Issue 13.3 - 14.1 | 2016 / Guest edited by Patrick Keilty and Leslie Regan Shade

Trans of Color Poetics: Stitching Bodies, Concepts, and Algorithms

On October 6, 2015, Keisha Jenkins was shot and killed in Philadelphia, becoming the twenty-first trans woman killed in the US that year.[1] 2014 saw trans women of color gaining unprecedented visibility in the mainstream media, an increase in visibility that coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of murders, up from fourteen in 2014.[2] While marginalized communities have often struggled for visibility, for trans women increased visibility may mean increased violence and increased surveillance. How can strategies for social change build safety and solidarity for those communities, such as trans women of color, who often desire invisibility? This essay looks to media art to develop a trans of color poetics that can open possibilities of life for trans people of color in movement, where movement includes urban mobility, transnational migration, performance, and social movement. Discussing media made by contemporary artists as well as my own practice-based research project Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets), I engage in a hybrid theory/practice approach, informed by media studies, transgender studies, and performance studies.

There are three registers in this essay: a philosophical consideration of material/conceptual operators, a consideration of the methods of practice-based research, and a discussion of material experiments in a technological artistic milieu. I propose two operations in a trans of color poetics, the stitch and the shift, to add to the ideas of the cut and fold as elaborated by Gilles Deleuze, Joanna Zylinska, and Sarah Kember. I describe the shift in detail in the essay “Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis.” The stitch is an operation of trans of color poetics that can be used to create algorithmic methods for challenging surveillance technologies and contributing to the survival of trans people of color.[3]

Laverne Cox has described the present moment as a “state of emergency for trans people,” a description that invites further consideration of necropolitics.[4] In his 2003 essay “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe offers a response to biopolitics from a global South context, stating that “contemporary experiences of human destruction suggest that it is possible to develop a reading of politics, sovereignty, and the subject different from the one we inherited from the philosophical discourse of modernity. Instead of considering reason as the truth of the subject, we can look to other foundational categories that are less abstract and more tactile, such as life and death.”[5] Mbembe argues that contemporary governance gains authority not only through the promise of life, but also through the guarantee of death for those populations deemed undesirable. I propose trans of color poetics as a poetics of media and movement that works to increase the chances of life for trans people of color and reduce the likelihood of death. Mbembe describes invisible killings as one way necropolitics operates today: the fact that only ten of the twenty-one murders of trans women this year have been investigated makes clear that this is a useful theoretical framework.[6]

Queer of color, trans of color, and transgender studies have long been concerned with issues of invisibility and visibility. I agree with Kara Keeling’s claim that academic studies that seek to make queer and trans people visible are often problematic. As Keeling says, “a ‘looking’ for M— that begins by asking where s/he is now inevitably operates by harnessing the capacity of those temporal structures and epistemological enterprises of policing and surveillance inherent in any framing of questions of representation and visibility.”[7] In writing about trans people of color, specifically trans Chican@s, Frank Galarte points out the need for “exploring what is unannounced, listening for the iterations of silences,” which resonates with my approach to understanding modes of invisibility and imperceptibility.[8] This article takes inspiration from Aren Aizura’s claim that “invocations of invisibility and dehumanization don’t quite tell the whole story… we cannot theorize a trans necropolitics without exploring the mobility of gender variant bodies and the circuits of capital they/we exploit and are exploited by.”[9] Similarly, I claim that one cannot theorize a trans necropolitics without considering, and in this case centering, the forms of movement that constitute the survival strategies of trans people of color and allow them to escape death every day.

My intention here is not to imagine trans people of color as a metaphor for flexibility, which Viviane Namaste has critiqued as an erasure of the lives of actual trans people.[10] Instead, I am looking to the politico-aesthetic strategies of trans and gender nonconforming people of color, and to artists who use similar strategies, to better understand methods of modulating perceptibility that may aid in the project of reducing violence against trans people of color. The stitch is one such method, at work in a trans of color poetics when artists stitch clothing, social bonds, codes, and concepts together with the aim of reducing violence.

The Stitch

Physical bodies in the contemporary world are tracked through networks, biometrically analyzed and electronically surveilled, and often the results of these forms of observation is violence. I propose that an understanding of bodies as networked, and racialized gender as algorithmic, is useful for developing strategies for ending violence against trans women of color. In their book Life after New Media, Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska look at the relationship between bodies and their surroundings in order to “make a case for a shift from thinking about ‘new media’ as a set of discrete objects to understanding media, old and new, in terms of the interlocked and dynamic processes of mediation.”[11] Here I understand processes of mediation to include digital communication networks, electronic surveillance, and medical surveillance, among others. Kember and Zylinska ask what an ethical act is in a field of mediation, and look to the cut as such an act that is both material and conceptual, arguing that “the practice of cutting is crucial not just to our being in and relating to the world, but also to our becoming-with-the-world, as well as becoming-different-from-the-world.”[12] Yet they are careful to state that “one must be careful not to impose moral equivalence between all practices of cutting—for example, slicing someone’s face with a knife in a street attack, remodeling someone’s face in a cosmetic surgery situation or metaphorically ‘cutting’ an aspect of reality with a still or film camera… cutting inevitably entails some degree of violence.”[13] Zylinska and Kember’s reference to the possible violence of the operation of the cut justifies the creation of a new operation for conceptualizing a poetics of anti-violence.

The stitch is a material and conceptual operation, similar to the cut as discussed by Kember and Zylinska and to the fold as discussed by Gilles Deleuze. In The Fold, Deleuze considers the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, which combines both calculus and philosophy, to elaborate the operation of the fold in ontology, art, and media. Deleuze states that “the world must be placed in the subject in order that the subject can be for the world. This is the torsion that constitutes the fold of the world and of the soul.”[14] Deleuze considers baroque art through Leibnizian terms such as the monad, the soul, and God in order to elaborate elements of his own process ontology, such as the multiplicity and the assemblage, building on the mathematics of objects in motion in calculus. The stitch is an operation that involves using one entity to connect two formerly separate entities. While the stitch still can contain an element of violence—penetration of the skin by a needle, for example—I imagine it as less violent than the cut, and intending to join, in the service of healing and creation, rather than in the service of destruction.

Informed by a material practice of making objects by sewing, the stitch describes a poetics of object making as well as a process of making new concepts, as described by Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy? They state that “philosophy is not a simple art of forming, inventing, or fabricating concepts, because concepts are not necessarily forms, discoveries, or products. More rigorously, philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts… To create concepts is, at the very least, to make something.”[15] As sewing is a technique of making that has been used primarily by women throughout history, and continues to be primarily the task of women in sweatshops in the global South, my proposal of the stitch as a material and conceptual operation can be seen as feminist, a way of generating new concepts by learning from people who have been subject to material inequalities because of their gender, their race, and their geographic location. The stitch can be thought of as the basis for a theory of feminist making, which values the forms of knowledge practiced daily by oppressed people as they make their lives in the face of violence. This places the stitch in the repertoire of strategies including the methodology of the oppressed, as described by Chela Sandoval, and the science of the oppressed, as proposed by Monique Wittig and elaborated by the art collectives *particle group* and the Electronic Disturbance Theater (with which I collaborate).[16] The operation of creating relations through the stitch, of finding means to connect groups of people who had been separated, can be seen as an abstraction of the work of women of color feminism, which sought to bring together women across racial lines. The stitch can be a way of imagining the community building necessary to create community-based responses to violence, as demonstrated in my project Autonets and in other prison abolitionist and transformative justice projects around the world. The project of developing a trans of color poetics can be understood as an example of science of the oppressed—and, as such, a contribution to queer and feminist approaches to technoscience, in that it seeks to use various technologies for transfeminist ends.

The stitch is intended to resonate for transgender people who choose to undergo surgery. Many trans people choose, for many different reasons, to surgically modify their bodies, and all of these surgeries involve the cut, the fold, and the stitch. The stitch, in the case of surgery, is a necessary part of healing, a temporary object that holds parts of the body together in order to allow the body to find its own sustenance in a new form. The stitch brings the affect of pain into this consideration of creation and facilitates a change in shape, a shift. Often stitches received by transgender people today are temporary augmentations, dissolvable stitches, which hold the body together during a time of healing and then fall out when they are no longer needed.

Stitches may be used to augment a form such as a body or to create forms out of fabric. The basis for the idea of the stitch is an experience of stitching wearable electronic garments, yet the idea aptly describes many creative practices, including science fiction and speculative writing, media, and art.

Can artists and designers work for social justice by creating objects? Art and design overlap here. While one stream of the history of art has valued artistic autonomy, other artists have been motivated by a desire to change social relations. Design as a discipline has been primarily concerned with creating objects and forms intended for use. In contrast, art movements since the 1990s, including tactical media, new media, and relational aesthetics, have sought to create objects that could change social conditions. Recent movements in design such as speculative design, contestational design, and social justice design share these goals. Yet some theorists question the viability of creating objects in order to change social relations; Rita Raley employs the term “tactical gizmology” to deemphasize objects and instead emphasize tactical media as performance.[17] This article considers artists’ attempts to create objects that embody ideas about how to transform social relations, including work by Adam Harvey, Zach Blas, and Electronic Disturbance Theater, as well as my own work. These artists explore the possibilities for escaping surveillance through clothing, masks, and mobile phone applications.

Algorithmic Analysis

Electronic objects, which are a combination of matter and logic, provide a useful model for theorizing racialized gender. The intersectional model of structural oppression, as described by Kimberlé Crenshaw, is based on an analogy with a material intersection of streets, a location identified by intersecting lines.[18] The assemblage model was proposed by Jasbir Puar to extend the intersectional model to include a concept of identities such as race and gender in transition over time, variable according to location, and destabilized by digital technologies. Puar’s usage of assemblage is based on Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of advanced mathematics, specifically calculus and complex systems, which provide a way to visualize systems in motion.[19] I propose an algorithmic model for thinking through the experiences of trans people of color. Consider an algorithm written in the C programming language. Such an algorithm commonly begins with the declaration of variables, followed by a set of instructions. These characteristics allow us to model the ways that race and gender operate in the contemporary world based on specific forms, such as an algorithm written to describe a specific curve with specific slopes at defined points of inflection based on a complex understanding of specific interactions of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality, in specific places, over time. Algorithms allow one to visualize and articulate multiple locations of intersection and combinations of elements in movement, which would add depth to analyses based on intersectional and assemblage theories. One can create an algorithm to model particular elements of a given scenario or examine the algorithms identifiable within the scenario. For example, one can analyze the algorithms used in media art, digital media platforms, and informatic systems such as biometric surveillance tools in order to make visible the ways that racialized gender violence may be challenged or reproduced in these systems.

Algorithmic analysis is not intended to replace intersectionality. Taking heed of the concerns of Black feminists such as Brittney Cooper who write on intersectionality, my intention is not to move on from intersectionality nor to displace Black women’s academic contributions.[20] Instead, I propose this model to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the relationships between digital technologies, race, and feminism developed in the work of Black feminist scholars such as Simone Browne, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Kara Keeling.[21] One can stitch together multiple acts of shifting into an algorithm, extending Kara Keeling’s proposal for digital identity based in difference with her formula “I = another.”[22] An algorithmic method of analysis can extend the intersectional and assemblage models by offering the possibility of numerous structures, temporalities, and logics that may be identified in a moment of violence against trans people of color, based on the model of source code. Algorithmic analysis is inspired by trans women of color’s usage of digital media, such as Mattie Brice’s digital game “Mainichi,” which allows the player to experience the repetitiveness of racialized transphobic violence. Brice’s game is repetitive in a way that is both algorithmic and performative.[23] Using algorithms to model experiences of violence is a way to take into account the harmful ways that algorithms increasingly define race and class through surveillance and databases; I see this as all the more reason to understand and develop resistant algorithms. Additionally, algorithms can have a wider range of application by considering the abstract form of an algorithm, which is similar to a recipe, a ritual or a game. Algorithms do not need digital technology to exist. Algorithms can be useful ways of imagining and performing possibilities for trans of color life in contemporary mediated environments. Later in this essay, I will provide an example of algorithmic analysis.

Pages: 1 2 All Pages

Next page

  1. Tanveer Mann, “Transgender Woman Becomes 21st Murdered in US This Year,” Metro, October 15, 2015. [Return to text]
  2. Jorge Rivas, “20 Trans People Were Murdered This Year. This Is What Happened,” Fusion, August 20, 2015. [Return to text]
  3. micha cárdenas, “Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis,” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, January 4, 2015. [Return to text]
  4. Sarah Hughes, “Laverne Cox: ‘We Live in a Binary World: It Can Change,’” Independent, May 31, 2014. [Return to text]
  5. Achille Mbembé, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40, at 14. [Return to text]
  6. Tanveer Mann, “Transgender Woman Becomes 21st Murdered in US This Year,” Metro, October 15, 2015. [Return to text]
  7. Kara Keeling, “Looking for M—: Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibility, and Poetry from the Future,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15, no. 4 (2009): 565–582. [Return to text]
  8. Francisco J. Galarte, “On Trans* Chican@s,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 39, no. 1 (2014): 229–236, at 233. [Return to text]
  9. Aren Aizura, “Death, Necropolitics and Ethnographic Method.” In Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco, and Jin Haritaworn (eds), Queer Necropolitics (London: Routledge), 129-48. [Return to text]
  10. Viviane Namaste, Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). [Return to text]
  11. Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, Life after New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012), 1. [Return to text]
  12. Ibid., 75. [Return to text]
  13. Ibid., 89. [Return to text]
  14. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 26. [Return to text]
  15. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5, 8. [Return to text]
  16. Chela Sandoval and Angela Y. Davis, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); particle group, “Nano-Garages,” E-Misférica, August 29, 2012. [Return to text]
  17. Rita Raley, Tactical Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 8. [Return to text]
  18. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 140 (1989): 139–67. [Return to text]
  19. Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). [Return to text]
  20. Brittany Cooper, “Intersectionality,” The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, eds. Mary Hawkesworth and Lisa Ditsch (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). And see also [Return to text]
  21. Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Alexis Pauline Gumbs,; Jessica Marie Johnson, [Return to text]
  22. Kara Keeling, “1 = ANOTHER: DIGITAL IDENTITY POLITICS.” Strange Affinities: The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization. Eds. Roderick A. Ferguson and Grace Kyungwon Hong. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  23. Mattie Brice, Mainichi, November 6, 2012. [Return to text]