Abstract

This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.

Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy concerned with the way in which things in the world give themselves to consciousness and with the structures through which we experience that givenness. Phenomenological philosophy is understood as originating with Edmund Husserl and developing throughout the twentieth century, though as a movement in philosophy it is something more diffuse than a coherent school of thought or an agreed-upon set of tenets, in no small part because phenomenology was a reaction against philosophy's tradition of grand system building. Phenomenology thus names a number of philosophers concerned variously with the way in which the world presents itself to consciousness, the fundamentally ambiguous nature of human existence and meaning, and the shared nature of the lifeworld. It also includes branches in the social sciences that emphasize the lifeworld in its externality and the specificity of the social world in which individual experience is necessarily embedded, focusing more squarely on social contexts and human relations, as in the work of Alfred Schutz (1972). What might be said to unite these philosophers is a careful attention to how the world appears to us and an endeavor to see anew that which we move through everyday, a breaking out of our habitual and customary way of perceiving, categorizing, and understanding our world. It is that endeavor to see the familiar with new eyes — that phenomenological principle of holding in abeyance what we know about any object, situation, or person in order to see it freshly and more precisely — that offers itself as an incitement to reinterrogate that which we think we know about gender and thus to radically open up the traditional categories through which it is understood.

The prefix trans- has, within phenomenology, most often referred to transcendental phenomenology, Husserl's endeavor to craft philosophy as a scientific inquiry into phenomena and essences. But phenomenology can also be understood as receptive to trans in its gendered sense, through insistence on the importance of embodied experience to understanding the nature of self, others, and the world. This emphasis on lived experience proves helpful in two ways. First is the thesis that the body is fundamentally important to subjectivity, vital and essential to it rather than a distraction from it. This might initially seem like a position that is at odds with some variants of trans studies; one could imagine the objection that gender is precisely not found or determined at the level of the body. But phenomenology offers an expansive conception of the body in which it is more than merely its materiality, emphasizing the importance of how one feels in and senses with and inhabits one's body. The phenomenological claim that the body is not just something I have or use, not merely an object I haul around, but is rather something that I am allows an understanding of the body as defined and constituted by what I feel and not simply what others see. In this phenomenological view, drawn largely from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gender and sex can be understood as delivered to the subject through a felt sense rather than determined by the external contours of the body, thus circumventing a view of sex or gender that understands either to be a matter of bodily morphology as given. Merleau-Ponty (2010) spends little time ruminating on gender as such, and that within a squarely normative framework. However, his account of gender, binary and normative though it may be, understands it to be gestural rather than morphological, an articulation that anticipates Judith Butler's account of gender as performative.

Henry S. Rubin's foundational 1998 article “Phenomenology as Method in Trans Studies” was the first piece to explore the ways in which phenomenology offered methodological resources to the newly emerging field of trans studies. Rubin argues that phenomenology is uniquely suited to the study of trans lives because it privileges the unique perspective of subjects in describing their own subjectivity. Rubin draws on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology to argue that one's own account of one's own positioning is more accurate exactly because one is the only person who can inhabit that individual position. The enunciating subject's own account, then, will be more precisely located than anyone else's ostensibly more “objective” assessment, privileged rather than suspiciously subjective or biased, as the traditional charge against such narratives would have it. In his book Self-Made Men (2003), Rubin suggests that the phenomenologically grounded “I” has a favored relation to truth.

Though Merleau-Ponty's emphasis on the centrality of the corps propre to subjectivity and relation has perhaps the most obvious connection with trans studies, phenomenology has been drawn on otherwise and variously regarding trans issues. Emmanuel Levinas has written on our necessarily ethical relation to the face of the other, and Nikki Sullivan (2006) has drawn on a Levinasian ethics in her concept of the transmogrification of the other. Heidegger, too, has been used as a resource; Das Janssen (2011) has suggested that Heidegger's concept of Dasein can be used as a resource for thinking about trans embodiment in a philosophical context. Simone de Beauvoir's (1948) ethics of ambiguity and work on gender offers another potentially fruitful philosophy of ethics for trans studies, and Frantz Fanon (1967) has theorized the social consequences of racial difference and the perception and the effect of racism in phenomenological terms. Even Husserl, for all his abstraction, has been usefully mobilized by Sarah Ahmed (2006) for queer studies, and his concepts of internal and external horizons show future promise for trans studies.1

1. For a more in-depth discussion of issues presented here, see “The Sexual Schema: Transposition and Transgender in Phenomenology of Perception” in Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (Salamon 2010).

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