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The Limits of Trans Theory: Moving Beyond Critique
Alyson Escalante
When speaking at a philosophy conference about trans experience, one is confronted
with the question “what kind of work has constituted inquiry about trans experience philosophy
so far?” In fact, we are tasked with questioning whether or not exploration trans in philosophy
philosophy represents a field of study (as in trans studies, or trans theory), a methodological
approach which uses trans experience as a springboard, or perhaps as a disparate set of fairly
disjointed academic phenomena. Each of these understandings opens new spaces for inquiry and
exploration; each allows us to explore the topic of trans philosophy and theory in new ways. For
this presentation, I will be focusing on the methodological techniques which have comprised
trans theory and philosophy. In this paper, I will explore a certain fidelity to critique as a method
of interrogation within a majority of work which constitutes this thing which we call trans
philosophy. In order to explore the limits of this choice of method, I will first explore the critical
bent within trans theory by exploring the method employed in Susan Stryker’s My Word to
Victor Frankenstein. I hope to explore the way this text has created a legacy within trans
philosophy, and has dictated the way later trans philosophy would operate. After outlining this
history, I will turn to Bruno Lauture’s Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam, in order to explore
the political and pragmatic limits of critique. Finally I will return to Stryker’s article in order to
explore possible means of reinterpreting and rereading it, in light of the limits of critique within
contemporary trans theory. I will finish by attempting to sketch out a way forward for trans
philosophy which does not rely on critique as its central method.
Trans philosophy and theory have long been interested in understanding trans
subjectivity as a critical rupture, capable of disrupting supposedly universal categories. Susan
Stryker’s fantastic work My Words to Victor Frankenstein is an important example of this
approach. In this massively influential work, Stryker explores the way trans subjectivity creates
a certain affinity towards the monstrous and non-human image of Frankenstein’s monster.
Stryker writes the piece largely in response to Mary Daly and Janice Raymond’s arguments
about the need to “morally mandate [transsexuality] out of existence” (Raymond 178). For
Stryker, this reveals a certain limit to the supposedly universal category of human; the trans
body falls outside of this category as a result of its constructed nature, and thus takes on affinity
with Mary Shelley’s monstrous subject. She writes, “transsexuality more than any other transgender practice or identity represents the prospect of destabilizing the foundational
presupposition of fixed genders upon which a politics of personal identity depends” (Stryker 84).
This potential for disruption is not merely a descriptive analysis of the ways transsexuality
demarcates the limits of humanity; Stryker moves into the realm of normative and critical
analysis in order to establish the way this destabilization ought to be embraced by trans theory
and philosophy. Expanding upon this, she exclaims, “When such beings as these tell me I war
with nature, I find no more reason to mourn my opposition to them or to the order they claim to
represent than Frankenstein’s monster felt in its enmity to the human race. I do not fall from the
grace of their company roar gleefully away from it like a Harley-straddling, dildo-packing
leatherdyke from hell” (Stryker 85). It is thus, not only that transsexuality presents itself as a
destabilizing site from which critique of natural human universality can be mounted, but also
that the transexual subject ought to delight in this position and use it as a means of attack against
the presumed universality of humanity.
I am particularly interested in the way this critical orientation is primarily focuses on

creating an oppositional standpoint to enlightenment projects of universalism and humanism.
The language of warfare evoked by Stryker is strikingly similar to Bruno Latour’s discussion of
critique in his article Why has Critical Run Out of Steam, where he opens by saying:
Wars. So many wars. Wars outside and wars inside. Cultural wars, science wars, and
wars against terrorism. Wars against poverty and wars against the poor. Wars against
ignorance and wars out of ignorance. My question is simple: Should we be at war, too,
we, the scholars, the intellectuals? (Latour 225)
Latour continues this metaphorical framing of war to advocate for a strategic reassessment in the
humanities. We must pause for a moment and gather together and soldiers and generals to ask
ourselves “What has become of the critical spirit? Has it run out of steam?” (Ibid). Even if we
agree with Stryker that the form of embodiment possessed by the trans subject puts her “at war
with nature,” we still need to ask weather the weapons we employ in the service of that war are
in fact still optimize for the context we write and live in. Latour’s interjection into this
conversation is as follows: critique was once a powerful tool which could be deployed to push
back against the violences embedded in supposedly universal liberal values, and in as much as it
was able to do so, it served its purpose. Now, it appears that critique has outlived its utility, and
actually becomes a weapon to be taken up by those who are uninterested in resistance to
oppression and domination. There are a few examples which form the core of Latour’s
argument. His most important example is an article in The New York Times which cautions
against certainty regarding climate change based on a epistemological uncertainty in the ability
of scientific inquiry to make truth claims. Latour reflects on his own work within science studies
which sought to demonstrated the uncertainty of scientific knowledge and notes that there has
been a shift in terms of the enemies tactics such that:
the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological
arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in
the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad
ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden
behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real
objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?
Thus, there has been a change in strategy by those who would seek to defend reactionary
political and theoretical orientations. No longer is the critical and intellectual left fighting against
strict realists and objectivists, but against a more adept enemy capable of adopting the best
practices and tools produced by the left. We might perhaps think of the work of Iconoclastic
french theorist Alain De Benoist who frames his criticism of multiculturalism and immigration
through a critique of liberal universalism. Something has a changed when a french reactionary
who advocates segregation lists his inspirations Gramsci, Baudrillard, and Debord. He finally
assesses the situation by noting:
the new spirit of capitalism has put to good use the artistic critique that was supposed to
destroy it. If the dense and moralist cigar smoking reactionary bourgeois can transform
him or herself into a free floating agnostic bohemian why would he or she not be able to
absorb the most sophisticated tools of deconstruction, social construction, discourse
analysis, postmodernism?
If Latour is correct, then they already have.
Latour’s concerns with the current use of criticism obviously speaks to implications of
Stryker’s theory. It is clear that Latour does not want to disagreed the reasons that academics
engage in critique; there was a time when perhaps the enemies which the intellectual left sought

to mobilize against were in fact best opposed through critique. Certainly, Stryker has correctly
diagnosed the problems with Daly and Raymond’s position; their defense of static notions of
man, woman, and human do in fact create massive oversights which can not account for trans
embodiment, except as horrific and monstrous interventions in a natural order. My concern here
is not that Stryker has misjudged the situation, but that we have. I am concerned that the critical
spirit in trans theory and philosophy has positioned itself as an antagonistic force to destroy
concepts of universality and to attempt to move beyond ideas such as nature, human, or even
fact. Such an approach would completely miss the mark, as those who seek to create an antitrans politics today often do not use the same arguments deployed by Daly and Raymond. For
example, the contemporary Radical Feminist author and scholar Sheila Jeffreys writes:
Radical feminist theorists do not seek to make gender a bit more flexible, but to eliminate
it. They are gender abolitionists, and understand gender to provide the framework and
rationale for male dominance. In the radical feminist approach, masculinity is the
behavior of the male ruling class and femininity is the behavior of the subordinate
class of women. Thus gender can have no place in the egalitarian future that feminism
aims to create.
No longer does the transantagonistic camp of radical feminism rely on a defense of essential
unity; what is revealed through this Jeffreys quote is that the terms of the debate have radically
shifted. For Jeffreys and much of the current wave radical feminist thinkers, there is no essential
unity to masculinity or femininity, in face the supposed objectivity of both terms is gutted to
reveal simple power relations. Radical feminists have in fact adopted a critique of gender which
seeks not to create a less violent theory of gender, but to try to dispose of this completely. This
has led thinkers like Jeffreys to denounce trans embodiment on new grounds. It is no longer that
trans women violate natural boundaries like Daly argued, but that trans women engage in
stereotyped expression or that trans women reinforce a stable and ontological view of gender.
Stryker’s critique of nature as well as of man and woman as categories within a natural order
does very little to address the concerns of radical feminists who have adopted the method of
critique and would already agree with those terms. Additionally, the current radical feminist
project highlights the way that critique can move beyond a mere criticism to actual destruction.
The radical feminist attack on gender seeks its destruction, and in the process seeks to destroy a
framework that is meaningful and important to many people.
Having explored the evolution of radical feminism, we can see that Latour is largely
correct about the tools employed by reactionary thinkers. This raises important questions for
those of us who write philosophy and theory that deals with trans experience and embodiment.
We are forced to ask ourselves if our work is still working within the original intent of the
critical tradition, or if as Latour says we have fallen into “a certain form of critical spirit has sent
us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be
considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its
main target” (231). We are thus tasked with taking a moment to reflect on what the purpose of
the critical tradition within philosophy was all along. Latour suggests that, “The question was
never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary,
renewing empiricism” (Ibid). Karen Barad also adds further insight into this troubling situation,
adding that:
Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the
constitutive exclusions of those ideas we can not do without, but a destructive practice
meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down—another scholar,

another feminist, a discipline, an approach, et cetera.
If critique has devolved into this violent tool of exclusion and attack, we are then tasked with
asking what a new view of critical philosophy might look like. Barad suggests that this new
revaluation would not be about excusing and dispelling, but rather about rehabilitation. Her very
phrasing of “those ideas we can not do without” reveals the paradox behind this critical
approach. We must focus on critiquing the violences built into dominating and ideological
categories and concepts, while also recognizing their necessity. In a sense this is a departure
from the idea of radical overhaul; this is more of a rebuilding or renewing.
In order to demonstrate the way such a philosophical revitalization of objectivity,
materiality, fact, empiricism, and perhaps gender could be employed, I will return to Stryker’s
article in order to perform a very different reading. Alongside the emphasis on antagonism
towards natural categories and boundaries, there is a profound first person account of trans
subjectivity and embodiment which exists within Stryker’s work. It is my hope that reading her
work for these moments can allow us to understand the ways we can articulate trans
embodiment not as a mere critique, but as a practice of rethinking the exclusions built into our
social boundaries. In the second section of her article, simply title “criticism,” she attempts to
understand the limits of language when expression trans embodiment, claiming, “Unlike the
monster, we often successfully cite the culture’s visual norms of gendered embodiment. This
citation becomes a subversive resistance when, through a provisional use of language, we
verbally declare the unnaturalness of our claim to the subject positions we nevertheless
occupy” (Stryker 87). In this sense, the articulation of trans subjectivity and embodiment
becomes inevitable because of a certain disjunction between trans bodies and the categories they
claim to unnatural occupy. The insistence by the self articulating trans subject that she does in
fact embody the category of woman, even if by unnatural means thus butts heads with the
culturally dominant signification behind the signifier of woman. It is from within this place of
speech and self articulation that Stryker notes that, “Like the monster, I could speak of my
earliest memories, and how I became aware of my difference from everyone around me. I can
describe how I acquired a monstrous identity by taking on the label “transsexual” to name parts
of myself that I could not otherwise explain” (89). It is this possibility for speaking which offers
Stryker some form of resistance to the violence she has faced, but also a way of articulating a
response to the radical feminist attack on trans subjectivity. Although she chooses to speak from
the position of monstrous subject, the very act of doing so still subtly stakes a claim on being an
autonomous subject capable of resisting and articulating, able to express and operate within a
hostile socio-linguistic system. In this sense, I argue, Stryker does not have to be read as an
attack on the concepts of human and naturalness. In fact, the very articulation of the trans subject
as an unnatural and inhuman subject is an act which calls into question the delineation between
natural and unnatural, monstrous and human. The speech that this subject is able to provide
actually acts to expand and question the exclusions built into these categories. While it is
possible to extend this to an argument for abandoning concrete and objective categories, it is
also equally possible to turn it into an argument for augmenting, revitalizing, repairing, and
expanding these notions. Perhaps, the trans subject’s speech actually causes us to realize that the
categories of human, man, woman, and natural are all capable of having space for a broader
variety of subjects and bodies. Perhaps this can become the starting point for a new approach,
beyond mere criticism.
It is interesting to note that immediately after a discussion of how a trans subject may
speak and express their experience of embodiment, Stryker immediately practices this by turning

to a first person account of the birth of her child. She expresses frustration with the way this
event makes her account her own embodiment. Once again she turns to speech, but a profoundly
embodied speech. She returns to her house to be alone and begins to express, she writes, “Now
everything in me flowed out, moving up from inside and out through my throat, my mouth
because these things could never pass between the lips of my cunt” (90). Again, this is a moment
where expression is tied to the limits of trans embodiment. She continues, “I came as close today
as I’ll ever come to giving birth literally. My body can’t do that; I can’t even bleed without a
wound, and yet I claim to be a woman” (91). In this moment of despair, there is a powerful act
of expression wherin Stryker pushes back against the limits imposed by the language available
to her. The meaning of woman clashes with her embodied experience, yet she still maintains her
position as a woman. She concludes this section by stating, “Rage throws me back at last into
this mundane reality in this transfigured flesh that aligns me with the power of my Be- ing. In
birthing my rage, my rage has rebirthed me” (91). This rage represents a first person account of
the trans subject defying the linguistic categorization she has been subjected to. Again, while we
might read this as a reason the trans subject could rage against the ideas of nature and humanity,
we might also see this rage as a rage which demands a place within those terms. I see Stryker as
creating the room for revitalizing and expanding the categories of human and natural, rather than
destroying them. This rage need not seek to destroy the category of woman, as the radical
feminist critique does, rather it might obstinately demand a place within it.
So, what might we conclude about the project of trans theory, or philosophy which
accounts for trans embodiment? I believe that this first person articulation and account of trans
embodiment is itself a way forward. If trans theory were to focus on the expression of
embodiment and agency from trans people themselves, it might be able to create performative
expansions of the restrictive constructions of historically violent categories like human, man, or
woman. By reclaiming these terms and refusing to simply abandon them, we gain the ability to
respond to the critical attitude adopted by violent and reactionary theorists. Might the best
response to Jeffrey’s be an account of trans embodiment which implicitly challenges the
violence inherent within her critique. In this paper I have sought to outline the limits of critique
and to create the possibility for moving beyond it through a focus on embodiment and self
articulation. I don’t believe this outlines a comprehensive project for moving forward, but I do
believe it creates a framework within which new speculative projects within the intellectual left
can place themselves in order to address the changing landscape in the debates surrounding trans
embodiment. There is much work to be done in constructing new forms of theory and inquiry,
but it is my humble hope that the ideas here offer a starting point.

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