PRAYING FOR PIECES: A Practice in Building the Trans Body.
As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful. Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love
my prayers take the shape of love letters. Not directed toward any one god, they reach toward flesh. My letters call to the body of the other, my hands and heart reaching out in words to touch and hold, to bring flesh to flesh. A reminder that we live. In these bodies, in this flesh. My flesh is its own prayer, molded and reshaped into this body I inhabit as a home. I am building this home in pieces of flesh removed here or there, added here or there--a body, a home of myself. The body is a prayer, always becoming more and more. Beautiful.
What do we lose when we remove pieces of the body? In The Wounded Body, Dennis Patrick Slattery recounts an evening before he is to undergo hip replacement surgery. A nun comes to pray with him, over him. She asks him if he wants to speak to the bones in his hip that will be removed in the surgery. With some coaxing, he begins to speak to his bones and soon finds himself weeping at the loss of them. He notes the longstanding traditions across religions to pray over bones. He ponders this practice, speculating on the soul's connection to the body: "Perhaps something of our own soul is permanently in our body, in each of its parts. To lose something of ourselves is to lose something of psyche, even of a memory that is embedded deep in every organ." (1) As I read, I press my hand to my chest. Beneath my shirt are two arcing scars where my breasts used to be. Several years ago, I received a diagnosis of "Gender Identity Disorder" (now reclassified as "Gender Dysphoria"), so I could access the surgery that would involve the removal of my breast tissue and the reconstruction of my nipples to more closely reflect a typical "male" chest. Having never had a major surgery before, I was filled with fear and anxiety the night before the surgery. There was no one to pray with me or over my body, but I sent some little prayers into the heavens, small wishes that I would wake after the procedure free of complications, free of breasts, free of regrets. I did not for a moment mourn the loss of my breast tissue; never did I grieve it. After years of fantasizing about the cutting of my own flesh and the pulling away of tissue, I was eager to finally have them gone. I never considered that I was giving up or losing a piece of my soul or psyche in the severing of flesh. I wonder now what other parts of myself were carried away that morning on the operating table. What bits of my being were stored in the tissue that was subsequently packed into a biohazard container and sent off to a pathology laboratory before it was disposed of as hazardous waste? Where has that part of me gone to? What part of me has gone? Still, I refuse to linger on the loss. To the converse, I had always thought where I lost flesh, I gained a wound, a scar.
So many elements of gender transition are imagined in the valence of loss. In August 2006, The New York Times published a feature story on transgender men, following the ways in which transition abrades the ideals and sensibilities of lesbianism, such that for these men, their relationships are the cost of their transition. In giving up their breasts, they also lost their relationships with their lesbian partners. With so much lost, it is unclear what, if anything, is gained. Gayle Salamon is critical of what she perceives to be a preoccupation with loss in the article. Analyzing the caption to a photo of Shane Caya, standing shirtless, smiling slightly as he looks somewhere outside the frame of the camera, Salamon writes against the fixation on Shane's scars. The caption reads, "Shane Caya displays his mastectomy scars." In the context of the article, which Salamon accurately describes as suggesting an antagonism between trans and lesbian communities, she reads the caption as highlighting "not his masculinity, but a violence done to femininity in order to achieve that masculinity. The caption sees missing breasts, rather than a male chest." (2) It seems Salamon would prefer a caption that reads, "Shane Caya displays his chest." For Salamon, the scars can only mark loss and absence, the missing breasts: "Insisting that this is a picture of Shane's scars rather than Shane's pecs offers his chest as 'the horror of nothing to see,'" as if scars are nothing. (3) But scars are not nothing. My hand slides under my shirt where I feel the lightly raised ridges of tissue, a real presence on my body not a reminder of an absence or a loss, but of a body remade. I think of how Ely Shipley, in his poem "Boy with Flowers," describes the two incisions in his chest as "each a naked stem, flaring with thorns." I see the shape of these thorny stems in the scars my two incisions have become. Where a lover touches tentatively, I describe them as the place where fear and absolution meet.
Tracing the new thin red line that runs down the side of his leg as he reflects on the post-surgical scar, Slattery writes, "The wound is the trace of the memory, what I have left of the experience; it also marks the place of what I would call deep memory, an indelible recollection that one feels always at the edge of the field of consciousness." (4) The wound, or the scar, is what I have left of the experience; it may be a reminder of a process of severing flesh, of loss in that sense. Or it may also recall a deep somatic memory of the flesh that was, but is no longer, there. But the scar is what I have left; that is, it is something present, something to have, something to see. The scar is also a new experience, a new piece of the landscape of the body. Susan Stryker writes of the trans body as "an unnatural body," one that has to be constructed and pieced together, in a way: "It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born." (5) Flesh torn apart. Flesh sewn together--sites where incisions become scars, where the body takes on new shape. This rending and rendering of the body--what Stryker calls a "monstrous benediction"--is a blessing, a kind of prayer. (6)
I imagine a monstrous benediction as a particular blessing on the trans body made of violence or violently made--wounded, built of scar tissue, all the abject horror of what we see in the wounds and scars, a body built, a body becoming more and more beautiful. In Alice Notley's Benediction, every poem is a meditation on leaving the body and being in the body, a prayer toward flesh. "I now don't live in the body they know and approve," she writes. (7) I have whispered so many quiet prayers for the body met with disapproval, the troubling body, threatened by violence for being unknowable. In public bathrooms, at rest stops, at the doctor's office, at the grocery store, on the street, in the park, on the airplane--I am always reminded of my incongruence, how I don't live in the body they know and approve. "Incongruence," Lisa Jean Moore writes, "occurs when what others expect about the progressive logic of someone's body conflicts with the anticipated biography." (8) I no longer know how to anticipate my own biography or what others anticipate in me. My body has become so unexpected. Does the incongruent and unexpected too become more and more beautiful?
In the incongruence, in between the pieces, I return to the place where fear and absolution meet. The scars hold the memory of fear--the fear of becoming, of cutting, the fear of being, of always becoming. My prayers are love letters to my body, seeking forgiveness, always forgiving. Forgiving the touch of a lover, the touch of a lover forgiving the body. Opening toward beauty. Slattery proclaims, "To be wounded is to be opened to the world; it is to be pushed off the straight, fixed, and predictable path of certainty and thrown into ambiguity, or onto the circuitous path, and into the unseen and unforeseen. One begins to wobble, to wander, and perhaps even to wonder not only about one's present condition but also about one's origins." (9) I think it is no accident that Slattery marks the wound as pushing us off the straight path. I think of queerness in relation to wounding: wounded, no longer straight, crooked, a wobbliness. Sara Ahmed describes queerness as that which is "off line" or "oblique." Queer bodies are those that make things seem "out of line." Queer orientations are "those that don't line up," that see the world "slantwise." (10) Slanted scars with jagged edges. An unforeseen path with each step of transition: Who am I? What am I becoming? Who will I be? Who was I? Asking about my destination requires me to ask about my origin. Every departure and arrival feels like a new risk, always uncertain and wobbly, veering off and carving new paths. Ahmed elaborates, "Even when orientations seem to be about which way we are facing in the present, they also point us toward the future. The hope of changing directions is that we don't always know where some paths may take us: risking departure from the straight and narrow makes new futures possible, which might involve going astray, getting lost, or even becoming queer." (11) Or being wounded? Becoming scarred?
If we revise the scar as a presence rather than an absence or nothingness, then we must account for the ways in which the scars mark our bodies as visibly (or sometimes invisibly) wounded. Slattery writes, "Our wounds name us and give the trajectory of our destiny. They identify and mark us. Our name, along with our wound, records us in the world. And in our identity rest our vulnerable mortal limits. If we can be recognized, then we can be wounded." (12) But I also wonder how misrecognition wounds. How the refusal or inability to see the scar, the refusal or inability to name and identify proper gender creates new scars and opens old wounds. I recall sitting in a room full of people discussing gender in transition. In this group of about fifteen people, there are two transgender men, two transmasculine people (myself included), one nonbinaiy person, and the rest of the group is cisgender. Somebody mentions hormones, and the nonbinaiy person points to the two transgender men in the room and invites all of us to scrutinize their bodies. "Look," this person says, "at what testosterone can do to a body." I am rage and sadness. I am compassion and pain. I am disturbed by the invitation to pick apart the flesh of these two people, to piece together what makes their bodies trans or what makes their bodies the bodies of men. I feel like I am being invited into a home without the permission of the home's occupants. I look away; I look down at my own body, a collection of muscle and tissue, bone and blood, scars and wounds. And I am simultaneously pained and relieved at the misrecognition of my own body, a body that I have been pumping low doses of testosterone into for two years. I am angry and saddened that my body is not recognizable as one that visibilizes what testosterone can do to a body. But I am relieved not to be held up to that scrutiny, not to have the doors to my home trampled in.
The moment feels like a violation. Violent. Jenny Sunden writes, "It seems to take a fair amount of violence to make materially specific bodies coincide with a particular gender." If we can be recognized, we can be misrecognized. We can always be wounded. There is a violence in naming. There is a violence in seeing or not seeing the body for what it is. There is a violence in making and piecing together the body: cutting the flesh, plunging needles full of hormones into muscle tissue. There is violence in racialized medical histories, in the colonization of bodies picked apart and reshaped to advance medical technologies, violence in technologizing the body, removing flesh, reshaping flesh and bone, violence in piecing the body together. Jasbir Puar refers to trans(normative) piecing as "a recruitment into neoliberal forms of fragmentation of the body for capitalist profit." (13) For Puar, the trans body that "pieces" marks "the corn-modification not of wholeness or of rehabilitation but of plasticity, crafting parts from wholes, bodies without and with new organs." (14) These pieces of medical technologies have become so marketable, each piece of the body a purchase, a piece taken from another whole. The body becomes a collection of holes and wholes, but never whole. To be clear, piecing for Puar relies on an assumption that the trans body wants to be or ought to be transgressive. Instead, Puar reveals the trans body as hardly transgressive, but as normatively embroiled in neoliberal market economies, in which "the transnormative subject views the body as endlessly available for hormonal and surgical manipulation and becoming." (15) But my hormonal manipulation did nothing to move me into the transnormative category constructed by my colleague that day. The hormonally and surgically manipulated pieces of the bodies of my two peers were held up for scrutiny while the pieces of my body went unnoticed, rendered into a whole perceptibly without need for rehabilitation, presumably fixed rather than plastic. At the same time, the pieces of my body are constantly transgressing normative categorization, even when I don't intend or desire to be transgressive, but am trying only to make my body habitable. And isn't any body endlessly available for surgical and hormonal manipulation? Hasn't the body always been plastic? Aren't we all normatively embroiled in neoliberal market economies, in the violence of biocapital? If so, how does one become beautiful?
Of course, I must also face the complex ways in which my testosterone use, my literal incorporation into neoliberal market economies, implicates me in systems of biocapital, racism, and colonialism. In Testo Junkie, Paul B. Preciado traces the development of hormone extraction and synthesis technologies that make possible the small vials of testosterone I purchase every few months. I roll the vial between my hands; I stick a needle into the small glass jar and watch the syringe fill with the viscous golden liquid. I will press the plunger and deposit this chemical hormone into my thigh muscle where it will move like a carrier pigeon through my bloodstream. According to Hilary Malatino, the physicians who coined the term "hormone" imagined it exactly in this way, a "chemical messenger," a "carrier pigeon... flitting between organs, delivering bits of information that work to elicit corporeal transformation." (16) A friend tells me how he used to think of himself as a pot roast, the testosterone injection a kind of basting and plumping. Eli Clare thinks of the testosterone as "honey and light, the smell of sugar pine, infusing [him]." Clare names the metaphor as his attempt to escape the medical industrial complex, but he comes to terms with the incongruence of the metaphor and the reality of the drug as a drug: "I wasn't injecting honey and light into me but rather a chemical compound, contributing to the profits of Sun Pharmaceutical Industries. I was stepping through the door held open by the promises of cure." The drug promises a cure of sorts, a response to the diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a way to reshape a body, to provide more pieces to the building of the (beautiful) home of oneself. But this is not a home where birds flit and honey drips. There is a cost--a profit gained, a body gained for bodies lost. Preciado thinks of the organism's ingestion of testosterone as a complicity in the biomedicocapitalist technologies of exploitation: "Each time I give myself a dose of testosterone, I agree to this pact. I kill the blue
whale; I cut the throat of the bull at the slaughterhouse; I take the testicles of the prisoner condemned to death. I become the blue whale, the bull, the prisoner. I draft a contract whereby my desire is fed by--and retroactively feeds--global channels that transform living cells into capital." I hold the vile up to the light, the yellow substance is not honey, but is largely composed of cottonseed oil. Cotton. So many bodies enslaved and broken in the history of cotton cultivation and harvest. I draw that history from the vile into the syringe. As I look at the yellow substance in the syringe, I see the abuse and violence, but I also see the so-called "promise of cure," the substance that elicits a transformation from my body. I pierce my flesh and exhale as I press my thumb to the plunger. My muscles take in the histories of violence, the trauma and its ghosts, the wounds of history enter through a small prick in the skin, a tiny wound that expels back just one drop of blood. In that drop, I pray. I ask for forgiveness in how and what I am becoming.
I think back to Slattery's assertion that the wound carries a deep memory and holds us to something always on the edge of our field of consciousness. I imagine there is a ghost in every wound--another presence in the wounding, something not nothing. In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon engages a methodology of calling up and living with ghosts, asking us to conjure what appears to otherwise be absent. Conjuration, Derrida reminds us, "makes come, by definition, what is not there at the present moment of the appeal." (17) What do we call forth through our wounds and wounding? When I stick a needle into my thigh muscle every week, I move a viscous substance into my body, a substance that reshapes my body in ways I cannot control and cannot predict. I am not sure what I am becoming; I am not sure what kind of body I am piecing together; I am not sure who I am praying to or what I am praying for; I am not sure what I am conjuring and calling to presence--manhood, the appearance of manhood, the ghosts of the abuse I have known at the hands of men, the ghosts of the men and animals who were subject to medical experimentation in order to have the hormone extracted from their bodies so it could be synthesized for entry into mine? All I know is that my body is transforming and will continue to transform. "Conjuring," Gordon writes, "is a particular form of calling up and calling out the forces that make things what they are in order to fix and transform a troubling situation." I do not imagine testosterone as a fix to a troubling situation of my body; rather, the drug, a promised cure to a troubled body, seems to make the body all the more troubling.
Look. Just look at what testosterone can do to a body. Testosterone's conjurations also trouble my body; my becoming is a constant reckoning with ghosts. Derrida further describes conjuring as a magical exorcism that expulses the evil spirits we call up. Each time I pierce my flesh and muscle with the needle, I break the skin; I open the wound. I must open the wound in order to call up the ghosts that need expulsion and to reshape how I carry them with me in a body becoming and transforming. With each wounding, my body builds small amounts of scar tissue. My home is being built of layers of rigid tissue, each wound a scar gained. In my inability to grieve what I cannot imagine losing, I have begun to mourn, as well as celebrate, what I am gaining. Instead of running from the ghosts, I imagine what it means to run toward, to open the wounds, to conjure forth the violence in and of my body, to remake my body in pieces. Conjuring has become a kind of prayer, reaching toward flesh with each injection, with each graze of a fingertip over the rigid lines that cross my chest. My prayers take the form of love letters to all the ghosts I carry and conjure, reaching toward flesh--my body, a practice in building, becoming more and more. Beautiful.
(1.) Slattery, The Wounded Body, 5.
(2.) Salamon, Assuming a Body, 111.
(3.) Ibid., 112.
(4.) Slattery, The Wounded Body, 6.
(5.) Stryker, "My Words," 245.
(6.) Ibid., 254.
(7.) Notley, Benediction, 186.
(8.) Moore, "Teaching," 96.
(9.) Slattery, The Wounded Body, 13.
(10.) Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 161, 107.
(11.) Ibid., 21.
(12.) Slattery, The Wounded Body, 15.
(13.) Puar, The Right to Maim, 36.
(14.) Ibid., 46.
(15.) Ibid., 42.
(16.) Malatino, "Biohacking," 188.
(17.) Derrida, Specters, 41.
Ahmed, Sara, 2006, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Clare, Eh, 2017, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, 1994, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf, New York, NY: Routledge.
Gordon, Avery, 2008, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Hanh, Thich Nhat, 2014, How to Love, Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Malatino, Hilary, 2017, "Biohacking Gender," Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 22(2), pp. 179-190.
Moore, Lisa Jean, 2007, "Incongruent Bodies: Teaching While Leaking," Feminist Teacher 17(2), pp. 95-106.
Notley, Alice, 2015, Benediction, Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions.
Preciado, Paul Beatriz, 2013, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmaco-pornographic Era, New York, NY: The Feminist Press.
Salamon, Gayle, 2010, Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Shipley, Ely, 2008, Boy with Flowers, New York, NY: Barrow Street Press.
Slattery, Dennis Patrick, 2000, The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of the Flesh, Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Stryker, Susan, 2006, "My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage," in Susan Stryker, and Stephen Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader, New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 244-256.
Sunden, Jenny, 2015, "On Trans-, Glitch, and Gender as Machinery of Failure," First Monday 20(4). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i4.5895
Vitello, Paul, 2006, "The Trouble When Jane Becomes Jack," The New York Times August 20. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/fashion/20gender.html
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|Title Annotation:||gender transition|
|Author:||Cerankowski, K. J.|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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