michael j. morris

trans day of remembrance and other reflections

I am attempting to collect my thoughts on this week, and my thoughts seem to be resisting collection. I’m thinking about the vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance last night at King Avenue United Methodist Church. I’m thinking about my students and our discussion yesterday about gender as a performance that is performative. I’m thinking about a storytelling event in which I participated Wednesday night; I shared a piece of writing about my own gender and listened to the stories of a group of other people, all discussing their experiences with gender. I’m thinking about Beauties, a book of drawings by Micah Jones published by GODDESS Press, with a dazzling foreword Mehron Abdollmohammadi. I am thinking about grief and rage—and by saying that I am “thinking about” all of these things, of course I also mean feeling them.

At Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event, the theme is “Gender Inflexibility,” and anyone who wants to tell a story puts their name on a slip of paper in a fishbowl. Harry draws the first name and it’s mine. I tell my story, and I realize that I don’t usually stand in front of a room full of people talking about myself. I teach, I present my research at conferences—once I gave a presentation about being a conjoined twin at a queer studies conference, but that was an exceptional moment of self-disclosure. I perform, I dance, I get naked on stage. But this feels vulnerable: talking about myself, my experiences of gender, in front of many people I don’t even know, and quite a few I do. I hardly look up from the page. I talk about playing dress-up with my grandmother’s clothes growing up, coming out to my parents and my mother calling me “gender confused,” spaces in which I have felt invisible and spaces in which I have felt recognized. I talk about love and relationships and fucking. I talk about Judith Butler.
I say that biological sex is itself an effect of gender.
I say that I worry that no one will be proud to be with me, that dissenting from the gender binary makes me unlovable and undesirable.
I say that sometimes where you feel the most loved becomes the place where you face the most jeopardy.
I say that maybe my body doesn’t mean what you think it means.
I listen to story after story; some make me smile, and during others I feel rage curling in my fingers. Almost every single person talks about religion. Sexuality and relationships and love come up in almost every story. It seems that all of us are describing processes, journeys, migrations of gender and bodies and feelings and perceptions, no fixed points. I feel very honored to share this space and to hear these stories.

Once a semester in the writing course I teach, I have a class meeting specifically focused on gender. Gender is part of our conversations throughout the semester, but on this day we watch Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures and read David Gere’s “29 Effeminate Gestures: Choreographer Joe Goode and the Heroism of Effeminacy.” I ask questions, offer provocations, but mostly let the students’ comments and contributions direct the flow of the conversation. There’s never enough time during this class meeting. Yesterday, the students talk about what it means for Gere to suggest that gender is a choreography: it is stylized, it is repeated and repeatable, it is received from elsewhere, it is about bodies. They talk about hierarchies and the unequal distribution of power. They talk about how threatening it is for men to wear women’s clothing when it’s “cute” or “fashionable” for a girl to wear her boyfriend’s clothes (and I note that we’re somehow talking about “men” and “girls,” and how curious that discrepancy is, not to mention how heterosexuality has worked its way into the conversation by way of the “boyfriend”). We talk about the fear that we might fail at performing our genders correctly, an anxiety that we all have or have had, and that if gender is something that we can fail, then it isn’t automatic, intrinsic, or natural, and that all of us—even my twenty-four self-identified cis-gendered undergraduate students—live with-and-in-and-as a system under duress. We all face the threat of failure. I ask what is at stake; what are we afraid will happen if we fail? The students talk about rejection—social, romantic, sexual; they talk about risks of unemployment; they talk about the threat of feeling called into question, unrecognizable to oneself; they talk about bullying and harassment; they talk about threats of violence, abuse, and murder. I remind them that today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, that while we all live under this threat, that there are people who suffer more exposure to violence. I remind us that this has always been a question of life and death.

I’m sitting in a pew in a church for the vigil, and I am deeply uncomfortable. I don’t go to churches; I have a long, complicated, abusive history with churches, from childhood through college, and when I sit in a pew with a giant cross hanging above a stage and hymnals and bibles level with my knees on the back of the pew in front of me, that history becomes more present and potent. And yet this feels transgressive: this bold church is hosting a vigil for transgender people who have suffered violence, some who have survived and many others who have not, and so my abusive history with churches and the function of this event stand for me in radical juxtaposition.
The service is difficult for all kinds of reasons. It is both difficult and necessary to sit and listen to the reading of names, how old these people were, how they were murdered, and where they died. It is a violent litany for an ugly world. I feel sorrow and rage that this continues to be the world that we are living, in which people are murdered because they fail to conform to or approximate gender categories, in which gender polices life and death, propelling some people to kill and others to be killable. I am grateful to be sitting with Eileen and Noah and S. And I’m critical: why are vivid descriptions of violent murders more important for me to know than anything else beyond a name, age, and country? While we remember and commemorate, why do these violent acts receive more of our words and attention than anything these people did or gave to our world? Most of the names are trans women. Four were in Ohio; a staggering majority were in Brazil. What the fuck is happening in Brazil? Why aren’t we talking about this?
I take a deep breath and return to grief and rage and gratitude: I am grateful for this vigil, for the communal act of public memory, for creating a space to sit and recognize and feel together, and I decide that this event is doing something important even if there are other important things to be done.
As the crowd files past the table set up at the front of the sanctuary to light candles in remembrance, I am struck by what a beautiful crowd this is. There is so much difference here, different ages, different skin colors, more gender expressions than I can count, and I start to tear up because I think: the world could look like this. It doesn’t, but here we are and here, in this moment and place, it does. Whatever else this vigil is doing, it is also an opportunity to practice this kind of community, this kind of society, embracing this swell of difference. Trans people and genderqueer people and gender-non-conforming people and people who look very much like women and other who look very much like men and older people and younger people and people of many different colors: most meaningful to me is being able to sit here, a part of this, and see this glimpse of this world.

GODDESS Press recently published a small book of drawings by Micah Jones entitled Beauties, with a foreword by Mehron Abdollmohammadi.
Every time I type “foreword,” I almost type “forward,” and Mehron’s text is both forward and backward, twisting to the side, bending over, and standing tall.
Writing with Narcissus and tarot and Jones’ drawing, Mehron’s text is both poetic and critical. It makes a splash, an exuberant cascade of sparkling droplets, each one a tiny curving mirror, each line glittering like a search light, somehow suspended in midair: where they will land and what they will show us when they do has not yet been determined.
I keep thinking about terms that Mehron introduces:
“Generous narcissism as I’ve terms it is a practice of mutual and excessive attention that worries the very notion of excess: an emotional carry, a carrying community. Extra, but never enough. Generous narcissism is what happens when Narcissus, reaching out to touch his image, soft and impossible, feels something, someone, touching back. Generous narcissism is what happens when one insists on finding substance in what we’re told is only shadow … Generous narcissism is a resistance to scrutiny, a reorientation of obsessive attention, from the Other that would threaten the full expression of one’s intuitive self, to the self toward the Self.”
“Intuitive self: she may not even be here now, but she is me and that is all you need to know. This is very important.”
“Backlove: the love I have for what you see of me, for what of me there is in you. ‘Me, in you, in me.’”

“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a deformative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion, that something that takes hold of you and makes you stops and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motion, when we lose certain people or we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties we have to others that shows us that we are bound to one another and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed.
“If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here and you over there, but the ‘I’ was in the crossing, there with ‘you’ but also here. So, I was already decentered, one might say, and that was precious, and yet, when we lose, we lose our ground. We are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific ‘you’ that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not as it were lost the place of the ‘you,’ the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in the scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability. This apostrophic ‘you’ might be this you or that other one with another name, but maybe also some you I do not yet know at all, maybe even vast set of you’s largely nameless, who nevertheless support both my gravity and my motion. And without you—that indefinite, promiscuous and expansive pronoun—we are wrecked and we fall.
“If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds—even the wretched ones—which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose … we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction. The lived form of its affirmation is nonviolence. Perhaps nonviolence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief, since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up with others such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss, and yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition for showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”
Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief”

“You know, in Judaism, there is this prayer, the Kaddish, which is said over the dead, and it’s actually an interesting prayer. It’s partly Aramaic, partly Hebrew…and I always thought that the Kaddish is the moment at which you remember the person who is gone, or you focus on who that person was to you, and you recover what that bond was. But actually, what the Kaddish does is celebrate—praise—celebrate and affirm the world. And I thought, ‘Well, why is that the mourner’s prayer?’ And it is the mourner’s prayer because there is an understanding that radical loss can take us with it. Right? So that the most important thing you can do for the person who is in grief is to affirm the world with them. And it’s a collective prayer. And the point is to sew the person back into community, to relationality, and affirmation. Now, it’s part of grieving, that affirmation, and that collectivity.”
-Judith Butler, “On This Occasion,” response to an audience question



Monster Partitur and Memory

I have had an overwhelming day, following an already overwhelming week. Today we began work at the Wexner on the sculptures and drawings that will serve as the score for William Forsythe’s “Monster Partitur” that will be presented at the Wexner in April. I don’t know everyone else’s experience with this process, but it has brought me into a deeply contemplative, introspective, internal place. And yet I also feel like my thoughts are drowning in one another, in need of some sort of organization. That is what I will attempt to do here.

I think my foremost awareness after today is how much choice and arbitration is a part of art making, living, recording, memory, etc. This process of constructing sculptures from cardboard “human skeleton” kits was an elaborate exercise in choice making. These choices were a negotiation of personal aesthetics, group collaboration, restrictions that had been put on the choice making (such as each piece needs to become three-dimensional, but can only be folded along the originally implied ‘fold lines’), informed by gravity and the shadows cast by the sculptures, with the foreknowledge that the primary purpose of these constructions is to serve as shadow casters, shadows that will then be traced and serve as the “score” for the dance. In each moment we were asked to make a decision: how to fold the cardboard units, how to assemble them, how to suspend them in order to cast light through them, how to orient them in the light, which shadows to privilege in the drawing, etc. I became keenly aware of the infinite field of potentialities within every moment, and I felt a bit overwhelmed by that awareness, and by my mantra, that to do any thing is to do so to the exclusion of all else in that moment. That can be sometimes too heavy, and starts raising questions concerning the importance (or lack there of) of every moment. More on that later perhaps . . .

My second large existential issue in today’s experience concerns . . . what remains of something that is impermanent. What is left behind, and in what form. Such as these shadows that are in themselves impermanent traces of these sculptural forms, traces that vanish as soon as the light changes. I began to think of what remains of the impermanent, primarily in the form of memory or representation. I am very aware that the medium in which I operate (dance) is extremely transitory in both time and space. It exists only briefly and then is gone. Part of the research that Forsythe is doing with OSU on the “Synchronous Objects” project is how those impermanent experiences leave traces that are then translated into other remaining forms. I’ve done some work cataloguing images of “movement traces” of my own work, in an attempt to see what occurs over time, what is energetically ‘left behind.’ There is a sense in which I have made my peace with this transitory nature of dance, with the consolation that it continues in a new form, the form of memory, within the bodies of the dancers, and within the cognitive memory of both the dancers and the viewers. Today this came into question . . . as I drew the shadows of these sculptures, the question of accuracy came to mind. I was companioned by the awareness that the marks I was making were the only record of that moment, that shadow, that impermanent situation and its orientation, and with that awareness came an incredible concern that what I leave behind was as accurate as possible. I recognize that the subject of accuracy itself is complex. What is the most accurate, the most correct? All knowledge of a thing is filtered through subjective experience, and so my drawings, reacting to these shadows, are obviously “accurate” to my experience within each moment. But what of the thing itself, the inaccessible objective sculpture, the shadow it casts? It seems a bit insignificant, the accuracy of a shadow, but the pressure is a familiar one. It occurs in the performance of choreography, attempting to honor the original intentions of the choreographer as accurately as possible. It occurs in the record of history, attempting to leave behind precisely that which occurred, as objectively as possible. It occurred today with the memory of the dead.

Here is where today’s experience became incredibly personal and emotional. I was very aware of the fact that this piece, “Monster Partitur,” exists in response to the death of Forsythe’s wife to cancer, and his grief surrounding the experience of losing her. I made a choice to hold that awareness in mind as I made these sculptures and tracings, recognizing and referencing the origin of what it was I was doing, and allowing it to become personal. I began to think of my grandmother, Marion Dorice Rogers. She died of cancer in January 2006. My brother and I spoke just yesterday about the length of time in which we grieve/mourn. It is long, and various in its approaches and expressions. Today became a part of my grieving, allowing these drawings to not only be tracing shadows, but an act of grief, allowing that grief to inform the way in which I was drawing, and offering that experience to this larger work. I began to think further about memory and accuracy and that which is left behind, that which we record. And I began to become anxious, that my memory is too imperfect, that already, only three years later, things are missing. The lines are less clear than they were in life. The traces of the impermanent are so much less accurate than the life that was lived.
There are other traces, the unconscious traces that live on in me, the way I do things or think of things that are a direct result of the life of my grandmother. But it is the conscious trace that troubles me, the one for which I feel responsibility and inadequacy and loss.  

This sense of responsibility segued into a speculation concerning the way in which we know a person or a thing. I watched as we cast light on the sculpture from one direction and traced its shadow, made a record of it, then cast a different light from a different direction, leaving behind an entirely different shadow. The traces we left are a negotiation of these two shadows, and neither are the thing itself. This makes me think of the removal of experience, the relationship of the subjective to the objective (hint: this is the subject of my piece “About” which some of you may have seen this week). It also made me aware of the arbitrary nature of memory and record, how in remembering, we are selecting what to remember (consciously or unconsciously), and there is the inevitable omission. Just as in knowing a person, we only ever know them in parts, in certain ways, in specific situations; who we think of when we think of that person is a construction/negotiation of these (sometimes conflicting, sometimes intersecting) perspectives. For a little more existential anxiety, this is not only the way in which we know, but it is also the way in which we are known.

Finally (and this hardly concludes all that I have dwelt upon today, just the major themes), I began to question the density of experience. It should come as no shock to those who know me or my work that I appreciate, almost more than anything, taking time with a thing. Thus slow movement. Thus long rehearsal processes and conversations. It is an effort to fully understand (which is an impossible ideal that I find to be worth reaching towards) or fully appreciate (which we so rarely do). I spend time with a thing, with a dance, with a person, with myself, in order to recognize and appreciate the nuance, the complexity, the uniqueness, and here discover true beauty. This was extremely important at the beginning of the day today. But I confess, as the day wore on, the uniqueness of each line, of each shadow, of each moment, became less important, less rare in a field of the similar. And yet it was still full of its own uniqueness and nuance . . . but in the dense experience of these moments, these lines, these shadows, the distinction became less clear, lost in the speed at which we were moving and the amount of experiences. I have to say I regret that. I regret even more that life can become that way as well.


That’s all the decompression for which I have time. Last performance of “This Season” tonight at Sullivant Hall Theatre at 8pm. I hope you can make it.


I just wanted to offer a few images from our process to hopefully illuminate what I am sure seems a little esoteric. These photos are courtesy of Lindsay: