Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis

Necropower, Opacity and Movement

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 lives13. 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”14. 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 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. 

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”15. 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.

Achille Mbembe describes how necropower finds its model in the colonial regime of governance, saying 

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.16

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. 

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”17. 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’ 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”18. 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. 

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 paper19. Relying on Fanon’s accounts of colonial space, Mbembe adds to this that the goal of the occupation is to “render any movement impossible”20. 

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