Week 6B--Talking with Susan Stryker

Anne Dalke's picture
Susan Stryker will join us for class this Thursday. In preparation, please read an interview, her piece on "Queer Theory's Evil Twin," and her "Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix". Then post here, before coming to class, the questions and responses you hope to discuss further.
One Student's picture

Stryker: Class Notes

Extremely late, for which I apologize. Stryker's visit to class was a catalyst for my coming out to myself and others as genderqueer, and after doing a great deal of reading on trans issues, and having her speak in two of my classes for a total of four and a half hours over the course of two days, and after thinking about myself a tremendous amount, I was left not wanting to think or say anything on the subject for a little while. And the longer things get put off, the harder it gets to get around to actually doing them. But I've benefited from looking over these notes several weeks later (esp what she had to say about the violence of gendering, but the inevitability of that violence).

Without further ado:

On writing in a personal voice:

-an autoethnographic voice: it’s not important just because it happened to me; writing personally about the terrain one is traveling through, what made you what you are

 

Nature: a story we tell about the material world; “I don’t believe in nature”, by which she means that she doesn’t believe in the inescapability of material life as a justification for the status quo (nature as a justificatory story)

-monster: what we get if someone says I’m unnatural

 

-spoke about the history of trans activism; in the early 90’s Stryker and others broke into the academic discourse

 

Transgender Rage:

-second-wave feminism about transgenderism was pathologizing, demonizing

-Stryker sees her Frankenstein piece as writing back against the trans-as-monster position, the monster talks back

-it’s a transformative thing: take what you’re given, turn it around, and send it back; take your position in the world (even if it’s a negative one) as a resource; use the energy of your enemies against them, direct it back toward them, rather than letting negative energy “destroy me”

-the rage is rage directed at me, it’s not my rage; “be water, man”; she said that she hates conflict, has to resolve it

 

-the unlivability of absence of gender, of the mark

-we’re gendered in every interaction, we gender and are gendered; there is no it position but “I think that can change”

-society always puts a container around the individual; trans means falling out of the container, and thus failure to recognize personhood because gender is such a major container; one has no social personhood if one’s gender is not intelligible

-gender is utilized through the body, but it’s a construction because bodies are diverse and gender concepts are diverse

-engendering violence constitutes subjectivity

-Stryker doesn’t expect a utopia of non-marking, but hopes that how one is marked shouldn’t matter in how one is a citizen; ideally; egalitarianism in difference

-there’s a major shift going on, more room in the genderqueer space is appearing; she would be less abject if she wrote the Frankenstein piece now

 

I asked in what sense she had used the word VIOLENCE earlier:

-words as acts of violence, speech acts have injurious consequences
-it feels violent to her when someone deliberately misgenders her: linguistic violence: you’re not who you say you are

-it’s a question of who’s reality is realer

-rituals of cutting the body enact engendering violence here and now, but it’s hidden away, much as birth and death are hidden away, kept private

-but utopia would not omit the violence of marking; instead, the boundaries would be horizontal rather than vertical

-we’re all cut people, cut apart from the world; “I’d rather be cut than be Borg”

-but there’s violence in the cut, an inescapable violence

-and once cut off from the world, we have to trans, we have to connect to the world again

 

Prof. Dalk asked what genre Stryker would write in now:

-in 1993, she wrote in the Gothic genre; a move that was about punching through, breaking into the discourse, a place in the language game, a place to speak from, to retraumatize those who want to see trans individuals as monsters

-“geographic circulation is part of how I think”; continually discentered, the more different encounters she experiences the more she recognizes her own particularities, which provides a humbling education.

-the bodily practice of travel to generate knowledge

-interest in dance, choreography

-it’s not about thinking, but about awareness; phenomenological philosophy

 

“If you can’t be at peace where you are, move.”

“If it hurts, don’t do it. Your body is telling you something.”

 

-the sublime* and the monstrous both take you outside yourself, undoes your self; like being a monster

*Burke on the sublime: sublime is terror at a distance, but not too far; it’s like fire [I thought of the scene in The Persian Boy where Alexander the Great describes how he watched the palace at Persepolis burning, how it was glorious from a safe distance away; he said that he understood why the Persians worshipped fire …]

-you need to zoom in and zoom out; Stryker might have an initial strong reaction, and then back up to an analytical distance

 

“I allow myself to be witnessed”

-she already has a sense of being exposed, stripped before people; publicly eviscerated

-if you’re not ok with your self, don’t do it (if it hurts, don’t do it)

-you will be misunderstood

-some people understand, it’s important to have that community, to be able to preach to the choir sometimes, a more gentle engagement

-but sometimes you enter the lion’s den; she described talking on a call-in right wing fundamentalist radio talk show: “I talk to people I would never have otherwise”

-one woman talked about how she had to have a hysterectomy and can’t have children, that it effect her sense of womanhood, and Stryker said “I feel you”

-a man said that he thinks gender is a social construct, and that is sneeds to be constructed properly (driving home from a Promise Keepers meeting; a Christian men’s group)

llauher's picture

To respond to a few things...

To begin, Stryker's texts and presence in class were really awe-inspiring. While her articles were by far my favourite readings of this semester, I had no idea what to espect of her in person. I had the opportunity to meet her on Wednesday, when she visited Bethany Schneider and Christina Beltran's Intersdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality course (which I am in), as well as Sharon Ullman's History of Sexuality course. After this class I was able to spend some time speaking to Dr. Stryker with a smaller group of students, Alexander included. So, entering class today, I was already in awe of her presence in class and excited to see what she had to say. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

For me, one of the strongest points that Stryker makes in her essay on Frankenstein is her communication of transsexual rage. I respond well to raw emotion, especially in the context of an identity that I understand on a fairly intimate level. Stryker has a fantastic style of hiding theory in personal testimony, much like one hides medication in pudding or chocolate sauce for a hesitant invalid. This is the way in which I find I absorb theory to its fullest extent; when I find myself surprised by its presence in the text.

Additionally, to respectfully respond to YJ's post; as a member of this course, it is impossible for Stryker to have been the first transgender person you've met. There are (at least) two members of this course who also identify as transgender. :)

YJ's picture

A Reaction to Stryker

I thought Susan Stryker was a great speaker who made some really amazing points but in such a simple way. She also made me think very deeply about the sorts of issues she's had to intimately deal with for a very long time.

All during class I felt pretty guilty, especially after she began talking about everyone's need to gender (or misgender) her because I too felt the urge to box her into some "knowable" category. It made me feel terrible to realize just how tied I am to these social constructs, this gender binary. As much as I would like to consider myself this liberal feminist, I still can't seem to ever step away from those social norms pertaining to gender and sexuality, not even for a moment. Since Stryker is actually the first transgendered person I've ever met, it was the first time I think I really felt how powerful I've been socialized to perceive others in a certain way.

Not to say that Stryker is now my representative for all transgendered people, certainly not, but rather I've never felt so personally and insistently the urge to label someone. I definitely felt and still feel like I was one of the people she was describing in class today-someone who can't simply accept the label "transgender" as the category but wants to stick her into that gender binary, make her fit somehow. And it made me feel terrible. But I think it really pushed me to question my deep-seated assumptions, always an ongoing process, which is definitely valuable in and of itself.

Pemwrez2009's picture

trannnnnyyyy

Dear YJ,

Is Susan Stryker the only openly transgender individual you have met because she has gone through a physical transformation? I am not sure if you know about the difference between transsexual and transgender, but maybe you meant transsexual.

I have been openly identified as transgender since the beginning of class. Students, as well as Anne have been refering to me as Alexander since day one. Not that I seek special attention, but it was hard for me to read your post as it takes courage to come out as trans, and I felt maybe shamed, or forgotten, or maybe you didn't know, which is fair. Gender presentation often dictates a lot about a person's identity, however, we are too often limited by the confines of our bodies. At least, that's how I feel. I still have breasts, hopefully they will be gone in February. My body is deceiving, my lack of facial hair is deceiving.

 

I went to Smith college on tour with the Night Owls, I asked one of the students if they could point me in the direction of the restroom. That student asked me if there was any gender specific restroom I was looking for. The point of my anecdote is that Smith College is going to graduate 2500 students who will ask that question. Gender is not something that should be assumed, especially at women's colleges.

 

thanks for listening

-alexander

YJ's picture

To Clarify

I hope my post didn't offend anyone. I think I should clarify that Susan Stryker is the first transgendered person I've met who is openly transgender; I was not aware that there were 2 people in our class who also identified themselves as transgendered.
Anne Dalke's picture

awareness/attentiveness

Something for all of us to think about together: what are the "marks of gender" (Susan Stryker's phrase) that each of us looks for, that each of us "reads," as we encounter one another? How do we recognize gender? What clues are we given to read against our expectations, and how attentive are we to those markers? How important is it, that we attend to one another in this way?
smigliori's picture

Finally.

Firstly, I would like to sympathize with Alexander's frustration after leaving class on Tuesday. I, too, find it frustrating that in a class with so much potential to deviate from the norm, in the study of a discipline which leans more and more to deviation from the constrictions of heteronormative, patriarchal society, we end up having a class syllabus that looks pretty much like every other class syllabus. Perhaps this is part of my frustration with the lack of a seperate department for Gender/Sexuality studies, but I grow frustrated with reading the same things over and over again in almost every class I take, and the implications (clear through the lack of readings that respond to it) that nothing has happened since Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. (While I realize that Stryker directly engages Butler, she wasn't on the original syllabus, and if she hadn't already been coming to campus, probably still wouldn't be.) I feel a little like Sisyphus, finally having pushed my boulder to the top of the hill only to discover that it rolls back down and I have to start pushing the same boulder back up again.

Since we are, however, limiting ourselves to the same processes all over again, I would like to take a brief moment to suggest Marilyn Hacker's poetry for consideration. Preferably something newer, like a poem from Desesperanto (I have a strong fondness for her Embittered Elegy, which, in the wake of reading Brook's The Mother, should raise interesting discussion in the class). I feel her reclaiming of the sonnet makes her a very good candidate, especially when placed against the works of people like Plath or Rich.

 

But I've digressed far too much. I, like everyone else seems to have, throughly enjoyed the readings for today's class. I was most interested in her response to the "non-consensuality of the baby's gendering." I have a question though regarding the "pain of two violations, the mark of gender and the unlivability of its absence." What is meant by the term "unlivability"? Does gender here refer directly to the binary system of gender? Does this unlivability of absence mean that the idea of living outside of a binary system of gender, or, perhaps, any system of gender, is an impossible dream?

Ann Dixon's picture

co-construction

From my corner of the room, it is remarkable to me that Anne left the decision to construct half of the syllabus in the hands of undergrads. It's much more like the experience of grad school (or real life) where you are expected to take the initiative in finding out what there is to read, to learn, to understand. After graduation as an undergrad, noone is going to tell you what to read! There is no roadmap; there is no syllabus; there is no authority other than yourself.

Part of why I say this is looking backwards to Bryn Mawr of 25 years ago, and part of it is looking to the 
present and future of this class. Looking back, there was no WAY that a professor would give her 
students that much control of a class. Looking forward, perhaps the undergrads need to get 
together to talk? Two of you were unhappy with the outcome, but I didn't hear it during the time 
you were talking together and trying to decide the readings. Do you need to talk about that more in person? 

I hope that you'll also take this as a challenge to yourselves to write the contemporary, radical paper 
you want someone else to have written.

Ann '83 

Rhapsodica's picture

I, too, really enjoyed the

I, too, really enjoyed the readings this week. I like how Susan Stryker weaves together personal testimony and theory in "My Words to Victor Frankenstein"; it was interesting to see how she did so, since so many of the pieces we've read so far have been clearly sticking to one or the other. The way she writes is so clear and just... I think someone else used the word exquisite? I'm going to use it, too, because it is.

I'm also starting to realize that I really don't know very much at all about transgender/intersex issues... I suppose they simply weren't so much on my radar before I came to Bryn Mawr. So... I would also support the idea of working a little more trans/intersex theory into our curriculum for the second half of the semester. Although it may not be something I have confronted myself, I agree with atisman, that the gray area is just as important to explore as the black and white.

Other than that, there were a few things I found particularly interesting in Susan Stryker's writings... such as her definition of "queer," as she explains it in the (en)Gender interview. I like how it seems to be more about a mindset than about any particular gender identification. My favorite quote from the interview: "The deeper and more intimately you know another person, the stranger they become. Which I find beautiful." I think that sums up why I like Susan Stryker's writings & ideas so much... she seems so refreshingly open to and aware of the little things that make people different.

A couple of questions I might ask would be... in "Transgender Studies: Queer Theory's Evil Twin", she states that "[queer theory's presence] has not realized the (admittedly utopian) poential [she] (perhaps naively) sensed there for a radical restructuring of our understanding of gender..." so, what I'm wondering is, what would her ideal restructuring look like? How might we go about actualizing that vision? How does she see her writings, films, etc. as fitting into it?

Abby's picture

'Place To Be'

All I can say is that I'm stunned.  Reading Stryker's work was close to overwhelming.  I agree with many of the previous posts; the style of "My Words to Victor Frankenstein..." is exquisite.  The Linda Kauffman connection came to my mind as well while reading this piece.  I wonder what Kauffman would have to say about Stryker's use of her own personal testimony in such a powerful way (not that she leaves it at that...).  I can't imagine an essay like this being written in any other way, being separated from the personal journey Stryker shares with us.

This makes me think that perhaps the individual and the greater whole really are inseparable.  Maybe what goes on inside of us, what goes on with our bodies can only be understood through connecting it to a greater, bigger vision.  I'm reminded of the 'monstrous benediction' at the end of Stryker's essay: "May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world."  Maybe world making is really what we're all in the process of doing.  If a world in which all are fee to exist and prosper is not a reality, then we must be in the process of creating that world; in the process of carving out places for all of us to be.

kwheeler's picture

Again, awesome readings...

I found "Transgender Studies: Queer Theory's Evil Twin" particularly enlightening... I was not aware that "transsexuals were considered abject creatures in most feminist and gay or lesbian contexts". While I see the importance in distinguishing transgender studies from queer studies as “something that cuts across existing sexualities” I would be interested to know where the ideas of feminism have come into conflict with transgender studies. It stuck me as interesting that feminism has once again managed to ostracize a minority group from its discourse.

Pemwrez2009's picture

To Dysphoria, or Not to Dysphoria

During Tuesdays class I left feeling really upset. Gender and Sexuality classes are some of the only classes in general that provide a space to talk about Trans-issues and Intersex issues. These are two topics that play a pretty integral roll in discussions of feminism as well. Thus far in class, we have discussed gender as a very binary concept. We have men, and then we have women. Well, what about categories that complicate this dichotomy. When we look at different ideas from an either female or male perspective, we are buying into a definition of what it is to be a female or male. Complicating gender allows us to recognize to what extent our gender identities are socialized/ constructed. It was sad for me to walk out of a class where we had the opportunity to discuss these issues, and it became just another one of those classes that leave out gender and sex identifications that were neither male or female.

If we reconsider, the inclusion of these categories, here are some authors and titles that might be helpful.

Trans-Theory:

Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity
Viviane K. Namaste. Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People
Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Pat Califia. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism
Holly Devor. FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society
Leslie Feinberg. Transgender Warriors
Leslie Feinberg. Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue

Intersex Theory:

excerpts from: Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions
By Judith Kegan Gardiner

Sharon E Preves- Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self

As Nature Made Him (John Colapinto)




Susan Stryker Readings:

When we think of ourselves, I feel like it is pretty safe to assume that we think of ourselves as constantly changing and growing. For trans-people, we are similar in that we see ourselves as changing, but our goals are sometimes more physical and have a dysphoric depth that goes beyond the average self-critique. In addition, I think that perhaps far to often, we think that we are unfinished works, and that changing ourselves physically by taking hormones, or cutting of or adding parts on to our bodies will solve our problems. Nevertheless, trans-people can never just be, and if we do decide to go through with physical transformations, we struggle with the communities with whom we are allowed to identify ourselves. If we once identified with the queer community, do we stay close to them and bare with the endless commentaries about why we decided to turn to the “dark side”? or do we cut our ties with the queer community and live heteronormative lives?

In Stryker’s essay on Frankenstein she writes “I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster's as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.”
Stryker, talks about the scars that mark her body, and describes a trans-body as “unnatural”. Well, I agree, our bodies are different, they are “unnatural” to the everyday eye. Trannies love when they can “pass” as the gender they identify as. For many trans people, including myself, we regress into the adolecents and children we once were, with our young insecurities and develop “fitting in” politics all over again. I know that it is human nature for our insides to run a frenzy within the walls of our body.

The hardest part to reconcile is the scientific explanations for trans-identity. Scientists report of the gray matter in our brain and diagnose us with gender dysphoria, so that we can go on our hormones faster and then choose the right gender, it only becomes a problem when we want to identify as trans, not male or female. In a world of back and white, it often becomes too hard to acknowledge yourself standing somewhere in a shade of gray.
matos's picture

I’d like to agree with

I’d like to agree with tout le monde and say that I really enjoyed Stryker’s writing, It was engrossing and engaging and wore out my highlighter.

 

But, for something I’d like to be brought up in class discussion, I want to reiterate something jrizzo said. I’d like to discuss the question of nature. What is considered natural? People argue that homosexuality and transgenderism is not natural. What is considered natural and what how does it define “heteronormality”?

rmeyer's picture

I, just like those who have

I, just like those who have posted before me, very much loved this reading. I especially was interested in "My Words to Victor Frankenstein" mostly because of the way it is written--and just as Flora said previously, I immediately thought of Linda Kauffman's essay, "The Long Goodbye."

I guess what I liked most about this reading was that it was real and alive to me. And it was beautiful. I can't say that I really can understand all that she is discussing on a lot of levels, but I seem to always enjoy personal testimonies that present such authenticity.

I particuarly enjoyed her thoughts on, as JRizzo says, " taking the label of "monster," reclaiming it, and articulating the power the name allows her to wield. " Recently, I met a girl who embraces the words "dyke" "fag" "cunt" as a lesbian, and I was shocked. I had always thought of those words as really quite derogatory in nature and would nearly cringe at even the thought of saying them outloud. However, I realize now, from reading this piece that it is because Susan and my friend are reclaiming these wrods that it is okay.

 

EMaciolek's picture

I'm going to have to agree

I'm going to have to agree with Flora and say that I thoroughly enjoyed the the writing style Susan Stryker used in "My Words to Victor Frankenstein."  The way she introduced her essay and explained what she was wearing on stage set up a great platform from which to delve into the rest of the text. 

I'd like to ask Stryker if she felt she has made an impact with her academic work and with her films.  Also I'd like to know what she feels would help make the greatest impression on society that would aid in the acceptance of transgendered people.  

Flora's picture

still thinking

I am so incredibly thrilled that Susan Stryker is going to visit our class tomorrow! Her essay, "My words to Victor Frankenstein", is the most engaging piece I've read all semester. I hugely admire her writing style because of its integration of the personal with hugely sharp academic and political rhetoric. I'm not trying to ingratiate myself. This is true. Ask my friends sitting near me when I read the article what my reaction was and they will confirm my awe.

All that being said, here are some questions I'm thinking about for our discussion tomorrow...

1. Earlier in this course we discussed Linda Kaufman's essay, “The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony, or an Infant Grifter Grows Up.” One of the most hotly contested parts of the piece was the following quote: "Too often [personal testimony] reinforces the blind belief that we all deserve to be happy. My happiness, frankly, is not very important in the grand scheme of things. I never thought feminism was about happiness. I thought it was about justice" (274). You close your essay with the "monstrous benediction" "...May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world" (254). How do you see happiness interesecting with this powerful rage and ensuing transformation of a world?

2. In the interview we read for class, you say that "...I want to educate and motivate people on trans issues and activist causes, and I felt like I could be a more effective rabble-rouser as a filmmaker than a writer." Do you still think this is true? This statement seems to highlight a possible tension between your activism and your academic work. Do you find tension between your academic work, personal life, artistic work and activism? How do you manage it?

3. Many of us students in this class have expressed our fears and insecurities about writing or speaking about personal views or experiences in a public forum. Do you have any advice for young scholars who are struggling to find confidence in the merit, relevance and/or potential of our work?

jrizzo's picture

Frankenstein

I'd like to begin by saying that reading Susan Stryker's work, especially "My Words to Victor Frankenstein" was an illuminating and very powerful experience for me.  As a member of a group that has been villified and covered in shadow largely through the use of symbols, images, dark mystery that keeps the transsexual unexplained, misunderstood, hence frightening to many, I think Stryker does a brave and neccesary thing by taking the label of "monster," reclaiming it, and articulating the power the name allows her to wield. 

I was struck by one phrase in particular.  She writes, "the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie."  I feel there might be a number of meanings embedded in this statement, and I would be interested in hearing Stryker discuss this more.  Does she mean that non-transsexuals cannot use their "natural" bodies as a justification for dennouncing the transsexual?  Is this just a plea against using our notions of "natural" as tools of oppression, or is she making a stronger claim about nature?  Is "nature" a misleading term?  Must it always be questioned?  According to Stryker, does it exist?