This essay scrutinizes the conundrum of recent trans* politics in the Global North and West. Although this trans* politics has achieved important social changes for some gender-variant people, it at the same time participates in neoliberal notions of equality. In addition, while constructing a seemingly legitimate subject called transgender, this politics perpetuates colonial violence. This article suggests a turn to atmospheres as a crucial term to reassess this quandary. With a focus on discomfort, this article explores ways to decolonize and deprivilege transnational trans* politics in the Global North and West. It argues that such an approach might open up ways to consider trans* politics as an imaginary that would enable fragmented realities, bodies, and selves to become legible and articulable and thereby also make it possible to name the constitutive violence that is at work in politics under the purview of trans*.
For several decades now, a wealth of local, regional, and transnational trans* communities, networks, and organizations have been emerging in different parts of the globe to counter the worldwide discrimination of trans* people in diverse facets of life. Since the 2000s in particular, political activism initiated by trans* people and their allies has raised the awareness of politicians, legislators, and the general public regarding the challenges facing trans* persons. As a result, innovative legislation on gender recognition has recently been adopted or is currently being drafted in various jurisdictions.1
This article takes as its point of departure this specific moment in recent trans* politics in the Global North and West, a version of politics that rapidly grew strong, expanding from its predominantly local dimension to an increasingly global movement with transnational impacts. This version of trans* politics is pervaded by ideals of success and goal orientation and considered as progress for an assumed trans* community. However, as trans* activists and scholars aptly caution, these politics need not only be celebrated as progressive achievement for gender-variant people. On the contrary, this version of trans* politics should also be seen as assimilatory professionalization that normalizes and flattens out the differences among the divergent needs of various trans* people. Building on this critique, the purpose of this article is to explore the question, how can trans* politics—particularly transnational trans* politics from the Global North and West—address current injustices without falling prey to the ultimately counterproductive accommodation associated with neoliberal notions of equality? And, furthermore, how can these injustices be contested without perpetuating colonizing violence in the process of constructing a seemingly legitimate subject called transgender/trans* that is bound up with questions of nation, geographical position, and citizenship and is thus intertwined with racism, xenophobia, and class privilege?
In response to this dilemma, I argue that thinking affect and politics together as imbricated may help reassess the conundrum of trans* politics acting from a privileged position predominantly located in the Global North and West. I suggest that taking into account the affective entanglements of politics under the purview of trans* opens a way to consider politics as an imaginary that enables fragmented realities, bodies, and selves to become legible and articulable. It also makes it possible to name the constitutive violence that is at work thereby in such trans* politics. This leads me to explore discomfort as an atmosphere in privileged trans* politics located in and acting from the Global North and West. Such an atmosphere may enable kinds of change that work against a politics that is unilateral, policy oriented, assimilationist, additive, and that elides plurality.
The Euro- and US-centric Regimes of Knowledge in Trans* Politics
Awareness among the general public of the challenges facing trans* persons, as well as the legislative achievements in confronting these challenges, are predominantly associated with the global trans* politics of institutions such as the European Union. However, this politics is a result of trans* activists' increasing challenge of the state's power regarding the regulations of legal and medical gender assignment. Trans* activists more and more use the courts to hold their governments accountable for discriminatory practices with regard to trans* people's needs. As a result, the Council of Europe, for example, recently stated that “severe violations of human rights occur in relation to legal gender recognition” (Council of Europe 2015: 1) and called for a diminishing of those specific forms of discrimination that trans* people face. The regulation of transgender within legal, medical, psychological, and public realms has been addressed in reports and surveys recently commissioned by political entities in the Global North and West. For example, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a report in 2014 on the multiple forms of discrimination against trans* people in all European Union member states (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights FRA 2014), which underscores the results of previous surveys (Whittle, Turner, and Combs 2008; European Commission 2012; Balzer and Hutta 2012). Particularly striking forms of discrimination cited in that report include violence; harassment; the widespread lack of gender recognition under the law; and the often lengthy, complicated, and pathologizing procedures necessary to obtain legal gender recognition, as well as difficulties in accessing appropriate general health care and gender-confirming treatment (see also Hammarberg 2009; International Commission of Jurists 2007; United Nations OHCHR 2012). As the Council of Europe points out, these reports aim “to provide law-makers with information on the challenges that transgender people currently face” (Council of Europe 2015: 1).
Indispensable as this recent, publicly highlighted role of transnational institutions is in the fight to enable and improve lives for many trans* persons, it has several limitations. To begin, the role recently taken on by these transnational institutions often eclipses the decades-long grassroots activism of trans* people that served as precondition for such institutional politics (see exemplarily Stryker 2008; Baumgartinger 2017; Wilchins 2017). Furthermore, informed by Euro- and US-centric regimes of knowledge, these policies are steeped in colonial violence. This is evident if we scrutinize the politically commissioned reports themselves on which the European Union's transnational politics regarding trans* are built. The imperative to examine these documents is prompted by the cautionary remarks of Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah (2014), who point out the importance of questioning the steady growth of politically commissioned research on trans* and to analyze the politics aligned with this research. Accordingly, it is crucial that the European Union's official statements be examined to ascertain what they refer to when reporting on trans* and gender-variant lives. What political notions of transgender are these reports producing? And what are the effects this term has when it circulates in the global trans* politics of supranational entities such as institutions of the European Union?
The term transgender as employed in this commissioned research commonly denotes a broad range of gender-nonconforming people. Such subsumption of the multiplicity of gender variance calls for critical inspection. In doing so, I align my considerations with existing research in transgender studies, which insists that the historicity and cultural contingency of this term be borne in mind (Roen 2006; Gramling and Dutta 2016; Stryker and Whittle 2006; Stryker and Aizura 2013; Stryker and Currah 2014; Stryker 1998). As transgender studies scholars assert, the generalizing use of the category transgender in the Global North and West has increasingly subsumed cross-cultural variations in nonconforming gender embodiments under an ontological Euro- and US-centric category, a category that is bound up with narratives of modernization (Beollstorff et al. 2014; Aizura et al. 2014). In this regard, David Valentine (2007) points out that, as a category, transgender is often imagined as a form of progressive modernity that restores outmoded conceptions of gender, sexuality, embodiment, and identity (see also Davidson 2007). Accordingly, it cannot be understood as a “modern” innovation but must be regarded as deeply embedded in political and economic dominance.
The use of this category elicits the question of how the notion transgender circulates within a colonizing project that grasps gender variance within predominantly white, Euro- and US-centric frames of reference and regimes of knowledge. This is evident in the following excerpt from the mentioned Council of Europe report: “The emergence in Europe of the right to gender identity is a positive development and may represent a model for future national legislations” (Council of Europe 2015: 1). While the Council of Europe should be lauded for advocating the legislative implementation of self-determined gender assignment for trans* people, a measure also recommended by the European human rights commissioner (Hammarberg 2009), the mode of how it does this must be questioned. For, at the same time as it seeks to address the problem, this statement also consolidates the idea of Europe as the “vanguard” of human rights as well as a “model” for the “future” of trans* rights. What is problematic about the latter is that trans* rights thereby become a crucial element of what appears to be constitutive of so-called liberal democratic nation-states. Such calls for trans* rights as generalized “human rights” (Council of Europe 2015: 1) has an impact not only on European nation states; it also operates on a global scale. By acting on, defending, and enforcing trans* activist claims to self-determine one's gender as a “universal” right issued by allegedly “avant-garde” European institutions, such trans* politics reconstitutes and consolidates the colonial idea of Europe as the locus of “modernity,” “progress,” and as the “cradle of democracy.” As postcolonial and decolonial theory have shown (see for example Spivak 1988, 1990; Mohanty 1988; Bacchetta and Haritaworn 2001; Massad 2007; Puar 2007; Kulpa and Mizielińska 2011), such approaches both anchor and proliferate violent colonial regimes. Statements such as these by the European Council propel the power to assert European global politics. Supranational institutions such as the Council of Europe thus produce and consolidate a notion of transgender that allows them to advocate for “justice” and thereby take on a role of “vanguard” for human rights while reproducing violent colonial regimes of knowledge. This has manifold consequences for the ways of living and of specifying gender variance in nonprivileged contexts within and beyond the Global North and West. As such, transnational politics using the universalizing term transgender refers to a legal, medical and political regulation of gender-variant expressions that secures rights for some trans* people at the expense of others, while reifying the inequity of participation in resources, and of recognition, representation, and survival (Aizura et al. 2014; Beollstorff et al. 2014).
However necessary it might be to continue engaging with such politics of “universal” human rights for trans* people, it is important—particularly from a perspective of politics from the Global North and West—to address their violent impacts as well as the conundrum of this currently strong transnational presence of trans* politics. To do so, I focus on the affective entanglements of trans* politics; that is, I shift the perspective from the politics of recognition and rights to the affective dimensions of trans* politics.
The Affective Entanglements of Trans* Politics in the Global North and West
Research from affect studies shed some light on how emotions and affects inform politics. Also referred to as the “affective turn” (Clough and Halley 2007): this strand of research takes affect, emotion, feeling, and sensation as significant matters of concern. In line with feminist, queer, and postcolonial critique, affect studies illustrates how emotionality and rationality, or subjectivity and objectivity, have been attributed to certain individuals in order to establish gendered, sexualized, racialized, and classed hierarchies (Lorde 1984; Ahmed 2000; Skeggs 2005; Puar 2007; Butler 2009; Berlant 2008; for an overview, see Gregg and Seighworth 2010; Baier et al. 2014). Conceptually, my approach to the affective entanglements of trans* politics is based on what Raymond Williams (1977) has called “structures of feeling.” Williams's influential work understands culture as feelings that are entangled with regimes of power—not as “feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought” (Williams 1977: 132). I furthermore conceive of affect as the crossover between body and mind, “inside” and “outside,” the self and the “other.” Like Sara Ahmed (2004), instead of asking what emotions are, I rather focus on what they do—that is, on how they contribute to the constitution of “inside” and “outside,” of the self and the “other.” In this regard, Ahmed writes, “In my model of sociality of emotions, I suggest that emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place. So, emotions are not simply something ‘I’ or ‘we’ have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made” (Ahmed 2004: 10). Thus, individuals do not possess emotions, but emotions direct the ways in which the self is placed in relation to the “other.” Put differently, the “inside” of the self is established only through the exchange of emotions with its “outside.”
This conceptualization allows us to view affect and emotion as both intimate and impersonal. In terms of trans* politics, this conceptualization blurs the clear-cut divide between the individual inside and the social outside of trans* lives. Discrimination and violence against trans* people, the obstacles to recognition of trans* people, and the lack of public awareness of trans* persons' lives, persistently evoke various feelings. Whatever those feelings might be, they are, however, neither purely individual nor solely socially induced, but are rather reciprocal. Thus, when we consider a so-called feeling of “being” trans* and feelings involved with a gender-variant expression as neither intrinsic nor as socially induced and assigned, it becomes possible to interweave the “inside” and “outside” of the self. In this way, affect can be understood as saturated by regimes of power and, conversely, regimes of power can be understood as pervaded by affect. Drawing on these insights from affect theory brings into focus the formative force of affect for politics, which makes it possible to consider emotion as a political resource for trans* politics. Accordingly, trans* activism is to be conceived as an affectively saturated atmosphere rather than the accumulation of feeling individuals. In order to reassess the conundrum of trans* politics, I underscore the importance of moods in trans* politics as an important addition to the felt experiences of trans* individuals. To begin, I scrutinize the structure of feelings of trans* politics and its repercussions on a global level. In doing so, I consider a further site of trans* politics that promises to address the problem of marginalizing particular trans* lives that the supranational institutions mentioned above fail to address and recognize adequately. This political critique can be illustrated by recourse to the work of C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn (2013). While other postcolonial and antiracist scholarship primarily focuses on feminist as well as gay and lesbian politics, Snorton and Haritaworn examine the global entanglements of trans* activism, which makes their research particularly salient for the present argument.2 A central feature of their work is to point out trans* politics' attachment to hate crimes against trans* people. While Snorton and Haritaworn condemn the violence (often resulting in death), they question the politics that addresses these hate crimes. This violence is made visible by transnational-scale political projects, such as the community-building rituals of the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), or statistical surveys like the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) Project that systematically collects data on the killings of trans* people worldwide. In their critical analyses of these projects, Snorton and Haritaworn reference a form of power that Achille Mbembe (2003) calls “necropolitics,” a term he uses to describe a regime of power that puts one part of a population to death while it strengthens the vitality of another part of the population. As Snorton and Haritaworn demonstrate, the politics targeting hate crimes paradoxically fosters the bio- and necropolitical implications of trans* mortality and trans* vitality. Accordingly, the mentioned projects on deadly violence, particularly against Black trans* women and trans* women of color, lay the foundation for and are utilized by privileged white trans* activists who live in metropoles in the Global North and West (see Haritaworn 2015). When certain white trans* activists assume politically leftist and queer-feminist positions—by engaging in struggles in the name of queer diversity, by fighting for the recognition of trans* persons, in confronting the violence against trans* people of color—they use hate crimes against Black trans* women and trans* people of color as a resource to achieve political aims that primarily serve to increase their own visibility, safety, and vitality.
Haritaworn furthermore shows how this activism is enmeshed with racialization and ethnicization, as white trans* activists in the Global North and West locate the subject who afflicts trans*phobic violence in the figure that is both of Islamic faith and economically precarious. Thus, through their affective attachment to the trans* deaths of predominately Black trans* women and trans* people of color, trans* activist campaigns against violence also draw strength from the widespread racist panic around Muslims' alleged homo- and trans*phobia. As Snorton and Haritaworn argue, these actions do nothing to fundamentally alter the conditions under which the vitality of the lives of trans* people of color are compromised; instead they instrumentalize the deaths of trans* people of color for their own purposes.3 Rather than serve the well-being particularly of Black trans* women and trans* people of color, their deaths function as a vital resource for the development and global expansion of homo- and trans*normative political projects.4 Such an affective political attachment to hate crimes by white queer-feminist and trans* politics in the Global North and West consolidates the idea of Europe as “progressive.” It does so by turning trans*ness into a symbol of “freedom,” thereby legitimating imperial wars against the so-called terror, and by accompanying such wars with restrictive and racist migration regimes in “Western,” “secular,” and “liberal” nation-states.
Against the backdrop of this research, I suggest that the structure of feelings of privileged, predominantly white trans* activism and transnational-scale trans* politics in the Global North and West that argue for a commitment to address the needs of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised trans* individuals and groups is based on affective attachments that enable collective political action and at the same time coconstitutively performs racist, xenophobic, anti-Islamic, and classist violence. This affective structure lays the foundation for the lived atmospheres within trans* politics in the Global North and West. Focusing on this growing form of political action—and on how this version of politics is informed by the force of affect, initially as it manifests itself in attachments and finally in atmospheres—makes it possible to see the circulation of emotions within trans* politics as both stabilizing and unsettling for political action and social change.
The Atmosphere of Discomfort and the Imaginary of Trans* Politics
In light of these findings that show the limits of political action and social change in present trans* politics in the Global North and West, the question is, how—from a position of trans* activism in the Global North and West—can we think of an atmosphere in trans* politics that undoes the colonial violence and imperial gesture outlined above? And, given the present remarkably violent constitution of trans* politics, how can we conceptualize such an atmosphere while both taking seriously the conundrum of transnational trans* politics in the Global North and West and rejecting political apathy? What affects might be generated in order to rework trans* politics and communities in the Global North and West so that we question the conventional understanding of politics as progress rather than produce a seemingly neat solution to this conundrum?
My questions allude to the political potential of affects, which I want to frame by referring to a critical approach to the so-called affective turn (Hemmings 2005; Leys 2011). In line with this critical perspective, I argue against positions that consider an unequivocal understanding of affect as a promise for liberating politics as well as for a paradigm change that renews theory. Therein I follow Clare Hemmings, who argues that affect is a politically crucial force for connecting individuals, yet still questions “its proponent's over-investment in its positive capacities” (Hemmings 2015: 149).5 Taking a multivalent approach to affect allows us to see it as bound up with gendered, racialized, and classed regimes of power. As queer, feminist, and postcolonial work within affect theory has shown (Ahmed 2004; Berlant 2011; Cvetkovich 2003), affect is a moving force in the creation of attachments to and in the production of the normative, while also maintaining the potential to transform norms.
Expanding this approach into the evaluation of trans* politics touched on above, I home in on the ambivalence of affect: while, on the one hand, affect may offer alternative moods in current politics, on the other hand it may also reinforce existing regimes of power. This is evident if we consider empathy, an effect that constitutes the moving force for political action within the structure of affect of the trans* politics of European institutions as well as of privileged, white queer-feminist activists in metropoles of the Global North and West. The Council of Europe's report, with its plea for novel legislation that enables the self-declaration of one's gender, for example, empathizes with trans* people's distress concerning the gender they were assigned at birth, and with their legal struggles to adopt their self-determined gender. Likewise, the politics attached to trans* deaths that Snorton and Haritaworn analyze feels for the marginalization and fatal violence against trans* people of color. Both of these empathic attachments implicate processes of violent colonizing and imperial hierarchization, exclusion and othering, even as they simultaneously propel vital communities of trans* activists. The ambivalence inherent in such empathic ways of conducting politics and building communities warrants further scrutiny.
Feminist and postcolonial theory has shown how empathy and compassion are built on a historical hierarchy of categories of the privileged “here” and the marginalized “there” (Berlant 2008; Dhawan 2013; Hemmings 2011; Spivak 1988, 2012). Supposedly suffering “others” are fixed in a site located beyond the “innate here” of the privileged. The latter may, for instance, reify those in the Global South as racialized “other,” of an “other” faith, as socioeconomically precarious, and/or as “illiterate.” Under these conditions, empathy transports a powerful hierarchy that involves referring to the “other” through sentiment, which leads to a hierarchical classification of the self and the “other.” This critique of politics that takes empathy as the fulcrum for transformation, is apt. First, the notion of empathy assumes a reciprocity of those expressing and those receiving empathy. Empathy reifies rather than erodes the hierarchy between the self and the “other.” Second, it is problematic to deal with disregard and rejection by solely focusing on intersubjective encounters and on the reflective capacity of the empathetic subject. Doing so largely conceals the functions and effects inherent within relations of power and dominance. Thus, failure to recognize the historical and political grounds for a lack of response to this reciprocity, and relying on the self-reflexivity of the empathetic subject to resolve the problem of hierarchy-creating knowledge regimes, apprehends, according to this critique, transformation as individual and the individual as rational. This simultaneously assumes the existence of and reifies the illusion of a coherent, autonomous and rational subject, instead of acknowledging the subject as dependent, vulnerable, emotional, and ambivalent.
The question that therefore arises is—in political mobilization and practices that aim to address the actual injustices that face trans* people—How can we avoid colonizing moves that coopt and unify? How may we conceptualize relationality in a way that neither presumes reciprocity nor views political activism through the lens of individuality, but instead views relationality as solidarity that takes the form of decolonial and deprivileging practices—that is, that purposefully disrupts structures of colonization and privilege?6
In order to think about this question in the present moment of trans* politics, I suggest referring to the potential of affects notwithstanding its ambivalence. We are currently in the Global North and West in a political time of empathy fatigue and increased racism, sexism, and homo- and trans*phobia that a newly established nationalist, fascist, and right-wing politics explicitly endorse. The fatigue of empathy with the marginalized and disenfranchised goes hand in hand with a seemingly paradoxical growth in the range and intensity of emotional expressions legitimated in the public sphere. Emotions are perceived, as Elaine Swan suggests, “to provide a privileged source of truth about the self and its relations to others” (Swan 2008: 89). There is a conviction that emotional knowledge is direct and therefore more legitimate and real than other ways of knowing. In other words, feelings are truth and truth is felt. In the face of this present moment, I suggest thinking about collective political practices to fight discrimination, violence, and death—if we are trans* activists in a privileged position—on the basis of an undoing of the belief that emotions provide truth. I want to argue that neither empathy nor critical self-reflection can provide a “true” way to endorse a political commitment to the various needs of gender-variant people. However, even as we must critique our inherent connection to the continued justification of imperialism, as Nikita Dhawan (2013) argues, referring to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, there is no escape from the colonial legacies of “justice” and “human rights,” which we at the same time cannot not want. We have to learn to see ourselves as part of the problem, which, however, not only entails an acknowledgement of complicity wherein we need to dismantle the processes that convert us into advocators for justice and rights; following Dhawan I suggest that solidarity is based on giving up the illusion of sovereignty (Dhawan 2013: 149). Relating this to privileged trans* politics would mean a decentering of our desire for “justice” by renouncing the performance of the empathic, self-reflective, and “vanguard” trans* activist. This, however, doesn't mean that trans* activists from a privileged position should not engage in trans* politics despite the dangers of reification. But my point is that, while engaging in the fight for the various needs of gender-variant people, privileged trans* politics in the Global North and West must forfeit their “vanguard” position.
I argue that focusing on the potential of affect might help to question the illusion of sovereignty, which needs to disrupt the intactness and coherence of the privileged, Western, white, autonomous subject and body and thereby enables us to forge new views on the complicities of trans* politics. Emotions and affect are, however, not to be interpreted as a lens for getting closer to reality but rather as a crucial element through which power is felt, imagined, and contested (Ahmed 2004; Berlant 2000). Referring to the violent power dynamics in the examples of trans* politics delineated above, I suggest that privileged trans* politics in the Global North and West might instead resort to a sense of discomfort, rather than focus on empathy with the figure of the generalized trans* person or with the figure of the trans* person afflicted with deathly violence. Instead of thinking trans* politics from a presupposed coherent trans* identity or shared feelings, I propose picturing trans* politics in the Global North and West as based on a desire for social change that entails a feeling of discomfort. Yet, I do not grasp discomfort as a feeling in a strict individual sense, that is, as a so-called “authentic” emotion that functions as a preexisting foundation for politics (Berlant 2000). Instead, I propose seeing discomfort as a mood that constitutes an atmosphere.
Taking as point of departure the critical approach to affect outlined above (combining a focus on the force of affect with the critique of the so-called affective turn), I propose that discomfort be conceived as a mood. Discomfort, like other moods, is neither raw sensation nor pure reason but an ambience through which one moves, something akin to the flavor of the present. In their comparison of mood and affect, René Rosfort and Giovanni Stanghellini note that moods “often manifest themselves as prolonged feeling-states” (Rosfort and Stanghellini 2009: 258) and are less volitional or transitory than affect. Mood is often used to grasp an orientation to the world that causes the world to come into view in a certain way. In this sense, a mood becomes an affective lens that impacts how one is affected. Being in a certain mood makes the world appear in a specific way. Martin Heidegger's analysis of mood and attunement (Stimmung) suggests that mood is ontologically prior to the exercise of will and cognition. He writes: “Attunements are not side-effects, but are something which in advance determine our being with one another. It seems as though attunement is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which then attunes us through and through” (Heidegger 1995: 66–67). A mood, I suggest, constitutes an overall atmosphere that paves the way for ideas, helping to determine what will matter or not.
Taking mood as the crucial term to scrutinize the conundrum of transnational trans* politics in the Global North and West shows how in particular an atmosphere of discomfort can animate activists to pursue a certain path of inquiry and political action. At the same time, the process is reciprocal and dynamic—i.e., styles of thinking and acting, in their turn, also promote and sustain moods. From this perspective, trans* politics in the Global North and West is paved by an atmosphere of discomfort—an unease with and suffering from current legal regulations for gender-nonconforming people as well as the deadly violence against trans* people—that in turn reinforces colonial and imperial hierarchies. Thereby prevailing trans* politics consolidates precisely the feeling of discomfort it aims to fight. Understanding discomfort in trans* politics in the Global North and West as an atmosphere circumvents the problematic implications associated with the feeling of empathy touched on above. In its dynamic reciprocity, mood is neither solely an individual feeling nor only a firm ontological foundation that presses on individuals, but both simultaneously. Or, as Rita Felski and Susan Fraiman write, the concept of mood avoids such binaries. Mood emphasizes, instead, “its role in modulating thought, acknowledging a dynamic and interactive relationship between reason and emotion. Mood is tied up with self-understanding and shapes thinking rather than being stifled by thinking” (Felski and Fraiman 2012: vi).
Hence, if a thing can appear differently depending on the mood we are in and that surrounds us, then—putting it in Sara Ahmed's terms—“moods matter as the how of what appears” (Ahmed 2014: 14). In this sense, an atmosphere of discomfort can restrict the sovereignty of the above-mentioned politically legitimate subject position transgender/trans*. Discomfort as an atmosphere can foster the acceptance of the ambiguity of knowledge, feeling, and judgment within trans* politics in the Global North and West, without necessarily giving up the possibility of seizing agency under the purview of transgender/trans*. Discomfort does render trans* activism plural, ambivalent, insecure, and unstable, but it does not make such activism dispensable. If actual injustices toward trans* people are to be addressed from a perspective of trans* politics in the Global North and West in a less-violent manner, discomfort as an atmosphere might help to think solidarity as a feeling—with or not—with others, a feeling that does not become clear cut or distinct in a romanticizing harmonic way. Along with one's sense of what things mean and how they matter, moods inform one's felt connection or lack of connection with others. Referring to Heidegger's German term Stimmung, which is translated not only as “mood” but also as “attunement”—a term that underscores the relational aspect of adjusting oneself to a certain mood—Ahmed (2014) astutely carves out the ways of resonating or failing to resonate with others. To be attuned to one another is to share in mood. A lack of attunement, or misattunement, estranges some from others.
By pointing to discomfort as an atmosphere in conceptualizing hegemonic politics, I want to underline the feeling of seemingly paradoxical unease with attunement per se. An atmosphere of discomfort, notably in privileged trans* politics in the context of the Global North and West, would thus mean sensing ways of being out of sync with the present world without assuming therein a harmony but nevertheless aiming at a world where misattunement would not be considered troublesome. Against this background, I suggest that we reassess affective solidarity in transnational trans* politics in the Global North and West as a sense of forging and being in a mood of discomfort with the present world, including one's own strategies of political engagement, without expecting self-affirming reciprocity in political attempts to bring about social change. As a consequence, and according to Ahmed (2014), moods are not necessarily social or bring people together. The mood of discomfort is thus both an obstacle to, and potential catalyst for social change.
I conclude that the possibility to decolonize and deprivilege trans* politics in the Global North and West does not lie in an identity-based logic of inclusion. Instead, a decolonize and deprivilege trans* politics rather focuses on discomfort in political solidarity, while striving for collective social change. This discomfort within the context of trans* politics of the Global North and West might make it possible to challenge and politicize the violent conditions in which this politics is embedded. This, however, entails reconceptualizing trans* politics as an imaginative power rather than as an ideal form of political organization for social change. Taking the atmosphere of discomfort as a starting point in order to engage in decolonizing and deprivileging politics would hence not promote any kind of universal political aims. Instead, the atmosphere of discomfort as a starting point might sharpen our awareness of the limits of liberal politics of progress that ascribes to an imperial logic. Only then might it become possible—in the words of Aren Z. Aizura, Trystan Cotton, Carsten Balzer/Carla LaGata, Marcia Ochoa, and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (2014)—to “decolonize the transgender imaginary” in knowledge production and political action. As an expression of violent power formations, the atmosphere of discomfort readily points to the decolonizing potential of individual and collective politics and to potentially new forms of taking action. This affective politics, however, is a ceaselessly ongoing process of formation and realization. Thereby such affective politics resists defining a universal solution for a definitive progression toward reaching an end goal; instead, it opens up a way to consider trans* politics as an imaginary that enables fragmented realities, bodies, and selves to become legible and articulable and thereby also to name the constitutive violence that is at work in trans* politics in the Global North and West. This might forge a collectivity that is necessary but impossible. A perspective from atmospheres of discomfort complicates easy notions of alliances along the lines of class, race, and gender and challenges the idea of collectivity while it warns against romantic notions of solidarity. I thus conclude borrowing Dhawan's words: “Our solidarity efforts are indispensable and yet inadequate” (2013: 163).
I want to thank my recent former colleagues and members of the faculty reading group at the Department of Gender Studies of the London School of Economics and Political Science, the TSQ editors, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this piece. This article is based on my research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Such novel legislation is based on the self-declaration of one's gender and does not require applicants to undergo complicated pathologizing and costly procedures for gender reassignment. For an overview see, for example, Amnesty International (2014).
Extraordinary research in the field of postcolonial, antiracist theory focusing on gender and sexuality includes the illustrative work of Massad (2007); Puar (2007); Kulpa and Mizielińska (2011); El-Tayeb (2003); Yılmaz-Günay (2011); Kuntsman (2008); and Gunkel (2013), to name just a few.
See also Dean Spade (2011) for the regulation of trans* people in the form of databases as a form of violent administration that distributes vitality while contributing to necropolitics.
My argument also relates to the work of Lauren Berlant, who problematizes the politics of “true feeling” (Berlant 2000), a politics that, in a nonambivalent manner, grants emotions an explanatory value and status for politics.
Here, I refer to Gayatri Spivak's (1990) call for the need to “unlearn one's privileges.”