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Jul 17 2012

Fourth Wave: Part Four

One of the most lovely aspects of the internet, one of those that has most consistently lived up to the somewhat utopian visions the medium’s emergence promised, has been its capacity to offer a highly democratic, highly populist form of media, information exchange, communication and community.

In a recent “tranchat” (a twitter-based discussion that occurs each Sunday), the topic came up of the tension in feminism between theory or academia, and “real life” issues, everyday praxis, the street level experiences that feminism suggests the capacity to speak to, of, about. It occurred to me, though, that this tension seems much less prevalent and noticeable concerning trans-feminism. Trans-feminism has, thus far, not been a product of academia, nor is it even really practiced there… at least not in any form even remotely resembling the trans-feminism which I’m involved in and accustomed to. Trans voices are not exactly welcomed and embraced within academia, and the experiences of trans people in that milieu, students and faculty alike, are markedly different than those expressing or embodying other queer identities (totes not in a good way, either). Rather than us being the speakers in academia, we are the objects of study. Rather than theorists, we’re something the theorists struggle to explain.

Like other activist movements built from minorities (or ideological minorities) that had previously been scattered, isolated from one another in circumstantial diaspora, with very little access to information, community, publication, media, connection or infrastructure with which to organize, trans-feminism has been overwhelmingly a product of the internet. The internet in general has had an immense influence on trans people and our capacity to even exist, turning what had once been something often impossibly remote and difficult to understand, with intense limitations on who could or could not access the resources to make into a reality, into something that is far far more of a genuine, tangible possibility for those who need it. But beyond simply making our lives so much more livable, and our needs so much more attainable, and our identities and experiences so much more comprehensible, it is has also given us the capacity to find one another, communicate, and organize.

This was the spirit and media in which trans-feminism was born… isolated individuals who had been intensely marginalized from the dominant media and narratives reaching out to one another through the means that were available. It has not been something handed down from “community leaders” to “the people”, but instead something that emerged collectively. In this sense, it feels like those theory / praxis, academia / “real life” tensions aren’t as important for us. Or at least, that we have the opportunity to avoid them becoming important or meaningful. If we do this right, those tensions shouldn’t have to exist, shouldn’t have to feel at all relevant or worth talking about. If we do this right, we will always be a discourse that emerged from and between the people it speaks of, not ever having to position academics, theorists, experts or leaders to speak on our behalf. It’s a pretty awesome thing.

Of course, none of this has been perfectly democratic. Privilege, class, who does or does not get paid attention to or taken seriously, who is able to be the loudest and command the most attention, who draws in relative “status” from external structures and media… all of those things affect the discourse. It would be a gigantic mistake to think that simply because we aren’t an inherently academic discourse and movement, or a discourse and movement that hasn’t yet taken on a heirarchial structure, that we’re somehow immune to falling into any of that. We need to be critical and careful. We need to own up to our faults.

But what we do have is an opportunity to be something non-heirarchial, non-stratified, discursive, conversational, intersectional, populist, accessible… we have the capacity to hold those as qualities to nurture, values to protect, rather than symptoms of not being a “serious” movement and discourse, barriers to the attainment of status and legitimacy. We’re young, and we haven’t made too many mistakes yet. The problems we presently have haven’t yet become entrenched. It’s lovely, and exciting, and worth fighting to make the most of.

And more than simply an opportunity to pursue a conversational, accessible structure for its own sake, it seems like an essential quality for trans-feminism, and for a broader Fourth Wave, to pursue and cherish in order to be able to live up to the underlying spirit, values and goals of feminism itself.

Gender, and gender variance, is an inherently multi-faceted thing. It spans an intensely broad and varied range of experiences, intersecting with all other aspects of identity. No single vantage point can possibly provide an accurate perception of the entire landscape. We’ve seen, over and over again, the kinds of mistakes that emerge from those of particular perspectives attempting to speak to issues they don’t have direct experience with. We can try, yes, and we probably should try. And it’s impossible to meaningfully speak about any aspect of gender or its related socio-cultural and political dynamics without addressing the experiences of other sides of those dynamics and intersectional issues, or at the very least meaningfully taking them into consideration, which puts each of us who would try to address these issues in the difficult position of needing to periodically address issues we can’t fully understand, and the difficult position of having to walk into territory where we know we’ll get lost, stumble, make mistakes… and walk into it anyway.

But in maintaining a conversational, open-ended, accessible approach, where a multiplicity of voices are able to enter the field, with as few barriers as possible to being heard and listened to, then we can minimize the harm of those inherent limitations. Human beings are biased. We always come from particular subjective vantage points. When speaking of human concerns, social concerns, it’s very difficult to minimize the influence of that subjectivity. And ultimately, it will lead us to making mistakes. But in maintaining a diversity of voices, from a broad range of perspectives and vantage points, we can ensure that, at least, we’re not all making the same mistakes over and over. Instead, we each make different mistakes, but from the conversation as a whole, from the aggregated, shared voice of a Fourth Wave, speaking from as many facets of gender’s staggering complexity as possible, we can begin to discern something meaningful. A truer picture of what’s going on.

From no single vantage point can the entire landscape be observed. But by sharing our observations, and doing everything we can to ensure that no perspective is excluded from our conversation, we may be able to draw up a decent map.

The value of this kind of approach becomes especially apparently when considering, even in the limited context of trans-feminism, how certain experiences of gender, and related perspectives, are mutually exclusive. The experiences and perspectives of both binary-identified and non-binary-identified trans people are essential to take into consideration when trying to understand trans issues. Likewise, AMAB and AFAB people, and people who didn’t receive a binary assignment at all. People who developed female anatomies, male anatomies, and intersexed anatomies. People who transitioned “early” and people who transitioned “late” (ever notice how no one is ever described as an “on time” transitioner?). The experiences of those who are visibly gender variant, and those wh have conditional cis privilege. People with differing levels of ability, and different kinds of disability… mobility, sensory, visible and invisible. People from all kinds of different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. Etc.

No single trans person, even those who exist at the intersections of multiple axes of discrimination, oppression and marginalization, can possibly speak to or even understand the full range of gender variant experiences. To have a trans-feminism that is genuine in its desire to give voice to gender variance, it needs to be genuine in its efforts to voice that variance in all its diversity. And that means any genuine trans-feminism, any trans-feminism that is not simply about voicing the concerns or needs of particular segments of the community (such as those with “typical” narratives… an impossibly narrow ideal that few, if any, of us ever truly live), demands a multiplicity of voices. A conversational approach.

As it’s demanded of me to be able to speak to intersectional concerns when speaking of trans issues, I need to go forward with the knowledge that, as said, I’m going to stumble and make mistakes. But in maintaining a conversational approach, and doing my best to listen to and rely on voices, perspectives and experiences other than my own, I can at least put my trust in others to catch those mistakes, and in their own efforts compensate for them. We work together, and lend each other the ability to see what is lost in our own blind-spots.

If all this is true of trans-feminism, it is by nature also true of any feminism that is genuine in its desire to speak to the socio-cultural and political dynamics of gender. What is demanded of trans-feminism in lending voice to the full range of gender variance is inherently also demanded of any feminism that purports to speak to gender itself (gender variance, naturally, therein included)… rather than simply speaking to the needs, concerns or priorities of particular classes of women or the particular agendas of certain particularly vocal or powerful branches of feminism.

But not only is this conversational approach necessary in light of the inability to address gender variance without taking into consideration diverse and often mutually exclusive backgrounds and perspectives, but also, for fairly obvious reasons, becomes ever more true when attempting to meet the demands of speaking to gender in a broader sense. Yeah, there’s no universal trans narrative. But there’s no universal cis narrative either. No universal narrative of women. No universal narrative of men. No universal narrative of gender. No universal gender at all.

Gender is a broad term we use to speak of something that, as it manifests in our actual lives, experiences and, yes, society and politics, is ultimately intensely individual and personal, even when political, and affected and mediated by almost everything else about the individual (just as it affects and mediates those other aspects in turn). It is virtually impossible to make sweeping declarations about the nature or experience of gender, and how it manifests, even when speaking of socio-cultural dynamics… those dynamics, as they actually manifest, will always diverge from our abstract model of them when they bump up against that individuality, and the intersectional aspects of that individual’s identity and social position. It is also virtually impossible to speak of gender in a manner that is disconnected from those intersections. We can’t isolate gender as a singular topic, removed from how it ends up being experienced or manifested. When we do, we construct models that may be elegant and consistent and perhaps reflect some platonic abstraction of gender, but likely will have very little to say about what people are actually living and dealing with. And what people are actually living and dealing with is, at least for me, what actually matters, what is worth addressing through feminism.

In that sense, we can’t allow feminism to be guided by the distinct and singular voices of experts and theory. It must instead be guided by a collective dialogue if it is to be able to address the diverse realities of gender as it is lived and, often, suffered.

Much could also be said about the dangers of structuring a movement around “idols” and leaders. The trans community has lost a great deal, and been dragged into a lot of harmful myths and ideologies and misrepresentations and internal heirarchies, by the mistake of misplaced, excessive trust in “community leaders” who represent and are capable of speaking to the interests of only a small segment of the community they were falsely positioned as representing collectively (and sometimes eventually coming to only represent their own individual agendas). But this seems like a secondary concern to me. The dangers of cults-of-personality, and leaders-on-pedestals, are either made inevitable or harmless depending on how we structure our discourse. If we focus on a conversational, democratic, accessible structure, based on a guiding principle of listening to one another and allowing each other the space to speak, there will be considerably less opportunity for those with the most privilege, access, resources and ego to monopolize the discourse and guide it towards their particular interests, and in the event that such monopolizations do occur, attention would, by principle, be diverted towards whomever wasn’t being heard or represented.

For a Fourth Wave to meaningfully move past the limitations and failures of previous feminisms, we need to be willing to give up the top-down structures of conventional academic discourse and conventional media and publication. While there may be a superficial loss of “status”, “legitimacy” and “respect” in deliberately moving away from those structures to the more chaotic and dirty worlds of conversational, accessible media, what’s earned is the capacity to speak far more meaningfully to what we are living and struggling with, and a capacity to construct a feminism that is not limited to benefiting only those who already have enough privilege and power to access those “legitimate” media and systems. And really, who is conferring the “status” earned through publication? Who are we trying to have “respect” us? And what systems might be perpetuated by continuing to behave as though we require their respect, and their permission?

Conversational, accessible approaches offer not only the ability to create a more genuine and meaningful feminism, but they also offer the capacity to speak on our own terms. To decide for ourselves that we have the right to speak., and to decide for ourselves who deserves to be heard.

Which is not just those with an impressive resume and publication history. Which is, rather, all of us.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    The Nerd

    One of the more hurtful things I had said to me was that until I could define gender to this person’s satisfaction, that ze would refuse to acknowledge the existence of my gender. This person conveniently was assigned a gender, raised as that gender, and is still comfortably living that very gender, with plenty of time to refuse to create a definition. But no, the burden of proof is on me and on all who “dare” to lose our cis status.

  2. 2
    cami

    One thing that has always bothered me about feminism and gender studies is that whenever I go to events like conferences and such the speakers are always given long, drawn out introductions. Like ‘the next speaker has a phd from this place and has published this many critically acclaimed books by this publishing house and this many universities use those books as part of their curriculum and she is employed by this institution and she has won this many awards and blah, blah, blah’. If I’m ever invited to speak at a gender or feminist conference, then I will have them say something like ‘the next speakers name is cami and please give her your attention’. Not that it’s likely that I will receive such an invitation anytime soon but still.
    I guess it’s probably a cultural thing like idolizing rock stars and movie stars and such. Like, if someone can be positioned as the foremost expert in a given field, then we all ought to listen to them above others. That is so not punk rock.

    1. 2.1
      Shplane, Spess Alium

      I wouldn’t compare a respect for academia, even an overblown one, to the sort of hero-worship we see for entertainers. A PhD represents a rather large chunk of one’s life being directed towards learning about and understanding something, and in some cases represents essentially the only way to get a real understanding of a discipline. It’s entirely reasonable to say “Well, this guy has PhD in sociology, he probably has a fairly good understanding of human social interaction”.

      The problem comes when you start taking this as the only measure of whether or not someone has something interesting to say on a topic, instead of an indicator that they’re a bit more likely to know what they’re talking about than the average person. This might work for particle physics, but it doesn’t work when discussing issues that are directly about human experience. Of fucking course trans people know a thing or two about being trans, and while the human brain may be flawed and may make those things not be directly one hundred percent the fact of the situation, the response to that is not to utterly discount them. The appropriate response is to recognize that they’re still likely closer to the truth than whatever utterly detached theory you’ve formulated on the topic, and solicit the aid of the people who live this to begin to actually understand these topics. That’s the problem with Gender Academia: Instead of saying “I’m going to devote my brain to finding out what the lives of all these disparate individuals are like, and use the vantage point of someone who is legitimately willing to listen and understand to dig in to the deeper underlying causes of all this variety and try to understand the various forced at play”, they say “HAA HAA HEE HEE HOO HOO PROJECTING MY OWN EXPERIENCES ONTO THE REST OF HUMANITY AND MAKING UP SILLY SHIT IS FUN HEE HOO HAA HAA HOO HEE”. Too much of gender academia is still stuck in its equivalent of phrenology, and is utterly failing to actually look at the real world as it actually.

      I guess I kind of rambled a bit there. The point I’m making is: Academics are useful for this sort of thing, and are almost certainly needed to navigate the train wreck that is human gender. They just need to stop making shit up, and stop pretending that they’re the only people who are worth listening to.

      1. hall_of_rage

        Well, gender theory academics can be really useful because they have the time and resources to conduct studies. But the endless pressure to get results and to make your answers look definitive is a very bad thing if we expect academics to engage well in trans feminism, or to keep room in their theories for everyone.

        1. Natalie Reed

          In general, the influence of pressure, incentives, status and, sadly, capitalism in academia has rendered it an altogether not very useful arena in which to conduct feminism at all. It presents FAR too much incentive to go for easy, limited answers, and to buy into structures (like the heirarchy of academic status) that are inherently destructive to many of the things that have become necessary for feminism to incorporate, such as an intersectional approach, and the ability to lend a platform to the voices of the marginalized: trans women, women of colour, sex workers, women with disabilities, etc.

          1. inchoaterica

            it also leads to a rather ugly thing that tends to grow out of academia: people who aren’t part of an experience speaking for people with that experience. because of this, they often are seen as “experts” about things they don’t know the lived experience of, even if they’re able to show expertise through a stack of degrees, something that is rarely if ever challenged.

            i can think of white academics who have appointed themselves experts in matters of race: rather than amplifying and centering the experiences of PoCs, they speak from the pulpit of expertise despite often perpetuating the gentrification cycle themselves and expecting a free pass because of their “racial sensitivity”.

            there’s any one of a number of academics who have concluded they can speak for trans women, but these academics are almost never trans women. as a result, they often use caricatures of trans women to paint their examples and lists of dead trans women of color (mostly Latina trans women of color, by the way) as part of painting a picture of the realities of trans people…and then they gobble up the spotlight, funding, jobs at nonprofits, etc all the while exploiting the very trans women they would never be caught dead with or even think of showing basic kindness to.

            this is why academia kind of sucks as a vehicle for transfeminism. it’s been co-opted good and hard already…and this isn’t to say drop dead if you have degrees…hell, i’ve got an advanced one now (and have only sold my soul to the Federal Government for the privilege), it’s just that degrees themselves don’t confer legitimacy, and the argument that they do is problematic because academia is so hostile to trans women and people of color that it’s pretty much hell for trans women of color…

      2. Natalie Reed

        Very well said.

  3. 3
    inchoaterica

    Trans-feminism has, thus far, not been a product of academia, nor is it even really practiced there… at least not in any form even remotely resembling the trans-feminism which I’m involved in and accustomed to.

    one of then ugly realities is that feminism has pretty much been kidnapped by academia and turned into a mess of theory that has nothing to do with the radical notion that women are people. this is why you see so many wadfems who are quick to talk about all their degrees, because they have the mistaken belief that degrees somehow lend legitimacy to their ideas and thoughts. this is why feminism often fails at intersectionality: people who come from the Caucasian tower often don’t get intersectionality because there’s no reason for them to bother with it…it has no bearing on their life. this is how second wave and third wave feminism failed; by becoming an elitist movement, feminism failed those of us at the bottom who need it most. part of Fourth Wave is the idea that real underclass women exist and that we need to be part of the movement whether or not we have the right degrees from the right schools. our feminism will be intersectional and non-elitist or it will be bullshit.

    No single trans person, even those who exist at the intersections of multiple axes of discrimination, oppression and marginalization, can possibly speak to or even understand the full range of gender variant experiences.

    oh, this, this, so much this. this is why we need to include all voices, not some voices, not half the voices, into the arena of trans-related discourse. this game of only some trans people counting who meet certain criteria (really, the number of comments i get about how LOL UR UGLY STFU from other trans women is …disturbing) is a game as rigged as making feminism strictly for the academic. it keeps anything that could be dissent out and though that makes some people feel better it doesn’t really advance everyone as a group.

    1. 3.1
      Bia

      You mean like the radical feminists that think Trans* Women are raping women’s bodies and Trans* men are puppets of the patriarchy? They often forget that Academia is still very much a boys club.

  4. 4
    AstroCJ

    Ms. Reed, I like your writing and I find the things you have to say amazingly relevant. I wish only that your posts were a bit more concise so that I could read them properly rather than skim them in the mornings.

  5. 5
    ik

    I might sound like an idiot but what about reforming academia or making better use of hierarchy?

    1. 5.1
      karmakin

      The problem with academia is literally academics. It’s in the bloody name. There’s a requirement to break things down to “canonical” levels, and when you do that, complexity often gets left out of the equation.

      I’ll be honest, sociology/anthropology are not my bag, per se. Economics now…yeah. And it’s the same thing. In order to result in workable, canonical models, economics makes certain assumptions.

      What happens when those assumptions are wrong? (As an example, a fundamental concept of 101 Microeconomics is that workers choose labor participation rates. This is something that is increasingly less true, especially with increasing service-based labor.

      But back on topic, quite frankly, political objectification, as I’d call it, although maybe academic objectification is a better term, is all around us. And it’s often used by the good guys. But in the end it’s demeaning as well to the people who are put in those little boxes that they feel like they simply don’t belong.

  6. 6
    Sinéad

    We have a phrase in physics,in its many variations: “yeah it works, for a spherical cow in vacuum on a frictionless surface”

    That’s my attitude toward academic theories that “try” to generalize existential realities, like those of the lived experiences of trans people, in particular, but surely applicable to many other objects of study.

  7. 7
    Marja Erwin

    One thing that frustrates me about trans advocacy is that we always seem to begin by arguing that we are reelly womyn or reelly men or reelly outside the binary, and only afterwards explaining that we are really human beings deserving rights and respect.

    Well, there are good reasons to discuss who we really are, and at length. Sometimes for other trans people and allies. And there are reasons to simplify it down to talk to our families or talk to other specific audiences. But the simplification only works if we know who we’re speaking for and who we’re speaking too. It gets way too complicated if we’re trying to explain all of trans experience to everyone, since we need to explain how the agony of dysphoria differs from ‘the agony of sex-role oppression in a patriarchal society.’

    Andrea Dworkin didn’t need to know whether we’re reelly womyn or reelly men or reelly outside the binary to recognize that we are facing what she called ‘primary emergency,’ and that trans people need[ed] more support.

    So many other radfems get caught up in their disaggreements with [the simplified versions of] trans theory, that they lose sight of the humanity of trans people, and basic respect.

    Now I’m thinking we need at least two approaches to trans feminism, while we usually end up with half of one and half of the other.

    One approach is to explore who we are, describe our diversity, and describe our often-shared experiences; I think this approach makes more sense for people considering transition, who are in transition, who are exploring their identity, or who are recovering from internalized transphobia and/or trauma.

    Another approach is to focus on our rights and our needs; I recognize that this often brings in aspects of who we are, but not necessarily all at once all at the beginning; I think this makes more sense for people trying to decide how to support trans people, and for persuading people to support us.

    I’ve been trying to write more from the latter perspective, including this rant on the difference between being trans-critical and transmisogynistic:

    http://marjaerwin.livejournal.com/53549.html

    I know I wasn’t able to cover non-binary pronouns. I don’t know anyone who uses them outside specifically trans spaces. I am sure I’ve made other gaps, but my point is that even if someone completely disagrees with trans theory, they still ought to respect trans people, our chosen names, and our chosen pronouns.

  8. 8
    Bia

    Personally I think we should just drop the notion of feminism all together. Before anyone starts writing hate mail hear me out.

    When there is a large social force at work, like for example a dictatorship, those who oppose the dictator and their court are considered rebels. These rebels fight, and if successful topple the oppressive government. And at that point, they stop being rebels.

    Feminism may have not won the war, but that’s not exactly the point is it? The point of feminism was never to replace the patriarchy with a matriarchy. The point was equality. Now mind you we still live in an unjust world, but I would argue that feminism has accomplished many of the important goals. Suffrage and property rights to name a few.

    The problem now isn’t so much that there’s still inequality as much as there’s not enough inequality to be an enemy. Not in the U.S. at least. And lets be honest, how man feminists are on the ground fighting for women’s rights in Muslim nations? Not too many.

    Feminism has lost its power to move people en masse because we’ve grown complacent. It’s the reason the OWS movements are losing traction. There isn’t enough outrage. There isn’t enough public interest.

    Put frankly, feminism has lost the power to move people. This is why it’s a largely academic affair, and this is why I propose we do away with feminism and create something new. A movement that can truly galvanize people, a movement that is both radical and just.

    Feminism, I’m afraid, is much like Nietzche’s coins, “coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal…”

    We need a new movement, or we need a tipping point. Otherwise we’re just going to continue running in place, chasing “equality” we’ll never reach.

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