- Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement by Jian Neo Chen, and: Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment,and the Aesthetics of Change by Eliza Steinbock
by Jian Neo Chen
Duke University Press. ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise Series. 2019. 200 pages.
$89.95 hardcover; $23.95 paper; also available in e-book.
by Eliza Steinbock
Duke University Press.
2019. 288 pages.
$99.95 hardcover; $25.95 paper; also available in e-book.
The expansive field of trans media studies is where one can find some of today’s most salient scholarship on visuality’s epistemological, technological, and embodied politics and aesthetics. Two outstanding first books in the field, Jian Neo Chen’s Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement and Eliza Steinbock’s Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change, thus go well beyond simply expanding the content of existing categories of cinema and media analysis.1 They shift the conditions [End Page 207] for thought about visibility and its attendant social, political, and methodological implications. Drawing on micha cárdenas’s notion of transreality as a counteraesthetics that remixes and reconstructs dominant social reality, both authors offer timely and fascinating readings of trans media forms and techniques, displacing representation as the analytical category best suited to thinking trans lives and media together. Critically, both works succeed in their sustained critiques of the singular flash of representational visibility as a kind of capture that fails the richness of trans experiences. Both books likewise critique and counterpoint the dullness of the amnesiac and cyclical erasures of mainstream framings of trans lives as “novel.”
Chen’s Trans Exploits traces twenty-first-century disidentifications by trans of color media and performance artists away from the exploitative conditions that govern trans of color lives within the geopolitical, economic, and affective domain of American Empire. Such lives, they argue, are increasingly targeted, policed, and excluded when the United States selectively assimilates communities of color (for instance, as “model minorities”). That same violence is enacted when gender and sexuality determinatively mediate forms of national belonging and social normativity inextricable from race and ethnicity. With elegant lucidity, Chen relentlessly exposes how the “the gender/ sex system continues to fundamentally structure the social and territorial body of U.S. neoliberal civil society at the scale of nature.”2 Chen analyzes how trans of color artists have responded to this by short-circuiting their ongoing exploitation by the state. The titular phrase “Trans exploits” refers to “the indeterminate wildness” and ungovernability of bodies, practices, and perceptions traced by trans of color artists working in media, activism, and performance; this wildness occupies the excess repeatedly cut away as the entry fee to normative citizenship. Chen shifts the imperative to make sense away from its demands on the trans body, what Sandy Stone (quoted by Chen) calls a “hotly contested site of cultural inscription” with little grounding in the wants and needs of actual trans people.3 Instead, Chen’s analysis makes epistemological and ethical demands on the media itself as a technically managed image of space-time redistribution that seeks to determine the matrix of livability itself. This shift critically underpins the generative imbrications of what Chen terms “racial trans technologies.”
Chen’s nuanced readings respond to the complex discourse around the current so-called trans tipping point.4 In their essential book Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (2017), Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton cast a skeptical side-eye on the allegedly transformative discourse of “the tipping point” for its failure to adequately address ongoing anti-trans violence and on the inadequate metric of “positive portrayals.”5 Chen’s approach shares this skepticism and displaces the [End Page 208] goal of representation within hegemonic norms to focus attention to how artists navigate questions of survival and thriving. Their analysis is driven by a geopolitical critique of American imperialism and its expropriative frontier mentality, which is powered by progress narratives that contradict the lived experiences of exclusion of trans subjects...