Blog Post

Always Already Mere Subject-Effects?: Nakamura, Technophobia & Transgender Subjectivity

In Lisa Nakamura's brilliant Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002), she stages the web as "a place where race happens" (xi), musing with an uncertain posturing, "Can the Internet propagata genuinely new and nonracist (and nonsexist and nonclassist) ways of being, or does it merely reflect our culture at large?" (xii). While I'd wonder if such is the case for noncissexist ways of being, since trans culture is not a "our [sic] culture at large." Her omission of cissexism or transmisogyny from her intersective frame of social justice does not imply her unacknowledgement of the transgender topic.

As a matter of fact, she believes that trans culture or subjectivity is a reflection of our culture at large, echoing former transfeminist contretemps by figuring the ‘cyberprosthetic’ trans body as the subject-effect of technology; for her, self-chosen “identities enabled by technology, such as...cosmetic and transgender surgery and body modifications…are not breaking the mold of unitary identity but rather shifting identity into the realm of the ‘virtual’” (4). Her denotation of "the virtual" is that of computer science: on the one hand, "created, simulated, or carried out by a computer or computer networks"; on the other, "not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so." Yet a visible slippage lies between these two definitions: it aptly underscores the simulacra of virtuality, thinking a transgender analog/y clever for comparison, but then assumes in a poststructuralist vein that there is not underlying core or essence to technology. It assumes that transgender is not an umbrella terminology of diffuse and dispersive identity formations. In part, it insidiously implies that no (trans) subject preexists technology; that we are merely postcyborg subject-effects. An incistence of such disregards not only a rich history of trans identity that preexists such a technology (and her argument), but also erases those who are not surgery-oriented, those who lie between or beyond the binary, and the real gender-based violence and discrimination experienced by trans folks.

In a different knot of her argument, she faults trans identity formations for “the shifting and contingent status of the categories ‘woman’ and ‘person of color’, whereby these “modern body technologies are partly responsible…: gender reassignment surgery and cosmetic surgery can make these definitions all the blurrier” (7). Overall, her critique furthers a cybertype of her own of “transsexuality” as the modus operandi of trans self-actualization, as if surgery were some trans epistemological telos, while simultaneously eliding the vast differences in trans populations on the basis of, say, race and class, that a transfeminist politics could not ignore. She presumes that all trans critique obeys a logic of sexual difference that seeks to assimilate within, as opposed to resist, its cisnormative dictates. More ironically, her arguments are not informed by QTPOC theorizing, despite her belief that “it is absolutely necessary to ground critique in the lived realities of the human, in all their particularity and specificity” (7). While trans people are well-accustomed to abjection, Susan Stryker insists that a critique of the medico-capitalistic “pursuit for immortality through the perfection of the body” does not preclude “medically constructed transsexual bodies from being sites of subjectivity” in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” (1994) (242).

These transfeminist disidentifications are not new. Indeed, formal articulations of transfeminisms emerged in relation to second-wave feminist transphobia and cissexism, where trans-exclusionary “radical feminist” politics were lodged in academic and activist concerns over the viability of transfeminist coalitions. Feminist thinkers such as Mary Daly, Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys belied the validity of transgender identity, to the extent that Raymond, in The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the Shemale (1979), charged “the transsexually constructed lesbian feminist” with the “rape” of cisgender women for “reducing the female form to an artifact” (104), while Daly decried trans women’s “necrophilic invasion” of female subjectivity in Gyn/Ecology (69-72). These and other trans-critical feminists do not register that many trans people have already formulated "posttranssexual" criticisms, such as Sandy Stone in her "The Empire Strikes Back: A Postposttranssexual Manifesto." As Susan Stryker notes in "Transgender Studies: Queer Theory's Evil Twin," far too often "transgender phenomena are misapprehended through a lens that privileges sexual orientation and sexual identity as the primary means of differing from heteronormativity" (214). Trans-critical discourse must not hinge on a form of anti-trans technophobia, yet it simultaneously must not blindly embrace transgender technophilia. It is imperative to address these resurgences in trans-criticism within the digital humanities, not in order to stifle radical critique and open dialogue, but rather to ensure it disavows the humanity of trans and gender nonconforming people.

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