Abstract

In this short essay, the author calls for a provincialization of trans studies by rethinking the framework of the liberal humanist ontological self as the given basis for understanding trans experience. Briefly describing the neglect of non-Western epistemologies and practices in canonical trans studies in the United States, the author argues that turning our attention to these modes of selfhood, identity, and embodiment, such as conceived within hijra cultures in India, would be useful in lending productive directions for future work within the field. The author suggests that this work should be undertaken not with the sole purpose of expanding the geographic contours of the field, but in the spirit of destabilizing and de-essentializing what the signifier trans itself represents.

Gayatri Reddy's landmark book, With Respect to Sex, is a much-celebrated work of anthropology on hijra identity and culture in South India that was published in 2005. Yet, nearly two decades later, it is sparsely studied as a “canonical” text in trans studies. This tells us something about the epistemological investments and blind spots of the field as dominantly conceived in the United States. It is my contention that our present thinking on transness is built on narratives that are governed by fictions of the liberal humanist ontological self. In these narratives, the self is conceived through the hermeneutics of “possessive individualism,” to use a term coined by Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson ([1962] 2011). This tendency prevents us from theorizing trans experience in relation to ways of being in the world and conceptions of selfhood other than those obtained by the heuristics of the sovereign subjecthood. Thus, even as the signifier trans or transgender, emerging from the anglophone West, seems to have already traveled to and been embraced (in varying degrees) by different parts of the world, reverse crossings seem barely to have happened.

Reddy's book, for instance, offers a trenchant critique of the idea that the South-Asian hijra identity, which many commentators tend to describe by analogy as India's transgender or “third gender,” can be analyzed primarily in terms of gender/sex difference. Reddy's work shows that hijra self-understandings do not necessarily rely on the notion that the self is an individualized essence built around an internal psychic truth of one's gender and/or sexuality. Rather, this conception of the self comes closer to what the historian Afsaneh Najmabadi (2014: 292) terms “self-in-conduct,” in which the notion of selfhood is premised on the individual's sense of being in the world through social and cultural conduct.

To be sure, the lines of inquiry opened by With Respect to Sex have contributed to recent anthropological and historical work on Indigenous “trans” identities and practices.1 Yet there is little theoretical work that engages the implications of such variegated non-Western practices and conceptions for trans studies and that puts them in conversation with “Western” trans epistemologies.2 How might our discussions in the United States around trans identity and politics, transsexuality, trans desire, and embodiment change if the hegemonic narratives informed by liberal humanism were to be interrupted by or refracted through, for example, what I would tentatively like to call a hijra epistemology? As a conception of gendered self, relationality, and desire, would a hijra epistemology have anything to say about trans as a category, if we understand the latter to be deeply rooted in Western frameworks of possessive individualism? This is what I want for the future of trans studies: an engagement (one that is rigorous, imaginative, playful) with non-Western modes of conceptualizing transness that does not simply recognize and affirm them as a matter of the diversity of “other” identities, but sees them as interventions that can expand and transform the discourse on trans identity and personhood in the West itself. Taking my cue from Madhavi Menon's (2022) spin on Dipesh Chakrabarty's formulation, another way of saying this is, we need to provincialize trans studies.

* * *

We know the saree speaks in many tongues, and evolves in myriad shapes and postures in many cultures. I see the saree as a renaissance, especially as many womxn have worn it in the past and continue to wear it in the present. And like the paintings of the renaissance, the saree is ageless and ambiguous, each wearer weaves a different meaning into its countless threads of colour. The many interpretations a saree embodies, the many patterns it allows us to see, the many lives it lives. . . . Saree is much more than silk, it is also the story of a Womxn.

—Neel Sengupta, “Saree: The Story of a Womxn”

To describe it very loosely, the idea of provincializing trans studies seeks to denaturalize (Western) universalisms by not rejecting them in favor of particularity. Rather, provincializing takes root by showing how universalist thought can be modified by particular histories and by parsing the mobile relations between that production of thought and knowledge and the place from which it emerges. What would such a task in trans theory look like? While the material and creative wings of this project ought to be shaped by the collaborative future of the field, I suggest that we begin with the critical resources we already have, some of which I outline in the rest of this piece.

Any cross-cultural and comparative study of transness concerns, at the very least, the question of translation—across concepts, practices, categories, languages, and affects. In his essay “Translating Hijra into Transgender,” Jeff Roy (2016) analyzes the “translation” from hijra to transgender through performance practices across the two overlapping communities within contemporary India. While the appropriation of a globalized economy of trans allows hijra communities to transcend their marginalized position, he argues that this entails a larger shift in self-perception (“from the socially transgressive mode of hijra towards a pehchan of individual empowerment”) and social relations (what he calls “the transgendering of the hijra family”) (426). What remains to be asked is how trans itself might be modified in this very process of appropriation, or indeed how trans identifications in any cosmopolitan milieus of the kind described by Roy might require us to step outside individual-oriented models of selfhood.3 We might, therefore, ask in turn what translation as cross-cultural trans-fer (or transference) of epistemology entails globally. A deft example is Menon's (2022) analysis in her essay, “The Trouble with Pronouns,” in which she compares the relation among pronouns, genders, and desires as they exist in poetic traditions and grammatical conventions across languages and cultures in South Asia and Anglophone metropoles. By looking at the languages of Punjabi, Farsi, and English, and the genres of Sufi poetry and the Shakespearean sonnet together, she complicates the seeming universality of the faith in pronouns to “proclaim the ontological truth of gender.”

The careful attention to literary expression in Menon's essay speaks to me in several different registers, one of which pertains to history. In my own current research, I engage Hindu mythological tales that offer a different conceptualization of trans embodiment than what is to be found in contemporary transition memoirs, in which the body is configured by the subject's biopolitical agency. Despite the seeming anachronism of such an approach, I demonstrate its relevance to theorizing contemporary trans and hijra ways of being in India. My point of departure is treating history itself as more expansive than a linear temporalization of the rational subject, or as placement of the subject within intricate genealogies of rational power. Instead, I study the function of mythopoesis in service of the subject's being-in-history, which is to interrogate the ways in which our lives come to acquire meanings through woven-ness in sociocultural fantasies.4 Such a method allows us to interrupt the purchase of hegemonic secular categories of identity, which assume a determinate, rational subject as the locus of history.

Working through different forms of historical consciousness and collective practices is one of the many ways by which we may undertake the project of expanding trans narratives and provincializing trans studies. Yet this unlocks even more possibilities: literary expression, fantasy, addiction, experiment, and affect in trans narratives are also rich textures of living that should be important sites of comparative analyses and theorization—theorizing informed by a reading of desire rather than by assertions of ontology. This approach resonates with Sandy Stone's ([1987] 2006) call to embrace transsexuality as an intertextuality but without the implication that any work in this vein needs to be based on a “post-transsexual” understanding of the trans subject. The hijra accounts from India, for instance, can be read as resisting the centrality of sex reassignment surgery as the narrative and epistemological hinge for écriture transsexuelle. If we take this seriously, the current historiographic distinction between transgender and transsexual is thrown into crisis, as is the salience of what scholars identify as a concrete genre of “wrong body narrative” in trans autobiographical and theoretical work. It beckons us, instead, to look for other genres, other epistemes. It also responds to Andrea Long Chu's argument that “transness requires that we understand, as we never have before, what it means to be attached to a norm—by desire, by habit, by survival” (Chu and Harsin Drager 2019: 108) but without her emphasis on the dire need to separate the trans analytic from a queer analytic.5

Let me end by returning to the epigraph in this section, taken from a blog entry by Neel Sengupta, the founding curator of Womxn Writers Project and a trans author from India. Sengupta's (2020) sensuous and evocative story, titled “Saree: The Story of a Womxn,” does not describe gender as an authentic truth of the self. Indifferent to a fixed mapping of gender, self, and desire via internal truth, the story articulates a relationship between the self and gender through the lens of sociocultural belonging and the poetics of longing, intimacy, desire, and object attachment. For Sengupta, gender “seeps into your body” from the folds of the saree wrapped around the body. Likened to the saree, gender “speaks in many tongues” and expresses a shared heritage of a sartorial desire that brings various bodies into relational solidarity,6 bodies that have been adorned by the shared cultural object that here is the mark of gender despite linguistic, religious, nationalist, and other substantial differences. Rather than seeking absolute self-knowledge as grounds to define gender incommensurably for every individual, the writer admits to feeling gender from without as much as from within: “For me, the Saree embodies this trans-ness” (Sengupta 2020). I want to imagine a future for trans studies where Sengupta and Chu are in dialogue with each other. A future where hijra and trans meet on a shared horizon of knowledge politics. And a future where androgynous gods exchange letters with testo junkies.

Notes

1.

See, for instance, Vaibhav Saria's (2021) book Hijras, Lovers, Brothers, or important essays by Shraddha Chatterjee (2018), Omar Kasmani (2021), among others, published in TSQ.

2.

While I employ a putative difference between “West” and the “non-West” in this essay, I understand these are not neat and untroubled distinctions. My usage is only a means to suggest the differences between dominant patterns of thinking in these geographically and culturally different locations.

3.

Compare Aniruddha Dutta and Raina Roy's (2014) inspiring essay “Decolonizing Transgender in India: Some Reflections” on this point. I join them in spirit with my call to provincializing trans studies. But unlike their focus on decolonizations operative within the local contexts, I am pushing their argument to interrogate the assumptions of trans identities, narratives, and politics in the United States, and for rewriting such scripts everywhere.

4.

On this point, see the historian Joan Wallach Scott's (2012) excellent book The Fantasy of Feminist History, especially the introduction and chapter 2.

5.

Instead, I would argue that we need to rethink the antagonism between trans(sexual) theory and queer theory on matters related to the misalignments between the self, desire, the body, identity, relationality, and lived experience. This tension between trans and queer analytic needs more attention. As it stands presently, I find Chu's argument in favor of a break from queer theory based on a supposed antithetical relationship between desire and queer's antinormativity unsatisfying. I am engaging this problematic in my current research.

6.

I borrow the phrase relational solidarity from Carolyn Laubender (2020).

References

Chatterjee, Shraddha.
2018
. “
Transgender Shifts: Notes on Resignification of Gender and Sexuality in India
.”
TSQ
5
, no.
3
:
311
20
.
Chu, Andrea Long, and Harsin Drager, Emmett.
2019
. “
After Trans Studies
.”
TSQ
6
, no.
1
:
103
16
.
Dutta, Aniruddha, and Roy, Raina.
2014
. “
Decolonizing Transgender in India: Some Reflections
.”
TSQ
1
, no.
3
:
320
37
.
Laubender, Carolyn.
2020
. “
Speak for Your Self: Psychoanalysis, Autotheory, and the Plural Self
.
Arizona Quarterly
76
, no.
1
:
39
64
.
Kasmani, Omar.
2021
. “
Futuring Trans* in Pakistan: Timely Reflections
.”
TSQ
8
, no.
1
:
96
112
.
Macpherson, C. B. (
1962
) 2011.
The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke
.
Oxford
:
Oxford University Press
.
Menon, Madhavi.
2022
. “
The Trouble with Pronouns
.” Unpublished manuscript, January 21.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh.
2014
.
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
.
Durham, NC
:
Duke University Press
.
Reddy, Gayatri.
2005
.
With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India
.
Chicago
:
University of Chicago Press
.
Roy, Jeff.
2016
. “
Translating Hijra into Transgender: Performance and Pehchān in India's Trans-Hijra Communities
.”
TSQ
3
,
nos. 3–4
:
412
32
.
Saria, Vaibhav.
2021
.
Hijras, Lovers, Brothers: Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India
.
New York
:
Fordham University Press
.
Scott, Joan Wallach.
2012
.
The Fantasy of Feminist History
.
Durham, NC
:
Duke University Press
.
Sengupta, Neel.
2020
. “
Saree: The Story of a Womxn
.”
Womxn Writers Project
(blog),
September
15
. https://womxnwritersprojec.wixsite.com/mysite/post/saree-the-story-of-a-womxn.
Stone, Sandy. (
1987
) 2006. “
The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto
.” In
The Transgender Studies Reader
, edited by Stryker, Susan and Whittle, Stephen,
221
35
.
New York
:
Routledge
.