the street. Of picking up your hormones and having to confirm your date of birth and deadname. In my case, of hearing my partner say to our daughter, “Ask daddy if she wants another cup of tea.”
I’ve yet to meet a trans person who doesn’t quickly turn out to have needs for which the world barely even has words. Our art has found some of the words, but I feel like we’ll need to keep making this art for a good long time that just finds ways to gesture towards all the ways we feel in need of giving from the world. And all the ways we want to give to the world, that the world doesn’t want. The pain of the world always wanting the same cursed things from us and not wanting what we really have to give.
And then there are all the ways we want to give to each other — T4T — but end up hurting each other and fucking it up, sometimes just because there are no words strung to catch us when we fall into each other’s blank, empty needs. Perhaps it’s a matter of compiling the inscriptions of our needs as well as accumulating the artifacts of our dreams, that we might come to make more interesting mistakes.
Clutch at least has a phrase for this. They write it twice, so we don’t forget. It comes up at two ends of a traverse, of country, of gender, of friendships. It starts here: “As I am literally moving away from Simon, I do some visioning of what my next relationship will be… I think of the love I have within myself and in thinking of it make it an offering to the many-handed hunger of transsexuality.” (11) And its next rest-stop is here, and his name is Jackson: “he’s really ideal for me, both open to the love I offered to the many-handed hunger of transsexuality and also physically unavailable for at least eight months.” (46) Time is a thing a body moves through fed me for a good while.
How I needed that.
McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School, her book Reverse Cowgirl will be published by Semiotext(e) in February 2020.