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Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality

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We believe we know our bodies intimately--that their material reality is certain and that this certainty leads to an epistemological truth about sex, gender, and identity. By exploring and giving equal weight to transgendered subjectivities, however, Gayle Salamon upends these certainties. Considering questions of transgendered embodiment via phenomenology (Maurice Merleau We believe we know our bodies intimately--that their material reality is certain and that this certainty leads to an epistemological truth about sex, gender, and identity. By exploring and giving equal weight to transgendered subjectivities, however, Gayle Salamon upends these certainties. Considering questions of transgendered embodiment via phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud and Paul Ferdinand Schilder), and queer theory, Salamon advances an alternative theory of normative and non-normative gender, proving the value and vitality of trans experience for thinking about embodiment. Salamon suggests that the difference between transgendered and normatively gendered bodies is not, in the end, material. Rather, she argues that the production of gender itself relies on a disjunction between the "felt sense" of the body and an understanding of the body's corporeal contours, and that this process need not be viewed as pathological in nature. Examining the relationship between material and phantasmatic accounts of bodily being, Salamon emphasizes the productive tensions that make the body both present and absent in our consciousness and work to confirm and unsettle gendered certainties. She questions traditional theories that explain how the body comes to be--and comes to be made one's own--and she offers a new framework for thinking about what "counts" as a body. The result is a groundbreaking investigation into the phenomenological life of gender.


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We believe we know our bodies intimately--that their material reality is certain and that this certainty leads to an epistemological truth about sex, gender, and identity. By exploring and giving equal weight to transgendered subjectivities, however, Gayle Salamon upends these certainties. Considering questions of transgendered embodiment via phenomenology (Maurice Merleau We believe we know our bodies intimately--that their material reality is certain and that this certainty leads to an epistemological truth about sex, gender, and identity. By exploring and giving equal weight to transgendered subjectivities, however, Gayle Salamon upends these certainties. Considering questions of transgendered embodiment via phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty), psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud and Paul Ferdinand Schilder), and queer theory, Salamon advances an alternative theory of normative and non-normative gender, proving the value and vitality of trans experience for thinking about embodiment. Salamon suggests that the difference between transgendered and normatively gendered bodies is not, in the end, material. Rather, she argues that the production of gender itself relies on a disjunction between the "felt sense" of the body and an understanding of the body's corporeal contours, and that this process need not be viewed as pathological in nature. Examining the relationship between material and phantasmatic accounts of bodily being, Salamon emphasizes the productive tensions that make the body both present and absent in our consciousness and work to confirm and unsettle gendered certainties. She questions traditional theories that explain how the body comes to be--and comes to be made one's own--and she offers a new framework for thinking about what "counts" as a body. The result is a groundbreaking investigation into the phenomenological life of gender.

30 review for Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ayanna Dozier

    Simply put, I'm not a fan of theorists using trans people as an object to not talk about trans people. It doesn't make sense, Salamon cites Butler a lot in a manner that feels like the book was written to defend Butler's body of work in relation to using trans people as objects. I also think, as a scholar, that psychoanalysis as a methodology is not particularly helpful in trying to read trans people's lives and psychoanalysis is The method and analysis of choice for Salamon. So much so that whe Simply put, I'm not a fan of theorists using trans people as an object to not talk about trans people. It doesn't make sense, Salamon cites Butler a lot in a manner that feels like the book was written to defend Butler's body of work in relation to using trans people as objects. I also think, as a scholar, that psychoanalysis as a methodology is not particularly helpful in trying to read trans people's lives and psychoanalysis is The method and analysis of choice for Salamon. So much so that when Salamon moves onto to phenomenological accounts of the body (which she does quite remarkably well) she inserts psychoanalytic critique and or notes how faulty Ponty's work is when he is critical of psychoanalysis. This feels unnecessary. My major issue with this book however, is the lack and plain refusal to engage with race as factor in trans people's lives. This frustration comes at a time when less than three months into 2015 over 10 trans women of color were murdered in the United States, but when someone wants to write a book, it's perfectly fine to use Wendy Brown's article, "The Impossibility of Women's Studies," as a viable excuse to not engage with race and how that might offer a different, or expand our understanding of trans embodiment. I state this because the reality is that receiving hormone treatment or GRE (is one desires either or both) is extremely difficult for trans people of color because the majority of trans people of color come from a lower socio-economic background, but this book is mute on race and yet is suppose to account for how to discuss trans bodies in theory. I can't even. I consider theory to be both practice and metaphorical for theory offers the possibility of what can be done so it's nice that Salamon wants to write about language and rhetoric but it does little to no good for those who want to change the way they consider, interact, come to terms with, engage, understand trans people in society.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Quin Rich

    A clear, concise, and compelling work of theory. This text makes a critical intervention into gender theory, pushing back against some of the worst excesses of essentialism, liberal individualism, and insipidity that often plagues trans theory (I'm looking at you, Jay Prosser) while simultaneously critiquing the cissexism of many feminist theories of embodiment (notably Grosz and Hausman). Theories from psychoanalysis and phenomenology, as well as from thinkers like Irigaray, are presented, expl A clear, concise, and compelling work of theory. This text makes a critical intervention into gender theory, pushing back against some of the worst excesses of essentialism, liberal individualism, and insipidity that often plagues trans theory (I'm looking at you, Jay Prosser) while simultaneously critiquing the cissexism of many feminist theories of embodiment (notably Grosz and Hausman). Theories from psychoanalysis and phenomenology, as well as from thinkers like Irigaray, are presented, explained and expanded upon on useful and interesting ways. So it's a real shame that Salamon makes the bizarre, transmisogynistic, and ill-informed choice to center trans-masculinity in this text. She states at the end of her introduction "my general discussions of trans (sic) will often take MTF experience as my focus, in a reversal of what has historically been a conflation of trans experience with MTF experience." Beyond the fact that this is simply incorrect, it's politically repugnant. Even if trans-feminine people (and specifically here, trans women) did take up "disproportionate" space in transgender discourse, they have every right to. Trans women experience far more violence, higher rates of incarceration, and much greater stimga and discrimination (transmisogyny is word for a reason) than do trans men. This infuriateing decision returns to haunt the text in chapter 3 and most unforgivbly in chapter 4, where Salamon gets basic facts about the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival wrong (she states that both trans men and trans women are excluded; in fact, only trans women are excluded, trans men being allowed in because they were "born women"). She focuses so much time and attention on trans men that trans women are only rarely if even mentioned, and then only in passing. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of what Salamon seems to be critiquing is better described as transmisogyny, and not cissexism or transphobia (ie trans women specifically are impacted). This makes this work another in a long history of cisgender feminists valorizing masculinity at the expense of trans women. This is a real shame, because Salamon's text shines it's strongest when she is discussing either trans women specifically or trans people in the abstract. Her politics themselves are lackluster. Which brings up the next critical weakness of this text: Salamon completely ignores race and class. She may not have been trying to write Dean Spade's "Normal Life," but she doesn't talk about how it is trans women of color (and particularly black trans women) who face the harshest consequences of white supremacist (trans)misogyny. She never speaks of prisons, colonialism, police brutality, capitalism, or any other horrible violent systems that impact trans folks every day. Again, I recognize she's writing theory; but that's not an excuse, and her work suffers for it. This brings me to a general complaint: it seems impossible to find transfeminist theory that is social constructionist, anti-essentialist, intersectional, actually feminist (as opposed to transmisogynist and femmephobic), and historically and politically aware. One gets at best one or two of these things (like Julia Serano's books, which are (liberal) transfeminist, but are also deeply essentialist, reductionist, and more importantly racist and classist as all get out.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    0

    Reading the blurbs on the back of the book will give you the impression that this book offers a phenomenological account of transgender embodiment inspired by Merleau-Ponty, and compares that account with psychoanalytic models of sexuation offered by Freud, Schilder, and Lacan. This is not actually offered in the book, nor is it even the book's main focus. Instead, Salamon is interested in how "transgender" presents a challenge to the essentialist identity stakes of "women's studies" as exemplif Reading the blurbs on the back of the book will give you the impression that this book offers a phenomenological account of transgender embodiment inspired by Merleau-Ponty, and compares that account with psychoanalytic models of sexuation offered by Freud, Schilder, and Lacan. This is not actually offered in the book, nor is it even the book's main focus. Instead, Salamon is interested in how "transgender" presents a challenge to the essentialist identity stakes of "women's studies" as exemplified by writers like Irigaray and Grosz. She also examines the hostility that some lesbians have towards trans men and trans women for their perceived failures to be "real" men or women (in the case of trans men, for "abandoning" their femininity due to internalized misogyny; in the case of trans women, for "pretending" to be women in order to "invade" women's safe spaces). Salamon claims that the essentialist claims of both TERFs and "born-this-way" trans people assume that one can have an apodictic and immediate access to the "felt sense" of their body which would be "natural" in the sense that it would be untouched by culture and individual history. She disputes this claim with reference to Butler and Lacan. In the introduction, she claims that dysphoria--which she defines as a divergence between the "felt sense" of one's body (the body for-itself) and the "body image" which is produced by the mirror relation (the body for-others)--is not particular to trans people, but is a universal phenomenon that is born from the ambiguity of the body as a thing which is capable of double sensations (i.e., it is both a subject and an object, or, rather, it problematizes the distinction between those two terms). I don't think she actually fleshes out that claim in the book, although I would have loved to read more about that, instead of about the fate of "women's studies," TERFs, and depictions of trans men in pop culture. Which is a shame, because I wanted to read a book that, as Butler's blurb promises, "focuses on the intersubjective construction of transgender, on how 'address' functions in transsexual self-production, and how the gaze of the Other--anticipated and solicited--works to 'build' a bodily schema." While I am sympathetic with Salamon's desires to criticize essentialist claims about identity (and my goodness, is that project increasingly relevant as particularly crude and vapid forms of identity politics have become increasingly popular and authoritarian), I didn't actually read any arguments in this book, just stated desires. It also feels dated and specific, as if its intended audience was a bunch of middle-aged second-wave feminist academics concerned about trans people violating "women's studies." Which I guess is a real problem that academics have to deal with, or had to deal with in 2010? Idk. I am not an academic who is concerned about women's studies, but I am trans, and this book doesn't feel like it was written for me. Which is fine! It's just that it presents itself as a book about what trans people mean for themselves, when really it's a book about what trans people means for academic feminists.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Oliver

    I just read two chapters: "Boys of the Lex: Transgender and Social Construction" and "Transfeminism and the Future of Gender" because they were suggested reading for Judith Halberstam's upcoming visit to Pittsburgh. Both chapters were pretty stellar!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    "...the body image persists as the only means by which we apprehend our own bodies. Without the libidinal investment that can only be routed to the body through the mediating effect of the body image, the stuff of the body is reduced to 'vague material' without shape or form. And our relation to that 'vague material' is often one of distance rather than proximity, where even the bodies of others may be more phenomenologically proximate to us than our own..." (33) "When I reach for the other, I do "...the body image persists as the only means by which we apprehend our own bodies. Without the libidinal investment that can only be routed to the body through the mediating effect of the body image, the stuff of the body is reduced to 'vague material' without shape or form. And our relation to that 'vague material' is often one of distance rather than proximity, where even the bodies of others may be more phenomenologically proximate to us than our own..." (33) "When I reach for the other, I do not feel my arm but an intensification of both the proximity and the absence of the one for whom I reaching. My sensation can in some sense feel itself to be located in that other, and my arm, unbent and reaching out, is no longer the location of my sensation but rather becomes the gesture through which I am toward the other. The arm is the conduit of desire, but not the seat of its sensation. My body is the vehicle that puts me into compelling and sometimes heady proximity to the objects of my desire in this way, and, in the case of sexual desire, my body comes alive through being intentionally directed toward another. This then is the substance of the transposition which, according to Merleau-Ponty, animates my body in desire: my sensation becomes more ambiguous and diffuse even as it intensifies because I am suddenly spread out as a sensing subject, located both in my body and that toward which my body bends. The locus of my sensation seems to shift, and my arm, if I reach out, is experienced phenomenologically less in its function as my arm and more in its function as toward you. This dispersal and transposition need not be read as diminishing either the sensation or the body part in question, but might instead be a way of understanding how in sexuality I am dispossessed of my body and delivered to it at once...But this transposition, even as it is the intensification of bodily pleasures, also involves a dissolution of the body as material ground, as phenomenological center of its own world. That center, suddenly, is shared. So self and other together comprise not only the joined unit of my affective life but also the phenomenological pivot of sensory apprehension of the world. But if I am found in the other, so too I am lost there...We unmake the other even as we create them as an object of our desire." (53-55) "What it means is that my experience of my body, my sense of its extension and efficacy, the ways that I endeavor to make a habitable thing of it, and the use I make of it- or, in the throes of desire, perhaps the use it makes of me- are my necessary relation to whatever materiality I am." (56) "[Merleau-Ponty] attempts to frustrate this distinction between subject and object, between the seer and seen, between inside and outside, by according relation a primacy that had previously been reserved for the object itself." (59) "In this way, perception points toward a network of relations rather than confirming the material 'truth' of any single element in that network of system." (60) "The body itself is, finally, a mixture or amalgam of substance and ideal located somewhere between its objectively quantifiable materiality and its phantasmatic extensions into the world...An identity that is not secured by the specificity of the materiality of the body, nor by a particular mental quality, but is something involving both...To feel one's own flesh, or to act as witness to another's, is to unsettle the question of subject and object, of material and phantasmatic, in the service of a more livable embodiment.” (64-65) "The tension between the historicity of the body and the immediacy of its felt sense is the precise location of bodily being." (77)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kai

    Overall this is a great theory book on embodiment and trans subjectivity. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in phenomenology and in making use of psychoanalytic theory without reaffirming a lot of the essentialist/masculinist garbage its proponents have produced. I had some issues with the book though. First, she asked so many important questions throughout her chapters that it seemed like she was going to address but then never did, which was disappointing. Second, I didn't like all o Overall this is a great theory book on embodiment and trans subjectivity. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in phenomenology and in making use of psychoanalytic theory without reaffirming a lot of the essentialist/masculinist garbage its proponents have produced. I had some issues with the book though. First, she asked so many important questions throughout her chapters that it seemed like she was going to address but then never did, which was disappointing. Second, I didn't like all of her critiques of trans people on the issue of social constructionism and gender performativity. While I agreed with all of her theoretical critiques, I don't think it was right to take the statements about social constructionism out of context the way she did. I mean, queer theory and feminist studies have been very hostile to trans folks over the decades, so she should have contextualized the violence done by those feminists misconstruing social constructionism and gender performativity to highlight why trans people are so uncomfortable with those theoretical approaches to sex/gender instead of just focusing on why trans people are getting it wrong (the fact that she does really well taking down prominent feminists in the second part of the book re: sex difference makes it even more upsetting she took the approach she did here). Finally, I wish she would have cited more trans people who have theorized about sex/gender in ways similar to her project. She mentions Dean Spade once and then does not engage with his work (this is pre- "Normal Life," but he had still written other pieces before that she could have cited"), and there are other trans theorists she could have cited. This is related to her critique of trans folks, which was just off-putting given her recognition of anti-trans violence within and outside the academy.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Woof, girl, this is not accessible writing. I felt a little guilt in giving up - I believe that readers have responsibility to bring thought and effort into the reading - but this was beyond me.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paige Ellen Stone

    I love this book. In reading this scholarly, serious look at the phenomenology of the body and the nature of gender and sex in our current western world, I found so much of it so profound that I believe, as I went along, I actually read it at least twice or three times as I found myself going over passages again and again until I felt that I had as full a grasp as I could manage. This is deep thinking, serious, methodical and scholarly philosophical thinking. I would consider it mandatory readin I love this book. In reading this scholarly, serious look at the phenomenology of the body and the nature of gender and sex in our current western world, I found so much of it so profound that I believe, as I went along, I actually read it at least twice or three times as I found myself going over passages again and again until I felt that I had as full a grasp as I could manage. This is deep thinking, serious, methodical and scholarly philosophical thinking. I would consider it mandatory reading were I teaching a class on sex and gender and all the confusion around those two words and one other word: transgender. I can't possibly, in this short review, summarize all of her brilliant arguments and counterarguments against other philosophers and feminists. One thing I can tell you is that her summary of Merleau-Ponty's description of the matter of the body is worth the price of the book alone. One must be familiar with existential-phenomenological philosophy/psychology and post-modernist thought to fully appreciate all that she has to say. One thing I will tell you is that her deconstruction of the letters M and F, as they appear on official documents makes it clear that we have not resolved, as a society, as a world, the issues of all the questions raised by the many manifestations of sex and gender in our culture and this absence, this failure to reconcile has reduced sex and gender, Male and Female to a state-controlled and managed commodity. We have barely begun as humans to understand our true nature as sexual bodies/beings. We fall into a binary system, one or the other, M or F and out of "norm" manifestations trouble us no end. As in institutionalized religion and governments, etc., we, as a culture, do not yet know how to move beyond the fundamentalism of a binary system of definition of sex and gender. There are signs that we are beginning to "get it", but we are not yet very far down the path toward the sort of Freedom as imagined by Samuel R. Delaney in his, "Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia." Ms. Salamon's exquisite effort is certainly a major step in that direction. If you are interested in gender studies and an existential-phenomenological approach that is deeply rooted in that discipline, then this book is, as I said above, a must read (and re-read).

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    3.5 stars. Salamon is very teacherly in her handling of complex theory (so much phenomenology!), which I think is necessary in a book that takes up so much of it, and she brings a necessary academic focus to FTM trans people and to the rhetoric of trans activism. My main reason for not loving it is strictly personal preference - I find theory easier to engage with when it's more deliberately grounded in close readings, test objects, etc. Not doing this, however, seems in line with her methodology 3.5 stars. Salamon is very teacherly in her handling of complex theory (so much phenomenology!), which I think is necessary in a book that takes up so much of it, and she brings a necessary academic focus to FTM trans people and to the rhetoric of trans activism. My main reason for not loving it is strictly personal preference - I find theory easier to engage with when it's more deliberately grounded in close readings, test objects, etc. Not doing this, however, seems in line with her methodology, and so I also can't fault her for it too much.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Christina Crosby

    I continue to read and teach this book, which is deeply intelligent about what it is to live in and as a body. Very helpful in bringing together psychoanalysis and phenomenology, the first for the analysis of how our conscious sense of self is affected by the displacements and substitutions of the unconscious, and phenomenology for its deep understanding of how subjectivity is necessarily produced in relation to others and objects in the world.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    Best book ever written. Salamon provides an amazing and necessary commentary on notions of gender, including denying the feminist claim that gender is entirely a social construction. Her critique manages to place sex within the social and gender within the natural to provide a considerable and necessary turn to assumptions about the gender/sex distinction.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Shh I'm reading!

    The information imparted in this book was interesting, but the manner in which it was presented less so. It read like a dissertation, and I felt the book could have been written in a less textbook way.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Salamon's use of phenomenology to look at the trans body is one of the clearest treatments of the theory I've seen.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jasmin

    Love the title and mix of references within the book. Don't have it right in front of me nor my notes to expand on this, but I was pleased upon completing this book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Steen Ledet

    Good, far-ranging book on transgender and materiality that shows just how complicated our notions of bodies are.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Billy

    Probably one of the most important books I've ever read in my life.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tina.

    Best theory book I've read in a long time.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Chris Ma

    A psychoanalytic and phenomenological approach to the question of embodiment and trans-embodiment.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  20. 4 out of 5

    E Marcovitz

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alex Shams

  22. 5 out of 5

    Cat Haines

  23. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  24. 5 out of 5

    Trish Salah

  25. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Keilty

  26. 4 out of 5

    Katie King

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly Thompson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Zeke

  29. 5 out of 5

    Steve Owen

  30. 5 out of 5

    Denise

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