michael j. morris

processes of self
17 January, 2015, 9:22 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Several weeks ago, I attended a vigil in memory of Leelah Alcorn, a young trans woman who committed suicide in Ohio at the end of December 2014. The vigil was intended to do lots of things—as vigils usually are—but the intention that resonated most with me was to “show society that one life matters,” precisely when that life and others like her are so often made to not matter and rendered ungrievable in our society. I am grateful to those who organized the vigil and the many, many people who showed up to stand together in the cold, in the dark, to light candles and demonstrate that the suicide of a teenage trans woman in our state deserves our attention.

However, I left the vigil frustrated and conflicted about a lot of the language that was being used to discuss Alcorn, trans lives, and even personhood, as well as many of the narrative assumptions that were embedded in the language. Particularly frustrating to me was the reliance on what I will describe as “cliche,” “slogan,” or “meme” vocabularies for articulating collective outrage and grief—phrases like “not one more” or “she was only seventeen” or “trans lives matter” or even “you matter.” I am convinced that relying on familiar, widely-circulated, recognizable tropes like these has more to do with soliciting emotional response—invoking the collective recurrence and thus immense force of words that we’ve seen other places, in connection to other tragedies and other strong feelings—than actually facing the present situation or carefully articulating productive thinking about what has happened or what we might now do. Defaulting to cliches or slogans or memes or tropes, while charged with emotional force, may in fact be abdicating responsibility to think and speak critically about the circumstances we face, the world in which we are living, that we are making together.

Even more unnerving than the prevalence of these familiar tropes around social activism were the implicit and explicit narratives of “self” that were embedded in many of the comments made by speakers at the vigil. Speakers talked about how Leelah was never allowed to be “who she really was,” never able to share “her true self,” and the need to create a society in which people can be “who they really are.” These stories about “true selves” and “real selves” are familiar language in modern society (for all kinds of reasons that I won’t articulate here), particularly around trans and queer people. This is the “coming out” narrative, the story that we tell in which there is a story that we must tell: the story of who we really are. And in telling who we really are, we might finally be who we “really are.”

I think there’s a danger to these narratives. The words we use and the stories we tell always carry (or create) investments—ideological investments, political investments, personal and social investments, etc. Donna Haraway says, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with … It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” When we tell stories about those who have lived and died, when we narrate our communities and our selves, with tales of selves that are “real” or “true,” I think we install and invest in an impossible ideal: the realization of a self who will finally be complete, recognized as true. The implication here, I think, is that the self is a (relatively) stable entity, a self that you are—perhaps even that you always have been—that is then gradually uncovered, revealed, made visible. The story is that each of us are on a journey of discovering who we “really are” and then sharing that “true self” with others.

I do not believe in this narrative of self.
I am suspicious of any story of the self that implies singularity, stability, self-identicality (not changing over time), or a more robust “reality.” My experience of the self—informed by both my lived experiences and a lot of philosophy that I will not explicate here, but which includes the writing of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and a great deal of psychoanalytic writing—is that the self is always an ongoing process, a creative duration that is always in-the-making, that is never entirely in our control or even within our conscious awareness. There is no single starting point or end point for the self, and no singular self that can be called more “real.” I am afraid that when we express our grief and, worse, our political investments for a better world in this language of a “real” or “true self,” we perpetuate the possibility of suffering, in which teenage girls or anyone else feel as if their “real self” will never be seen or understood, in which what it means to be a person is ascribed a possible conclusion in which the self that is most real is finally disclosed and actualized—a conclusion I am sure that none of us ever fully reach. If it matters what stories we use to tell stories with, as Haraway says, then it makes a difference what kinds of stories we use to narrate our own histories and possibilities of self. I believe the world would be different, for young trans people, for queer people, really for all people, if, rather than continuing to tell stories about a “real” or “true self,” we told stories about our selves (plural) as creative processes, and called for a world not in which people are free to “be who they really are,” but free to create who they are becoming.

And yet, in the wake of these convictions regarding shifting the language with which we articulate our grief and political desires, I am left wondering: what it is we mean by “real” and “true” in relation to the self? If I believe that there is no such entity, at least not in any singularity or persistence, to what then do these terms refer? It seems simple enough to say that by “real self” and “true self,” we are referring to the feeling of a self that is real, or the feeling of a self that is true.
What then is the situation of the self that registers itself as more “real” or “true”? Here I can speak only from personal experience, and from what I’ve deduced from other people’s discussions of their own experiences. I think the feeling of “being true to yourself” or “who you really are” or even “being authentic” is attesting to a sense of cohesion and consistency, a sense of self that is not turned against itself or undercutting itself. A sense of self with higher degrees of unison or resolution between its parts.

When I think back to my adolescent years as a queer kid living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, aware that I had [queer] sexual desires that I could not name or act out, fully devoted to the Christianity I had been taught, and in turn full of sadness, self-loathing, and even rage that what I felt and what I believed seemed positioned in irrevocable conflict: I did not feel like I could be who I “really was.” I felt my self turned against my self, a rupture that was replicated in my surroundings, the difference between who others knew me to be and the inner turmoil which I then experienced as “myself.” I wanted to be “true to who I was,” to share my “authentic self,” I longed to “come out,” to tell someone who I “really was,” because these were the narratives I had available for understanding my closeted queer experience.
But now I think I see that who I was then was no less real; that turmoil and self-loathing and rage and inner conflict was a “true” experience of myself, who I “really was.” There was no other actual self other than that self that I actually was; whatever the virtual potentials for who I might become, that me that I was was the real me.
And yet there came an experience of a self that felt somehow more true, more real, as I began to come to terms with my sexuality, and to share my own perceptions of myself with others. This is an experience that has continued throughout my adult life, in relation to sexuality, gender, beliefs, perspectives, and so on. That feeling that we call “real” or “true” is perhaps more about a sense of cohesion and consistency, where one’s various parts—both personal and social—align with or even support each other, rather than conflict or undermine each other. The more I resolve my various parts, and the more I resolve my perception of myself with my presentation of myself to others, the more self-actualized I feel. What I think I am trying to articulate is that this has not been a process of discovering and uncovering who I “always have been” or a “real me.” I very much was that young Christian kid, that closeted teenager without language or an escape route for my desires or gender dissension, that young gay dancer in Jackson, Mississippi, that queer grad student in Columbus, Ohio, that genderqueer PhD candidate, and so on. All of those selves were fully real, realized, and true; to narrate them otherwise would be to attempt to disavow the past, a past which not only will always be a part of me, but which comprises the foundation of who I have become. To narrate those selves as less “real” would then be actually to maintain a division, an inner conflict—between the “real self I am now” and “the old self who was not really me.”
The more interesting story—the narrative that I would like to perpetuate—is that who I am, my self, has been an ongoing creative process, continuing to craft who I am becoming in relation to who I have been and how I feel about who I am. There is no end point when I will have arrived, finally fully myself. I am already fully myself, and the self is already in motion; it has never not been true, it has always been real.

But that doesn’t seem to fully address the issue of feeling. One’s feeling about oneself. What shapes what does or does not feel resolved or resolvable? What creates frictions between my different parts, and what are the conditions that facilitate those parts coming into alignment, harmony, or degrees of unison and support? I am here thinking particularly of Leelah Alcorn and many other trans lives that are narrated with the language of who a person really is, being in “the wrong body,” or the conflict between one’s body and who they “really are.” I am certain that there are innumerable variations as to how and why a person comes to experience this degree of alienation between various parts of themselves, and I can’t speculate as to that range of possibilities here. What I do feel prepared to write is that I believe that feelings have histories that are personal, material, cultural, chemical, even evolutionary. There is a self who experiences itself through such feelings, and who then continues to create—in ways one does and does not control—the self in relation to those feelings, in relation to that history of how such feelings came to be. Such feelings and such selves are real and true all along the way, and I am extremely cautious of positing a self—presumably immaterial—who somehow precedes the experience of oneself. I am cautious of stories of a “real self” that precedes the experience of the self, to whom one then tries to be “true.” Rather, I am interested in giving people the agency to create a self with whom they can live, as whom they can thrive, addressing the frictions and misalignments and inner conflicts—whatever their histories, wherever they came from—in the formation of who they are becoming. This is true of trans people who adjust their gender presentations and sometimes their bodies to correspond with how they perceive themselves, but this is true of all of us in various degrees and in various ways: we are all in the process of creating bodies and lives that we want to live. I don’t make this generalization to diminish the unique circumstances of trans identity; rather, I do so in order to de-exoticize how it means to be trans, and to contextualize our many, multi-faceted, ongoing processes of creating our selves in relation to being/becoming trans, in order to narrate all of our lives differently.

I’m thinking a lot about how we might insist on including and accepting all of the past versions of ourselves as part of who we are, resisting the inclination to say, “That wasn’t really me,” or, “I wasn’t being true to myself,” and in doing so, editing, omitting, eliding, or disavowing who we have been. I think I will save this for another piece of writing, and for now merely reference both Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” and Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” as influential to my thinking. Stone and Stryker are both trans women and forerunners in the field of Transgender Studies, and both write very critically about the necessity of avowing one’s own history, about the problems with “passing,” and about insisting on more complex and nuanced accounts of the self than can be articulated within existing normative terms.

My last thoughts are about the problems with feelings and their histories. Lately I have been suspicious of “good feelings,” specifically the cultural apparatuses and histories through which we are conditioned to feel good. [I should say: this turn towards being critical of good feelings is not intended to reflect on or address transgender experiences per se. I support people feeling good about who they are and who they are becoming, especially trans people. This is a more general speculation.] This is partially in response to the vigil for Leelah Alcorn and partially in reflection of the good feelings that we recognize as a self that is resolved, without internal conflict, consistent and cohesive—in reflection on why which versions of oneself feel the ways they do.

At the vigil for Alcorn, I was really frustrated by the number of times people speaking to those gathered described what we were doing as something that “feels good.” “It feels good to do something,” “it feels so good to see so many of you here,” “don’t you feel better being out here together?” and so on. I did not feel better, and I was not attending a vigil to make myself feel better. In fact, I want to question both the desire to feel better and the good feelings we get from those kinds of actions. [I’m thinking here of both Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism here.] Might there be something insidious about pursuing public grieving as a mechanism for pleasuring oneself? In what are we investing ourselves and our feelings in order for a vigil for a trans woman who committed suicide to be a way to “make ourselves feel better”? How did this become about making ourselves feel better? To be clear, I’m not saying that we should throw ourselves into a pit of despair or lose ourselves in our grief, and I do think that finding ways to celebrate in grief is how we continue to go on living; however, I am asking that we be more critical of what “feels good” and why and how we are engineering those good feelings.

More broadly, I am interested in being more critical of how or why certain things “feel good,” or feel bad, and how we allow such feelings to shape our actions and our selves.
For instance, I might feel good when I look in the mirror and see myself as “skinnier than usual.” However, this is a “good feeling” that comes from a complex cultural apparatus that has conditioned me to believe that skinnier people are more beautiful, more valuable, and more lovable. For me to then act on this “good feeling,” to pursue it or shape myself in relation to it, will ultimately not only result in my own detriment, but will participate in the reproduction of this cultural apparatus that values bodies differentially based on size.
Similarly, there was a time—given the pervasive systemic racism in our country and the ways in which I had been conditioned by it—that I would have been uncomfortable in a context that was not predominantly populated by white people. If we recognize discomfort as a “bad feeling,” and if the version of self-actualization that I narrated above involves the resolution of different parts of oneself in ways that reduce friction and inner conflict, then the lesson of these “bad feelings” could have been, “I don’t like being a racial minority, I like being in the company of mostly white people; it’s just who I am.” However, in this case, the “bad feelings”—so obviously a result of racist socio-cultural conditioning—were actually an opportunity to stay with discomfort, to pursue settings in which I experienced more of these “bad feelings,” in order to un-learn the implicit racism by which they were being produced.

In the ongoing creative process of the self, we must remain critical of how and why we feel “good” or “bad.” Our feelings are not always transparent or forthcoming about their origins; we do not always know why we feel what we feel. Within that ambiguity, it is important to remember: “good feelings” are not automatically pathways to a more actualized, consistent, cohesive self, and “bad feelings” are not always a threat to becoming “who we really are.” As I reconsider these familiar terms of “real” or “true” as particular constellations of feelings in relation to the various parts of oneself-in-the-making, I need to also advocate for critical interrogation of why things feel the way they do: if something has felt true, why? What is the history, the culture, or the background of that feeling? If something feels good, are these social mechanisms that reward me for feeling that way, and are those mechanisms that I want to be a part of? If something feels bad, is it because I am accustomed to particular norms, and I am experiencing something outside of that normative comfort zone? Most importantly, is it possible that feeling the way I do plays into the reproduction of a culture that devalues, oppresses, or erases others, and how might I interrogate those feelings and the apparatuses in which they are complicit?
We may not be able to control or change what we feel, but I am convinced that risking critical consideration of ones own feelings is one way to give oneself the opportunity to learn to feel differently, particularly when those feelings are at their roots invested in systems that enforce the suffering of oneself or others.

This is by no means an exhaustive examination of “the self,” but it is the start of several ideas that have been simmering for a few weeks.


courageous appearance

I sat down this afternoon at the local cafe and started to write about gratitude, specifically gratitude for the array of public figures that bring diversity to the public sphere, specifically folks who identify their genders in ways that do not conform neatly—or at all—to clear, discrete binaries of masculine/feminine or male/female. I am grateful for so many folks: musical performers like Justin Vivian Bond and Antony Hegarty, porn performers like Jiz Lee, Drew Deveaux, James Darling and a whole community of queer/trans/genderqueer porn performers who I admire, burlesque performers like Eileen Galvin, scholars like Eva Hayward and Susan Stryker and the whole trans studies initiative at Arizona State, people like Jack Halberstam, public figures like Kate Bornstein, Carmen Carerra, and Laverne Cox. People in academia and different modes of public performance who are actively reshaping how we see and think about gender and sex.

And then my thoughts on gratitude drifted, and I found myself scribbling out thoughts on appearance, recognition, vulnerability, and courage. It is not a formal essay, but the start of some thoughts. Not the start, actually, because this thinking follows closely so much that I’ve learned from Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, Bobby Noble, Shine Louise Houston, and Brené Brown, among others. I won’t be offering formal citations in these scribbled thought, but they are certainly indebted, built with and from the work that each of these people have done:

The space of appearance is fundamentally a social space: to appear is to appear for someone or someones, to be made available for others, with others, and to be apprehended within that availability. Society and social norms then come to condition that space of appearance, structuring how it is that bodies and people can appear, can be made to appear, can be made not to appear, can be made to disappear. To appear in ways that do not conform to such such—or refuse to conform to such norms—is to insist on a different social space, a different society that depends/relies upon different structures of visibility and recognition. Dissident appearances or appearances that dissent from the dominant norms exert force on such norms to adjust, adapt, and make space for appearing otherwise; for such norms to make space, the society that enacts—or is enacted by—such norms must become otherwise as well.

Of course, it is possible that such insistence will be intolerable, will not be tolerated, and will be punished or eliminated in order to maintain the existing norms that regulate who can be visible, who can appear, who can be recognized, and how. This maintenance can take any number of forms: subtle social pressures and insidious coercions, self-policing that takes the place of the policing of behavior that we have experienced or that we have witnessed, a look or posture from an other that registers one’s unintelligibility—a stare that communicates that you are seen and apprehended as incoherent, or even unapprehendable because of one’s incoherence; it can take the form of harassment or threats of violence; it is possible that one’s appearance will render one invisible, a kind of invisibility that accumulates in a space from which people avert their eyes, away from which people turn.

To not appear in ways that align with the norms that condition and regulate the social space of appearance—norms organized according to sex, gender, race, ability, and any number of other dimensions, indeed, norms of appearance that in part shape what is understood as sex, as gender, as race, as an able or disabled body—is always a risk. It is to risk invisibility, incoherence, discrimination, harassment, and violence; it is to risk the compromised sense of self that can result from any encounter with another in which the self that one appears to be is reflected back to that self as invisible, incoherent, or the cause for discrimination, harassment, and violence. And to not appear in ways that align with such conditioning norms must not be figured as always a choice, as if those who do not appear or appear incoherently, or whose appearance results in harassment or violence, could be said to have chosen such an existence, or to have chosen otherwise, as if such person could have chosen to conform to the social expectations for appearance. This is not, or even often, the case.

And yet, whether dissident appearance is or is not chosen, it is courageous. It is courageous because it is a risk, and the stakes of the risk are certain unavoidable vulnerability that make up what it is to be embodied with-and-in a world of others. To be is to be among others, and to be among others it to be physically exposed to them, to their words, to their gaze, to their touch, whether their words or looks or touches are caring or abusive. We are all [and here “we” and “all” are not only human] exposed to one another in any number of ways, and that exposure constitutes both the risk and the requirement of social existence. It is because of our shared vulnerabilities that we are already given over to one another; we require one another’s care, one another’s protection, one another’s assistance, one another’s nonviolence. Butler writes that we are already obligated to nonviolent coexistence because of this pervasive exposure and shared vulnerability. And all that we require from one another depends first on our having been recognized by an other.

When recognition requires appearance, and when appearance is regulated by exclusionary norms such that it becomes possible to not appear or to appear in such a way that renders one unrecognizable, or to appear as such an aberration of the norms of appearance that one is made into a target of violence, appearance then carries the risk of misrecognition or not being recognized or recognizable, making appearance a question of survival and livability.

These are common vulnerabilities, the risks that accompany appearance and recognition for everyone. But these vulnerabilities are taken for granted, overlooked, or even repressed when appearance closely approximates the normative expectations that enable and constrain recognizability. When society appears in ways that are homogenous and consistent, when those who appear maintain the effect of norms as natural, the stakes or cost of appearance are less apparent. When how one appears is how one must appear in order to be recognizable, the risk/cost of appearing otherwise cannot be obvious.

Thus, to appear in ways that resist or do not align with such norms is not courageous only because to do so exposes one to vulnerabilities; rather it is courageous because it exposes those vulnerabilities that might otherwise remain unappreciable, precisely when doing so also risks some degree of duress or suffering.

And: such appearances are also courageous because in the face of this all, they insist on the possibility—and livability—of such appearances. They insist on a society or social existence in which it is possible to appear and to be recognized in ways that exceed the available norms—of sex, gender, race, or ability. If such appearances or recognitions are to become possible, intelligible, even in their incoherence, it will be only because of the pressures exerted on the norms of appearance by those who appear otherwise, who courageously insist on public visibility.

Today I am grateful for the world that is given to me by those who insist on appearing otherwise.

Afterthought: Although dissident appearance is not always a choice, it can be a choice, a courageous choice, to appear otherwise. To produce more incoherence within available norms. To dress or present oneself in ways that do not confirm the expectations of one’s given sex or gender, to explore more diverse performances of self, more unexpected styles of movement and behaviors, to try out fashions or looks that introduce more diversity into the social space of appearance. To wear things that other than how they were intended to be worn. To wear clothes made by designers who are pursuing design into unexpected places, designs that reshape how we look at bodies, that reveal bodies differently. To make choices about one’s appearance—hair, make-up, no make-up, shaving, not shaving, tattoos, piercings, other surgical interventions, how you carry yourself, how you take up space—in ways that are intentional, thoughtful, and resistant to what you feel like you should do. I am not saying that these strategies alone are what makes or unmakes bodies, sexes, genders, races, etc., but I am suggesting that the more difference that we introduce to the social space of appearance, the more difference that social space will be expected to absorb and make space for. These are small activisms that are available to all of us, in our presentation of self, our production of self, and our production of the shared spaces in which we live.