Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.
Here are two tweets: the first by an online spokesperson for an organization whose avatar shows a world of secrets brightly oozing into view (or maybe it’s the organization’s worldly credibility steadily dripping away) above the words “FREE BRADLEY”; and the second, by Emily Manuel, crystallizing some points she first made a while ago about B. Manning and the open secret, which so many of us seem not to know what to do with, that B. Manning is very likely not a cisgender man but rather a trans woman whose desired move into a public identity as Breanna Manning was cut off almost before it began. I want to say the tweets speak for themselves, but because they might not, here are a few more words. Some of them are words I haven’t known what to do with for a while either, about the way even a slogan as simple and as seemingly unarguable as “FREE BRADLEY” might have a coercive effect, and about this hopelessly ambivalent discomfort I feel when I see activists who share many of my beliefs and orientations, whether they’re occupying Zuccotti Park or any other space, holding up big signs showing Manning “as a boy” and the name BRAD or BRADLEY.
This is tied to a story of compromised transparency, leftist trans/misogyny and fear of femininity that I think it’s worth exploring, and that goes back at least as far as July, just after I’d left Wisconsin and put up the last post here, when Julian Assange and Slavoj Žižek joined Amy Goodman onstage at the Troxy in London to talk about WikiLeaks, Manning, and the implications for left politics (full video, and nearly full transcript, here). Zillah Eisenstein’s article from September in The Feminist Wire, “Making the Left TRANSPARENT,” is an anti-racist feminist critique of Žižek’s Living in the End Times that also briefly describes the atmosphere at that event:
It is interesting that amidst this embrace of the new transparency and revelation that Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program broadcast from London with Žižek and Assange, July 5, 2011, had nary a word about the sexual misconduct/rape charges against Assange. OK, I can maybe understand if Goodman does not want to give credence to the charges and thinks that what WikiLeaks is doing politically should not be impugned in this way. But then say that and do not push questions of rape and gender to the sidelines as if they are not intimately political in and of themselves, and with grave consequence. I assume that sex is always connected to racialized gendered systems of power and as such must be put in view, made transparent—in today’s parlance, as part of the story of power. Sex should not be reduced to an issue of private, individual indiscretion.
As much as I value Eisenstein’s intervention here, I’m not sure it tells the whole story to say that “questions of rape and gender” were “on the sidelines” at the Troxy. My reaction, watching the livestream, had been one of intense frustration at the way such questions in fact seemed constantly put in view—as subjects for mockery and active dismissal. I wondered how other people felt about it and I soon found this account of the conversation—for me, definitely the most memorable result of the whole thing—by Mary Eng: an audience member at the Troxy; a strong advocate for WikiLeaks, Manning and even Assange; a fierce blogger I can’t really keep up with; and also a feminist who conveys a spectacular alienated anger at sitting in a packed hall listening to two men, one of them under house arrest as a result of rape allegations, the other returning again and again to unchallenged analogies and scenarios that graphically reinscribe patriarchal authority.
So, seriously, please consider reading it.
I kept thinking about the moment Eng’s text describes, when Žižek, in his drawn-out effort to make Amy Goodman lose her cool, asks, “Can I make a terrible, maybe sexually offensive—but not dirty, don’t be afraid—remark?” and Eng shouts, “No!” (It comes at about 16:45 in the video; the recording doesn’t pick it up too well, but it’s there.) That Žižek enjoyed his authority as an onstage speaker to ignore it doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this moment—this bluff so spontaneously, sharply called! In my last post in June I mentioned Sara Ahmed’s essay in defense of “feminist killjoys,” in which Ahmed, too, is at work on questions of transparency:
Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way?
Of course part of what’s so striking to me about Eng’s act of bringing bad feelings to the surface is that the subject which Žižek himself is discussing (and which he’ll immediately try to situate as a subject somehow best understood with reference to the psychopathology of bourgeois patriarchal hetero-marriage, because, obviously?) is the hiddenness, the displacement and negation of feeling. He’s talking about “Collateral Murder,” and making the point that even before WikiLeaks, Americans in some sense already knew about the imperial violence perpetrated in our name in Iraq and elsewhere, but that part of the work of WikiLeaks was to make such violence impossible to ignore. The function and value of WikiLeaks was to expose bad feelings, to make them public and vocable. He goes on to say:
Can I make a terrible, maybe sexually offensive, but not dirty—don’t be afraid—remark? [“No!“] You know, like a husband, sorry for [the] male-chauvinist, uh, twist—a husband may know abstractly, “My wife is cheating on me”; and you can say, “Okay I’m a modern, tolerant husband” … but you know when you get the thought of your wife doing things it’s quite a different thing. And it’s, I would say, with all respect, something similar; it’s very important because it—no, I’m not dreaming here…
Žižek here becomes like a figure in one of his own sketches of an ideological operation (could I call it the attempt to fight capitalist realism with patriarchal realism?): the man who knows that what he’s doing is chauvinistic but does it anyway, understanding that it will be forgiven or laughed away because he himself acknowledges it, he’s “not dreaming,” and he asks for permission “with all respect.” When someone actually answers his call, claiming the authority to deny him that permission, it’s a strange shock, a rupture: this is not the appropriate response.
(I would add that the context of this disruption acts as a reminder that the twin sister of the feminist killjoy is the feminist distractor, who, we’re told, is forever fucking up the important work of the left by redirecting attention away from what really matters, like WikiLeaks or even Occupy Wall Street, and toward trivialities, like rape and rape apologism. Sady Doyle’s #MooreandMe campaign—which, to use a phrase from Ahmed, constitutes a “willfulness archive” in and of itself—was a reaction to this kind of thinking, and also inevitably a target for it, and in response to anyone who subscribes to it I can only ever say, please read Sady Doyle herself, or read Millicent’s post on how #MooreandMe worked. Incidentally, at the Troxy Assange gave a short and well-rehearsed lecture on the contemporary political climate in Sweden, which contained important and worrying information, but which was also a totally evasive non-answer to Goodman’s question about whether his new legal team would treat his accusers with “respect and consideration.” He did interrupt her to say that his previous lawyers “never attacked any integrity of women”—which was wrong; Mark Stephen called them bizarre trolls from a Swedish horror movie. And Assange went on to draw a connection between the aggressive attempts to extradite him—the same attempts that led someone at WikiLeaks (Assange?) to paraphrase George Orwell’s rugged defense of Rudyard Kipling and bemoan the “pansy left”—and Sweden’s decision “to send fighter jets into Libya.”)
The bad feelings are always already circulating. Here’s a philosopher who thought it was illuminating, that it made sense, to compare video evidence of the U.S. military’s slaughter of Iraqi journalists to “the thought of your wife doing things.” Which was actually one of two instances when Žižek specifically framed the WikiLeaks project, or the project of disrupting American hegemony and ideology, as the project of revealing the problem with “your wife”—the other being an amazingly irrelevant joke, which you could tell he was just dying to tell, about a man conversing with a doctor about his terminally ill partner and her impenetrable icky/leaking body. (Democracy Now! just cut this from their transcript completely, and I can’t say I blame them, but it comes at 44:30.) As Mary Eng says, this didn’t do WikiLeaks any favors; nor did Žižek and Assange’s hypermasculine declaiming over torture, with the hacker-journalist boasting by proxy that Manning had “become stronger, not weaker” in captivity thanks to “high moral character,” and the philosopher mixing up gendered bodies in his here’s-when-I-would-torture fantasy and then not bothering to make the correction matter: “A bad guy has my young daughter and I have in my hands a guy who knows where my daughter is. Well, maybe, out of despair I would have tortured her. Him. Whatever” (56:22).
Is it unfair of me to mention that slip? Maybe. Whatever. But this discursive environment of mysterious untrustworthy femininity and despairing violence meant that when the conversation turned, finally, to the “ethical miracle” performed by Manning—”He saw all these documents,” Žižek said, “and something told him, ‘Sorry, I will not be pushed more, I have to do something here'”—the implicit effect was to cast Manning in a role from a Shakespearean romance or a noir movie, as the misled husband who will not be pushed more, who thinks he sees the proof, and who decides to do something about it.
And it’s this kind of masculinization of Manning, epitomized in the projection onto Manning’s body of fantasies about tough guys who don’t crack under torture, that fits precisely into Emily Manuel’s account of a cissexist left that seems almost infinitely distant from being able to accept the possibility of a trans heroine. As Manuel asks, “why is this, a year after Wired and Gawker first published speculation about Manning being trans, still an open question?” When we have hardly any evidence about someone’s identity because they’ve been imprisoned and tortured by our government, but all the evidence we do have suggests they identify as a woman, is it beyond our power to at least respect the ambiguity? A perfect instance of what Manuel identifies as the ubiquitous, cramped “narrative of cis-until-proven-otherwise (and even then…)” can be found in Dan Hancox’s widely shared post from December 2010 on Manning and Lady Gaga, whose music Manning used as a cover for key data transfers: “I’m not sure I buy the trans stuff,” Hancox writes, “it seems to be reaching a little, searching for deep meaning in surface conversation—much as we struggle to find deep meaning in a video like Gaga’s ‘Telephone.'” Here—arguably as in “Telephone” itself, with its deployment of the lesbian phallus and its dancing around the enormous crisis of trans imprisonment, in particular the imprisonment of trans women of color—a transgender body comes into view only (ever) as the product of overreading. (I’m saying this not to attack Hancox or to call him a bad person, but mostly because I’m angry with myself for not reacting more strongly to this passage when I first read it, and for approvingly linking to the post without comment.)
In short: Manning can’t be trans, (because) Manning is a hero. The converse implication is everywhere, obviously, and it’s another main reason why Manuel, Glenn Greenwald, and others came to Manning’s defense in the first place: Manning can’t be a hero, (because) Manning is trans. Looking through cases where the specter of non-normative gender and/or sexuality is summoned in this way, with the subtle or unsubtle goal of shaming and discrediting Manning—like a very bad video produced by the Guardian, or the sleazy New York article from July that precipitated the release of the full Manning/Lamo chat logs—it’s remarkable how often assertions of Manning’s queerness are accompanied by assertions that Manning was a child. (“Bradley Manning, the man [sic] held over the leaking of confidential cables to WikiLeaks, was a ‘mess of a child’ who should never have been put through a tour of duty in Iraq, according to an investigative film produced by the Guardian.” / “‘He’s a traitor at best,’ Lamo said. And, worse, a child.”) I think of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s brilliant arguments in The Queer Child, about the way the title of her book names a figure who, in so many ways, can be recognized only as a phantom or a mirage and whose motives are thought to remain always sinisterly in shadow; and, adding another twist to what Maryam Monalisa Gharavi has written about Manning’s “speculative personhood,” I can’t help fearing that this is all part of some conspiracy to write B. Manning out of the world completely, to deny that B. Manning ever existed.
But I want to say: Manning exists; Manning’s motives and actions with respect to WikiLeaks were heroic, even specifically queerly heroic; and, in some senses, maybe Manning is a queer child, who should be celebrated as such. Maybe Stockton’s concept of “growing sideways,” articulating a refusal of heteronormative patriarchy’s narratives of “growing up” (which I’ve tried discussing before in a very different context) can help us understand someone’s rejection of the murderous regimes of growing up or manning up imposed on young Americans by military life, and a (tragically thwarted) decision to grow, instead, outward, through online information networks and chat conversations and the dissemination of critical evidence of American war crimes. This dissemination might have been confused or confusing and it might have been the work of a person who was experiencing a crisis, but I’m hardly the first to say that any American soldier who isn’t experiencing a crisis is scary. And I think this might point to the necessity of avoiding, on the one hand, an oppressive and hateful relegation of Manning’s courage into a sphere of transgender “confusion” (which @SubaBat has also eloquently addressed), and, on the other hand, a defensive disavowal of “confusion” or uncertainty altogether and an attempt to make Manning into something that Manning is not. Namely the man that Slavoj Žižek seems to think Manning is, a “quite ordinary guy[,] nothing special,” a normatively masculine good American soldier.
Which is why, just as I am not Troy Davis, ultimately I’m unable to stand with all the admirable and sympathetic solidarity activists who say they are Bradley Manning. I’m not Bradley Manning, and even B. Manning may not be Bradley Manning. I’m not Breanna Manning either, because I am not a 23-year-old trans woman from Oklahoma who has endured military hell and post-military torture. But because (as Daniel has talked about) solidarity has to start somewhere even if it’s impossible, and because, to me, “B. Manning” is as much the name of an idea or a positionality as the name of someone no one really knows, I think B. Manning I can at least aspire to be.
And, in wanting to honor and support Manning and all the people like Manning who are true military heroes because, having been fucked up by militarism and imperialism, they did or are doing what they could or can do to dismantle them, I think I can only close with the words of Radical Faggot, from three days ago, Armistice Day:
A close friend of mine has a sibling who is currently serving in the Marines, and who identifies as trans. They are seriously contemplating a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, because it is the only way they will be able to afford the top surgery they are hoping to get. To me, this story is a sign that we have got to think differently not just about the legacy of war and militarism on our planet, but also about the role that it plays in our current lives and communities. The fact that the US Military is the number one employer of US citizens should not tell us that it is a benevolent and honorable job supplier, but rather that we are participating in an economy fueled by genocide, one which pits the working poor of virtually every nation on the globe against one another. The recent overturning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should not be celebrated as a progressive victory, but understood as a strategic move to mobilize more oppressed communities around militarism and systemic violence which have long stood as a bulwark against them. I propose that on this day we honor the troops, our families and our communities by rejecting military myths, and struggling for a vision of economic justice which undermines and defames the military, instead of saluting it.