Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis

The Flicker

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”1. 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.

Janelle Monae has stated that the main character of her third album, “The Electric Lady”, could “absolutely” by a transgender woman2. On June 9, 2014, Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine in an article titled “The Transgender Tipping Point”3. 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 murdered4

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.5,6 Laverne Cox has described this moment as a “state of emergency for trans people”7. 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 people8. 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, signifier9. 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. 

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