new words

On the day that the fascist gangster in the White House declares anti-fascist activism as such a “terrorist organization,” I find myself wondering what words we will use to greet and know each other. I remember that, before it became a racist dog-whistle (or a quick way to signal one’s hatred of women and/or trans people, even on the left) there was a moment when “woke” meant something good - alive to the world as it is, conscious of the violent threats to Black life, unfazed. “Snowflake” was never anything other than a term of abuse, but the qualities it supposedly mocks - fragility, distinctiveness, sparkliness - are among those I value most, in myself and in those I love. “Anti-fascism”: one would have thought a kind of baseline term for left-of-center unity (whatever one thinks of such a notion), and yet it has been today, apparently, criminalized by executive fiat. “Radical” could mean anything; “liberal” only ever seems to refer to the other guy; “feminist” includes terfs; “queer” includes the white universalists. COMMUNISM sounds better than ever to me, better than “democratic socialism” ever did, and better than “Marxism” (which I can’t quite abide any more, for personal[-is-political] reasons). What words shall we use? 

In the meantime, a list of bail funds to donate to is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1X4-YS3vFn5CLL9QtJSU0xqmTh_h8XilXgOqGAjZISBI/mobilebasic

Since the Minneapolis and Brooklyn funds are both full, I donated to the Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee bail fund. Please consider doing the same here: https://rally.org/ARCbailfund

Power and love to all those fighting for justice, Black life, and freedom. Justice for George Floyd.

This Terrible War

Everyone will be back in the house by Christmas - we’ll be together on Christmas morning. The Government, bless their little cotton socks, realize the distress that will be caused by a shortage of Christmas decorations, since the tinsel factory was commandeered to aid in the manufacture of wartime munitions. Will have been caused, rather. Seventy-five factories in the North Midlands alone, building tinsel, baubles, and those droopy sacs of shimmering metallic plastic, booblike - and all directed to manufacture armaments for this terrible war. Tinsel nerve agents, bauble-bombs, droopy sacs of shimmering metallic poison, booblike. Are there reserves? Probably. A cache of over-supply outside Derby, a box or two lying around in an ownerless lock-up in Stanford. There won’t be many of us left by Christmas, and we’ll make do. 

Making do is part of the fun of it. When this is all over, this terrible war, we’ll make do just for fun - we’ll have become addicted to scarcity, unable to function in conditions of plenitude. We - you and I - will have become those people who tell stories about our shared suffering, the first time we ever meet. “What was it like for you?” Though we haven’t met yet, and we may never, we know we will have this in common for the rest of our unnatural, Christ-denying lives. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a piano like to bang out tunes on it, and rouse ourselves to comfort: “My Old Man’s Cthulhu,” “You’ll Smoke the Whole Packet and Like It, Boy,” and “My Girl Came On the NHS.” The pianos are out of tune but we rattle them and bounce our bodies against them. We lob the toddlers at ‘em, that usually does the trick, and it teaches ‘em something about the world of hard knocks. Your grandmother plays songs of Welsh life, singing in a language nobody else can remember. Your children eyeball her and your youngest licks his lips. Your grandmother plays slowly, behind the beat, as though withholding each chord until you’ve degraded yourself by asking for it. She’s a tough old cunt, if truth be told - gritty and slow and cruel. Once she learned that music produces expectations in people who hear it, she understood how useful it could be if she were ever called upon to torture the enemy.

A distinction should be made between torturing in the anticipation of effecting a conversion, confession, or disclosure (on the one hand) and torturing for its own sake, to produce suffering in elegant ways (on the other). No context for either, not during this terrible war - well, we don’t have much call for it around here. We’re slow, and set in our ways - a couple of ripe English chestnuts. We’ll get cooked on the same fire, you mark my words.

What is war, in the end, but an interminable and unlimited ethical obligation that one bears solely as an individual? It’s a rum do and no mistakin’, guv’nor. The greater jihad is the jihad of one’s own soul. War‘s just a word, really, just a name we give to the condition that derives from the responsibility as soon as one sees it - it sounds scary, but there it is. Interminable and unlimited ethical obligation (check and check), borne as an individual (check), socialism without the social aspect (check). I’m doing my part! We’re all chipping in to make Easter shawls to send to Our Boys - boys love shawls, especially those made by girls, or rather by exactly ONE (1) girl per shawl, one shawl per Boy. Girls, breathe on your shawls, rub them into your nose until the snot leaks, spit on them, tuck a corner into your pussy, then spritz them with orange blossom water and airdrop them to your Boy, wheresoever he may be. Boys like smells, too - they will be so happy to know you care.

Everyone’s chipping in - there’s something almost inspiring about it, like we’re all the elves in Father Christmas’s grotto. Busting busying busying to get everything ready for Christmas Day, to make the toys, to feed the reindeer tra la la! Each in a little elvish outfit, white and green rings around our tights. I make a wooden spinnaker for Tommy. My neighbour makes a wooden pan for Nobby. Our neighbour makes a wooden lark for Duddy. Their neighbour makes a wooden pouch for Slobby. All the good wooden goods we shall have when this is all over, this terrible war. They shall bring them back to us, Our Boys, and we shall see what use a wooden pan is then. If any at all. 

A special episode of Doctor Who with the woman Doctor broadcast at midnight, unexpectedly, like a Rihanna album launch. This time it was just her explaining the rules of bloody cricket to that gormless Brexit granddad who wheezes his way through his adventures before saying something like “hm not sure, Doc, seems ripe to me!” He brings the same energy to the cricket splaining. You want to slap him - once, unapologetically - around the chops, the kind of slap that turns his head to the side, dislodging spit and even teeth. Maybe you’ll get to when this is all over, this terrible war. But the Doctor addresses the camera directly, saying: “I know you’re afraid. I know you’re sick of this. I know sometimes it seems like nothing you ever do will ever be normal again. I know you didn’t really have a birthday this year - I know that matters to you, too, you spineless reptile. I wish I could promise you things will get better. I could promise you - I could lie, and don’t you respect me more for refusing to lie? Not to make this about me. Anyway, you don’t get a lie, not today. You get something even more beautiful.  You get the knowledge, the sure and certain knowledge, that by being unfazed and clear-eyed - simply by being prepared - you are doing your part to help the most vulnerable among us.”

The “most vulnerable among us”? A politician phrase, surely? But do go off, Doc.

Am I the Brexit granddad? The thought sits there, like an unexploded land mine.

When this war is over I will open my legs to every boy in town, every Tommy and Johnny and Squabby and Dimbo to come home - we’ll fling confetti in the sky, and won’t there be glinting eyes to go with the clotted cream sandwiches and thick squash? Each can come and take a few pumps, girlie in their arms if need be, smiling and waving to the camera all the while. It won’t take much. I’ll break the top off ‘em like cracking open a snatch of ginger beer, foamy head dribbling down the side. Cheering crowd, a local brass band playing the oom-pah-pah. Friendly red-faced copper twirling his truncheon round as careless as you like, whistling his songs of authority, even he can come can squeeze his short fat cock into me, knock me out like lead and shoot his dirty water right up there. Even the scamps - tearaway thief munchkins - get a scratch at the old scratch-card (rub three out identical you win up to £10,000). When this terrible war is over I will choke on the round little noblets of all our brave boys, and smile that devilish, whore-breathed smile with your hands on my belly. You won’t believe your luck, what I’ll do for you with my body, when I get out of here, when you get home from this war — this terrible, terrible war.

Sedgwick

Not that I have any interest in “canceling” a major critic, but I have noticed over the last few years a great deal of sentimental attachment to Eve Sedgwick, an attachment it is quite difficult for me to share. I *have* shared it, at times - but I think since I started to transition, I’ve begun to associate her thinking more with the emergence since the 90s of a new form of anti-trans polemic, one which takes for its mission the protection of recessive modes of gay life, and postulates that the increased availability of medical treatment for children (hormone blockers, say) as evidence that effeminacy is at risk of pathologization by the medical state. The evidence suggests otherwise, of course - that parents are generally much more supportive of gay children than trans children; and that trans people accordingly spend many years waiting to obtain any kind of treatment, and grow increasingly at risk of depression and isolation. But it makes sense if (and only if) one assumes that all effeminate boys grow up to be either gay men, or closet cases, and masculine girls grow up to be either lesbians or closet cases.

Sedgwick’s clearest statements on this subject come up in her essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” whose provocative title is designed to prepare (presumptively straight) parents to resist trans medicine. It is clear that Sedgwick applauds the distinction of sexuality from gender, but also that she thinks it risks conspiring to make male femininity an impossibility, even within gay communities (“There is a discreditable reason for this in the marginal or stigmatized position to which even adult men who are effeminate have often been relegated in the [gay] movement”.) But more pressing is the consequence that “while denaturalizing sexual object-choice, [this way of distinguishing between gender and sexuality] radically renaturalizes gender,” creating a risk that trans medicine will lead to a “none-too-dialectical trope of progressive /consolidation/ of self.” Such consolidations are not problems, of course, when the self in question is “gay,” merely when it is trans. For this reason, the essay lurches from panic about trans medicine’s epistemology, to raging polemic about trans medicine’s politics: “These books, and the associated therapeutic strategies and institutions, are not about invasive violence. What they are about is a train of squalid lies. The overarching lie is the lie that they are predicated on anything but the therapists' disavowed desire for a non-gay outcome.” She goes on to characterize the emergence of trans medicine as “the less visible, far more respectable underside of the AIDS-fueled public dream of [gay bodies’] extirpation.”

This kind of sloppy polemic does no credit to the author of “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” nor does it seem capable of registering that even if its own paranoid fantasy were true - that trans medicine was a plot to exterminate gay people - that in itself would provide no grounds to protect gayness against it, since it offers no grounds for valuing “effeminacy” other than the claim that it is threatened by trans medicine. But that claim is a remarkable one, and both rhetorically and structurally Sedgwick’s position resembles that of contemporary terfs, who found organizations with names like “LGB Alliance” to demonstrate their contempt for trans people; who rail against the 1984-like imposition of pronoun voluntarism; who weep saltier tears for masculine girls than feminine boys, but whose fantasies of extermination are no less lurid than Sedgwick’s. This during the period of neoliberal gay acceptance, in which the white and normalized gay bourgeois has never been less under threat of “extirpation,” least of all from trans people. In other words, it would be misleading to say merely that Sedgwick’s anti-trans polemics reflect a 90s gestalt; rather, she was profoundly ahead of the curve in terms of transphobia, and indeed is cited by transphobes for precisely these reasons.

One of the central paradoxes of transition, I guess, is that one collaborates with a medical state, often against one’s commitments as well as one’s interests, in order to obtain new techniques for shaping one’s body. Dean Spade and others have written about trans opportunism as one of the mechanisms of the sex change: we don’t believe, generally, that “gender identity disorder” is a pathology requiring redress, but we *do* want hormones and surgeries, so we allow the doctors to spin out their theories of our sickness. Eve Sedgwick’s understanding of sexuality explicitly leaves no such room for trans ingenuity; rather, the possibility of a medicalizing intervention into the lives of trans people appears only as a threat to effeminate male gayness (and, I suppose, to female gayness too - though the thought seems to trouble her less). In other words, in her framing of the relationship between effeminacy, gayness, and transness, Sedgwick’s position is that of the LGB Alliance, or another anti-trans organization: that “gay” and “trans” are competing and irresolvable explanations for the same phenomenon, and that therefore solidarity between the groups is impossible. So the particular “anti-homophobic” method that she develops is in fact not merely compatible with, but inextricable from, hostility to trans people. It’s also ironic, I think, that trans people ourselves so often read and recite Sedgwick - partly, no doubt, because queer theory’s remarkable success at reproducing itself as the authoritative voice of anti-essentialist praxis over the last couple of decades seems both attractive and anxiegenic to an emerging field whose conditions of possibility are still, genuinely, emerging - and partly, too, out of an embarrassment about transsexuals that we’ve all been talking about recently. (I’d like to talk about our collective embarrassment about transvestites, too, one day.) So what would an anti-transphobic method of literary criticism look like, or one which didn’t posit an inevitable conflict between gay and trans people? One emerging, immanently, from the soldiarities that do exist in the social (and erotic!) practices of queer and trans communities?

note on the future of the mirror

Hello friends,

Last week, The Stage Mirror had its first birthday. It’s been a week since I wrote for the newsletter, and so I thought I’d send you all an explanation for my relative slackness. There are two reasons for my having had less time than usual for the last week. 

The first is that I’ve been finishing a first draft of (the book I used to think of as) my memoir, the public-facing book that I’ve been working towards since I started writing about my transition on Facebook a few years ago. It’s clearly not exactly a memoir, any longer, in the sense I’d anticipated when I began the process of compiling this manuscript - it includes elements of criticism, some theoretical writing (though much less than The Argonauts!), and a lot of genre pastiches, of the kind that I’ve worked on for the newsletter over the last year. I’m pleased with how it’s going, and I’m also pleased that it is mostly made up of new material, so there’ll be something even for Stage Mirror readers.

The second is that, over the last week especially, I’ve realized how heavy has been the emotional stress of the last few months. I’m glad that I got a chance to write something approaching my feelings about the whole thing last weekend, and at the same time the “Yoko” piece has really left my feelings of anxiety in a fairly hard place. I’m very safe, and I’m taking good care of myself, but in the emotional context I’ve been in, I’ve preferred to dedicate my time to projects that aren’t going to appear in public on the same day as I write them. Hence finally getting around to putting the memoir together, and stepping back from the more high-contact genre of newsletter post. 

Last Fall, I wrote to you all to tell you that I would be stepping back from The Stage Mirror sometime in 2020. I’m getting more of a sense of what that will look like. I’m not going to discontinue publishing completely - I’ll just move to something much more occasional, one idea every couple of weeks or so, as and when something comes up that I want to write about. I also think that, once I’m finished with the memoir, I’ll be shifting this title back into the critical genre that I worked more in when this began. In the longer run, my goal is to try to figure out what it means for me to be working in so many different registers and domains: how can I bring together the public-facing work with the peer-reviewed stuff? I care about both a great deal, and I’m grateful for the example of so many scholars and thinkers who have found some way to yoke the two horses to the same chariot, so to speak: I’ve been thinking especially hard about the work about the work of Terry Castle, Jennifer Doyle, and Fred Moten, in particular. And I’m also aware that my own approach is quite different from theirs, and so I need to think about how I want to stitch something together, make something make sense for me.

I felt tremendously guilty when I realized I was going to have to step back - as an academic already possessed of enormous institutional privilege in a profession that is collapsing into a neoliberal nightmare of contingency, and just as a human being in the world, I’m extremely aware of what an honor it is that anybody pays a subscription fee for my words. I think the fact that this has been paywalled has been a remarkable boon for my writing, in ways that I didn’t expect at all when it started - I think it has enabled me to assume a much greater confidence in the way I address this list, than I otherwise could have assumed. I think that has been a consistent good. I’m also aware that it has produced some of the conditions I was writing about last week, where people feel entitled to information about me. That has felt more difficult to bear than I would have expected in advance.

And it also has made it difficult to contemplate winding down - since people have paid money for my writing, I feel obligated to supply writing, more or less regularly and more or less indefinitely. Which I can’t do - I doubt anyone could. I’ve also begun to realize that the quantity of writing I’ve been producing has, to some extend, slowed my ability to pick up new competences, or even just new interests. And whatever this post-tenure life can look like for me, I no longer want to be recycling the knowledges and competences that have brought me this far. So that need is pushing me into a reading phase.

My relation to that changed when the newsletter became a year old - somehow that, arbitrarily, infamy looked enough to me like a substantial body of work worth paying for access to, even if I didn’t produce anything new. So I suppose what I’m saying is, moving forward, I’m going to be publishing less on here than I used to. Most of what I publish will be for subscribers only, rather than public posts. There will be some new material each month, but I will think (and encourage you to think) of the subscription fee as access to an archive, rather than as a financial expectation of new material. 

This newsletter has not been what I expected it to be, which was a more or less academic blog about Victorian literature. It has helped me to see that, in certain ways, Victorian literature is not (or is no longer) a primary category under which I wish to marshal my resources, or make my commitments. So, with an understanding that this newsletter has accomplished so much work, moved so much for me, and that my continued movement depends on nudging it gently to the side, I would like to offer my most particular gratitude to those writers who have allowed me to publish their work or their ideas on here, either in the form of collaboration or interview: Maddie Holden, Molly Priddy, Paul Saint-Amour, Christina Grace Tucker, Charlie Zieke, and of course my husband Daniel Lavery. And I’m so extremely grateful to you who read this, for supporting my work, for writing to me about it, and to discussing it on Twitter, on here, and in real life. Even on Reddit. I’m beyond astonished that people have been willing to come along with me, and as grateful as ever that my transition has placed me in a community worth sustaining, in conversation and physical communion with the most remarkable people with whom I have ever exchanged anything at all.

With all my love,

Grace

xo

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