“Was the transformation really only skin deep?”
Second Skins: the Body Narratives of Transsexuality
Second Skins: the Body Narratives of Transsexuality
In a trans textual frame, taking skin from the arm to form a trans man’s penis is not categorically different than taking skin from a sheep or cow to make a manuscript. Both trans bodies & manuscripts can be reduced to the language written on their surface, as though they don’t have stories that are readable in the scars and depths of the skin. The very prefix which transgender has claimed as its own, trans-, suggests that we attend to what is in between the inside and other, to the fluidity of what moves from one side to another, be it verso to recto, man to woman, or existing forever somewhere in between. Post-transition trans experience evidence that changing or affirming a gender never occurs without the past, the other side of the turned page, leaking through the surface. I propose trans textuality as attending to the scars of a text that troubles the naturalness of surfaces and gesture across a history of reconstruction that connects past and present.
Compelled by how transgender and manuscript studies meet at the level of skin, I ask: what might “trans textuality” look like and what could “trans textuality” offer? The answers may be exactly skin deep. Dwelling on this, I begin by returning to Jay Prosser’s argument in Second Skins: the Body Narratives of Transsexuality, to establish how trans lives expresses a depth that resists passing as cisgender even as anti-trans politics works to reduce transgender to a mere play of signifiers and surfaces. Troubling those shallow claims that transgender is only a problem of the present, a moment that will come and go, one that might be scraped away or hidden by the arriving of the next page of history, I push that scholars go deeper into medieval studies, I argue that dysphoric materiality informs a trans textual methodology that looks to the meeting of past and present, verso and recto, foreground and background as enduring tensions in the depths of our history.
Finally, I turn to the recto sides of Fragment VI of the Canterbury Tales to show how the text both promotes fixed surfaces and speaks of a medieval past that is always under reconstruction and always emerging into the present. When turning the pages of the Ellesmere manuscript, the painted images on the vellum do not remain static figures on the back surface of the leaf, but bleed through the porous skin to the verso side. The image of the Physician (113v, lines 55-66) and Pardoner (193v, lines 512-558) transverse into text in their respective narratives on limiting the flow of (alcoholic) substances through the body, suggesting that however sealed flesh may be, skin always leaks. The naturalized the smooth whiteness of the surface is meant to draw reader’s attention to the signifiers written on skin. Yet manuscripts that remind us of its skin-ness, its porous depths, disturb the primacy of surface language like how non-passing trans bodies disturb the peace of gender problems we thought we fixed or sexism we thought we had cut out.
Let me begin by arguing that you cannot cut out the transgender soul. It lives in the skin and goes deeper with each touch of the knife. It endures. After what Time magazine called “the Transgender Tipping Point,” promising unprecedented progress, the murder of transgender persons doubled in the following year and state after state introduces anti-transgender legislation all in an attempt to “Make America Great Again,” signifying, “Make America Cis Again.” Yet in layers of scar tissue, our bodies remember each cut, whether the division was made by nature or nurture, society or self, love or hate. In layers of lives, bound together like leaves in manuscripts our communities remember each erasure of history, whether the scraping was by intention or mistake, progressive or conservative movement. Whenever we make return again to collapse a person, a body, gender, or history into a surface level discourse, our souls speak of the occluded depths.
Trans textuality turns from language of performance to the matter of construction. Prosses writes “Transsexuality entered the cultural lexicon as a form of extreme (body) transvestism, with the body’s skin as the ‘clothing’ that the subject needed changing” (68). Trans discourse since has moved to the idea of “dysphoria” to describe this tension. In a recent article, I argue for dysphoria as a method of social critique and not just a gender identity disorder, a man trapped in a woman’s body for instance. Dysphoria is about dwelling at that middle point, about dwelling in depths not surfaces. Thus trans textuality involves a dysphoric approach to a manuscript that is at once text and body, foreground and background, present and past, where divisions collide and conflict. Through a trans textual approach to the leaky images and texts of Fragment VI, the skin shows the cost of its fixed surfaces and challenges readers to dwell in the fluidity of textual bodies.
Theories of Transition:
Dysphoria, Duration, and Depth
“As the insider joke goes, transition is what transsexuals do (our occupation, as consuming as a career),” writes Prosser (4). As an action, transition differs from other forms of liminality. Transition is not mere existence between marked positions, nor is it a chaotic flow without direction. Transition suggests a trajectory, forward motion, or telos. Yet as trans narratives express, the embodied practice of transition never ends. There are constant slippages backward toward old forms of life. Stubborn material traces endure. Likewise, trans lives often experience glimpses of what is to come. Phantom body parts anticipate breasts to be formed. Desire reaches what the flesh has not yet attained. In transgender culture, the embodied experience of transitional slippage is often called dysphoria. Dysphoria is the material, all too material, experience of enduring change. Yet other things endure change in a similar way. This raises the question, how might other bodies experience dysphoria? How might other flesh do transition?
Understanding transgender (or transsexuality) as an action – a doing – beyond just a state of being allows us to articulate “trans textuality” as a function of manuscripts. The following principles can be surmised: (1) the marks of transition on the surface of skin (ink, scars, text) draw readers away from the present toward an unsettled fluidity of time, wherein the past and present, future and present, exist in open discourse, called depth; (2) skin endures transition through genres of embodiment (eras of time, sex, or gender), forming a continuity of undifferentiated duration on which differences are established; and (3) skin experience dysphoria by enacting slippages between surfaces (past and future, man and woman, animal and object) disturbing the depths of skin with the shades and foreshadowing of duration. From the active doing of transition, arises trans textuality.
Depth interrupts skins sense of being a mere surface with unitended fluifity and porousness, allowing substances from the other side of the skin to leak through. Raymond Thompson’s autobiography, the transsexual person arouse from bed and checked the mirror to find their face covered in blisters. Prosser notes this as a materialization of the body dysphoria Thompson had long complained, of the inside trying to get outside: “vesicles filled bodily fluids bursting up and out from their internal course through to the body’s surface, overflowing their assigned passage” (71). These blisters do not merely descend from the outside but disturb the texts written there (a face is a great textual device for expressing emotion) with news from elsewhere, within, in invisible layers. While discourses are written on the surface of the skin, these blemishes demonstrate that there are discourses that live in the skin’s depths.
Duration names that living ongoing medium from which surfaces are made and through which surfaces transmit. “The making of new transsexual parts (vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, mastectomy) consist in the surgical manipulation of the body’s surface,” writes Prosser, “the grafting, splitting, stretching, inverting, splitting, tucking, sutchering of the tissues” (66). The creation of these new organs from skin changes the dominant signifiers of the body like the adoption of new tropes in a narrative, recoding the persons genre of embodiment. Yet this work, hormones and surgery affect the transsexual skin in a way that makes it appear all surface, covering over the change that the body endures, “altering tissue structure (muscle, fat, breast, genital), redistributing hair, changing skin texture” (66). Trans duration reveals itself to not be the effect of disturbing surfaces but rather surfaces are the product of duration’s division. The body endures the making and remaking of its surface while not being reduced to any single form.
Dysphoria then is the skin’s assertion that a form of its surface is not essential to it, feeling the shades of past or simultaneous surfaces or foreshadowing future changes. “Transsexual subjects frequently articulate their bodily alienation as discomfort with their skin,” writes Prosser, “being trapped in the wrong body is figured as being in the wrong, or an extra, or a second skin, and transsexuality is expressed as a desire to shed or step out of this skin” (68). The blisters on the transsexual’s skin is a physical manifestation of dysphoria, a disturbances in the duration of the current surface that speaks of other desires and suffering in the depths. These blisters insist that viewers do not regard the body as a peaceful surface. It endures torrents. These blisters also insist that viewers do not regard the body as a natural surface. It arises from the depths of a dynamic history. Dysphoria then is not other or extraneous to the meaning of the skin but reveals deeper meaning by setting the trans textual surface within a long duration of transition.
By theories of transition, scholars can attest that trans textuality is not limited to modern transgender discourses, although trans literature and theory can inform how we might view other bodies as also experiencing unnamed depths, duration, and dysphoria. Put in terms of materials made out of skin, such as medieval manuscript leaves, the text on a page gains meaning through what is on the other side. Narratively, the text gains meaning from past events while anticipating future events, drawing characters and emotions towards a desired climax. Visually, readers can grow excited while reading by the shadows of images on the other side of a page, anticipating an illustration to come. To demonstrate how trans textuality plays in medieval manuscripts, I attend to the depths, duration, and dysphoria in the leaves of Fragment VI from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a text that narratively concerns the cutting, scraping, and reforming of gendered skin.
The Physician’s Scraped Surfaces
Reflecting the scraped and clean surface of the manuscript, Virginia’s “lilie whit” and the Pardoner’s smooth skin in Fragment Vi evidence bodies forced to be clean surfaces, containing the fluidity and porousness of sexuality and gender respectively. The Physician's Tale presents the preservation of Nature's unblemished and pre-penetrated skin as justifying the operations that cut her flesh and end her life.[i] Virginia, the Tale's exemplary body, “In which that Nature hadde swich delit. For right as she kan peynte a lilie whit, And reed a rose, right with swich peynture / She peynted hath this noble creature."[ii] It is in defense of this white surface as a non-porous body that will not allow seminal fluid to run through it that she is sealed by a knife to the throat. In death she becomes an eternal virgin. She is all surface for anxious social texts of sex and sexuality, cutting away the erotic feelings, porous openness, and uncertainty living inside this skin.
Trans stories offer language for the construction of sexualized (or desexualized) and gendered surface identity through the work of blades on the body, from the surgical removal of a woman’s clitoris to the reconstruction of intersex genitals. By the 1950s, doctors developed the concepts of “pre-“ and “post-op” bodies. This formula long existed as an oppressive demand on trans bodies to pass by obfuscating the depths of the past, the suffering they’ve endured, and the dysphoria that may persist. This language could also be used to refer to the loss of Virginia head as a way to make her pre-sexual state a page that will never be turned. Conversely, the Pardoner evidently lives “post-“ some kind of gender transition that we will never be able to turn back to see. The goal of these operations was to turn the trans body into a passable, flat, normalized, forgettable surface on which social scripts of gender can be written without resistance.
The Physician’s Tale most candidly reflects the meaning of the text written over the locations in the manuscript where the images of the Physician and Pardoner leak through the surface, with both passages concerning the importance of sobriety and not letting the body become porous. On the recto side of 113v, over the Physician’s image lines fifty five to sixty-six praise a woman for her constancy and sobriety, warning her “To dryve hire out of ydel slogardye,” because “Bacus hadde of hir mouth right no maistrie.” Likewise, on the recto side of 193v, over the Pardoner’s image, lines 512-558 praise a man for his constancy and sobriety, warning “whan man so drynketh of the white and rede / that of his throte he maketh his pryvee / thurgh thilke cursed superfluitee.” This drive to contain the body is an attempt to make it all surface, a skin through which no porousness runs. It fears alcohol because not only will the drink pass through but it can inspire many other liquids (vomit, urine, shit, semen, and vaginal fluid) to flow.
The sealing of the body attempts to collapse the depth of skin into pure surface. A pure surface lacks porousness. Pores turn the skin into a medium, a byway, a deep thing. Pores evidence an internal life, full of desires, hurt, and refuse. As pure surface, the open pores or orifices through which fluidity can flow between inside and outside are sealed. This sealing benefits those who claim “maistrie” of the body. The outside wants the body to be only what it says it is, what discourse writes across its surface. The skin is not a skin but a surface, it disappears into the background to serve the master’s text on the surface. To acknowledge the depth of the skin would be to acknowledhe that “maistrie” over the body is impossible. At best, “maistrie” must be shared with the body. The skin introduces its own matter and meaning to the surface. This must continualy be scraped away, erased, and forgotton in order to enact “maistrie” over the skin, returning it to a surface state.
The challenge Virginia poses the narrative is one of duration. As she reaches adolescence, by force or choice she may no longer be a virgin. That she might allow sexual fluids and body parts goes against the “maistrie” of her Father’s claim on her. The threat of rape reminds her father that her body might endure violent sexual agency without her intent or consent. So long as it is a living body, her skin will be actively porous. Virginia requires orafces to allow oxygen, food, and even enjoyment to enter her body and carbon dioxide, waste, and secretion to exit. The Physician’s worry over “hir mouth” evidences an anxiety how any of these orifices might be used. The resulting plan then is to push Virginia’s endurance to a breaking point, killing her, so that she might leave material life behind and be an eternal signifier for virginity. Ironically, it is the revelation of the dead body that endures which is used to substantiate this transcendence.
The Physicians story and doctrine on abstinence cause anxiety on their objects. Whether it is the command that bodies remain sealed to fluidity being written on skin that is evidently leaking images through its depths, or the father who claims “maistrie” over his daughters transcendently sealed virginity with the revelation of a dead body leaking from the neck wound where he penetrated her with his sword, the flattening of a body into a surface inevitably causes some form of dysphoria. Whether it is the specters of the past or the fear of future actions, the Physician’s section of Fragment VI is a dyshoric narrative being written on a dysphoric object. Yet through the trans textual leaking of ink and affect, readers of the manuscript come to see more in Fragment VI than a surface. As a result, the medieval manuscript trains modern readers to question what depths, duration, and dysphoria may exist in bodies that society tells us to flatten. From such object lessons, we might become better readers of trans bodies, medieval and post-medieval.
The Pardoner’s Leaky Skin
While the Physician’s Tale ends up in violence that works to seal off the past and future, this violence is replayed in Fragment VI when the Host, drunk from porousness, draws a blade on the Pardoner to seal his semen and scrape him clean with castration. Thus the Pardoner comes to be identified with Virginia, yet in his trans-ness, as a body that openly admits it contractedness. "No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have," narrates Chaucer, "As smothe it was as it were late shave."[iii] The invocation of shaving underlines the operation of a blade on the body as producing feminine virginal skin of this "geldyng”/”mare" either from a "shave" to the face or a "shave" in the form of castration. This shows an awareness of how skin and hair are not only works of Nature but of surgery. 14th century people knew the effects castration on soft-tissues.[iv] Castrates develop smoother skin.[v] This knowledge is key because is calls out the history, contractedness, and fluidity of bodies like the Pardoners and through him like Virginia.
The question arises, can you cut out the sexuality of Virginia or the gender of the Pardoner. What else endures? Prosser asks, “If skin is a mask, where is the self in relation to the body’s surface? … Was the transformation really only skin deep?” (62). Yes, Prosser decides, but only if we consider the depth of skin and not only what is written on its surface. The answer must be that the self exists within the skin but not as a mask, not as surface only. Prosser looks deeper into the idea of “skin ego” (the self in the skin), “skin as the primary organ underlying the formation of ego… the interface between self and other” (65). If skin is an open system, a juncture through which inside and outside flow, then the “self” is not the “self” without the other. The dysphoria of trans textual body arises out of the violence on the surface and the violence that endures in the depths.
The open artificiality of the Pardoner suggests depths of past transitions that are not foreclosed by the definite transcendent surfaces. The meaning of the smooth skin is not declared but Chaucer’s speculation points to the work of blades of the Pardoner’s trans body, “late shave.” By the work of scraping is the Pardoner’s skin made a smooth surface, much like the skin from which Fragment VI is composed. There is a past suggested here that we do not see to the bottom. There is a gender here that leaks through but darkly like ink through a manuscript leaf. The Pardoner may be a “geldyng”, a castrated horse. Or the Pardoner may be a “mare,” a female horse. Likewise, Fragment VI used to be an animal. But now, the new surface that the skin has become does not tell us distinctly. The surface of skin can only suggest its depths.
The knife threatened against the Pardoner echoes past “shave[s]” that might have been directed as the face or the bollocks, suggesting a sense of all they have endured. When the Host says to the Pardoner, “ I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond,” it is hard not to hear echoes of the violence endured by other communities who exist in similar oppressive societies. Within the Pardoner’s prologue and tale, there are many knives being used. It starts with the knives that may have cut the Pardoner’s face and bollacks. Then there is the knife one brother uses to kill another in the Tale. As the violent end of the Pardoner’s Tale, where the Host’s threat is placed, readers would directly hear a continuation of the violent end at the end of the Physician’s Tale, endured by a young woman at the hands of an older man. Likewise queer and trans readers, would feel a sense of continuity from the medieval and modern era with the threats endured. What may be a surface threat hits on a long duration of violence in the past and future.
The Pardoner’s Tale and Prologue’s skin contains too much meaning in the face, the balls, and manuscript, creating a sense of dysphoria in the text. While the Pardoner’s surface identity is presented in thurough candor, from how he does his work and why, it is the past and the future of his story which is troubled and multiple. Readers do not know what is going on in the depths and folds of his skin. Even the drunken threats of the Host point back and defy the Pardoner’s instruction to seal off one’s body from alcohol, drawing readers to think back on past pages where the ink leaked through the skin. The image that bleeds through from the depths of the skin give matter and meaning to the Pardoner’s dysphoria. Contrary to the message of the smooth clean white virginal skin of Virginia, the Pardoner’s section of Fragment VI reveal how all skin exists in a trans textual relationship to depths, durations, and dysphoria that others work to scrape away.
Let me conclude by again arguing that you cannot be cut out the transgender soul because it lives in the skin and gets deeper with every touch of the knife. One can cut up or shave a body but like a manuscript a body can never be all surface. Skin will always allow glimpses of history and even the future, what is on the other side of the page. The hurt in the skin is too deep. Our modern white, cisgender surfaces always reveal the medieval cost of its making, our erasure of #translivesmatter and #blacklivesmatter under the surface of #alllivesmatter always show signs of past violence. It rises to the surface like ink in a manuscript, like purple and black blood through pages we thought we turned. Beneath veneers of polite racism and polite transphobia rests rage that learned speak with deniability. Beneath our textual smoothness, our skin screams with scars of remembered history. And trans textuality insists that surfaces without depths, whiteness without color, cisgender without transgender, peace without justice, is always only skin deep.