Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural

21 Jan

By Tavia Nyong’o

Call me a sissy, but I’ve never particularly cared for being referred to as cisgender. Still, the work of transgendered activists within Occupy Wall Street has been one of things that keep me optimistic. At a November 13th teach-in at Zuccotti Park, just days before the brutal eviction,  trans activists took over the people’s mic for an hour-long lesson in occupying gender, educating their non-trans listeners on the unearned privileges we enjoy whenever we conform to ascribed gender; outlining the work that groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project have long been engaged in, against police violence and medical pathologization; and outlining pragmatic and principled tactics for an occupation open to trans and cis-gendered people alike.

The teach-in ended with a song by Justin Bond, who has charted a post-Kiki and Herb career as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Between releasing the 2009 EP Pink Slip and last year’s full length album Dendrophile, Bond has adopted the middle name Vivian, begun to transition, and chosen the pronoun V to represent this new stage of life. Bond’s OWS appearance took what a therapeutic and individualistic culture calls “finding one’s voice” and performed it against the affective grain.

Justin Vivian Bond performing “The New Economy” at Occupy Wall Street

The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.

Such singular departures from accepted usage antagonize those who assume that they represent instances of amour propre. But coming from a Quaker tradition that rejects the second person plural “you,” and holds onto the archaic singular forms of “thee” and “thou,” I understand the purpose such speech acts serve. Much like the Society of Friends verbally resist the hierarchical, royal we, Bond’s neologisms dispel the ease with which binary gender preoccupies the ordinary. These dissenting gestures trust that the lateral bonds of the common can sustain the twists and torsions they exact. They are a kind of sit-down in grammar, a linguistic and literary demand to be served as we are, not according to how we are seen, surveilled or counted. They disrupt common sense in order to find a commons.

The song Bond performed at OWS was “The New Economy,” with it’s pugnacious opening lines “They say it’s a new depression, so why am I filled with glee? Everybody coming down quickly, now they can all join me.” Glee is an affect that a certain television show has made ubiquitous in recent years, but it is not often associated with the style of OWS. Bond took glee and detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge. Bond was, by Vs own account, homeless at the time of the December performance, having lost an East Village apartment to gentrification’s wrecking ball. But the glee Mx. performed was not schadenfreude but an invitation to queer conviviality, a living and breathing together in conspiratorial difference, a new economy of bodies and affects pitched toward the ethic, as V sang, of “take what you need and give a little back.”

I think it matters that a trans person delivered this communist message, insofar as the grain of Vs voice reinflected the conventional rallying cry. Unison singing at rallies and marches, like pledges of allegiance, tend to be rites of assent: sentimental conflations of the one and the many. But the singular grain of Bond’s voice, echoed through an enthusiastic crowd serving, sometimes with duty and sometimes with joy, as the human amplification system of the people’s mic, defied the sincerity of singalong.

This ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism, leads me to the question I am dwelling with these days. The banal version of this is the journalistic question: if OWS is a new movement, where are its songs? The question betrays a nostalgia for the 60s that was initially helpful in getting people to take OWS seriously at all, but which now presents an obstacle to the emergence of what is new and different about this moment. I want to speculate just a little about what that emergent sound might be.

People are having a field day redescribing the occupation in the preferred jargon of their fields and professions. So why not me? Occupation is a performative: it doesn’t so much represent the 99% as it conjures that figure into being as a speculative object of public attachment. This feeling for numbers is non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process. Excluding the 1% certainly articulates a healthy and appropriate smash the rich mentality. But the Lacanian in me also sees the 1% as yet another stand in for object a, the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it. After all, wouldn’t claiming to speak as or for the 100% be fascism?

99% is a multitude composed out of antagonism, not identity. Taking what they needed, and giving a little back, the transgender activists reminded those who would hear that cis privilege is not restricted to the 1%, but a necessary fractures within occupation just as other divisions of race, citizenship, and class are. Trans and queer glee become part of the affective work of occupation, not so that occupation can become more inclusive or safe, but in order to keep those minor feelings quilted into the banners and broadsides of the many, both as a formal reminders of precarious bonds that stitch us together, and as an audio analogue of those visible seams.

A version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion.

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19 Responses to “Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural”

  1. keguro January 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Tavia,

    What’s your sense of the line, “my body’s my economy”? I’m wondering about its racial implications, especially about that double “my.” Given that “voice” has so often been aligned with “agency” and a notion of “self-ownership,” how does attending to the “grain,” as you do here, work through what feels like a very implicit, but palpable, post-slavery economy (to use Christina Sharpe’s great phrasing)?

    Keguro

    • Tavia January 24, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      Thanks for the question Keguro. I guess I read that line through the poetics of affective labor: the performer’s body as precarious source of income, but also the body as an alternative economy to the capitalist economy, an ‘economy’ of bodies and pleasures. It could be read through a logic of possessive individualism, as you suggest, with its attendant racial genealogy. I’m interested in how the singular plural, however, can hint at a dispossessive individualism, one that doesn’t elide or ignore difference, but is to the contrary premised on it.

  2. thoroughly modern milli vanilli January 23, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Wonderful post– I love the idea of Occupation as a performative! Blending theory and activism is a hard thing to do successfully, but each needs to be informed by the other in order to build an inclusive movement.

    Fantastic job!

    -Dani

  3. alex March 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Tavia: I greatly appreciate your observations about performance and song within movements, and I think this then raises the question of context and the specific nature of radical place and community. For, of course, a song is a song, and a performer and performer, and how she is received by her audience is a critical part of the performance. My ongoing sense as I read about ONY and experience OLA is that our distinct and local occupy spaces produce, engender, and nourish or fracture, stitch, or silence, depending upon local norms as well as activist courage. (I’d love to talk to you about quilts btw, I’ve been revisiting the AIDS one digitally for another body of work).

    • Tavia March 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. Would love to hear more about the work on quilts sometime. Best, ~Tavia

  4. Janet May 4, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    Hello,
    I don’t know how I came across your blog but I did and I don’t understand a word of it. Could you write it in plain English?
    eg
    ‘detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge.’
    and
    ‘non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process.’
    and
    ‘the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it.’
    It all sounds very interesting but completley incomprehensible.
    I’m English, not American, maybe that’s the problem.
    regards,
    Janet

    • Tavia May 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      I’m delighted you came across my blog post, Janet, and found it very interesting. I assure you your Englishness is not a problem in my book! As for your complete incomprehension of the quoted sentences, I can only pass along, in paraphrase, a gem from Lacan: there are sometimes more important things than understanding.

  5. Singular/plural/whatever/schmutever... September 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    “… there are sometimes more important things than understanding.” What a condescending response to someone who ernestly wanted to gain insight from
    a piece presumably about, among other things, activism and knowledge(s).

    Seriously, if academics like to think of themselves as engaged with social justice struggles in the world then you/we need to do a lot better than condescend to others who ask in ernest what we mean. The greater skill is to find ways to communicate complicated ideas to a broader audience of people–often people who have limited access to the rarified knowledge production of academic worlds.

    It’s also pretty predictable that incomprehensiblity is written on/about the bodies/identities of trans and gender non-conforming people; have we not been figured as “illegible” enough already? How exactly is our incomrehensiblity produced? There’s a long-standing tradition in performance studies of celebrating the illegible/incomprehensible/trans/GNC/whatever and this work–done “on our backs”– really has done nothing to change the conditions of (non)existence for most of us.

    • Tavia September 5, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

      Really? One of the problems facing the transgender movement is radical queer academics who support the struggle? I find that claim to be questionable. And I certainly didn’t intend to be condescending in challenging the prior commenter (and you I guess) to question the anti-intellectual conviction that all ideas have their simple equivalents that a “broader audience” can easily digest. The failure to understand can be a first step on the path towards radically questioning the given, which is why I suggesting it may be worth a state worth lingering in, rather than seeking (phobically) to dispel it immediately, and then (aggressively) attacking others when it cannot be.

  6. Singular/plural/whatever/schmutever... September 6, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    My reply was hardly anti-intellectual. I work in academia and strive to use productively complex analyses to engage social justice issues all the time. I just think we have an obligation to *attempt* to convey our ideas to people who do not have access to the rarified world of academic language use and knowledge production. Certainly it’s possible not to dumb-down our theory and still engage ernest requests for clarification, or to restate, in a different manner, the ideas we deem so powerful and important to express. To build social justice movements, and academic engagement with those worlds that do not simply divide us along the lines of those who have access to formal education and specialized language use (or not), is part of a more politically efficatious practice, no?

    I happen to know scholars–very *intellectualy* rigorious ones–who are capable of not only communicating concepts to a wider audience beyond other academics, but who take questions like Janet’s seriously. They certanily do not dismiss people like Janet with an off-hand quote from Lacan. Clearly there’s no room here for challange – another sign that dialogue that fosters the growth of political efficacy is not really your goal. If I respond by saying “brillant analysis,” or respond with an equally dense analysis, then my comments are welcome. Given mine is the only post you didn’t welcome as a productive exchange I can only assume you’re not really open to a full range of scholarly and activist dialogue. Too bad.

    As far as productive dis-orientation, I am actually working on a book project in trans studies all about that. So we’re not in disagreement there. But my intention is not to disorient the very people who really want to understand what those of us in academia are talking about. All disciplines and other occupations (more broadly) use specialized language. But not all pretend to be engaged with social struggles that relate to people who have little access to the types of knowledge production that excludes them from the conversation. As I said, the real skill is to *not* lose the razor sharp edge of one’s theorizing while being able to convey such ideas to people engaged in struggles–presumably working alongside us–who do not have access to our insider langauge use. Taking Janet’s question seriously, instead of brushing it off with a quote from Lacan, is a start.

    I’m always amazed by how thin skinned academics can be when faced with a bit of challenge. Seems that the most erudite sounding scholars prefer a “me too” response that simply prevents real dialogue on how we conduct the praxis of our theoretical pursuits. Having, out of necessity, to traverse the gap between insular academic discussions–no, this does not make me anti-intellectual to note we tend to circulate knowledge mostly amogst ourselves–and other social worlds, well, I’ve had to figure out how to communicate beyond my preferred modes of speaking and theorizing. It means I must take requests like Janet’s seriously. I suspect that’s something you’re incapable of doing instead of something you disingenuously say is more productivley left to a “lack of understanding” – and presumably *good* for Janet to experience.

    Meanwhile, you continue to pursue conversations with people who speak your language and don’t ask such supposedly banal questions that seek “simple equivalents.” I would tend to ignore the idea that simple equivalents are possible, but still take seriously that there’s a reason Janet is asking the question – and then take on the challenge of communicating a complex idea without entirely gutting it in the process. That’s engaged scholarship. If we can’t talk to people who don’t have access to our specialized language, but are part of social justice movements larger than our academic worlds – or are even ernestly wanting to engage in our conversations – then what’s the point? Let’s just have an intellectual circle-jerk and be done with it.

    I stand by my comment that your reply to Janet was condescending. I don’t think it’s mere hostility on my part toward you to say so. No more than your response to her, conceled by disingenuous niceities, was a veiled hostility toward her requst that you try and translate knowledge across a chasm that divides the academically privileged from those who are not. I also did not take your reply to be condescending toward *me* since I’m not that fragile or egocentric. While I did understand your theorizations, based on my own access to queer/trans/critical theory, I still stand by my belief that if we are to call ourselves socially engaged scholars, we have an obligation to answer and not dismiss requests like Janet’s.

  7. Tavia September 6, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    You seem completely convinced of the sincerity of Janet’s request. Have you ever yourself been told what you’ve written was completely incomprehensible, and then asked to repeat it in “plain English”? If you have, perhaps you would have felt as reluctant as I was to take the demand in good faith.

    • Singular/plural/whatever/schmutever... September 8, 2012 at 2:06 am #

      If you want to keep arguing the hypotentical, that’s fine. Even if Janet is an entirely made up persona – an anti-intellectual foil for your words that disrupt (her) comprehension – I still stand by my larger point about engaging people who are part of justice movements and who do not have access to the specialized language of critical theory that our education affords us. Part of what I argue involves the art of translation – a banal understanding of translation is that we simly find word equivalents (tantamount to “plain Engish”) for our acts of translation. Any good translator knows that translation is really an art requiring the ability to retain the original complexity of thought while struggling to find words, via a new lexicon, that convey the spirit and power of the original. Something is inevitably lost in tranlation, and why some translators do not translate key terms, but it’s worth the effort in order to circulate important ideas (and yours are, btw) beyond a “native speaker” audience.

      I’m pretty much done with this conversation. I said all I have to say about believing academics have an ethical responsiblity to engage with people beyond academic worlds through a give-and-take relationship concerning access to knowledge production, theorizing, analysis and activist strategies/discourses.

      To answer your question about whether I’ve been told that what I’ve written was “completely incomprehensible” – no, never had that happen. But it could someday. Have I been asked in ernest to relate my ideas across discursive divides using terms that other people not privy to critical theory can understand? Yes, I have. I find such invitations an exciting challenge. I was recently asked to partcipatge in a federal government grant review session for a new funding initative aimed at developing national programs for trans people of color. This was the *first* time the federal government is funding such targeted initatiatives – a mere (sarcasm) 30+ years into the HID/AIDS pandemic (a bit late, imo). I had a wonderful discussion with a government program officer on what “bio-politics” means – a phrase I kept referencing during the consultation. This person works in one of the main branches of the National Institutes of Health (HIV branch). It was an amazing discussion centered on a give-and-take around the necessity to produce standardized, population-based studies in order for marginalized people to register on the governmental radar screen. This move, for her, leads to the necessary redirection of resources toward people who otherwise get neglected and left to die (necro-politics!). After hearing this from the government officer–who is a trans-identified person that purposefully sought a job in government worlds so she could help redirect resources toards trans POC, well, I was able to help her understand my own political take on how governments artificially group bodies into “populations”–via the violence of reductive categorization pratices–and then effectively contain our radical (proliferative) potential to disrupt their “check one box” demographic strategies. We were able to speak across our methodological and political insider-outsider differences. This is what I’m talking about. While not as blunt as Janet’s request, my friend basically asked a similar question stemming from her initial experience of incomprehension. What occured in the process of sharing different paradigms, and our repsective specialized knoweldges, was quite productive and mutually informative. Whether the Janets of the world are interested in this sort of exchange is to me beside the point – because there are plenty of people for whom incomprehension is the beginning of a dialogic process and not the point where dialogue ends.

      Take care!

      • Tavia September 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

        You’ve had a lot to say, much of it about your own work and about your own ethics, ethics to which you would also hold me, a perfect stranger, responsible. And you insist upon speaking on behalf of Janet, even if Janet is insincere in her request for clarification, even if Janet is a made-up entity (a hardly plausible scenario, but okay). But nothing you’ve said responds to the content of my blog, or helps me clarify its relation to the subjects you are so passionately engaged in. I can only infer from your chosen name — “singular/plural/whatever/schmutever” — that you hold my piece to be beneath contempt. And yet you would still oblige me to be able to explain and re-explain it to a shifting range of hypothetical others: Janet, yourself, a reader in another language, and even a “government program officer.” But you don’t have a single suggestion as to how such an explanation might be attempted, it is enough for you to assure me that it can be done, and that I am a moral shirker if I question the conditions and constraints you or Janet (or the government!) seek to impose. Therein lies the subtle coercion in the demand to speak in “plain English.” Thank you; I will, in future, indeed take great care when conducting this sort of one-sided conversation about the value of theoretical language.

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