Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Disabling Acceptance: Compulsory Narratives of Failure

"I know I need to be strong 
for the kids, for all the people...
but I can't, I'm so tired"
Cassidy Lynn Campbell, 
Marina Highschool Homecoming Queen


Compulsory Narratives

"I always felt like a girl. I was lying for so long. I'm happy now (that I transitioned and begun medical treatment) but it's so hard. I need to do this for all the others out there." These are part of a script that most trans people learn in one way or another. It may very well all be true and sincerely expressed, but saying these words or some variation on it are a part of the initiation into public life as a trans person.

The public demands to know about your past as a trans person. Even if they never met you before you transitioned, they still ache to hear the Story. Personal details add spice, but the narrative demands of doctors, lawyers, school-systems, insurance companies, the media, friends, family & strangers have become intolerably standardized and compulsory. To be regarded as Trans is to be a kind of story-teller.

Why trans life-histories are demanded are fairly easy to parse out. Changing your body and identity threatens the immutable status of gender, and increasingly sexuality as well. The public needs to have affirmed that if appearances were ever deceiving, the reality and trajectory of the trans people's life must be deterministic. They must always already be their gender - and this must be made clear to everyone.

Far from simply demanding the firming up of an essentialized gender category, there is also a critical danger towards the nature of able-bodied development. Problems must be fixed. Dis-cordances in the body must be brought in line. There must be a Restoration Narrative if Trans-people are going to be accepted into fold of ableist gender norms. Crip children are regarded as an intolerable tragedy.

But there is a price for having transgressed these norms: the Compulsory Narrative of Transgender must not simply be Essential and Restorative, it must also be a Failure. Someone has to pay for the fact that this group was not a part of the fold to begin with, the dangers of emerging as a new protected minority must be expressed, our fears (even or especially of the sympathetic) must be justified. We need struggle.


Acceptance through Failure

The recent news of Miss Cassidy Lynn Campbell's crowning as the 2013 Homecoming Queen at Marina High School in Huntington Beach California was lauded momentarily for being (perhaps, it is speculated) the first election of a transgender person to a Homecoming Court at a public school.

A social and literary critic's job is to not simply look at the content, but at the words and framing of the discussion. The very emphasis on "first" should be a sign that Ms. Campbell's life is being positioned in a narrative of progress. News outlets (such as MSN), Blogs (such as I Should be Laughing), and TV Stations (such as WSB-TV Atlanta) announce in their headlines and analysis the place in foreseen history of Transgender Progress.

But even before that news broke nationally, the process stories had already drummed up a more tantalizing, and socially safe narrative: the public bullying of the trans teenager, largely by adult professional and political groups in the media, and her inevitable suffering.

The result was almost systematic. Within a day of being crowned, Ms. Campbell recorded a video on Youtube affirming her Essentializing, Restorative narrative and its inevitable Failure. Let me be clear, I have every belief in the sincerity and even confidence in the truth of Campbell's words. What I object to and where the Artifice lies is in the public and in the media for being so hungry for it that the developing coverage almost assured that Campbell would experience (at the tender age of 16) a systematic sacrifice on the altar of social progress.

The series of headlines from media sources shows the narrative that the public wants to construct, with many (if not most) of the big news outlets only getting interested in Ms. Campbell's success only after it became a story of tragedy:
Pro-Trans, Anti-Trans, or just Neutrally Interested, Ms. Campbell is being made an example for others. Whether as the boundary marker on the road to a wider integration into the norm and/or as a warning to those who buck the system and/or as the "inevitable" result of doing anything that will get you noticed, the media is setting up (and contextually excusing) the bullying of this teenager with the silent implication that she was "asking for it". 


Disabling Media

I have every hope and cautious confidence that Ms. Campbell, after her plea that she is "so tired" and can't keep a brave face on for "all the kids, all the people I did this for," will find her strength and grace to press on through the harassment and abuse she is receiving publicly right now. She is and can be a role-model and her life, and her narratives, however forced, can have a positive impact.

What makes me less hopeful is the media feeding frenzy around the story. Granted, most coverage isn't going anywhere near to stating overtly the compulsory Martyring of Campbell as part of their narrative of social change and acceptance. 

The media says enough simply by framing and distributing the events in a particular way which emphasizes the failures as a kind of correlative to the success of having a trans Homecoming Queen. In the process the particularities which make Campbell's life and her community so special are silenced and pushed into the background of a larger symbolic event.

This process is disgusting and exploitative on adults, but when we rail-road the life of a 16 year old towards the genre of tragic heroism, we should be shaken enough to look around at the very premise of the public drama. 

Of course anyone paying even begrudging attention to past and current headlines about Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, we can see that adults professionally and recreationally make stalking, judging, gossiping and throwing abusing language around teens and other young adults the activity of their daily lives.

In past posts I've discussed the "Professionally Trans," i.e. people willing to publicly and even systematically engage in public discourse around their bodies and communities, but there too I warned that we need to be able and willing to turn our mega/micro-phones off and leave people to their lives. Bullying in the media and public discourse is responsible for seeing many acclaimed people of privilege and means to painful and short-lives, and in the case of people many times over within vulnerable and marginalized social positions, the offense is even greater.

It is not enough that the media must be able to tell stories, they need to have a sense of responsibility, culpability for the frenzies they inspire and enough respect for their subjects to know when to call off the coverage. The lady is tired. Let her rest.


"I refuse to answer, 
talk about the past, sir.
I wrote this for the ones who want to get away: 
keep running"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & Boundary Stones (Part 2)

"Earth is a 'serving bearer' that is capable of emerging, rising forth, and issuing upward... the earth withholds from our attempts to fathom it."
Elemental Philosophy, David Macauley

The Tiny Ecology project is focused on intense ecological attentiveness of a particular place. Frequent visits to the site will be made between late August and early December. Critical attention will be paid to human influence and neglect, nonhuman forces (weather, sunlight, microclimates, pollution, decay, gentrification), and the surfacings of particular histories. This project arises from an engagement with the Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies seminar being taught by Prof. Jeffrey J Cohen at the G.W.U.



Communication requires contact. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, derives his name from the Greek word for boundary stone, herma. Digging into the earth in my tiny ecology, "the Strip," implicates place and person together through touch, affect and change.

In order to pursue the leading question of my project, "how does otherwise arid soil give life to a host of green vegetation?", I've begun breaking open the top-soil in order to get a look deeper in and further down. This is an act of penetration and a crossing of a boundary marker which makes me responsible in new ways for the destruction, alteration and growth of this environment.

The object of my study nonetheless speaks back to me in surprising ways and gets under my skin (and finger nails) in the process. Hermes marks borders, not as absolute divisions of self & other, subject & object, but rather as points of contact, exchange, hybridity and inter-being. It is at the same time a meeting-of-worlds which maintain their own kind of interiority (and interiority-of-kind which philosopher Ian Bogost has termed "darkness"), that in the process forms, through this information-exchange, a shared ecology.


Stoney Exteriors

A cursory return to the Strip after a series of thunder showers, I find the land has surprisingly changed little in appearance. The clover looks slightly greener (an effect of lightning releasing nitrogen into the air) and there are a few more cigarette butts (apparently many residents in my building use this out-of-sight space to smoke), but the soil itself seems rather the same.

Getting down on my knees, a few shiny rocks call out to me. While the bits of concrete, red brick and clumps of dirt seem to withdraw from my senses into a sort of aggregate-background, several polished hunks of quartz, bits of metal and a flattened glass marble stand out from the rest. This is an active ability in the rocks on me which brings about a response, not simply a pre-concieved process in my own mind, which Jane Bennett calls "vibrancy" or "thing power".I feel this power as I document the stones with my camera and struggle to pull myself from them towards the other earths.

The skin on my knees already feel the dryness of the compact soil  as they press into one another. Pushing my fingers against the dirt, it holds together and rebuffs my attempt to push through. As I take out my metal measuring and digging instruments, I prepare to push through, expecting as little response as I got in my last attempt at exploring the interior the the earth.


Darkness takes Roots

Suddenly the land breaks open and I get a glimpse through and into the darkness of the earth. Physically pealing away a chunk of the top-soil, my hands discover a much softer layer about half an inch down. This moist collection of earth and water folds together for about 3-4 inches above another rocky foundation.

Plumbing down through this dark damp earth involved both fingers and tool, for while the soil could be molded by hand it was interlaced (even structured) by a strong mesh of roots coming down, up and across from the plant-life. And so I become opened to another contact ecology. The roots of the plants dig down to draw up moisture from this layer of soil, and in turn they protect and buttress the dark earth. 

This revelation however came at the expense of breaking apart a portion of this meshwork (to borrow a term from Timothy Morton). In the process I've become responsible in new unexpected ways to my tiny ecology and in turn the vibrancy and darkness reaches out and pulls me closer. There is hardness and alienation which distances the Strip from me, but increasingly intimacy and responsibility has pulled us closer together; changing both of our narratives through contact at the boundary stones of our inter-being.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & Transitional Spaces (Part 1)

"You put your walls up, with your phone and your attitude. 
Your walls are put up so tight not even a blade of grass could go through them. 
But even if it did, you wouldn’t appreciate it."
Professor Kane, Biology 101, Community, NBC

The Tiny Ecology project is focused on intense ecological attentiveness of a particular place. Frequent visits to the site will be made between late August and early December. Critical attention will be paid to human influence and neglect, nonhuman forces (weather, sunlight, microclimates, pollution, decay, gentrification), and the surfacings of particular histories. This project arises from an engagement with the Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies seminar being taught by Prof. Jeffrey J Cohen at the G.W.U.


Liminal Ecologies

For the purpose of my study, I chose a strip of earth between my apartment building and the house next door. On the one side, a 16 floor concrete monolith and a 2 floor brick house on the other. The space was chosen because it combines a variety of actants (animal, rock, vegetable), in a semi-domesticated space, but most of all because it is a liminal ecology which often goes unnoticed.

The no-man's land (enforced by a metal gate), that spans these two buildings, shares their material circumstances. Mixed in with compacted, rocky soil are a variety of vegetation, rocks (decorative and native), bits of concrete and brick, screws, bottle-caps, a cable-wire. It plays host also to an assortment of insects, ants and spiders, as well as the space's most recent addition: me.

I have limited my environ (encirclement) to the 147" by 121" plot of land between the two buildings, starting at the sidewalk and extending to the gate. Personal observations and experiences with the space will be noted frequently, with close study occurring once a week on Fridays, as well as during & after any significant weather event.



The elemental focus of this study will be Earth. The compacted and rocky soil is extremely harsh to the touch and when I attempted to take samples of it I was at first completely unable to get more than a dusting. Even when I came back with a more advanced metal gardening instrument, there was minimum response to a high level of effort made to break open a hole. After several minutes I only produced a hole a few inches deep.

When I brought the samples back to my work-space and I applied a series of tests, measuring for PH and nitrogen levels, the amount of potash and moisture, the results were grim. The soil is highly alkaline and low in several critical nutrients. Furthermore, the dryness which I could feel in my hand and knees was sured by the instruments. This was currently a very arid environment. 


Carpets of Clover

This lead to the question: how does so much vegetation and a few delicate flowers survive and thrive in such a harsh, inhospitable environment? How do these green and white friends of mine fend of starvation, potentially toxic surroundings, and not dry up?

The road to discover may begin with the identification of the different species living in the soil (white clover, curly dock, dalligrass, and plantains, to name a few), noting their special needs and abilities in relating to the Earth. What more secrets and changes will my Tiny Ecology and I experience together? Stay tuned to find out!