This post flows out of the wonderful time I had at SLSA13, particularly a book panel on Thomas LaMarre’s translation of Muriel Combe’s book, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual (MIT 2012). The discussion we had with Steven Meyer, Hugh Crawford, and Andrew Goffey at the panel informs what follows.
In my work on transgender embodiment in my dissertation I look at contemporary redefinitions of childhood and adolescence taking place through puberty suppression therapy and the relatively new capacity for pre-pubescent children to transition gender. One of the conceptual questions that has nagged me in this work is the question of transgender embodiment when the child is taken up as a material resource or standing reserve, a constellation of biologically extractable systems imbricated in technoscientific assemblages and posthuman and biopolitical systems of subindividual and population-level production. How can we think the labor of the self working on the body such as is undertaken in various forms of trans embodiment, not only in transition, but the multiplicity of forms of technological intervention (in the most expansive sense of that phrase) into the human body?
My case for a new materialist and posthumanist account of trans technogenesis is made first and foremost as an ethical one: to dismantle the privileged idea of the integral or natural human body, one that exists prior to technological modification. This technophobic account of the self-enclosed human body sees modification as, ultimately, a fall from grace. The Cartesianism in much of trans studies, then, worries me, because its privileging of the agency of the gendered psyche over the material substrate of the body in the journey of transition is unable to respond to those transphobic arguments that would conclude that the trans body is a derivative form of gender. In this transphobic line of thought, the gender of the trans body is less natural than that of the integral human body unaffected by technology. To say in response that all bodies are affected by technology in one way or another is unfortunately not a resolution of this problem, for technology is still an ontologically separate plane from the flesh in that proposition, one that interacts with, but is not necessary or inherent to, the human form.
Technogenesis, which Kate Hayles’ new book develops at length, suggests that the human and the technic have co-evolved from the very beginning. In the past, I have looked to Derrida’s account of originary technicity to arrive at technogensis, but recently I have been more drawn to Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation and technical beings, much like Hayles. Simondon being “the ghost in Deleuze,” as Goffey put it at SLSA, I have also gone back to Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari to take up the particular question of a self working on its own body (the Cartesian reflex is seen even in the naturalness of separating “self” and “body” in that sentence). Nevertheless, since the psyche does experience itself phenomenologically as working on its body, rather than purely coinciding with it in some kind of weird metaphysics (apologies to Tim Morton and his SLSA keynote!) of presence, I wanted an approach that would account for the mutually informing agential qualities of both the psyche and the material substrate of the body in trans embodiment.
The solution to this dilemma for a long time in feminist theory and theories of technical embodiment has been to say we are cyborgs. However, following LaMarre’s Simondonian critique of the cyborg account of hybridity, the blending of human body and technology (the “and” designating two ontologically separate entities), I want to say that we are not cyborg subjects, but rather Deleuzoguattarian artisans. The cyborg body has tended to be a hylomorphic one (although I don’t think Haraway’s is) and this is insufficient to the task at hand.
The artisan appears in A Thousand Plateaus to emphasize Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism–the separation of active form from a dead or homogenous matter upon which the former is impressed by human activity. In a hylomorphic account of trans embodiment, the conscious psyche of the subject would impress the material form of gender upon the substrate of the passive body, remaking it in its ideal image. As I already mentioned, this argument is vulnerable to a transphobic reproach, which is to say that if trans bodies need technological supplement in order to form their gender, then they are less natural or less real than cis bodies. The hylomorphic account of the work of the artisan, moreover, follows analogously: the carpenter, for instance, impresses the form of furniture he wishes to build upon the passive material of the wood that he manipulates using his savoir-faire.
“But Simondon demonstrates that the hylomorphic model,” Deleuze and Guattari write in the treatise on nomadology, “leaves many things, active and affective, by the wayside” (408). The artisan works on the wood, to be sure, but the wood also works on both itself and the artisan, affecting the resultant object. First, the wood’s singularities or haecceities are its “implicit forms,” the virtual potential it carries within itself as matter, that which makes it topologically receptive, through its inherent activity, to being shaped by the artisan. These are the torsions of the wood fibres that in fact guide the tools and action of the artisan. Second, there are the variable intensive affects of the wood itself: “wood that is more or less porous, more or less elastic and resistant” (408). Rather than the artisan forcibly (and violently) imposing the form he has conjured onto the wood, Deleuze and Guattari propose that “it is a question of surrendering to the wood, then following where it leads by connecting operations to a materiality…what one addresses is less a matter submitted to laws than a materiality possessing a nomos” (408, emphasis added). Not only do the wood’s affects contribute to what the artisan can and cannot do, but the artisan must enter into their rhythms, acquiesce to their vibrant materiality, in order to “make” anything.
Instead of cyborg subjects estranged from our technology and our materiality, I propose that we are all artisans, and our bodies are the wood in Deleuze and Guattari’s example. Our bodies are not passive material substrates governed by a consciousness, gendered or otherwise, but have their own affects, their own singularities and implicit forms that intra-act with our intentional and unintentional work upon them. In this way, trans embodiment is not a derivative of the natural human body, for all bodies are formed through technogenesis and the active participation of the body’s materiality in its continual becoming, its continual modification. If anything, this is an even stronger affirmation of trans embodiment, because it finds transness in matter itself, not only as a psychic phenomenon.
Like the artisan, we must all finds ways of surrendering to the activity of our bodies, to stop working against their affects and instead with them, and in so doing affirm our embodiment as a joyful process of creative evolution.