“To what extent does the category of women achieve stability and coherence only in the context of the heterosexual matrix?” - Judith Butler
I watch a documentary where Kathy Acker talks about what she calls the slums of New York in 1984. I read her short story “New York in 1979” when I was flying from London to New York in December. A different time, a different era. She talks about worrying about her safety. “No one mugs a hooker” Acker says. Everyone walks around SoHo there. SoHo is not endless fashion outlets. Months ago, during a break up, I wandered around Topshop with my friend. I don’t think I bought anything. They bought some feathery backpack or something. The soft nihilism of art in Acker’s era has evolved into a materialism centered around using aesthetics to signify (explode/explore/expand/celebrate) the mass. The libertine freedom of no wave, new wave, punk, despair has faded into the idealism of brightness. Bright walls, bright colors, bright objects. What of the muted colors? The grays, the lack of saturation?
Acker dances around with taboo, with darkness, with love. Her apparent lack of coherence, her flirtations with writing madness, her flirtation with the destruction of literature, “I got bored of autobiography”.
“I loved to imitate people”. Acker says. “I hated my fathers… I did exactly what they told me not to do.” I’m reminded of the queer imitation from Todd Haynes’ copies of the melodrama to any queer experimental short program that contains at least one film that is a queer reproduction of a heterosexual matrix. Judith Butler loves drag. Or maybe she doesn’t, but she seems to think parody can in some contexts be a political strategy for challenging gender and furthermore that we should challenge gender. Gender as war, gender as battle. If gender and love are intertwined, if as according to Kathy Acker the greatest thing a woman can do is love, then there is no play in love or gender. They are grounds of seriousness. Kate Bornstein’s gender as play would seem to be irrelevant to their conversation.
What is a woman? If we don’t know what a woman is, how can we know what a woman isn’t? Judith Butler ponders this in not so many words. Acker and Butler both wonder this, what is female language. How can language constitute the female?
“That sexuality now embodies this religious impulse in the form of the demand for love (considered to be an “absolute” demand)” Butler seems to ask and probe this question. Acker wonders similarly about love in Don Quixote. Women can love, women can be, but they are objects, to be subjects they must become men.
For Butler, the Christian split of body/soul lends itself to the split of sex/gender. Jasbir Puar also seems to question the idea of changing the body for reasons of gender construction and what this means in terms of disability.
“I do not believe that poststructuralism entails the death of autobiographical writing,but it does draw attention to the difficulty of the “I” to express itself through the language that is available to it. For this “I” that you read is in part a consequence of the grammar that governs the availability of persons in language. I am not outside the language that structures me,but neither am I determined by the language that makes this “I” possible. This is the bind of self-expression, as I understand it. What it means is that you never receive me apart from the grammar that establishes my availability to you.” Butler’s writing here seems to lend itself to wondering about self-writing, autofiction, and all of those practices.
The cohesion of womanhood is built on whiteness, heterosexuality, ableism, and an idea of taming the body. Its velocity sucks the world down, asking for more stability, security, safety, protection, more selfhood. If we consider identity in a vacuum, where cis-womanhood is not centered, where womanhood is nebulous, where gender is play, where gender is neither/nor, what happens? Can we separate gender from surveillance and power?
In trans girl suicide museum. Hannah Baer wonders what it means to connect to a stable idea of a trans girl, what histories does this erase and how does it not allow for the idea that identity is social constructed. She wonders if trans girls in the 1800s or even the 1950s would identify as trans. She wonders if it is problematic to want to connect to them through some essence. And yet, Baer lands on the idea that it isn’t, that there is some history/connection, it’s just not something stable or allowing for words.
In quarantine, as I paint my nails, wear flowy and flowery clothing, prance around, browse Zara, I wonder what it would mean to create gender in a vacuum. Away from surveillance. Yet: the body is a historical site of surveillance, a mapping of history, as Foucault says. I want to create a vacuum, but how do we get the tools to do so?
If gender is something reflected back to you, and as Baer says- being trans can be humiliation- is being trans being humiliated? What does it mean to fuck with gender while desiring a gender?
There’s something Baer wonders about that I wonder about to, “it’s fine to not like gender roles but that doesn’t make you trans” Baer says in talking about different ideologies of gender. She puts some walls between herself and this one, but she wonders about it- is there validity in it and what would validity to that statement mean. It’s true, not liking gender does not mean you are trans. Does playing with gender? Does desiring gender? If gender is a process, what does it change to desire a process? How much of gender is anger? Is failure? Is stasis?
I guess what I’m wondering is, how much of gender can be certainty when gender is predicated on systems that fail, systems that are matrices of destruction for so many. But in that, can we reclaim, re-marvel, re-desire a process, something that may never stabilize, may never cohere? Can we move through it anyway, attempting to gender, as a verb?
I’m listening to Handel on Easter with blue nails thinking about wanting to wear a cerulean halter-top. I hope you are too.
This Tuesday the first two episodes of my podcast with Myrrh Crow, Alana Ruiz, and Anna Fieldmann launch. Find more information at nonbinarycarriebradshaw.com