The greatest accomplishment of Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual, to my mind, is a close reading of Ronald Reagan’s autobiography. Massumi recognizes the bizarreness of an episode depicting Reagan’s one accidental foray into method acting as indicative of the struggle to communicate that made him an appealing figure.
“Where’s the rest of me?” is the line he was supposed to say in a scene where he played a new amputee. Massumi recreates the process Reagan went through to overcome this acting challenge:
He recites the phrase to different people from different angles: to himself in mirrors, alone in the car, in front of friends, physicians, psychologists, and amputees. He repeats it so often that it beomes automatic. The event, still a trace, begins to circulate freely through all of the interlocking visual fields compromising Reagan’s empirical world. Finally, Reagan’s realm, that of the ordinary, and the realm of the extraordinary, the realm of the ungraspable event, begin to contaminate one another in a gradual contagion. Reagan’s entire world becomes coloured by amputation. He is stumped, repeatedly referring to himself as a cripple. (54)
Finally, due to this and some last minute practical effects, when Reagan looked down at his lack of legs and said his line he said it as someone who was perceiving what it is like to be a paraplegic in a meaningful way.
Without getting into all the fairly elaborate terminology that Massumi uses, what is remarkable about this moment is how Reagan comes to experience simultaneously countless perspectives on his body – sensed both from within and from without. It is not just to perceive with one’s body but to feel all the possibilities that arise in a moment, even if Reagan experienced it as being “another fellow.” As a politician, Massumi argues that his role was the same – experiencing the intensity of political performance as embodying the movement proceeding from a location marked by “the ‘wound’ of Vietnam”:
A special case of reiterative movement (one that allows misrecognition of the fractured time of the virtual as a future Unity). This is becoming – against itself, because subsumed under that Ideal. Against itself – because its self-assigned meaning (“our Unity!”) contradicts its own senseless, eminently effective, rallying cry (“the rest of me?”). (66)
It is a kind of ventriloquism, Massumi argues, because this vision arises through the repetition of words that are divorced from a more focused subjectivity on Reagan’s part, and the belief that tying together iterations of perspectives around a single wound would constitute not divergence but coherence and unity. His specific incoherency allows him to experience himself, and to be experienced by others, as their projection of his force. This is invigorating, empowering, in a way that departs from the boring experience that Massumi reports Reagan experiencing when he sees just himself, flat, on film or in the mirror (49).
I think this can also provide some insight into a problem I’ve been having with a lot of the rush to clarify the difference between transgender people and Rachel Dolezal. I write this not in defense of her, or to say that race and gender are equivalent. Even if we were to accept the possibility that someone could be transracial (or transabled) in the sense that one can be transgender, the power dynamics of embodying femininity make it pretty near incoherent to say that this can ever be an act akin to cultural appropriation. Trans women and cis men face discrimination in pretty much every situation for their femininity. Even drag queens, who might express harmful stereotypes about womanhood (not unlike some women) still open themselves up to discrimination in ways that doesn’t really seem to have an analogue among white people who selectively embrace the cultural artifacts of people of colour.
So these disavowals aside, I want to put some pressure on the idea that it makes sense to say that one feels like a particular gender and not that one feels like a particular race. “What does it feel like to be [X gender]?” is actually an incredibly difficult question to answer and frustrating for myself and many trans friends. The only answer that is really coherent is the boring reality that it feels like being oneself. It becomes a double bind, however – this answer is usually taken as unsatisfying while any answer that attempts to concretize the gendered aspects of one’s experience can be used to show that one has internalized stereotypes without getting at the real of a certain identity.
One could report self-perception that is exactly equivalent to a particular person who has ‘natural’ belonging to an identity category and it would be insufficient: like Ronald Reagan ceasing to self-correspond, moving in a motion that can appear as embodying heroism or some form of national trajectory from manifold perspectives. While recognizing that women or black people can feel almost infinitely different ways about themselves, we often expect trans people – and seem to expect Dolezal – to have experiences that appear to no one as a reductive limit. We don’t hold them to having the experiences of a woman or a black person, we hold them to experiencing womanhood or blackness.
It is reasonable to acknowledge that having been perceived as a less marginalized identity for parts of one’s life will have an effect on one’s later life. However, awareness of those perspectives on one’s body doesn’t mean that they can actually continue to invigorate it, or offer one privilege – the discussion of ‘male socialization’ by some who superficially represent themselves as allies to trans women falsely implies that having to work to assume an appearance that fits comfortably is less likely to make one aware of how that appearance operates in the social realm, or leaves gaps in perception that will necessarily be more consistent or larger than others who share that appearance. To feel an identity is nothing more than comfort or discomfort as we become aware of how we appear to ourselves and others.
Or as Brian Massumi puts it: “PASSAGE PRECEDES POSITION” (46).