ANDREA LONG CHU is a writer, critic, and doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University, where she is currently completing a doctoral dissertation titled “Bad Politics.” Her areas of research include affect theory, trans/feminist/queer theory, cultural studies, phenomenology, and aesthetics. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Artforum, Women & Performance, and TSQ, with work forthcoming in Bookforum, differences, and the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. She sits on the editorial collective of Women & Performance.
CJLC: While we were reading your essays, we were thinking about how desire relates to genre: how desire as you characterize it is slippery and resistant to forms of moral and other orderings, while genre suggests some kind of stickiness, or congealment within writing, reading or living practices. Could you map out how you think about that as a starting point?
ANDREA LONG CHU: I think of desire as something that’s always happening to you. There’s no authentic place from which what I want is welling up spontaneously, so it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between desires that belong to me and that is imposed. A social pressure is usually a desire that you didn’t desire. There’s not just pressure from the outside, but it feels like you want something but that you might not want to want it. I tend to think of desire as what’s keeping people hooked into the world, or into worlds.
Genre is my way to talk about form. I desire a theory of form without a Theory of Forms, like Plato. Take gender: we’ve had Gender Trouble, gender performativity, social construction, we all have internalized that, to a certain extent, within the academy, popular culture, certain parts of the internet. But none of us stopped believing in the existence of women. None of us stopped believing in the existence of gender, either, at least in terms of lived reality—you walk down the street and you know (with some margin of error but not a very high one): That’s a woman, or that’s a man. Those things come to you as if spontaneously. Which is why I say everyone is a gender essentialist whether they like it or not.
Genre can be a productive way to think about not just but especially gender, as a set of aesthetic conventions geared toward producing a certain result, which are not criteria exactly. Part of how a genre works is that you know it when you see it and you can’t actually enumerate criteria for it. A genre always involves both knowledge and non-knowledge–a kind of knowledge that to work, has to hide itself.What makes you ask about the relationship between those things?
CJLC: I was trying to digest this idea of desires being heteronomous–you describe it as something that comes to you, arrives to you spontaneously from the outside. And so I was attempting to imagine where it might originate or why it originates in the specific ways that it does?
ALC: One of the questions running through my work is this question of the political reeducation of desire—a kind of optimism that has circulated for a long time in feminism and more recently in queer theory and other disciplines. The question I get all the time is about “no fats, no femmes, no Asians,” as it circulates on Grindr—a case where there’s clear marks of racism, misogyny and imperialism on the way that desire has been formed. On the one hand we can run a political analysis of a formation of desire. The problem is that that analysis doesn’t seem to speak to that experience of that desire because you don’t experience that desire as formed, you experience it directly, most of the time.
But having that analysis usually doesn’t make you stop wanting what you want. An example of this is self-loathing. Say you are a woman, a feminist woman: you look in the mirror and say, “I don’t like my nose, I can see a double chin coming in, I don’t like my gut.” You can run all your feminist analyses of patriarchy, beauty standards, the cosmetics industry, the fashion industry, Hollywood, Instagram, all of these forces. You can be a very good Foucauldian about the whole thing—but still you don’t feel better. Not only do you not feel better, you probably feel worse because now what little agential leeway that you’ve pried open through critical analysis is now being spent on still hating yourself. So feminism didn’t actually make you feel better, it just proved that you’re politically retrograde. So now you’re ugly and stupid.
I’m sympathetic to that first half, where it really seems that there are some desires that shouldn’t exist. It seems like there has to be a way to get rid of desires that involve racial exclusion or desires that actually involve sexual violence or hating women. But then when we turn to ourselves its not clear we’ve found a set of techniques that reliable produce change in our own desires. This is a site of great denial and disavowal. The political cultures that have grown on the internet in the feminist blogosphere and trans Tumblr world are very much about: How can we change the way that we have sex, change the way that we desire, to make the world a better place so as to, say, fight colonialism? So you can go on EverydayFeminism.com and find moral listicles that are a contemporary catechism for “9 Ways You Can Have More Body-Positive Sex With Your Non-Binary Partner” or something like that. As if you could transfigure what you did in bed with your partner into some political act that was going to be resisting something. And as if that’s something that we should require of people and what they do in bed.
CJLC: Maybe we could return to the question of genre and desire from there—how desire might slip over onto the genre side of things, where you recognize desires and you don’t know quite why they exist but there is nevertheless a connecting or congealing or stickiness in their patterns of emergence?
ALC: I see genre as the set of conventions for showing you how you might feel about something. Those don’t have legislative power. Tragedy can be said to be sad, whether or not it makes one sad. You can recognize the formal elements of being sad or trying to make you sad whether or not you’re personally choked up at it. Nonetheless, aesthetic conventions show you how to feel or show you how to feel about how you feel. I certainly think we want genres. We are often pursuing aesthetic forms that will help mediate our experience of our own feelings. They are just as often politically embarrassing as they are anything else.
Take, for instance, autogynephilia, which is part of this much maligned sexological theory starting in the eighties by sexologist Ray Blanchard. He said he wanted to schematize transsexual women, who he imagined to be men. The idea was that there were two types of transsexual women. First you have homosexual transsexuals, by which he means straight trans women, that is, people who were gay men and then transitioned because they wanted to have sex with straight men. The other category is autogynephilic transsexuals. He invents this word autogynephilia to refer to a transsexual who is in love with the idea of herself as a woman, who is sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman. Both of these categories we’re supposed to sort of reject outright, as being transphobic and pathologizing, and all of the other reasons that we, as people who have read Foucault, are supposed to be skeptical of the medical establishment.
But if you go on Reddit or Tumblr, you’ll find people using this term to describe what they feel. Sometimes in jest—but there are also folks using it the way that we use other terms that come from medical vocabulary like transsexual, dysphoria. (And remember, there are people who oppose the word dysphoria, too, on the grounds that this is pathologizing, demeaning, dehumanizing.) What that criticism misses is that there are real women in the world who have feelings that do feel descriptively matched by that. There absolutely are trans women who are aroused by the image of themselves as women. That’s a totally well-recognized phenomenon. What I mean is, autogynephilia, as a word, is not actually a discursive mechanism for disciplining subjects—or maybe it is that—but it’s also an aesthetic form that producing an armature on which you can then hang your feelings. It can be a relief to find out, there’s a word for this way I feel, it helps me develop some structure of expectation around my own feelings, which by themselves originate outside of me even as I am experiencing them.
Maybe you can’t have a world without any genre. Maybe you would just stop being hooked into experience at that point. We can be post-gender—big maybe there—but we can’t be post-genre. Something like ‘autogynephilia’ is giving you an armature to hang your feelings on that’s necessarily shared. The paradox of the aesthetic form is that when I say that the painting is pretty, it’s limited to my own subjective experience. Yet when I say it’s pretty, I don’t say it because I think it’s remarkable that I have this specific relationship. I’m saying it for everyone. It’s pretty for me, for everyone. Genre means there’s other people out there, and yet they are not capable of having the same experiences that you’re having. There is a real isolation there. The aesthetic is a way out of that, which is why it’s so necessary and inescapable. How do you share what cannot possibly be shared? That is the question of the aesthetic.
CJLC: In one of your essays you footnote this phrase “nonce taxonomies.” Thinking about how you take this in a more capacious sense, forms of community and contradictory ways of either recognizing or seeing into and then moving through that stickiness you mentioned, picking things up. Could you talk about that in relation to #metoo and that Reddit is where people air their desires but also where they pick them up—they become tractable. So desire isn’t reducible to orientation but is constituted through relation, which also pushes against the binary of ‘assimilationist vs. political righteousness’ in how those things are formed. This takes a new lens at the pearl-clutching anxieties of the anti-penetration lesbian-feminism of the 70s and its current iterations, alongside other technologies of sex and sexual relations that go in a different direction, considering again reddit and sissy porn, but also the Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, zine culture that is both historical and instructive—all these different technologies facilitate, produce, or generate desire. How you see them seeping into, or re-shaped through the terrain of the internet and other media.
ALC: “Nonce taxonomies” (and the phrase is Eve Sedgwick’s) are, in a crude sense, the way we invent names for things that don’t have names. Absolutely this is happening on the internet. Almost everything in the world doesn’t have a name. We can get so caught up in the convention of academic writing, using buzzwords and forms of argumentation that are tried and true and that get us brownie points or telegraph a certain political or critical savvy. I’m sure we all have those buzzwords and can name the ones we hate the most and probably also have a couple that you still really like to use—and there’s nothing wrong with a buzzword qua buzzword. But here’s so much of the world that remains to be disclosed through the name.
CJLC: Could you speak more to this naming, what happens, what are its effects?
ALC: The first task for criticism is coming up with names for things and not assuming that we are even close to being done just with the process of nominating things. At the same time, a name or at least a concept—insofar as those names are concepts—those are always fantasies too. Every concept is a fantasy, premised like every other fantasy, on the reduction of life’s noise into something you can hum. You have to exclude things to make a good concept. The worst concepts are the ones that try to actually be too faithful to the messiness of the world. They don’t end up meaning anything. Sometimes folks say “Oh, I don’t want to define affect” and they’ll use that in the name of methodological flexibility. But the truth is it’s always going to be a lie. A theory is not a true statement of the world, a theory expresses a desire. I would rather that be clearer than not—if you’re gonna lie do it well. The question is whether it’s a good lie about the world or not. Something like neoliberalism as a concept is a pretty bad lie about the world insofar as it mushes a lot of things under the same wing, but that can be applied willy-nilly to almost anything one runs into.
Naming is happening everywhere and happens in subcultures of all kinds. That’s not unique to the internet but the internet has introduced a new twist in that process of subcultural name-giving, particularly around gender and sexuality. You can go on tumblr and it’s not just like there’s cis, trans, non-binary—you can find all kinds of things—agender, bigender. A lot of asexuality discourses also developed on Tumblr.
There can be an anxiety about projecting these names into the past and this comes back to the question of what comes first, the name or the thing. So it’s, “Trans people have always existed; queer people have always existed. I can show you how these things stretch back into history.” Often there’s some implicit reference to indigeneity, which may or may not be fetishizing, and a real anxiety that the fact that the name has just been invented will mean that the identity was just invented. You see this anxiety on the next stratum up from Tumblr which are these blog sites like Everyday Feminism that troll through Tumblr and then on the next level up (Jezebel, Teen Vogue, them.us). I don’t share that anxiety. It’s much more interesting to trust in the power of nomination to bring about a different kind of world. Transsexual was invented in the early twentieth century, Magnus Hirschfeld if I’m remembering correctly. Transgender as an umbrella term comes in the mid- to late twentieth century. Trans as an umbrella term is a more recent thing. Non-binary and some of the associated terms are fresh off the press, in the longue durée of history. The point of giving a name to something is to say that it’s real, without its having to have always been real. There is a real creative force to giving something a name. And those names are lies too, but they might be better lies for what we want.
The gender politics coming out from Tumblr is best understood the way everything on Tumblr is understood, which is to say, as a fandom. Tumblr is essentially a social media of fans, and fandom is a certain kind of subculture that operates through the exchange of often highly detailed forms of knowledge. We could probably on the fly say there’s lots of different kinds of subcultures that are unified by a set of practices, and fandom practices have to do with knowledge, with what we could call “trivia” or “lore.” That information is shared not because it’s true—usually we’re talking about fandoms around fictional franchises, films, books—but because they’re a way signaling to others “I belong in this group that you’re in.” Which is especially necessary when you’re on Tumblr and you’re some queer living in an area where there aren’t a bunch of other queer people, so you’re going online and trying to find community there. Signaling becomes important not just because you want to be part of the group but because the group doesn’t actually exist, it’s a projection through those signaling practices. Having the knowledge, for instance, of those different gender identifiers, or having a theory of the gender binary as a settler colonial invention that operates in X, Y, and Z ways—it’s not because those things are true or not true. It’s because that’s what everyone else in this group is talking about and I want to be part of that.
So what are essentially minute and subculture specific protocols have gotten blown up into mainstream proportions—and not without difficulty. The question of orthodoxy that circulates in queer circuits online and in person is partly a relic of what happens when subcultural protocols get mainstreamed, and what was once not a rule but just a means for conjuring belonging becomes rules, prohibitions, the listicle. What’s going on with sort of online internet trans politics is what happens when a fandom sees a rapid influx of members and doesn’t necessarily change to fit that.
CJLC: These really resonates, about these kind of subcultures that are themselves world-building, creative rather than wholly contingent in some sort of historical facticity, like the question of the reality is not the question. Gesturing towards your essay “On Liking Women” and article on sissy porn where desire is both partially generated and mediated through technology and texts, how may that relate to other perhaps outlaw demonstration of desire and sexuality? There seems that at times specific technologies of sex travel, at least in part, through texts– fisting and Michel Foucault, muffing and Mira Bellwether, sissification and Tumblr, the list goes on. How do you see this mediation or production of desire as relational beyond human relation? What politics are, if at all, happening at these sites?
ALC: It’s important, theoretically, to take sex as something ordinary, which is different than to say to normalize. By making it ordinary I mean that it’s subject to the same set of affective preoccupations as standing in line at the grocery store or sitting on the subway have. It’s often about desire, it’s not often about sexual desire. The famous Oscar Wilde quote is “everything in the world is about sex except sex; sex is about power,” which is half right. Everything in the world is about sex; sex is usually about everything else. You often have sex for the reason that you watch TV, which is really not quite much of a reason but because it’s there and you’re trying to either reproduce some sort of sameness. If you’re in a relationship with the same partner there is a desire to just establish continuity over time and sex is just one of the things you do. Or you have sex because you’re trying to feel a particular way about your body or because you’re trying to get in touch with capital ‘P’ Politics.
You absolutely can have sex for political reasons. Solidarity can be arousing, as can the idea that you’re actually producing some sort of political change in the world. But I would say it’s not political in so far as it doesn’t have the kind of efficaciousness and maximal intentionality that is supposed to be behind political acts. It’s much more like watching TV than it is like protesting in the streets. Protesting in the streets can also be like watching TV, which is why the question of how do we refine sex into something that isn’t going to be infected by the patriarchy anymore, from the Seventies, ultimately never panned out. Enjoyment proved not very vulnerable to critique and the stakes could always get higher—down to very minute gestural things, like who’s supposed to be on top, who’s supposed to be using what part of their body, how they’re using it—everything can fall under that rubric of is it doing politics enough. The impossible dream of lesbian sex during the Seventies was that you would just fall over on your side, and stare respectfully into your partner’s vagina without topping, without any butch–femme, without any whips and chains, and it didn’t work.
CJLC: I’m interested in your thoughts about other technologies that are often either viewed as political but forms other kinds of relation instead of or in addition– bridging the gap between particular encounters that have media-attachments and, sissy porn as highly mediated or like porn in general as facilitating niche communities and what kind of relation lies therein.
ALC: One of the interesting things about porn period, which sissy porn is only a sort of underscoring in large pink gel pen, is that it’s totally possible to have sex with things that are not human. There’s a real sense in which you’re having sex with your screen when you watch porn. That’s not a figure of speech, it’s actually happening.
CJLC: Something that came up when you were talking about sex as a political act or not a political act right now, thinking about how when sex is a productive force in that it’s like sex work and the realm of sex variously, how does that change the ordinariness of sex? And this is sort of related but not completely, I was thinking about what you said about fandoms and desire and a lot of that being expressed as sexual desire even if it’s not necessarily. I was just thinking about stan twitter and people saying “I’m just a hole”, thinking about that way of organizing desire.
I was also looking at “On Liking Women” specifically the sentence where you talk about how “transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire” in relation to fandom. It presents itself as a certain identity but a lot of the force of desire is to be in kinship with others.
ALC: I don’t know that sex work actually changes the ordinariness of it. The feminist anti-sex work line is that it’s like ripping sex out of the everyday and placing it in the chains of commodification, as if people had sex outside of that, and someone like Kathleen Barry, who was a second wave anti-porn, anti-sex feminist of the Eighties, would say that the scene of sex work becomes the scene of all heterosexual sex, but they still held out for a concept of good sex in which there won’t be any power and everything will be totally consensual lie in a real sense and not in the sense of capitalist patriarchal consent. None of that is true.
On this question of fandom and desire: First, there’s shipping, which I’d imagine would have to do with some identificatory force that says “I want to be this person” and “This person should have sex with that person.” But then there are other kinds, where if you’re talking about fanfiction, or other forms of fandom on Twitter or Tumblr, or stanning, that are immediately sexual—in some sense, the relation to the fan object, whether it’s a real thing or not, is always “I wanna be fucked by that thing,” probably more than “I wanna fuck that thing.” It probably is a bottoming relation—like all the tweets about people who would let Jeff Goldblum sit on their face or whatever. There’s something to be said about wanting sex to make you into something—something that you want of sex which constantly is presented as a possibility and constantly withheld.
Sissy porn is, for instance, porn about a desire for sex to make something happen. You want to become a woman by being fucked. That could be thought of as a subset of a larger question: It’s not that we are certain things, therefore want to have sex, it’s that we want to have sex in certain ways so as to produce a kind of identity that, because it’s not there, will never quite necessarily feel real, which is why you have to go have sex again. Sissy porn is about being for an anonymous someone else, articulating a form of gender that is relational. We’re supposed to say as trans people, “I transitioned for myself, I wouldn’t transition for other people.” Of course you transition for other people. If it was just me sitting in a room in a universe in which I was the only person it would make no sense. The point is that you want other people to behave in specific ways, vis-a-vis you.
There’s an optimism that because sex involves, as it were, setting up a computer program and then running a set of relations. There’s a chance for experimentation in sex. I don’t mean that in the “kissing a girl in college” experimentation, though that falls under this, I mean actually getting to try on different kinds of relationality in a way that you don’t usually get to. Which doesn’t just mean different sexual positions, it also means getting to attend to the specific shape of your desire. “I want you to do this thing to me and then for me to be a little scared but also kind of annoyed at you.” There can be room in sex for this—even in the straightest, most vanilla sex, which in its first iterations is often bad not necessarily because there isn’t pleasure happening in both people but because so few forms of relationality are being worked with. It’s impossible to have heterosexual sex—to actually mimic it in exactly the way it’s supposed to happen, you have a better chance shooting proton torpedoes into the Death Star. There’s a very very small window of opportunity where straight sex happens the way that it should.
Sex is maybe one of the rarer opportunities to explicitly think about and adjust relationality. Not in big ways. Even people who are into kink are bound by habits and scripts. No one is constantly spicing it up. You can’t eat straight spice! But it can be a space for trying out different ways of relating that you might then be able to carry over into other aspects of your life. It’s not about identity, it’s about getting to be for someone else. There’s messiness where you’re figuring out how to relate.