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.
Abjection refers to the vague sense of horror that permeates the boundary between the self and the other. In a broader sense, the term refers to the process by which identificatory regimes exclude subjects that they render unintelligible or beyond classification. As such, the abjection of others serves to maintain or reinforce boundaries that are threatened.
This term can be used to think of the instability of gendered and/or sexed bodies — especially those occupied by transgender individuals — which are at the center of academic debates surrounding queer, feminist, and trans subjectivity. Drawing on a psychoanalytic reading of subjective identity as a defensive construction and on the French literary obsession with monsters, psychoanalyst and linguist Julia Kristeva develops the term abjection in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982).
Abjection literally means “to cast out,” yet Kristeva's theorization plays with this definition by recognizing that in the context of marginalized subjects, abjection goes beyond “casting out” and becomes a more interactive process through which the boundaries of the self are protected by rejecting whatever “does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). In other words, it renders problematic any assumption regarding the fixity of the borders separating subjects from objects and self from other.
Abjection, as Kristeva describes it, “disturbs identity, system, order” (ibid.) and encompasses a kind of borderline uncertainty — ambiguous, horrifying, and polluting. Transgendered bodies, then, especially when viewed as physical bodies in transition, defy the borders of systemic order by refusing to adhere to clear definitions of sex and gender. The abject can thus serve as a cleaving point of abstruseness and unease — separating, pathologizing, and psychologizing trans subjectivity. The anxiety at the root of this unease with transgender subjectivity can be traced back, in part, to a fear of the ambiguous.
Judith Butler employs Kristeva's concept of abjection to discuss the often problematic embodiment of sexuality and gender. Specifically, Butler explores how normative heterosexual identities are circumscribed via a process that rejects and excludes “figures of homosexual abjection” (1993: 103). Like homosexual subjectivities, transgender subjectivities challenge heteronormative understandings of gender, sex, bodies, embodiment, and (dis)ability. Heteronormative subjects, then, can come to feel threatened, because in order to maintain their own tenuous subjectivity, they must simultaneously identify with the abject others whom they are also required to reject (ibid.: 113). In a similar manner, Nico Besnier (2004) draws on Kristeva's formulation of abjection in his analysis of transgender Tongan men whose gender practices make them socially illegible. Despite the strategic negotiation of social relations with their fellow Tongans, many transgender Tongan men found themselves excluded from the multitude of mainstream social relationships that would usually afford them protection.
While historically the term has had a negative connotation, groups that have traditionally been thought of as marginal are reclaiming their difference and embracing their abjection. Trans activists have taken up abjection as a constructive political strategy, which can disrupt and confound long-standing systems of power that are sustained by the methodical exclusion, repression, and silencing of certain others. Abjection, Kristeva wrote, “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (1982: 2). It is in this liminal space where the subject experiences a crisis of meaning in which transformation is possible — the difference between internal and external becomes unclear, and in the process, conditional identity is stripped away to reveal a queer object. In this sense the notion of embracing abjection is epitomized by Susan Stryker's essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” (1994), in which she connects her own transsexual body with the figure of Frankenstein's monster. Stryker acknowledges and welcomes her abjection when she declares, “I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster” (240). Through this declaration, she is reclaiming the word monster in order to relieve it of its power; but more importantly, abjection becomes a tool with which to further challenge and problematize conventions of socially constructed gender categories.
In David Halperin's formulation of abjection (2007), the promiscuous behavior of some gay men has come to threaten the “normalization” of “gayness” and alienate the concomitant goal of equality. While Halperin specifically addresses gay men, his ideas may also be applied to trans subjects. He argues that it is becoming increasingly commonplace for many gay men to mimic a desexualized heterosexual existence consisting of married, monogamous couplings and to emphasize their normativity in order to appear acceptable to others. Yet, as Halperin argues, by acknowledging and welcoming the abjection that accompanies their subjectivity and subsequently taking advantage of the moments when meaning collapses, marginalized subjects (including transgender individuals and gay men) can question the hegemonic forces that seek their oppression and in the process regain control of the signification of their subjectivity.
In modern literature, the abject is a prominent feature in the work of writers such as Jean Genet and Marcel Jouhandeau.