Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Touching the Transmasculine: Skin, Chaos & Orthodoxy


An Evening with
Lazlo Pearlman

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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 www.lazlopearlman.com.

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Skin

"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.

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Chaos

"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.

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Orthodoxy

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? 

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Images borrowed and modified from

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