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.

In 2003 a group of academics at Macquarie University organized a conference on body modification. The aim of the event was to articulate the diverse ways in which all bodies — not simply those that are tattooed or those that have undergone some sort of transformative surgical procedure — are always already modified. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Susan Stryker, whose work in the field of transgender studies problematized the “common-sense” understanding of technology, which, at the time, underpinned the dominant model of the transsexual body as either requiring or having undergone technological intervention. Following the conference, Stryker and her colleagues at Macquarie coined the term somatechnics in an attempt to highlight what they saw as the inextricability of soma and techné, of the body (as a culturally intelligible construct) and the techniques (dispositifs and hard technologies) in and through which corporealities are formed and transformed. From the outset, then, somatechnics has addressed and been shaped by transgender issues, and this connection was explicitly articulated at the Transsomatechnics conference held at Simon Fraser University in 2008.

The term somatechnics, derived from the Greek soma (body) and techné (craftsmanship), supplants the logic of the “and,” indicating that techné is not something we add or apply to the already constituted body (as object), nor is it a tool that the embodied self employs to its own ends. Rather, technés are the dynamic means in and through which corporealities are crafted: that is, continuously engendered in relation to others and to a world. What we see here, then, is a chiasmatic interdependence of soma and techné: of bodily being (or corporealities) as always already technologized and technologies (which are never simply “machinic”) as always already enfleshed. Anna Munster nicely articulates this vision when she writes that technologies are “always in a dynamic relation to the matter which gives [them their] substance and to the other machines — aesthetic, social, economic — which substantiate [them] as … ensemble[s]” (1999: 121). To put it slightly differently, the categories of being that are integral to our (un)becoming-with, and the orientation(s) that shape them, are somatechnological (rather than simply natural or cultural, internal or external to us, enabling or oppressive). For example, transgender, like forms of bodily being commonly presumed not to be technologically produced, is a heterogeneous somatechnological construct that comes to matter in contextually specific ways and in relation to other discursive formations. In making this claim, I am not suggesting that modes and practices of embodiment (such as those we call transgender) are not “real.” Indeed, they are the matter(ialization) of being, but this materialization takes place through certain highly regulated (situated) somatechnologies. Given this, the primary aim of somatechnics as a critical orientation is — at least as I understand it — to queer orderability by bringing to light the operations of power, the soma-techno-logic, that constitute(s) (un)becoming-with in situated ways. I will return to this point in due course.

The history of Western thought is, as Elizabeth Grosz and others have argued, subtended by “a profound somatophobia” (1994: 1). From the ancient Greeks, to Enlightenment thinkers (Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes), to the common-sense fictions that shape contemporary life, the body has been conceived (and thus constituted) as a natural, biological entity, the fleshly shell of a soul, a self, and/or a mind that is superior to it. Given its status as both prison and property, the brute matter of the body (as object) is constituted in and through this particular imaginary as that which the subject must transcend, transform, master, and/or shape, and nowhere is this more apparent than in autobiographical transsexual narratives published in the west in the twentieth century. There have, of course, been various challenges posed, particularly from the mid-twentieth century on, to the kind of determinism associated with this model of the body, the self, and the relation between them, but all too often such attempts reiterate — albeit inadvertently — a sort of naive materialism in which the body appears as a fleshly substrate that simply is prior to its regulation. This ontological tendency is apparent, for example, in accounts of selfhood (often found in discussions of transgender) that rely on a presumed distinction between sex and gender — the idea that the sexed body is a natural biological substrate onto which contextually specific (that is, culturally determined) attributes, roles, and capacities are imposed — as well as in dominant conceptions of, and debates about, technology.

Technology, claimed Martin Heidegger in his influential essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” is commonly conceived both as a human activity and as a means to an end. The effect of this instrumentalist conception is that debates about technology tend to revolve around “our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means” ([1954] 1977: 5). In other words, the primary focus of discussions of particular technologies tends to be on whether, how, and to what extent they might be used to enhance life, to achieve integrity, to enable one to realize one's true self. Little has changed, it seems, in the sixty years since Heidegger first made these claims, and this is clear if one looks at accounts of so-called gender reassignment surgeries. In brief, such practices are framed by some as medical treatments that will enhance the lives of those who undergo them, while others have argued that such practices are (for a variety of reasons) unethical and/or immoral; that they constitute a misuse of technology. Some argue that individuals have a right to bodily self-determination, and others argue (variously) that such a right, if it exists, is never absolute and that therefore the use of technologies that (re)shape the body requires strict regulation. Despite the differences of opinion expressed in these claims, what they share is an instrumentalist view of technology, one in which technology is (constituted as) an object external to and manipulable by the subject(s) who deploy it to their own ends (whether those ends be a sense of bodily integrity, the fulfilment of a religious obligation, the construction of the self as altruistic, appropriately professional, morally responsible, or whatever). Indeed, each is subtended by a will to mastery which, Heidegger and Foucault would argue, is itself technological. Technology, suggests Heidegger in his critique of instrumentalist logic, is less a thing that is external to the self than an orientation, a way of thinking/knowing/seeing that brings forth (or engenders, shapes, and “orders”) being, or, more accurately, (un)becoming. Technology, then, is at once the (contextually specific) means by which we order the world and the ways of thinking/knowing/seeing that precede us and make us be(come). Given this, the problem with instrumentalism as an orientation, and thus with the instrumentalist view of technology as separate from the self who deploys it as a means to an identifiable and achievable end, is that it veils over the coindebtedness, coresponsibility, coarticulation, and movement of (un)becoming-with.1 Critiques of this view of technology and the ethicopolitical effects that such a way of thinking produces have been articulated at length by theorists as diverse as Donna Haraway, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, to name but a few. Somatechnics adds another (heterogeneous) voice to these attempts to think otherwise, but it does so from the possibly unique position of having always already been shaped by trans*.

1. Elsewhere I speak of the movement of (un)becoming-with as “transing” (Sullivan 2009).

References

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