Shifting, Flickering Futures: Imagining a Digital Trans of Color Praxis

Version of Record: Cárdenas, Micha (2015). Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.6. doi:10.7264/N3WH2N8D

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Below is a textual version of this Scalar submission.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 We hope you will work your way through the scalar piece, and, when comments arise, leave them in the corresponding text on this site. You can use Command-F (apple) or Control-F (microsoft) to locate phrases in this window.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Thank you for your patience as we test this review method.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 The flicker. Created by the cut and the algorithmic computer generated imagery of the morph. The android reaches their hand up to their ear, inputs a code, and flickers from white to black. They could said to be hacking the black and white binary. Yet this is more than a binary transition, as they are flickering from a white artificial skin of plastic or metal, to a human brown skin of an african-american woman. The crossing is in multiple planes, and by slowing the video down in digital video editing software one can see that it also includes a slight movement, a slight change of shape. The scene is quick, a few seconds at the beginning of “Many Moons”, the introductory video for Janelle Monae’s extensive three part concept album, Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic science fiction “emotion picture” (Janelle Monáe Official Website, 2014). What is important here, though, is not the states before or after the flicker, but the ability to modulate visibility. Modulating visibility, which may include changing one’s form, location or appearance, may be called shifting.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Janelle Monae has stated that the main character of her third album, “The Electric Lady”, could “absolutely” be a transgender woman (Atlanta 2014). On June 9, 2014, Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine in an article titled “The Transgender Tipping Point” (Steinmetz, 2014). As the article’s title conjures, many people saw this as a historic moment indicating a widespread acceptance of transgender people, and the event was made possible by a black trans woman, a trans woman of color, who came to fame through Netflix, a digital streaming video service on the internet. And yet, within days of the issue’s printing two trans women of color in Atlanta, the city that Monae’s label the Wondaland Arts Society calls home, were assaulted on a train, and in the following month four trans women of color were murdered (ROYGBIV, 2014).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 How can one understand this moment, in which a trans woman of color is being hailed by so many as advancing “civil rights” and freedom from discrimination and violence, while trans women of color continue to be the number one target of murder and violence in the US among LGBTQ people, and black trans women continue to be the most targeted group among trans women of color (Democracy Now, 2014, Giovaniello, 2013). Laverne Cox has described this moment as a “state of emergency for trans people” (Hughes, 2014). Her formulation calls for a consideration of Agamben’s state of exception as it applies to human rights discourses, and Mbembe’s reformulation of Agamben’s claims as necropolitcal for colonized subjects, or trans people of color who share histories of colonial violence. The form of contemporary governance has been described by Mbembe as necropolitical in that it no longer only promises to ensure life for citizens, it also promises to guarantee death for those deemed other, including non-citizens who attempt to cross national borders, racialized groups and gender non-conforming people (Sacchetti, 2014). What enables this violence to exist simultaneously to the discourse of an emerging transgender rights movement is the modulation of visibility. This modulation can be seen enacted by oppressed peoples and by institutions of neoliberal, necropolitical power that define the contemporary moment. A focus on a static state of visibility or invisibility is insufficient to account for what Kara Keeling has referred to as the “digital regime of the image”, characterized by a mutable, flickering, signifier (“I = Another”, 56). This mutability is the specialty of trans women of color who face multiple forms of violence on a daily basis, shifting their body and appearance as necessary for survival, at one moment passing invisibly as a cisgender woman and at another standing on stage speaking out against racist, transphobic violence.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 Contemporary science fiction is full of scenes of shifting from visible to invisible, from William Gibson’s book Neuromancer with the Panther Moderns media terrorist organization who wear mimetic polycarbon suits, to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell with thermoptic camouflage. These scenes can be understood as speculative design precursors to the nanotechnological efforts to create materials which can bend light in order create invisibility for soldiers which made significant progress in March 2014 (Gao, 2014). What I am advocating is a strategy similar to Chela Sandoval’s differential consciousness, but deals more with the materialities that allow a shift from visibility to invisibility, and considers the space between states or modes. Perhaps a close consideration of this flickering can aid in the project of locating trans women of color in women of color feminism. This project uses methods from cultural studies, transgender studies, media studies and the materialisms of Deleuze and Barad to consider the politics, aesthetics and ethics of passing and translucency.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Passing is a technique of modulating visibility in order to be perceived as belonging to a particular category. Passing is gesture that brings the contemporary trans subject into an analogous relationship with the flickering digital signifier, where the performative utterance of making one’s body be read in a certain way reveals both its mutability and reveals that one’s body can be a sign with more than one signifier, like the digital image.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Passing is not simply a question of being or becoming visible or invisible, but instead a question of attaining a particular form of visibility. Often, for trans women of color, the question of passing can be determined by the amount of light and the color of light reflected from one’s face and neck. This light can determine one’s ability to survive or not, as in the case of Islan Nettles, a black trans woman who was murdered in New York after her catcaller decided that she was a trans woman (Out Magazine, 2014). These instances of violence recall with undeniable force that passing is not simply a question of identity, but a poetics of relation, a politico-aesthetic Glissant has articulated. Passing involves both the modulation of visibility by the person who is passing but also the reception of that image by the viewer who makes a decision about whether or not a person fits into a particular category.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Passing requires an observer, it involves the modulation of light, but that light needs to reach a retina, and in this moment the quantum mechanics of light are necessary to consider, which is why researchers working on invisibility cloaks are focusing on nanomaterials that are small enough to operate on quantum principles. Karen Barad has proposed a concept of relationally between identities based on these principles that she refers to as “intra-action”, describing the co-constitution of agency, which one can see in operation in the moment of passing (Zylinska and Kember, 186).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 These questions resonate with necropolitical gravity for masculine trans or gender non-conforming people of color as well, like Sakia Gunn, a masculine black woman who some described as trans and who Kara Keeling looks to in order to consider the temporality of black queer lives (“Looking for M-“, 579). These moments reveal how the trans or gender non conforming person of color becomes less than human, becomes disposable. The flickering moment where Cindi Mayweather demonstrates how the first necessary step for Mayweather to become visible is for her to shift from inhuman to human, from android skin to a skin that passes as human. Keeling ties the digital to a specifically black subjectivity with the multiple temporality of many simultaneous possible futures, saying “even the European has been simply passing for ‘the human’ all along and… black subjectivity and black culture, those very concepts created to serve as ‘the human’s’ Other, provide the most fertile soil to till for ways to understand what it means to be “human” in the digital age” (“Passing for Human”, 248). The moment of failing to pass that results in death reveals the complex interplay of race and gender in which non-white gender non-conforming bodies are seen as less than human and therefore disposable and gender-non-conforming bodies are seen as pathologically flawed and therefore less than human and therefore disposable, yet bodies of color that meet white beauty standards are seen as passing for human. The black and white binary which often promises death for black women is temporarily subverted through the strategic use of white beauty standards by black trans women who are able to pass as cisgender women.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 4 The meaning of racialized passing has been an issue of contention between transgender studies and queer theory, such as in the writing of Judith Butler and Jay Prosser, yet Prosser’s critique of Butler does not address the interplay of race that Butler describes as playing a major role in Venus Xtravaganza’s death. Butler sees Xtravaganza’s death as “a tragic misreading of the social map of power” which “falsely constitutes black women as a site of privilege”, by someone who “cannot overcome being a Latina” (Butler, 90). I propose that Xtravaganza’s death was the result of a calculated risk that trans women of color understand they are taking, that her reading of the social map of power was accurate, because there is a fundamental uncertainty in the act of passing. One can never truly know whether one is passing or not, and cisgender black and latina women as well as trans women are subject to the unknowable relational logic of passing. The uncertainty is a place of equivalence between trans of color experience and digital media, and is made visible and audible in the moment of the morph, the fade, the shift in Monae’s and other science fiction works. Many planes in the assemblage of passing intersect to determine whether a trans woman of color will live or die.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Achille Mbembe describes how necropower finds its model in the colonial regime of governance, saying

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2 the sovereign right to kill is not subject to any rule in the colonies. In the colonies, the sovereign might kill at any time or in any manner. Colonial warfare is not subject to legal and institutional rules. It is not a legally codified activity. Instead, colonial terror constantly intertwines with colonially generated fantasies of wilderness and death and fictions to create the effect of the real… As the Palestinian case illustrates, late-modern colonial occupation is a concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical. (Mbembé, 2003)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Mbembe points to Foucault’s definition of racism as the basic structure of a mode of politics that finds it’s purest contemporary example in the occupation of Palestine. The Palestinian resistance are also a remarkable example of the modulation of visibility, in that only through sheer invisibility can one hide dozens of rockets in an occupied territory as heavily policed and surveilled as Palestine. Yet for the resistance to survive and achieve efficacy in the regime of networked digital images, they must be able to modulate between states of absolute invisibility and spectacular visibility as their rockets fly in the air captured by the digital cameras of reporters and distributed through global media networks on television and the internet all around the world.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 On July 18th, 2014, Anonymous, the global hacktivist movement, performed #OpSaveGaza in solidarity with Palestine, a “coordinated cyber-attack” which has “taken down over a thousand of crucial Israeli websites” (International Business Times UK). Artist and theorist Zach Blas has written about the relevance of Anonymous for queer politics, calling techniques like theirs “informatic opacity”, the ability to be opaque to informatic surveillance as seen in the NSA’s prism program and biometric facial recognition systems (Blas, 2014). Blas’ writing is based on decolonial theorist Edouard Glissant’s writing. Blas writes “Glissant’s aesthetico-ethical philosophy of opacity… is paradigmatic: his claim that ‘a person has the right to be opaque’ does not concern legislative rights but is rather an ontological position that lets exist as such that which is immeasurable, nonidentifiable, and unintelligible in things” (Blas 2014). What I would add to Blas and Glissant’s ideas is that the ability to be nonidentifiable is exercised daily by trans people who simply pass, or by femmes of color who can be unnoticed when passing through a dangerous situation. What matters most is not the moment of being opaque or invisible, or the moment of being visible and therefore representable, as so much identity politics has focused on, but the ability to shift between being visible and invisible. Following Deleuze, Bergson, Massumi and Keeling, I am arguing for a focus on movement over position in order to account for the contemporary realities of the fields of mediation that form the ground for contemporary western identities, but also to account for the lives of trans people of color for whom shapeshifting is not only a desire, but a necessity for survival.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Yet the modulation of visibility is not only a form of resistance, it is also a form of oppression, as Mbembe points out in the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which relies on techniques of “hologrammatization” and creates a situation in which “invisible killing is added to outright executions”, and a discussion of androids would be incomplete without a consideration of drones, that operate with invisibility only belied by aurality, though a deep consideration is beyond the scope of this paper. Relying on Fanon’s accounts of colonial space, Mbembe adds to this that the goal of the occupation is to “render any movement impossible” (29-30).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 3 As Anonymous demonstrate, the ability to shift between informatic opacity and spectacular visibility is what matters most for a contemporary political movement to enact change within a neocolonial regime facilitated by global digital networks. Monae’s character Cindi Mayweather demonstrates this ability to shift from spectacular to invisible in many ways. One way is that over time, her gender presentation shifts between android gender on the cover of “Metropolis: The Chase Suite”, butch or female masculine in “The ArchAndroid”, and femme in “The Electric Lady”. In the narrative described, in the ArchAndroid, she is “the Alpha Platinum 9000, a droid optimized for rock performance, often cloned but never equaled. Cindi is on the run, having fallen in love with the human millionaire Anthony Greendown – a pairing which, in Metropolis, is against the law” (io9). Yet in The Electric Lady, Monae is exploring the history of black feminists such as Assata Shakur, living in hiding and having a movement of people not in hiding who are in solidarity with her. In the video for “Primetime” we see Cindi Mayweather, both an android and a programmer of androids, hacking black female androids and presenting a femme gender appearance. One might describe this as a kind of femme camouflage, exploiting the perception of femmes as ineffective or unimportant to hide her revolutionary anti-droid slavery agenda. This femme disturbance of the logics of visibility and representation recalls Keeling’s black femme function. Still, Mayweather’s android gender seeps through in the wide eyed gaze Monae performs in photographs, a kind of gender presentation that exceeds racialized expressions of masculinity or femininity. Monae states “”The lesbian community has tried to claim me… But I only date androids” (Rolling Stone). Her embodiment may be seen to borrow from Little Richard, another black, queer, gender non conforming figure central to developing the style of rock and roll that Monae’s music follows at times. Yet given the way that her performance of android is at times presented as her own life story, Monae’s gender presentation may be seen as a form of Taquiyya, a shia form of what Nandita Biswas Mellamphy calls “hypercamouflage” that advocates complete invisibility through living among the enemy (Mellamphy). Mayweather’s underground life in “The Electric Lady” follows this pattern.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In the video for “Primetime”, the interface through which Mayweather programs her android gogo dancers is a translucent interface which appears in the surface of their skin. Offering a possible reimagining of the idea of This Bridge Called My Back as this interface called my back, the backs of these androids are interfaces for their types of movement, and the interfaces are translucent, able to be hidden or made visible in an instant. Throughout the video, translucent interfaces hover around the performers. While these interfaces have been made popular through films such as Minority Report, Monae’s use of them materializes a future that sees black people as the skilled operators of ubiquitous computing devices. Further, Mayweather’s control over the transformation her own body through algorithmic digital processes of iteration imagines the black trans person, with the ability to shift their shape and color outside of gender norms, as the paradigmatic example of a futurity beyond the racialized optics of android hunting. This apocalypse is brought on by android intelligence surpassing that of humans, the singularity and Monae says is her vision of the future (io9). In an interview with io9.com she articulates that her goal is not just to create speculative fiction, but to prepare people to be able to survive the impending apocalypse. To do so, Metropolis relies on histories of slavery, colonization and black feminism to create models for resistance in a future where computing devices not only surround us and surveil us, where they are on our backs, where they make constitute us, where we are media.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 Considering Zylinska and Kember’s writing, I propose that shifting is a form of cut relevant to contemporary digital media and that shifting exemplifies Zylinska and Kember’s take on Heidegger’s concept of originary technicity when they say “we are media… what is important for us isthe acknowledgement of the mutual co-constitution of mediaand usalong both cultural and neural lines, that is, the intertwined process of media coproduction” (13, 164). Shifting is a form of communication, of media, as anything that can change state can carry information, and further, the transformation of bodies is often facilitated by the addition of technologies to a body, such as administered hormones or lipstick. Any emerging politic must account for more than visibility, but for the forms of communication it makes possible, including movement and shapeshifting as well as aurality, tactility and texture. Zylinska and Kember write “a bio/ethics that remains attuned to the temporal fluidity of media calls on us to envelop interventions from the midst of the field of life forces, so to speak. It can also equip us with a series of techniques and strategies for enacting what Karen Barad has termed ‘agential cuts,’ which ‘enact a resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological (and semantic) indeterminacy’”(169). The “temporal fluidity of media” and the “ontological (and semantic) indeterminacy” are both made evident in the moment of shifting seen in Monae’s “Many Moons” video, and the difference in before and after states allows the viewer to see the effect of the cut, an ethical cut in this case that allows for the potential of safety for a gender-non conforming person of color.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 How can a trans of color feminism, a form of praxis that includes theory, activism and cultural production, be created today to account for the historical absence of trans women in women of color feminism and the continuing fact that trans women of color are the number one target of violence among LGBTQ people in the US? How can this movement be built in a post-identity, post-racial, post-feminist moment? Any claims of “post” rely on an imposition of temporality, in which these categories might be able to be described as “over”: identity is over, race is in the past, feminism is over. Yet Kara Keeling calls attention to the multiple temporalities of possibilities of queer and trans of color lives without violence when she asks,

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 “undisciplined and vulnerable, firmly rooted in our time, might we nevertheless feel, even without recognition, the rhythms of the poetry from a future in which M — might be? Might we allow those rhythms to move us to repel the quotidian violence through which we currently are defined without demanding of the future from which they come that it redeem our movements now or then?” (“Looking for M-“, 579)

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 To account for some of these claims of “post”, one can look to Keeling’s work to reconcile older models of identity politics, such as women of color feminism with the contemporary regime of the digital image through the equation “I = Another”. Advocating a digital identity politics, Keeling states “‘I = Another’ does not jettison identification as a political strategy but introduces difference into the equation,” and “this formulation of identity as difference captures the sense of transformation, rather than rupture, that characterizes many liberation movements in their contemporary configurations and describes the processes of identity and identification facilitated through the media that sustain, educate, challenge, and recollect those movements” (“I = Another”, 56).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 To add to this formulation of identity in difference that Keeling uses to reconcile Audre Lorde’s “house of difference” with algorithmic media, interactive digital media, I look to Tara McPherson’s claim that analyses of the visual representations of digital media are incomplete as long as they do not account for the code that produces them (Nakamura, 35). This claim extends queer of color critique’s claims that analyses that are do not account for the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality are incomplete. Considering Jasbir Puar’s critiques of intersectionality that replaces the concept with assemblage in order to account for “forces that merge and dissipate time, space and body against linearity, coherency and permanency”, one can see the moment of shifting as crucial to a contemporary logic of identity that can exceed neoliberalism’s attempts to manage categories, while still being limited by logics offered by digital technologies that are themselves the product of western logic and neoliberal economies (128).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 In a poetic mode, I have described both Kara Keeling’s black femme function and Janelle Monae’s ability to dance between identities through code poetry in my performance of “Femme Disturbance” at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (Micha Cárdenas). The code poems follow.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0  

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 femmeDisturbance.keeling.blackFemmeFunction () {

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 delete visibility;

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 if( commonSense.disrupt(racist) && commonSense.disrupt(sexist) && commonSense.disrupt(heteronormative) )

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 {

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 //once these forms of commonsense have been disrupted

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 //exit this entire computational paradigm and

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 //split off into a new imaginary computational system

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 //yet to be defined

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 fork(blackFemme(revolutionary, anticapitalist));

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 }

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 }

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0  

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0  

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 femmeDisturbance.janelleMonae.flickerBetweenRealities(){

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0  

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 //initialize

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 delete race;

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 delete gender;

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 delete humanity;

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0  

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 1 //flicker

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 while ( perform(androidNotHuman) ) {

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 miscegenate( human );

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 //literally

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 go(insane);

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 danceDefyingGravity();

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 }

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 }

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 1 Code poetry performs the indeterminate aesthetic of poetry through the multiple temporalities of the algorithm. The poem can be read in order of execution, as a textual poem or as a structural concrete poem. Looking to an algorithmic model of identity that can represent shifting, we may want to replace “I = Another” with “I = x” where x is a variable that can change over time, iteratively, perhaps being replaced with possibilities Keeling offers such as “you”, “us”, or “I”. This model accounts for the multiple possible futures described by Keeling. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Lisa Nakamura have also considered the possibilities of race as code or “a technology and a mode of mediatization” (Nakamura, 38). By focusing on the moment of shifting, as made visible by Monae, the algorithmic moment of changing identities and embodiments replaces any static identification. One could look to the assembly language instructions that might comprise a line of C code such as “x = 1;” to see the inner workings of this moment of identity, or the voltages that make up lines of assembly language that Chun uses to point blur the distinctions of analog and digital (143). Or one could look to the pixel color and location blending algorithms of software that creates digital video morphs such as those in Monae’s video, or the video compression algorithms in the code of the Netflix player that create the illusion of smooth movement in Laverne Cox’s scenes in Orange is the New Black, or the Javascript code that makes the pages of this Scalar book fade in and out. Or, in an effort to decolonize technology, one could understand an algorithm for shifting between identities to be a series of steps, describable in any number of languages, and as analogous to a prayer, a ritual or a game. Doing so may provide a path towards a decolonial strategy for identity shifting that can evade the colonial logics of necropolitics.

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