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In her exciting and provocative book Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality, Gayle Salamon argues the normativity of the transgender body, or perhaps more accurately, that the very sense that marks one as transgender—the gap between the felt sense of being one gender while inhabiting the body of another gender—actually is experienced by every human being, regardless of their gender identification. “This disjunction,” she writes, “need not be viewed as a pathological structure” .
Through a reading of Lacan, Salamon demonstrates the distance between the raw materiality of the body and the ego’s work to create a coherent body image, so one can say, this is my body, even though a fragment of that fullness can only be seen in mirror. Salamon engages the work of Elizabeth Grosz to deconstruct the rush to see what is “beneath” gender performance and then turns to Paul Schilder’s sense of a “body image” that is “multiple (any person has more than one), it is flexible (its configurations change over time), it arises from our relations with other people, and its contours are only rarely identical to the contours of the body as it is perceived from the outside” (29). She adds Freud into the mix as well by discussing his concept of “erotogenicity”—that all parts of the body are capable of being a genital and so what counts as a body part is what is erotogenic, such as a packer. All of these theorists are mainly thinking of the cisgendered, and yet we can see how they also describe transgender subjectivity.
The book’s aim in legitimizing non-normatively gendered people is carried out with sensitivity and a deep political awareness (take for example the book’s focus on transmen and transmasculine people as a way to right the historic emphasis, to the point of exclusion of others, on MTF transsexuals) and yet does not shy away from criticizing trans writers and theorists whose theoretical formulations of trans identities Salamon finds problematic. Having shown how body image and identity is representative of the imaginary, the propensity of many writers to base the claim of the legitimacy and realness of the trans body and identity on its coherence, just like a normative body, shies away from the symbolic, the fragmented, the imaginary, and the discursive; ultimately making this vision of trans materiality “incompossible with subjectivity itself.”
In the book’s most powerful moments, Salamon asks, why are writers of trans subjectivity so afraid of social construction? What queer theory has embraced, trans studies has vehemently rejected, due to a misunderstanding and misuse of theory.
Salamon defines social construction clearly: “our bodies are always shaped by the social world…that what we are able to imagine about what our bodies are or may become—even to decide what ‘counts’ as a body and what does not—is structured by the history of how bodies have been socially understood…This tension between the historicity of the body and the immediacy of its felt sense is the precise location of bodily being.”
Social construction does not rest on the notion of an all powerful choosing subject. The conviction that a transman has arrived at his gender completely independent of society forgets that man is already a social category; really this feeling demonstrates the “inseparability of one’s own experience of gender and the larger social classifications that determine it” . Social construction gives way to a discussion of radical interdependence in Merleau-Ponty and a chapter on the “traversal of sexual boundaries not as an unrepresentable breach but as a negotiation of difference.”
In the two more accessible chapters for the layperson—“Transfeminism and the Future of Gender” and “Withholding the Letter: Sex as State Property”—Salamon speaks about the position of transgender studies in the study of women and gender and queer studies as well as academia at large. Salamon takes a fascinating foray into cultural studies terrain by examining the portrayal of transmen in the New York Times, Jane Marcus’ show “Transfigurations: The Making of a Man,” and the circulation of anxieties around butches and transmen in lesbian communities to complicate the notion that only transsexuals are gender deviant and everyone else possess a normative body. She wraps up the book with a discussion of the broad hand of the state that dictates sex, using a Lacanian framework to understand the categories of gender as they exist in a bureaucracy. Ending on a note that encourages the connection of the previous theory with the political reality highlights the dual strengths of this book, theory and practice.
I found the ideas of this book immensely interesting and incorporated Salamon’s voice into my ever growing understanding of gender. Those who know me will attest that while reading this book, I couldn’t stop talking about this or that amazing thing I learned. I highly recommend it.
Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality
by Gayle Salamon
Columbia University Press
Paperback, 9780231149594, 240pp.