No friends? Too many friends? Too many limbs? Can’t get fuck? Convinced you can telepathically communicate with warrior saints? Send an email to email@example.com and you may receive a response at some point on this regular column from our lovely Aunt Enid.
I’m in the third year of my PhD. I am aware that the field I have chosen produces nothing of use. Agency. That’s a strange theme. For as long as I can remember I have been coercively funnelled through the series of routine hells that constitute working class adult life. At some point school crystallized as the sole mechanism capable of stalling this free fall. Perhaps some of us go into the humanities with the expectation of being in conversation: with history, with our field, with each other. I prolonged my secondary education because, simply put, I had nowhere to be. I’m almost 27. My social life is in ruins. I feel keenly left behind by my peers. They’ve moved on with their careers, their families, their personalities. What was supposed to be a solution increasingly feels like a trap. I don’t have any marketable skills. I contribute absolutely nothing. I am here (at this supposedly vaunted institution) so someone else can’t be. I work 50-60 hour weeks doing “research” in a field so specialized I’ll be lucky if my work gets the attention of a few dozen equally burnt out peers. At the end of the day I lack the imagination to envision an exit route. After my undergrad I spent a year trying to secure employment (above minimum wage and/or related to my field) before simply giving up and returning to the academy. This remains the sole place where I have value. Secondary education has felt and continues to feel like a voucher for a dubious future perfect that will never arrive. Simply put, I’m a coward. My life remains stillborn. If I’m very lucky school will continue to beget more school. I guess this isn’t a question per se but more of a comment.
The Amerikkkan university system is a grift if there ever was one, and while I’ve heard some dubious takes on valuation and class on every side of the seemingly endless twitter discourse on graduate student labor and class status, at the end of the day we’re largely talking about a bunch of downwardly-mobile petty bourgeois ultimately being exploited and proletarianized to varying degrees and in various forms by the cadre of reptilian pedophile imperialist fucks that make up the boards of directors of these “vaunted institutions.” And, on top of all the normal day-to-day guilt that builds up around relative productivity and keeping up with your peers and competing in a market that’s always already out to fuck you, there’s quite a bit of talk about whether what you do is actually “work.”
Ain’t that something? It’s a fact that doctoral students do quite a bit of labor that produces quite a bit of surplus value, largely in the form of teaching (in the humanities and social sciences, anyway; the STEMlords are generally directly employed by their PIs to mix chemicals around for the Department of Defense or whatever bullshit). But maybe, given what you’ve said in your note, you find yourself in some ridiculously niche discipline at a wealthy institution where there isn’t even enough demand for your teaching labor, so you meekly accept your lavish 20-30k stipend and second-rate health insurance and do research for those twelve people, revising or taking on new projects according to the mood swings of your advisor(s). Even if you are simply overworked and underpaid (graduate teaching labor comprises the bulk of teaching at many institutions, and even at the ones where this isn’t quite the case the proportion is not insignificant), some surplus portion of “useless” work is pretty much inevitable. In any event, what that lends itself to is textbook alienation: working without purpose, deprived of an at-hand objective basis for solidarity with others in your position, feeling like a collateral opportunity cost in some crypto-fascist institution’s mindless accumulation of capital (“social” or otherwise).
At the end of the day, you do play an important role in reproducing the university as an institution regardless of what portion of that work finds its direct expression as value. What’s more, speaking of that “strange theme” agency, you’re more or less at the mercy of the university when you do a PhD, where your affective relationship to your work is tied to your livelihood in all sorts of nasty ways that makes being a doctoral student different than a lot of other vocations. If your work appears to “produce nothing of use,” that doesn’t make it any less unfree. And the tolls of this, especially given the fucked-ness of the neoliberal university, are obvious: you feel “trapped,” you describe your social life as “in ruins,” refer to your own work with scare quotes (“‘research’”), call yourself a “wretch,” a “coward.” Honey, please clear some time in your schedule to find yourself a good therapist.
That said, it’s a familiar story and I think many of us have heard it before. While I can understand the frustration of watching one’s peers from university sliding into middle class careers and shitting out children, I can’t help but wonder if this “fear of missing out” is all it’s sometimes made out to be. Has anyone entering into that path since 2008 had any real illusions about the job prospects for someone with an advanced degree in whatever boring esoteric bullshit you’re doing your doctorate in? And anyway, as Anna Kornbluh pointed out recently, all signs indicate “that the career world outside of the academy is not sustaining, is not safe for people” and that for many the work is better than the alternatives available to them, for all its shortcomings. You yourself said this seemed like your only option. Or maybe it wasn’t, but I don’t doubt that there’s something about the research you do that made it preferable to some substantial chunk of your other options. In any case, what’s three years anyway? What are you really missing out on? Life is sick and boring, honey. We all find ways to feel like shit one way or another, you could do worse than becoming an expert on something, however useless, while you do so.
None of this, of course, makes your real pain and stuck-ness go away or makes it any less real, however. The tendency of graduate school is not only that it’s alienating but also that it tries to colonize your entire life. This is in part a function of that particular kind of alienation and its degradation of material bases for solidarity: it swallows you up and gives you nothing to direct your aggression at but yourself. It’s a melancholic structure. And it’s not my place to give you career advice or give you an escape route or whatever (if I could I wouldn’t be writing a column on this low-rent fucking website in the first place). Not that you asked! As you say, your submission is “more a comment than a question.” Typical. I will suggest however, if you’re not going anywhere, that you make some effort to direct your death-driven aggression elsewhere than yourself and also just generally create some attachments outside of this ultimately parasitic institution. You could perhaps join your graduate labor union or another community organization and try to do something to directly deprive the glorified hedge fund managers that run your university of some sleep and capital. Or perhaps you could join some roving band of militant homosexuals who make it their business to expropriate those chads on your facebook feed. It’s also quite possible that you just need to get laid, in which case you know how to contact me.
Your Aunt Enid
P.S.: Given the subject of this submission, we are obliged to give a “shout out” to striking academic workers at the University of California and in universities across the UK. Aunt Enid has judged that your neoliberal fuckhead employers are “not cute” and sends all love and solidarity your way towards winning every single one of your sought-after demands.
i’ve been thinking about identifying as nonbinary. while my wants aren’t clear to me, the possibility is appealing on a couple of grounds.
first, the obvious: i fit the image. i have enough feminine characteristics to qualify as unmasculine, i enjoy making myself beautiful in feminine or androgynous ways (like any good “male”), and i’ve flirted with switching pronouns for as long as i’ve been conscious of gender as such. moreover, i’m just closing out my teenage years, which makes this a relatively fruitful moment at which to start things like hormone therapy, retooling my psyche, or building new habits.
second, i want a profound change in my life. without getting into too much needless detail about symptoms: i have something of a weak self, one which is unusually challenged by daily reality, and i’m painfully conscious of this weakness (as you might be of a sprained ankle). i’ve been thinking about what i could do to strengthen it, or to put it more in my own control (i am really, really ashamed and tired of being fragile and miserable), and i keep coming back to the idea of playing with identity. gender, as i understand it, comes into the picture very early for a developing self, and serves as a foundation for much of what comes next. rejecting that foundation, and building a new one for myself, might be able to give me the escape velocity i need to reach a new way of living. i dream of looking back to realize that i just didn’t know what i was missing.
however, i don’t know if i’m thinking about this the right way, and i feel like i’m working with an inadequate set of concepts. i experience dysmorphia, but i don’t know if it constitutes dysphoria, or how either “works.” i’m advised to “be who i am” and to “do what i want,” but seeking out a true want seems like a pointless exercise. i’m uncomfortable with myself, but i don’t know that i’m uncomfortable with maleness. and, ultimately, i don’t think this change would make me more attentive, quick, funny, insightful, or knowledgeable–that all depends on a mass of habits, and, perhaps, on constitution. i worry that i’m grasping at anything that looks like a way out, and imbuing they/them pronouns with a redeeming power they don’t actually have.
honestly, i don’t know what to do, or how to think about any of this. am i misunderstanding my feelings? am i misunderstanding how gender works, or what it can do? how do i know if i should transition?
Well, sis, what do you want me to say? On this question I tend to, with some limits of course, be of the school of thought that says, “just do it, who the fuck cares!” While I don’t think “non-binary” identities really pose much of a threat to “the binary,” or that we somehow “transcend” gender altogether, I think we make a lot of these questions of identity more difficult than they need to be by thinking of them as if this were a conscious decision that you have to get right, that you have to make the honest choice about. The thing is, that’s not how sex works, because it’s not how the unconscious works, which really doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you’re “gender conforming.” Sex is messier than that, and when we frame gender as separable from that undetermined messiness it can produce a lot of alienating situations like this one, in which you’re positioned such that you feel you have to make a “choice” about who you are given a discrete set of options.
That said, it’s very difficult for me to give any definitive answers to what you’re describing and asking here and I really think these things are worth talking through with a therapist who takes trans* identity seriously and, if you can find some, some other trans* people who are further along in the process. It’s worth pointing out that gender transition isn’t a “fix-all” solution for depression or a “weak sense of self” (whatever that means), and that gender identity (or lack thereof) can be more or less determinant to varying degrees for those things and it will always vary from case to case. Gender transition doesn’t turn you into a different person. But many trans* people will attest to the fact that there is no one way to transition, and both historically and in the present one finds that people negotiate a diversity of ways to exist in their bodies outside of both “the binary” and the mainstream medical establishment. Whether you decide to take any physiological measures to transition is ultimately up to you, but I think the thing I would emphasize is that deciding to do something like go on HRT ought not be about whether you should or qualify to do so, nor is it that “one weird trick to an integrated self.” Because I suspect that these ways of thinking about it can sometimes actually get in the way of figuring out what you actually want.
When it comes to actually pursuing medical transition, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful (to me) to think of your body as a “ticking clock,” or as a site where you can precisely locate the true self that you ought to be, or to conceive of transition as something you’d be “missing out” on. Transition isn’t an “escape” from the self (let alone the body). This is where I think talk therapy can potentially be helpful. While I didn’t quite agree with Andrea Long Chu when she wrote that “there are no good outcomes in transition,” I think part of what she was trying to get at, which I would agree with, is that it can perhaps be worthwhile to de-couple the way we frame gender transition from the moralistic imperative to be happy or to be “made whole” as a subject. This imperative has been critiqued by feminist and queer scholars like Sara Ahmed (in her book The Promise of Happiness) and Lauren Berlant (in Cruel Optimism) and is also a long-established theme in psychoanalysis: for Jacques Lacan, in contemporary capitalist cultures especially, the tyrannical super-ego often expresses itself in the command that you enjoy. The imperative to be happy, to enjoy as much as possible, to get the best “bang for your buck” out of this life, to “be yourself” – none of these things actually account for desire, which is really just a way of saying that, ironically, under some conditions being given a proliferation of choices can be a way of diminishing agency.
I think this is relevant to “symptoms” like dysphoria as well. As I understand it, being non-binary, or any flavor of transgender, isn’t a pathology that you can just check off a list of symptoms to identify. For the sake of clarification, I tend to associate dysmorphia more strongly with eating disorders than with gender trouble, such as when an anorexic person perceives their body as being “too fat” when it could in fact be on the verge of starvation. “Gender dysphoria,” on the other hand, is understood by mainstream psychology as a feeling of “discomfort” arising from a feeling of misalignment between your “assigned sex at birth” and your gender identity. This is, in my view, a very ideologically loaded formulation, as you might guess from what I’ve already said about “happiness” and enjoyment and also for its rather rigidly assumed opposition between (“biological”) sex and gender. While a great many trans* people reject this pathologizing conception of what it means to be trans*, many still use the term “dysphoria” to describe the various feelings of dis-connect and dis-identification with normatively received gender identities, which is recognized as something assigned or imposed upon us. For many people, the identification of “dysphoria” (if only for lack of a more readily available word) across a variety of different affective positions can be a genuinely useful way of identifying those points where that imposition can be felt, or where a stable or normative identification fails to hold itself together.
And it seems important that these normative or “assigned” identities fail to hold together much more often than we’d sometimes like to admit. As Jacqueline Rose astutely points out,
For psychoanalysis, it is axiomatic, however clear you are in your own mind about being a man or a woman, that the unconscious knows better. Given a primary, universal bisexuality, sex, Freud said, is an act involving at least four people. The ‘cis’ – i.e. non-trans – woman or man is a decoy, the outcome of multiple repressions whose unlived stories surface nightly in our dreams.
And as Judith Butler helped to remind us in the 1990s, this repression could even express itself almost pathologically in heterosexual subjectivity in the form of an inability or refusal to mourn that was particularly striking in the wake of the AIDS crisis:
When the prohibition against homosexuality is culturally pervasive, then the “loss” of homosexual love is precipitated through a prohibition that is repeated and ritualized throughout the culture. What ensues is a culture of gender melancholy in which masculinity and femininity emerge as the traces of an ungrieved and ungrievable love; indeed, where masculinity and femininity within the heterosexual matrix are strengthened through the repudiations they perform. In opposition to a conception of sexuality that is said to “express” a gender, gender itself is here understood to be composed of precisely what remains inarticulate in sexuality.“Melancholy Gender – Refused Identification,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 5.2 (1995), 172.
Cisheterosexuality here appears as a curious set of repressions with an actual death toll beyond the scale of the individual, a series of disavowals of identification and desire that can all-too-easily manifest as a disavowal of the humanity of non-cis, non-heterosexual subjects. The cost of repressing the arguably “non-binary” aspects of human subjectivity in general, then, can be quite high.
I point to these passages because I think if you’re feeling uncertain about your identity, or experiencing some sense of disconnect from the gender(s) that has been and are assigned to (regardless of whether it “counts as dysphoria”), that this uncertainty is perhaps not best understood as a condition that needs to be symptomatically identified and remedied. Our unconscious experience of sex is always going to be at odds with the ways in which we present and are expected to present ourselves as sexed subjects in society, and finding creative ways to live with that contradiction and ambivalence can actually be quite good, maybe even necessary, regardless of whether one ends up consciously identifying as trans*, or non-binary, or gender-nonconforming, or even decides to be fine with one’s assigned gender.
All of which is to say that I can’t tell you whether or not to transition. It’s quite possible (likely, even) that your desire for a “profound change” has a more concrete source in other life circumstances than can be strictly reduced to gender identity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have some revelation or one easily locatable concrete reason to transition. People go on hormones and transition for a great many different reasons and under a great many different conditions, and I’m not sure there’s any way to determine some discrete set of criteria for when it is or isn’t “valid” or worthwhile to do so. Nor do I think you should feel like you only have a limited window to make this decision, as people happily transition at all sorts of different ages, and plenty of people forego medical transition completely.
That said, I’m not sure what the circumstances of your living situation are with regard to access to queer socializing, social stigmas, etc, but if you feel safe doing so I don’t see how trying out “they/them” pronouns or presenting more androgynously can hurt you any more or less than it can elicit some revelation of identity. So I say you should just try it out and go from there, sweetie.
Your Aunt Enid
E. WITKIOWSKI is our lovely aunt, and yours too. Consult them at firstname.lastname@example.org.