No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Series Q)

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‘Frankenstein’ and the Science of Transitioning


Victor Frankenstein stands listening to his creation, the creature who he brought to life from the sewed-together remnants of the dead, who he abandoned at the height of his success, and who now asks his father to remedy his rejection buy building him a companion like himself. The creature says:
I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself: the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.
Among other things, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an exploration of how one creates a monster. It is clear throughout the novel that he is not a monster because he was sewn together from the desiccated scraps of the dead, but because everyone who saw him said that he was so. It is a monstrosity carved into the creature’s psyche by rejection, forced upon him as the only refuge of the utterly banished.

And it is probably for this reason that the novel and its exploration of monstrosity have long been a potent symbol for trans people and their advocates, who have often explicitly sought to reclaim the slur for themselves. The gender theorist and University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker most notably did so in her 1994 essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” writing provocatively, “I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster.”

But more important here, Stryker makes another observation that readers of Frankenstein will appreciate. “The transsexual body,” she says, “is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction.”

And what technology it is! Roughly a decade and a half since Stryker’s article, medical science has begun to provide trans people seeking gender affirmation surgery with once unimaginable options. Just a few months ago the first recipient of a uterus transplant in the United States gave birth, and scientists have had recent successes growing penises in a lab.

These developments have obvious benefits for many trans people. Though not all trans people seek or want such surgeries, those who do could benefit immensely. They are also genuine scientific marvels. Making an artificial penis, for example, is a demanding process, that involves weaving together multiple overlapping tissue types to form a highly complex organ. Using a collagen scaffold taken from a donor, the doctors grow the new tissue from samples from the patient, resulting in a functional penis that will not be rejected from the recipient’s immune system. It is an impressive achievement.

However, these advances seem rarely to be made with trans people in mind. Indeed, the articles linked above don’t even mention them. If trans people benefit, it is often as an afterthought. The narrative of scientific triumph seems to pass them by.

It passes by Victor Frankenstein as well, and his monster too. It is often hard to remember that, by his own standard, Frankenstein’s experiments were a complete success. As he says of his ambition in discovering the secret of life, “a new species would bless me as its creator and source…No father could claim the gratitude of his child as completely as I should deserve theirs.”

Not just one creature, but a whole lineage of them, all stemming from Frankenstein alone.

Yet when the monster visits, calling for his father, Frankenstein scorns him. And when the monster asks for a female companion, Frankenstein, now terrified that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth,” tears the new creature apart. After his great triumph early in the novel, Frankenstein spends the rest of the story deftly crafting failure from success. So thorough is his hatred of his son that he cannot recognize his own achievement.

We should ask then, “what is a monster?” And what does monstrosity have to do with the half-exclusion of trans people from science—the scientific moulding of their bodies coupled with their identities’ omission from the story science tells itself?

Etymology isn’t destiny, but sometimes it’s useful to check, and according to the OED entry for “monster” the word comes from Latin, monēre, which means “to warn.” As the classicist Gregory A. Staley writes, the Roman religion considered “monstrous” that which was “unnatural and abnormal” and which “both shocks and calls for interpretation.”

“Unnatural” is a slippery term, often applied more from disgust and confusion than any rational basis. Frankenstein’s monster is arguably unnatural, yet he exhibits far more compassion and kindness than his creator does, until driven at last by humanity’s rejection towards violence. Trans people, meanwhile, often describe their desire to transition as though it were the most natural thing in the world, yet bigots often invoke their supposed monstrosity to further marginalize them.

It might be “natural” for a cis woman to get a womb transplant to solve her infertility, but a trans woman asking for the same thing warrants nary a mention in the press. The distinction here was not created in a lab, but in people’s thoughts and deeds. It is itself unnatural.

Trans monstrosity—when not being consciously appropriated by trans people themselves—appears then as a warning: Thou shalt not defy thine gender role. As a recent study has shown, opposition to trans rights correlates strongly with attachment to a rigid gender binary. The admixture of genders, the sewing together of apparently discordant parts, threatens these divisions. And so for the binary’s protection, trans people (when not being ridiculed) must be pushed away.

As the scholar and artist Sandy Stone writes in her famous “Post-Transsexual Manifesto,” passing (or appearing cisgender) “means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is the effacement of the prior gender role.”

As Stryker says, the “unnaturalness” of the trans body is a technical, Frankensteinian construction—not only of drugs and surgery, but of dress, mannerism, voice, a thousand ways to be one’s self. A trans person might pass out of genuine desire, or from fear, as troubling an onlooker’s naive binary can often come with a death sentence. Or if not that, perhaps the loss of a job, humiliation in a public washroom, ridicule and threats on the street—societal expulsion by a thousand cuts.

Far from being party to science’s triumphalism, trans people instead enter the narrative as problems to be solved. The constant judgement placed upon them, the way even their most basic needs become a matter of public debate, encourages them to re-closet themselves, to pass for cis and hide their backgrounds simply out of fear.

Queer theorists–most famously Lee Edelman – often speak of LGBT people as having “no future,” in that their rejection of heteronormativity removes them from the standard narrative of sexual reproduction. The basic story of growing up, getting married, and having kids of your own becomes much more complicated when gay men and lesbians are involved. It might be something queer people do, but not what society at large expects of them. The rhetoric of “reproductive futurity” simply breaks down.

Trans people, on the other hand, have long had their own narrative of the future: after coming out they are expected to change their names, their clothes, their pronouns, maybe start hormones, maybe get surgery. At the end of the line, they all pass for cis, and their past lives simply disappear. The fact of having transitioned becomes taboo. It is not futures they lack, but pasts.

Undoubtedly for many trans people the effacement of the past reflects a genuine desire, but it is not something that all would freely choose. And it becomes a problem when pastlessness transforms into a general expectation, when the world at large decides that this is what transitioning ought to be. It is a recipe for exclusion, and for the suppression of monstrosity. Pastlessness preserves the gender binary at the expense of those it harms the most and dismantles the relationship between trans people and the science on which they depend.

“Claiming humanity in my monstrosity as a transsexual,” writes the gender theorist and sociologist Sonny Nordmarken, “I make my monstrosity human.” And it is the humanity within monstrosity that lies at the heart of Frankenstein, and in its most troubling and subversive scene.

The monster, having chased Frankenstein to the arctic and come across his corpse, declares that he now plans to kill himself by building a giant funeral pyre so that he may “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” Yet we do not see this agony. Instead, he simply leaps from a window, bounding into the ice and cold of the unknown. We have no idea what happens to him. This lack of future, the gaping ellipsis following the recitation of his past, makes him irresolvable. He is both dead and alive, both monstrous and human. He is deathly indeterminate.

After all that we have read, he denies us resolution and refuses us simplicity. Terrorizing our distinctions, he leaves us to deal with his strangeness as simply another aspect of the world —as natural as the ice he floats on, as much a part of our society as the book he’s in.

Baby Fever: On Belle Boggs’s ‘The Art of Waiting’


Who has baby fever? Belle Boggs does. Or rather, she did before she had her daughter. An attempt to understand this self-described “child-longing” during her trials with infertility treatments and her inability to conceive was one of the driving forces behind writing her book The Art of Waiting.

As Boggs writes, in Scandanavia this phenomena is known as “baby fever,” and has been studied by sociologist Anna Rotkirch, who believes this desire is not a social construction but rather the expression of an instinctual longing. Rotkirch conducted a study where she placed an ad in a paper that asked people to write in with their baby fever experiences. She was flooded with letters recounting dreams of babies every night, of the need to touch onesies, of the desire borne of holding a child, of the agony of not having one.

Not everyone has baby fever, thank goodness. I don’t have baby fever but I am prone to obsessive thinking and my curiosity about this specific obsession and the ways that I’m not in its thrall is part of what drew me to Boggs’s The Art of Waiting. Also, Boggs is a smart and attentive writer, and her book is championed by Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison — two writers who’ve helped stake out a distinct corner in the medical humanities. The Art of Waiting promised to engage in a multifaceted dialogue, not just with Boggs’s experience with infertility treatments, but also with the broader cultural implications that lie at the intersection of child-longing and infertility and reproductive technologies, their benefits but also their detriment, and what this child-longing means for us as human animals and whether we have a choice in it.

The first half of the book delivers on this, for the most part. Boggs offers an engaging and empathetic description of her inability to conceive, the way she felt personal failure. Excluded from the natural rhythm of life, Boggs became even more keenly aware of mating among human and nonhuman animals, the ways that some species like marmosets depend on the suppression of reproductive capabilities because of limited resources within a community. She considers too mating in captivity, how at a North Carolina zoo, one female gorilla mates to conceive while another is given birth control as she’s groomed to take over in case the child is rejected.

Boggs considers the possibility of never having children, and briefly arrives at “the conscious possibility of a new purpose, a sense of self not tied to reproduction,” though with regard to the book, this is fleeting. She considers Virginia Woolf’s bareness and, as counterbalance, her creative output. Boggs writes too of the ways that her students become surrogate children — and how they never ask why she doesn’t have biological children, because, she surmises, “they think they’re enough.”

But of course they aren’t. We know this as readers, and it’s easy to consider Boggs’s dilemma with compassion. But also, she might want to go one step further and ask, why isn’t it?

Boggs holds the reader close as she tells of her travails and heartache associated with her inability to conceive. She writes of watching Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the high school English class she teaches. She points to the way that George kills the imaginary son in the last scene, and wonders if this killing was cruel or necessary. Boggs looks at this tendency toward surrogates among infertile couples, how Virginia Woolf wrote in her story “Lappin and Lappinova” of a marriage held together by a shared investment in their imaginary “private world, inhabited, save for the one white hare, entirely by rabbits.” Boggs too has a place within this lineage: she writes about how she and her husband unwittingly created an imaginary stuffed animal family when they first married, how they’d bring them out for holiday meals, but that later, after not being able to have children, this seemed more like a masquerade that embarrassed and pained her, and so she stuffed them in a basket with other bric-a-brac and shoved it all under the bed.

And sometimes Boggs’s imagination is too willing to shove ideas under the bed. She writes wistfully: “Nonhuman animals wait without impatience, without a deadline, and I think that is the secret to their composure.” This is an oversimplification of animal experience and it doesn’t interrogate or even attempt to consider the ways that other animal species might long to mother. Anna Rotkrich found — as Boggs pointed out — that a longing for children and to mother is instinctual. So why would Boggs assume another animal species would not feel this? Perhaps they’re at a loss to express it — to her.

Boggs’s interpretation gestures toward other species but is inherently anthropocentric. She conjectures rather than wonders, and this shuts down the possibility of delving deeper, to interrogate, research, consider, and perhaps even attempt to find companionship, an alliance, or at least acknowledge the mothering and longing that any animal might feel.

Of course we all have limited life spans and periods of fertility, and while animals may not be aware of or able to communicate this longing and desire in human terms it doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by a similar longing. When I was a child I was gifted with a book about Koko the gorilla who was taught human sign language as part of a graduate student’s experiment. Koko asked for a cat but was given a stuffed animal. She knew the difference and signed, “sad.” When she was given a kitten she mothered it as if it were a child. How is this not mothering? And why did Boggs, when writing and researching this book, not try harder to think about the experience of the nonhuman animal beyond her own anthropomorphic fantasy?

Boggs writes too with sympathy for the gorilla at the North Carolina zoo who’s forced to take birth control, but she also assumes that this gorilla doesn’t feel her longing: “To wait without knowing [one] is waiting.” Maybe not her longing, but how does she know what this gorilla thinks? Isn’t this pure conjecture?

Boggs looks to the nonhuman animal, to these gorillas, seemingly to expand the conversation about motherhood beyond species. But instead she uses them as a screen for her own longings. To speak of longing: what longing must salmon feel to swim upstream from their adult habitats back to their birthplaces so that they can spawn and, as a result of this journey, die? Perhaps if Boggs had encountered Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelt she might have considered that the gorilla has a distinct sphere of existence, that its methods of communication and perception don’t necessarily translate to terms she can understand.

The onus was on Boggs to delve further, to have researched the ways these animals long or don’t long for motherhood. To consider what this child-longing might mean for nonhuman animals, what mothering means beyond one’s own progeny. Wouldn’t that have reinforced Anna Rotrich’s research that baby fever is instinctual? I can’t help but wonder, if this gorilla had been taught human sign language like Koko, would Boggs have been able to make the same proclamations? And if the answer is no, it seems that this is an inherent flaw.

But also, Boggs’s observation denies that many human animals do wait without impatience, that we don’t measure our personal success and failures by our reproductive capabilities, that perhaps we might recognize that a child could bring personal fulfillment, but that we don’t measure our worth by it.

Among those of us who aren’t natural caretakers, bringing a child into the world might signify an end as much as a beginning. I recently sat up late with friends, all of us in our late-30s or early-40s and childless and okay with it — we realized how we would be obligated to care for a child. A child demands an investment in petty conversations at times. A child is always brilliant in its parents eyes. At least until it develops its own mind. It’s easy to talk about from the outside, I realize.

I see too how a child can be a source of fascination, of seeing anew. I have seen friends’ lives replenished and nurtured, a newfound satisfaction with life brought on by the presence of their children. But what about the idea of not having children? What does this mean historically? Boggs talks about how in the period after WWII zero families thought it was ideal to have no children. That’s changed now, or common sense tells me this. But has it really? Despite waiting longer to have children, the number of women without children in their early-40s is falling. The Washington Post recently featured a profile of philosopher Travis Rieder who works at the Berman Institute of Bioethics and who published a book about the ethical imperative of limiting reproduction. We can limit our carbon footprint most significantly by choosing not to have children, and, with significant climate change and its consequences in our near future, Reider offers a radical suggestion for action to take now: “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.”

Reider himself has a child, and admits this was largely a concession because of his wife’s desire to have a child. But in The Art of Waiting, these types of ethical considerations are largely superficial or left untouched. The pressure to reproduce within families is one that we need to shift, Reider argues. And this isn’t entirely different from the “reproductive futurism” and the indisputable cult of the child that Lee Edelman described as a driving force of our heteronormative society in No Future. Edelman posits that the jouissance and non-reproductive sex associated with queerness is precisely what threatens the cult of the family, this continuous process of self-perpetuation. In the 12 years since Edelman’s book, perhaps tables have reversed, so that the idea of not reproducing is now a way too to perpetuate life.

But what I’m pointing to is that The Art of Waiting for all of its intelligence and care and research isn’t invested in considering the broader cultural and ethical contexts of assisted reproduction, of whether or not this desire to have children should be fulfilled. Or whether alternative forms of mothering when one can’t carry a child to term might not conform to Boggs’s idea of mothering, but could be just as dynamic and fulfilling.

Of the privilege of having the choice and resources to choose IVF, Boggs discusses the financial investment, how costs can reach close to $100,000, and how some states have laws that mandate health insurance cover at least part of this. Boggs’s answer is that she largely supports making infertility treatments more accessible. Of course she does. But it’s also more complicated than she’s willing to grapple with.

It seems that an obstacle to Boggs’s consideration of motherhood, infertility, and medicine is that she did conceive. That her great longing was fulfilled. With the help of contemporary medicine she was able to bring a genetic child to gestation, a child that she carried within her womb. She had this child and perhaps it’s unconscionable for her to truly consider the alternative forms of mothering and meaning-making and mothering through care-taking, for children not her own genetic makeup, for other species even. She says that she and her husband consider adoption, but do they really? I don’t get the sense that this was a serious consideration — adoption is someone else’s choice, but not Boggs’s, and despite being down on their luck, they were privileged, were able to invest in IVF and conceived a daughter during their first course.

Perhaps my expectations were set because of Biss’s endorsement. Her own book, On Immunity was also published by Graywolf. As someone who’s sat through an eight-hour class on vaccination and administration schedules and live versus dead vaccines, I can vouch that the straight science is rather tedious. But Biss stumbled into a rabbit hole when deciding whether or not to vaccinate her son and with which vaccines, and accompanying her as she finds her path through this is fascinating. Her son anchors the narrative, but provides more of a stepping off point to discuss the cultural history: the ways that milkmaids didn’t contract smallpox because of their exposure to the virus through a cow’s udders. About Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Dracula’s need for blood as a critique of capitalism, and about how choosing not to vaccinate as a privileged, less-at risk family, isn’t ethical. That immunization is about the community, and as much as we’d like to think of our bodies as distinct islands, we’re truly interconnected.

While Biss states that the decision to vaccinate her son was an ethical decision, one that she felt she had to do despite its risks, Boggs also states that IVF was the best choice she and her husband ever made because they conceived their daughter. And while she may believe this personally, she says this without reflecting on its ethical underpinnings, like what this means for the habitability of our planet. Boggs talks about the ways infants vie for resources in the wild, but not the ways limited resources will play out for human and nonhuman animals in the near future. Many people are choosing not to have children for the good of the planet. Because of the carbon footprint. And to not consider this interconnection in this highly personal decision is an avoidance I can’t not think about, perhaps fixate on, in relation to this book and discussion.

Maybe it is enough for Boggs herself to “[tell] the stories that don’t get told, the ones some people don’t want to hear,” of what she and her husband learned before they had their daughter — of the little known difficulties and travails of adoption, the infertility message boards and support groups, the way that passion and pleasure are replaced with clinical monitoring and pharmaceutical intervention and hormonal regulation associated with in vitro fertilization.

But The Art of Waiting isn’t memoir. It lacks the interrogation and consideration of what it truly means to mother beyond the heteronormative definitions of vaginal birth and sharing your offspring’s DNA. Boggs looks to nonhuman animals for answers but lacks interspecies empathy, or openness to other possibilities — perhaps because she doesn’t care to ask, perhaps because she now has a natural-born child, perhaps because it might cast the best decision that she’s ever made in a more muddled light? It’s obvious Boggs considers herself a success story. With patchwork she’s found a heteronormative solution, in fact, it seems that her answer is that she wishes similar luck for other who long for children. That they might not have to wait so long. This is unfortunately where the discussion rests.

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