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.

The term biopolitics dates to the early twentieth century (Lemke 2011), but it is only in Michel Foucault's work from the 1970s forward that the concept (sometimes denominated by him as biopower) begins to be considered a constitutive aspect of governance within Eurocentric modernity (Foucault 1978, 1997, 2004). Biopolitics, generally speaking, describes the calculus of costs and benefits through which the biological capacities of a population are optimally managed for state or state-like ends. In its Foucauldian formulation, the term refers specifically to the combination of disciplinary and excitatory practices aimed at each and every body, which results in the somaticization by individuals of the bodily norms and ideals that regulate the entire population to which they belong. In Foucauldian biopolitics, the individualizing and collectivizing poles of biopower are conjoined by the domain of sexuality, by which Foucault means reproductive capacity as well as modes of subjective identification, the expression of desire, and the pursuit of erotic pleasure. Sexuality, in this double sense of the biological reproduction of new bodies that make up the body politic as well as the ensemble of techniques that produce individualized subjectivities available for aggregation, supplies the capillary space of power's circulation throughout the biopoliticized populus.

To accept Foucault's account of sexuality's biopolitical function is to encounter a lacuna in his theoretical oeuvre: the near-total absence of a gender analysis. This is perhaps unsurprising given the anglophone roots of the gender concept, which was developed by the psychologist John Money and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s during their research on intersexuality, and which was only gradually making its way into the humanities and social science departments of the English-speaking academy in the 1970s when Foucault was delivering his first lectures on biopolitics in France (Germon 2009; Scott 1986). Yet as an account of how embodied subjects acquire behaviors and form particularized identities and of how social organization relies upon the sometimes fixed, sometimes flexible categorization of bodies with differing biological capacities, gender as an analytical concept is commensurable with a Foucauldian perspective on biopolitics.

Gendering practices are inextricably enmeshed with sexuality. The identity of the desiring subject and that of the object of desire are characterized by gender. Gender difference undergirds the homo/hetero distinction. Gender conventions code permissible and disallowed forms of erotic expression, and gender stereotyping is strongly linked with practices of bodily normativization. Gender subjectivizes individuals in such a manner that socially constructed categories of personhood typically come to be experienced as innate and ontologically given. It is a system filled with habits and traditions, underpinned by ideological, religious, and scientific supports that all conspire to give bodies the appearance of a natural inevitability, when in fact embodiment is a highly contingent and reconfigurable artifice that coordinates a particular material body with a particular biopolitical apparatus. Approached biopolitically, gender does not pertain primarily to questions of representation — that is, to forming correct or incorrect images of the alignment of a signifying sex (male or female) with a signified social category (man or woman) or psychical disposition (masculine or feminine). Gender, rather, is an apparatus within which all bodies are taken up, which creates material effects through bureaucratic tracking that begins with birth, ends with death, and traverses all manner of state-issued or state-sanctioned documentation practices in between. It is thus an integral part of the mechanism through which power settles a given population onto a given territory through a given set of administrative structures and practices.

Transgender phenomena — anything that calls our attention to the contingency and unnaturalness of gender normativity — appear at the margins of the biopolitically operated-upon body, at those fleeting and variable points at which particular bodies exceed or elude capture within the gender apparatus when they defy the logic of the biopolitical calculus or present a case that confounds an administrative rule or bureaucratic practice. Consequently, transgender phenomena constantly flicker across the threshold of viability, simultaneously courting danger and attracting death even as they promise life in new forms, along new pathways.

Bodies that manifest such transgender phenomena have typically become vulnerable to a panoply of structural oppressions and repressions; they are more likely to be passed over for social investment and less likely to be cultivated as useful for the body politic. They experience microaggressions that cumulatively erode the quality of psychical life, and they also encounter major forms of violence, including deliberate killing. And yet, increasingly, some transgender subjects who previously might have been marked for death now find themselves hailed as legally recognized, protected, depathologized, rights-bearing minority subjects within biopolitical strategies for the cultivation of life from which they previously had been excluded, often to the point of death.

The criterion for this bifurcation of the population along the border of life and death is race, which Foucault (1997: 254) describes as “the basic mechanism of power.” Certainly, trans bodies of color (particularly if they are poor and feminized) are disproportionately targeted by the death-dealing, “necropolitical” operations of biopower (Mbembe 2003), while bodies deemed white are more likely to experience viability. However, Foucault critically disarticulates race and color to enable a theorization of racism capable of doing more than pointing out that people of color tend to suffer more than whites, and this theorization is particularly useful for transgender studies.

Foucault (1997: 80) understands racism as an artificial biologization of social, cultural, linguistic, or economic differences within a supposedly biologically monist population — that is, as a selective evolutionary process of “speciation” through which new kinds of social entities that are considered biologically distinct from one another emerge. The racism through which biopower operates can be described as a “somatechnical assemblage” (Pugliese and Stryker 2009: 2–3) that brings together a hierarchizing schema of values and preferences, sets of life-affirming or death-making techniques that enact those values and preferences, and a variety of phenotypic, morphological, or genitative qualities and characteristics associated with individual bodies, upon which those techniques operate. Race and racism are therefore broadly understood as the enmeshment of hierarchizing cultural values with hierarchized biological attributes to produce distinct categories of beings who are divided into those rendered vulnerable to premature death and those nurtured to maximize their life. Race thus construed conceptually underpins the biopolitical division not only of color from whiteness but of men from women, of queers from straights, of abled-bodied from disabled, and of cisgender from transgender, to the extent that a body on one side of any of these binaries is conceptualized as biologically distinct from a body on the other side. The caesura, or break, that race introduces into the body politic allows the population to be segmented and selected, enhanced or eliminated, according to biological notions of heritability, degeneracy, foreignness, differentness, or unassimilability — all in the name of “defending” society and making it “pure.”

Contemporary transgender identities, populations, and sociopolitical movements exemplify this process of biopolitical racialization. Biopower constitutes transgender as a category that it surveils, splits, and sorts in order to move some trans bodies toward emergent possibilities for transgender normativity and citizenship while consigning others to decreased chances for life. Recent work in transgender studies addressing this biopolitical problematic includes Dean Spade 2011, Toby Beauchamp 2009, Aren Z. Aizura 2012, and C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn 2013. A critical theoretical task now confronting the field is to advance effective strategies for noncompliance and noncomplicity with the biopolitical project itself.

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