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Courtney Desiree Morris: Good evening everyone. My name is Courtney Desiree Morris, and I’m an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies here at the University of California, Berkeley, and I will be serving as the moderator for tonight’s conversation. I am so delighted to welcome you all to the virtual book launch for our dear colleague, professor Eric Stanley and their powerful new book, Atmospheres of Violence: Structuring Antagonism and the Trans/Queer Ungovernable. In this critical new work, professor Stanley examines the persistence and intensification of historic regimes of anti-trans violence in the wake of the expansion of LGBT rights. Professor Stanley’s work challenges all of us to consider the limits of liberal inclusion, and to pay close attention to the forms of violence that underwrite these seemingly progressive gestures.
I’ve been deeply moved by the book. I had the opportunity to read it over the last week or so, and I’ve basically been talking about it to anyone who will listen. So if you’ve not had the opportunity to read the book, I want to encourage you right now to really [inaudible] with it. I think it’s making some really important and necessary interventions in the field of feminist trans and queer studies that we should all be taking seriously. So I have the honor tonight of facilitating our conversation about Atmospheres of Violence. And I cannot imagine a more exciting gathering of critical scholar activists to discuss the complex issues that the important new work is really raising.
I will introduce our panelists shortly, but before I begin, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge exactly where we are. Specifically, I want to acknowledge that for those of us based in the Bay Area, this gathering and all of the work that we do is taking place on the unceded land of the Huichin Ohlone people. It’s important for us to collectively acknowledge that we are guests on this land, and that the dispossession of indigenous peoples remains ongoing. So if you have not done so, I want to encourage everyone to learn more about the ongoing work that Ohlone activists in the Bay Area are doing to facilitate the rematriation of their ancestral land. And if you’re participating in this gathering outside of the bay, I also want to urge you to learn more about the indigenous caretakers of the lands that you inhabit, and to actively support the decolonizing work that’s happening in your community.
Tonight’s event is part of the programming of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. As many of you may know, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies here at Cal, so we’ll be hosting a series of programs in the spring to commemorate and reflect on the department’s history, pivotal role in the field of feminist studies, and its future [inaudible]. Please visit our website at https://gws.berkeley.edu/ and sign up for our mailing list to stay up to date on all the programs and events that will be happening in the spring. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Othering and Belonging Institute, the Center for Research on Social Change, and the Center for Race and Gender for sponsoring tonight’s event. Special thanks are especially due to Gillian Edgelow in GWS, and to Robin Pearce in the Othering and Belonging Institute for their initiative and critical support.
I want to talk a little bit about the structure of tonight’s event. I’m going to begin by introducing our esteemed panelists, who I’m really excited to be in conversation with tonight, and that will then be followed by a reading from Atmospheres of Violence by Stanley. And then once professor Stanley has had an opportunity to share some of their work, I’ll then pose a few questions to our panelists to solicit a conversation with and between our speakers. And then we will open the event up, and allow the audience to pose questions. So do feel free to post your questions and comments in the comments and chat section of the program, and we’ll be filtering through those throughout the evening and giving you an opportunity to [inaudible] professor Stanley and our panelists.
With that, I want to briefly introduce all of our panelists. Professor Angela Y. Davis is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Over the last 40 years, she’s become known internationally for her ongoing work as a writer, educator, and activist, working to combat all forms of oppression in the United States and abroad. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and she’s the author of nine books, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography; the classic Black feminist text, Women, Race, and Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; The Angela Y. Davis Reader; Are Prisons Obsolete?; and The Meaning of Freedom. We’re so honored to have professor Davis here with us this evening.
We’re also pleased to have with us Lavelle Ridley, who is an activist, abolitionist and Ph.D. candidate in English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Currently, she’s working on a dissertation which examines contemporary life writing by Black trans women in the U.S., and questions how a critical trans imagination informs how these writers creatively engage Black, queer, and feminist literary traditions, resist oppressive forms of state and social power, and moves us towards more liberatory Black queer/trans world and freedom making. She’s published work in GLQ, a Journal of Lesbian and Gay studies, and TSQ, Transgender Studies Quarterly. Lavelle, thank you so much for being with us.
Next we have Doctor Jules Gill-Peterson, who is an associate professor of English and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child, winner of the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for transgender non-fiction and the 2020 Children’s Literature Association Book Award. Her work has been published in Transgender Studies Quarterly; GLQ; Women and Performance, and multiple edited volumes. She’s currently developing a new book project, entitled Gender Underground: a History of Trans DIY. Thank you Doctor Gill-Peterson for being with us.
We’re also very pleased to have professor Dean Spade, who is an attorney, writer, activist and associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law. He’s founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and he’s published extensively and is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of the Law and Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis. Thank you professor Spade.
And then finally, I’m very pleased to announce my colleague, who we’re here to celebrate tonight, Dr. Eric Stanley. Eric Stanley is an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of California Berkeley. In addition to their new book Atmospheres of Violence, they are the editor, along with Tourmaline and Johanna Burton, of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, and with Nat Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Professor Stanley is also an accomplished artist and filmmaker, and they co-directed the films Homotopia and Criminal Queers with Chris Vargas. Please join me in welcoming and celebrating professor Eric Stanley.
Eric Stanley: Thank you so much Courtney, and everyone. So I want to start out by thanking all the behind the scenes labor that’s happening and is continuing to happen to make this come off, including Robin, Mark, Christian, again, Gillian, as well as the entire department, who has been deeply supportive of me and my work over the years. I’d also of course like to thank the panelists, Lavelle, Jules, Dean, and Angela, and our amazing moderator Courtney. I’m extremely humbled by your participation and grateful for your enduring friendship. I should also say that Angela has been witnessing the unfolding of this project for more than 15 years. Some of this writing first appeared in graduate seminars that she was instructing a very long time ago. So, thank you. I want to especially thank my family, grown from Santa Cruz and San Francisco and the various movements and collectives that have welcomed me and continue to teach me everything I know.
This book is, as I say in the dedication, for those lost to the world, and all who remain as its antagonism. I want to briefly shout out three sites of struggle and ways we might support them, right? I’m also speaking from occupied Ramaytush colonial land. Our support must be more than symbolic, so I invite you all to join the struggle to save the West Berkeley Shellmound on University and Fourth, it’s an ongoing struggle. I think we’ll include a link.
The author’s proceeds from this book, like my other books, are going to go to the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project. Because one of the primary things that people ask for that are incarcerated are more materials. And so any way that we can lend our solidarity, I think is really vital. So join me in supporting LGBT Books to Prisoners or other books to prisoners projects, and also the campaign to free Ashley Diamond, who is one of the imprisoned theorists that I think with in the book. So that’s also an ongoing campaign that again, we all should support. And you know, of course, Nov. 2 is always a historical day in this place, misnamed the United States, not because of any elections, but because it’s the anniversary of Assata Shakur’s escape from prison. So I want to mark that as well.
I’m going to read just a few excerpts from the coda of the book, so the very end of the book, and it starts with two quotes. And the first is, “I’m not a liberated woman. I’m a transgender woman. And I’m working on becoming liberated as we speak.” And that’s from Miss Major, who is our dear friend and comrade. She’s also dealing with some health issues right now. And so, if we can all send her some healing, light, and energy, that will be much appreciated. The second quote is from Tourmaline and it’s, “It’s easy to be free. It’s easy to be alive.”
For some context, the beginning of this coda is attentive to the legal designation of ungovernability that often gets levied against trans/queer youth of color who live in and as refusal. So ungovernability then, is both a sign of the law structuring cruelty, and also perhaps a trap door out of it.
(Stanley reads an excerpt of their book)
I, too, was an errant youth. By the age of 14, I had already been expelled from school for the second and final time. I was charged with truancy, which was the name they gave my attempt to escape the extended torment of public education. It was then, as it is now, much easier to banish the survivor and to produce us as the problem of our own making, than it is to confront violence’s grind. My chronic absence was narrated as disruptive, not because I was actively distracting others, but because I exposed the fragility of that which kept us in class by escaping it.
Indeed, their fear was not for me, a fact they emphatically confirmed, but that I might serve as referent for others to join us beyond the school’s administration. My refusal to adhere to the lockdown of normativity’s drive, expressed as unavoidable injury, was both the punishment for my escape, and the catalyst for its persistence.
Alone, together, the materiality of my survival was never singular. The intimacy of aid, a sofa, free food, a place to be when there was no other, offered wayward community, however transitive. Without transcendence, we can’t disregard violence’s endurance, nor assume flight is always an option. Yet here, I want to hold the beloved networks of care that have helped us learn. As Tourmaline affirms that quote, “It’s easy to be free.” In the quake of her evocative precision, we know our undoing has not been undone. On the contrary, it continues to intensify. Nonetheless, radical dreaming affords us a space of ease, which is how we might learn to feel freedom.
Among the figures whose freedom dreams have allowed for our shared endurance in a world that wishes otherwise is Miss Major. In the 1990s, Major was working at the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center as a street level service provider for low-income people in the neighborhood. She drove the outreach van and helped run the needle exchange program that provided clean syringes and other supplies to anyone who asked. Needle exchanges were then and continue to be semi-legal operations where direct action and mutual aid meet in the communal knowledge that distributing resources without expectations keeps us alive.
Major is multiple. She is a Black trans woman by way of the South Side, by way of Deep East, now Little Rock. In the aftermath of at least two bloody uprisings, she was radicalized by Attica survivor Frank “Big Black” Smith and Dannemora Prison, and on the streets outside the Stonewall. She is the maternal sign for many whose first mothers lost them. Her stories of survival, hooking and boosting collect a wild history where getting by without getting got grows an ecology beyond the formalism of the state. Sinuous scams, fraudulent documents, and ever-changing identifications, her life on the run brought the world with her. Anarchism in action.
Here, ungovernability is not a scene of drifting chaos, where power’s account for survival always cuts a long difference. That is democracy. It is an organized yet improvisational practice in common that revels in pleasure and expropriation, whose aim is to collectivize exposure towards that exposure’s abolition. Major’s perpetual interruptions and illicit practices, the way she grows a Black trans social life in the ruins of the white world, unsettles the stone precision of the state’s biometric drive.
This, with the unruliness of trans/queer youth, who reject the corporeal discipline of education, and the emptiness of home, undoes the pledge of incremental personhood. While the scale at which revolutionary change most often becomes known might miss these minor acts, it is their building of another end of the world while also allowing for life to fill it that reminds us we never struggle alone. Together, our anti-authoritarianism is a force that wildcats the state in the covert practices of skipping school, jumping turnstiles, and counterfeiting documents. Underground, we creep undetected through the dark alleys of recognition and below the frames of democracy’s security cameras.
While this book has welled for perhaps too long in the space of death, I end with the ungovernable. Not because such practices negate violence, but because we, those who go on, must hold this incommensurability. If abolition’s generativity names a presence of the world as much as it labors to end the one we cannot survive, then ungovernability not only refutes the state, it also figures the ease of living now. This is not to lay claim to the diminishing of modernity structuring antagonism. If anything, this is an unfinished experiment in collective action. A recursive dream that builds on itself, as pedagogies of rebellion always do.
Yet even in the place of trans/queer celebration that is Major’s laugh, we return to the banks of the river Jordan, where we await Marsha, Sylvia, and all the others who were stolen from a world that could not bear their opulence. It is in this atmosphere of violence where getting ungovernable is both a trace of, and a map for becoming liberated as we speak. Thank you.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you, Eric, for that beautiful reading. Just it’s one thing, kind of reading the words and sitting with them by myself, but then hearing you read them, I just have a completely different experience of the work. It’s such a triumph on so many levels, aesthetically, analytically, there’s so much to get into. So with that, I want to just go ahead and move into our questions. I have a few questions I’d like to pose to our panelists, and then try to leave plenty of room for conversation with our audience. I’m sure people are going to want to really dig into this work. So I wanted to start out, there was a question that Eric and I kind of crafted together, and that I want to maybe begin with you, professor Davis, and get your thoughts on this, and then invite other panelists to comment on this as well.
But there’s a quote in the beginning of the book, in the introduction, that says, “We’re living in a time of LGBT inclusion. This is evidenced, at least in the United States, by the legal expansion of marriage, lesbian and gay military recruitment, and the proliferation of LGBT characters in popular visual culture. Against the narrative arc of rainbow progress that proclaims that these changes mark a radical shift in the social, Atmospheres of Violence argues that inclusion, rather than a precondition of safety, most properly names the state’s violent expansion.”
Given the most recent wave of anti-trans legislation and cultural attacks, how might we think about the sort of “incorporative exclusion” that Eric argues throughout the book? And I was also really thinking about this in relationship to more recent work by Kim TallBear and the ways that she talks about how this sort of desire to perfect this settler colonial state, that we have to accept on a certain level that settler colonial democracy cannot be decolonized. And so, I think Eric is making a kind of similar argument in terms of how we should think about anti-trans violence as a constitutive feature of the democratic state. So that inclusion, like representation, is fundamentally a trap. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that, and offer your thoughts on that argument, professor Davis.
Eric Stanley: You’re muted, Angela.
Angela Y. Davis: Thanks. That’s a perpetual notice. You’re muted, Angela. Well, first of all, let me say that Eric has really offered us this phenomenal gift. And thank you so much, Eric. And thank you for the reading. I, too, was very moved by the reading aloud, having read the book silently, it acquires a very different kind of life when you speak the words. This book urges us to unlearn and rethink in ways that can hopefully, potentially create the kinds of ruptures that we need to experience, and to think, and especially to feel. Atmospheres of Violence, asks us to try to begin the process of loosening our ties to foundational ideas that always keep us glued to ways of thinking that inevitably reproduce what we think we are fighting against. And I was thinking… Earlier today I attended a DEI meeting, diversity equity inclusion, where I heard someone talking about the importance of integrating a particular program that is still all white. And it’s so distressing the ways in which these vocabularies accumulate. Vocabularies that militate precisely against the work that we think that we are doing.
When I first met Eric many years ago, I couldn’t remember exactly how many, but he says it was 15 years ago, and Eric was a first year student in History of Consciousness. I remember so vividly your persistent critiques of assimilative gay movement strategies, gay marriage, gay equality in the military, et cetera. And those critiques seem to so perfectly recapitulate the emphasis on integration as the goal of Black freedom struggles. Integration, incorporation, as long as the larger structures themselves remain relatively intact. So I am so thankful for this work that ask us to understand, how Black trans women, trans women of color take us to the limits of such inclusion, and therefore begin to lay the groundwork for more fundamental critiques of democracy itself. You know, there’s a lot that I could say, but I think that right now, I’m just going to end by saying, I really love the fact that this book undoes the major strategies for addressing racism, misogyny, homophobia, trans misogyny, and you have made me think more deeply about this question than I ever have before. So thank you very much, Eric.
Courtney Desiree Morris: And anyone else who’d like to speak to that question, please feel free to do so.
Jules Gill-Peterson: I would be totally happy to speak to it a little bit, and also just to echo my profound sense of gratitude. I felt very moved reading the book, and also felt that feeling of it being a gift. And also a kind of call, and an overdue in many ways, reckoning. Maybe inside the academy, but a reckoning that has been in progress for a very long time, in many places in the world. And as much as there I think is a sense of mourning and loss throughout the text, there’s also a sort of electricity to the possibility of leveraging the structuring antagonism that the book takes up.
To understand that we really already do have the tools that we need to understand how to live now, right? And I think that one of the narrative tendencies I really appreciate is this kind of disruption of the sort of utopian longing for the future that will repair either the damage of the past or the insufficiency of the present and this sort of radical interruption of that, to say that for those of us who are alive right now, we’re not willing to mortgage ourselves for a fantasy of a future that will never be delivered.
And so thinking about anti-trans legislation, particularly the kind of intensity or the stack of it this year, and so much of it targeting women and trans kids. I mean, it’s really trans women and trans children that are bearing this brunt. But actually I think one of the things that this book really helps us think about is the profound inability of kind of mainstream liberal pro-trans political movements to make any kind of affirmative defense of transness. I still profoundly think we have yet to encounter a single affirmative desire that children be trans, that women be trans, that trans people of color be in the world. Any sort of wish that they would walk this earth.
I think we’ve seen just sort of, to my mind some of the most disheartening attempts to oppose, of course really horrific legislation, but on the most conservative terms possible. And I think that this book gives us the perfect kind of set of analytics to understand how for instance the way that trans childhood is being politicized right now, the ostensibly pro-trans side of that political struggle is really doubling down on one of the worst products of American culture which is the idealized white protectable child. And this sort of idea that there is a disproportionately upper-middle class suburban white trans child, who is in peril of losing access to a very, very rarefied, expensive form of healthcare has really I think sort of led to a kind of doubling down on the sort of worst model. And really it’s a sort of… This kind of model of begging the state for the most limited form of recognition as a kind of private citizen, and also this demand that trans youth.
I’m so glad, Eric, that you read from the coda. This demand that trans youth be placed back in the family, that that as if… I mean, that to me is the only historical novel… Historically novel thing we’re witnessing right now about trans childhood. There’s nothing new about trans kids, but the idea that they belong in families and that’s the best place for them is I just think shocking to any of us who grew up trans. And also it serves this sort of purpose of completely depoliticizing and never hearing from those youths.
I think one of the things that I’ve been and most concerned about, and I feel such a greater kind of clarity about having read this book is this sort of bait and switch here. This kind of mobilization in defense of a fantasized trans child in need of protection is really a way of continuing to avoid the vast majority of trans youth. Who frankly don’t have the privilege of being kicked out of a gender clinic and are much more likely to already be subject to forms of policing and incarceration. And that really is our trans youth of color, who are already… Who are basically transness and gender nonconformity is taken as an accelerant in a much older school to prison pipeline. And where transness is in fact denied, but its lack of recognition doesn’t mean that it could be solved by inclusion because it’s already being folded into systems that take gender and non-normativity as evidence of deservingness to be further policed or further dispossessed from a young age.
I really worry that this sort of… All of the kind of bad faith and red herrings of the current moment are serving, just as much as they’re serving the hands of fascism, are also serving the kind of regeneration of liberalism at the moment when it’s sort of whale is most unconvincing and exhausted. And I really kind of worry how many of those ungovernable Black and brown trans youth are going to be sacrificed at the altar of this dead fantasy of liberalism. And this idea that lawsuits or whatever… That sort of political, liberal-political institutions can somehow be leveraged at the last second to bail us out, so.
I think that what Eric kind of does so brilliantly in this book is doesn’t read that as just a sort of statement of pessimism, but rather understands that there really is a whole dynamic world. And that, that energy, that power of the ungovernability, right? That moment where dispossession and threat and violence and security and police can sort of metamorphose into that electric feeling of collectivity is something that is just totally missing, I think from our political imaginary. And I guess the last thing I would say and one of the things I really appreciate about this book is that it gives us instruction on how to face what feels like the end of the world and demand that the world end on better terms. And demand something as big as the violence that we are being met with in this moment. Something bigger and more capacious than a return to a fantasy of normal that never existed.
I really think that we need not just the rhetoric of that or the analytic, but the effect, the feeling, right? And the sense of solidarity, an intimacy that is really enlivening and I think helps us follow the wisdom in Tourmaline’s meditation on how it’s in fact surprisingly easy to be alive and easy to be free. So in that spirit, thank you all for being here tonight. And I know, I certainly feel that kind of intimacy in solidarity with each of you. So thanks so much for having us and I’m looking forward to the rest of the conversation.
LaVelle Ridley: I can go next, if that’s all right. Just to echo what Jules and professor Davis have already said, this book that Eric has given us has so many different things. It’s a definitely a blueprint for a method of thinking that will be extremely needed and necessary for folks working in the fields that we do, both academic and activist as well. And since affect kind of was the last thing that Jules hit on, I guess it I’ll hit on that. And for me, what really marks this book as a fantastic though difficult read is the overwhelming weightiness. The overall weighty effective charge that it has throughout.
Encountering these multiple scenes of gruesome excessive violence, overkill and all that. And I think that there’s a way that despite the weight that one might feel when reading in the sense of… The sense of despair or the sense of frustration almost of how do we get out of this? I know, as a scholar and someone working in communities, I often take that thinking approach of, well what do we do? And I think in addition to giving a really talented and beautiful and evocative narration of how structures of power actually use violence in particular ways. How it specifically gets mobilized for what ends in service of whose power structure. I think that the book has a good job doing that and also helps gives us a lens for how we can continue to think about those types of issues and overlapping and intersecting communities. Thinking about queer and trans people here, specifically.
And I love how Eric does a wonderful job of seamlessly allowing the reader to understand that it’s not just queer and trans people written perfectly exactly, but also all swabs of communities of people who are marginalized and disenfranchised and who need access to… Need access to and benefit from any kind of gains that are made for the community, which can be both positive in forms of mutual aid and community support. And also a bit more negative in terms of things like the nonprofit industrial complex or charity, or those other self-serving kind of sources of power that try to help people in communities, so.
Thinking about the incorporative inclusion that was embedded in that first question. The book is actually helpful to me, not only while I can… I am writing my dissertation right now so it of course has that value there. But it’s getting me to totally rethink and readjust the epistemological and ontological ways that I’ve been thinking about not only trans/queer and people on their own terms, but how within the context of global racial capitalism and neoliberalism and the carceral state, how do the relationships and connections that people have in communities, despite these professed identities that are always ours to claim along gender and race and class. But more than that, what beyond that is happening that constantly gets these kinds of people and these kinds of communities tripped up.
With Eric offering the term incorporative exclusion and reading that in the book, it reminded me of a concept that I’m working with and working through in my project. Right now as I have it written it’s a term called regimes of unprotection. Which is an intentional riff off of what police in our country claim as their normal motto to protect and serve. And in trying to find out and locate the contradictions and the mismatches that happen when we go into the archive and try to see how trans people and queer people… Queer people of color get treated by the state and its many different forms.
We see overwhelmingly in, and even especially here in the book, detailed these instances of violence, humiliation, just demonstrations of power that clearly shows out that there are intentional people and groups of people who are not meant to receive the full right or the full care that institutions that we live in are able to give and clearly can give. So this willingness to include what’s around you, but actually to exclude them because of how that process is being navigated I think gives us a lot to think about not only with the kinds of mobilizing that we’ll do moving forward, but also just how we think about the modes of violence and the scenes of violence that we are always wrapped up in and living in. And how do we find a way to think creatively, to imagine, to resist or dis-identify. I think it gives us a good platform from which to produce some really solid response to the state and all those forms.
Dean Spade: This is such a fun conversation. It’s so fun to hear you talk about this, LaVelle, in relationship to your dissertation, which I’m very excited about. And yeah, I mean it’s so delightful to read this book after feeling like Eric has been influencing my thinking. One of the main people influencing my thinking for so many years now and teaching me so much and then get to read the crystallization in the book of like all of that. And I think Eric’s language, as we heard with the reading aloud at the beginning was just so beautiful and evocative. And there’s so many phrases I’ve like underlined that just are like, oh I could never say this quite… You know, it’s just… It’s really such an offering.
And I love this question and this phrase, incorporative exclusion. To me, when I thought about this question, I thought about how this process of mainstreaming that we’ve seen with gay politics and then later trans politics is like this process in which the national narrative comes to be that the state protects these people. And that happens a lot through things like hate crime laws and other… Marriage or whatever, all the things that Eric’s work has critiqued in so many different brilliant ways for so long.
And then meanwhile, the conditions on the ground for people who are harmed by homophobia and transphobia don’t get better at all. They actually get worse, because it’s happening at the exact same time. But the prison system is endlessly growing. And the immigration enforcement system is endlessly growing and the wealth divides are endlessly growing. And so it’s this… It feels like especially queer and trans sort of the kind of conservative queer and trans politics that’s most visible in the US. Is like this cleanup job that tells us like this is the front lines of the civil rights struggle and this is the edge.
And these people… It’s so heartwarming, these people are being protected and these incredibly disgusting, hated people are being protected. And then meanwhile nothing changes for those people. But the narrative changes and then also you get a backlash. So then you also get all this anti-trans legislation. So like you not only have to live and of course backlashes, they’re legal order but they’re also just cultural. It’s like suddenly people all over your state are talking about how horrible you are. And so then what happens to you at the welfare office during the bathroom at McDonald’s is like that much worse specifically for those who are most hated of the group who are visibly trans, who are homeless, who are disabled, who are people of color who are already disposable people, right?
That harm doesn’t fall upon the people… The protected white child in the same way that it falls upon those who really reap that hatred. And so, I just that… The complexity, Eric’s argument that things get worse when we’re told they get better is so profound still, even though we’ve seen this, we could narrate all of the other fake progress of the United States government protecting supposedly… Supposedly protecting hated groups. We can see that for our whole lifetimes and beyond. It’s just very powerful that the way that Eric tells those stories through these sites of violence and really shows how that works.
I just feel like I kind of can’t get enough that question because it’s so profoundly opposite of what we are supposed to think about progress and the specific, really wild, messed up role that LGBT people play in this progress narrative right now about how the U.S. law is perfect. And especially the global narrative about how the U.S. treats gay people right. And other countries treat them bad so we should bomb them. I mean just like broader use of this politics that is so deeply harmful and utterly delivers nothing to most queer and trans people’s wellbeing. And just how deep that is.
So I just… The book is just deeply moving to me and I learned a ton of things I didn’t know. And felt more deeply things that I really care about. And then I feel like I’ve been traveling with Erica Long for a long time. People do the work of a book that just… And work on these ideas for so long and think about them so carefully. I just feel so grateful for that deeper level of understanding that I get out of reading it even while I’ve been listening to Eric talk about the ideas for years in different contexts of friendship or of academia or in Eric’s films, et cetera. So yeah, really grateful to be here.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you all for those really… I just feel like my mind is racing. I want to talk about Black feminism and it’s conversations with trans and queer theory around ideas of futurity and living freedom now, right? Living a future freedom now, there’s something about that that I feel is so present in this work. And so maybe I’ll shelf that for later. And Eric, I’d like to maybe bookmark that for you to come back to later. But I was also really struck in both Jules and LaVelle and your comments talking about the question of violence, right? And how Eric approaches this question in the book and the book really… Eric you’re really insistent about kind of staying with the trouble of violence in the work and on the one hand you sort of are… There’s something I think part of what’s so moving about the work and in the writing is how you hold these stories of violence with so much care and there’s a clear sort of deliberative process around kind of the ethics of narrating these scenes of anti-trans violence and how to represent that violence. And what we think are sort of the political… What’s the political payoff right? Of narrating these scenes of violence in this way.
And so, I wanted to ask, I think I wanted to start maybe with LaVelle about your thoughts on kind of the ethics of sort of narrativeizing anti-trans violence and how we sort of bring these things into representation. And how most importantly do we really remain accountable to the victims of these forms of anti-trans violence as we narrate these experiences.
Lavelle Ridley: Yeah. Thank you, Courtney. That’s a really good, well-thought out formulation of questions that I’m excited to talk about. Of course thinking about Eric’s book, Atmospheres of Violence, violence is one of the main objects that’s under review here and about halfway through the book, maybe sooner than that is as I was reading is when I realized, oh, okay so we are thinking about violence but we’re thinking about violence in this very particular way so that we can see a very particular picture at the end of the book. About what is the true task at hand to borrow their language that they use sometimes in the book.
But think, specifically with this question, about representation and how the constant returning to the scene of violence and how you deal with it. I mean, I’m sure like many other people I… Just based off of my training and when I read these texts, it makes me immediately think of Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten who are talking to each other in some of their earlier texts about recreating the screen from one of the great slave narratives of the time — I believe Frederick Douglass’ — and how they both give kind of a meditation on how do we do this?
We’re probably not going to do it the best way we could, but how do we discuss violence in a thorough and critical way in an attempt to get somewhere that doesn’t still reproduce that violence. Even though we’re not coming into the scene of violence with the same expectations, the same politics, the same goals or anything like that. And I think that here, in Atmospheres of Violence, Eric has actually done a really good job of not only signaling that deep emotion that comes with having to address those kinds of things. But also I really appreciate what they say, which is just, I don’t… Them saying, I don’t know, what we can do ultimately. But I’m going to sit in this violence and not reproduce violence where I… Not reproduce violence where I can, but rather not let…
Here, thinking specifically about the case of Duana Johnson who’s incarcerated and then gets attacked by officers in the name of their self defense. In that part of the book in that scene, Eric says it would be flattening to her image to not look. It would be almost as treating her as the non-image, it would be putting her… relegating her to that scene of the negative that is already being done by power forces and power structures, right?
And so, that ambivalence and lack of certainty of what to do, I think indexes the effective relationship that we, as scholars of the trans/queer governable, of abolition in the end to the structures as they exist in service of something that might be better. I think it’s a really well and effectively, well done job of staying in the violence, staying with the violence before… But for the use of actually demonstrating the kinds of violence that’s happening here in that those particular violences don’t keep getting done. And it was a really big learning… It was a good learning moment for me as someone who is open and I will talk about the murders of anyone, but trans women of color, specifically incarcerated women of color. Though I don’t post about it a lot on social media and things like that.
So, it gave me a good chance to reflect on what’s the violence being done there in that scape, in that schema. And then, where is the repair attempting to be found so that these people don’t just get relegated to the space of not being because we refuse to look at them. So I think that’s both important writerly practice for those of us writing projects that think about death and think about violence in these kinds of ways and using these kinds of analytics. But it’s also good for our own personal sense of self and the care and the intention that we bring to talking about these moments of violence in a way so that it doesn’t just reproduce the social’s need for violence to be talked about. Especially violence that can… That functions within the liberal state that Eric argues. Doing a particular kind of work that maybe we on our end don’t want it to be doing, so.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Others please feel free to jump in on this question.
Angela Y. Davis: Okay, maybe I’ll say a few words. To tell the truth, I had really expected to experience the effect of wanting to close my eyes, of feeling compelled to look away. But Eric has so carefully considered the possible consequences of narrating violence in a particular way. The pitfalls of violence in a particular way. The pitfalls of politics of representation that assumes that seeing the violence will either be arousing or it will be spine chilling. So what absolutely impressed me was that Eric has sort of created a register where this violence can be represented in a way that really makes us want to stay there. And not so much to move beyond it, but to see what is available to us, if we don’t turn away. And I don’t know whether I had ever quite experienced that in the same way.
I mean, I don’t want to say that it’s a meditative register, but it’s a kind of reflective register that makes aware that we cannot gloss over the violence. Whether it is state violence, stranger violence, intimate violence, self inflicted violence. And as someone who always likes to point out that Black trans women are consistently the targets of more forms of violence than any other population. it made me think more critically about this assertion that I so often make. And it made me think about it as I guess, statistics as a realm of statistics that actually prevents us from understanding as Eric puts it. That violence is not antagonistic to the condition that we are thinking about, but rather it is a fundamental element.
It’s a structuring element and that if we treat it as exceptional, and if we treat trans and queer people as the exceptional targets of this exceptional practice, then we don’t grasp the nature of the democracy that we are so often compelled to desire despite itself. And I think you’ve accomplished something really remarkable, Eric, and I certainly hope that it allows us to move away from discussions about whether the violence should be narrativized or whether it should be left alone. But thank you so much. I feel as if I’m still reel with the kind of affective response that your writing has called up in me and it makes it, it makes me want to rethink so many, you know, other conversations about violence.
Dean Spade: I really appreciate what you just said, Angela, about what it felt like to read it, because I really avoid reading council violence as much as possible. And then choose to read them where I really want to have that sober discernment and know it, but I try to avoid reading excessive account of violence. And I really experienced this book look as like… It almost feels like it’s like teaching us how to be with the realities of the violence in a way that is about sober discernment, about the world in which we actually live and what this violence does instead of just rehearsing it again. Or rehearsing it for shock value or rehearsing it to generate some kind of thin pity or some kind of thin outrage. It’s made me think a lot about how people are in denial about climate change.
Like even people I love who would say climate change exists still don’t want to actually think about how actually bad things are and what that might mean for our preparedness and for the urgency of our action. There’s a kind of like look away and I think that also happens with these kinds of violence and it’s like, Eric is… The style of writing, and I think that this is a style that comes from Eric, like your own practice of building a capacity to be with in sober reality. Like so much of my experience of you as someone who’s intervened on my thinking has been about being willing to look at like really how truly bleak everything is at a different level. And like letting me see it. And I found your influence to be like sobering in that way again and again, land deeply radicalizing.
And so I guess I feel like there is something about your practice, a kind of discernment, you are able and like being with you are able to do, and then you wrote it that way, which is like so hard. I can’t even imagine how you did that. And then I read it that way and I’m curious, it just feels so different from the thing I constantly critique of like the over representation of violence against hate groups and, you know, marginalized people, it feels like it has a really different quality and it like built the capacity in me. It was like a pedagogical experience for me. It’s real, just really interesting and very moving.
Jules Gill-Peterson: Just to add to that. I think this is a really important line of thinking. And, and I think one of the rids that we confront, if I could speak particularly to trans misogyny or racialized trans misogyny is over exposure. It is this visual economy in which there has been an education and desire, the desire for images of suffering violence and death. And I think one of the ways that the book is sort of eclipsing a kind of standard antagonism between invisibility and visibility or witnessing and ignoring, right, is that witnessing requires an alternate pedagogy in order to build a capacity to witness effectively and either not to be moved in our 19th Century sentimental tradition of being moved. But also for those of us who feel implicated in the circulation of those image, to not be destroyed by them.
And similarly to a lot of you, I mean, I generally avoid consuming more accounts of violence than I would come across in my own life anyways. But II almost want to make the case that part of what the book is doing is maybe shifting a little bit, or put and pressure on the sort of visual regime itself, the idea that our job is not so much to see with all of the kind of implications that come with that grammar and that sort of Western tradition of vision being equated with reason or mastery and the ableism bound up in it. Yeah, I think a sort of pedagogy that begins with a question as complicated actually as what violence? What kind of violence? What kinds of violences? I think there has been a kind of characterizing of violence that is surely one of the kind of derivative effects of liberal political culture where we think violence is sort of a placeholder word sometimes that, oh, there’s so much violence. And it kind of flattens its differences and it flattens its different forms, right?
And I think to use the example of trans misogyny, one of the things that’s really powerful but difficult in the book, right, is understanding that something that has been concretized as being a problem of the individual, say in the trans panic defense, right, is actually nevertheless our window into understanding what it means to think of trans misogyny as constitutive, right, of the racialized gendered order in which the United States has come into being and help construct this order in which trans women’s existence is read as ontologically aggressive in a way that then allows the person who fantasizes that as threat to seek any revenge that they want, right? And I think this is where the concept of overkill, it’s very difficult to sit with, but it’s really compelling, right?
The idea that the violence that is been normalized against trans women of color and Black trans women is not content merely with extinguishing their life, it’s a form of brutalization that has to go beyond a kind of you’re alive or you’re dead, right? And I think that, again, the kind of question then is, “Well, what if we already live in a culture that has normalized the consumption of those images?” Because the United States has normalized the consumption of images of Black death and suffering for so long, and trans misogyny becomes a kind of constitutive way to represent that in one particular gendered register. And then the question is not so much like who needs to see this, or how can we be moved by seeing it? Rather, we’re way past that, that threshold was crossed so long ago that sort of the ruse is everyone who’s trying to put it back in front of us as if we haven’t already dealt with that.
And there’s something that I found surprisingly capacitating about that, I suppose, in the sense that I think it asks this question about how we demand so much nonviolence from marginalized people. I mean, one thing I was thinking about is even how much queer and trans studies, right, and this is where I think Frantz Fanon in the book is so helpful. It’s like anyone who has lived through colonialism or settler colonialism, or the idea that if you experience extreme violence as structuring your life in the world, that your job is to never respond. And this sort of demand the hagiographies that we perform on people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the complete denial of their material everyday lives and the struggles they were embedded in just to sort sanctify them as if their value comes through what? Endurance? Surviving for some amount of time?
And as if that kind of… Yeah, I think just this sort of strange moralizing impulse that queer and trans people, especially people of colors, kind of suffering is what validates their value to us and it’s this sort of macro political logic that other people have written about very beautifully. But I think there’s a sort of powerful, to me, defiance of that, right? And a suggestion that the people already subject to that violence, there’s no riddle, we’re already living through it. If we’re going to be waking out up every morning, we’ve already figured out enough of a way to negotiate for that day, right? I mean, one of the things I have been a little bit kind of stuck with this semester teaching with students is sometimes offering a difficult text, say from the mid century or the ’60s or the ’70s, something that does include a lot of scenes of violence and talking to students and kind of trying to dig in their sense of surprise in reading.
And as I’ve sort of scratched out that what are you surprised about, some of it is sort of the sense that I’m getting from students that I’m just surprised that people experience that much violence and still like had lives. Still had lovers, still had parties, still lived for decades often in to old age, still organized. Didn’t give up on their struggles, didn’t give up on their communities. And I was trying to think about how that surprise is implanted itself and education, right? That is sort of implanted in us from a young age that is actually dependent on our constant consumption of a different narrative of violence, right, so that we are trained to actually consume it and be proximate to it so we don’t have to so that we can also continue to be surprised by it, right?
I mean, it’s just this very vicious cycle. And there’re was just a really interesting kind of disruption, I think, a kind of centrifugal force in this book that starts to unwind that, right? Whereas I’ll say in the first chapter, I was tightened up by it, I was really, really having a hard time sitting with some of the violent scenes and I had felt out a kind of… I don’t know, just had Fanon in the mind, but a kind of relaxation of the muscle towards the end of the book that felt like phenomenologically instinctive and important in some way. And this kind of thinking about this whole array of people that we meet in the book who certainly experienced and endured a lot of violence, but also responded and were active in response to it and asked for people to be militant and asked for people to take up the struggle along their side, right?
And not people who just sort of aesthetically endured it in one sort of palatable kind of sanctified or saintly sort of way. So I don’t know, I’ve kind of spun out here, but I just really want to underline that, there’s something that really hit differently for me than other scholarship that I’ve read that I think, generally, will just try to overcompensate for the perceived exceptional violence directed, say, at trans woman of color, by over idealizing them and saying that, “Well, they’re the most oppressed, but they’re also the most revolutionary.” And to me, it’s a closed loop of knowledge that around Sylvia and Marsha, let’s say, it started to form in the ’70s. You can read gay liberation pamphlets from the ’70s that say, “We need to consider Sylvia.” Right?
It’s the same grammar of utopia to come if only we idealize these people who we didn’t stand up for in the first place, right? And in that case it’s really on their backs, of those gay liberationist in the 70s. They really were the ones that did that selling out, right? But here we are having inherited that and I just think it’s really curious, right, the way that kind of mainstream LGBT political discourse has worked so hard to platform trans women of color in this recuperative mode that I think unfortunately has really pulled us even further away from the kind of questions of witnessing and capacitation that we’re talking about here tonight.
So, I really encourage people to think with that and really read carefully the introduction to the book, which I will say, sorry, last thing I know I’m talking a long time. But I really think it’s one of the best treatments I’ve seen of Sylvia and Marsha in any scholarly work, that actually really does refuse to idealize them in the name of our contemporary political desires and asks what actual projects and needs did they have during their lives that were unfinished, but that were also collective and exceeded them. And so we don’t arrive at Sylvia and Marsha as saints that we have to elevate as icons, but we actually think of them as complex individuals who leave unfinished business that [inaudible] has to take up.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you for that. I wanted to offer one more question to our panelists and then open the conversation up. There’s been a lot of conversation in the comments and people have many, many questions for the panelists and for Eric. So I just want to offer this last question and move into that conversation. And especially, Jules, as you were making reference to Eric’s engagement with the work of Fanon in the piece, it seems really appropriate to end on this last question. And so, in the book, Eric, you really engage with multiple genealogies of critical fear, ranging from Frantz Fanon to Ben Ammi to Sylvia Wynter.
And the book also, perhaps more importantly, understands people organizing in prisons, sex workers, trans artists and street queens to be offering radical theorization that’s as important as the work of these critical thinkers that you engage with. And so how do you see this, or other people who are on the panel, can you talk about how you see this book being useful beyond the academy? Being useful in social movements, being useful for organizers and people who are doing anti-trans revolutionary work on the ground, how do you see this work traveling beyond the world of the academy? I’ll leave that open.
Dean Spade: I’ll say a couple things. I think that realistically we who write books know that people mostly don’t read books. So let’s all be real about that. What I think is likely to happen, which is what happens with all the rest of the books we all write that we hope are helpful, is that people will talk about the ideas in it together. And I think that the ideas in it are just really pushing this conversation a lot further. And I mean, I’m just already like there’s pictures I’ve taken at different pages, emailed them friends. Like, “Did you know this history? Did you know this thing?” I mean, that’s, I think, probably how a lot of this will travel. Just being real, that like a lot of this stuff travels in little pieces. And I think that people will take chapters out of this book and use them in classrooms, which is really great because then people can be forced to read them by their teachers just because that’s a how it is now.
And I hope that’s not like too silly or like rude in some way to say, but just my own experience of writing books and thinking that let’s be real about that. But I think this book is like so densely full of just like accounts that change how we think about everything. I mean, I think a lot of it was just being just discussed even about Sylvia and Marsha. And so I imagine that that’s how it will circulate, is that people will be like, “Oh my gosh, that page I read.” Whether they read it in school or whether they picked it up on their own and are talking about it to friends who are like less likely to read this book or a book, I feel like that’s nowadays only way things get like passed around in a different way.
Also the ways that we used to pass things around in zines by like photocopying one page of the book but I think in particular people pass things around by like taking little parts of it and putting in social media. And I think a lot of that will influence conversations and just talking to each other about the ideas. I think there’s something interesting happening now where like reading books is like maybe harder than it used to be, because people’s attentions spans are shorter, but also I think radical books are really having like a popular moment too. And so I’m not sure how that all relates, but I think that this book is part of that moment. People are asking new questions about abolition, new questions about anarchism that this book has like so much to say about. So I feel like it’s going to be shaping conversations a lot.
Angela Y. Davis: I can actually imagine this book being read by a reading group inside of a prison. And I think sometimes we assume that just because a book is not an easy read that people who are not accustomed to academic study are not going to sit with it and spend time with it. And I’m thinking about the fact that Foucault argued that he wrote Discipline and Punish for prisoners. The reason he wrote the book was to allow them to engage in discussions about the consequences of their own condition. That’s neither here nor there, but I do believe that reading groups inside prisons can be encouraged to read this book, it takes time to read it.
Just as Eric is asking us to be willing to stay with the violence, to stay with the problems, who has more time to do that than people who are doing time? So I really want to think about how we might encourage the reading of this book in prisons. And I’m actually thinking about places where there’s a connection between a class inside a university and a class inside a prison. I was down at Pomona last week and they have an ongoing group that takes place over Zoom, where people in prison engage with people who are in the classroom.
And as a matter of fact, I may ask one of the professors to consider this for the reading lists. But I think this is also a book that can teach people how to think. And if it takes a year to get through it, that’s okay, and especially people who have the time might be able to instruct us in ways that might not otherwise be possible. So I want to see activist reading this book, I want to see them maybe taking one chapter at a time and maybe spending a month on a chapter or more. And I think this can help to challenge the assumption that only those who’ve had a certain kind of academic preparation are capable of engaging with difficult ideas.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you. Any others? All right. Well then I want to shift gears a little bit and open it up to questions and comments that we’ve gotten from the audience. There are quite a few questions and so I’ll start from the very beginning. Our first question comes from Ava who says, “I’ve heard the term ‘ungoverned’ a couple of times during this panel. And I’m curious to know what the meaning of it is in this context. Can anyone elucidate?”
Eric Stanley: Well, I guess I can try. First, thank you all for that really meaningful and engaged and beautiful, I don’t know, sets of reflections on the text. Really feeling a lot of things over here. As you all know, I’m a triple Cancer, it’s no escaping it. So in the text, becoming ungovernable, which is coda, right? That’s a phrase that became really popularized in street-based, mostly anarchists, but other forms of political organizing about 15 years ago.
The slogan became more and more popular. And I think what it does or what it does for me, or it does two things. First is that, ungovernable is actually a legal designation, as I was saying before. For children. It’s essentially what happens oftentimes is if a parent or guardian does not want to be legally culpable for their children, that they then ask a judge to have a charge of ungovernability placed upon them. Which relinquishes their responsibility for those children, and then what happens is that they’re oftentimes placed in juvenile jail or something like that. And, of course, this disproportionally happens to trans and queer gender nonconforming people who have a antagonistic at best relationship with their parents guardians.
There’s that like actual legal definition, right in all the ways that then people build mesmerizing social worlds out of that unlivable condition is something that I’m always trying to track. Again, pointing back to the reality that these practices are not as a number of you said. Only something that exists in the future, but are indeed here and now. And perhaps one of our jobs is to pay close attention so that we might understand them, to support them. The things that are already happening. So there’s that side of it.
And then the other side of it is actually about a kind of commitment, either conscious or not, towards being against, in every way and in every instance, the crushing violence of the settler state. And of course, it’s not about being a perfect, pure political subject, but about radically dreaming and, indeed, producing the world that’s going to offer us something more than the death world that we have now.
And there’s again, so many incredibly important, historical and ongoing examples of that. And so, in the book, I think about Miss Major who changes all of her… This film that [inaudible] directed, where she changes her identification, then changes it back, then changes it back again. And she’s just like constantly changes it around. And she’s like, “Fuck you. I’m going to be whoever I’m going to be. I’m not actually chasing the state and demanding that they recognize me. I’m actually interested in the total destruction of the state form that demands recognition as the precondition of life.” And so to me, that’s why ungovernability is so important.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you for that, Eric. We love that. There’s two question here that I want to toss out to the panelists. The first one is from Joanne Barker, who writes, “I wonder how the state and its corporations benefit from the violence perpetuated by its failed promises of recognition and inclusion. And if or how it is possible to interfere with that benefit,” or I guess how those institutions benefit from trans death. Our next question is from Ames Simmons, who writes, “What are the panelist thoughts about the ways that Transgender Day Remembrance is observed setting aside one day per year to acknowledge violence against transgender people?” Jules, you look pensive.
Jules Gill-Peterson: Wow, they’re tough questions. I mean, which is not to say that they’re bad questions, on the contrary. It’s interesting there’s a kind of… I’m not sure I have anything smart to say about Trans Day of Remembrance other than it’s tricky. But I think one thing I might say, particularly in the context of this pandemic is how pernicious the denial of grief’s conversion into militancy can be — the idea that grief is a private matter or loss is private or also the refusal to reckon with loss as refusal to reckon with political economy and the actual calculations that have been transacted to justify mass forms of death that are also disproportionate in their effects.
And so to me, I think there are probably all sorts of ways we could think about TDOR in the broader context of the uptake of LGBT, especially T. Sort of forms of death and of suffering in a kind of neoliberal culture that wants to, that imagines that the centering of that, or its visibility is somehow in of itself important and sort of, again, tries to depoliticize.
But I think in terms of… I don’t know. I’m interested, like the question about the state and corporation, it’s like there are ways that capital certainly accumulates through immiseration on mass scales and there’s historical antecedence here that are taken up in the book. For example, how, the formation of a capitalist world economy out of the transatlantic slave trade and out of settler colonialism and the expropriation of resources. But I also, I guess I kind of also think that one of the riddles that we often confront, and I think that we are left with precious few useful tools to understand is that the state is not a person. I mean, the state is personified often in the way that we talk about it or our capital is personified. But these are not people, they are not individual agents.
And so, they need not be logical or have motive or purpose. And I think that… I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. I see this a lot, for example, around like conversations about prison that are hanging on the edges of or in the neighborhood of becoming abolitionists, but won’t go there. Same with police, where it’s like, well, America only has this prison industrial complex because private prisons make so much money. And it’s like, well… I mean, by that calculus, like not really, right? Most prisons aren’t private and that’s not like my entire economy depends on imprisonment, right? The generation of value isn’t so intentional and it can be diffuse and contradictory. And that, the set of contradictions is not inimical to the functioning of the system, but it’s precisely how they regenerate themselves.
So, I don’t know, it’s just sort of interesting that I think we have this sense of extraction because we experience it. That there’s a lot of extraction through liberal institutions and violence, but it’s not always obvious to me that it directly benefits a different group in so obvious the way that I’m taking this from you and giving it to someone else. There are larger calculuses that I think are more difficult to reckon with because they’re so impersonal and aggregate in a sort of biopolitical, for example, concept of racism where internal race warfare inside the nation is a kind of purification ideal. And so, killing is to regenerate the lives of those whose lives are valued. But the transaction is never so one to one in reality. I think of that again, to come back to that example of trans youth, the white trans child whose legal access to healthcare is imperiled. It’s not like the co-pay comes from the Black trans child who has been suspended from school and is being fed in.
Some of this I think is sort of reckoning with how the liberal political grammar invites us to personify. These vast structures of subjectification and to think of them as motivated by animus, right? So again, I think the difference between thinking of the logic of trans panic, something that an individual person who might secretly themselves be queer or trans engages in because they have some internal conflict they can’t resolve versus the logic of trans panic as the structuring trans misogyny of the entire social. And it’s harder to wrestle with impersonality. I think it’s really challenging to understand that people’s lives are ruined and are ended and people live in misery for no reason at all. For no purpose, right? I mean, certainly it enriches some people, but the logic of capitalism is just widespread of immiseration, it’s not more efficient.
It’s not better at technological advance. It’s not better at producing outcomes, even for the privileged. There are other ways to organize the world that would be infinitely better by any measure, because we’d be redesigning those measures. So, I don’t know… That’s sort of a… Not sure that’s an answer to the question, but I think it’s one of the kind of impulses or one of the sort of offerings from the book that emerges really clearly for me that I just feel so helpful at this moment when a lot of people feel burnt out, I think, on wrestling with the state, because the state is both in crisis, but benefiting from its own crisis to extend, powers of police and surveillance, and disaster is often the best thing for institutions in peril. So, I don’t know. Anyways, that was just one place that I was going.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Wow. I love that. Just thinking about there’s something that’s… It’s somewhat unsatisfying thinking that there’s no sort of a clear benefit in the enactment of these forms of violence and that the nature of state violence on so many levels, there is a kind of arbitrary logic that is really hard to sit with. So, thank you for that. I wanted to ask one question, there’s a few, but there’s one in particular I wanted to surface and maybe give you Eric an opportunity to talk about this and any others, maybe LaVelle, who is writing a lot about violence. Cleo Sadie asks, “How does remembering the dead impact your writing process?” And I’m particularly struck by this question because I feel like I think about the dead and ancestors a lot in my own sort of scholarly writing and creative practice. So I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on those, Eric.
Eric Stanley: I mean, I think for me in turning back the way that this is connected to the question of representation itself and not just representing violence, because representation, as I argue in the book, is always an accumulative process. So then how do we think outside or beside or whatever, where we might use the question of violence itself? You know, I think one of the reasons that this book took so long is because of my attempt, perhaps somewhat successfully I’m sure incredibly failed, to ask myself time and again, what does it mean to do justice with and for these people who were lost to the world? As an unanswerable question. As a methodologically unpure question, but as a kind of, I don’t know, a manifesto, a love letter. I don’t know what it is. Because for me, staying in that place is the only way that we might even approximate the question of ethics when the ethical itself has shown itself to be already destroyed.
We’re just in the kind of place of the corporal and of these ongoing histories and of their seemingly never ending archive. I mean, I look at this project, it started when I was… From personal experiences, but also just like collecting, it’s a long time ago, so actual newspaper clippings. And the file just never stopped growing. That said, I mean, I think that there’s… What does it mean to attempt to open oneself up to being in relation as best we can with those that are lost and what does it mean to also just let people be? I think that there’s this other way in which people are trying to constantly dig up those that have had really horrible ends. And what does it mean to just let people rest? How can we hold that space as well? And so it’s a very incomplete answer, but you can see throughout the text I tried to think of ambivalence as an actual way to be with these. So it’s not like I can’t decide, but it’s the impossibility of decision itself.
Courtney Desiree Morris: Thank you for that. We have one more question from Anna Ing, who writes, “I’m wondering if anyone can address the violence and death of assimilation.” They say, “I do not mean to diminish the reality, tragedy, and power of this disciplining of physical violence by asking this question, but I’m wondering how do we analyze and assess the psychic violence of assimilation and inclusion?” I’ll leave that open for whoever would like to take that question.
LaVelle Ridley: I can take that one. How do we analyze and assess violence in that way? Again, really good and thorough questions. I think that the questions that have been put before us tonight, evidence the tense relationship that Eric’s book sees in everything. The world in the book and us in the world. And structures of power. And those of us who are attempting to be ungovernable. Tension and resolution I feel is the effective mode throughout the majority of the book. And I think how I would answer that question as someone who’s very openly, still trying to figure it out.
I think that the… not just the theoretical frameworks of thinking about violence. Someone Eric is bringing in [inaudible] and [inaudible] and people like that. Not only do those parts of the book help give us a language and an orientation towards understanding that helps further the projects that we want to be invested in that are considered with violence against marginalized groups. But I think what also Eric’s doing in the book is modeling this kind of effective… It seems like a really, I don’t want to say tiptoe, but it’s a fully careful, considerate, empathetic, and just a really careful processing and examination of their lives. Like they use them… What seems to me, as someone who’s also writing about scenes of violence against people like Ashley Diamond and CeCe McDonald and Islan Nettles, you do get tired of reading those stories over and over in particular ways.
And there are moments when they get re-narrated in different aspects of the case are being looked at. So it’s not just the normative anti-trans, anti-Black, technologies that we bring to those kinds of cases. Like what the woman was wearing and just where she was or where her profession was. But rather, here we have the opportunity to put that to the side mostly. And to really, and I like how Eric even says it, like sit in the violence. Like sit in the moments with these people. It feels almost like something I’ve been saying to myself and to my partner, as I’ve been reading this book was like damn, “I really have to read this book with Eric in my mind at the same time,” because on my own it’s hard. It just honestly is very hard.
It’s a very difficult book to read because of what’s under review here. But what I think we come out with is a renewed sense and a renewed ability of how to walk through that violence and what that means and how to represent that violence and what that actually means for us here. I think that Eric has laid out some very clear goals and other people’s works too, like Jules and Dean, also in their work have established modes of reading and modes of encountering the archive that doesn’t leave us completely devastated or completely without hope for better or hope for more. But all those invitations to those archives I think offer us a chance to rethink the entire learning project that we’re going into. Like, what is it we exactly want to know?
And then last thing I’ll say too is, I appreciate this book in particular because as a literary scholar, a life writing scholar, all throughout my Ph.D. wanted to avoid as much as I could moments where I had to reread or see or think about or talk about Black trans women being harmed or dead and not just because of my own positionalities, but also just because of the… I’m a Pisces, so I don’t have the emotional man worth to constantly be dealing with these things. But however, the joy and the light at the end of the tunnel that I kind of imagine Eric’s books to be for me, especially as I’m writing my own book, mostly on violence and representation is that there’s a way for us to a step back and to really take all these different moving parts to consideration.
The showing of violence. The logics of the state. The contradictory nature of those operations. And leave both feeling a little sad like this stuff still happens and that under present sort sense since those things aren’t going to go anywhere, but that we are able to, if we ask the right questions and we pursue the right questions for the right reasons, and if we… I really felt the whole time with Eric Green’s book, like me and Eric are in struggle with these people at the same time we’re reading.
And that doesn’t mean that we are actually, literally going through the same things that they’re going through because we’re not, but rather I think an evolving collective politic. On the ends of trans-queer subjects that is attempting to identify the state and identify things that are harmful or can be violent as something that can be read and understood. And then themselves, as something to be read and understood, but not along the terms that we’ve of course been given, but rather as something that interrupts. That can reform. That can make power pivot. That can do all these things. I think that this book captures all these different actors in a really nuanced way. And I’m really excited to take that nuance into my own writing and hopefully write a dissertation about Black trans women that doesn’t have to reproduce so much violence necessarily, but that rather provides a path for those imagining those other life worlds that could totally, possibly exist outside of this schema.
Courtney Desiree Morris: LaVelle, thank you for that. I know we’ll all be looking forward to your forthcoming work and it’s such a privilege to have been able to facilitate this conversation with many scholars whose work is on heavy rotation in my own classes and in my own work and encountering new scholars who are really just like moving the field of trans studies in some really important and necessary directions. And so, I want to thank all of you for coming out tonight for celebrating Eric Stanley and this just like, beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful work atmospheres of Violence.
I’m still like working to find the language to describe my own intensely, visceral response to this work, but I’m just… It really is a triumph and I think something that you should be incredibly proud of. And that is so welcome in the movements that we support and that we care about. And it offers us some really useful blueprints for imagining a future beyond kind of the state and liberal recognition. Being able to imagine freedom in different, more liberatory ways. So, thank you, Eric, for your work. Thank you to all of our panelists; Jules Gil Peterson, LaVelle Ridley, Dr. Angela Davis, Dean Spade. Thank you all for being here. Have a good night.
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