Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change

Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change

by Eliza Steinbock


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In Shimmering Images Eliza Steinbock traces how cinema offers alternative ways to understand gender transitions through a specific aesthetics of change. Drawing on Barthes's idea of the “shimmer” and Foucault's notion of sex as a mirage, the author shows how sex and gender can appear mirage-like on film, an effect they label shimmering. Steinbock applies the concept of shimmering—which delineates change in its emergent form as well as the qualities of transforming bodies, images, and affects—to analyses of films that span time and genre. These include examinations of the fantastic and phantasmagorical shimmerings of sex change in Georges Méliès's nineteenth-century trick films and Lili Elbe's 1931 autobiographical writings and photomontage in Man into Woman. Steinbock also explores more recent documentaries, science fiction, and pornographic and experimental films. Presenting a cinematic philosophy of transgender embodiment that demonstrates how shimmering images mediate transitioning, Steinbock not only offers a corrective to the gender binary orientation of feminist film theory; they open up new means to understand trans ontologies and epistemologies as emergent, affective, and processual.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478003885
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/25/2019
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 713,861
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Eliza Steinbock is Assistant Professor of Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University.

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Shimmering Phantasmagoria

Trans/Cinema/Aesthetics in an Age of Technological Reproducibility

Opening a phantasmagoria show in Paris in 1793, Philip Philidor proclaimed to the crowd, "I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you." The Enlightenment's investment in rational, clear thinking achieved by shining a light on the natural world takes a perverse twist in this popular form of entertainment that projects phantoms during an aural and visual dialogue between the living and the dead. The double view of trans bodies as both engineered by medical science and as fundamentally illusory holds the same tension, and protracted appeal, as proto-cinematic phantasmagoria shows. In our twenty-first-century cultural moment when trans characters and talent are inundating televisual series, reality shows, and films, yet still with their transition forming a main attraction and plot device, it seems pertinent to ask, Are trans people the heirs of phantasmagoric visual culture? Taking a historical view, Rita Felski argues that the perceived undecidability of gender leads the figure of the transsexual to become a metaphor for cultural crisis. Citing the epigram fin de siècle, fin de sexe, Felski notes how the anxieties of suspended sex from the late nineteenth century return before the millennium during the postmodern moment in which "gender emerges as a privileged symbolic field for the articulation of diverse fashionings of history and time," be they apocalyptic or redemptive.

What is missing in trans origin myths and interpretations of their existence — a bellwether — is an appreciation for how trans subjects narrate and represent their lives and thereby mold the available conceptual models of gendered embodiment. This chapter submits that diverse conceptualizations for trans embodiments and identities emerge together with phantasmagorical visual practices that offer them a horizon of intelligibility by interlacing science with entertainment. I foremost explore the continuity of a stuttering, flickering type of transformation as a type of shimmering found in the early cinematographic "fantastic views" of filmmaker George Méliès (1896–1912) and in the (photo) montage of Danish artist Lili Elbe's life writing (1931) about how she became a real girl that was later reprinted (referring to her "sex change"). At the close I consider how shimmering phantasmagoria return in the contemporary trans artworks of Zackary Drucker and A. L. Steiner, who collaborate on a photography series entitled "BEFORE/AFTER" (2009–present), and the flipbook and life-size zoetrope project "Becoming" by Yishay Garbasz (2010), documenting the year before and after her gender clarification surgery. Forgoing the foundational terms of either trans or film is imperative to tracing the phantasmagoria's lingering hold on how a transformative embodiment is conceptualized within visual culture. Following Elizabeth Freeman's queer historical concept of "temporal drag" to register the pull of the deep past on the present, I focus on how some trans bodies carry forward "the genuine past-ness of the past — its opacity and illegibility," that seems intransient and anachronistic, that is, unless viewed from the perspective of the phantasmagoria. To grasp the parallel and overlapping tracks of trans and phantasmagoria's temporal drag, I map the genealogy of an expansive trans concept interacting with invert, hermaphrodite, and deviant sex theories relying on the dichotomy of illusion/real, and I conduct media archaeology to trace phantasmagoric aesthetics of deception/reproduction across divergent cultural series.

A veritable mountain of literature discusses phantasmagoria as the name for the ancient or modern exhibition of optical illusions, or the literary creation of a shifting series of imagined phantasms, or the key term of intellectual and aesthetic discussions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Straddling the era of incipient and full-blown technological reproducibility, Tom Gunning explains, "Phantasmagoria takes on the weight of modern dialectics of truth and illusion, subjectivity and objectivity, deception and liberation, and even life and death." Or, as Terry Castle has shown, in the history of the phantasmagoria we can find the latent irrationalism haunting the rationalist conception of the mind, what she calls the "spectralization" of the world of thought. Its persistence today in the syntax of trans lives and representation points toward the strong undertow of these larger categorical anxieties deflected onto gender then as now, and thus complicates the notions of transsexual and transgender as formatively modern or postmodern.

My argumentation goes against the grain of scholars such as Bernice Hausman or R. Nick Gorton who attribute the emergence of trans identities foremost to the development of surgical technologies by modern science and to the taxonomy of mental and sexual pathologies in sexology. The evolving system of medico-scientific discourses certainly determines the so-called truth about a subject's status vis-à-vis differentiating between pathological and healthy definitions of sexual and gender practices. Trans subjects who articulate the feeling of being in the "wrong body" become a sign of pathology, and therefore a subject to reform back to health. But this view of trans embodiment is limited to explaining discourses of clinical experiences that arose during the modern era, however much of a hold they retain today in spite of competition from juridical definitions of self-determination. In addition, I also contest the conclusion of trans scholars such as Jack Halberstam who claim this modern formation of trans has been superseded by postmodern theories that question any form of universal truth and challenges the fixity of all meaning, including the designations sex and gender. In general, theories of gender performativity in queer and transgender studies embrace the philosophies that gender is more a fiction than a fact, and that identity is a potentiality rather than an achievement. Related to this malleable identity, technology for gender transitioning has accompanied changes in the economic and aesthetic landscape in which neoliberal orders increasingly favor plasticity. Here the prevalence of trans discourses of change are seen to orbit around the economic order, thereby becoming suspect for capitulating to late capitalist choice economies. The growing investment in what Zygmunt Bauman calls "liquid life" and gradually more mainstream calls for fluidity in identity from celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Ruby Rose might well lead to increased possibilities for some trans subjectivities to become intelligible, while others become opaque.

However, the modern and the postmodern claims for conceptualizing trans are primarily about epistemological correction, or uncertainty. Running through both claims, and both eras, is the perpetuation of the trans stereotype of being illusory or unreal, which places a heavy stigma on those who assert a trans identity. That is, the trans "onto-epistemological" condition, in which being and knowing are always already entangled, appears symbolically as either an aberration or a deconstructive supplement to constructed normal, natural, or healthy binary gender identities that match the sex assigned at birth, often referred to as cisgender. The visual legacies of inscribing gender truths onto the visual body-as-text can be heard in trans vocabularies, such as being read (for trans), passing (for cisgender), female impersonator, or masculine presenting. Trans subjectivity is pulled taut between gestures of concealing and revealing with its literal translation into the violence of the genital reveal I discussed in the introduction. First I address the perilous investment in an one/none visual truth of sex and gender before coming to see how trans subjects engage the phantasmagoria dispositif to effectively shift the visual and discursive order toward a model of sensorial reckoning best described as shimmering.

Cultural Series: Machines for Perceiving "Self-Evidences"

The experience of transitioning is often conceptualized as a visual effect of a personal disclosure, a "coming out" of the hidden epistemological closet into the revealing light of truth. Jay Prosser, for example, considers the transsexual to exist only during a medically assisted physical transition to become the desired perceptible gender. "The immediate purpose of transsexuality," he writes, "is to make real the subject's true gender on the body," and in this pursuit he names "the visual media" as being highly valuable for the "promise (like transition itself) to make visible that which begins as imperceptible — there but underexposed." People who "cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain gender" thereby lose access to conventional evidence for making truth claims for their gender identity. This places a tremendous amount of onto-epistemological weight on the indexical, referential, and highly visual dimension of their truth statements. The visual media of photographic images especially "realize the image of the 'true' self that is originally only apparitional" to others and potentially to oneself. The photographic portrait accompanying written testimony functions, for Prosser, as an incarnation of gendered realness, bringing to the apparitional yet truer version of self as described in language a sense of heft paradoxically through its paper or digital materiality. In Prosser's brilliant analysis of how written trans autobiographies often integrate personal and artistic photographs, he is aware of the dangers of awarding visual media with less (perceived) mediation between signifier and soma than writing's rhetorical strategies. Borrowing language from Roland Barthes, the photograph, he notes, appears "co-natural" or fully in alignment with the bodily referent and even confused with it as it begins to function as more referential to the anchored gendered self (I am there, I am that) than the actual body that remains stubbornly in flux. In fact, the photographic portrait that realizes a true gender by index risks over time not offering the indexed subject a sustained form of gendered realness, but rather its illusion. The "now you see it, now you don't" quality of visual trans self-representation can function like a phantasmagoric technique. Like Philidor's disclaimer for his phantasmagoria, the production of visual gendered realness oscillates between deception and astonishment.

The optical device and conceptual vehicle of the phantasmagoria stresses the spectacular and spectral quality of bodies. Not only did the phantasmagoria incorporate the necessary, underlying lens technologies, perspectival physics, and techniques for capturing light for photographic arts, it also readied an audience eager to be astonished by cinematographic views. For a methodological frame to study the continuities between previous popular trick technologies and early film, André Gaudreault suggests the inclusive term of a "cultural series" for moments of transition through "intermedial meshing" between media rather than looking to pinpoint a historical rupture. The process of institutionalization through the normalization of codes later set the animated views of cinema apart from other cultural forms such as magic shows and vaudeville theatre, consolidating it into a relatively autonomous media institution during Hollywood's Golden Age (1917–1960s). Even from a twenty-first-century point of view though, the series element of spectacular and specular bodies continues to play across differing cultural and media forms, linking together phantasmagoric aesthetic impulses with new technical advances. The cultural series approach that tracks intermedial meshing might also be applied to the scientific series of sexual intermediacy in which earlier notions of trans concepts were strongly related to homosexuality and intersexuality as well. Dating from the late nineteenth century, this kaleidoscopic blending and turning of trans-inter-queer inflections has a distinctly visual and psychosexual lineage. Take for example Magnus Hirschfeld's "Yearbooks for Sexual Intermediaries" (1899–1923), which consist of 20,000 pages of images showing the variance of psychic and physical hermaphroditism, transvestism, and homosexuality between the poles of what he called the "full woman" and the "full man." These meshings of sexual intermediacy shifted again when judicial rulings compared intersex and transsexual claims to change gender status (1950s) and when homosexuality was largely replaced by transsexuality in a key reference psychology book on diagnosing mental disorders (1973). My framing of phantasmagoria as a cultural series has the benefit of bringing together, and thinking together, two historical transitional moments: when technological reproducibility first affected visual culture by heightening the volatility of an audiovisual image, and when surgical and sexological science also first acknowledged the mutability of gender.

Michel Foucault's historical method of archeology that accounts for the dimension and direction of power in normalization processes can be usefully combined with studying minute transitions within cultural series. His analysis of different eras focuses on the relation of forces that produce and deploy truth; power produces epistemological formations specific to a period's configuration, enabling something to be said to be, and another thing to be seen as, true. A cultural moment thus consists in the visible and the sayable that enables knowledge to emerge as self-evident. In parsing Foucault's archaeological method, Gilles Deleuze explains that an era consists of a geological threshold that breaks with the previous one through the transformation of statements (sayable) and visibilities (visible) — "an audiovisual archive" — that form bands of discursive knowledge and fields of nondiscursive knowledge.

In the case of the phantasmagoria, I see that it patterns the supposedly self-evident or knowable visibilities of both cinema images and trans bodies as astonishing illusions or more generally as a shimmer. Deleuze defines visibilities to be "forms of luminosity which are created by the light [of the era] itself and allow a thing or object to exist only as a flash, sparkle or shimmer." The "first light" of an era acts as a virtual visibility producing all perceptible experiences; it "brings forth visibilities as flashes and shimmerings, which are the 'second light.'" Thus, the pervasive lights of an era can be analyzed as a potentate form that is capable of creating other forms and movements. Deleuze proposes that in the same way that statements depend on their system for sayability, visibilities are inseparable from the machines that produce their seeability. Such visibility machines do not have to be optical machines like film projectors per se; they are more generally conceived as an assembly of organs and functions that makes something inconspicuously visible: producing a thing as a shimmering. Crucial to entering the visible field as a second light, then, is the proper relation to the machine that acts as a first light. Only then can one (or something) become a shimmer, created as a "light-being" both absolute in one's givenness and yet historical, because a being of light "is inseparable from the way in which it falls into a formation or corpus." The phantasmagoria serves a unifying function, acting as a production and distribution center of light and dark, the opaque and transparent, the seen and not-seen — a system of light infused with power relations, as Foucault skillfully analyzes in "Diego Velásquez's" painting Las Meninas. As a type of this first light, the cultural series of phantasmagoria not only literally projects a shimmering image, but also is a form of luminosity that allows cinema and trans bodies to exist as self-evident shimmers.


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Table of Contents

Preface. Call Me They  vii
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Disjunction and Conjunction: Thinking Trans through the Cinematic  1
1. Shimmering Phantasmagoria: Trans/Cinema/Aesthetics in an Age of Technological Reproducibility  26
2. Shimmering Sex: Docu-Porn's Trans-Sexualities, Confession Culture, and Suturing Practices  61
3. Shimmering Multiplicity: Trans*Forms in Dandy Dust and I.K.U. from Dada to Data to D@D@  107
Conclusion. An Ensemble of Shimmers  145
Notes  157
Bibliography  199
Index  219

What People are Saying About This

Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientation in Film and Video - Chris Straayer

"Through the concept of shimmering, Eliza Steinbock promotes a trans cinematic aesthetic that provides the means to move beyond examining issues of representation. Innovative and sophisticated, Shimmering Images offers a delightful, whirlwind experience and a stimulating encounter with cinema, media, and trans studies as well as aesthetics and affect theory."

TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly - Susan Stryker

“Deftly combining film theory, affect theory, trans studies, and aesthetics, Eliza Steinbock's scintillating new book makes a bravura contribution to each of the fields it draws from. They argue that, in delinking and relinking sounds and images across literal cuts, filmmaking necessarily enacts a ‘transsexual logic of cinematic embodiment.’ The brilliance of the book lies in the sophistication with which it develops that fundamental insight into a full-fledged practice of reading, watching, feeling, thinking, and interpreting. It's a game-changer.”

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