America’s Got Abjection: The Trans Subject as Sacrifice, from Stage to Street
“On the edge of non- existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.”
As this essay introduces some basic concepts of Kristeva’s feminist philosophy — namely, abjection and contractual sacrifice — I’d like to foreground my analysis with a descriptive personal reminiscence.
As part of my doctoral research, I spent a fair bit of time travelling to archives across Kyûshû, basing myself in Ôita city . . . a town where the lips were pursed but the beer and noodles delicious and plentiful. Within reaching distance, Arita — a renowned kiln village where centuries of pottery artisanship has turned tradition into an intimate handing down of a quintessential style, Arita-yaki — was reachable through the many punctual railways. I travelled there often. The narrow, crooked streets do justice to any byline about “rustic beauty”.
Arita folk, immersed in Shintô notions of purification and cleanliness, possess a collective vocation when it comes to the poignance of hand thrown tea ware. I’ve observed priests in full regalia waving the ônusa — the “lightning” wand of paper streamers sacred to that faith — over newly painted dinner plates destined for a royal’s buffet. Chadô practitioners from across the country come to purchase for the thinnest of porcelain or the most robust of thick tea ceramics in earth tones in seasalt glazes.
Instead of cloth o-mamori, the local shrine sells talismans made out of tiles. There, within the quiet precincts, where generation of potters go to offer prayers, there a shard heap of fractured, broken tea cups deemed ‘defective’ by the supervisor’s eyes. Usually, they’re perfectly fine pieces that exhibit some defect, a chip in the surface or a streak of gold filament in a pattern … despite what you might have heard about “cherishing imperfection”, these deemed-flawed pieces are ritually smashed as part of a contract with the divine. True, these errors could be sold on an export market, at a discount, to those who don’t know better. However, rather than cheat the market, the offending failures are ceremonially shattered on the discard heap of mistakes.
Sacrifice is a sort of a contractual bond with the Gods to keep the bad stuff off the table.
Do forgive the long preamble: this essay is not to indulge my memories of Japan. I’m using this anecdote to set up a few crucial notions to this discussion: observation, flaw, rejection, sacrifice in the life of a tea bowl deemed a ‘mistake’.
Recently, America’s Got Talent decided to run an insipid diddy to be the summer finale in the form of weekly wallop to give water coolers a case of the zanies. One need not be initiated in the cynicism guild to recognize NBC’s publicity ploy: get a floppy “old man” on stage and, after indulging him with agist jibes about technology, have him uncork a can of locker-room shocker by having this octogenarian stir a nation wide giggle freak out.
You can hear it for yourself: Ray Jessel, our frazzled raconteur with the wiry hair of a romantic composer, takes to the stage to tinkle a tune about the woman he loves so much … but she’s got a defect … she’s, wait for it, trans. And the audience, of course, snorted giggles through their media snorkels.The song’s melody lingers like an utterly banal birthday card, or a tune that “didn’t make the cut” in a Sleepless in Seattle Revival. As for the lyrics themselves — they’re spiteful, exploitative, and remorseless.
Several trans women wrote movingly about the immediate hurt that Jessel’s piece delivers: see Brynn Tannehill, Parker Marie Molloy, or Kat Haché — all three of those women provide what is disturbingly absent from Jessel’s genital lament — the actual voice of a trans woman. There is no trans subject without cis mediation. It’s a paradox of articulation: this absence of the trans woman who is, at the same time, being figured as presence through ambiguous sexualisation. Jessel’s song is a microcosmic recording of transphobic discourse: the trans woman is addressed but simultaneously push aside as flaw; she is regonised but concurrently rebuked and invalidated. This is the language of the defect, the rhetoric of “error” that inscribes the trans woman as freak, flaw, and unfuckable: forget the “smile”, jeer about the penis — “face”, “penis”. Jessel’s song reduces trans woman from person to “failure, flaw”, a farce of “Murphy’s law” — “P-E-N-I-S, yes!”
Of course the crowd roared for more. NBC were trying to contrive a summer surprise hit of catchy goofiness, like a Gangnam Style but with crotch lyrics for extra giggles. Every word out of Jessel’s mouth is a bigotry-for-bucks gambit, in which trans women are once more being first exposed and then broken as a defective piece of simulation.
Let’s stop to think of Jessel’s refrain for a moment: the trans woman is an unlovable defect, reduced to a joke and broken to preserve the singer’s masculinity. One of Julia Kristeva’s theoretical contributions to feminism was to philosophically unpack not just subject — the site of agency and action — from object, that upon which agency is done and action is taken — with the edition of abject, the defect or unmentionable that is either ignored, excluded, or scarified. Jessel’s song shows the demotion of a trans woman in all three stages: from the love partner of the singer’s ardor, to the object of erotic needs, to abject disgust and rejection when she fails to satisfy or meet those needs. For Kristeva, abjection goes farther than objectification in that the abject is miasma, the unpure, unworthy of either subject or abject positioning in the organizational dynamics of authority and acceptance.
Abjection can say much about how trans-misogyny moves from patriarchal objectification of women’s bodies to the particular psychosis of hatred/rejection directed at trans women as abjected for being “defective simulations”. The trans woman cannot simply be an object in the visual field of male desire; because once disclosure occurs — and Jessel’s song is all about forced disclosure — than the collective disgust mitigated with guffaws in the heady scenario of America’s Got Talent ‘look at me’ virile virtuality.
And hence all of those contrived tropes we know all too well, the discourse of abjectification — trans woman as trap, trans woman as punchline, trans woman as less than woman, trans woman as junk — Jessel’s dick-diddy in which phallus is the supreme signifier of all that is both good and bad in a man’s sexual fantasies. The trans woman is not ontology; but she is de-ontologised: cissexism’s logical system cannot entirely erase her, but it can cordon her off into an exiled metaphysical space of rejection.
Thus, a crucial feature of abjection is ambiguity: the process of rendering transgenderism as something abject and depolitical within the autonomic prejudices of a cissexist society is multifaceted.
Last week a “science” magazine — or shall I say an edutainment magazine, like the “History” channel and Nazi UFO docs — decided that objectifying trans women of colour’s bodies as a front cover. As with Jessel’s song, the women are body-bits displayed according to a cis gaze that only sees trans women as bits, pieces, fragments, aspects, and disposable parts. Also, like Jessel’s song, the disclosure of the trans woman’s status occurs only after the male eroticism has been excited. In this instance, the trans women of colour — voiceless, faceless, and crotch-focussed in the camera — are completely without agency and objected (then abjected) as images. When questioned why one sexualise women in such a way, only to then disclosure their trans status, the editor suggests this was a social experiment: “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out”, tweeted Jim Austen.
Well, we know how they react when they find out.
Atlanta, a city in which several absolutely vicious hate crimes against trans women have transpired this year, recently disturbed even those hardened to trans misogynistic violence. A young trans woman, in a public space, was kicked to the kerb unconscious after being interrogated about her genitals. Warning, this is extremely violent. Now, in terms of prejudice converting object to abject, the violence inflicted upon this girl cannot be separated from the overall psychoanalytic climate that, with fierce and constant reiteration, reduces trans women to the abject status of the ‘broken’, the ‘messed up’, the ‘imperfect’ — and, ultimately, the sacrificeable.
This morning, Michelle Goldberg and the New Yorker give a license to elitist bigotry in which trans women — whom Janice Raymond argued should be morally mandated out of all existence — are the abject problem preventing balance and Goldberg’s silly putty of real women’s realities. I have much more to say about Goldberg’s piece — and I will next week, in a specific essay — but I note for now how the trend continues in reiterating trans women through abjection and indirectness. Goldberg — whose womanhood, heteronormativity, and bourgeois predilections wouldn’t last a minute in the TERFtopia of jumpsuits and little boy haircut gender abolition — can hardly be bothered to interview a single trans woman, aside from tuckaway Serano quotes, who is decidedly not pleased . . . note how Serano’s tiny appearance is immediately followed up by a Jeffrey’s quote misgendering Serano. Very subtle, Ms Goldberg — but more on Goldberg next week. Such is another form of abjective displacement, of simultaneously being textually represented (spoken for), then conveniently objectified (spoken over), and finally abjectified (reduced to an enigma or problem to be assimilated or banished).
One notion of Julia Kristeva’s stands out for me in my assessments — a theoretical framework that enables me to see exactly how a tinfoil tune about women with penises leads to an unconscious body with a cracked open skull — and that is this: trans women are not just abjectified, but routinely sacrificed as the ultimate contractual obligation of social sacrifice. The defect must be destroyed.
In Kristeva psychoanalysis, the collective symbolic order negotiated through cultural formation must ‘decontaminate’ itself and restore its imaginative purity by purging the expendable … like the pottery bowls shattered for the sake of an offering. Trans women’s bodies are abject bodies, flaws to be refused and tossed into the psychic volcano to appease the sun “god” of cissexism. A “safeguard”, as Kristeva says above. The putative quality of sacrifice is essential to the overall project of identification, interrogation, and abjectification: “a vortex of summons and repulsions”, as Kristeva wrote, in which the abject trans woman — amusing but repulsive — gets shunted and spurned off to the liminal spaces of spectrality. The trans woman’s body lurks in abjection, a haunting beside the gender binary whose threat must be rendered mockable on stage, and punishable in the street — the final destination is always the discard pile. Cissexism is an anxiety that wields Old Testament prohibitions against us: the marginalia to the master plot of men’s sexuality and cisgender sanctimony.
The trans woman’s body is allowed visibility only through pain or eroticism.
Postscript: I wrote further about Goldberg here.