A loooooong introductory note from Remy: Half-way into hours of struggle with reading and analyzing this essay, I decided to google the author. Who is this person, and why are they writing about someone who is transgender? I think this is always a significant question to ask. Why do you want to use the life and death of a trans person (to back up your theory)? So, backing up, I'm going to "out" myself as prone to being rather prejudiced toward cisgender people writing about trans experiences. I don't think for a moment that "'they' just can't get 'it' (gender)," but I am forever wary of intentions (oops, there's that word again). There's a difference, and I think intention matters here! [A bit below, I dig into Judith Butler's trouble with using trans life and death in Gender Trouble.] I am now working on the assumption that Chávez is cisgender because there's this thing that happens... where, okay, in flippant terms, if a prominent-at-all (academic, authorial, theoretical) figure is transgender, we know all about it-- Kate Bornstein, Patrick Califia, Leslie Feinberg, Dean Spade, Susan Stryker, the list goes on-- because, more or less, it's their "duty" (only slightly tongue in cheek) to be outspoken trans folks. Let's be honest: the only other option is seamlessly passing for cisgender and managing a careful relationship to discussing issues of (trans)gender (and I also know some academics who are doing just that-- sounds even more stressful than being a/the token trans academic!). So, with this thing that happens, there's an accompanying other thing that gets talked about even less. See, if I can read bios and profiles about a (and intros to essays by a) prominent-all-all (academic, authorial, theoretical) figure and I don't see anywhere that they are transgender (or other rude yet sometimes necessary artifacts such as prior name-- necessary only if one has known/published work under said name), then I get to assume that they are cisgender. Get to. Do you know why? This whole process means that transgender people, on many levels, are consistently not granted the same privacy as cisgender people. [More on that.] Cisgender folks who use trans figures to prove a point, often (most of the time) just don't seem to feel the need to "out" their own cisgender status/identity and its relevance to the knowledge production that they do, so I'm left to find my way with the unsettling key "transgender = transgender (oh, that's why they're interested in this)" and "unmarked = cisgender (ooh, isn't it impressive that they're interested in this)." I think that there are other options to be explored more carefully. Here it is: if my trans identity is so related to my work on gender (and I believe that it is, that I need to examine my personal relation to my work time and time again), then why isn't your cisgender identity just as relevant? Ugh!!!
In "Spatializing Gender Performativity: Ecstasy and Possibilities for Livable Life in the Tragic Case of Victoria Arellano," Karma Chávez follows Butler's meticulously mapped arguments from Undoing Gender and the chapter "Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy" specifically, in order to examine Victoria Arellano's detainment, death, and subsequent responses from cellmates, as reflective of the possibility for subversion (not fully actualized, but at least) opened by gender performativity. Key for Chávez is first defining Butler's work on gender performativity and what it does (or aims to do). Chávez initially explains that "Resignifying norms to make life more livable for those rendered unintelligible through current norms is the ultimate political goal of the theory of gender performativity" (1).
I find myself immediately wondering... is that what this is really all about? Something about defining an "ultimate political goal" of gender performativity in this way just doesn't feel familiar to me, as Butler's theory on occasion does. I'm also curious about what, contrastingly, the ethical goals of the theory of gender performativity might look like. This middle bit about, about "making life more livable" certainly often strikes a(n ethical) cord with me, but still, I have trouble understanding the meaning here of resignifying norms. Do we resignify norms in order to normalize, and bring within the normative, currently marginalized experiences of gender and sexuality? How is this different than or preferred to assimilation strategies? Could we instead resignify (certain) norms in a different way, as partial, incomplete, even unnecessary? Why does the former feel like inclusion?
...In any case (whether I agree or not), Chávez's work thus becomes a project of possibility, and the ways that possibility works with ecstasy in relation to processes of resignification. Whew. Ecstasy comes up in "Beside Oneself" as, well, a directly related term. Chávez writes that "According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ecstasy refers to "the state of being 'beside oneself,' thrown into a frenzy or a stupor, with anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion."" (2). Ecstasy is a non-specific way of being in somewhat skewed relation to the self (and presumably then also "other").
What Chávez then adds to this picture of Undoing Gender revisited is the idea of spatiality-- that, in ecstasy, with others receiving/viewing/reading performance, "facing our own mortality or someone else's in a way that pushes past any limit of life and bodily or psychic comfort, we are in a space to subvert the norms of the heterosexual matrix, so enabling the subversive and political utility of gender performativity." (Mona Lloyd in /Chávez 2). I have to admit that most of what this setup for how Chávez will now use someone's (Victoria Arellano's) life and death ("the case") "to demonstrate this argument," really doesn't sit well with me. I'm reminded of critiques of Butler's use of transgender figures [Venus Xtravaganza] in Gender Trouble, and hit frequent mental stopping points [Is this learning?] while trying to think through the problem with focusing on (reportedly at least mostly cisgender and/or heterosexual) reactions to transgender life and death. Was anyone else perplexed by this?
It's just... it's very difficult for me to stay focused and continue summarizing an argument with which I rather fundamentally disagree due to its treatment of the central transgender figure. Ugh! Okay. I need to move instead into some more critique, because I need perspective (Mel? Sara? Anyone?) on how to better deal with what this author is actually trying to say. I want to understand and appreciate the theory, but my problems with method are overwhelming... I just need to get them out for discussion. It feels like what's most important in this moment.
I'm deeply troubled by the repeated categorization of Victoria Arellano's "case" as "tragic." I guess lots of "tragic" things happen, but this trope of the "tragic transgender death" could stand to be looked at another way, I think. We could be horrified by the mistreatments that led to her death without regurgitating the tragic trans trope.
We could honor and celebrate her life by: not somewhat basing our theory on how her life/experience itself was so "not subversive," not making/reinscribing assumptions about her body, not digging up and playing on the name she was given birth (6-7).
That transfeminine (or MTF) people with "M" markers on identification frequently get placed in "M" marked facilities like jails, prisons, and detention centers, is not a new phenomenon. Who gets to decide that Victoria is "male bodied" for the purposes of this argument (regardless of how she was treated by ICE-- why must we repeat the same ideas in the very same words?)? Why does there need to be any focus at all on the name that Victoria was given at birth?
Winding down, I'm reminded of the media fuss I've been a part of since Krissy Bates was murdered in her downtown Minneapolis apartment this past month. Have you heard of Krissy Bates? In short, the Star Tribune, along with many other slips, called out Krissy's prior name in news about her death, and has been growing beside an uproar of local LBGTA activists ever since.
As a friend put it in a Facebook status update at the beginning of this media mess (that has now included a Star Trib trans panel and the creation of a new media guide to writing about trans folks), "If I am misnamed or mispronouned after death, I am going to haunt the shit out of you."