The Art of Avoiding Definitions: A Review of “Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability”

“Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability” aims to clarify, but succeeds only in highlighting the lack of clarity which dominates transgender theory.

“Let me define the terms, and I’ll win any debate,” a friend told me years ago, an insight I’ve seen confirmed many times in intellectual and political arenas.

But after reading Jack Halberstam’s new book, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, I would amend that observation: Debates also can be won by making sure a term is never clearly defined. The transgender movement has yet to offer coherent explanations of the concepts on which its policy proposals are based, yet support is nearly universal in left/liberal circles. Whether or not it was the author’s intention, Trans* feels like an attempt at an outline of such explanation, but I’m sorry to report that the book offers neither clarity nor coherence.

I say sorry, because I came to the book hoping to gain greater understanding of the claims of the transgender movement, which I have not found elsewhere. Halberstam — a professor in Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University — has been writing about this subject for more than two decades and is one of the most prominent U.S. trans* intellectuals. The table of contents looked promising, but the book only deepened my belief that a radical feminist and ecological critique of the transgender movement’s ideology is necessary.

Rather than be defensive about the ambiguity of the transgender argument, Halberstam celebrates the lack of definition as a strength of the movement, an indication that trans* offers deep insights for everyone. If we shift our focus from “the housing of the body” and embrace “perpetual transition” then “we can commit to a horizon of possibility where the future is not male or female but transgender,” he writes. Instead of “male-ish” and “female-ish” bodies we can realize “the body is always under construction” and “consider whether the foundational binary of male-female may possibly have run its course.”

The very act of naming and categorizing imposes limits that constrain the imagination, according to Halberstam, hence the use of the asterisk:

“I have selected the term ‘trans*’ for this book precisely to open the term up to unfolding categories of being organized around but not confined to forms of gender variance. As we will see, the asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity. The asterisk holds off the certainty of diagnosis; it keeps at bay any sense of knowing in advance what the meaning of this or that gender variant form may be, and perhaps most importantly, it makes trans* people the authors of their own categorizations. As this book will show, trans* can be a name for expansive forms of difference, haptic [relating to the sense of touch] relations to knowing, uncertain modes of being, and the disaggregation of identity politics predicated upon the separating out of many kinds of experience that actually blend together, intersect, and mix. This terminology, trans*, stands at odds with the history of gender variance, which has been collapsed into concise definitions, sure medical pronouncements, and fierce exclusions.”

I quote at length to demonstrate that in using shorter excerpts from the book I am not cherry-picking a few particularly abstruse phrases to poke fun at a certain form of postmodern academic writing. My concern is not stylistic but about the arguments being presented. After reading that passage a couple of times, I think I can figure out what Halberstam’s trying to say. The problem is that it doesn’t say anything very helpful.

To be fair, Halberstam is correct in pointing out that the instinct to categorize all the world’s life, human and otherwise — “the mania for the godlike function of naming” — went hand in hand with colonialism, part of the overreach of a certain mix of politics and science in attempting to control the world. But like it or not, humans make sense of the world by naming, which need not go forward with claims of imperial domination or divine insight. We define the terms we use in trying to explain the world so that we can meaningfully communicate about that world; when a term means nothing specific, or means everything, or means nothing and everything at the same time, it is of no value unless one wants to obfuscate.

But, if Halberstam is to be believed, this criticism is irrelevant, because transgenderism “has never been simply a new identity among many others competing for space under the rainbow umbrella. Rather, it constitutes radically new knowledge about the experience of being in a body and can be the basis for very different ways of seeing the world.” So, if I don’t get it, the problem apparently is the limits of my imagination — I don’t grasp the radically new knowledge — not because the explanation is lacking.

After reading the book, I continue to believe that the intellectual project of the transgender movement isn’t so much wrong as it is incoherent, and the political project is not liberatory but regressive. What this book “keeps at bay” is a reasonable, honest request: What does any of this mean?

In other writing — here in 2014 and again in 2016, along with a chapter in my 2017 book The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men — I’ve asked how we should understand transgenderism if the movement’s claim is that a male human can actually be female (or vice versa) in biological terms. If transgender signals a dissatisfaction with the culturally constructed gender norms of patriarchy — which are rigid, repressive, and reactionary — I’ve suggested it would be more effective to embrace the longstanding radical feminist critique of patriarchy.

Rather than repeat those arguments here, I want to try another approach, stating simply that I have good reason to believe I’m real, that the human species of which I am a member is real, and that the ecosphere of which we are a part is real. That is, there is a material reality to the world within which I, and all other carbon-based life forms, operate. I cannot know everything there is to know about that material world, of course, but I can trust that it is real.

The cultural/political/economic systems that shape human societies make living in the real world complex and confusing, and the ways those systems distribute wealth and power are often morally unacceptable. But to challenge that injustice, it’s necessary to understand that real world and communicate my understanding to others in clear fashion.

In left/liberal circles, especially on college campuses, “trans*” increasingly is where the action is for those concerned with social justice. It offers — for everyone, whether transgender-identified or not — the appearance of serious intellectual work and progressive politics. Endorsing the transgender project is a way to signal one is on the cutting edge, and work like Halberstam’s is embraced in these circles, where support for the transgender movement is required to be truly intersectional.

My challenge to those whose goal is liberation is simple: How does this help us understand the real world we are trying to change? How does it help us understand patriarchy, the system of institutionalized male dominance out of which so much injustice emerges?

Halberstam likely would put me in the category of “transphobic feminism” for “refusing to seriously engage” with transfeminism, but I am not transphobic (if, by that term, we mean one who is afraid of, or hateful toward, people who identify as transgender). Nor do I refuse to seriously engage other views (unless we describe a critique of another intellectual position as de facto evidence of a lack of serious engagement). I am rooted in radical feminism, one of those “versions of feminism that still insist on the centrality of female-bodied women,” according to Halberstam.

On that point, Halberstam is accurate: radical feminists argue that patriarchy is rooted in men’s claim to own or control women’s reproductive power and sexuality. Radical feminists distinguish between sex (male XY and female XX, a matter of biology) and gender (masculinity and femininity, a matter of culture and power), which means that there is no way to understand the rigid gender norms of patriarchy without recognizing the relevance of the category of “female-bodied women.” It’s hard to imagine how the binary of male-female could “run its course” given the reality of sexual reproduction.

This is where an ecological perspective, alongside and consistent with a radical feminist critique, reminds us that the world is real and we are living beings, not machines. In discussing his own top surgery (the removal of breasts), Halberstam speaks of working with the doctor:

“Together we were building something in flesh, changing the architecture of my body forever. The procedure was not about building maleness into my body; it was about editing some part of the femaleness that currently defined me. I did not think I would awake as a new self, only that some of my bodily contours would shift in ways that gave me a different bodily abode.”

We all have a right to understand ourselves as we please, and so here’s my response: My body is not a house that was constructed by an architect but rather — like all other life on the planet — is a product of evolution. I resist the suggestion I can “build” myself and recognize that a sustainable human presence on the planet is more likely if we accept that we are part of a larger living world, which has been profoundly damaged when humans treat it as our property to dominate and control.

This is the irony of Halberstam’s book and the transgender project more generally. After labeling the project of categorizing/defining as imperialist and critiquing the “mania for the godlike function of naming,” he has no problem endorsing the “godlike function” of reshaping bodies as if they were construction materials. There’s a deepening ecological sensibility in progressive politics, an awareness of what happens when humans convince ourselves that we can remake the world and ignore the biophysical limits of the ecosphere. While compassionately recognizing the reasons people who identify as transgender may seek surgery and hormone/drug treatments, we shouldn’t suppress concerns about the movement’s embrace of extreme high-tech intervention into the body, including the surgical destruction of healthy tissue and long-term health issues due to cross-sex hormones and hormone-like drugs.

I have long tried to observe what in rhetoric is sometimes called “the principle of charity,” a commitment in debate to formulating an opponent’s argument in the strongest possible version so that one’s critique is on firm footing. I have tried to do that in this review, though I concede that I’m not always sure what Halberstam is arguing, and so I may not be doing his arguments justice. But that is one of my central points: When I read this book — and many other arguments from transgender people and their allies — I routinely find myself confused, unable to understand just what is being proposed. So, again, I’ll quote at length in the hopes of being fair in my assessment, this time the book’s closing paragraph:

“Trans* bodies, in their fragmented, unfinished, broken-beyond-repair forms, remind all of us that the body is always under construction. Whether trans* bodies are policed in bathrooms or seen as killers and loners, as thwarted, lonely, violent, or tormented, they are also a site for invention, imagination, fabulous projection. Trans* bodies represent the art of becoming, the necessity of imagining, and the fleshy insistence of transitivity.”

Once again, after reading that passage a couple of times, I think I understand, sort of, the point. But, once again, I don’t see how it advances our understanding of sex and gender, of patriarchy and power. I am not alone in this assessment; people I know, including some who are sympathetic to the transgender movement’s political project, have shared similar concerns, though they often mute themselves in public to avoid being labeled transphobic.

I’m not asking of the transgender movement some grand theory to explain all the complexity of sex and gender. I just need a clear and coherent place to start. Asking questions is not transphobic, nor is observing that such clarity and coherence are lacking.

Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability was published in January 2018 by University of California Press.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached atrjensen@austin.utexas.edu.

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