What Is a Take? A Trans Feminist Take on the 2019 British Election Results

Okay, I’ll bite, as they say. I have been on Twitter with any regularity for no more than eighteen months, so I’m a certain sense I’m still very new to this. But at some point in the last, say, five years, the phrase “hot take” both started to appear less frequently in conversations about online culture (especially Twitter), and the apparently more neutral term “take” has seemed to appear more frequently. The shift seems to have entailed a subtle shift in tone, too. The phrase “hot take” was usually fairly scornful, indicative of a callow or insincere attempt to gin up controversy for the sake of getting attention, much like “clickbait.” Another term from the same period, “thinkpiece,” possessed an even stronger critical association: the typifying thinkpiece was self-indulgent, unfocused pie-in-the-sky; the term carried the sense of intellectual irresponsibility, an inability or refusal to grasp things as they actually are. In that sense, then - and this will be a hot take for some, and a very cold one for others - that the object scorned by the term “thinkpiece” is conceptually indistinguishable from the object once scorned by the term “theory.” We have never lacked for terms to indicate our contempt for those whose thinking is piecemeal, or who fail/refuse to knead the pieces into a larger thinkloaf. One day I shall outline on here my sense of the history of Menippean satire as a genre (the satire of the “glorious philosopher” by way of a pastiche of philosophical modes of totalization), as an originary influence on many contemporary genres of satirical posture, from the feminist critique of the theory bro, to the theory bro, to the theory bro’s own critique of (can I be real with you for a moment?) onto-theology

My point is that with the decline of the tonally-complex-but-conceptually-simple term “hot take,” and the ascendency of the apparently more neutral, but in fact (I think) much more complex, “take,” we have developed a subtly different way of thinking about the way we argue now. I use  that phrase, the title of a 2005 book by the Victorian Studies scholar Amanda Anderson, in order to indicate a difference between what the institutional “we” of academic publishing, and the habitual “we” of online discourse. Now, these two fields cannot be assumed to be similar. There may, in fact, be no “we” in online discourse at all, save the we that is produced virtually as an effect of screening out the voices one cannot abide: this observation approximates the critique of the “echo chamber” of Twitter, perhaps the take-of-all-takes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s simply wrong. Perhaps, indeed, the modeling of a “we” through the deletion of a “not-we” by a willful individual subject, an I that therefore returns in disguise as a “we,” is no more than a manifestation of a process of psychic splitting that, Melanie Klein teaches us, is foundational to any construction of self. From that perspective, the “echo chamber” is simply the cognitive apparatus as such, and Twitter no more than a modulation of a process whose first cause is a far more fundamental psychic split. 

I don’t know if I think that’s true, partly because I don’t know what it would mean to adjust my life to reflect a sense that, in the end, nobody is persuadable and that which we call “argument” or “persuasion” is just a practice of distinction, like a sonnet. (Like a sonnet, in that one may pull it off with greater or lesser panache, but even just knowing the rules is enough for the class performance to come off.) But I will admit that I’m afraid it’s true. Changing one’s mind about anything is very rare, and even students - people structurally defined, in some idealistic sense, as individuals whose minds are changing -  much more frequently co-opt new information to support an existing prejudice, than challenge a prior assumption. I’m failing to avoid here a kind of shitty Nate Silver quality, as though the problem was cognitive “priors,” or perhaps biases, that govern people’s expressed political beliefs, along the lines of “Joe Biden may share my values less fully than does Bernie Sanders, but I think a more centrist candidate is more likely to win a general election.” (Which obviously is not my position, to be clear.) The existence of such biases may be interesting to statisticians, but from a philosophical perspective they are trivial. The kinds of splitting that Klein has in mind operate at a far more fundamental level, in the very ways that we are magnetized to different objects and ideas in the world - in the way we believe that certain body parts are sexually attractive to us, and others aren’t, or that “equality” is frightening rather than enticing. The Kleinian model suggests a consciousness that is an echo chamber from the start, and expands only by exclusion - much as Freud’s polymorphously perverse infant gains an individual “sexuality” not by finding what he likes, but by deleting everything that he has been instructed not to like.

Such dalliances with radical negativity aside, what is a take? We can say the easy stuff first: it is what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a “speech genre,” which is to say that takes are a special kind of utterance (I take Twitter, the home of the take, to approximate the rhythms of spoken discourse). Bakhtin writes:

Each separate utterance is individual, of course, but each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances. These we may call speech genres. The wealth and diversity of speech genres are boundless because the various possibilities of human activity are inexhaustible, and because each sphere of activity contains an entire repertoire of speech genres that differentiate and grow as the particular sphere develops and becomes more complex.

A relatively stable type of utterance, a small observable pattern within the “inexhaustible” flow of language that constitutes the total sphere of human activity, even the largest speech genre could only account for a tiny fraction of a fraction of speech: we cannot, I think, talk of a “major speech genre” - they are constitutively minor. We can, though, talk about what Lauren Berlant calls “genre flailing” - the desperate disassembly and reconstitution of speech genres in relation to crisis, especially (for Berlant) “the failure of the political world to be worthy of our attachment to it.” Berlant published the short essay “Genre Flailing” in the wake of the 2016 election, and it is unnerving to feel, rereading it this morning, the remoteness of that moment in a distant past. One of the things that turned out to be unworthy of our attachment to it, and produced a genre flailing of its own, was the seam of queer theory excavated in 2018, when we realized that many of the major figures in the field had lined up to attempt to protect one of their number, Avital Ronell, from disciplinary sanction on the grounds of having sexually harassed a graduate student. Perhaps that shudder will end, as they doubtless all hope, but then I can say that today I cannot read the clause “take the brilliant writing of Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong'o, for example, at the Social Text and Bully Bloggers blogs, where some of the best (most powerful and delicate and courageous) aesthetic criticism of our moment is on offer,” without recalling that Jack Halberstam published, on Bully Bloggers, a lengthy castigation of Ronell’s critics as somehow anti-feminist or anti-queer. The staging of a conflict between feminist accountability and a desperate, flailing attempt to justify abusiveness as “queer” set the stage for the Reed/Castiglia affair, too - though that time, thank goodness, the mainstream of queer theory lined up on the side of accountability, rather than interminable, eroticized cruelty.

Some, doubtless, will sense the next twist already coming: the “take” implies some necessary relation to “being canceled,” though I have argued a couple of times that that latter condition is a fiction whose primary social function is to promote transphobia as a lifestyle brand. Some will think that my criticism of Jack Halberstam’s position viz Ronell is an attempt to “cancel” him, or to amplify his prior cancelation; others will think (on thinner ice) that my annotation of my squirminess around Berlant’s praise of Halberstam is an attempt to cancel her. As though what is at stake in this conversation was not the organized effort, on the part of Halberstam and others, to cancel Nimrod Reitman’s complaint against Ronell. The one who takes (me, say, or Halberstam, or Berlant: we are all deeply committed to this speech genre) seem to assert an illimitable right to take and take again; thus “cancellation” is positioned as the apocalyptic limit against which discourse asserts its right. As though I had done any more than point out what everyone knew long before 2018, that queer theory is not merely a scholarly field possessed of accountability, but also a social setting in which affiliations and affections are both predictable and necessary. And that the existence of that social setting can produce unstable, genre-flailing responses in the form of “takes” when it suddenly makes itself unavoidable. With this unexpected but unavoidable conclusion: that the dialectic of take/cancel (phantoms on both sides) is the engine by which discourse in fact extends itself, and reproduces its social and ideological conditions over time. Not just for the transphobes beloved of the New York Times, but for the rest of us queer-discourse-junkies too, cancelation ensures a kind of discursive immortality, even if its immediate effects (non-citation, conspicuous silence) look like anti-discourse. This is something for me to remember, should a moment arise when I become more terrified of my own imminent cancellation than committed to the proliferation of takes. 

I hope it has been possible to offer a phenomenological defense of the take as a response to the fact of interminable political crisis, without defaulting to the naive claim that there is something more democratic about the internet than a university. They are anti-democratic in different ways: universities guarantee intellectual accountability, but radically delimit access - like a democracy in which almost nobody can vote. And then the number of Electors is so small that they all defend each other’s material interests anyway. Twitter entails a lot of voting, but nobody can agree on what is being voted on, so nothing happens except the flailing Berlant describes. Flailing can be thrilling, too. Last night, I got to hang out with Morgan Page, whom I adore, and I adored even more in person than in her work, which I adore. I’m stressing “adore” because I want to be clear that my engagement with Morgan is one of passionate admiration, and admiration born of some mixture of intellectual, erotic, and ethico-political activation. Morgan doesn’t do takes, in this way - or, because she is so good, her takes are often not felt as takes, but as nudges; she has sanded down the joint of constative and periperformative on which the take-genre hinges. I mention this because the social life of queer writing, of queer writers, is self-evidently why many of us get into the fucking business for the first place, and I can’t pretend it’s not fun, or that I’m exempt from the model I’ve laid out.

Here is a take about the British election, to end with, a take about the dialectic of take/cancelation, and the phantasmatic relation between speech and finitude that that dialectic propels into the world. Yesterday, I noticed some women on Twitter saying that they were traditional Labour voters, but had voted Tory because of Labour’s support for reforming the Gender Recognition Act to allow trans people to self-ID. Rather than reflect on the catastrophic implications of their own choices, those women urged the Labour Party to abandon self-ID, as the price of their returning to the fold. These people, of course, hate trans women (we are rapists and perverts), but they are more broadly afraid of “woke” culture, a term they have chosen, either despite or because of its obviously racist echo, to indicate the take-driven politics of cancelation-happy identity politics. The planned sacrifice of trans people, especially trans women, that will doubtless be contested in the British “left” for the next few years, will scapegoat us, on the basis of our “paraphilia,” for the spiritual degradation of the nativist left of Cobbett, Morris, and Thompson - an ideological front, not coincidentally, never better represented than by Jeremy Corbyn himself. 

Queers are, paradigmatically, despised because we practice a disgusting freedom. In the case of trans women, the freedom in question is the freedom enabled by the speech-genre of the take: “to have an opinion on who one is, manifest that upon one’s body, and seek the assent of the rest of the world - wouldn’t it be great if it could be that easy for all of us?” Is what they think, these anti-trans ex-Labour voters. They wish us unfree - they focus on our dicks because they can conceive of no greater punishment than castration, and they cannot abide that we don’t seem frightened of that. They will find more effective ways to hurt us. Meanwhile, the take/cancel dialectic pushes irrepressibly on: on the first side, queers finding new words to describe the conditions of our bodies and souls; on the second, feminists demanding justice and accountability for the institutional reproduction of the indignities written every day upon our bodies and souls. In such conditions, trans feminism is the only ethical response to a world made newly impossible. 

I propose that the Labour Party decline the advice of those voters who decided that the removal of civil rights for trans people was the most important ballot issue in 2019. I propose that the British left, more broadly, conduct an urgent inquiry into how the hatred of trans women allowed certain feminist activists to foment a war between the feminist and LGBTQ movements in the UK. I propose that the investigation of the origins of this hatred be conducted publicly and with maximal participation from the trans community. I propose Morgan Page be paid a lot of money to offer her expertise in rooting out the hateful ideologues. I offer these thoughts in a spirit of grief, and fear, rather than recrimination. Feminists and queers belong to each other, we need each other, we love each other, sometimes in a fucked up way. We take and cancel each other, indefinitely. Never stop.