We post a reflection on binary-gender oppression and the grounds for strategically contesting it, ‘in commemoration of “pride,” an introduction to the production of subjectivities’, originally published on dehiscence (01/06/2021). We want to thank Robin Peignot for sharing this with Autonomies.
The overhead cameras at my Amazon job make me smile: they remind me that my coworkers are just as discontent as I am, they gesture to a force that must be contained, prevented from emerging and disrupting the flow of commodities through the warehouse where we’re employed. I wish, with this year’s inauguration of “pride month,” that I felt the same about gender: that my constant negotiation of myself with the world writ large, the suffocating compulsion to manage every aspect of my self-expression, was proof of some latent revolutionary urge, a destructive transness that could simply be brought to bear on the world. These days, I’m not so sure.
The camera exists to keep the transgression – in this case, theft – from occurring. Placement of cameras is denser in areas more at risk for theft (aisles with smaller items, for example, tend to have cameras at either end) and thinner elsewhere – so to a degree, they manage the risk of transgression instead of preventing it outright. But broadly speaking, the dead eye of the camera conveys a prohibition, it functions through a not-statement, it exists to prevent something from occurring.
Theft, then, is a transgression of that prohibition. When I steal something, I am participating in an illegality created by the camera’s placement, its positioning, and so, technically speaking, the transgression still merely completes the taboo, my behavior is still secondarily governed by its prohibition even when it occurs. But despite being an illegality marked as such by its policing, it’s still an illegality, an affront, it can mark itself as oppositional, in defiance of the law and the norm of behavior enforced (and spatially determined) by those cameras, in a distinct way.
This is often how transness is represented – whether in revolutionary theory or common parlance. The tendency to call trans people strong, determined, inspirational, in a word, resilient – this is just the underside of a broader tendency to conflate transness with a pure rupture of gendered normativity, to reduce it to a moment of transgression or clean separation from a well-defined totality. This is a mistake.
To be certain, prohibition is a critical element in the enforcement of gender – and, paralleling the camera further, much of its enforcement is also ocular, based in visibility (more specifically, what it is permissible to express, and what can be seen). Passing culture is itself an outgrowth of cis standards of visible gender normativity, and degrees of masculinity or femininity, their supposed correspondence with gender, and the normative presentation that is produced by the whole system does require the threat of corrective violence to guarantee a base amount of adherence to gender norms among trans populations. But this model stops short of explaining, or even engaging with, the process of negotiation that defines a massive amount of any transitioning person’s interfacing with elements of society (the family, work, school, even daily activities like shopping or exercise). This process takes place on two levels: the first between the secret (a covert transness) and its expression, and the second between the disclosed secret (an out transness) and its uptake and reception by any given social body or inquisitive subject. Both of these orbit the constructed and self-constructed subject, the seat of the trans person’s passage through society, life, and often death. In the first instance, disclosure of one’s transness at the wrong time, or, in the second case, in the wrong fashion can drastically alter the course of any trans person’s life, expose them to vulnerability, homelessness, unemployment, or excessive violence. This places the burden of management on the trans subject: a perverse economism, whereby we’re expected to navigate our intersection with the world like we’d balance a spreadsheet.
To return to Amazon, a second (and potentially corrective) example could be the scanner – a tool that logs every interaction between me and an item from the shelf to the bag of a specific order, and of the specific bag from my cart onto a second staging shelf once all of my orders are complete. The scanner tracks where I am in the building based on my scans, with each action attributed to my login. It directs me to a new item as soon as I’ve taken the previous one off the shelf, having scanned both the bin it’s contained in and the item itself, and placed it in a specific bag, which is then scanned to ensure I’m not mixing up orders. As a result, the scanner, acting on behalf of a larger sitewide algorithm, chooses my path through the warehouse. But on top of – and alongside – its function of determining where I am and what I’m doing, it also calculates my productivity based on scans per minute, notifying supervisors to intervene should my performance drop below the desired level. As such, what matters about the scanner, and the algorithm more broadly, is less the brute piece of technology and more the way it interacts with my labor, guiding me and tracking me, and, unlike the camera, which could only determine the contours of my behavior when I am in violation of its prohibition, the scanner compels me to adapt to its standard of behavior and comportment at all times. Under the threat of confrontation with floor bosses, I’m incentivized to take pains to streamline my scanning from shelf to bag, to take shortcuts and walk quickly from item to item, to ensure I don’t miss an item or mark one as missing when it’s present, etc. So while the camera exerts a wholly negative pressure on my actions, and can only determine the specific bounds of my behavior when I am in violation of its law, the scanner (and more broadly, all of the computerized efforts by Amazon to maximize workforce productivity in its warehouses, like raffles and commendations) exerts a positive pressure on me, on the movement of my body and the quality of my actions. If I’m not careful, it could change the entire stance I have towards my job.
This is a far better parallel to an accurate description of transness – which is not only something endowed with a positive potential in its rupture with gender normativity, but also forced to contend with processes of subjectivation that seek to produce normative forms of transness – to introduce transness to its own closed system, to reproduce the gender binary and its enforcement mechanisms, to create new trans subjects who autonomously enforce the boundaries of their communities, carving out pockets of self-possessed authenticity even while denied the same authenticity relative to cis society.
All of this raises an incredibly important question, as the “queer community” devours itself and our most potent cultural celebration is inevitably reduced to a handful of corporate floats and over-eager employers. It’s apparent that transness alone is not sufficiently revolutionary to challenge and overturn gender norms, or gender normativity – it’s telling that every single trans “celebrity” with airtime in the news has vocally supported passing culture. That said, it’s not a mistake to associate transness with the potential to disrupt or even destabilize the gender binary – it’s true that prohibitions have existed for centuries regulating gender expression, protecting the integrity of an imported social system that is necessarily fragile, and notably decomposing as of late. What is necessary, however, is a degree of strategic intelligence that no recent queer or trans movement has been able to acquire: an understanding that not only are we being destroyed, not only are we subjected to negative pressures or prohibitions – we’re also being created, and the subjectivities we’re assigned will never reverse course to render the giant molar subjectifying machines inoperative. We need to leave behind the phrase “destroy what destroys you,” or at least recognize that power operates just as much through an inclusive production as it does through an exclusive destruction. “There are no more revolts that are not revolts against ourselves.”