Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

"Incarnate Possibilities: Female to Male Transgender Narratives and the Making of Self"

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

"Incarnate Possibilities: Female to Male Transgender Narratives and the Making of Self"

Article excerpt

This essay looks at how transgender subjectivities are formed through self-narrative, what these narratives show us about new ways of talking about ourselves, and how in that talking, we might articulate and produce new ways of being, new forms of self. Transgender writers of self-narrative and memoir challenge what it means to "be" in gender and offer glimpses into new forms of gendered subjectivity, and theorists of gender have argued extensively about what, exactly, transgender as a concept does to gender itself. Do transgender subjectivities expose the constructed nature of binary gender by upsetting gender norms, or do they shore up that binary by choosing "sides"? As a result of this debate, "transgender" has in many ways become the ontological and analytical category that theorists use to work through the problem of gender itself. Increasingly, it serves as a figure through which other anxieties are worked, made to stand in for gender itself.1 Rather than recapitulate or take a side in that debate, this article seeks to describe the emergence and emergent possibilities of new forms of transgender narrativity without making universal claims about the effect of transgender identities and practices on gender as a larger system. In doing so, I resist the tendency in much feminist (and queer) theory to lay the entire burden of upsetting gender normativity on transgender people, as if cisgender people are innocent of gender. This displacement lets gender normative people off the hook rather than demanding attention to the myriad ways that gender structures subjectivity and makes us all complicit in systems of gender, whether we understand ourselves-or others see us-as gender normative or not. Through an exploration of transgender self-narratives, this paper attempts to break out of the bifurcated field of vision of transgender subjectivity in order to see what we might learn from these narratives about critical ways of being in the world, beyond the question of whether or not transgender subjectivity undoes gender norms. In short, this paper is about the productive possibilities of self-narrative.

This question of subjectivity matters not just in theoretical or even personal terms. What we can call ourselves and the structures through which we can imagine and thereby make our lives are fundamentally political, especially given the way in which gender works to organize all scales of social life. Transgender stories, regardless of how they hew to or challenge norms, are political even if the sort of political work that they do or will do is not predetermined. Ken Plummer, in a discussion of storytelling as productive of what he calls "intimate citizenship," has argued that the explosion of self-narrative and autobiographical writing has been essential to "the creation of these new communities of discourse and dialogue championing rival languages, stories and identities which harbour the rights and responsibilities of being sexual, pursuing pleasures, possessing bodies, claiming visibility and creating new kinds of relationships" (150). These stories are part of a process and negotiation of the terms of selfhood and belonging, engaged in the hard political and ethical work of making oneself instead of making a "true" identity once and for all. These narratives demonstrate to readers and produce for the writer a subjectivity in process, a subjectivity in transition. This essay rather than asking whether or not trans narratives fit into a predetermined feminist politic or vision of what we hope to gender become-proliferated and open to choice, according to such writers as Kate Bornstein, Riki Ann Wilchins, Aaron Devor, to name just a few, or altogether rejected as an ontological system, as Bernice Hausman would have it in Changing Sex-will explore how self-narratives work both within and against normative modes of gender without assuming the results of that work.

I. Theorizing Autobiography as Self-Making

The questions that this essay raises concern the production of self on several levels: the self who writes, the self who reads, and the selves constituted through those doings. …

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