Remixing as Reincarnation
Contagious Trans*birthing in the Work of Boychild
‘Say my name, say my name. Say my name, say my name.’
A green strobe falls upon a convulsing body, naked from the waist up. With their mouth and hands illuminated, boychild crashes and breaks through a series of spasmodic bodily gestures to the lyrics of ‘say my name.’ As they come to an uncharacteristic pause they slowly arc their body backwards, falling into a pose of -almost- abandon to the beat, the lyrics, and the captivated audience. They hang suspended.
The above short describes part of boychild’s performance to Cyril Hahn’s remix of the song Say My Name. originally by Destiny’s Child, during artist/activist Mykki Blanco’s set at Off Festival in 2013. Through this performance by the mixed-race, mixed-gender boychild set to a remixed RnB classic, I propose to consider how remixing acts as an agitative, queer design practice. In connecting Kodwo Eshun’s discussion of ‘remixing as reincarnation’ to both the current COVID19 pandemic, anti-trans* backlash, and ‘transgender rage’ (Stryker, 237-254) I propose that a form of contagious trans*birthing is relayed through boychild’s performance. This intervention seeks to detach birthing from both reproductive bodies and space-time locality, to instead consider how the performance enacts a contagious kin making that simultaneously ventriloquises previous trans*cestors and acts as a future trans*birthing practice.
Critical trans* work is indebted to the combined forces of queer feminist theory, crip studies, critical race studies, and affect theory, which interrogate the institutional, societal, political, and economic walls of individualisation and exclusion. Alongside this, an epistemological shift has occurred in the last two decades, reinventing the terms that question what constitutes an archive and how we relate to the ‘past’, (e.g. Arondekar 2009, Cvetkovich 2003, Freeman 2010, Love 2007, Stewart 2007) as well as the disassembling of white, cisgender inventions of time, space and agency (e.g. Barad 2007, Beacock 2015, Cooper 2017, Halberstam 2005). The introduction of ‘trans*’ by Jack Halberstam in Trans*: A quick and quirky account of Gender Variability (2018) attends to the inherent power structures between cisgender/trans* communities by destabilising the rigidity of transgender experience that is proposed by mainstream understandings. The asterisk, ‘holds off the certainty of diagnosis’ (4) and expands the term to account for the collaging of trans* experience, the splintering of bodily formations this may evoke, and the future possibilities of these inventive, intuitive positionalities. C Riley Snorton refers to this expansiveness as ‘the capaciousness of trans’ (660) — a range of potential identities that can be continually scrambled, always baffling the binary. This emergence of trans* is important to my argument twofold. Firstly, it allows for a wider range of in-between or multi-gendered experiences, and recognises the body’s fleeting or dizzying confusion of orientating cisgender society.
All trans* world building takes place through the cultural remixing of normative society.
Secondly, it highlights the murky liminality of being in-between, refraining from prefixes that look backwards (re-) for example reenact or look forwards (pre-) in this case preenact; trans* occupies this junction. In looking backwards, ‘re’ also looks forwards, in looking forward ‘pre’ looks back, both terms become interchangeable which highlights the slippage between the two. Trans* instead holds the potential of the lateral movement that Rebecca Schneider pinpoints in this movement as part her lecture Preenactment and Gesture (2018) ‘as other directions that can be palpably felt as movement otherwise, to the side, laterally, slant, sidesteps, transversality, chiasmatic crossing.’
To take seriously the claim that as ‘critical praxis, trans people have long found ways to live with community and tools that were not built for them’ (Bychowski, 660) is to consider how all trans* world building takes place through the cultural remixing of normative society, a manifesting of ‘movement otherwise’ that Schneider highlights. Where, for means of survival, the cis-hetero patriarchy is contorted out of its immediate shape, so liveable trans* worlds can flourish. Similarly approaching trans*cestry is to step away from normative understandings of genealogy, shared family pasts, forms of remembering, and consistent and uninterrupted lineage, to instead render space for the rhizomatic shifting of family formation into webs of trans* belonging and radical birthing from ‘parents’ or ‘kinnovators – a person who makes family in non-conventional ways’ (Skurnick, 2015), which cross gender/space/time borders. As we detach birthing from fertility and/or reproduction, and families from bloodline, new trans* futures are felt in defiant rage, ‘growing chosen facilities in which trans life can be reproduced’ (Giles, 8). Trans* world building is an ancestral practice, attempting to create the present world as wished for the future, and through these remixed configurations ‘perhaps trans futures look like bone and blood, like impure ecologies of mixing and contamination,’ (Chen and Cárdenas, 466).
The relationship between transgender culture and remixing has been considered by Rox Samer (2019) through ‘scholarly vidding’ as a form of digital humanities methodology to ‘remix a transphobic, transmisogynistic, cissexist reality and make perceptible a future when trans people are free’ (540). Vidding is a type of visual collaging that involves the re-cutting and remixing of footage from television, film and music videos into new forms.
Samer considers the disassembly of what was previously solid and fragmenting of the collective within vidding as producing an ‘affective surplus’ that exceeds the cis-centric logics on which trans* reality hinges. Samer links this affective excess unassailable to capitalist, racist, transphobic logics with Kara Keeling’s ‘Looking for M-‘ in which it is what escapes recognition that “threatens to unsettle, if not destroy, the common sense on which that reality relies for its coherence as such,” (566–67). Within digital cultures research, this affective potential (and its possibility for trans* coopting) lurks in the shadows of Tony Sampson’s discussions of contemporary contagion, as ‘the networked infrastructures of late capitalism are interwoven with the universal logic of the epidemic’ (1-2). The slippages of information move between and across social, cultural, political and economic structures creating a ‘contagious relationality’ (3). Black Studies scholar Saidiya Hartman reminds us of the continued entanglement of these structures in her most recent article; ‘the plot of her undoing begins with a hedge fund, a red line, a portfolio, with a monopoly on public resources, with the flows of global capital,’ (4). This contagious relationality Sampson adds is always at risk of an ‘overspill that may undo borders, nations states, institutions, ontologies and subjectivists,’ (2) echoing Keeling’s unsettling, transformative potential.
These ideas of remixing and contamination appear to fork disastrously for the trans* community amidst the COVID19 pandemic and governmental wielding of panic. The instrumentalization of panic is a form of rationality that aims to ‘mimic as well as manage’ (Orr, 14) a collective disorientation for political gain. As COVID-19 is sold back to us as the ‘great equaliser’ of society and a time of collective unity, conservative governments are not only masking the effects being most acutely felt by minority communities (black, brown, working class, disabled, queer/trans*/GNC folx) but are utilising pandemic cultures of surveillance and screening as fuel to revoke trans* rights and legal sanctions that were barely protecting communities prior to this. As individuals stockpile toilet paper, the same fluctuating, viral panic is present in the Trump administration’s moves to allow doctors to refuse to treat trans patients, the UK’s removal of healthcare for trans youth, and the Hungarian government no longer legally recognising trans people. Against this legislative backdrop and the 19 violent murders of transgender individuals (majority BIPOC) since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic , the NY Times is reporting scientists trialling hormone therapies of estrogen and progesterone as possible treatments for cisgender male COVID patients whose death rate is greater than that of cisgender women. Through the utilisation of unfolding panic, hormone medication is pivoting from an ‘irreversible damage’ to a potential COVID saviour. Whereby acting as a startling example of the complex social death of transgender individuals that is enacted by a biopolitical governance which no longer seeks ‘to foster life or disallow it’ but ‘to foster life by disallowing it’ (de Giorgi, xi-xii).
As trans* lives appear to be held captive by the compounding unequal economic, legal, social support that Dean Spade refers to as the ‘maldistribution of life chances’ (36) and the now potential cisgender redistribution of hormone supplies, trans* resistance feels even more tightly woven to an ancestral practice. That in times of scarcity and need Tourmaline reminds us in the foreword to The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, ‘that our best defence is to respond with abundance’ (viii). Collective world building allows us to imagine beyond the current limitations imposed by oppression and recognise this point of crisis as a ‘radical invitation to fantasise and dream otherwise’ (xx). As ‘glitched bodies’ cruising the liminal ‘we will find life, joy, longevity in the break. As that is where new possibilities gestate.’ (Russell, 2019, 22:40-23.00). It is from this panic induced snag, within which trans* communities are held captive, that remixing and contamination can be used counter-clockwise to birth ourselves and each other.
As boychild spins the club into cathedral, it seemingly remixes the spectatorship of the space, where we all partake in the intimacy of this queer connection.
Within an immersive club space, as boychild lipsyncs to Say My Name they sometimes look in anguish whilst expanding and imploding their body to the elevated beat. The track was initially written in 1999 for and by the Destiny’s Child lineup of Beyonce Knowles, LeToya Luckett, LaTavia Roberson and Kelly Rowland, alongside songwriter Rodney Jerkins. Yet at the point of release, conflict among the group led to Luckett and Roberson’s exclusion from the video even as their vocals still appear on the song.  In effect, then, the first release of the track harbours the ghosts of the previous women who birthed it. The lyrics of the song outline a female narrator calling her boyfriend whom she suspects of cheating to ‘say her name’ audibly, (‘what is up with this, tell the truth, who you with’) and with his hesitation the narrator feels her suspicions confirmed. boychild performs to a version of the track already agitated by another’s work, the 2013 Cyril Hahn remix, where the lyrics are spoken by a genderless voice but with sustained repetition on the demand to ‘say my name.’ Heard in 2020, the continuous echoes of this phrase are impossible to detach from the SayHerName memorialisation of transgender women of colour brutally lost to violent hate crime and the battle fatigue of the mourning trans* community.
As part of Mykki Blanco’s 2013 tour—Blanco themselves a queer artist, trans*gender activist and HIV positive ‘queer rapper’—the performance evokes layers of queer struggle for survival and communal resilience. These ancestral spectres are held within the club space context as Lauren Berlant and Micheal Warner remind us, ‘queer world making depend on parasitic and fugitive elaboration through gossip, dance halls..’ (561). Queer clubs hold this mythical status of spaces of hard-fought ownership, of an abundance of magic and sweat and joy and shimmering potential of sexual freedom. The final voice over to artist Leo Herraras’s ‘Fathers Project’ imagines a world where AIDS never happened and everyone lived, stating ‘we have always declared that a dance floor is an altar, and an altar is a bar and a bar is a church and a church is a dancefloor,’ (41.20-41.30). The performance takes on an almost futuristic frenzy through the painted body of boychild, a ‘simmering vengeance and wild energies of what one imagines a recently hatched post-human might feel’ (Cornell, 41) or similarly a ‘breaking down or struggling to be born’ (Halberstam, 21). The physical and emotional distance of performer and spectator appear to bleed into one another, suspending the normative affective barriers. As boychild spins the club into cathedral, it seemingly remixes the spectatorship of the space, where we all partake in the intimacy of this queer connection. While boychild contorts and bends, as a queer audience, we tear apart and rebuild the world with them as a form of contagious belonging.
Writing at the intersection of black music and science fiction Kodwo Eshun considers ‘remixology is not heresy but reincarnation, a resurrection technique in which sounds are rematerialized as spirits’ (165). Formulated in this way I read the boychild lip-syncing as a means of agitating practices of kinship. It functions as a contagious means of both reliving and reimagining trans* existence in its suspension of normative practice and alternative design. This trans*cestoral ventriloquism attends to the ghostly glimpses of experience that remain simmering underneath the colossal forces of normative understandings. While the overarching political, social and economic norms attempt to squash the potential of both trans* relationality and the speculative forms it may take – it fails to recognise the creative resilience of such fugitivity, to foster trans* life in a violently transphobic world. This engagement with trans*cestors then is one of hauntological enquiry, an experimental approach that attempts to conjure the past and co-create the future. To consider haunting as mediation, as a tension between an individual and an institution, as everyday practices and social structures, demands research methods that allow the ghost to take up space. An alternative form of thinking that aims to ‘feel the future’ (Blackman, 2019) in this way is also one which agitates the research structure or how to prove or falsify trans*cestoral kinship, contaminating the real with an abundance of trans* speculation.
The boychild performance of 2013 marks exactly 20 years since Susan Stryker submitted her article “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix” to Gay and Lesbian Quarterly. This now ubiquitous article discusses the affect of transgender rage as a resistance that can never be fully recognised through the limits of language to encompass trans*gender subjectivity. Stryker accounts for this transgender rage as a transformative power that she can wield in a society that continues to foreclose her, ‘in birthing my rage, my rage has birthed me,’ (248). The furious bodily agitation that boychild exudes through their performance personifies this rage, as they involuntarily jerk, twist and break. Even watched via poor audience footage, sound partially distorted, this resurgence is felt. I see this symphony of rapturous fury vectored through boychild’s lip-syncing and bodily performance act as a form of contagious trans*birthing. Whereby simultaneously reincarnating the trans* past and bearing trans* futures through its reappropriation of the cishetero patriarchal snag intended to hold trans* communities captive.
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- Apparently both Luckett and Roberson were unaware of this until seeing the Say My Name video released on 15 February 2000.