Grace Lavery on the Devices of Trans Identity in Literature ‹ Literary Hub


I began to take feminizing hormones in January 2018, after many, many years of delay. The day that I took my first dose of spironolactone, to suppress my testosterone, and estradiol, which supplemented my endocrine system with estrogens, I did not believe that doing so would help meindeed, I believed that I was ruling something out, and that I would shortly thereafter be able to put aside, if not the drive to transition, then at least the notion that anything might be accomplished in real life that might manifest that drive.

Instead, what I learned was that altering the levels of my estrogen and testosterone profoundly, overwhelmingly, and completely transformed my experience of the world and of myself. The central fact, which my experience has ratified over and again in the years since I began hormone replacement therapy, is that it has been possible for someone who merely wanted to have been a woman, to indeed become onea metamorphosis from present perfect to present continuous, as utterly fantastical as an Ovidian fabliau.

That transformation has reshaped my intellectual and political commitments. How could it not? I began to question why, indeed, this transformation had seemed so impossible, despite the evidence of trans people writing about their experience for over a centurythough, of course, the introduction of the hormone as the major vehicle of somatic change was a more recent phenomenon.

How had I, who had read widely and enthusiastically in queer theory, failed to take seriously the fundamental ontology upon which my own life was being refounded?

What I came to realize was that a lot of the work I had read, while written by queer critics and activists unquestionably supportive of trans people as a verifiable social factindeed, as trans peoples only allies in a world implacably committed to our eradicationwas nonetheless stridently hostile to the claims trans people tended to make about ourselves.

I adhereto pragmatism, but I dont study it; IstudyFreudian psychoanalysis, but I dont adhere to it.

Eve Sedgwick, for example, the indispensable advocate of queer allyship and universality, argued in 1990 that virtually all people are publicly and unalterably assigned to one or the other gender, and from birth, and that therefore gender is not especially apt for critical deconstruction.

Sedgwick, as Jules Gill-Peterson has noted, would go on to see gender-affirming care of children as an attempt to eradicate gay childrenan argument that is now being marshalled by Republican lawmakers across the United States and the United Kingdom as an argument for the abolition and criminalization of transgender care.

While I was editing Pleasure and Efficacyi.e., since I first wrote the previous sentencethe following has happened: bills preventing trans athletes from participating in collegiate athletics have been introduced in Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia; trans kids were prevented by law from using school bathrooms in Alabama, while similar bills were introduced in Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arizona (the reason there arent more is that it was already banned in many places); bills criminalizing the provision of transgender care to minors were introduced in Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama (which act specifically criminalizes such procedures as are intended to alter [the] appearance of gender), and New Hampshire (which treats transition-related care under an existing child abuse provision); similar bills were repeatedly introduced and vetoed in Kansas; a bill characterizing and criminalizing transition as genital mutilation was passed in Idaho; and attempts were made to outlaw transition itself in Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, and Tennessee by the removal of existing provisions for legal sex changes.

I began to understand my work as contesting what I saw as the impossibilization of transition, which I took to be a governing structure of much contemporary thought, both queer and str8. And in order to track the social reproduction of that procedure, I used my training as a literary and cultural critic to investigate the historical origins of skepticism about the efficacy of a sex change and to interpret the literary and cultural genres that that skepticism produced, which I tend to think of as romances of intractability.

A romance of intractability is a narrative or argumentative procedureperhaps, following Wayne Booth, a rhetoricthat endows a given historical problematic with value in proportion to how difficult it is presumed to be to solve it: if, for example, one finds the notion of using hormonal transition to solve ones problems too easy, one is engaged in a romance of intractability.

The idea that insolvable problems are much more appealing than solvable ones, to such an extent that we change some of the latter into the formerthe better to ruminate on their splendid insuperabilityhas yielded literary themes for many authors. Franz Kafka is one of the modes maestros. Consider this piece of microfiction, The Next Village, written sometime between 1917 and 1923:

My Grandfather used to say: Life is amazingly short. Now, looking back, it is so jumbled up that I can hardly understand how a young man can make up his mind to ride to the next village without fearing thateven without any unfortunate accidentsthe span of a normal, happy life wont prove long enough for such a ride.

The story is, to be sure, hard to summarize, its meaning hard to glean. The story begins with the disappearance of an utterance, or even of a grandfather, since we cannot be sure whether the used to indicates the grandfathers death (or muteness from some other cause) or a change of heart on the specific question of the brevity of life.

This question, indeed, has bearing on the grandfathers adage itself, since perhaps his own life has been long enough (like Marianne Dashwoods in Jane Austens Sense and Sensibility) that he has lived to see his own commitments reversed. Or perhaps short enough that he simply died. But this comical impossibilization of the eminently possible will be familiar to readers of Kafkas work: it appears in The Great Wall of China as part of the famous Imperial Message section, in which the Emperors messenger is unable to escape the palace grounds during a lifetimes journey, or Before the Law, from The Trial, in which a man from the country waits a lifetime to gain access to an infinitely deferred judicial authority.

Each of these stories produces a wildly dilated temporal disorientation, in which the achievement of basic tasks takes on the quality of Zenos Arrow Paradox: impossible because requiring the traversal of a space whose interior is, by the nature of interior space, infinite.

Yet the short story also offers us something other than this kind of goofily mind-blowing speculation: it suggests that the problem derives from the subject who can hardly understand, rather than from the world itself.

As in Zenos paradox, the arrow does reach its destination; the young man does ride to the next village, and however difficult the divisibility of space may be to contemplate, there is also something irreducibly silly about the contemplation. Key to Kafkas romances of intractability, then, is the suspicion that the pseudoproblems which detain us in literature have, elsewhere, rather straightforward solutions.

Since an important purpose of Pleasure and Efficacy is to encourage readers to relinquish the undoubted appeal of such ruminations, I will generally prefer to examine such conundrums as I do encounter from the perspective of what I have tended to call pragmatisma term, of course, with many meanings. I tend to follow the classical formulation of Charles Sanders Peirce: Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

The truth-value of a proposition is equal to its necessary effects. While I do not, in the book, get into debates with gender critical thinkers, whose ideas fall outside the scope of a feminist, liberationist work of theory, I would suggest that Peirces maxim might clear up much of the fogginess around the metaphysical definitions of woman that have become contentious: a trans woman is a woman if and only if she is referred to as a woman; likewise an absolutist definition of women deriving from gamete size (or chromosome, etc.) is useful only if it accurately encapsulates the word woman as it appears in use. Since plenty of people do use the word woman to refer to trans women, for whom many of those reductive characteristics do not apply, the latter definition is of limited use.

I am aware, too, that by marking my commitment to a Peircean stripe of pragmatism here, I may be at risk of blurring a distinction between method and object that, in general, I aim to keep quite separate. Broadly speaking, I adhere to pragmatism, but I dont study it; I study Freudian psychoanalysis, but I dont adhere to it. Certainly I hope to recover aspects of Freudian thought and other methods of analysis insofar as I believe they can be put to political use.

However, I am not in this book offering a normative account of any individual method, but rather pointing to some of the conceptual difficulties that have arisen from the collisions of psychoanalysis, feminism, and trans embodiment. My only normative method is the nonmethod of trans liberationfor which, as it happens, I believe psychoanalysis may indeed be more useful than its reputation would suggest.

The One Weird Tricks of modernity … offer us ways to think of collective modes of redress and, most importantly, the realdifficulties that emerge to impede transition and mobility once one relinquishes the certainties of depressive pessimism.

I dont consider most of the theoretical questions raised by the claim that one has changed sex to be solvable in the terms in which they are posed; certainly, and I hope obviously, I dont believe that I have dispelled them. Yet as I investigated the history of the romance of intractability, I also discovered a feminist counterhistory of technique, of tricks and techniques passed on by women to women that comprises a body of knowledge written in the margins of history.

These devices emerge to spite the notion that the most dignified response to the psychic suffering of women and queers is pious acceptance, yet they do so without congealing into a generalizable system of rationality, and indeed are as hostile to technorationality as they are to the counsel of despair.

The archive of technique appears as a nonorganic, nontotalizable, inductively organized sequence of attempts to improve the lives of women and queers, accredited on the basis of their efficacy, not their elegance, and certainly not on their conformity to macro-epistemic schemes of knowledge. These auxiliary knowledges, the One Weird Tricks of modernity, are the focal point of this study, and while they are not all defensiblethe two I am going to discuss in this introductory essay were written by an imperialist eugenicist and a manipulative charlatanthey offer us ways to think of collective modes of redress and, most importantly, the real difficulties that emerge to impede transition and mobility once one relinquishes the certainties of depressive pessimism.

That nonsynthesized compendium of techniques, upon which the attention of my book has been trained, I call realism. Though this is certainly a usage at odds with other contemporary uses of that overburdened word, I derive my sense of realism from George Eliot, a Victorian novelist who typifies the term, and whose workas we shall seestrives to learn, of a given situation, what works in amelioration.

Temperamentally resistant to Romantic claims of either revolutionary or conservative types, but no less skeptical, finally, of the mid-Victorian celebration of reform as a historical metanarrative, Eliots novels, as well as essays, are replete with pragmatic devices to be assessed on the basis of their efficacy.

Eliot intended the novels themselves, indeed, are not to be read exactly as descriptions, but rather as protocols for social improvement: the purpose of each sentence of Eliots novels is to cultivate empathy and thereby, little by little, to effectuate a more empathic world.

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth dwells on this as one of the typical features of realist fiction; more narrowly, in The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson sees it as an individuating feature of Eliots bad faith, ultimately amounting to a refusal to take a position.

Yet I planfollowing Sedgwick, as it goesto read realism as far as possible without paranoia and without fear that the knowledge schemes into which it attempts to induct me are either totalizing (they do not explain everything) or hostile (they will not make my life worse).

But if I confess to attempting to animate, within realism, the erotic frisson that might derive from the fantasy of being brainwashed, I will feel myself safe because George Eliot was, unquestionably, a trans author, and transition, whatever else it may be, can hardly escape the condition of brainwashing, and those upon whom it does its work would hardly wish it to.


Excerpted fromPLEASURE AND EFFICACY: Of Pen Names, Cover Versions, and Other Trans Techniques byGraceElisabeth Lavery. Copyright 2023 byGraceLavery. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

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