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.

States do many things. They test students, imprison individuals, make roads, adjudicate property disputes, track the health of populations, issue identity documents, provide benefits to those deemed deserving, safeguard markets, regulate the poor, drop bombs, and patrol borders. Imaging “the state” as an entity, an institution, a unitary thing gives an intelligible shape to the countless activities carried out under the force of law. The idea of the state smuggles within it certain expectations: an ordered hierarchy, a comprehensive rationality, a unity of purpose and execution. Conceptions of the state differ depending on their particular historical or theoretical genealogies, and each one calls forth its commensurate form of political contestation or critical analysis. Those differences are visible in the range of political positions represented by trans movements. Examining the issue of sex classification can help illustrate them.

In the classical liberal tradition, the state is thought to be a neutral umpire, meting out judgment according to the rule of law, which Locke described as “settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties.” Governments brought into being by this social compact should not treat people differently because of arbitrary particularities of identity. According to this tradition's contemporary script, that governments have denied rights based on distinctions of race and gender, among others, in the past is an unfortunate historical contingency, one that betrayed the principle of equality and that has now been, or soon will be, rectified. Because individuals exist before and outside the political community they decide to form or join, the characteristics they brought into the social state should not become the basis for treating them differently. In the United States, this view of the state is enshrined in constitutional jurisprudence and legal doctrine and provides the backdrop for most legal challenges to state-sponsored discrimination against trans people. For example, in framing arguments to jurists and policy makers, trans rights advocates are often forced to argue that it is not birth sex that is immutable but gender identity. The goal of what might be called the mainstream trans rights movement is to install gender identity as the basis for sex re-classification, rather than the sex assigned at birth or on the surgically modified body. This would do much to improve the day-to-day lives of transgender people.

For the Left, however, the liberal state and the principles of political equality it celebrates conceal the maldistribution of equality. A certain domesticated form of selfhood is reproduced when individuals petition the government for recognition of their particular selves and, in turn, recognize themselves when they are hailed by various state apparatuses — interpolation is the term of art used to describe this relationship. From this more radical perspective, then, the transgender rights movement is merely insisting that the hailing be more accurate. A transgender man will now have an M on his driver's license, and the police officer who stops him on the street may call him “sir” rather than “ma'am.” But the power of the state to surveil individuals and to regulate gender remains intact. While the political approach of many trans legal advocates requires them to naturalize gender identity, the more radical trans Left recognizes that “sex” cannot be made to fit into a rigid presocial biological schema of male and female. On the question of sex classification, the goal should not be to install the “right” definition of sex in the regulatory architecture to make the legal recognition of transition possible but to get the state out of the business of defining sex in the first place.

Both the classical liberal theory of the state and the Left's critical rejoinder, however, lack the capacity or perhaps the flexibility to account for contradictions in policies for sex reclassification. Perhaps what underlies the inability to account for contradictions in sex classification is the belief that the state actions should manifest an underlying coherence. In fact, the hope — or fear — that we are governed by a single, rational legal structure is belied by the existence of a virtually uncountable number of state institutions, processes, offices, and political jurisdictions. In the United States, for example, when some individuals cross borders, walk into a government office to apply for benefits, get a driver's license, go to jail or prison, sign up for selective service, try to get married, or have any interaction with any state actor, the sex classification of some people can and often does switch. Even within a single jurisdiction, almost every particular state agency — from federal to municipal — has the authority to decide its own rules for sex classification. To complicate matters even more, both state and federal judges have found that one's sex classification for one social function may not hold for others. These include legislatures, courts, departments, agencies, elected officials, political appointees, public servants, constitutions, laws, regulations, administrative rules, and informal norms and practices. These intertwined and sprawling apparatuses all rest, sometimes uneasily, on diachronous layers of sedimented yet still active historical state formations. Given this disarray, it is not surprising that different state entities might sometimes advance different, even incommensurate, projects. Indeed, how could they not?

According to Gilles Deleuze, a concept “should express an event rather than an essence” (1995: 14). Molar, large-scale accounts of sex and the state have assumed a sameness to sex and a singular rationality to state actors, decisions, and projects. If the state is not unitary, coordinated, and hierarchically organized in an ultimately rational way — if, as Michel Foucault suggests, “the state is only a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction whose importance is much less than we think” (1991: 103) — then it should come as no surprise that state definitions of sex are also plural. A contradiction is something that does not make sense, a position that is logically inconsistent. To begin by letting go of the assumption that there is any “there there,” any whatness, to (legal) sex apart from what an agency says it is, the contradiction evaporates. The official sex designation — or, more precisely, the M or the F — stamped on documents or coded in records becomes the starting point. Then an analysis can focus not on what sex is, or what it should be, but on what it does, what it accomplishes, what it produces. Indeed, if the only thing we know for sure about sex is what any of these many state actors say it is in any particular instance, sex will turn out to be as messy and diffuse a concept as the state. Entering into the analysis without a firm sense of what sex is or what the state is — as a priori facts, as edifices — makes the processes through which they come into being more visible. It might be better to defer attempts to resolve — theoretically or politically — the messiness in order to understand what a particular system of sex designation does for a particular state project such as recognition or redistribution (Currah, forthcoming).

Of course, states should not only or always be imagined as messy, scattered nodes of local and arbitrary power arrangements. The Leviathan state's terrible concentrated authority to impose sanctions (death, imprisonment, fines) has been the subject of theories of sovereignty for centuries. For this purpose, the most apt definition of the state begins with the simple description from Max Weber: “A human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate physical violence within a particular given territory” (1991: 78). To create a truly compelling account of sovereign violence and the paradox of sovereignty, one must take Weber's definition, put question marks around “legitimate,” and add the observation made by scholars such as Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben that the force that creates the law and makes it legitimate cannot be justified by a law that does not yet exist. Still, much of what states do — regulating the health, safety, and public welfare through myriad regulations, rules, decisions, practices — does not reach the threshold of juridical violence, even if those actions are ultimately undergirded by its threat. Fetishizing a generalized idea of the state and its terrifying or redemptive power (depending on one's perspective) can obscure what is actually happening in the local, micro, particular sites where most public authority is exercised. While it is crucial to theorize the singular finality of state violence, neglecting to examine the messiness of actually existing and potentially incommensurate policies, practices, rules, and norms risks substituting the conceptual for the concrete and gets in the way of understanding what might actually be going on (Latour 1995: 48).

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