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.
From a military term designating a subordinate officer, the subaltern entered social and cultural theory via the Prison Notebooks of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci used the term to designate proletarian and peasant classes denied access to political representation or voice within government by the fascist Italian state. More broadly, Gramsci (1971) used the term to designate classes excluded from political hegemony by ruling elites. The subaltern's contemporary usage in cultural and political theory dates from the rise of the Subaltern Studies Group, who redefined the term to describe the subordinated population of the South Asian subcontinent on the basis of their distance from economic and political elites and who developed an anti-imperial historiography from the point of view of those dispossessed under colonization (Louai 2012).
Postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reframed the term to foreground gendered, caste, class, and colonial constitutive elements barring the subaltern from speaking or from being heard by Western poststructuralist and feminist theorists as well as by diasporic intellectuals (1988). Troubling what might be seen, in the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, as the essentializing of the subaltern as a specific population, Spivak located the subaltern at the interstices of competing or conflicting discursive formations striated by class differentiation (1987). She argued that between the competing discursive claims of an imperial Western feminism and an anticolonial and sexist Hindu nationalism, the subjective and speaking position of a resistant Hindu woman was barred (1988). In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak further queried progressives' insistence on the availability of subaltern speech given its location “on the other side of a difference, or epistemic fracture, even from other groupings of the colonized,” and highlighted “our” implication as interpreters. She reiterated that the subaltern may be silenced by “her own more emancipated granddaughters: a new mainstream … [or] the liberal multiculturalist metropolitan academy” (1999: 309).
There are several senses in which the term subaltern speaks to and within trans studies. Drawing upon poststructuralist, feminist, and anticolonial discourses (Anzaldúa 1987; Derrida 1980; Foucault 1980, Spivak 1988; Haraway 1985, 1991), Sandy Stone's “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” ( 1996) theorized the ways in which transsexuals had been subalterned by both feminist transphobia and medical discourses. Stone both rebutted the antitranssexual polemic of Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male and critiqued a medical model in which, to be recognized as subjects eligible for medical care, transsexuals were enjoined to produce personal histories within the restrictive conventions of a diagnostic portrait. These conventions required “prospective transsexuals” to signify as highly gender normative within their sex of identification, as intensely body dysphoric, and as heterosexual. As well, they implicitly privileged middle-class and white subjects. While J. Meyerowitz (2002), Jay Prosser (1998), Henry Rubin (2003), and others have documented transsexual agency in forging diagnostic criteria as a way of securing access to transition-related healthcare, the erasures and coercive productivities of the diagnosis subalterned both transsexual and nontranssexual transgender subjects, subjecting both to institutional regulation and administrative violence. For example, for transsexuals validated by the medical model, the recognized program of care involved erasing or rewriting one's pretransition history and disappearing “into the woodwork.” As Stone has noted: “It is difficult to articulate a counter-discourse if one is programmed to disappear” (1996: 295).
The meaning and political valences of such woodworking are, however, contested in queer, feminist, and trans studies. In Changing Sex, Bernice Hausman (1995) draws upon Michel Foucault to propose that transsexual subjects speak only through the demand for surgery and are duped into reproducing conservative gender norms. For Hausman, trans subjects are less excluded from meaningful speech than definitively constructed by hegemonic articulations. However, Prosser argues that Hausman obscures her own gendered embodiment and subjective investments to tacitly justify her nontranssexual authorial location as “the authoritative site from which to speak” (Prosser 1998: 132–33). Indeed, Viviane Namaste (2000, 2005), Prosser (1998), and Rubin (2003) all challenge queer feminist deployments of poststructuralism that mobilize transgender figures in the service of theoretical projects that paradoxically deny transsexual experience and speech.
Namaste's and Rubin's assessments of the discursive conditions of possibility underwriting transsexual speech within “queerly-paradigmed” transgenderism (Rubin 2003: 276) echo Spivak's concern with subalterning dynamics within progressive movements as well as within liberal, multicultural, metropolitan institutions. Demonstrating the exclusion of sex workers, prisoners, substance users, the poor, the racialized, and nonstatus people, Aizura (2011), Namaste (2000, 2005), Ross (2005), and Spade (2011) expose practices of erasure (of the excluded subaltern) in the contemporary production of the rights-bearing transgender subject.
Subaltern trans positions also appear at the interstice of transnational sexualities and genders, modernization and globalization, and through the networks of global gay human rights discourse and Anglo-American transgender liberation. How these English language forms encounter, appropriate, or are translated by globally local “trans” constituencies raises questions of the political economy of identity movements and discourses. Reflecting upon the situation of francophone travesties and transsexuelles, Namaste draws upon Spivak to critique as linguistic imperialism the export of US anglophone sexual minority nomenclature and politics (such as transgender and queer), arguing that they do not translate conceptually or culturally into Quebec (Namaste 2005). Similarly, David Valentine highlights differentials of class, race, education, and employment in the normative prescription of acceptable language in LGBT service provision, which effectively require gay-identified subjects to “speak transgender” in order to be legible (2006: 417). Meanwhile, Katrina Roen (2001) queries how, within capitalist globalization, transgender and transsexual rhetorics are valued as modern and metropolitan in opposition to non-Western and indigenous gender-variant identities. Conversely, genderqueer and transgender writers contest the terms of inscription within medically sanctioned transsexual discourses, arguing that they produce hierarchies of authenticity, reproduce class- and race-based privilege, and require that gender-nonconforming subjects enlist within binary gendered positions to be recognized (Halberstam 1998, Wilchins 2002).
Ewa Ziareck's recent application of Jean-François Lyotard's (1999) differend to progressive formations, including feminist movements and radical democracy theory, suggests some of the stakes of coercively homogenizing progressive discourses and raises the issue as one of constitutive as well as contingent violence (Ziareck 2001). There may be an affinity between the subaltern and Lyotard's notion of the differend, the trace or remainder of discursive battles, which must be resolved for a discourse, even a counterdiscourse, to emerge. Such traces of “border wars” attest to the violence by which transsexuality, transgenderism, and other kinds of gender and sex variance are repeatedly buried or erased from the social world.