- “Becoming” BodiesAffect Theory, Transgender Jews, and the Rejection of the Coherent Subject
Jewish Law, transgender, queer, material religion, affect
In this article, I consider theoretical scholarship, Jewish Law, and art in order to reject the concept of the coherent static subject and its role in the regulation of bodies. I first examine how trans bodies have been presented monolithically in dominant narratives about transness as “becoming” bodies. In this case, “becoming” is used narrowly to imply that trans people are in the process of becoming fixed as static according to the norms of binary gender. “Becoming” here signals that these bodies have not yet arrived at the normative destination of man or woman, but that such arrival is the singular goal, shoring up the myth of static identity. The effects of such narratives are the ongoing privileging of non-trans, supposedly static, bodies as the norm as well as the limited affirmation of trans people in medical, religious, government, and other contexts. In these contexts, non-trans power holders determine the access and legitimacy extended to trans people according to a narrow definition of trans identity that requires binary, linear, and timely medical gender transition so that trans people too can be fixed as static subjects. I argue instead that the static subject does not exist, and that all bodies are “becoming” bodies. Unlike the narrow usage of “becoming” in dominant narratives about trans people that take normative static identity as the desired point of arrival, I use “becoming” here in a broad sense. I draw on Gilles Deleuze’s writings on affect as existence to argue that being alive is a never-ending process of “becoming”: a series of transitions without destination. In order to explore trans Jewish ways of thinking and being that challenge the static subject and the oppressive gatekeeping of bodies, [End Page 49] I consider two artworks by Nicki Green. In these works, Green centers trans Jewish ways of being that defy the norms of binary transition, creates and reclaims paths to trans Jewish affirmation, and challenges gate-keepers—religious, medical, governmental, or otherwise.
theorizing the becoming body
While both trans and non-trans bodies are constantly in the process of “becoming,” often it is the trans body that is explicitly marked as the “becoming” body, while non-trans bodies—especially those that are white and non-disabled—are framed simply as “being,” as natural, normal, and static.1 One of the central aims of trans theory is to challenge such normative and regulating conceptions. Likewise, affect theory offers a repudiation of the coherent subject that is useful for critiquing the supposedly static nature of bodies, identities, and existence. Jenna Supp-Montgomerie, writing on the use of affect theory for the study of religion, advocates “an understanding of affect that rejects the assumption of a coherent subject and instead allows us to address the interplay of social energy as subjects constantly—and contingently—come into being.”2
Similarly, in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza he explains that affect can be understood as existence itself. He says, “our power of acting or force of existing is increased or diminished in a continuous manner, on a continuous line, and this is what we call [affect], it’s what we call existing.”3 For each of us, our constantly fluctuating force of existing (or “social energy” for Supp-Montgomerie) is diminished or increased based on the interaction between things, such as between a body and what it encounters in the world. Deleuze refers to this state of interaction between things and its effects as “affection.” He explains that each of these states “envelops,” or contains, affect, which is “the lived transition or lived passage” from one state to another.4 These transitions are infinite. Just as we can imagine time being cut into infinite moments, the moments of transition between these states are likewise infinite since there is always a passage between moments. As such, for all beings with lived experience, to exist is to transition, and the coherent static subject is an illusion.
Challenging the framework of coherent subjecthood has direct bearing on the ways trans people are regulated, including within...