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Second Skins
Second Skins
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Second Skins

The Body Narratives of Transsexuality

Jay Prosser

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📖 eBook - ePub

Second Skins

The Body Narratives of Transsexuality

Jay Prosser

About This Book

Do we need bodies for sex? Is gender in the head or in the body? In Second Skins Jay Prosser reveals the powerful drive that leads men and women literally to shed their skins and--in flesh and head--to cross the boundary of sex. Telling their story is not merely an act that comes after the fact, it's a force of its own that makes it impossible to forget that stories of identity inhabit autobiographical bodies.

In this stunning first extensive study of transsexual autobiography, Jay Prosser examines the exchanges between body and narrative that constitute the phenomenon of transsexuality. Showing how transsexuality's somatic transitions are spurred and enabled by the formal transitions of narrative, Prosser uncovers a narrative tradition for transsexual bodies. Sex change is a plot--and thus appropriately transsexuals make for adept and absorbing authors. In reading the transssexual plot through transsexuals' own recounting, Prosser not only gives us a new and more accurate rendition of transsexuality. His book suggests transsexuality, with its extraordinary conjunctions of body and narrative, as an identity story that transitions across the body/language divide that currently stalls poststucturalist thought.

The form and approach of Second Skins works to cross other important and parallel divides. In addition to
analyzing transsexual textual accounts, the book includes some 30 photographic portraits of transsexuals--
poignant attempts by transsexuals to present themselves unmediated to the world except by the camera. And the author does not shy from exposure himself. Interjecting the personal into his theoretical discussion and close textual work throughout the book, Prosser reads and writes his own body, his purpose in that stylistic crossing to stake out transsexuality--and hence this very book--as his own body's narrative.

Information

Year
1998
ISBN
9780231533805
There is little time for grief in the Phenomenology [of Spirit] because renewal is always close at hand. What seems like tragic blindness turns out to be more like the comic myopia of Mr. Magoo whose automobile careening through the neighbor’s chicken coop always seems to land on all four wheels. Like such miraculously resilient characters of the Saturday morning cartoon, Hegel’s protagonists always reassemble themselves, prepare a new scene, enter the stage armed with a new set of ontological insights—and fail again. As readers, we have no other narrative option but to join in this bumpy ride.
—Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France
Transgender and the Queer Moment
Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant. The word “queer” itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart.
—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies
In its earliest formulations, in what are now considered its foundational texts, queer studies can be seen to have been crucially dependent on the figure of transgender. As one of its most visible means of institutionalization, queer theory represented itself as traversing and mobilizing methodologies (feminism, poststructuralism) and identities (women, heterosexuals) already, at least by comparison, in institutionalized place. Seized on as a definitively queer force that “troubled” the identity categories of gender, sex, and sexuality—or rather revealed them to be always already fictional and precarious—the trope of crossing was most often impacted with if not explicitly illustrated by the transgendered subjects crossing their several boundaries at once: both the boundaries between gender, sex, and sexuality and the boundary that structures each as a binary category.
Even in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work, which has argued most trenchantly for “a certain irreducibility” of sexuality to gender, and thus one might deduce would follow a certain irreducibility of homosexuality to transgender, homophobic constructions are understood to be produced by and productive of culturally normative gender identities and relations.1 The implications of this include a thorough enmeshing of homosexual desire with transgender identification. In its claim that women in the nineteenth century served to mediate desire between men, Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire suggests that the production of normative heterosexuality depended on a degree of male identification—and yet importantly, the disavowal of this identification—with woman as the object of desire.2 At the beginnings of queer therefore, in what is arguably lesbian and gay studies’ first book, heterosexuality is shown to be constructed through the sublimation of a cross-gendered identification; for this reason, making visible this identification—transgendered movement—will become the key queer mechanism for deconstructing heterosexuality and writing out queer.
Sedgwick’s next book foregrounds this methodological function of transgender explicitly. Epistemology of the Closet presents transgender as one good reason for the development of a theory of (homo) sexuality distinct from feminism. The critical visibility of transgender—“the reclamation and relegitimation of a courageous history of lesbian trans-gender role-playing and identification”—poses a challenge to lesbianism’s incorporation within feminism: “The irrepressible, relatively class-nonspecific popular culture in which James Dean has been as numinous an icon for lesbians as Garbo or Dietrich has for gay men seems resistant to a purely feminist theorization. It is in these contexts that calls for a theorized axis of sexuality as distinct from gender have developed.”3 Exceeding feminism’s purview of gender, transgender demands and contributes to the basis for a new queer theory; paradoxically, transgender demands a new theory of sexuality. It is transgender that makes possible the lesbian and gay overlap, the identification between gay men and lesbians, which forms the grounds for this new theory of homosexuality discrete from feminism. And it is surely this overlap or cross-gendered identification between gay men and lesbians—an identification made critically necessary by the AIDS crisis—that ushers in the queer moment.
Most recently in her autobiographical narratives and performance pieces, Sedgwick has revealed her personal transgendered investment lying at and as the great heart of her queer project. Her confession of her “identification? Dare I, after this half-decade, call it with all a fat woman’s defiance, my identity?—as a gay man” “comes out” with the transgendered desire that has been present in her work all along.4 Similarly in its readings, Tendencies derives its queer frisson openly and consistently from an identification across genders: a mobility “across gender lines, including the desires of men for women and of women for men,” a transgendered traversal that in its queering (skewing and unraveling) of apparently normative heterosexuality is simultaneously a movement across sexualities.5 To summon the queer moment, the book begins with a figure for transgender—gay men wearing DYKE T-shirts and lesbians wearing FAGGOT T-shirts.
But Sedgwick is just the tip of the iceberg. The transgendered presence lies just below the surface of most of lesbian and gay studies’ foundational texts. Early work on the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identities theorized otherness as produced through a racist, homophobic, and sexist transgendering, and thus again transgendering became the means to challenging this othering. Kobena Mercer’s work on the fetishizing/feminizing white gaze of Robert Mapplethorpe at the black male body; Cherríe Moraga’s description of the hermaphroditic convergence of the chingón and the chingada; Gloria Anzaldúa’s memory of the mita’ y mita’ figure in the sexual, gender, and geographic borderlands: these various cross-gendered figures emerged both as constructions and, in their articulation by these critics, deconstructions of cultural ideologies that insist on absolute difference in all identity.6 Other early lesbian and gay studies work invested in the transgendered subject’s “trans” a transgressive politics. For Teresa de Lauretis, Sue-Ellen Case, Jonathan Dollimore, and Marjorie Garber whether appearing in contemporary lesbian cinematic representations of butch/femme desire, in theatrical cross-dressing in early modern England, or as popular cultural gender-blending icons, the transgendered subject made visible a queerness that, to paraphrase Garber, threatened a crisis in gender and sexual identity categories.7 Crucial to the idealization of transgender as a queer transgressive force in this work is the consistent decoding of “trans” as incessant destabilizing movement between sexual and gender identities. In short, in retrospect, transgender gender appears as the most crucial sign of queer sexuality’s aptly skewed point of entry into the academy.
Without doubt though, the single text that yoked transgender most fully to queer sexuality is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.8 Gender Trouble’s impact was enormous: published in 1990, appearing with the decade, it transformed transgender into a queer icon, in the process becoming something of an icon of the new queer theory itself. Yet how this actually happened, how Gender Trouble imbricated queer with transgender, and how the book itself was imbricated with transgender forms something of an intriguing critical phenomenon. For the embodied subject of transgender barely occupies the text of Gender Trouble—a book very much, after all, about subjects’ failure of embodiment. As Butler herself states in remarking her surprise at the tendency to read Gender Trouble as a book about transgendered subjects, “there were probably no more than five paragraphs in Gender Trouble devoted to drag [yet] readers have often cited the description of drag as if it were the ‘example’ which explains the meaning of [gender] performativity.” From this later point, her 1993 essay “Critically Queer,” Butler clearly challenges the equation of transgender and homosexuality, or to be precise, the construction of transgender as the only sign of a deconstructive homosexuality: “cross-gendered identification is not the exemplary paradigm for thinking about homosexuality, although it may be one.”9 Yet the effect of Gender Trouble was precisely to secure transgender as a touchstone of lesbian and gay theory. How did Gender Trouble canonize, and how was it canonized for, a theory of transgender performativity that was apparently not its substance?
In the first essay appearing in the first edition of the first academic journal devoted to lesbian and gay studies, glq: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, itself a canonical moment in queer studies, Sedgwick comments on Gender Trouble’s canonically queer status: “Anyone who was at the 1991 Rutgers conference on Gay and Lesbian Studies [another canonizing mechanism], and heard Gender Trouble appealed to in paper after paper, couldn’t help being awed by the productive impact this dense and even imposing work has had on the recent development of queer theory and reading.” Surmising that these invocations were not indicative of an uncomplicated loyalty to Gender Trouble however, Sedgwick goes on to suggest that “the citation, the use of Butler’s formulations in the context of queer theory will prove to have been highly active and tendentious.”10 That Gender Trouble was subject to a set of reiterations and recitations proliferating meanings beyond the intention of the “original” might be considered especially fitting given its own attraction toward Foucauldian proliferation as the effective means for denaturalizing copies that pretend to originality. Its argument about recitation lent an amenability to its own recitation. There’s something very campy, very definitively queer, about readings that refused to adhere to the letter of Butler’s argument, that refused, to use its vernacular, to “repeat loyally.” The original underwent a certain overreading, playful exaggeration, a mischievous adding of emphasis, yet nevertheless remained a discernible referent.
Camp may in fact be quite fundamental to our reading of Gender Trouble and our understanding of its transgender import. In his introduction to his anthology on camp (one of two anthologies on camp that appeared soon after Gender Trouble) David Bergman nominates Butler as “the person who has done the most to revise the academic standing of camp and to suggest its politically subversive potential.”11 Bergman stakes that her success in queer studies comes in part from bringing to camp a high theoretical tone—and, we might add, from bringing camp to high theory. Pushing further on the connections between camp, queer, and the argument of Gender Trouble, it might be said that Butler’s centrality in queer theory is in part an effect of queer’s recuperation of camp and queer’s recuperation through camp. The late eighties/early nineties, simultaneous with the beginnings of queer theory, saw the cultural and political reappropriation of camp, and the history of the term “queer” is most symptomatic of this. From homophobic epithet designating and reinforcing the other’s social abjection to self-declared maker of community pride, “queer” was reclaimed precisely according to the transformative mechanisms of camp in which what has been devalued in the original becomes overvalued in the repetition. In turn, in its queer reevaluation, camp has proven a key strategy for queer theory’s own institutionalization, a means by which to piggyback into the academy on (appropriating and redefining) already established methodologies. Between Men, for instance, deployed a distinctive camp style in subjecting canonical nineteenth-century literature to deliberate yet wonderfully subtle overreadings that brought to the surface its sexual subtexts. In its academic manifestation, camp actually comes to appear a form of queer deconstruction, not simply inverting the opposition between the original and the copy, the referent and the repetition but creating, according to Scott Long, a third space, “a stance, detached, calm, and free, from which the opposition as a whole and its attendant terms can be perceived and judged.”12 This third space, this queer deconstruction, is surely queer theory.
It is certainly this camp inversion of the expected order of terms to elucidate the construction of the original that forms the very pith of Gender Trouble’s theory: the subject does not precede but is an effect of the law; heterosexuality does not precede but is an effect of the prohibition on homosexuality; sex does not precede but is an effect of the cultural construction of gender. Butler’s argument consistently reverses the expected history between the two terms in each formulation to bring them into a third space where each opposition as a whole can be perceived and judged. The binaries of sexual difference that undergird what Butler terms “the metaphysics of sex” are fragmented and mobilized with a Derridean flourish into sexual différance (GT 16). The driving sensibility of Gender Trouble’s theory is in this respect an archetypically camp one. Although the embodied transgendered subject doesn’t occupy Gender Trouble in any substantial way, it is this camp reversal of terms that conveys the sense that the transgendered subject of drag is always in the margins of the text, the implicit referent (ironically given Butlers use of camp/drags function to displace the referent). For it as the personification of camp—the third/intermediate term that reveals the constructedness of the binary of sex, of gender, and of the sex/gender system—that queer studies has anointed the transgendered subject queer. “Critically Queer”’s reading of Gender Trouble’s reception is thus absolutely right. Transgendered subjects, butches and drag queens, did come to appear the empirical examples of gender performativity, their crossing illustrating both the inessentiality of sex and the nonoriginality of heterosexuality that was the book’s thesis. And those five paragraphs or so where Gender Trouble does explicitly address the subject in drag certainly do nothing to contradict this conception of transgender as exemplarily camp/queer/performative: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency” (GT 137). In this sentence (particularly given that the italics appear in the original), transgender’s function is unambivalently and emphatically that of the elucidating example of gender performativity.
This chapter charts the achievement of and challenges that association, transgender/camp/queer/performativity. That transgender can emerge as a “studies” in the late nineteen-nineties, that the figure at the center of many of transgender’s projects is the “gender troubler,” is largely due to Butler’s canonization (both the canonization of Butler and her inadvertent canonization of transgender): “s/he”—the transgenderist, the third camp term whose crossing lays bare and disrupts the binaries that found identity—threads prominently through the self-declared first reader in the new field of transgender studies.13 My concern is the implication of this harnessing of transgender as queer for transsexuality: what are the points at which the transsexual as transgendered subject is not queer? The splits and shifts between the deployment of transgender and that of transsexuality within Butler’s work are revealing on this count. Whereas in Gender Trouble the transgendered subject is used to deliteralize the matter of sex, in Butlers later Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,” the transsexual in particular symbolizes a carefully sustained ambivalence around sex.14 That Butler chooses to elucidate the limits of the transgendered subject’s deliteralization of sex through the figure of a transsexual is a powerful indicator of the conceptual splitting between transsexual and queer and, indeed, of queer theory’s own incapacity to sustain the body as a literal category. In transsexuality sex returns, the queer repressed, to unsettle its theory of gender performativity. In making Butler the substance of my first chapter, I intend both to mark the absolutely generative force her work has had for this book and to suggest that the limitations over the figure of the transsexual and the literality of the sexed body in her work make necessary my readings of the transsexual body narratives that follow.
Queer Gender and Performativity
To realize the difference of the sexes is to put an end to play
—Jacques Lacan and Wladimir Granoff, “Fetishism: The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real”
Even though it is articulated only in the last of four sections in the final chapter (“Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions” [GT 128—141]), that is in less than one-twelfth of the book, it is the account of gender performativity that is most often remembered as the thrust of Gender Trouble. Sedgwick illustrates: “Probably the centerpiece of Butler’s recent work has been a series of demonstrations that gender can best be discussed as a form of performativity.” More intriguing than the disproportionate emphasis accorded the final section of Gender Trouble in general remembrance, however, is the way in which gender performativity has become so coextensive with queer performativity as to render them interchangeable. Sedgwick, again, exemplifies the way in which “gender” has slipped rapidly into “queer.” “Queer Performativity” (the title of her essay on James) she writes, is “made necessary” by Butler’s work in and since Gender Trouble; and in Tendencies Sedgwick assigns Butler “and her important book” (Gender Trouble) a representative function, “stand[ing] in for a lot of the rest of us” working on queer performativity.15 How does this slippage from gender to queer in the discussion of performativity come about, and how does Gend...

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APA 6 Citation
Prosser, J. (1998). Second Skins ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/773724/second-skins-the-body-narratives-of-transsexuality-pdf (Original work published 1998)
Chicago Citation
Prosser, Jay. (1998) 1998. Second Skins. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/773724/second-skins-the-body-narratives-of-transsexuality-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Prosser, J. (1998) Second Skins. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/773724/second-skins-the-body-narratives-of-transsexuality-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Prosser, Jay. Second Skins. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 1998. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.