Jack Halberstam | The Body and Trouble

By Jack Halberstam


Now is an excellent time to talk about sex, trouble and the body. Not a day goes by in the contemporary US press without a new account of sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact, the sexual manipulation of power relations. To say that men and women in particular, and others less so, are confused about sex is an understatement. What has gone by the name of compulsory heterosexuality in the past is now a physical and rhetorical battleground of desire. While some powerful men like Harvey Weinstein have and continue to see power and success as the authorization for unlimited access to women’s bodies, other men, people who have never thought about the politics of the body or have never had to, continue to believe that what is good for him, must be good for her. And so, we have hundreds of stories in circulation in which a man presumed that because he wanted something sexually, his partner did too. The reckoning that we are now witnessing announces the end of something – “Time’s Up” – the expiration of what Paul Preciado calls in a recent post in Liberation “l’ancien regime” of heterosexual privilege. It also signals the potential for a much broader discussion about sex, bodies, desire, pleasure and politics.

The body has long been a thorny topic of conversation on the left. Just to give one example, David Harvey – a global authority on Marxism, the politics of space, not to mention a talented utopian – has characterized body politics as too narrow in scope. Seeing the body as a micro-political unit that can only speak of individual desires and pleasures unless it is mobilized under the heading of “labor,” Harvey’s work has tended to dismiss even queer politics as narcissistic and has seen body politics as a kind of distraction from the real business of social change. Conjuring a worst-case scenario of body politics in a compact essay from 1999 in the splendidly titled journal The Hedgehog Review, Harvey proposed that a return to the body via Butler, Haraway and others may be helpful in terms of avoiding theoretical abstraction, but, in his words “that return cannot in and of itself guarantee anything except either the production of a narcissistic self-referentiality or the sacrifice of any sense of collective political possibilities.” Harvey’s formulation is dated now but it still represents a split that prevails within the left between a global politics of capital and labor and a local politics of bodies and desire.

In the work I have proposed we read this week, Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie, my intro from The Undercommons by Moten and Harney and the interview between the two of them in the book, Andrea Long Chu’s online essay “On Liking Women” from the magazine n+1, and Jose Munoz’s “A Jete Out The Window” from Cruising Utopia, we access a very different set of claims about the body. Based loosely upon these readings and on behalf of encouraging broad discussion at this event, I want to pose 5 topics/sets of questions for us to discuss.

  1. According to Paul Preciado, we are no longer living in an era of disciplinary power, nor even simply bio-power or necro-power, we are embedded in a system he dubs the “pharmaco-pornographic regime.” Within this structure, the body is not immutable flesh, but immaterial code. Power is neither sovereign nor simply coursing through the networks that surround us, rather power operates at the level of the molecular. The pharmaceutical systems that we sustain, and that sustain us, deliver pleasure and pain through our own nervous systems and administer to anxiety, neurosis, mania and depression. At the same time a constant flow of images, consumer objects and various drugs excite us, amp up our receptivity and then bring us down again. This is the pornographic part of his equation.

What constitutes the body in Preciado’s work? How is it different from the Butlerian body or the Foucauldian body? What is the role of the transsexual, the witch, the racialized body, the laborer in his work? What is the locus of resistance?

  1. In Munoz’s essay from Cruising Utopia, a dancer, Fred Herko, completes a final performance in a friend’s apartment and then jumps in a perfect jete out of the apartment window, falling to his death. Repeating Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void,” but minus a safety net and photo manipulation, Herko’s jump makes death into a terminus for performance. While performance studies has made much of the impossibility of “liveness” in all performances and of the impossibility of ever repeating a performance, what might this particular dance have to say about death and performance? What is the status of death and dying in relation to body politics and the trouble the body represents – here we could think about suicide bombers; David Wojnarowicz’s work from the 1990’s in which he called on everyone dying of AIDS to take their infected blood and to pour it onto the steps of the White House; some of Marina Abramovicz and Yoko Ono’s work and more…
  1. What does the transgender body represent within today’s political landscape of neo-liberal inclusion, post-political recognition and the rethinking of public space in relation to the bathroom problem? In Andrea Long Chu’s post, she takes the example of the trans feminine body to refuse the logics that both narrate a transition from male to female and then require a stable resituating of the transitional body within newly fortified narratives about male and female. Nothing in Chu’s essay confirms the smooth passage from old to new, male to female, modern to postmodern, improperly gendered to deeply gendered. Instead, fastening her sights on an already gender troubled subject, namely the butch, angry and often homeless feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto, Chu finds in Solanas a recklessly improper model for her own womanhood. Refusing the trans-orthodox reading of Solanas as a manhater and transphobic, Chu instead divines a revolutionary transsexuality in play. In Solanas’s text, Solanas argues that men should seek to be women and should in fact desire their own extinction. In response to this, Chu writes: “This was a vision of transsexuality as separatism, an image of how male-to-female gender transition might express not just dis-identification with maleness but disaffiliation with men. Here, transition, like revolution, was recast in aesthetic terms, as if transsexual women decided to transition, not to “confirm” some kind of innate gender identity, but because being a man is stupid and boring.”

What constitutes “transition” for Chu? What kind of trans womanhood can emerge from the SCUM Manifesto? What is meaning of femaleness, revolution, change, violence in Chu’s text?

  1. Can the terminology of “the undercommons” contest David Harvey’s sense that body politics are local and individualistic? What forms of solidarity do Harney and Moten propose? What can the notion of “wildness” as I use it in my introduction to their text do for us in terms of loosening up language, political rhetoric and systems of classification from their conventional moorings? Does the notion of the undercommons as it emerges from the Black radical tradition have transnational potential? Queer potential?
  1. In my own work on trans*, wildness, gender variance, failure and queer subcultures, I have proposed that body politics offer a broader archive for the imagining of alternatives. In work on “low theory,” I have argued for a reckoning with popular culture which sees it as more than just a culture industry repository for the manufacturing of consent and seeks counterhegemonic forms in low culture, low theory, low life – here the low obviously resonates with the “under” in undercommons.

How can we situate the operations of knowledge and the university in relation to the uprisings and new forms of protest we have gathered here to study and discuss? What is the role of the intellectual in new formulations of dissent? In other words, what are we doing here?