Tag Archives: trans

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.

Frida and Anita

20 May

by Tavia Nyong’o

Frida & Anita from Liz Rosenfeld on Vimeo.

Frida & Anita, the new film by Liz Rosenfeld, had it’s Berlin premiere last night at Moviemento, to a packed house of friends and fans. The 20 minute short, which stars Les Margeaux and Richard Hancock as its respective titular stars, is a queer reverie of an imagined romantic encounter between Frida Kahlo and Anita Berber, one that never happened and perhaps couldn’t have, but which, in its very impossibility,  illustrates the performative premises of all nostalgia.

Rosenfeld draws her viewer in with the devices of silent film, like jerky intertitles, which are coupled with luscious technicolor cinematography (by Samuel Maxim and Imogen Heath). Frida and Anita meet in a Weimar-era lesbian nightclub that is also a present day queer bar, habituated by many of the actors themselves. As the film progresses (or, like night and day in bohemian Berlin, ambles) the period frame shifts and dissolves, as the characters Frida and Anita merge with their present day incarnations in Hancock and Margeaux. The two (or is it four?) trade philosophy, politics and sex in three languages.

Margeaux is positively the döppelganger of the teenage Kahlo, in the days before her accident, strolling around in her father’s suits with an air of proletarian insouicance. Hancock conjures Berber out of thin air, literally, drawing upon the most subtle of movements to evoke her presence, not on the basis of gender imitation, but rather through a kind of queer transubstantiation.

The screening was a community event, with many of the cast and crew in the audience. It was accompanied by a variety of shorts by those who had contributed in some way to the film. Highlights included Screen Tests by Sam Icklow, which featured the filmmaker romping around in various post-Warholian scenarios with bosom buddy Eric; Imogen Heath‘s meditative The Poetics of Porn which seemed, among many other things, to be a paean to dendrophilia, Tom Weller‘s witty Maikäfer flieg, in which the filmmaker documents the fluctuations in his vocal range over the two year period that he was taking testerone and gender transitioning by singing the same children’s song about a “Cockchafer fly”; and original contributions from Leila Evenson, Christa Holka, and Hancock himself.

Frida & Anita is the first of a trilogy of films about Weimar and queer nostalgia. The second is already in the can, and the final one will be shot this coming summer. DIY filmmaking at its finest, and, at this pace, its fastest!

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