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.
For Jean Baudrillard, transsexuality symbolizes alienating postmodern transformations across economics, aesthetics, and politics. “We are all transsexuals symbolically,” he argues, as the body is reduced to a mere canvas on which the traffic of gendered signs is grafted or torn in antipolitical play (2009: 23). Baudrillard understands the postmodern body as the extended site of integration into networks and circuits of superficial political action and cybernetic capitalist complicity. Similarly to Fredric Jameson, he employs the spatial metaphors of depthlessness and flattening to emphasize the subject's reduction to artifice. These metaphors reveal postmodern cultural production as underpinned by the disruption of mere appearance from identity or inner desire. The disruptive element of postmodern aesthetics underlies the denaturalization of sign from referent, such that the technologies of gendered and sexed transformation reveal the symbolic systems through which categories of gender and sex gain meaning. Thus the modernist aesthetic is put into crisis when the body, moving through time and space, is no longer the site of a stable, natural, and objective referential truth of gender or sex, despite the search for new relationalities constructed out of that very ontological denaturalization (Stryker 1999: 170–71).
Baudrillard's analysis falls into unsubstantiated fatalism because he emphasizes meaning's liquidation, while postmodern aesthetics shifts the grounds for understanding meaning through subjective rupture itself. The technologies and discourses of transsexuality reveal the tensions of transforming the body and its adornments across, between, or outside the policed confines of a gender/sex binary while also being reinscribed into multiple discourses of fractured referentiality. Some discourses appeal to an unchanging sense of gender identity and relocate a “truth” of gender to be revealed from within the body, while others emphasize dialectical movements of identity and embodiment or otherwise challenge the ontologized terms of gender identity and desire. Tensions among these multiple narratives are salient in the uneven ethical-material topographies of corporeal transformation across which conflicts of late capitalist modernity play out, including state and medical apparatuses and other trans community spaces. In these spaces, the boundaries of authentic transness are often policed by appeals to deep relationality between materiality and inner desire or identity, regardless of its stasis or dynamism, against merely superficial drag or the unfettered play of gendered signs. Yet all of these references to corporeal mutability emerge from particular conceptual constellations that reveal sex/gender as regimes of coding and producing bodies. These possibilities appear with the production of the subject as a form of rupture.
The postmodern aesthetic must be itself denaturalized as a particular regime of meaning-production rather than as meaning's mere liquidation or as the revelation of meaning's true form. The multiple articulations of subjective rupture become myth when concepts are ontologically essentialized rather than revealed as historical and social productions and abstractions that mediate each other. The denaturalization of both sex and gender as social constructions offers possibilities to refigure embodiment, but the conceptual disjunctures between materiality and symbolism, being and thinking, or body and desire threaten to ontologize and reinscribe authenticity through rupture itself. The conceptual mediation and latent unfolding of such categories denaturalizes rupture as a tenuously policed construction between concepts: sex's referent as body meets the body's materiality as symbolic, aesthetic, and interpersonal; gender's referent as social action, role, or symbolism meets the materiality of these processes produced out of and on to the body; identity's referent as inner desire or mind meets these terms as interpersonal and corporeal. Appeals to trans authenticity through statically constructed bounds of sex, gender identity, and gender performance thus encounter the body as site and product of deep relationality and that relationality's own latent unraveling. The deployments and subversions of these ontological layerings reveal tensions in ascribing through them authenticity of corporeality and embodiment.
The production and unraveling of this relationality constitutes the dialectic between nonconceptual materiality and its signification into concepts. Baudrillard's reduction of transsexuality to the symbolic realm presumes appearance as domineering the essence of the subject, such that the subject is hollowed of authentic content. Yet Baudrillard produces the very meaninglessness he critiques by hypostatizing the concept of the subject as form of rupture without reflexive critique of its historical and social construction. He thus ignores, as Theodor Adorno emphasizes throughout Negative Dialectics, the inadequacy of concepts in fully capturing the nonconceptual experiences and materiality to which they refer. The referents of concepts are irreducible to their conceptual signification, as concepts are abstracted moments of the dialectic of meaning-production; in self-critique, the very concepts of concept and nonconceptual materiality pass into each other rather than reduce to each other. Thus rather than being objective descriptions or symbolic reflections of reality, concepts of gender, sex, and subjective rupture are deployed as power-laced abstractions constituted through various discourses and technologies. The struggle to produce meaning in the face of meaning's own conceptual inadequacy and consequent mediated liquidation engenders political confrontation around life as somatic/technological structure and life as ethical question. Contrary to Baudrillard's lamentations, the “deep” political questions about meaning thrive through these tensions: What is the very nature of being gendered/sexed? Should sex and gender remain categories through which to classify and produce bodies? How do uneven conditions of meaning-production open possibilities for resistance, change, or integration into various political and economic apparatuses?
In imagining queered forms of labor, value, and materiality, it is necessary to confront spatial metaphors of superficiality that continue to haunt analyses of postmodernism. Thus far critical queer responses to the projects of Jameson and Baudrillard have left these metaphors unchallenged, perhaps in fear of slipping back into modernist aesthetics of authenticity based on the “mimetic reproduction for subjectivity of a stable, material objectivity that lies outside the subject” (Stryker 1999: 164). The tension between critique and appropriation of postmodernism synthesizes, in Jack Halberstam's work, as the reclamation of superficiality, which he claims “may not be a symptom of a diseased political culture but a marvelously flat and uninhibited repudiation of the normativity inherent in ‘deep’ political projects” (Halberstam 2005: 124). Halberstam explores two-dimensional transgender art as anticapitalist resistance but, in assuming the unidirectional gaze of the surgeon or the artist, flattens the body to a mere mimetic canvas on which technologies operate. He thus objectifies and alienates representations of the body from the shifting acts of embodiment and performance that catalyze conflict over the very terms and alignments of identity, aesthetics, and politics. Against such static analysis, it is necessary to reveal the competing metaphysics of desire, ontological layering, and appeals to authenticity that enable dynamic conflict over trans subjectivities. Moving forward, we do not need to “reclaim” superficiality from such analysis as much as recognize that depth has never left these struggles in the first place, manifesting instead in the debate over superficiality itself.