Rosalinabeth and I were at Victoria’s Secret, checking out. When it was my turn to approach the register, I held my breath. I had brought my own bag, and did not need the violently pink striped one they would try to foist upon me—but when was the right time to voice this? Too early was awkward, but so was too late. I had to say it before the cashier had already reached for the bag, or I would lose my nerve entirely. It would become too easy to surrender to the process—the pink tissue paper, the store-specific credit card.
I managed to refuse the bag, and stuffed my new bra into the already-full canvas tote I’d brought from home.
Rosalinabeth had three bags: her purse, the yellow one from Forever 21, and this latest one from Victoria’s Secret. (Rosalinabeth is not her real name; it’s what she always chose when we were six and playing fairy princesses.) “I love having multiple shopping bags,” she said suddenly, swinging them along beside her.
I knew exactly what she meant: it was like being on a movie poster. A woman shopping, on TV, always has too many shopping bags. (See: Cher in Clueless, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl.) She is always on a spree, never a purposeful trip to buy the pants she needs for her chorus concert.
As much as I loved these shows, the Woman Shopping was not a character I wanted to emulate. To care about shoes, in the movies, meant not caring about important things like grades and morals, and also not being taken seriously by the surrounding male characters. So I tried not to enjoy shopping.
Sometimes, though, I would catch sight of myself in a store window: skinny jeans, new boots, purposeful stride. And that reflection—too brief and shadowy to show any flaws—made me happy, no matter how many times I had been told beauty didn’t matter.
“Let’s go to Starbucks,” I said to Rosalinabeth. Damn the sea turtles, I wanted to drink something through a plastic straw.
The mall has always made me feel this way: full of joy, and ashamed of it. Growing up, I felt that feminism had done a lot for the girls of my generation (or, at least, the upper-middle-class white girls of my generation). No one had a problem with us being good at math or baseball. My classmates and teachers took my opinions seriously. Yet I was afraid. I felt that if anyone should discover the joy a lacy bra inspired in me, or the hours I could spend in front of a dressing-room mirror, everything would fall apart.
I didn’t have any clear evidence to support this fear. The threat of being exposed as a Girl Who Likes Shopping was amorphous, collected from the edges of everyday life. I extrapolated from, for instance, the way my father described my third grade teacher: “She’s great, the kids love her, but she always wears this bright blue eyeshadow.” He said it as if the makeup were a point against her. I hadn’t noticed that my teacher wore eye shadow until then. It was just part of her face.
When I went to Rosalinabeth’s house in early elementary school, we would sometimes paint our nails. She had so many colors, and also the sparkly stuff you could layer on top of other colors to feel extra fancy.
But I had another friend—we’ll call her Jo. Jo never wore dresses and never wore shoes and never brushed her hair. She climbed trees and hunted frogs and was generally the coolest person I had ever met. If I was going to her house, I made sure to take off my nail polish first.
Cool girls did not like girly things. Nail polish was not compatible with the Powerful Female Character archetype.
I knew our society’s beauty standards are unrealistic, manufactured by corporations to keep women oppressed and spending money. My inner desire to be thin and blond—to fit that image of the woman laden with shopping bags—became a symptom of poor moral fortitude. The advertisers had gotten to me.
In my seventh-grade French class, we learned the verb ‘aimer’: to like. The teacher gave us a list of activities, and we had to write sentences explaining if we liked them or not.
I wrote: “J’aime lire. J’aime nager. J’aime faire du vélo.” I like reading. I like shopping. I like bicycling.
I wrote: “Je n’aime pas aller au centre commercial.” I do not like going to the mall.
Shopping didn’t always exist as a recreational activity. For most of European history, only the aristocracy had more than one or two sets of clothing. Everything had to be done by hand, so a new dress was both extremely time consuming and extremely expensive. In this era, cities were masculine spaces, meant for politics and business. Respectable women stayed at home. The only women on the streets were prostitutes, objects for male consumption.
Then came the industrial revolution. The middle class expanded, goods were produced at lower costs, and shopping became a viable activity for a much larger portion of the population. Suddenly, women had a reason to roam the city.
In London, they installed raised sidewalks and street- lamps. The sidewalks were meant to keep women’s shoes and long skirts out of the mud, and the streetlamps allowed them to keep shopping even as the sun set. The goal was to keep women in the stores as long as possible, so they would spend the maximum amount of money. It was manipulative capitalism, yet it was also the first instance of women’s needs and desires having an impact on the architecture of the city.
Department stores went even further, offering safety, tearooms, and public lavatories to the female shopper. Advertisers had to address women specifically, and though their tactics were certainly rooted in deeply sexist assumptions, it was still one of the first times that men had to think deeply about what women might want.
This, perhaps, is what I did not understand growing up: a woman shopping is a woman with purchasing power, and a woman with any sort of power is basically an existential threat to the patriarchy—ergo, why society must ridicule her.
The advent of shopping-as-recreation meant that women could make decisions about fashion and decor, but only if everyone understood that these decisions were not important. And if a woman came to care deeply about these choices—the only ones she was allowed to make for herself—she could easily be laughed off as frivolous.
The mall did for Rosalinabeth and me what the department store did for 19th-century women. It was the first place our parents said, “Here is some money, be free, meet us back at Macy’s at two o’clock.” The posters in the store windows may have given us unrealistic beauty standards, but they were aimed at us—teenage girls—specifically.
We went to the mall to find out what we liked. To say, “Oh my God that bikini is so ugly,” which really meant, “I am becoming a person who is confident in their own tastes and opinions.” We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us. At the mall, we could be the experts.
This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it.
This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it.
Malls are dying. Online shopping is pushing them ever closer to obsolescence. Throughout high school, Rosalinabeth and I watched the stores trickle out. We said goodbye to the Aeropostale; we said goodbye to the Wet Seal; we watched the Forever 21 move from a nine-room maze with two escalators and its own entrance to a small retail space next to Target.
Recently, I heard a journalist on TV say the pandemic is accelerating the demise of the American shopping mall, and I can’t say I’m mad about it. We could do with fewer sprawling parking lots, fewer plastic bags, and fewer stick-thin mannequins.
A shopping mall, to me, feels morally similar to a zoo. The animals are given food, safety, and expert veterinary care. They are celebrated—but they are also caged. And at the end of the day, the people who erected those cages are trying to make money.
Right now, I am stuck at home. I have not been to a mall in over a year. My pants are all too big for me (I’ve lost weight in quarantine—part of me is happy about this, part of me is ashamed of that happiness, rooted as it is in unrealistic beauty standards) but I haven’t bought new ones because fitting rooms are closed.
Everyone is talking about the first thing they’ll do when this is all over. They’ll hug their grandparents. They’ll go to the movies. They’ll get absurdly drunk with all their friends.
I might go to the mall, if it is still around. I will buy a strangely fruity iced tea from Starbucks, and be frustrated when the cardboard straw gets too soggy to help scoop up the ice cubes from the bottom. I will try on some pants. I will ride anescalator. I will feel, somehow, like myself.
“I just don’t understand why you have to box yourself into these categories. I mean, aren’t we all just human? Why do you have to label yourself like that?” A family member at dinner, Christmas Eve, 2016. Lasts approximately three hours.
Maxwell is a family name. My uncle has it, my grandmother has it, her father… I don’t know its origin story. My mother wanted to give it to me as a middle name, as tradition, but also so that if I ever wanted to be a writer, I would have a pen name at hand. Its origin story for me really began at age sixteen, when I went by Max for the first time. I wore baggy clothes until my then-boyfriend informed me tight clothes were sexier. I stopped immediately. I never thought I wanted to be a boy. I knew my favorite characters were Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s novels and Viola from She’s the Man. But I loved dresses, so none of this meant anything, of course.
I tried Sophie again in college because I felt so detached from and alienated by this mysterious concept of womanhood. I desperately wanted to be a girl. I had always been feminine, so it was fine. It was totally fine—and then it wasn’t. Dysphoria is like a slow burn, or a month-long itch that you can’t scratch—it’s there in your most vulnerable moment, constantly teetering at the periphery of your brain. But that’s not what made me trans. The queer and trans culture at Oberlin that I so desperately needed, that so openly embraced me and said it’s okay: That’s not what made me trans. I actually rejected the word transgender for the first two years after I came out as non-binary. Maybe it was too foreign, too assertive. Maybe because I still liked dresses, which I still connected with womanness. But it was also because in my head, I saw transgenderism as something painful, something that was etched into history with violence and oppression. It didn’t feel like my place, as a white upper-middle-class queer gallivanting around Oberlin calling themself a twink, to hold the weight of that word—or maybe I didn’t want it.
And yet there is something about the word transgender that is so enticing in its mysteriousness, so embracing and transgressive. I found myself questioning what the word meant, and what it meant for my own gender-straying. I found myself interpolated in the word by my own standards, my community, and institutions of cis/heteronormativity. A word bent on defiance.
But the limits of the word seemed to elude me and many people within my community. We all knew what it meant, and yet some people were using it as an umbrella term for anything outside of cisgender, whereas some of my non-binary and trans friends were saying that it made them uncomfortable to see it used in such broad definition, for people whose experiences they couldn’t relate to. Then there were people like me, who were scared to recognize the potential of the word.
It wasn’t that we were all confused. The word’s definition is elusive through its history. But through its conception, we can trace why radically different people are adopting the word transgender, and how this miscommunication occurs.
“So you want to be a man?” “No, not quite.” “So you want to be a woman?” “No, not exactly.” “So you’re trying to become a man?” “Um.” Encounter with Planned Parenthood doctor while trying to get T, August 18, 2017. Lasts approximately fifteen minutes.
The Transgender Dilemma
Transgender as a word and concept has swiftly ascended into contemporary popular terminology. As early as the ’60s, trans people coined the word to counter the medicalized term transsexual, and by the early ’90s, trans activists such as Leslie Feinberg helped popularize the word to describe people who did not identify as transsexual, but were not cisgender either. Transgender became an umbrella term for gender nonconforming individuals. Yet as the word transsexual became obsolete due to its problematic context and history, transgender came to replace transsexual in the everyday American’s vocabulary. For the general public, transgender individuals resided within a traditional binary of gender. Transgenderism was still considered to be a “crossing of borders,” from one end of the binary to the other: FTM or MTF.
Jack Halberstam writes in his essay, “Transgender Butch,” “A common metaphor for transsexualism is a crossing of national borders from one place to another, from one state to another, from one gender to another.” Halberstam is able to situate the polemic of the border-crossing mythology, but he also points to the dangers of using border-crossing as a metaphor, since immigration is a real and lived experience for many people. He cautions “against detaching the metaphors of travel and home and migration from the actual experience of immigration in a world full of borders.”
Especially in the age of “Deporter-In-Chief” Obama, and then Trump’s America, we have begun to normalize a world in which ICE unlawfully barges into homes, families are separated, and children are kept in detention centers. Now more than ever we must be wary of the idea of border-crossing as a metaphor for transgenderism, because the transitory nature of transgenderism does not parallel the reality of the dangers of crossing borders and immigration.
Furthermore, using the border-crossing analogy for transgender folk situates them on one side or the other, and neglects the people caught in between: “If the borderlands are uninhabitable for some transsexuals who imagine that home is just across the border, imagine what a challenge they present to those subjects who do not believe that such a home exists, either metaphorically or literally… Some bodies are never at home, some bodies cannot simply cross from A to B, some bodies recognize and live with the inherent instability of identity.”
The transgressive non-conforming people did find words specifically for these shared experiences caught in the borderlands. As words such as ‘gender-queer’ and ‘non-binary’ became prevalent in the early naughts, many queer individuals came to consider other words to describe the experience of gender outside a binary, and transgender became more and more equated with the border-crossing ideology. However, many trans and non-binary people still use transgender as a general term for gender deviance.
When I was writing “Dialogues on Gender” for Wilder Voice in 2015, I found a number of people with startlingly different conceptions of the word trans. But each use was so emotional, and so personal to their own experience, that they were difficult to reconcile. Because I didn’t identify as trans at the time, they were not mine to question. But I did start asking more trans friends if the umbrella term bothered them. The feedback I received, like our trans history, is controversial.
What isn’t controversial is a shared commonality in the formulation of gender identities that lay outside the norm. These genders are actualized first through self-recognition. However, in performing and identifying through non-conforming genders, some people are privileged with safety (through cis-passing), and others are not. Some experience body dysphoria, some will have to take on extensive financial burdens for hormones and surgeries, and others will not. The visibility of transness creates a hierarchy of whose voices we listen to, who we deem desirable, and who is accepted in cis or trans culture. We try to be critical of this, to consider which voices we privilege above others. But ultimately that hierarchy often shifts to white, ableist, and cis-normative standards and voices to take the space to be recognized, to be heard. Cis people are all aware of Caitlyn Jenner or Ruby Rose, but have never heard of Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Leslie Feinberg, Carlett Brown, Paul Preciado, or Marsha P. Johnson—all activists and theorists who fought for trans rights and recognition. Without these trans icons, many of us wouldn’t be able to live our truth today, and yet still, many trans people even do not know their names.
This problem of visibility, acceptance, and recognition has dominated the politics and ideology of the word trans. Ironically, Oberlin students reside within an epistemological binary of the word transgender. We remain divided between a structuralist binary (I am and you aren’t) or the invalidation of different experiences through hegemonic universalism (we are all the same by virtue of being transgressive). I aim to complicate these conceptions of the word transgender with a new framework, one of transgender cartography. By thinking of transgenderism as a fluid state of migration, we not only trouble the concept of border crossing, but also conceptualize how non-binary and transgender identities hold different places in challenging cis-normativity, while there is no real disunion between them.
“So you’re all lesbians?” “Actually I’m transgender.” “So you identify as… what?” “A trans dude. Not a man exactly.” “But what do you identify as?” “What?” Conversation with friendly TERF butch at the International Gay Rodeo, October 21, 2017. Lasts approximately twenty minutes.
Subverting the Homeland
Poetry, tea packaging, and yoga studios all like to tell us our body is our home. For transgender and non-binary individuals, this idea of the body as the center of the home is problematic. Both transgender and non-binary people share a similar origin story: They were born into a world with assigned genders that marked them as XX or XY. These centers of origin politically informed them with forms of habitus: cultural habits that inform our language, our posture, the way we sit, dress, interact with each other—all forms of gender embodiment we can find stem from this false origin story. For some people this narrative will always snugly fit, or they will find their own subtle subversions and defiances: the tomboy, the twink, etc. Others take a more direct approach in which they either subvert their origin story in its entirety or migrate away from the homeland.
Home must be problematized. Halberstam writes, “If home has represented the comfort of place and the politics of location and the stability of belonging within such a dialectic, the border has stood for the politics of displacement, the hybridity of identity, and the economics of undocumented labor. There is little to be gained theoretically or materially from identifying either home or border as the true place of resistance. […] Home is a mythic site, a place to anchor some racial and ethnic identities even as those identities are wrenched out of context or pressured into assimilation.”
Before we depart from home, as a non-binary trans person I hope to make clear that this does not negate a shared experience or the multitude of ways that trans and non-binary people develop their identities. We’re not in the business of working within binaries. However, distinctions and clarity within language are crucial to our ability to describe those intersections and gaps in their full weight and complexity.
The transgender individual migrates away from their falsely proclaimed “home.” But the non-binary individual, rather than engage in this performative spatial transit, subverts their origin story. It does not matter if they do not change their performance from their assigned gender through clothing, body language, or other codes of gender. To the cis eye, they may not externally be recognizable as trans: incognito transgressors. For non-binary people, the subversion of the home does not appear through external values, but internally. By defying the binary they are able to make “masculine” and “feminine” bodies, styles, and definitions meaningless.
For the transgender individual, a migration emerges when the subject begins transitioning and challenging their former home to conflate with new queer and trans habitus, language, and culture that they create or discover. They embark on a migration across space, ascending nationality and heteronormativity, to discover a new corporeal site that locates their gender embodiment. They reconstitute their subjecthood by reconstructing the first words they hear, Congratulations, it’s a…
The transgender corporeal site is always moving, always transitioning, always humming. It is neither static nor structured, but a fluid evolving landscape that the trans subject roams through, in between spaces and nations, uninterrupted but for the heteronormative interference of American society. This new site’s impermanence is significant. While some transgender people may consider their gender static, many express movement and queerness as a dynamic destabilized ontology. Furthermore, this new site may incorporate many cultural phenomena of the former “home:” Trans people may operate or use many heteronormative behaviors or beliefs, and that doesn’t challenge their transness, because it is appropriated and subverted to fit their new ontological site of being.
“Why do you need to box yourself in? Why do you have to announce yourself like that to the world?” “For the same reason you do.” Friendly TERF butch at the International Gay Rodeo, October 21, 2017. Lasts approximately twenty minutes.
The prefix trans means across, beyond, on the far side of, on the other side of, or on the outside of. Even linguistically we see migration and movement. Transgender subjects move away from their origin or home to a new ontological site that is not mapped by traditional conceptions of gender or established borders and nationality. Transgender individuals leave their citizenship of XX and XY, and live beyond the confines of heteronormative society. Citizenship in America is constituted in a capitalist framework, the primary unit of capitalism being (re)production, which queer and many trans people inherently fail successfully participate in. Neoliberal philosophy in particular is centered to focus on the individual and around the nuclear family—crafted heteronormative roles and hierarchies that trans and queer individuals likewise subvert or reside outside of. If citizenship is constituted in heteronormative, nationalist, legally binding terms, then the transgender subject resides as an outlaw to the state and nationalism—that is to say, trans people are not confined by nationality or borders in their creation of cartography. By not recognizing colonial arbitrary lines in maps that act as violent borders in their own cartography, transgender people are able to attempt to subvert neocolonialism.
Furthermore, a fundamental aspect of colonialism was the exportation of Western gender roles to colonized countries. Even the word “transsexual” was imported to countries through the DSM, and constituted a form of gender deviance that erased many peaceful gender variances in non-Western countries. The weight of colonialist gender norms has informed our conceptions of the nuclear family and contemporary heteronormativity. Transness becomes an active, subversive departure: It is inherently anti-colonial to resist these gender norms, to resist colonial artifacts of borders and maps, to move through uncharted territory without claiming ownership.
Through their transitioning (which never really starts or ends in a linear sense, but rather erupts and shifts throughout their lives) transgender individuals go beyond figurative and literal borders to find their new corporeal sites. This may lead them physically to different countries, such as Thailand (the most popular destination for gender affirming surgeries). It may physically mean traveling across countries and states to access hormones, to find community, to find their own subjecthood. It also may mean staying physically exactly where they already are, but transcending figurative heteronormative and colonialist structures and borders. Shifting and twisting, reaching and growing, the transgender subject transitions to create their own melding of gendered habitus, externally or internally. In this way, each transgender person is their own cartographer, creating maps that do not rely on arbitrary violent lines of colonialism but travel across new networks and ontological sites.
In terms of navigation, we can use the work of two foundational queer theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s framework of striated and smooth space, to consider the bordered land of nations and heteronormativity compared to the fluid space the transgender individual inhabits. Striated muscle presents tissue in semi-parallel lines, each with a clear and strict pathway and uninhabited spaces in between. Striated space can be seen as state-held space, formed through fixed landmarks and centers; it is marked with homogeneity through industrialization and globalization. Smooth space, on the other hand, is fluid, open, and allows for nomadic movement, organic pathways like those seen in nature. Cities and borders could be considered striated space, spaces that designate the area that people are able to pass through, spaces only accessible by state-sanctioned entry points, while smooth space is uninterrupted and fluctuating, such as a plain or a desert. There is no origin or point of entry allotted—it is open-ended and extensive. This methodology is useful for understanding the smooth space the transgender subject occupies, and the striated space that the state and heteronormativity represent as interference that transgender subjects must navigate around.
The terrain of transgender topography may have ridges, valleys, and mountain ranges that create challenges in a transgender subject’s migration, but it is also marked with the smooth land, with no pathways in sight, no highways or intersections to be seen. The transgender subject moves through space in queer time, not marked linearly by birth, puberty, marriage, children, and death, but through rebirth, second puberties, finding communities, gender disruption and variance. Transgender people move through their own Foucaultian genealogical time framework—events disrupting linear time, repetition without origin, movement against a teleological narrative.
We don’t see our own cartography from the perspective of a person surveying a map; we are living, fucking, breathing, and shitting our own cartography, marking the map through the various realizations and performances of gender, etching our way through the intersections of our identities. Our cartography may overlap, we may share similar roads, but all diverge into their own locales. The geography of these maps is not broken up by borders but by natural pathways, and in this way transgender cartography subverts colonial barriers and arbitrary borders. Transgender individuals live in a diaspora of gender, having left their homeland and engaging in new and alien terrain, passing through striated space that they cannot assimilate into. They are dispelled by their place of origin and many cannot return, but transfer cultural identity codes to their ontological sites, and in this way, keep moving, keep growing.
Another way to think of these pathways is as a rhizome. A rhizome is a bulbous root plant, but Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor with multiple chains, entrances, and branches connected to a center. It is the multiplicity of the rhizome’s branches that is key: “There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” The smaller lines branching off can be seen as “lines of flight” that signify ruptures in multiplicity, “[extending] the line of flight to the point it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.”
If we think of transgender space through cartography, we see pathways or rhizomatic branches and intersections emerge. The multiplicity of rhizomes lends itself to the various assemblages of trans movement across space. The rhizome is the rhythm that leaves etchings across the map as trans people journey and create their transgender cartography. While some branches or pathways may appear from a distance as highways, or shared experiences of performing transness, others digress into lines of flight, or their own individual paths. A trans person may meet another trans person and see the commonalities in their journey—perhaps two people begin taking estrogen at the same time—but ultimately individuals recognize one another. They move onward in their own voyage, finding unfamiliar landscapes that constitute their gender.
It is too simplistic to say transgender people cross borders. It also is a disservice to the stories of cis and trans people who must literally cross over these real and violent borders, who embark to new nations.
The border-crossing analogy echoes colonial exploration—who has the privilege to leave home and to return, versus those who remain trapped in the borderlands. Transgender people do not cross over borders; their gender resides outside of these borders, beyond colonial maps. Transgender people are their own cartographers, mapping their journey through lines of flight, weaving new smooth spaces in gendered terrain unseen to the cis eye.
am I hard enough (???) am I curved or jagged am I woman enough (???) will you burn me at the stake (???) interjection have you heard about the diaspora (???)
—Kai Joy, “diaspora (Have you heard ::: (???))”
Neither language nor space is apolitical. There is always the “who” at play: Who dictates what is correct or proper language? Who is anointed with the power to define others? Who creates lines across land and calls them borders? Who is allowed to cross these lines, and who is not? In both language and space, there are positions of power to be held, and privileged voices that attempt to segregate space and classify language. As the theorist Costica Bradatan says, “The power to give names to things, as those crushed by it know only too well, is among the greatest powers that there are: What you do, what you’ve been doing all your life—even the name of your calling—is something others who have that power can decide.”
The naming of the self is a crucial part of transgender and non-binary identities. It is recognition of the self as other that separates us from cisgender identities. We name our individual selves the moment we recognize this discursive identity. It is this power that we—the transgender community—hold, and must hold, for cisgender people will try to disparage and dismiss this power. They have attempted to strip us of it. They have used medicalized frameworks to tell us we are sick, they have used vulgar language to belittle and harm us. It is not up to cisgender people to name us.
The power of language coexists with space. Geography may inform our “mother” tongue, neocolonialism may force imperial languages down others’ throats. We have seen the resistance though, through multilingual diasporas, through the recordings and teaching of vanishing languages. Space and language are not isolated from one another, and I hope to challenge the institutionalized frameworks of neocolonialism through a new conception of what language can mean and what abolishing borders can look like.
This essay is not to designate the “right” framework of how to think of transgenderism versus non-binary identities, but rather to provide an alternative to the messy and confusing history of transgender language. We need to own our linguistic history, because it defines our contemporary reality. “All awareness is a linguistic affair” is a pragmatist slogan used by Wilfrid Sellars. If language constructs our awareness and augments our reality, then it is imperative that we understand the historical and political context of the word transgender, and that we are thoughtful about the hierarchical nature of whose voices are upheld as trans. We need to acknowledge our own hierarchies, of whose voice we privilege, of who we give the space to speak. We need to acknowledge that transgenderism is only one facet of identity our community members hold, and that race, class, nationality, citizenship, and disabilities also constitute how we interact with our gender and with others’. Most of all, we must be critical of the language we use, of the naming we give each other.
If history cannot define transgenderism for us, it is up to us, gender outlaws and incognito transgressors, to define it.
Any artist today has heard the claim: There are no rules in art anymore. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp premiered Bicycle Wheel, now known as his first “readymade” sculpture. The readymades were existing objects (often commonplace items, like bicycle wheels and urinals) that the artist signed, thereby making them “art.” The American composer John Cage followed in a similar vein with his piece 4’33” (1952), a solo piano piece where the pianist plays not a single note. Instead, the audience hears the sounds of the concert hall: people coughing, the creaks of the heating vents, nervous shuffling in the audience. These two events mark the artistic revolution that occurred in the twentieth century. If a completely “silent” piece (an appraisal that Cage refuted, as there was sound involved) is music, then anything can be music. If a signed urinal can be art, then anything can be art. Needless to say, Duchamp and Cage were not the only artists engaging in this type of practice: there were also the White Paintings of Rauschenberg, the text pieces of Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros, and the “noise” symphonies of Luigi Russolo, among others. However, these pieces often act as flash points when discussing the upending of the artistic establishment in the twentieth century. This shift abolished the relevance of any established “rules” in music and art—one need not be concerned with eighteenth-century counterpoint or figure drawing if they do not feel so obliged. However, this deconstruction has left us with a climate of uncertainty and passiveness: If anything can be art, how do we judge the quality of our work and the work of others?
One response to this problem has been to treat the arts, specifically music, as a type of science. The New Complexity movement in acoustic composition and the Acousmatic genre of electronic music both advocate for a sort of musical objectivity. In these genres, composers may manipulate series of notes representing the atomic density of various gasses, produce pieces structured by mathematical functions, and trigger sounds at the tempo of a certain country’s birth rate. Every musical decision must be supported by something factual and leave little room for any type of subjective critique: It doesn’t matter that the piece doesn’t sound interesting—here are all of my mathematical calculations that back up its validity, the composer would respond. In electronic music, the technology used to produce the musical object often supersedes the object itself. In fact, the piece tends to act almost solely as a “proof of concept,” or a demonstration of the capabilities of the technology; think of a trade show, where the salesperson shows you all the sounds you can make by pressing different buttons on a device. One can quickly see that this type of rigor does nothing to further the creation of quality work. Art is not a science: One cannot force objectivity onto something inherently subjective. Rather, art should be treated as its own distinct field with a unique system of rigor reflecting this subjective nature.
Another response to the problem of rigor in art is to act as if it is impossible to produce poor quality work. If everything is art, then there can be no bad art. This, again, is a weak solution. Under these constraints, artists find themselves becoming lazy and apathetic: If there is no way to do art badly, why put in the effort to make it good?
None of this is to say that the events of the twentieth century have doomed contemporary artists to obsolescence. Rather, they have freed us from various rules based in systemic oppression. Most “classical music” rules are based on the practices of white, European men, and are often used to invalidate the works of composers not fitting these specifications. Ridding the music world of these constraints benefits marginalized artists and forces diversification in the art world. Now, without institutional rules dictating what constitutes “good art,” we can create systems of quality that reflect us, our positionalities, and our metrics of quality.
What would a new system of rigor look like? It certainly must rely on self-determined metrics of quality—our art should reflect what we believe quality art to be—rather than universally defined ones. Here, Cage can provide us with a basic framework on which to build. He defines music as consisting of four components: structure, method, material, and form. These components are defined as follows:
Structure: the division of music into parts, from phrases to long sections
Method: the movement from note to note
Material: sound or silence
Form: the continuity from start to finish
Cage’s definitions reside in the music sphere, but they can be abstracted easily and applied to other art forms. In writing, structure can be viewed as the division of text into sentences and paragraphs, method as the syntax of the sentence, material as the words and punctuation, and form as the narrative arc. Likewise, in visual art, structure can be the groupings of figures; method, the connection between these; material, pigment or negative space; and form, the overall layout of the piece.
Cage places these components on a spectrum between mind (head) and heart, and it is this spectrum that provides the foundation for a newly defined rigorous art.
Any creation of art consists of a series of decisions: What note should be played by which instrument and when? How loud should it be? Where should the artist place a line on a canvas? How long and bold should it be, and what color? Which words should a sentence contain? Which synonym should be used to best communicate the author’s intent? Each of these decisions tend to originate from either an analytical (head-based) place, or an intuitive (heart-based) one. Art requires both technical proficiency of some sort (can you program the computer to make the sound you want?) and creative proficiency (do you like how your music sounds?). Thus, each compositional decision must satisfy both these requirements—if a decision stems from the head, does it please the heart? If the decision is intuitive, does it make sense within the analytic structure of the piece? This is our system of rigor: Each decision must be considered and judged as to its quality from both an analytic and intuitive perspective.
While such a system of rigor may prove more viable than the existing ones, its execution can be exhausting. Constantly checking and double-checking your work can lead to a place of artistic paralysis: What if one small decision isn’t good enough? This is where play enters the process. Art is an inherently human act, a fact that the artist cannot forget. Cage captures this sentiment when he defines the purpose of music: “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love” (Cage, Forerunners of Modern Music).
This concept is exemplified best by the works of Yoko Ono. Her text pieces, such as the one found in Grapefruit (below), prompt performers to reorient their mindsets and play with the material presented by their surroundings.
It is critical to play with your material, to fuss with it and tease out delightful deviations and mutations. Remembering this aspect isn’t only for the artist’s health; joy has a strange way of manifesting in your work, and its absence is perceptible.
However, the mind cannot simultaneously exist in a state of rigor and a state of play. It is hard to both edit and write at the same time. As artists in an academic environment, we often feel pressure to perform our practices in line with institutional and class requirements. Yet in order to produce effective work, we must remember to keep our own definitions of quality in mind and resist the urge to academicize our output instead of playing with our material. We must exist in a constant state of flux, oscillating between reckless experimentation and elegant, level-headed analysis. It is only then that we can capture those intangible subconscious whispers and force them into exquisite earthly manifestations.