chameleon moves: some ideas about trans-subjectivity

by April Durham . 2  November 2012

Early one morning, the self was gone, carried away by scrupulous refutation of the possibility for Being-human, for ever seeing like God. The singular subject, a self in itself, so dear to the progressive settlement of Modernism, drifted out to sea on a boat of its own construction: colonialism, industrialism, fascism. The self that could improve in Historic time by means of dialectic resolution, toward a Platonic or other ideal was revealed by Foucault as a construction of power, by Derrida as the trace left by language, and by Butler as an often unchosen performance. The discourse of the Self revealed innate, assumed to be being, as wavering object about which lasting claims could not be sustained, and thus removed the viability, with spectacular effect, of the self-contained Self.

The rhetorics of the self, so carefully and thoughtfully mapped out by poststructuralist thinkers, intend to reveal the ways in which discursive arrangements inscribe a notion of subjectivity that seems natural, but is more fully a constructed edifice, and in revealing this construction they posit that it is possible to change the related ways of knowing and constructing diverse versions of the Self toward inclusive, tolerant social configurations. Further, the “linguistic turn” or the “discursive turn” allows a multitude of voices, female and feminine, racialized and colonized, homo- and polysexual, dandified and slovenly, to speak with all their complexity, range, and richness. This vocalization is necessary of course; everyone must speak. Every experience needs to be heard, all possibilities considered, again and again and again.

Still there is something unsatisfying lingering at the edges of the determination of identity constructed in discursive performance, which resists universalizing power strucutures, something that exceeds the containment of the rhetoric. What about seepage? What about the migration of hair oils and bodily fluids, dance moves and facial expressions, lip gloss and lubrication? What happens when the tropes of territoriality seep into neighborhoods from which they do not emanate, in which they are “inauthentic?” What about uncontrolled forces that remain uncontained even when described, that cannot be harnessed, directed, or owned? What if the insistence on territorializing through giving voice becomes another way of racializing, marginalizing, excluding, reinscribing what is being resisted? Perhaps a flaw of using what has been defined as “phal-logo-centric” language to describe everything that is not the phallus in refutation of a dialectics of progress is that the singular subject (redescribed as brown, black, yellow, red; homo-, trans-, bi-; girl-woman, insect, machine) still rests securely at the base of what is liberated. Despite my non-normative proclivities, I am still my own man, woman, companion species, crustaceous decapod, i-device.

Empathy might allow us a moment of intersection, an intersubjective sharing that makes each of us more tolerant of the other. It might. For Husserl, intersubjectivity plays a fundamental role in the formation of both myself as an individual subjectivity and that of some other experiencing subject with whom I engage in an objective spatio-temporal world[i]. There are three components in this exchange of empathy: Me, You, and the space-time continuum in which this exchange occurs. Founded on our beliefs about ourselves, our understanding of an objective world can be largely considered, rational or otherwise, as an ongoing measurement of “Me” in terms of what I perceive in you, through empathic iteration, to be similar, different, or something in between. While intersubjectivity makes it possible to posit an ongoing developmental process, even an evolutionary one in terms of psyche and self, it rests very solidly on the notion that “Self” is and remains contained in the singular bodies sensing it and that “Other” is necessary, if tolerable, to its construction.

It may not seem like such a bad idea: nurturing empathy, tolerance, exchange, evolution in oneself and one’s fellow citizens. Yet, I find that leaving a singular and contained subject lingering unexamined and unchallenged in every deconstruction of the self forges ethical dilemmas that necessarily receive the same kinds of address, the same move toward resolution or admission of the impossibility of resolution, carved into Modernist Humanism that poststructuralism, contemporary feminism, and cultural studies critique.

In this project[ii], I propose unfolding a notion of subjectivity that radically reconsiders the atomistic individual, posited as a separate if integrated part of a larger collective of humanity, and which is at the same time complexly sympathetic to the fact that “each” has “a” body and a psyche with which to perceive, engage, modify, and affect the world. Through the consideration of a particular kind of creative collaborative practice, I propose that aesthetic, processual engagements within situated networks of action/acting provide moments where subjective boundaries become so permeable, so porous, so fuzzy, that they do not hold up and therefore allow a finite event of trans-subjectivity. This extends the possibilities of intersubjectivity in that it slips aside, again momentarily, from the maintenance of individual subjective boundaries, in the instance of engagement: the powerful creative forces affecting those involved in a particular moment move faster and more effectively than our organizing minds can work to contain them.

This sounds like madness, you say, a plunge down Alice’s rabbit hole where names and logics and bodies are frighteningly changeable, horrifyingly illogical, un-locatable as my own. As a palliative for this initial horror, I can only say, it’s temporary. Trans-subjectivity cannot be conceived as a universalizing condition that replaces individuality or singularity. It is more carefully understood as a playful, if frightening slippage that seems unfamiliar but which occurs regularly whether we recognize it or not.

“Why should we play this way?” is the next objection I imagine to arise. “What does this serve?” We are always imagining, proposing communities where each feels safe, has respect for life generally (even non-human vitality), and where difference is tolerated or even nurtured. We know, however, that tolerance, respect, and community are terms with serious limitations, semantically and in practice: tolerance can thinly veil its hateful opposite and can be delivered with condescension, at best; respect for others is tied intimately with respect for oneself, a quality that goes under-tended in a culture intent on keeping its consumer desiring. Notions of “respect,” therefore often stem from hierarchical qualifications based on accumulation of property, knowledge, status, or even offenses (if one is more inclined to the criminal side of things), and can extend only with difficulty to those without these attributes; community of course has many problems, including assumptions around the (again heirarchized) validity of particular “core values” that assume a very narrow notion of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, in and out, resulting in the ultimate exclusion of anyone deviating from these narrow trenches of identificatory “core-ness.”

Because trans-subjectivity arises through intensity, it is only loosely connected to rational formations of identity or to stratifying power structures. It is the result of a commitment to creativity in a particular situation that makes manifest a kind of illogical, “wishful,” and processual experience in which known structures are challenged, even on quantum levels, and through which individuals cannot pass unaffected. I am evolving my theory of trans-subjectivity, at least in terms of inception, through my own experience with a self-managed artists’ working group, Multipoint, constituted in various forms and in different geographies, over the last twelve or so years. The experience has been very particular, and while I will bring other collaborative creative practices and narratives to bear in comparison and in conjunction upon my own experience, the wealth of strange and subtle perplexity evoked by the practice in which I have engaged with many people over these years offers an important basis for me to puzzle through the consequences of both the process and the effects of working in this way. While I still have “my own” creative and scholarly practices, the experiences occurring within the group practice has radically altered my way of perceiving myself, in relation, as both a producer of things and ideas, and as a friend, colleague, and member of various communities. This alteration is what I intend to explore here with all its radical implications and violent hopefulness, toward something that might be more than wishful, utopic desire.


[i] Beyer, Christian, “Edmund Husserl”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries /husserl/>.

[ii] I am referring here to my dissertation project “The Chameleon’s Way Through: Generating Trans-Subjectivity in Creative Collaborative Practice.”

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