Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Touching the Transmasculine: Skin, Chaos & Orthodoxy

An Evening with
Lazlo Pearlman


On Thursday, 24 October 2013, I was fortunate to spend an evening with Lazlo Pearlman at Georgetown University exploring "The Body of My Work." The event was sponsored by the University's Student Affairs, Pride Organization, the Tagliabue Initiative for LGBT Life and the Department of Performance Arts. More information on Mr. Pearlman's work can be found on his website


"I needed to be vulnerable" Pearlman said as he shared video and images from his portfolio of stage and film performances. Irony was not enough, he noted, to get trans-masculinity into the conversation. After a series of  (fully clothed) shows discussing his trans* identity, he discovered that despite being literally put center stage, his body remained largely invisible. 

"They took transgender to be a metaphor," Pearlman explained, a metaphor for (in the service of) Gay Masculinity. Because of this refusal or inability to read transgender, Pearlman resorted to what seemed to be a most straight-forward way to get them to engage with his trans-embodiment: he got naked.

Pearlman's story of the failure of irony and performativity to express the trans* life echoes with the collective voices of uncounted transgender bodies. 

Judith Butler in Undoing Gender (2004), admitted that the account of drag that she had explored a decade earlier in Gender Trouble (1990), while helpful in exploring Gay and Lesbian subjectivities fails to describe or serve Transgender. To be Trans*, she wrote of this moment, is to remain illegible even to pastiche.

What Butler does not go far enough to say, but which Pearlman and other Trans* activists are starting to articulate, is that drag, performativity and irony writ large has largely worked to subordinate and erase Transgender under the sign of Gay and Lesbian identities. How or whether or not to become readable in public discourse of remains a present debate in the Trans* community. As Pearlman's work evidences, however, there is a pressing need to rework the discourse around our Trans* bodies and (as the Disability movement has before us) demand that there be "nothing about us, without us".

"I didn't want the performances to be all about transgender" Pearlman admitted, but noting that without the ability to see the differences that transgender currently signifies, a host of larger critical messages about lived experience and society are lost. 

Folding into an exploration of food, sex, and Jewish heritage a practice of stripping fully-nude added to the intensity of these meditations a component of physical difference. Unbuttoning his pants, bare-chested and covered in tattoos, crowds gasp (in the video) as his vagina becomes visible. Skin replaces drag, vulnerability replaces irony, Gay masculinity steps aside and Transgender takes the stage.


"This is my favorite moment" Pearlman gleefully confessed; when suddenly they realize they are not seeing what they thought, but before they realized what it is. They haven't shut down or closed off possibilities. Anything could happen. Instead of irony, which sets things at a distance, this sudden flash of skin, vulnerability and the illegible produces more dangerous & radical possibilities. 

Chaos emerges and hierarchies are suspended. Trans* bodies, rather than being known and disregarded in advance, suddenly possess the power to enchant. The audience doesn't automatically know what "comes next," and in that instant, their minds stop talking and are forced to listen.

Not particularly interested in telling a "Transgender Story," as such, Pearlman goes further up and further into the radical potentials of his performance. Transgender may have produced that Chaos, but Chaos does not need to collapse back into Transgender, as some sort of neo-liberal identity category to be made visible, defined and managed.

The unraveling works backwards in time, as well,  disturbing the meaning of all that came before the moment a socio-sexual difference announced itself. The difference had always already been present and operative. The past (perhaps more than the present and the future) suddenly becomes a strange place. History becomes unstable and important, present to the Now in a new way. How much (else) have we misread or taken for granted?

In this way, rather than pre-lapsarian visions of Chaos (such as we find in Ovid and related medieval texts) where all difference is homogenized (so that the dichotomies of Purity/Difference and Order/Chaos themselves break-down), instead we find Chaos producing meaning in excess of itself. Chaos is an escape, but not from somewhere to nowhere, but from somewhere to somewhere else; unexpected if not unimagined destinations.


Perhaps the most unexpected place to find ourselves out of Chaos is in Orthodoxy. My own previous work has contemplated on G.K. Chesterton's imagining of "Common" or "Orthodox" in relation and opposition to the Norm. Defending the essential quality of absolute difference in each person, Chesterton does not surrender the high-ground of Orthodoxy to the tyranny of the homogeny. 

Instead, as in England's "House of Commons", Orthodoxy affirms a Liberal agenda whereby singularity becomes the universal property of each thing. "The greatest liberty I demand is the power to bind myself" Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy (1908), arguing that the potentials produced by Chaos/Anarchy are fruitless without the actualization that comes with a personal Ethic or Law.

Pearlman too arrives at Orthodoxy through "self-binding". It is a development that would be impossible without the type of productive Chaos we have been describing. On the street one day, Pearlman ran across a Orthodox Jewish man. 

The man stopped him and asked him if he is Jewish. Yes, Pearlman said. The man then took Pearlman aside, rolled up his sleeve and bound his arm in Tefillin

Have you used Tefillin before?, he asked. No, Pearlman replied. Well, said the man, this is your Bat Mitzvah.

Raised as a girl in childhood, Pearlman's access to the rituals of Tefillin and Bat Mitzvah were doubly estranged, as practices reserved for men. The Chaos of gender and of the street opened up Pearlman to this encounter and this entrance into Orthodoxy. Since then, Pearlman was explored the possibilities of Orthodoxy further, bringing it into the critical mass of his performance. 

After giving lap-dances to the audience, he exits and returns with his head covered and prayer-beads around his waist offering cookies first to anyone Jewish in the room (which are numerous in this Jesuit university), then to those who would like to be Jewish, and then to everyone else. In this breaking of flat sugary bread and shared meal, a kind of reproduction occurs. Difference breeds difference. Is it Chaotic? Is it Orthodox? What happens when separated things touch or identify? 


Images borrowed and modified from

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & Waves of Change (Part 4)

"Human lives and histories, on the  individual and social scales, may fairly be described as intercatastrophic, proceeding  from catastrophe to catastrophe with an illusion of stability. The  swimmer feels the framing catastrophe on the skin, in ways that the gardener and even the sailor do not. Our dynamic environment is a watery, salty, unstable, dangerous place: green, blue, and red. We need to learn to value that diversity— but most urgently, we need to learn to swim in it."
Making the Green One Red, Steve Mentz

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.


Down Came the Rain

Well here it is - after more than two months of little to no rain, the plot of earth that I had started examining because of its aridness finally got sustained contact with rain.

The first flirtation with this change kept many of the familiar formations: a constellation of ant-hills, a spider-web immeshed with rock, plant, and arachnid, and a carpet of plants structured to hold onto the water in deep cups.

Bodies of earth and fiber swelled as they became saturated in moisture, the clover glowed with vibrant green, and rocks glistened to reveal deep substructures and mixed minerals.

And the rain kept on coming. Like the itsy-bitsy spider, the strip is a body not readily prepared to drink in too much ecological difference so quickly, things begin to wash away. Change pushed so far enters into a new order of identity.




The Flood

The same environment (encirclement) now appeared to contain not a wet-ground ecology but a muddy-water basin. For several days, my tiny ecology became the flood. In order to experience and study it, I had to learn to get wet and swim.

Surfaces across the Strip were in a continual state of agitation and dynamism on a scale perceivable to the naked eye, or camera lens. Rain-drops and currents in the water covered the strip in a wavering skin interspersed with protruding rocks and plants able to thrust their head from earth through water and into the humid air.

Things not able to stay rooted or supported by the roots of other inhabitants (as the subsurface dirt does to the plant-fibers of the clover), began to wash away. Some floated to the surface and flowed from the environment to ecologies unseen while other tumbled in chaotic motion as the waves altered and altered again the course of its trajectory.

Several days this flood rained chaos and change on the Strip, but once the deluge slowed to a stop, a new environment emerged. Stepping into this alien terrain it felt like assessing the remains of a ship-wreck.



Chaotic Elements

With the first step, I could feel a difference in the dirt from when I walked through it days ago. I immediately sank into the mud. Looking down as I pulled my heel out of the soil, I strained to over-come the hold the Strip had on me and saw my entrance as a hole in the ground.

In a real sense, this was no longer "the earth" I knew, but more like mud, like a "water-earth." If chaos (as we know from Ovid) is where differences are so undetermined, mixed, open or closed to the point of singularity, then this dirt retains a bit of its chaos while still becoming legible.

Change has slowed down (or gone "under-ground") but is still active and full of potential in the earth. The holes my shoes created reshaped with ease and accident the very penetration through the skin the Strip that I had struggled to accomplish weeks earlier with the aid of steel tools.

This may only be a temporary state of extreme agitation, as all transitions and ecologies dynamically pass through. I will continue to observe and interact with the tiny ecology, watching for old friends (ants, spider, clover) to emerge and keeping an eye (and an ear) out for new possibilities which I cannot know in advance and may not recognize but instead have to learn to understand on its own alien terms.


Apres Moi, Le Deluge

A few leading questions as I move forward beg to be investigate: (1) what happened to the ant hills? did colony survive in an sealed-off chamber from the deluge or are they like so much of the environment, now floating down-stream? (2) Did the sub-strata change its configuration as the higher and lower churned and became confused in the chaos? (3) What, if anything, may develop in the ecology as a result of the impressions caused by my heels? (4) Will the flood have serious affects on the clover? Did it bring in or wash away any critical nutrients with the soil? (5) What about the spaces other visitors? What of the spiders, smokers and birds I catch passing through the strip? Will the mud, upturned worms, or other changes to the environment have any affect on their interest in the space? Stay tuned!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & Excavating Colonies (Part 3)

"And the scholar finds more to their similarity 
than their commitment to their separate arts."
Animal Encounters, Susan Crane

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.



And then I found out I was not alone in the dirt. Upon a recent visit to the Strip, I knelt down to continue to explore the earth of my tiny ecology as a developing labor of love, only to come into contact with unexpected co-workers. To put it in the terms of the French philosopher Bruno Latour, we are slightly surprised not only by our own actions (see: Pandora's Hope) but form a network of actors, whose thought forms the basis of what is appropriately called for this study ANT (Actor Network Theory).

Not a foot away from the hole I had been excavating, a colony of ants had their own digging-site. Two entrance/exit ways opened up into an unseen world beneath the surface. Air, heat and water could not pass down into the earth, this world-below, through intricately formed passages; structuring the earth alongside the roots we explored previously. The earth breathes, it drinks, it is eaten and reformed by the ant-network that run through it like blood through veins. And as it bleeds out and contacts me, I come to better appreciate how alive it is.

Lines of workers passed in and out of these openings, moving materials around the ecology as they build a world oriented to them and their needs. Side by side we had been collaborating, perhaps even competing, as we got down and dirty for our shared love of this earth. This desire connects, surprises & creates a kind of erotic network in which we share & which shares in us.


It was our desire and our need for the same environment that brought us together. But this did not require that we would desire contact with each other. Personally I did mind my space, in part to try to avoid squishing a stray ant out on patron and in part because I did not feel comfortable with them climbing on my skin.

Furthermore, what would I do with my excavation now? Would I keep on digging, possibly crossing and damaging the ant's colony? Would my work somehow be useful to them as it loosened up parts of the soil which perhaps could only be done with metal tools and muscles of human scale?

Moving forward, I would keep on digging and occupying this shared environment (I would not be moved out these ants), but I would try to be on the look out for them and adjust the trajectory of my intervention into the space. The fact was that despite my desire for the earth, they needed it more. Regardless of how they may chose to respond to my presence, I will retain some power to walk away. And yet the results of all our actions (and inactions) will follow us and carry forward. In the spirit of Latour's Hope: we are always surprised by (the worlds) we create.



In the end, we are both colonizers. We possess and reshape the space according to ourselves and our sense of world. What other collaborators and cohabitants are we displacing together or separately? Perhaps as colonizers we share a similar insight as well as blindness.

The result of our reworking of the space will have material effects on the environment by the end of the study. I will do my best to document our mutual progress, but not so closely as to freely break down the walls the ants were building. They are not my ants and we need not share every ounce of space or story.

And yet we keep chatting. Exchanging our little messages and actions, as we assemble worlds within worlds. Returning to Latour, we remember that together we collectively form an ANT assemblage, that "ANT sees none existing without a rather large retinue of group makers, group talkers, and group holders" (Reassembling the Social, 32). Thus shall we forever be surprised and even colonized by our work.