The Non-Binary Capacitance
“If only you were a boy, how happy I should be!”
Murasaki Shikibu‘s father lamenting the birth of a female offspring
In Heian-era Japan, and its Buddhist misogyny, the intellectual imagination required a specifically formulated education in order to be considered learned, accomplished, and valid. If the aspirant wished to attain scholarly respectability, then he was required to have a formalized credibility. Of course, the latter could only be obtained through a state controlled conduit of classical Chinese learning as a pedegogical given only to the approved.
Murasaki, although fortunate enough to be among the aristocratic caste that typically received such tutoring, was born with what was then and now concerned a critical birth defect: she was female, not male. According to anecdotal lore surrounding her life, her father exclaimed with exasperation, on seeing a vagina-having baby, that the skin of women would be wasted on too-difficult texts. Thus, to put his above-cited exclamation another way . . . “If only my daughter were born with a penis — how happy I would be!” Her biological sex was instant disqualification from the hierarchies of power.
Repeat: Her biological sex. Not gender identity. Biological sex. And one thousand years ago, the woman who would become the most famous figurehead of a millennium of Japanese literature was not permitted the formal education that predestined students to prominence in the literary arts.
Because of her biological sex. The same reason Malala Yousafza was shot in the head by men for learning the Pashto alphabet in school.
What were Murasaki’s options? Identify as male, as non-binary? Wear men’s attire? Grow a moustache? No. She had to illicitly listen to her brother’s classes in Confucius, eavesdropping on the lessons through paper-screens and lantern-light.
Yet Murasaki prevailed despite patriarchy through sheer force of determination: her 『源氏物語』[Genji monogatari, The Tale of Genji], as was pointed out to me by a Japanese Chaucer scholar, is arguably the world’s first novel — and it was written by a woman. As Brower and Miner assess in An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, the entire Heian-era was a triumph for females in letters: “Is there a parallel period in any other literature, not only of the preeminence of women but of the contribution by women to what is deemed classic in a nation’s heritage?” (97).
Here in Canada where I reside, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) knows just as well that the inhospitable conditions that impaired Murasaki’s development are still functioning as an operation of male domination. Mindful of the dearth of representation of females in every level of textual production, CWILA defines their purpose as one of advocacy and visibility: to promote an “inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives”.
Female perspectives, you say? What exactly would those be?
Well, CWILA did groundbreaking (and disquieting) surveys on how fractured the sexist inequality in Canadian literature had become, despite the gloss of balance that department heads cherish as proof of progress. They dispelled many liberal myths with incontrovertible evidence of absence. With careful precision, they documented all sorts of material discrepancies in the number of reviews written by women, the number of books about women that were reviewed, rates of funding for females, and the institutionalized norms that prioritized male voices for corporate awards and career acceleration.
Likewise, they have stood against the worst of academically enshrined misogyny. David Gilmour (not the guitarist — the rockstar misogynist U of T lit professor) bawdily bellowed to his freshman fans that he only teaches “manly man literature“, because books by females simply weren’t good enough. CWILA were there to offer a response. As Erin Wunker comments, “One of the reasons we at CWILA feel that Gilmour’s remarks have gone viral is that they make explicitly concrete the sexism, racism, and homophobia that exists in otherwise nuanced and abstract ways.” And the industry has taken notice to CWILA’s findings: “If any of us had started to imagine gender gaps in the literary world were closing, a new accounting of reviews in Canadian journals makes for a sobering read.”
Thus knowing CWILA as I do, albeit as an outsider, I am aware of their sincere efforts in combatting the censure and erasure that ubiquitously applies to everything women write, compose, and create. All the art that women produce that goes by unacknowledged and unrecognized. Not because their biology predestines them to frailty and artistic inferiority, but that gender acts as a social system to restrict the validity of their potential agency and epistemology. What is said about their biology (by men), what is done to control their bodies, and not the body itself. This is not essentialism. As Andrea Dworkin notes, “Women are kept from moral agency not by biology, but by a male social system that puts women above or below simple human choice” (Right-Wing Women 207). CWILA champions this restoration of moral agency.
Therefore given that it is Canadian women that the CWILA seeks to promote, I was deeply startled to see the selection of a transgender man as their recently endowed position of critic in residence for CWILA.
For the 2015 year, CWILA has appointed a transman, Dr Lucas Crawford.
CWILA, within its mission statement and pedagogical praxis, recognizes that literature, or what demands to be known as literature, has been the domain of privileged white men, operating along a teleological trajectory of the canon. The classical virtues of “taste” and “decorum” as prejudicial fables of a collectively masculinist opinion-dictatorship. Critic in residence is an intriguing, innovative concept. Dr Laura Moss, my former colleague at UBC and a tireless campaigner for visibility of women in literature, described the purpose of the position this way:
“Women writing in Canada now have access to a $2,000 stipend for critical and community engagement work . . . . When asked what kept them from writing more reviews, many women identified a need for more time to engage publicly. So we created the Critic-in-Residence to buy time for a writer.”
“Buying time,” you say. Female perspectives, you indicate. All right. Ah, but why a transman then? Why someone legibly masculine in pretty much any semiotics of identification that colour-by-numbers gender theorists are busy finger painting? CWILA — why is a dude, dapper and handsome though he may be, fronting as endowed, endorsed, and paid critic for a women’s literary organisation?
These are the questions the transgenderists panic at when one dares ask them.
Now Crawford, an exponent of queer theory, no doubt fervently supports to the letter the shallow queer-credo that “trans women are women”. This is the line of analysis that culminates in this epilogue shut-down: “And you will just shut up about it.” But really, one would then assume that “trans men are men.” Trans men are men. Period! And Crawford has identified as a transman, as evidenced here.
So why is he, a “male”, taking a position away from a woman?
Aren’t transmen — men? I mean, that’s what the sloganeers keep tweeting at me.
This question includes his research, per se. I am certain he is a marvellous scholar, with a surefire paradigm smasher of a prospectus entitled Transgender Architectonics (Ashgate 2015). Gifted with the acumen of winning public funds, he was a previous holder of a six-figure Trudeau fellowship. According to the Foundation’s website, Crawford’s cheques supported him in research: “his work on transgender architecture.”
What exactly is that? I don’t know, to be honest. So I read several of Crawford’s scholarly contributions, where he describes his research space as the “fraught historical relationship between gender and architecture [that] has always been underpinned by a variously elided sense of gender-crossing” (516).
I wonder how rape-crisis shelters fit into the architectonics of trans* permeability.
Is CWILA saying that Lucas Crawford is female (by biological corpus); and so it makes sense she’d be appointed a plum post for a women’s literary society? Unlike me, Crawford was born biologically female: indeed, Crawford knows more about female embodiment than I do as a transwoman! And I would completely support CWILA’s “return to biology” approach in appointing a female-sexed transman as their spokeswoman.
But, as I note, Crawford identifies as male. Since “sex is just a social construct”, as anti-feminist queers keep insisting, then he is maleness, regardless of any other corporeal fact. Therefore, back once again, why is a man awarded a position that could have gone to a woman . . . a woman of colour . . . feck, even a transwoman? Why would a male/man apply for, and accept, a funded position meant to highlight female voices?
Because I’m assuming Crawford would bristle at having the corporeal facticity of female biology being pointed out.
Because gender, not sex.
When I asked Dr Crawford on twitter about this seeming inconsistency in transgenderist rhetoric, he had an interesting feint in response:
The tweet, mysteriously, was deleted within the hour of its posting.
Now this is where identarian politics become absolutely silly: the stupefying semantics of conference cant and tumblr-tossed genderfluid jargon.
For CWILA, he is now the male critical visage of a women’s literary organisation. Upon my asking why he has this position and not a woman (or a transwoman, as I just said), Crawford plays the non-binary gambit. Conveniently so. This seems quite a twitter innovation, really: in the official blurb, there are no references whatsoever to his (their? xir?) “non binary” status. One could not be faulted for a flare up of the cynical: queerness often plays snakes and ladders with us in its slippery language in exchange for material lucre.
But this situation of non-binary as a floating signifier of the chameleon anything has become very familiar to the trans*+ community: Non-binary, the get out of male free card in transgenderist monopoly.
Identity can just pick and choose paratextual revisions to the statement that he (they?) is a transgender man only some of the time: we’re told that preferred pronouns are a matter of life and death — chose the wrong one and an angel loses their wings. Yet, despite such grave risks, identity can also take on the comeuppance of “pick a card any card” to suit any occasion (or grant application). Thus we’ve seen first-hand how “non binary” has become the bane of ‘feminist groups’ across campuses, with males turning up in full macho regalia, but nonetheless don’t feel male, and thus demand inclusion in female only space.
To the point that female has been denuded of all practical, applicable meaning.
But that’s the transgenderist’s strategic objective.
Trans is self-identification. We’re to stop asking about inconsistencies (or else be termed a bigot or a body policier). As for our foremothers’ desperately fought victory for women’s space — well that is so passé. So long as one doesn’t explicitly say they are a man, then they’re not male or men, based on inkling or whim.
Really, I would like to know how @CanWomenInLit define ‘female’ and women’, other than political expedient for grant applications. Canadian Women in Literary Arts includes a “non-binary genderqueer transmasculine person”. Why even be about women at all then? Why someone with all of those adjectives than a woman for a position created to “address the gender gap”? Should the new name be Canadian Non-Men in Literary Arts — inclusivity over coherency or political objectivity?
But we’re forbidden to ask. Queer theory, with dry gin gentility, refers to itself as “modern feminism“. (The blue hair dye and septum nose ring kind: not that persnickety dungarees of yesteryear.) In their view, it seems that the only males are those men who explicitly say out-loud in stentorian forcefulness that they’re male and masculine. Transwomen, transmen, demigirls, non binaries, polygenders, and boiqueers all slide under the newly refurbished rubric of woman. Indeed, to liberal feminism, transwomen and transmen are both female (if the context requires). And it’s only those nasty TERFs (which is a slur) who are beholden to outmoded feminisms that actually address material oppressions of female embodiment. They’re just not fun, not modern, not fashionable . . . not as much fun as that perma-rave called the third wave . . . with its veritable peen-plague of dudes dictating the new feminism with bountiful boners of postmodern punctilio.
I call it queer capitalism — but it’s men’s rights activism with a snazzier name for a game of naked emperors and their thrones: social, cultural, and intellectual capital in academia and beyond. From Pride parades to niche journalism, from ‘inner-femme’ t-shirts to trendy zines-cum-academic journals. The funds are flush, and the liberal left and its senseless good will have proven to be mindlessly indulgent.
Meanwhile, opposing opinions are being ruthlessly stifled. Indeed, far from being a volatile, interdisciplinary field of research, trans* studies have rapidly networked into an insular hive mind, headed by Dr Susan Stryker and the credos of her chorus. Invigorated by GoFundMe incentives and bursaries, the recently launched lollipop ship Transgender Studies Quarterly might have been a vigorous forum for critical debate on emerging issues. Instead, functioning as a creative fiction journal . . . er, “queer trans theory” . . . TSQ prioritizes fashion over feminism. Transtrenderism for fun and profit.
Unsurprisingly, Crawford was a contributor to TSQ‘s flagship issue dedicated to defining “postposttranssexual” and “key concepts for a twenty-first century transgender studies.
Postposttranssexual, you stammer? Here’s a ProTip for non-academics — much as how, in World War I, adding additional wings to triplanes were thought to improve aerodynamics, so queer theory appends as many prefixes as possible in order to make their research appear more cutting edge. Crawford’s “key concept” for the future of trans was perfume. In his view, perfume is an evocative feature of trans identities because of its pherenomic power: “Finally, use fragrance to build a new praxis of connection and memory. Against the binary economy described above” (TSQ 1: 1-2, 151-152).
I have a doctorate in the humanities and I’ll say I haven’t the faintest notion what he means here. One wishes he’d had a go defining non-binary instead, which, incidentally, TSQ did not include in their must-know list of the queer NewSpeak that we’re all being coerced to adopt.
But here’s what they are all saying, what the transgenderists are demanding on threat of accusation of bigotry:
Forget sex. Forget biology.
Forget everything that feminism — from Mary Wollstonecraft to Catharine MacKinnon — has analysed in regards to linguistic ideologies, social castes, and the demotion of the female sex to the ancillary — we need to focus on perfume. It’s all in the smell.
Crawford may have a point about transgender otolaryngology. I was in that hell’s kitchen of academia– and it wasn’t the heat I couldn’t stand. But the stink.
Yet there’s good money in it. Indeed, as Crawford shows, transgenderism is exceedingly lucrative at the minute, especially with the Trudeau Foundation right now. Consider also this men’s rights activist, who was handed a hefty $150,000 award to promulgate this agenda: female inmates shall be forced to share spaces with penises, so long as the penis belongs to a female. Because gender, not sex. (Yes, that’s correct — don’t bother asking how females could have penises; that just makes you a theoretical luddite). For it is written (by men) that any penis that doesn’t “feel” male has the right to be rechristened as female. And as for women (remember them?) . . . particularly those marginalized, incarcerated women who are far more likely to have endured a history of sexual abuse from penises . . . well, if they don’t like the new agenda of male biopolitics, that’s just too bad.
Because that penis identifies as non-binary.
Really. Gender identity is a shell game in which women always lose.
We witness how the non-binary capacitance flip flops in adaptability: it can be charged with and will hold any gender fiction as a null-placemarker to fit all identarian fantasies. I quote this important critique from Dr Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, a very dear friend and one of the few academics remaining to argue for a feminism that is about females (and she catches non-stop abuse for that):
“Again, I am sceptical as to how the case could be made that this is a deeply held and unalterable identity, because any description of one’s non-binary gender identity will inevitably make reference to socially constructed gender roles (and it’s notable that most non-binary males express this by experimenting with feminine clothing and appearance, rather than by an insatiable desire to do the domestic chores typically associated with womanhood).”
As I will continue in exploring in a sequence of essays following this one . . . the unwillingness of transgenderism to listen to both women and transwomen — aside from those who merrily endorse their bizarre doctrines wholesale — indicates how problematic their political movement truly has become.
SEX or GENDER.… PICK ONE.
Update: March 6, 2015. Dr Crawford accepted a poetry prize recently (with a cash prize, natch) identifying as a man. I remain confused as to how she represents the mission of CWILA; however, I do recognise that her mercenary zeal is the sort of identarian potlucking that the literary upper class adores. Queer careerism. Disgraceful hypocrites.
Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas.