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hen I held Transforming Citizenships in my hands for the first time, I opened it to a random page and immediately found an omitted word in a sentence. The lack of a “the” leapt up at me off the page. I felt sick to my stomach. Just as quickly, I started to laugh. I laughed because I had proof, before any one else, that my book was less than perfect. I knew that already, of course, but there was an odd sense of relief in knowing this fact. Beyond the choices a writer must make to satisfy the limitations imposed by one’s press and manuscript reviewers, there are inevitably other omissions, some as small as typos and others more substantive such as literatures that are not engaged fully enough or analyses that could be expanded to extract all of the richness out of their objects of critique. Luckily, my interlocutors have focused on the latter, and I want to use the remaining space to engage their readings of the text as an opportunity to revisit some of its central commitments. Although I can read a number of common concerns across the reviews, for now, I will address the utility of reparative reading practices and the political utility of this book for trans folk. So, first, let me expound on my vision for the book before I address the respondents and their readings.
At the risk of oversimplifying the contributions Transforming Citizenships might make about claims to citizenships and their potential queerness, for me, the text advances a relatively straightforward argument: all politics are necessarily impure because people and the symbols they use to communicate their subjectivities are not reducible to the authorizing ideologies and hegemonic formations that make them intelligible as subjects, legal and otherwise. Contra queer critiques of citizenship and rights as always already objectionable modes of recognition, wherein these critiques rely ironically enough on a very unqueer resurrection of an essentialist conflation of stable subjectivities and fixed discourses, I suggest that we might understand claims to citizenship as contextually-bound performative reproductions of unstable identity categories. When someone declares, “I deserve equal treatment before the law”, the demand is one that announces a failure in equality’s universality while also initiating an expanded conception of what equality might or should signify. In this way, equality is transformed, not finally in the last instance or for all time as no one single articulation of this claim can secure its acceptance as truth; instead, in its own localized way, each performative reproduction of citizenship is evidence of this category’s contestability and rhetoricity. Thus, context matters—context matters in how these demands are made and context matters in how we should evaluate these claims. It follows that critics must be reflexive about their own assumptions and allow the texts, objects, or practices to speak back to the theoretical perspectives that traditionally have been brought to bear on them in a unilateral fashion.
From this perspective, then, Transforming Citizenships challenges the uncomplicated rendering of discourse, identity, and norms operative in large swaths of queer studies. All too often, a hermeneutics of anti-normativity directs our critical energies toward denying an object or practice its queerness by demonstrating how the object or practice is complicit with one or more normativities, a judgment that traffics frequently in more than a little bit of essentialism as well as undifferentiated renderings of power. In this mode of thought, the intersectionalities of identities and their discursive manifestations are stripped of their multiplicities for the sake of analytical ease, thus allowing the critic to distill them into a fixed frame of normative complicity. To be clear, much of this work is valuable in its unpacking of the sometimes unquestioned and troubling assumptions of seemingly progressive politics. At the same time, an insatiable anti-normativity that takes an ideologically pure queerness as its metric of critique and installs it as a political goal too often fails us. That is, a politics of anti-normativity stands in for queer worldmaking, wherein the former is confused or is assumed to be the only way to invite or cultivate the latter. Consequently, queer critique is neutralized by its own blindspots, especially an inability to see queerness as an actually existing mode of making one’s way through space and time, and we are asked to disidentify with the object or practice in question while we wait for something queerer to come along. Occasionally, in this tradition of queer studies, we might find queerness on a screen or a piece of literature or in a performance, but the possibilities for queering our everyday lives and politics are often dismissed as impossible because they cannot achieve the mythic standards of perfection required by more dogmatic forms of queer critique.
Many of my colleagues disagree with this reading of queer studies, indicting it as a caricature of a more diverse field of argument. I am willing to admit that my re-presentation of queer studies is somewhat polemical, but it is warranted by the hegemonic practices of queer studies’ gatekeepers. All too often the capaciousness of queerness in everyday life is short-circuited by reviewers and readers through their insistence that the contamination of norms denies a practice or text its ability to queer norms and normativities. In many ways, we can see this dynamic playing itself out in recent forums about reparative critiques (“The Time of Reparation”) and anti-normativity (Weigman and Wilson, 2015; and Halberstam’s response on Bully Bloggers). I hope my work is read as part of this larger conversation with my contribution being an anti-essentialist reparative reading practice that does not ignore or excuse the conditions addressed by paranoid readings. Instead, I offer a reading strategy that starts from the assumption that our symbolic fields of recognition can never be as pure or as simple as our theories might suggest or demand; therefore, we must forgo the purifying impulse and embrace symbolic complexities and all of their attending difficulties. With this frame in mind, I want to turn to a more direct engagement with my interlocutors.
Derek Ruez’s response ends with two sets of questions that point to a variety of interdisciplinary possibilities between communication studies and geography, much of which cannot be answered here in this forum but all of them are fruitful ways of thinking through sites of potential collaboration in the future. One set of Ruez’s queries resonates across the responses: what are the roles of context and contingency in the geographies of agency? Among the answers I would want to offer to this question is one that stresses the temporalities and materialities of agencies in the particular negotiation of that moment, which means that I would be hesitant to be prescriptive about how queer and trans identities and politics might be practiced best. The reasons are many, but, as Amy Dombrowolsky highlights, the contexts are constantly changing. If I were writing this book today, it would be a very different book because the visibility of trans folk is different. The emergence of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Black Lives Matter, Caitlyn Jenner, and others has made some trans concerns more present in popular culture. The identity marker trans is variable as well, as trans* may have already come and gone because of internal contestations regarding its utility. Our networked cultures are constantly undergoing revisions as they are modified through their usage. Many of my students have a cultural fluency in issues of gender and sexuality that differentiates them from previous cohorts. And so on. That is, context is everything, which brings me back to the reparative attitude. I would like to think of contexts and contingencies as affordances, and these affordances have no necessary correspondence with dominant ideologies and hegemonic formations of identity and the state. The material geographies of agency are constrained and enabled by the negotiations of the universal and the particular, but more than rehearsing this familiar refrain of constraining and enabling as a way of accounting for the limits placed on one’s desires, might we imagine instead a more dynamic interaction of persons, symbols, and spaces not determined in the final instance by normativities? This orientation would refuse the conflation of subjects with discourses. In this task, we will need more interdisciplinary conversations about our shared traditions and unique contributions. We share concerns about people and their environments, the livability of communities, and self-governance. Along with these shared interests, communication scholars can contribute non-instrumental theories of communication as more than the transmission of meaning and geography scholars can provide greater insight into the spatial-temporal dimensions of structure and agency. Above all else, the shared commitment to contexts must be followed all the way down to prevent the kind of theorizing that would erase human agency, and the interimplications of these disciplinary fields in one another may help to prevent the other from these tendencies.
Beyond the questions of theoretical orientation, all of my respondents identify some hesitancy about the book’s utility for trans politics. Dombrowlsky reads the book as somewhat dated and not informed enough by intersectional analysis; Petra Doan wishes for more interviews with the subjects of the chapters to uncover their motivations and strategies; and Ruez identifies passages where I suggest that trans folk must and should engage the law as the primary site of social change. In many cases, I agree, at least partially, with their readings of the texts. I wish that I could have had more access to the subjects of my chapters; the issues of race and class could have been more integrally tied to my readings; and the concluding chapters may not have enough imagination in them regarding the possibilities of a post-liberalism legal system. At the same time, in line with the previous comments about context, what the book does do is refuse a prescriptive attitude that assumes I can tell trans folk how best to be political actors. Much to the contrary, one of the underlying commitments of this book was to think about queer politics through trans experiences, which is to say the de-centering of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (identity) politics. Again, we live in a very different world than when I finished the manuscript in 2012, but I am willing to state today that trans identities and politics are often considered but not centered in writings about queer citizenships and queer recognition. Moreover, when I was drafting the manuscript, many LGBT communities revived talk and undertook actions that questioned the need for LGBT unity, which struck me as curious given its timing. The othering of trans folk by LGBs reared its ugly head again just as trans folk were gaining some visibility in dominant cultures. Thus, in my own little way through the manuscript, I wanted to hold LGBs and academic queer critiques accountable to actually existing trans politics and claims to citizenship to undermine the assumption that there is one and only one way forward for LGBT/queer politics. All of this is to say, one audience is trans folk, but those who already live these lives and advocate for trans legal recognition would be familiar with most of the arguments in the text. Another audience is academics who have coalesced around rather simplistic understandings of identities, norms, and politics, and I want to jolt us out of this frame through sustained attention to trans politics and actors as something other than complicit with normativities.
In the end, I offer up these perspectives not in an attempt to be instructive about how trans politics should be practiced. Rather, with more humility, I want to understand queerness in all of its messiness and impurities. In addition to the insightful readings of my text, the respondents in this forum remind me that our investments in queer studies are motivated by different epistemologies and life experiences, which I take to be generative gestures to continue to imagine queer worlds and ways of being together, and I thank them for this opportunity to continue the conversation.