McKenzie Wark: We’ve talking about your book about Females. Is it just called Females now? Not Females, A Concern? I liked the subtitle.
Andrea Long Chu: I really liked it too. My girlfriend came up with it. We were very, very pleased with it, and I just realized that it was impossible to say naturally in a sentence, ‘cause like, you had to do this weird Females . . . A Concern. Because it was such an idiosyncratic use of the word concern. So anyway, I really did love it, but I made peace with it. A one-word title is still pretty good.
MW: It’s like Torrey Peter’s book Detransition, Baby. Apparently the comma is an issue, but I think it’s also a perfect title.
ALC: Yes, exactly.
MW: The first thing I’ll ask you about is genre. You’ve spoken elsewhere, other than in the book, about satire. I want to ask if you felt like satire is a genre through which you could read Females.
ALC: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. So, the first thing that comes to mind is that the book is obviously, more than anything else, in conversation with Valerie Solanas, and that’s like a common, I suppose, either compliment or criticism, depending on who you are, paid to her SCUM Manifesto. Her play that I talk about in the book, Up Your Ass, is more clearly satire than SCUM is. I’m willing to call my book satire. Maybe with the caveat that what humor actually is, and what its relationship to the serious is, is a theme in the book – and it’s something I’m really interested in around Valerie. But I don’t know, maybe all satire is serious.
MW: Maybe Females both is satire and is about satire. You’ve also used the phrase “commitment to the bit” which I thought was a really interesting way of thinking about this. You have to pursue this seemingly counterintuitive premise because there’s a punchline, but maybe the punch line could be a concept or a joke.
ALC: I think that’s right. I mean, I think part of what’s happening in a joke, or with humor, is that it is a place where language has a sort of notable, or more recognizable, distance from truth-telling or representation. Because you’re always kind of not-really-joking even when you are joking. The whole point of a joke is that it lets you say something that doesn’t feel utterable; if the utterance is to be taken as a representation of a state of affairs. Obviously there’s lots of bad faith uses, like the fucking sixth Dave Chappelle special that just dropped on Netflix or whatever. The refuge of the unimaginative comic is to say: “I can say things that other people can’t say. And I can say them because I’m joking.”
MW: Right, it’s just an alibi.
ALC: The joke is an alibi. You’re sort of having your cake and eating it too. Because on the one hand I’m joking so I’m not being serious. On the other hand, I justify my work as a comic by referring to what I consider a serious problem, which is that there are things that we can’t say. So, there’s obviously a really bad faith version of this. But I do think part of what’s being revealed in the joke is that we do not talk to each other, generally speaking, because we are trying to represent states of affairs. Language is first of all referring to itself, and then to the other person, or maybe at the same time to other people. And truth comes in as, like, a sort of sixth-order consideration…
MW: At random, maybe.
ALC: Where it becomes important is as an ethical matter. Early in graduate school I had this Pre-Socratics class and wrote a paper about Heraclitus, and there’s a Heraclitus fragment that is something like: “The sun is the size of a human foot.” I think the analytic philosophy reading of it is like, “Oh, he’s trying to say something about, like, perspective and, like, you can hold up your foot and see foot and sun as the same,” or whatever.
But I think the more proper question is: “Whose foot?” It’s not about the foot not “actually” being the size of the sun. It’s the fact that there’s necessarily a subjective relation that changes from person to person. So I think the place where truth becomes important is not actually because we are trying to determine a state of affairs, but because someone thinks that someone owes them something, or vice versa — because there’s an ethical encounter, which then requires us to say: well, what actually happened?
MW: Maybe one could read it as the sun and the foot being the same size in language — one syllable.
I want to go somewhere else now, to how your book treats language and debt, which might be that ethical encounter. So– these are my words not yours — but the way I read it, the way you’re thinking about gender, is that it’s always in the gift of the other. It’s not “mine.” I rely on the gift of the other to have it at all. But then that implies an ethics. Right? Is that a way to connect these two things — language and gender — together?
ALC: Do you mean that it implies an ethics in the sense that you are also giving gender to other people?
MW: Yes. Both being indebted to the other and giving it to others. But I think if you start, first, with just the dyad, a me and a you, then one starts as a supplicant, requiring that the other give gender back to me. And for us, for trans people, it’s in the way we are asking; in that, for us to be free to be ourselves is to insist that others give recognition to our gender.
ALC: Right. Yeah. The thing that I am especially thinking about when I say something like that about gender, on the most granular empirical level, is early transition. For instance: I was out at NYU, I was in New York. I was surrounded by people who were more or less prepared to give me what I was asking for, right? So in a sense there was, on a sort of surface level, there was a kind of generosity there. And then I would go into Walgreens or whatever, and have an interaction with someone at the register, and get misgendered, and would instinctively consider that a more genuine reaction than the reaction of people in my department or friends of mine. And, in part, that’s because the cashier was probably telling me something that felt like it had the structure of something like a secret. And so it felt realer. But it was also because actually that person owed me nothing.
MW: Right. So that’s an honest statement from the cashier.
ALC: The person at Walgreens had the opportunity to actually be genuinely generous, which is to say, to know nothing about me. The problem with my friends is that they were my friends.
MW: They were obligated.
ALC: Right, they are.
MW: The other side of the gift is you’re obligated.
ALC: And that’s a good thing in the sense that, it’s not like I want my friends to be misgendering me until somehow they can do it without thinking about it. Obviously, you’re asking for that, but the asking is actually, I think, a process that would like to see itself abolished, ultimately. It is receptive in the sense that in true receptivity, you get what you want, and you don’t have to ask for it.
MW: For Derrida, that’s impossible.
ALC: Right. I mean there’s so many reasons why that won’t work. So, true generosity felt like it had to retain the possibility of the accidental cruelty of a stranger.
MW: Yeah, that’s true. Unless that’s there as that possibility the generosity isn’t real. It’s a paradox.
ALC: And even in New York City, walking around in Brooklyn or just in New York generally, there was this added wrinkle that “traditional” signifiers of femininity are less effective, I think. In that, it’s New York, so it’s like: “Oh, it’s a man in a dress,” whatever —
MW: — because in this town that’s also a legit thing —
ALC: — So strangers are like, “I’m cool with that. That’s fine, that could be a thing.” And also that the category of trans woman is available. So, even if I was getting gendered correctly by a stranger, then I’m doing a calculus in my head that goes: “Well, so are they just reacting to me, quote unquote, ‘naturally?’ Or are they saying to themselves, ‘Oh, that’s a trans woman, so I’m going to behave that way one is supposed to behave to a trans woman’.”
MW: Ugh. Exactly. It’s interesting being upstate where, it turns out, I got “ma’am-ed” so much more often because I’m actually performing femininity better than a lot of cis women do in public there. And people don’t read carefully because they don’t have to, because it’s not important.
ALC: Right. And there’s the relative strictness, which is probably not the right way to describe it, but the relative strictness of the binary —
MW: — There the stricter gender binary was really working in my favor! —
ALC: — Means that more things end up on the other side of the hard line.
MW: It’s like: “Male or female? I’m just going with female because you’re wearing lipstick.” Nice and simple.
I want to ask you about a theory of desire — there’s a way in which that becomes really kind of a fulcrum in the book — and your concept of a self that’s hollowed out, made into an incubator for desire as an alien force (I think of the face hugger from the Alien movie here). But, I’m a little puzzled as to what the self is that could be independent of desire. Because I would think that there isn’t anything outside of that desire, but for you the conceit of the separation is what everything hangs on. So, what’s the surplus over and above the desire that’s from without?
ALC: I think I’m a good Kantian in this respect. So the self is just a function. (I think I’m getting that word from Gabriela Basterra.) The self is not a substantial thing; it is the occasion for desire. It’s the event space.
MW: Oh, that’s interesting. Event space in language, or in the world, or both?
ALC: Let me start small and work out. My instinct, as a phenomenologist, is to say that the I and the world are correlates—I am proudly correlationist! The self and the world are correlates. The I is finite, which means that the I has no content except for what comes to it through the world. And the world is given to me. So the world depends on me in the sense that, as Heidegger says, “Dasein has to have sense organs,” which is his gloss on Kant. Dasein has to have sense organs in order to give Being the chance to announce itself. So I have to give the world the opportunity to present itself to someone. There is no one other than me, as far as I’m concerned, but I am not anything, right? I am not anything except for the thing that is being filled up. So I agree that the distinction between self and desire is necessary, but I don’t think of it as a separation between two different things. I think of it as the relation of form to content.
MW: This is actually the other path even in Meillassoux, who gave us that critique of correlationism, his problem with a Being that has to be sensed by the finite to be at all. The other path is that it it’s the correlation itself that is absolute. Meillassoux just doesn’t follow it, but that that would be Merleau-Ponty’s solution. All right, so this does make sense of desire as separate from self, content, and form. Because that was kind of troubling me.
And then, to follow the conceit of your book, if the desire that comes from without is an imposition, then everyone is female. The commitment to the bit takes us to that next step, to this universal receptivity.
ALC: Right. And an imposition that one makes one’s own, not necessarily as a matter of choice or will, though obviously sometimes that can happen. I think it is paradoxically both imposed, and — “chosen” is too agentive — but is, I don’t know, “selected” or something. So the quintessential female moment is not just “someone else wants me to do something,” it’s “I want to do it,” too. I don’t experience that as someone forcing me. I experience it as want.
I think of these women who drove second-wave feminists crazy because somehow it seemed like they actually wanted to be wearing the heels or the lipstick — it wasn’t just that someone was making them do it. If you sat them down and asked them, you could drill all the way to the bottom, and they’d still say that’s just what they wanted.
MW: I’m also interested in this question of “selecting.” Is there a margin of agency about how one responds to the want? Does agency return there? And is that another way you could construct a phenomenology of desire about the margin of agency? This might be related to the construction of the possibility of a self, but then this has to have something like “will.”
ALC: I don’t know. I mean, I’m pretty allergic to the concept of agency. I —
MW: — I can tell! —
ALC: — That’s not a particularly unique thing. There are lots of people who say, “We have to get rid of that concept for one reason or another.” The reason that I tend to be skeptical about will or agency is that it seems to me a very legalistic concept that is designed to be legible by institutions, and particularly the state. So, the difference supposedly between someone who has been “human trafficked” for sex, and someone who is their own boss, and is choosing their clients, and is doing sex work as a voluntary thing — this is all within the anti-sex work discourse — the difference is agency. And to a certain extent, the language of trafficking is the language of agency. So, the state says, “Look, if you can prove to us that you are actually exercising agency, then we’re good. You can do whatever you want.” I mean obviously not this state in particular, but it’s a proposed way that the state should interact with something like sex work. If you can show us that you’re asserting agency then we’ll leave you alone, then you’re fine.
MW: Yeah. This is a problem. And then also if the state or its proxies can find any reason at all to claim that you don’t have agency, it becomes the agent for you.
MW: And then you’re an institutionalized person, as so often befalls trans people, for instance.
ALC: Right. So agency really, I think, is a concept designed not to be found. A category that we can say exists and then say that this or that person doesn’t happen to fall into it. I mean, one of the traditional philosophical justifications for the Atlantic slave trade was that the “African” has no agency.
MW: Exactly. And so, then, rather than universalize agency the other path is to dispense with it as part of the problem in the first place.
ALC: As like a sort of spiritual or ontological matter, right? Even with Hegel, he will justify slavery on the basis that the African does not know how to be free.
MW: Well that brings me to something you discuss in passing, the C. Riley Snorton argument in Black on Both Sides, the extent to which the category of woman is founded on experiments on the female, when “the female” means “slave” and so is not entitled to even the status of womanhood with its limited agency. But that doesn’t really come up again. So, I wonder, what are the consequences of having been foundational, of how the category of gender was formed?
ALC: Yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t come up later. I think I initially had that thought, not actually in relation to the Snorton book directly, but to that famous moment in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” where Hortense Spillers talks about the ungendering of the enslaved body. And there are readings of that where… I mean I’ve sat in a conference and heard sort of very card-carrying kind of Afropessimists say like, “Oh, there just is no gender. Gender and blackness don’t mix, there’s no such thing.”
ALC: I mean these are men.
MW: I’d really have to think about that.
ALC: And it’s to me it’s a misreading. I don’t think Spillers was actually saying that the body ceases to have any kind of relation to whatever you want to call the minimal version of it — sexual difference or something. It was that the body becomes female but not woman. Because it still had to have a relation to woman without actually being woman. The even larger claim would be that historically that is actually the production of the sex and gender dyad. You need sex and gender as two distinct concepts in order to justify slavery. But I don’t think I would take the same kind of hard line that some of the Afro-pessimists do.
MW: I mean, it’s not a discourse that’s available to us. It’s designed to exclude us as its other.
ALC: It’s true. It is designed to exclude us. But there are versions of it where I have heard people insisting that the case remains the same now, such that black women today are not women, period. I think it’s an interesting claim, there’s interesting things you can do with it.
But I think it’s most interesting considered not as an absolute claim, but as a sort of mode of existence. So, I think it’s true that there are ways that black women have access to a legal concept of personhood and to a concept of gender. It’s not actually just as simple as all or nothing. There’s a kind of analytic parsimony that is imposed by taking those principles as sort of indestructible. I think, whether we’re talking about black women or other women of color, or whether we’re talking about white women, there’s always an uneven relationship to categories of personhood, both within categories and across categories.
MW: Did we just map female / woman on to sex / gender? And do they map onto each other?
ALC: Probably not as I’m using female in this book.
MW: Yeah. That then becomes a slightly different rhetorical strategy, or theoretical gambit.
ALC: I’m certainly using female in, like, a totally idiosyncratic sense.
MW: And to me this is “commitment to the bit”: if you accept this detour through this counter-intuitive idea, you get somewhere.
ALC: Right. So, that certainly comes up in the context of thinking about female as a biological category that has a history. Whereas the kind of female that I am talking about is, at least sort of, for the purposes of the bit, totally ahistorical —
MW: — Does this category of female exist mostly in language?
ALC: Well to me it’s the primary existential structure. It really is, like, sort of ground zero. And so, that is both a strength and a weakness of the book. I mean, the gamble of the book is to say: what if I treated this as having the kind of solidity and irreproachability of a philosophical concept? What if I treated it like the kind of philosophical concept that, like, we aren’t supposed to have anymore?
Of course I was just criticizing Afro-pessimism for doing that. The difference is that I don’t limit femaleness to any particular subject position. As you say, Afro-pessimism is designed to exclude us. Like, Frank Wilderson would never say that white people are black, whereas I do actually say that men are female. If anything I’m even more structuralist! But my project, I think, has kinship with these different kind of pessimist projects that have cropped up in different fields, and so it necessarily has a kind of ambivalent relationship to them.
MW: That’s interesting, because Females is sort of formally similar to Lee Edelman’s No Future or to Afro-pessimism — but you probably can’t do both at once, or either at the same time as the conceptual form of Females. Because the whole point of one of these strategies is that it’s absolutely singular.
ALC: Right, exactly. I mean, like, one of the sort of embarrassing things to me about that conversation is that there’s a strong sense in which Edelman’s No Future and Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black are, like, the same book. I’m not saying they have the same merits or whatever, but there is in both cases a Lacanian kind of structuralism that shouldn’t admit of the possibility of another similar project. And I think it’s what has made them so attractive, in just a kind of physical sense. Obviously lots of people were attracted to Edelman even if no one liked it. Right?
MW: Right. And so it’s a fantastic thing to read, even though I hate it.
ALC: Right. And, so, I think that a sort of necessary product of that kind of method is to say: this is different than everything else.
MW: And to me it’s kind of a return to a style of theory that seemed to go extinct for awhile. We got into a “weak theory” mode where everything had to be a modest claim, and you were sort of looking at the gaps between things, and unpicking them. But this style is, like: no, let’s just go. Axiom one, Axiom two; and if they’re completely counterintuitive that’s even better. So, to me it’s like: back to the eighties. Not repeating the content of that, but there’s a formal gesture that seems to me to return to it. And it’s why I loved your book actually. To me, this is how we used to roll.
But speaking of how we used to roll, one word: I don’t know if you connect this to how you’ve thought of female, but the word that came into my head is “abjection.” But is it?
ALC: Yeah, certainly the book comes out of my having sort of spent, like, a year immersed in abjection literature. And being really frustrated with it for several reasons. So, I’m thinking for instance of Derek Scott’s book, Extravagant Abjection. I feel like there’s a whole literature, its object isn’t always abjection as the keyword, but it’s part of the “bottom studies” thing that has happened. Like Tim Dean, Amber Musser, Nguygen Tan Hoang ; all these folks. And my frustration was that, in Extravagant Abjection for instance, is that there is sort of this desire to say: “I’m going to talk about abjection, but like, this isn’t your mother’s abjection,” as it were. Like, “I’m going to do enough with the concept that is different from abjection as an irredeemable form of the object.” And that, to me, is smuggling in a kind of political promise. If not freedom or agency, then I think kind of fragments of those concepts.
MW: Ah, which you want to lower the boom on. The sort of axiom you’ve made is to treat desire as a kind of submission rather than abjection. It’s something a little different. Submission structures the category of female. But then maybe the female is occasionally something like what it is for me, which has penetrability, as of phenomenology of innies and outies. Of course I realize that’s also a ridiculous theory of gender, but it’s my personal one.
ALC: I’m certainly persuaded by it. I think actually it’s a sort of topological question. Like, what is the best metaphor for what’s going on? I think the “bad” abjection that is implied by the more “generative” or “reparative” kind of reading of it — that is produced as this sort of, like, radical outside — the bad abjection is itself a fantasy. So, on the one hand, I’m more aligned with the kind of structural negativity of the kind of gay male critic in the mould of Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, and Lee Edelman. On the other hand, the idea of “self-shattering” presumes a brittleness that I think only a man would presume. So, like, the self can only be shattered for a Bersani because it has this kind of structure that is going to initially put up resistance and then snap. Right?
MW: And it’s oddly male in not being merely penetrable. Even though that’s Bersani’s whole deal. But for him it has to be a thing that breaks the whole subject rather than just exploring a body’s soft little holes, as it were.
ALC: Right? It has to be hard. I think femaleness bends.–
MW: — I might say “accommodates.”
ALC: Or accommodates or conforms or like, there is —
MW: — Although I also think of penetrability as what Bini Adamszac calls “circlusion.” In which opening to penetrability is an active thing. But maybe that’s a problem for you as it restores agency, penetrability as an agency. So maybe you wouldn’t want to go there —
ALC : — Because you can restore agency to being penetrated you mean? I wouldn’t have that problem with it. The gay male model of abjection presumes a sphincter. Or, in another sort of, another kind of metaphorical wheel house Wilderson is always talking about an “unflinching” analysis.
MW: One has to smile at that…
ALC: The fantasy of not flinching seems sort of parodic and magically male to me. So, all of this is to say: I am in conversation with these different forms of whatever you want to call the general category, the passive or the receptive. But I think the abjection of, like, a sort of small miscommunication between husband and wife, or something like this —
MW: — Minor abjection? —
ALC: — Right. Minor abjection.
MW: I’m reminded here of Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories with its interest in minor ones, such as the cute, the zany, and the interesting. ( I’d add the pretty. ) And these rather than grand categories like the beautiful, the abject, or the sublime. Maybe what we’re doing is grand theory in minor aesthetics. Is that what’s going on?
ALC: I’m happy to accept that as a thing.
MW: Why not? That’s fairly unexplored territory.
ALC: Yeah. I think that’s really right. I really like that a lot. Maybe the sort of, the kind of methodological principle behind that is, on the one hand, to accept the responsibility of the theorist to make a concept, as Deleuze says. Theory makes concepts.
MW : Rather than these nebulous, cloudy concepts that lend themselves to a lot of nuance but no accountability. Readers can imagine the writer as meaning anything and nothing.
ALC: As a theorist, it is your job is to make a concept, and so that means you actually have to be as anal about it as possible. As opposed to this move that I can’t stand and which is made in so much affect theory. So many introductions to affect theory books are like: “Sometimes it’s kind of a feeling and maybe it’s an emotion, and there’s some gesture in there,” and whatever. There’s a kind of loosey-goosey style to it. There’s a refusal actually to define “affect,” or other concepts that people are working on.
MW: Yeah. That leads me to another thing. In that kind of theory is, to me, a somewhat romantic-aesthetic preference for things that are astonishing and weird, strange and other, but also, like, fluid and undefinable and labile and elusive. And that became a whole, sort of, aesthetic choice that, to me, is a flavor of romanticism and which has sort of saturated queer theory as well. It’s an aesthetic choice that is then raised up as if it were a political choice when it’s sort of not.
ALC: Well, I think that it’s happening at sort of the wrong level in terms of method. I think the place to have that kind of sensitivity or ambiguity is, as it were, in the second phase of the movement. So, the first thing that you’re supposed to do is: you make a concept. And you actually should try to make it as clear as possible. And give it very firm lines. And then you, like, sort of, take it for like a walk around the block —
MW: — Simple concepts; elaborate deployment —
ALC: — And that is actually when the openness needs to happen. In some sense you have a responsibility to make your own straw man, as it were. You are responsible for building something that won’t actually work.
MW: There is a sort of naked masochism about that, about asserting: “I’m going to say what it is; this is the concept.” I think I agree on this as method. I have a whole fucking book coming out where I’m saying axiomatically that what we are living under isn’t even “capitalism” anymore. It’s something worse. Whenever I present this theory, every Marxist cop in the room wants to deny it and spend all the question time unfolding complex intricate untestable theories as to why capital is basically eternal and always the same.
ALC: But I’m also like, you’re not going to just be going about your life not talking about capitalism. Just as I’m not actually going to be going around and saying that everything is female all the time. I’ve been thinking about this in a different context recently — about over-identification on the author’s part with the reader and not with the writer. I think, as the writer, that you actually have different responsibilities than you do as the reader. Your job is to make something that can be read, but you shouldn’t actually be too accommodating to the reader.
MW: These concepts, like clouds, are going to do that though. It can be read any which way. And so maybe you want a concept that, like a diamond, is going to scratch somebody’s fucking mirror. Scratch the mirror of the imaginary.
ALC: It’s your job to make concepts.
MW: And they are supposed to be counter-intuitive and supposed to be conceptual machines that fail, so we can all move on. So, moving on…
All right, so if, “female,” is — and let’s just say submission, the shorthand, not the abject; not penetrability. But, the actual reading in here that I particularly like is of sissy porn, or forced-feminization porn, as a kind of meta-genre of porn. It’s about the structure of desire. Porn is supposed to be a way that men control women’s bodies with the gaze. You reverse this. Porn penetrates the male gaze, and makes the body submit to it. Men are feminized by porn. Forced-feminization porn is then the meta-genre of this structure of desire. Are there other genres of porn that one could treat as meta for other theories of desire?
ALC: That’s a really good question. Do you have something in mind?
MW: Well. I don’t want to say anything about anybody else, but sissy porn never did it for me. It doesn’t work for me. I need porn with agency, particularly the agency of the penetrated. On Tumblr the porn that works for me is mixed in with sissy porn and I’d have to actively select against it. To me that activity is then a meta-genre of a theory of desire as penetrability that circludes, that at least can select and shape, even if it’s not agency.
ALC: I mean, I’m sure we could do it with other kinds of porn. So, one of the things that I do like about sissy porn is that all roads lead to sissy porn in the sense that, once you start to thematize the relationship between the viewer and the porn, you end up at something like sissy porn. Because, like, viewers are sort of, generally speaking, sissies. That’s just like the way that it works.
But I mean, I’m sure we could. I really like this idea that you just sort of take your porn of choice and kind of construct a concept out of it.
MW: I mean, the whole history of aesthetic theory is that everybody’s building a whole aesthetic fucking theory out of stuff that they happen to like. It’s just rarely ever done with porn.
ALC: It’s funny because I remember years ago thinking: “Gosh, am I really going to be able to write about this?” And now I am just, like, so unphased by it. It seems totally normal to talk about the kind of porn that you like.
MW: Maybe this is still, well, there’s a risk involved in doing this as a trans woman in the sense that one is then making oneself a target. Because it’s a transphobic staple that we have some special relation to perverse desires. And then which way does one go on that as a transsexual? I’ve always owned up to it, as if one said back to transphobes: “I’m a pervert and a faggot and a freak. And if my trans-ness is connected to that big fucking deal, your cis-ness probably is too.” You know what I mean? That among other things transphobia is making us the scapegoat for everybody else’s perverse desires by projecting them onto us.
But the other way to go is to insist that we are “normal.” To try to escape the language of autogynophillia which pins certain trans women as bad trans because we are perverts who are erotically into their gender. So, I don’t know. Are there political choices to be made about how we position ourselves? Even if what you want to do as a writer is take these risks.
ALC: Yeah, I mean… So, my theory of gender in this book is a sexuality-based theory of gender. If you turn a sexuality inside out, you get a gender. And so now, does that have to mean that everyone needs to reveal all of their personal sort of perversions? Not necessarily. So there’s this sort of historical movement, right, where transsexuality is studied in the context of sexual aberration. Maybe not aberration as like a sort of normative concept, but just—
MW : — Variation. —
ALC: — Variation. Magnus Hirschfeld is studying freaks, right? And, so it is connected for a long time with a form of sexuality. I mean, in some ways it’s like: why is there a T at the end of the LGBT? That’s always been the question. And it’s something that, like, relatives of mine or people like the Christian Evangelicals that I grew up around, naturally assume that trans is a kind of sexuality. And so I get wanting to push back. Like, I understand the reasons for pushing back against that. But it feels so obviously untrue to me. It feels untrue on a personal level. I don’t understand what our transition would be about if it were not ultimately about sexuality. I’m really firm on that point. I don’t think that dictates a specific mode of sexual expression, though. We’ve gotten very good at talking about queerness as being sort of, at its heart, a sexual concept, which doesn’t have to manifest in everyone fucking at the docks or something. Right?
MW: I prefer it when our literature and theory is centered on things like fucking at the docks, like in Samuel Delany, even though that’s not quite my particular thing either.
ALC: We’ve become good, arguably maybe too good, at reading queerness in other spaces than that. And I, so I think I like to —
MW: — Queer writing and theory became so unsexy. It’s why I stopped reading it. Come on, get it on! I want to flip through the pages to finds the hot bits That’s why I came here. —
ALC : — I think that acknowledging the sexuality, or having, as I do, a sort of basically sexual theory of transition, I think that that doesn’t mean that it has to all be explicit. It’s as much about the way that someone’s transitioning on the job is going, how they’re navigating that experience. It’s as much about the changing little variations and mutations of friendship that happen as a result. Like, I think you can still investigate that on lots of different levels. But, at the end of the day, I think gender is sexual. I think that’s the meaning of it.
MW: Yes, one doesn’t have to only or exhaustively stay with the explicitly sexual. We need theory also about trans lives as banal. In that regard trans lives aren’t that different to cis ones. The sexual and the perversely sexual might be fairly evenly distributed across them and us. Nor is it uniquely trans to be sexually into your own body as you imagine it or feel it. Oh, while we are here: are we “transgender” or are we “transsexual”?
ALC: You and me, or as a human race, or like…?
MW: Either actually.
ALC: Transsexual. I just hate the word transgender on an acoustic level, as a consonant cluster. I think it’s an ugly word. We got stuck with a prefix. Queer is what? Queer is this like…
MW: It’s a thing.
ALC: An amazing thing. An old German word, and its etymology — it’s moved in and out of slang. People disagree over what it means.
MW: And the disagreement makes it better.
ALC: Right. And that’s true even for things with clear etymologies, like “lesbian.” Maybe because that’s a proper noun there’s, like, a real kind of meaning to it.
MW: We got a fucking Latin prefix.
ALC: It’s the worst. It’s so awful. But transsexual at least sounds vintage. I think I have to attribute that to Emmett Harsin Drager who I wrote something for TSQ with. Transsexual sounds kind of old fashioned, and it has sex in it instead of gender, which is right for me.
Which is not to say: “oh, it’s about sex instead of gender.” It’s that the instability of what sex means in English flows through that word. So, it’s actually less clear whether it’s about gender, whether it’s about biological sex, or whether it’s about sexuality. But most importantly, transsexual is a real part of speech. While, because it is an adjective formed purely through the imposition of a prefix, transgender can’t really be inflected.
MW: Saying “the transsexuals” sounds a lot better than saying “the transgendereds.” That’s weird.
ALC: Transgendered is weird. Like you can’t say “transgenderal.” And you can’t say “transgenderism,” which just sounds like an affliction. But you can say transsexual. You can say transsexuality. You can say transsexually. You can use it as an adverb.
MW: Love that. I’m so going to use it as an adverb: “As I walked transsexually down the street,” or: “I leaned in near to him and gestured transsexually.” Such fun.
ALC: Just like you can say in a sentence “giving birth vaginally.” The vagina can be an adverb. It’s a real dignity to be able to become an adverb.
MW: It is. Oh, thank you for that. That’s a real gift. The transsexual or transgender thing just puzzles me. With any sister with whom I share any sensibility, “transsexual” is what we call ourselves now, but everyone has completely different explanations of how they arrived at that. It just seems to be a more general thing about how one positions one’s self in language that we kind of have to go back to being transsexuals.
ALC: And I don’t like the one S. There’s like a sort of version where people do it with one S.
MW: Why the fuck do that?
ALC: I think David Valentine does this in his book and probably has gotten it from someone else. I think it’s like: “oh, like, transsexual with two S’s is, like, the doctor’s word.” And so transexual with one S is different but the difference is silent.
MW Like the old difference / differance trick in Derrida.
ALC: I just can’t stand to see a perfectly healthy word go under the knife like that.
MW: Right. Unless it’s voluntary. If a word wants to transition by castrating one of its letters that’s ok, but this one doesn’t.
ALC: You can’t just chop things off words!
MW: It’s like forced misspelling-ization. “No, I want to keep my S!” It’s the girl dick in the word, the extra S. I’m getting a bit delirious.
I have one last serious question for you, that loops back to this theory of desire as imposed by the other. It’s this: to what extent is this always necessarily theological?
MW: Yes. Because behind the other is always the big Other in Lacan. Or in Levinas, it’s the face of the other standing in for the otherness of God. Well, with you it’s actually more the body of the other rather than the face of the other. But, look, I’m a card carrying Deleuzean — a Bad Deleuzian — but still. And this is the theology we refuse because it seems so transcendental. And in some versions Christian. So we go somewhere else. But, is it necessary that those things are connected: desire as the obligatory gift of the other and this theological other?
ALC: Gosh, that’s a really interesting question.
MW: Because we’re pagans over here, in the Deleuze camp. Or we’re Spinoza-style pantheists, perhaps.
ALC: I was… As I’ve said, I was raised by Evangelicals. I learned to do philosophy from theology.
MW: Interesting, whereas I’m a third-generation atheist.
ALC: Okay see, that’s totally bizarre to me. The idea of, like, even just… I can buy that, like, people are atheists. But I can’t buy that anyone’s parents are atheists.
MW: Welcome to my world, hun.
ALC: It seems like there’s a necessarily theological relation to the parent.
MW: Yes, the parent as other; as stand-in for otherness. (I was rather under-parented, but that’s another story.)
ALC: So, like, and if I met the parent by themselves, I could believe they were atheist, but… I don’t know, I am very confused by that.
MW : And we were lapsed Presbyterians. So that’s already, as I think of it, a naked relation to otherness with no mediation, with no stand-ins, face, body, parent, desire — nothing.
ALC: Right. No, like, I dunno, I was dragged to church every week.
MW: It’s interesting how experiences shape the possibilities of theory in different ways. Maybe better to think it interesting than to be critical here. I honestly don’t care which theories are “right.” I’m more interested in theories as aesthetic choices, if you like.
ALC: I mean, I liked the God concept. I like the idea of God. In terms of, like, as a toy. I like the things that you can do with a God, just really strange things…
MW: It fixes language at one point, one thing, which has its uses.
ALC: Right. And, like, I think I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being… I think I’m over being over transcendentals. I don’t know that the concept of the other that’s implicit in my theory of desire is necessarily a Levinasian Other or something like that. But —
MW : — I mean the way to shut it down is if it’s Sartrean, where there’s nothing outside the self-other dyad. Where it’s impossible, and not even negatively present as it is in Levinas and Lacan, maybe.
ALC: I do think, and I wouldn’t describe it this way without being prompted, but I do think that faith is probably a grounding concept for me. So, to a certain extent, when I’m talking about non-representational language, language as being primarily non-representational, I am talking about faith. Or Merleau-Ponty will talk about “faith in the world,” or “the perceptual faith,” as this: the fact that I just can’t stop believing in the appearances, even when they change. Even when I say “Oh my gosh, that appearance was a lie!” the only way I know it was a lie is because I’m now comparing it with this new appearance, which I take to be the truth. Even though that might also disappear later. There’s this, sort of, really irreducible naivete.
MW: Oh, and Merleau-Ponty’s faith in the world is, I think, central to Deleuze, but taken in a different way. And, on the other hand, it’s also the path not taken in Meillassoux, which is to make the correlation the absolute rather than the one he chooses — which is to free a knowledge of the absolute from the necessity of a subject. These concepts all connect up in certain ways.
ALC: I have always sort of wanted to go back and read Deleuze, but not as a Deleuzean. I read it really in the heat of passion in college.
MW: It’s a theory gateway drug.
ALC: I know! Anti-Oedipus was my gateway drug. It took me directly to theory in general. It’s like the first time I’d ever read theory.
MW: Probably mine too, now that I think about it.
ALC: And, like, little me pretending that I understood anything.
MW: Only two people understood that book and three of them were crazy.
ALC: But I do think there is an existential helplessness before experience, in the face of experience. (And, of course, as a phenomonologist, when I say “the world” and when I say “experience” I’m saying the same thing). I would describe that as theological, sure.
I mean, the thing that I find so beautiful about the God concept is that there’s nothing there. So what, like, God sees everything and knows everything and wills everything and loves everything? And, so, the infiniteness of it just renders it totally inconsequential. All it does is guarantee this one thing. It’s just a name for the inescapability of the correlation of the self and the world.
MW : Oh, that’s interesting.
ALC: You really have me, like, out in the mystic fields here.
MW: I’ve not even thought of that.
ALC: It’s, like, God is the correlation.
MW: I’m just losing my fucking mind at this point, but all right. I think that’s it. Unless there’s anything you really feel like adding.
ALC: You’ve gotten all kinds of things out of me.
MW: Well that was sort of the idea.
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.