Saturday, February 16, 2013

Queer Objects: Bra-Straps {::} Answering Back



Orienting / the Round-table

The following was presented at the George Washington University on February 15th, as part of a round-table on "Attitudes, Affects & Alliances in Scholarship" sponsored by M.A.T.C.H. (Mobilizing an Active Theory Community in the Humanities) a Theory Working Group. (Listen to Podcast!)

This round-table on attitudes, affects and alliances is doomed to feel wrong; because this isn’t the space where we are accustomed to have these conversations. It’s also doomed to feel too short, because once we move from talking about our professions to talking about our lives, things are bound to explode across life-times and life-lines.

Perhaps we are not infinite, as the Perks of a Wallflower tell us, but life is hardly finite, life seems to defy limits at every turn. And so since we can’t do justice to the bigness of life, we in MATCH (and today everyone present is a part of MATCH) are trying to do justice to the smallness, the intimacy, the particularity of life by sharing stories told by objects that orient us. So: radical, small, doomed, personal. Here we go!


I. Phantoms in the Chest 

“If orientation is about making the strange familiar 
through the extension of bodies into space, 
then disorientation occurs when that extension fails. 
Or we could say some spaces allow for certain bodies 
and simply does not leave room for others.” 
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 11

I am a partial body. The broken fragments in my brain and in my chest tell me that I have breasts of substantial weight and size. When I close my eyes I see them. When I move around, I know they are there. I am a large-breasted woman; that much is fixed in my nervous system. 

I am a partial body. The broken fragments of my eyes and in my finger tips retreat when they run across my naked chest. This is not my body they say, I am not flat-chested. Closing my eyes and moving my hands in front of me, at a certain point I feel warmness and pressure in my chest (6 inches or so in front of me). 

Some trans people say that they hate their body, they look at it and feel violated by their naked-form. I rarely feel disgust at myself when the clothes come off, but I do feel an ethereal detachment. It's like looking at yourself in a Halloween mask or done up in stage-make-up, you don’t mind if you are ugly or silly or whatever, because what you see is not you. 

There is a kind of invulnerability in that state, a sense that anything could be endured in that naked state, humiliation, exposure, abuse, because it would be happening to someone else. Not me. Not me. 

I sometimes wonder if that is why so many trans people commit suicide after puberty, when the transformations of different parts of their bodies (genitals, chests, hips, brains) move in such drastically different directions, that the threat of self-violence is not a threat as such. The attack is not on the self, but on another, on a body that has your phantom body imprisoned. 

I don’t mean disembodied spirits in the slightest, I mean: phantoms-in-the-brain, phantoms-in-the-body's-self-mapping, phantoms-in-the-flesh; for me, phantoms-in-the-chest.



II. Un-Claspings 

“Some boys take a beautiful girl & 
they hide her away from the rest of the world; 
well not me, I want to be the one in the sun.”
Robert Hazard, Girls Just Want to Have Fun

One of the earliest moments I ever felt some of the suffocating pressure of this dysphoria partiality release was when I first had my chest bound. Around the age of fourteen, some of my girl friends and I were at one of their houses. In one of those little double-deceits I practiced, I was letting them do something that no other “boy” had them do before: make them into a “girl.” 

The deceit came not in becoming a girl, but in letting them believe that what they were seeing the result was the lie; that what they were doing was obscuring more than it was revealing. It was a lie about a lie. As they put on my make-up, shadowing my eyes and lining my lips, I tried not to rejoice to much at the un-masking that they were participating in. 

Don’t get me wrong, the feigned displeasure, was not wholly to shield my identity as a boy, but to shield myself as a woman from the immense vulnerability that I was experiencing. Slowly I was becoming visible to them in a way that no one, hardly ever I, got to see myself. Then suddenly I couldn’t hide anymore, because they did something I did not expect. Putting a blind-fold on me, trying not to ruin my eye-make-up, I felt my arms guided up, a snap on my shoulders and a sudden tightness on my chest.

They removed the blindfold, and I looked down and saw the bra and my body. In a moment of panic I bolted up from the chair and ran to the bathroom. The two of them giggled from the other room, misunderstanding my reaction. They thought I ran away because I was embarrassed by the incongruity of the bra on my boyish chest.

Standing alone in the bathroom mirror, my reaction was rather the other way around. I felt too good at this moment. I felt to exposed. I felt too naked. They had seen me. This, this was what my brain had been waiting for and expected. This weight, this lift, these contours. It was like the deadness, the phantoms in my chest had suddenly and wildly come alive. 

I had to be alone in this moment because you couldn't kill a phantom, but this — this you could hurt; this has blood.



III. Straps that Bind 

“The idea of wholeness in partition caught on…matter’s partibility became key to its efficacy…Although the pieces are gathered by various framing devices into a whole, the visual presentation also stresses parts as parts” 
Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality 193-196

Anyone that has gone from blurry vision to glasses, from limited motion to flying down the street in a car or chair, from straining under labored breathing to being able to take in full fresh breaths... and then suddenly having you new vision, mobility, and breath taken away from you again, knows how much darker the darkness is once you look into the sun (not necessarily worse, but deeper & darker). 

For someone that is often so much in her own head, or maybe everyone feels this way, real action comes as a result of desperation. It's not that the dangers and difficulties are not there, but at a certain point, they become besides the point, to stay put or to go back is too intolerable. It's do or die, to stay in a certain place will surely mean a death of some-kind, an unlife, a haunting. 

It's better to hit the ground running, then to simply and stiffly plunge into the ground. It matters how a person falls, we are told by the Lion in Winter, especially when the fall is all that is left. 

For me, being thrown into the world comes along very particular trajectories, as I am pulled towards particular objects along particular lines; what Sara Ahmed calls "life-lines" or Butler calls "livable-lives." These objects are my bra-straps, my tan-lines, my Victoria-Secret shopping bags, my sisters, my lovers, my friends; they make me feel at home in this world, in this body. 

 My bra-straps, my breasts that go on the outside of the flesh, my object-oriented, crip-focused, queer-infused, ecologically-minded, medievaly-scripted pursuit of transformation gives me attitudes, affects, and alliances that help me hold on to something and to think through experiences -- so I can find the words to tell to myself when I lose my grip and the dissonance between brain and world get too much; so I can find the words to tell to others, because I used to think 50% of trans people commit suicide by the time they get to my age but as studies get better at surveying, we are now finding its closer to 60%. 

Frankly, more times than not, I don't know what to say to them to help them make sense of things; to give them a life-line or to help them share in mine. These kids, these people, they are smart and often their reason against things and reasons not to try are better than what I can offer. But I am still going to try. The questions are hard, but I'm not done thinking yet. This is my life, this is why I study and do what I do, the way that I do it; this is personal.

No comments:

Post a Comment