The Courage and Limits of Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair

I must admit that when Bruce Jenner first came out as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair (7/2015; see full article), I took notice but didn’t think of the act as particularly significant. In the context of the other news of the day—the police killings of unarmed black civilians, the enduring recession, currently coming to a head in the Greek debt crisis—my gut instinct was to criticize the moneyed and celebrity position from which Caitlyn is coming. My first thoughts went something like: of course she can afford to do that, unlike others who might feel the same way, indeed others who have more urgent medical concerns, but do not have the resources of the top 1%; of course she can think about being “who she really is” rather than settling with a given he can’t change, indeed can’t even think about, given more grounded preoccupations, say, with daily material needs; of course she would have a commodified response to a crisis revolving around gender felt as personal, given his own commodification as an Olympic athlete and American hero.

Jenner’s acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPY (see clip) dispelled these reservations. This award was a necessary follow-up to the Vanity Fair cover as it situated Jenner in context, both where he’s coming from and where she plans to go, in the process driving home the significance of Caitlyn, all this taking place in an especially pertinent setting. Yes, there are other problems that do need our attention, but those pertaining to gender and sexuality, as highlighted in this case by a sports event, are not to be ignored. The harrowing statistics of trans violence in this country alone highlight the political urgency of trans justice, which Jenner claims was a motivation for her to come out. The same goes for arguments that question whether Jenner, and not some other athlete who has gone through more significant hardship, deserves the award (see brief profile of Arthur Ashe). There are, indeed, other minorities who are also oppressed, perhaps more than the subjects that Caitlyn represents, certainly more than Jenner herself, but pointing this out is less an argument against giving Caitlyn a public platform than an argument for devising more ways to grant recognition. This is so especially since subjective recognition, like struggle itself, is not exclusive, but shared and contagious. As such, the complaint, “What about X? Don’t they deserve it more?” (contrast to: “Our fellows won something they needed!”), is counterproductive. Among other things, it resentfully and unwittingly participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy by which the dominant keeps the oppressed, well, oppressed.

As for Jenner’s privilege and celebrity, first, when it comes down to it, it means nothing; and secondly, it is, in fact, an advantage, and not only for Jenner. Everyone who is privileged in some way (thanks to background, talent, looks, etc.) knows that such privilege proves cheap in the face of an attribute that could be exploited as a weakness. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, there is always a closet in which one finds oneself in, no matter how out one thinks him/herself to be, no matter how open the environment. This is because you can be respected for something in which you are considered “good” or “strong,” and lose all that respect because you’re gay, or be respected only despite being black, Hispanic, or Asian, or be excluded and ridiculed for not being one of the boys. At the same time, Jenner does have privilege, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, because she is privileged, Jenner has the resources with which to fight, and, it must be noted, for a group of people deemed and treated as the lowest of the low, including in the gay community. Privilege buys (some) power (in some contexts), and it is the use to which power is put that is to be judged, not privilege by itself.

In fact, Jenner’s performance of the ex-“American hero” now identifying as and standing up for gender outcasts—already ironic—ironically makes him more critical than the mainstream LGBTQ movement. After all, the current thrust of the gay mainstream is heavily weighted toward marriage and the “proper” “type” of gay, undoubtedly a compelling factor leading to its recent victories, its acceptance in the mainstream. The price of this has been the disavowal of the less proper type of queers, notably trans, despite the fact that it was trans activists in Stonewall that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ movement. Similarly, of course ESPN has a vested commercial interest in presenting Jenner the award and that such presentation involves her commodification, but why single out a transgender woman, and not the other athletes, heteronormative or not, as the object of televised exploitation? And so what if Jenner is commodified as she is publicly recognized? Does commodification necessarily blunt the critical force of her public performance? In fact, doesn’t commodification, given its speed, its shock or seduction value, its mass dissemination, propel Jenner’s performance? In a world where capitalism attempts to penetrate virtually everything, does pointing out that something is entangled really amount to a critique? More importantly, does entanglement necessarily foreclose critique of that to which one is entangled and, it must not be forgotten, of the other operative axes of power that may or may not be aligned with capitalism, say, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and patriotism?

These attempts, ostensibly well-meaning, to dismiss or minimize the significance of Caitlyn Jenner miss something crucial about her. Criticisms from the right make up a reactionary backlash (what else is new?) against the way in which Caitlyn has deconstructed the American hero, proving him not only to be unknown (as expressed by Caitlyn’s constant remark, “Before this, nobody really knew me”), perhaps unknowable, because hollow—a mere ideal, a fantasy—but, indeed, as the opposite of what he’s thought to be, i.e. as deviant, wretched, monstrous, as someone undesirable and unworthy of admiration, at least not in the conventional sense, in other words, as queer. These reactionary criticisms, in other words, root from a nostalgia for something that’s not there but is believed in, an anchor of identity that Bruce used to be, but which Caitlyn has shattered. Whereas these nostalgic criticisms do everything they can to erase what Caitlyn has revealed, more sympathetic criticisms, including those coming from the fellow oppressed, miss what it was that Caitlyn showed the world. For in courageously standing up there to flamboyantly parade her gender for all the world to see, what Caitlyn Jenner has showed, in these times of enduring racial persecution, unending economic recession, and the institutionalization of gay marriage, is the centrality of sexuality itself, not against but along with other axes of struggle.

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history, political economy

(Non-)Independence and the Imperial Rights of Colonials

(This post first came out in Common Rhetoric in 7/2014.)

Trumbull - Declaration of Independence (1819)

(John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence [1819])

There is not one, but (at least) two Fourth of Julys. July 4, 1776: Thirteen colonies declare Independence from the British Crown, constituting the United States of America (“united” in original document). What are the grounds for this declaration? First, what did it do? The Declaration absolves the colonies from all allegiance to the British Crown, dissolving all political connection between the colonies and the State of Great Britain, thereby constituting free and independent States, separate and equal to Great Britain, mutually pledged and united with each other. Why did the colonies do this? The Declaration lists the British King’s history of repeated injuries and usurpations, oppressions that have been petitioned by the colonies, only to be answered not by redress but by repeated injury, part and parcel of the British Crown’s establishment of an absolute Tyranny over the colonies (interchangeable with “States” in the document). What gives the colonies—declaring themselves as States—the right to do this? The principle: All men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights secured through the institution of government, which the People have a Right and duty to alter and abolish should government become destructive of this end, which manifests in abuses and usurpations.

July 4, 1946: U.S. President Harry S. Truman grants recognition to the Philippines, hitherto an American colony, as a separate and self-governing nation, under the control of the government instituted by the people, duly prepared by Americans to assume this obligation. The terms of this recognition of independence are laid down in the Treaty of Manila (Treaty of General Relations) of 1946. Is the Fourth of July, then, a double celebration, the celebration of the Independence of two States, of the colonized and the colonizer? That is, is American Independence also Filipino Independence, tying the fate of two peoples as intricate, inextricable? American and Philippine independence—are these two Fourth of Julys the same? What makes them different, in fact, fundamentally opposite? The Philippines had already declared its Independence on June 12, 1898, in a war the Philippines waged against Spain, a previous colonizer. The U.S., an ally of the Philippines due to the fact that it was itself in conflict with Spain over Cuba, refused, however, to recognize this Declaration uncannily similar to its own (colony against the empire), negotiating instead with Spain the Treaty of Paris of December 1898, which ceded the Philippines and other Spanish colonies to the U.S. This led to the long, bloody, and bitter armed conflict between the U.S. and Filipino revolutionaries known as the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American War (1899-1902/1913) and, eventually, the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. Only 48 years later, in 1946, did the U.S. finally recognize the independence of the Philippines with a treaty that nonetheless ensured continued postcolonial American control of the Philippines on the same day that the founding fathers, using the tenets of democracy, declared themselves free.

Most of this history, including the Philippine-American War that resulted in the death of 34,000 to 220,000 Filipinos, is forgotten or minimized in the official narratives, hidden in the self-image of the first Fourth of July. If independence is not declared but granted, and not by the self, in which the colonizer declares the form of this independence in the time that it sets, and puts things in place to ensure postcolonial control, is it Independence? If Independence derives its legitimation from the principle of democracy, but then refuses to recognize the very same Independence of a colored people, thereby betraying that, perhaps, its basis was not democracy after all, is it Independence? If independence is recognized, but not on the self-proclaimed date of the state becoming independent (June 12), but on the date of the colonizer’s own Independence (July 4) serving to erase the former and one’s own self-declaration and to engrave on this “independent” state the mark of the colonizer, to imprint on Philippine independence the shadow of American colonization, what is Independence?

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Theory and Scholarship

In my dissertation, I’m looking at the place of the Filipino in the United States, specifically in the US deployment of a new kind of imperialism. The new imperialism is not easy to define: late capitalism, anticolonial imperialism, globalization, empire, neoliberalism, hegemony—these are only some of the terms used against disavowals such as, “We don’t do empire.” This is symptomatic of US imperialism’s novelty, which renders the designation US empire, made visible only recently and partially, “problematic.” Interestingly, the Philippines is one of the few places in which US empire can be unraveled. After all, the new imperialism has as its precursor the direct, colonial imperialism that the US undertook in the Philippines at the turn of the last century. However, even in the Philippines, empire is forgotten, and it is easy enough for the US to dissociate itself from its imperialist history through the claim that the Philippines was an “aberration.” In fact, the Philippine “disenchantment” changed the way that the US does empire. That is, its experience in the Philippines caused the US to configure a new imperialism, one that is invisible and “problematic.” Drawing from characterizations of aberration and disenchantment, my dissertation aims to explore the ways in which the Filipino itself is problematic, in particular with regards to the US denial of empire. In refuting the US exceptionalist rejection of its imperialist designation, the “problem” that is the Filipino undermines the supposedly “problematic” nature of US empire.

The “problem” is thus the metaphor I’m pursuing in thinking about my dissertation topic, namely the Filipino and the US. What led me to this trajectory? What allowed me to think about such a relation, one that has an entangled, contradictory, and erased history, in a way that makes some sense, and which could be articulated along political lines? Tracking down the mutation of empire aligns with the poststructuralist sense of the world as having changed after WWII, which demands that we think about power, desire, etc. anew, in a way appropriate to the changed nature of things. The old lens brought us this far, and while we should keep their aspirations and lessons in mind, poststructuralism, as it were, points out the ways in which they don’t work anymore, or are in need of adjustment. At the same time, poststructuralism may be in too much accord with its time, of which, after all, it is a product, even in struggling against it. There are thus important ways in which the insights and strategies of older traditions, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, afford more pointed critiques of the now, especially when this now legitimates itself precisely through its disconnection from history. Empire, in other words, has to be understood in its specific and contingent workings; at the same time, however, it has to be connected to, or studied as a variant of, good old imperialism.

There is thus a need to ask simultaneously: How is the new empire different from old imperialism (the new being poststructuralism’s emphasis, as it were)? And how are empire and imperialism one and the same thing (which calls for the expertise of older discourses of power and desire), as the (mere?) play in words seems to indicate? Poststructuralism provides the tools needed to discern change, the contemporary, its moment; however, many of the political positionalities, tendencies, and strategies at play in the present have a much older origin, from which we cannot simply dissociate, and which teaches many valuable lessons indeed: about the “class” struggle, the relation between subject and object, between conscious and unconscious … The “problem” as response to empire, in turn, derives from queer theory. And what is queer theory if not a hybrid, especially in its positing of the queer (as subject, as object?) as that which is excluded in the system (dissected so well by poststructuralism) because if fails to abide by the norm (the subordinate “class,” the repressed), an anomaly (the invisible, the remainder, the unconscious?) that, in turn, returns as the system’s failure, to make the system fail.

I offer this brief, rudimentary sketch of my project and unravel my method as deriving from theoretical schools in order to make a larger point. What I did to my project description can be done, I argue, to any scholarly undertaking. Is it really possible to carry out scholarship without theory? One can describe one’s project in the way I did in the first paragraph, through a straightforward statement “unburdened” by theory. I wager, however, that paragraphs (not always the same as mine, of course, and not always explicitly) always lurk underneath as the theoretical context of any scholarship. The genealogy tells us that critical theory derives from the Frankfurt School, perhaps the first attempt, dissenting from established philosophy, to integrate or, better yet, intersect Marxism and psychoanalysis, with the goal of “liberat[ing] human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” This does lend critical theory a certain inflection. Critique, however, goes back even earlier, and critical theory has forked into multiple paths since the Frankfurt School. This is perhaps why the Critical Theory Emphasis at UC Irvine simply describes critical theory as the “develop[ment of] theoretical models” (compare to Critical Theory at Berkeley). If critical theory is the analytical attempt to develop ways of thinking about value, power, desire, rhetoric … more broadly, social forces and structures, and if scholarship, especially in the humanities, is the study of cultural materials (both objects and subjects), can we really disentangle one from the other? Can we really study a work of culture without thinking about our stance and method, about the social conditions of culture? And can we do such work without the political goal of liberation, or at least of critique of the given?

Far from something extraneous added to an argument to make it seem learned or which gains one entrance into an esoteric field, critical theory, in developing ways, modes, and frames of thinking about cultural materials, is the foundation of any project of thinking—and we should assert it as such. Critical theory itself would tell us not to take anything for granted, to not stop asking questions. At the same time, however, the question should not be about how theory is relevant, but about how what we’re doing, whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, is already and thoroughly imbued with and founded on theory. This, I argue, shifts our concerns and affords a stance that sees, and can therefore productively use, the value of critical theory at a time when it is urgently needed, when the humanities are being undermined. We should stop apologizing for being too theoretical; it is them who claim not to be theoretical who are either ignorant or in denial. This sense of the foundational importance of theory is something that a scholar ought to have, and instinctively—you see it in the way he thinks, in her practice … It is, likewise, something that, as second nature, like the way that one carries himself, she fosters, like something contagious. Just as language is his/her primary medium, critical theory is the scholar’s pen.


Saussure’s Theory of the Sign

(This expository post first came out in (mass)think! in 6/2007.)

Saussure Sign

In contrast to linguistics in his time, which made language secondary to some other object of inquiry, in the Course in General Linguistics (1916; published posthumously), Ferdinand de Saussure treats language itself as the object of study by “tak[ing] the study of linguistic structure as his primary concern” (16, 9). Linguistic structure, “only one part of language,” albeit essential, is, according to Saussure, both “a social product of our language faculty” and “a body of necessary conventions adopted by society to enable [its] members […] to use their language faculty” (9-10). It is “language minus speech, […] the whole set of linguistic habits which enables the speaker to understand and to make himself understood” (77). That is, linguistic structure refers to the rules of (a) language, minus its specific articulation (speech). A language, in turn, is a “well-defined entity, […] locali[zable],” i.e. “ha[ving] a particular place in the realm of human affairs,” “in that particular section of the speech circuit where sound patterns [signifiers] are associated with concepts [signifieds]” (14, 15). Language, in other words, comprises the whole system of signifiers and signifieds and the linguistic structure, the rules of their association.

Saussure asserts that it is “the social part of language, external to the individual, […] exist[ing] in virtue of a kind of contract agreed between the members of a community,” in which the individual needs apprenticeship (if she wants to be able to use it) (14, 15). This social part is a specific, hence homogeneous, compartment/region of language in general (or “the totality of facts of language”), which is heterogeneous (14). Linguistic signs are therefore “not abstractions. The associations, ratified by collective agreement, which go to make up the language are realities localized in the brain” (15). Moreover, they are “tangible,” fixable by writing in “conventional images” since “there is only the sound pattern, and this can be represented by one constant visual image” (15). A language, while not the same as language in general, is also not simply speech, which “is an individual act of the will and the intelligence,” i.e. the particular application of an individual’s apprenticeship, a particular articulation of language (14). In laying out all these components and relations, Saussure portrays language as a social institution.

Rather than a nomenclature (i.e. language as the naming of things/ideas), for Saussure, language is a sign system. Linguistics (Saussurian linguistics = semiotics) is thus but a part of the study of signs (their nature, the laws governing them) in general, semiology; inversely, semiology is the application of the techniques of semiotics to other cultural domains, treating them as a system of signs (15). A linguistic sign, Saussure claims, is a link between the signifier and the signified. The signifier refers to the sound pattern, “not actually a sound [… but] the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses” (66). That is, the signifier is the word, or, more precisely, the sound one hears, or the sound image that registers in one’s brain, when a word (such as tree) is uttered. The signified, on the other hand, refers to the concept or the idea linked to (not just conveyed by and not that which causes) the sound pattern, i.e. the idea of the tree one forms in his head. These two are yet different from the referent, i.e. the thing linked to the signifier and/or the signified, e.g. the “actual” tree one can see, touch … The signifier and the signified together make up the sign.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking assertion that Saussure makes has to do with the arbitrariness of the sign. Saussure claims that “the link between [signifier] and [signified] is arbitrary,” i.e. there is no internal connection between the two (67). This means, first, that there is no (natural) reason why a particular signifier is related to a particular signified. The signifier, in other words, is unmotivated (69). There is no reason, for example, why we call a tree (or, more precisely: why we refer to the idea of a tree) tree. “This is demonstrated by differences between languages, and even by the existence of different languages” (68). Secondly, this means that signifieds themselves are arbitrary. Certain things, or, more accurately, certain signifieds (e.g. colors, or the signifieds of fleuve/rivière in French, two different things, depending on the direction of the flow) exist in some languages, but not in others (in English, there is only the signified for river). In other words, there is no given universal set of ideas. The linguistic system itself creates the “meaning.”

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political economy

Enclosure, Reversal, Restoration

(An earlier version of this post came out in Common Rhetoric in 6/2014.)

In a collection of essays on the commons called Stop, Thief! (2014), historian Peter Linebaugh begins by citing an anonymous English poem. It goes:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common,

But lets the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

How is this quatrain potentially revolutionary, but also problematic? What does it point to? What is it doing? The poem performs the classic Marxist move of demystification, even though its composer may not have self-identified as Marxist. First, what is happening, at least apparently? “The man or woman […] steals the goose”—a criminal act justly punished by “the law” that “locks up” this man or woman. This is what it looks like. This is what is seen. As the chant goes on, however, something else takes place: a call for reversal that, as hinted at, is more just than the law owing to the fact that the relation was reversed to begin with; as such, only a subsequent reversal, the one invoked by the last two lines, would set things right.

It looked as though the unqualified “man or woman,” i.e. the common man or woman, was stealing goose from off the common, that this man or woman was taking what’s not his, what she has no right to, from “the common” protected by the law. But this is contradictory: How can the common be designated by the law? How can the common be guarded by the law? The common is prior to the law, and, in many ways, is the opposite of the law. In fact, this contradictory enclosure of the common by the law is the act of the “greater villain” or, more precisely, the greater and more villainous act that “steals the common from the goose,” an act sanctioned precisely because it is done by means of the law.

As it turns out, it is not the man or woman who steals, but the greater villain behind the law, through the law. It is not the common who steals the goose from off the common, but the law that steals the common from the goose. What looked like the primary theft of the goose turns out to be secondary to the primal theft of the common, rendering the subsequent theft just, the truly just act that is the only thing that can set right the original and greater theft. As the common is stolen from the goose, it looks as though the man or woman is stealing the goose from off the common when, in fact, the goose is merely recovering the goose (nothing to do with goods), putting herself back in the common, in which he belongs. At the same time, this process, the poem suggests, involves difficulty and incommensurability. Something is irreparably lost in the original theft that cannot be recovered, as the common has become goose, dupe, fool, which, it seems, is the subjectivity given to man or woman in the theft of the common, and which s/he has to take in taking back the common.

What the quatrain points to, then, is the enclosure of the commons, done legally but unjustly through the expropriation of the common and the containment and disempowerment of the commoner, what in the neoliberal phase of capitalism, as Linebaugh points out, takes the form of privatization and incarceration. The quatrain likewise directs attention to duplicity, that is, the doubleness that marks every rhetorical move, in this case criminal, namely: (1). the act itself (theft); and (2). the discourse (law) that, by imposing the perpetrator’s point of view (position, presuppositions, and frame) and reversing the original relation, justifies the act; in the law’s own terms, the crime and the cover-up. What does this imply? What solution to the injustice and its legitimation is proposed by the quatrain, if only indirectly? In positing the primal theft as a duplicitous move, the quatrain implies that dupes can only and must reverse enclosure to restore the commons.

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