The dysphoric body politic, or Seizing the means of imagination

Charlie Ledbetter

University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

[0.1] Abstract—Although escapism has been used pejoratively in describing fandom, it might be reframed as a reaction to untenable external circumstances. This reformulation of escapism is a starting point for examining how fan fiction is a political practice. In light of the political upheaval in the United States as well as the existential threat of climate change, this is a topical, even urgent, collective project for producing survivable conditions. Fan fiction uniquely diagnoses and imagines alternatives to oppressive political conditions. The lens of political dysphoria, adapted from critical transgender studies and used here to describe the dissonance between dominant political structures and desiring subjects, permits exploration of how fan fiction enables subjects to acknowledge oppressive political conditions, engage in coalitional rebellion, and reimagine societal structures for collective liberation.

[0.2] Keywords—Antioppression; Erotic; Escapism; Fan fiction; Political dysphoria; Transgender; Trauma

Ledbetter, Charlie. 2020. "The Dysphoric Body Politic, or Seizing the Means of Imagination." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. Foreword: Fandom made me trans

[1.1] Well, that's a header to feed the conspiracy theorists. However, it's perhaps a bit overstated to claim that fandom made me trans, especially because that contains the assumption that trans represents a deviation from the norm. (I may be deviant, but I am certainly not a deviation.) Rather, fandom has been my friend and companion through my lifelong process of self-excavation. It has given me the conceptual tools for understanding myself and my power as an agent of change beyond traditional cultural categories. This is why I am addressing my fellow fans: to say that our art has visionary potential for this world.

[1.2] A little about me: I'm a transmasculine fan fiction reader and author. I'm also an antioppression activist. The inspiration for this article was my realization that the same processes by which I've come to understand myself as trans—and built efficacy in my embodied knowledge—could help those in fandom understand their power as political agents.

[1.3] My first sense of gender dissonance did not originate in an innate knowledge that I was "born in the wrong body," which is unfortunately the dominant narrative of trans legitimacy. Rather, my explorations of self through fandom gave me a more expansive sense of what the self could be. Having read slash (or homoerotic) fan fiction since my tween years, part of me has identified with desire between men. While sexual desire doesn't entail a gender identity—as I know many cisgender women who fantasize about or as queer men—seeing myself in slash fiction did provide me with a conceptual space outside the tensions of my own ambivalent embodiment. It also offered a template of masculinity for me that was less toxic than the ones most visible in mass media. Taken together, the opportunity to explore my sexuality and experience a less threatening articulation of masculinity showed me the political power of escapist fiction. Escapism is not a departure from reality. Rather, escape decenters the hegemony of oppressive systems that announce themselves as real and creates space to imagine alternatives.

[1.4] I became conscious of my desire to explore transitioning at, of all places, my first Harry Potter fan convention. In 2009, having written my undergraduate thesis on slash fan fiction, I presented my findings at Azkatraz (portmanteau of "Azkaban" and "Alcatraz") in San Francisco. A lot of trans people enjoy costumes—for obvious reasons—so I decided to come dressed as Remus Lupin, Harry Potter's werewolf mentor. What I didn't know is that when you go to a convention in costume, you're considered a cosplayer and therefore addressed by the name and pronouns of your character. Imagine my surprise, as someone who wasn't fully conscious of their gendered self, at suddenly being addressed as Professor Lupin with he/him pronouns. It was euphoric—and terrifying. By the end of the convention, I was so overwhelmed with emotions I couldn't name that I asked a cosplayer friend how he could stand returning to the outside world. The convention accepted people as they came without question—whether as Severus Snape or an albino peacock—but the world would relentlessly contest any perceived transgression from the norm. He suggested that I make my own myth—construct a new world around the self I was discovering. I was so moved by this that I wrote my master's thesis on Harry Potter trans cosplay, and then began my journey with gender confirmation medicine. Over the years, this reassurance has blossomed into a more radical reimagining of myself and my relationship to society.

[1.5] My relationship to fandom fundamentally changed when I began to see myself as a man, specifically as a queer man. While as a slash reader this felt like living the dream, the slash fan fiction that had felt affirming as an adolescent suddenly made me feel extremely alienated. Male bodies were usually represented as cisgender and fetishized in their cisness, with phallocentricity as a common erotic fixation. Moreover, subgenres that acknowledged gender alterity, like gender-swap, often read as transphobic because they often "ignore how transgender people cope with issues that accompany transitions, such as gender dysphoria, the use of proper pronouns, or the mechanics of sexual activity after [gender confirmation surgery]" (Beazley 2016).

[1.6] There is an increasing prevalence of fan fiction that represents trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming bodies, or second-person fan fiction that attempts to avoid gendered representation altogether, but this is by far the exception. As I became aware of trans underrepresentation in fan fiction, I began to examine what needs I brought to fandom in the first place. I realized that the context in which I was approaching fan fiction as escapist literature had changed, and with it my desires as an author and reader.

[1.7] As I experienced the social and economic marginalization that is all too common for trans people—family rejection, discrimination, poverty—I realized that fan fiction was also mirroring transphobic societal structures. Or rather, that society is so transphobic that it would take more imaginative labor to produce credible escapist fiction for someone who is experiencing marginalization. Moreover, the fundamental structures that produce my marginalization—capitalism, the climate emergency, the destabilization of national democracies—are also making life more precarious for everyone. Perhaps other fans who, like me, have approached fandom as an alternative to their experiences of oppression are also feeling this desire for fan fiction that imagines viable alternatives.

2. Critical transgender theory

[2.1] Critical transgender theory provides the theoretical and methodological grounding for this article. According to Susan Stryker (2006), critical transgender theory is a postmodern, anti-oppression discipline

[2.2] like other socially engaged interdisciplinary academic fields such as disability studies or critical race theory that investigate questions of embodied difference and analyze how such differences are transformed into social hierarchies—without ever losing sight of the fact that difference and hierarchy are never mere abstractions; they are systems of power that operate on actual bodies, capable of producing pain and pleasure, health and sickness, punishment and reward, life and death. (Stryker 2006, 3)

[2.3] At its core, critical transgender theory is interested in the construction of genders and the social hierarchies by which they are organized. As a politically engaged discipline, critical transgender theory examines the systems of power that produce these hierarchies in terms of both representational and material practices. As such, transgender studies is not simply an insider discourse for a minoritized group of people but examines the structures that create and reproduce oppressions based on bodily difference.

[2.4] Critical transgender theory offers fandom studies concepts for deconstructing its own embeddedness in cissexist and transphobic structures. This is valuable for improving trans representation and participation in fandom. However, I argue that it makes an additional contribution on the level of epistemology and praxis. By prioritizing the embodied knowledge of the individual over the orthodoxy of dominant political structures, critical transgender studies offers an epistemological lens by which anyone might identify structural oppression as it is processed in the body and imagine more desirable alternatives.

3. Autoethnography

[3.1] Autoethnography—which connects experiential knowledge to wider cultural phenomena—is a vital methodology in critical transgender studies because it disrupts the hegemonic epistemologies that claim universal and objective knowledge. This is particularly important when an individual speaking subject must challenge dominant assumptions. According to Stryker,

[3.2] transgender studies considers the embodied experience of the speaking subject, who claims constantive knowledge of the referent topic, to be a proper—indeed essential—component of the analysis of transgender phenomena; experiential knowledge is as legitimate as other, supposedly more "objective" forms of knowledge, and is in fact necessary for understanding the political dynamics of the situation being analyzed. (Stryker 2006, 12)

[3.3] Critical transgender studies inflects autoethnography with embodied experience, and it is this experience that is necessary for comprehending the political dynamics of the subject matter.

[3.4] Using the "I" in this essay allows me to connect my experiential knowledge as a trans person to more structural political phenomena. I am the subject rather than the object of knowledge. At the same time, the embodied knowledge that produces my trans subjectivity has political implications for all political agents. The pathologization and medicalization of transness depoliticizes its fundamental insight—that the embodied knowledge of the individual can challenge the fundamental assumptions of dominantly constructed reality. The purpose of this article is to reveal how, in the context of political upheaval, this dissonance is a more universally felt experience, and to politicize the action of deliberately speaking in its interstices.

4. From gender dysphoria to political dysphoria

[4.1] The central analytic for this essay is political dysphoria. Political dysphoria develops from applying the concept of dysphoria—a dissonance between embodied knowledge and dominant accounts of reality—to the body politic.

[4.2] Gender dysphoria, as defined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), is "distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person's gender identity and that person's sex assigned at birth (and the associated gender role and/or primary and secondary sex characteristics)" (WPATH 2012). The problem is not the feelings of dissonance between one's gender and the one assigned at birth but rather feelings of distress that can arise from this. Examining gender dysphoria critically, it contains the assumption that someone has shifted from the purported rationality of cisgender selfhood to another form of knowing, an embodied epistemology. While this embodied epistemology can lead people to seek different forms of consonance with the gendered self—including hormone replacement therapy (HRT), surgery, and social changes—it can also shift one's location as a perceiving and knowing subject.

[4.3] For me, gender dysphoria legitimized my deeply felt sensations of dissonance, but over time it provided a critical lens onto the structure of the society that in projecting a nonconsensual dominant account of reality gaslights people out of their own perceptions. Dysphoria not only gave me insight about the operations of oppression made intelligible by gender but also ultimately reached beyond it. For example, when I was a female academic, I felt that I needed to fight to be heard but didn't have the conceptual framework to describe my experiences. This made sense when, perceived as a man, I was suddenly given more conversational space than female colleagues. Moreover, I've always felt some unease about being in public, which mental health professionals assumed was irrational. However, when I (and countless other trans people) have been threatened in public bathrooms, I've became viscerally aware of the violence that polices public spaces. Finally, when I began to experience illegal employment discrimination in every job I've held since transitioning, I realized that first, the identity of worker requires legible gender and second, work as an ideological construct is not meritocratic but uses the threat of deprivation to produce heteronormative and cissexist compliance. This not only belied the virtue of hard work inculcated in me since childhood but also opened out to a more existential realization: the bottom line for survival is managing the climate crisis. With a limited carbon budget, work should be flexible and optional or at least be mobilized to ameliorate rather than exacerbate this emergency (Graeber 2018). Having experienced these multiple levels of oppression which threaten my basic survival, I realized that I could no longer afford the comfortable illusion that the dominant ideology matches my perceptions. In short, my experiences of gender dysphoria have made visible the dysphoria I have always felt as a political subject. It made sense that the world didn't make sense.

[4.4] While pervasively classified as a pathology, dysphoria can be a resource for understanding and imagining what kind of world might bring us fulfillment. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how, in the context of contemporary political upheaval, fans can become conscious of their own sense of dissonance—without having to experience the existential challenges through which I had to cultivate these insights. Once aware of dissonances, it's possible to construct visionary alternative in art. Transformative works could transform not just as reinterpretations of text but as the imaginative workshop for a transformed society.

[4.5] The first part of this essay has constructed a theory for political dysphoria through the intersection of affect and critical transgender theories in the field of fandom studies. The second part of this essay focuses on specific examples of political dysphoric affects in transformative works and how they can used to reimagine a more equitable social structure.

5. Three affects of political dysphoria

[5.1] The second part of this article identifies three affects of political dysphoria and explores how these might help fan creators name and resolve these dissonances through fiction. These three affects are (1) relief: naming dysphoric feelings, (2) rage: rebelling against conditions that produce dysphoric feelings, and (3) euphoria: imagining structures that inspire consonant feelings. These concepts are derived from my own experiences of gender dysphoria and the process of applying them to political activism.

[5.2] Shifting from the more theoretical methodology of the first section, this section focuses on the tangible changes that are possible when fiction is written through the lens of political dysphoria. To do this, I have selected three examples of fan works, each foregrounding one of the dysphoric affects. The stories traverse time, fandom, genre, and readership size and as such are not intended to be either representative or paragons of their categories. Rather, the choices are deeply personal. Each story has, in its own way, given me the resources to more fully understand my own internal and external dissonances. In reading them, I invite you to recall which stories have produced similar feelings for you and what kind of world they invite you to construct.

[5.3] The texts which are analyzed are Can't Starve Us Out, Can't Make Us Run by UneJolieOrdure (2017), "Ddiod Imi" by de_Clare (2016), and The Flax Seed by R. Schultz (2003).

6. Naming dysphoria and finding relief: Can't Starve Us Out, Can't Make Us Run by UneJolieOrdure

[6.1] It may seem counterintuitive, but darkfic, "fan fiction that deals with intentionally disturbing material, such as physical and emotional violence" (Fanlore n.d.), represents a form of escape for some.

[6.2] The irony of transition is that as we feel greater consonance within ourselves, we're likely to experience greater oppression. Like most people in nondominant communities, I'm also systematically gaslit out of my own perceptions of this oppression. For my own well-being, then, it is necessary to name this dissonance and seek validation. Because it takes for granted trauma and the circumstances that produce it, writing and consuming darkfic represents an escape into reality. Darkfic gets me. The experience of naming my trauma and having it acknowledged in fiction gives me a sense of consistency and therefore relief. The relief provided by darkfic is not limited to trans people but is for anyone whose traumatic experiences are not universally validated. One cultural implication of #metoo was shattering the shell of denial that had hitherto so seamlessly surrounded structural misogyny and normalized sexual assault. Reading and sharing one's narratives could provide relief if not from the oppression itself then from its denial.

[6.3] While fan fiction often does not address the realities of structural oppression, doing so in darkfic provides an opportunity for oppressed groups to represent their experiences and to invite recognition. One such story is UneJolieOrdure's alternate universe (AU) Can't Starve Us Out, Can't Make Us Run, an unfinished novel that sets Game of Thrones (2011–19) in the rural poverty of West Virginia.

[6.4] Game of Thrones is an HBO fantasy series set during the political collapse of a monarchy. The series has been critiqued for many reasons, among them for voyeuristic representations of sexual assault (Hughes 2015). I would also add the critique that while it's self-consciously allegorical, representing contemporary issues like the climate crisis and patriarchy, its solutions and narrative preoccupations are by and large elite. However, by changing the setting from mythical Westeros to rural West Virginia, Can't Starve Us Out, Can't Make Us Run reverses the power dynamics of the source text, re-presenting these existential challenges as a struggle for survival by poor and marginalized people. The author's summary says:

[6.5] Winter Holler is right on the border between West Virginia and Kentucky. Poor and isolated, its inhabitants do what they have to for survival. Between them, West Virginia's Ned Stark and Kentucky's own Bob Baratheon have built up a sweeping, lucrative methamphetamine empire from nothing, but it could be destined to fall with its founders if their sons don't get their heads out of their asses. A couple of modern-day Romeo-Juliet romances rise and fall. Theon Greyjoy loses some teeth and some dignity. Sansa knows better than to get in a pickup with a dirty cop. Robb thinks he can be the antihero of this story after all.

[6.6] Otherwise known as "the hillbilly AU literally nobody asked me to write."

[6.7] This summary invites multiple points of entry for those seeking relief in fiction. Perhaps the closest to universal is the reality of precarity. Recalling Berlant's concept of cruel optimism (2011), Winter Holler dramatizes the contemporary "gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won't…guarantee a happy ending," (Hsu 2019). The feeling of precariousness, and its challenge to dominant meritocratic ideologies, is a dissonance with which unfortunately most of us can identify. While validating feelings of systemic disenfranchisement, the narrative also dramatizes the risks inherent in becoming fully conscious of oppression.

[6.8] In the HBO series, Jon Snow is represented as an honorable character surrounded by individuals with mercenary intentions. As an illegitimate son of a lord, he is excluded from the cultural institution of primogeniture and must cultivate his own role in his increasingly unstable society. In UneJolieOrdure's story, "Jon Stark" is recharacterized as a US army veteran experiencing untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Jon's battle isn't against soldiers (or snow zombies) but rather against the structures of his own society.

[6.9] When the caregivers of the Stark family are suddenly and violently murdered, Jon, now the eldest sibling of the Stark family, is honorably discharged from the Army to care for his new dependents. While his veteran's benefits provide a means of subsistence as he assumes responsibilities as guardian, the specter of his service in Afghanistan and Iraq haunts his new life.

[6.10] In chapter 9, "Dumb Ways to Die," Jon discloses his personal traumas to his younger sister Sansa.

[6.11] "What's wrong, Jon?" He shrugged. He drained his beer. The response was clearly already on his tongue, but he wrestled with it anyway; it seemed to burn on the way out.

[6.12]"I watched my friends die for no good reason. No good reason that I can think of, anyway."

[6.13]Now, you'll notice that the title of this chapter is "Dumb Ways to Die." Dumb is a word which can (and does) mean stupid, but in our context, it can also mean senseless, purposeless, or unnecessary. Dying in a freak sandcastle accident is, for example, purposeless. A bunch of young men and women being blown up by roadside bombs in the middle of fighting a war that they don't even understand is senseless. Veterans offing themselves because nobody warned them about how sneaky PTSD can be is unnecessary.

[6.14] Jon's dialogue is laconic as he struggles to produce language to represent his experiences. The dearth of language could be attributed to many factors, but one perhaps is the struggle to articulate something that runs counter to political orthodoxy. The American Dream, which haunts the country as the phantasmagorical, though logically consequent "America First!," demands that individuals yoke "private fortune with that of the nation." (Berlant 1998, 4). To admit the failure of this ideology is to produce and inscribe into language the novel possibility that the American Dream is not only an illusion but a threat to one's well-being. In contrast to Jon's sparseness, his meaning is unpacked with a Lemony Snickett-esque whimsical narrative voice. It pauses on the multiple implications of "dumb," either a pejorative for unintelligent or that which falls outside of meaning and sense. In this text, "dumb" has the third meaning of unspeakable—or lacking the capacity to speak—of one's own perceptions and experiences.

[6.15] The risk of this disclosure is that the relief it brings from dysphoria is wholly subsumed by the overwhelming reality. Most avoid such disclosure—to themselves or others—because the consequences might literally be self-annihilation. Immediately following Jon's confession, he attempts suicide:

[6.16] Later that night, Sansa awoke to an enormous cracking sound, followed by a heavy thud…The bedroom was dark, the bed mussed but abandoned; the only light came from the small attached bathroom. There, Jon was on the bathroom floor, slightly blue in the face, gasping for breath. There was an extension cord noose around his neck, which was tied to the shower rod, which had broken off of the wall and was lying on the floor in a pile of plaster, drywall, and crumpled shower curtain. Ygritte was standing over him in a huge, billowing t-shirt that read WILD WILLIE'S SPICIEST WINGS NORTH OF THE MASON-DIXON. Her white skin was heating up in red blotches as if she had been running for too long.

[6.17]"You must be pretty fucking wasted if you thought that fucking thing was gonna hold your weight," she said through tightly gritted teeth.

[6.18] Jon's suicide attempt registers on apparently contradictory emotional levels. On the one hand, there is the disturbing representation of attempted self-harm in squalid circumstances where no spectator remains innocent. At the same time, there are jarring incongruities that provoke uncomfortable laughter: Jon lying on the bathroom floor with an improvised noose is juxtaposed with his fiancée Ygritte's outsized T-shirt and red-blotched skin. (Moreover, the flippant allusion to the Mason-Dixon Line—the historical boundary of legal segregation—to advertise chicken wings provokes cringe-laughter.) The darkness and the humor converge when Ygritte derides Jon's unaccountably ignorant choice of shower curtain rod as gallows, echoing her catchphrase from the original series: You know nothing, Jon Snow. The dissonances between the dark and the humorous also provide a safe tone for approaching subject matter that could otherwise be too painful—to some extent, laughter neutralizes the power of the otherwise unspeakable. It also brings into relief the dissonances between the television series and its application to reality.

[6.19] As a dramatization of the dissonances that produce political dysphoria, Jon's narrative highlights how American political subjectivity requires the participation in systems that exacerbate one's own oppression. This then presupposes the disavowal of this participation and the constant psychological work of actively maintaining hegemonic narratives, no matter how preposterous. (In an Orwellian logic: Two plus two equals five.) Acknowledging these deeply felt realities holds the promise of relief from this psychological dissonance but may also literally prove unsurvivable. Approximately half of trans people attempt suicide, but these statistics cannot account for those who experience dysphoria in silence or isolation (Haas et al. 2014).

[6.20] Trans people too often have the impossible choice between maintaining the fiction of the binary gender system and the dire consequences of rejecting it. Acknowledging that one does not feel consonant with the gender category assigned at birth might lead to rejection by loved ones, legal discrimination, even murder. However, continuing to function within an inauthentic selfhood, which maintains the lie of a binary gender system, only contributes to one's oppression. This is a possibility within any position of oppression within the body politic. For example, if the only economic option in the deindustrialized Midwest is to work in an Amazon warehouse, it is emotionally costly to admit that one has no choice but to contribute to a wealth-hoarding global elite, even when automation means that scarcity is increasingly manufactured. However, naming this dysphoria is the only possible escape beyond the spiral of unsurvivable political conditions. Once one acknowledges these dissonances, it is then possible to reject them.

7. Rage, the crucible of transformation: "Ddiod Imi" by de_Clare (me)

[7.1] In 2015, I was invited to contribute to Shipwreck, an erotic fan fiction competition at Haight-Ashbury's The Booksmith, a niche literary retailer in San Francisco. Shipwreck is something of a blend between book club and crackfic writing competition and has recently published Loose Lips (2017), an anthology of previous winners.

[7.2] For the competition, the organizers select a book for all participants to read and each writer is randomly assigned a character for which they will write a piece of erotic fiction. Ironically, I was originally invited to write for A Song of Ice and Fire, but realizing that I would need to read several thousand pages in a very short time, I deferred to the next competition: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. To my chagrin, I was assigned the character of Bill the Lizard. Remember him? No? Exactly. Having read the novel and done some research, however, I realized that Bill might be read as a symbol of the oppressed underclass—a chimney sweep whom the local big man, The Dodo, orders to pull oversized monster Alice through a chimney and subsequently comes to a tragic end. This was in the run-up to the 2016 election, and I was already uncomfortably aware of the connection between global oligarchy and street Nazis coming out of the woodwork. For this reason, I decided to write an explicit political polemic that explores the revolutionary potential of storytelling.

[7.3] My story is set during the 1839 Newport Rising, a Welsh democratic revolt that was violently suppressed by the English military. Following the rejection in Parliament of the Chartist People's Charter, which demanded universal suffrage and more equitable democratic systems, an estimated 10,000 sympathizers demonstrated in Newport, Wales. Military personnel opened fire on the crowds and the leaders were sentenced to hanging for high treason (O'Brien 1995). The story opens with a dramatization of the chaotic moments leading up to the slaughter:

[7.4] "Break the tollhouse gate!—Rebekah—let your children possess the gate of those who oppress us!"

[7.5] Mine owners slink into their pits, and the English priest who preaches obedient slaves hides in a pond.—Twenty thousand cascade as the black mountain of coal slurry that devoured Aberfan—the Republic of Social Justice is at hand!

[7.6] The toll house gates, the mines, and the English church all represent structures that have historically subjugated Welsh people under English imperialism. Toll houses charged extortionate fees for the use of roads, which led to the Rebecca Riots, a series of attacks by Welsh tenant farmers between 1839 and 1843 (Rees 2011). The riots get their name from the Biblical book of Genesis, where Rebekah calls for her people to "possess the gates of those who hate them" (Gn. 24:60). Interestingly, the farmers—mainly men—disguised themselves as women during the riots (Rees 2011). Attacking the toll houses is not unlike the strategic smashing of corporate bank windows during the Occupy protests.

[7.7] The "us" that is the collective speaking voice represents the sense of collective purpose in protests. The mountain of coal slurry refers, anachronistically but relevantly, to Aberfan, perhaps the most lethal disaster in coal mining history. In 1966, a mountain of coal slurry collapsed, instantly consuming the Welsh town of Aberfan and killing 134 people, mostly schoolchildren (Turner 1976). The mountain of coal creates its negative—a mountain of rage. Though no individual can stand up to the overwhelming force of occupation, the people united might collectively overwhelm it.

[7.8] Susan Stryker's foundational text for transgender theory (1994) uses the encounter between the creature and his creator from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a symbol for the rage felt by trans people as a result of overwhelmingly oppressive conditions: "Transgender rage is a queer fury, an emotional response to conditions in which it becomes imperative to take up, for the sake of one's own continued survival as a subject, a set of practices that precipitates one's exclusion from a naturalized order of existence that seeks to maintain itself as the only possible basis for being a subject" (254).

[7.9] Though explicated within often-detached theoretical vocabularies, transgender rage arises from a fundamental and neverending struggle for survival. The subjective survival as a legible transgender subject against the demand for legibility within binary gender is inextricable from their material consequences. Bluntly: trans people get murdered for being trans. This rage may feel all-consuming, but it is also the impetus for new possibilities: "By mobilizing gendered identities and rendering them provisional, open to strategic development and occupation, this rage enables the establishment of subjects in new modes, regulated by different codes of intelligibility…Through the operation of rage, the stigma itself becomes the source of transformative power" (Stryker 1994). The transformative power of transgender rage not only redefines gender but dismantles the structures that define them and makes possible the assemblage of new possibilities.

[7.10] The development of romantic relationships, or shipping, is a staple genre in fan fiction. Woledge sees utopian potential in this, as the dramatization of overcoming differences (2006). At the same time, shipping is perhaps the most visible site of rage in fan discourse, signaled by the ubiquity of shipping wars. Though shipping can present a site of goodnatured discussion, it can also escalate to flaming and vitriol over the legitimacy of different romantic relationships. While I can't wholly unpack this phenomenon, I suspect that it partially originates in fandom's primordial feeling of disappointment—even rage—that mass media consistently fails to meet our expectations or reflect our realities. Much of this rage then unfortunately runs in the direction of inertia—downhill, to those whose desires are less legitimized. This seeming contradiction—between rage and shipping—is more like a dialectical relationship, where rage is the crucible in which old structures are deconstructed and shipping represents the new assemblages tested therein.

[7.11] In "Ddiod Imi," the rage of political uprising is the occasion for the reconfiguration of class differences. After the failed uprising, two young chartist sympathizers—George, a transmasculine English-educated student, and Glyn, a working-class ironsmith—are imprisoned and awaiting hanging. Though they both participated in the revolt, their differing class positionalities cause conflict:

[7.12] "And they call you educated," the ironworker scoffed, patting his pockets for phantom fags.

[7.13] Ignoring him, the scholar paced. "Yes, and a fine waste that was. It's great to fill your head with liberal ideas, but try to implement them and they shoot at you."

[7.14] Doffing his cap, the ironworker scratched his smoke-stained hair. "You think you're the first to conscript poor folk for the revolution? When I was a boy, I drenched an apron in cow's blood with the strikers—we raised the red flag for freedom. Then the English hanged an innocent boy like a side of veal."

[7.15] The principles of equality that motivated the revolt are belied in the inequalities within the movement. The scholar, who has benefited from English imperialism through elite education, is shocked that implementing the democratic ideals he has learned at university has been met with hostility. The ironsmith, who has witnessed reprisals against the poor, sees the uprising as another failed elite power game.

[7.16] However, in their shared condition of captivity, narrative becomes a point from which they produce a shared understanding. The ironsmith recalls a tale he learned from his grandmother as a child:

[7.17] In a county called Wonderland, which is very different from Wales, because animals could talk—but not so different because they'd usually talk down on ya—there was a poor chimney sweep named Bill, who happened to be a lizard—One sultry day, the officious White Rabbit said, "Sirrah, extrude this monster from my chimney." Now, lizards have the same reservation about monsters as you or me, but the rabbit was the queen's herald, so Bill obeyed with an, "at your service, guv'nor."

[7.18] Bill doffed his cotton shirt and buffed it up the shaft—and that monster gave him such a kick with her boot-blacked heel that he shot into the sky. Higher and higher, past the tittering treetops, and a pigeon clucking about serpents, and he'd be nought but lizard soup on impact. But suddenly a petit fours inscribed with a neat, pink "Eat Me" buzzed past on sugar, gossamer wings. With one flick of his clever tongue, he plucked that sweetie from the sky and ate it like prayer. Bill's neck and legs distended, taffy-like, and he thought, "Cor, the bearded Lizard Jehovah ain't so big."

[7.19] Bill grew so large, he sat amongst the stars, who sang: "You may wish upon a star—but you won't get very far." Yet still, Bill swelled until the stars sank iron-hot into his scales, and he straddled all that was—which was saddle-shaped, you know—GREAT YESI MAWR!"

[7.20] Giddy from either drink or martyrdom, the heretofore wilting scholar, tiger-like, pinned Glyn to the dirt, straddling his chest, "So this is the divine design?" Handily reversing the pin, Glyn declared from his mount, "It's a new republic—workers on top!" then kissed George rough, with bitter aniseed breath, planting a scarlet flag in his throat.

[7.21] Bill's sudden growth spurt, with the new embodied sensations and experiences this makes available, illustrates the new possibilities for embodied subjectivity imagined in Stryker. It also becomes the occasion for the two men to meet as bodies in a way that was not possible from abstract positions of power. The Ironsmith and the Student become George and Glyn as they grapple in erotic power-exchange: "Taking no quarter, tearing cotton for no draw and quarter, George canvassed bare throatskin scrubbed clean as Whitsunday and Glyn's swollen finger joints strummed George's nub and fissure. Chord of diminished sigh and fall, tumbling down, down…"

[7.22] Their roughhousing transforms into kisses and genital play and, for those reading closely, George's "nub and fissure" signal nontraditional gender embodiment and Glyn's "swollen finger joints" suggest premature arthritis, though both invite multiple projections. Their bodily subjectivities reveal complex, intersectional identities within their society, belying their heretofore simplistic arrangement within hegemonic class categories.

[7.23] Rage is a potent force. It rips the casing off of alienation, exposing its gears-and-guts and reconfiguring its circuits. The rage of shipping wars parallels the initial conflict between George and Glyn over power differences. However, through shared erotic actions—uprising, storytelling, sex—their differences are not necessarily transcended but become the impetus for more visionary changes to the world in which they inhabit. Telling the story actualizes the society in which they might experience each other more fully. Shipping becomes a radical practice, not necessarily for what we ship but for the context that makes certain forms of relating possible and the quality of these feelings.

[7.24] So far, we have discussed how the relief of naming dysphoria leads to a transformative rage. The final section explores how the collective project of expropriating and reconstructing oppressive structures produces euphoria, the synergistic moments in which consonance is possible.

8. The euphoric body politic: The Flax Seed by R. Schultz

[8.1] Our final narrative takes us both forward and back in time. The Flax Seed is a novel-length (or 132,415 kb-length, for those who remember those days) Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001) fan fiction work written by R. Schultz in 2003. The author's summary hooks the reader with an enticing contradiction:

[8.2] When VOYAGER burst back into Federation space, it brought with it the lovely and unique Seven of Nine, once Tertiary Adjunct to Unimatrix Zero. It is now a quarter of a century later. Seven of Nine is still beautiful and still appears to be in her mid-twenties. She has freedom and wealth, lovers and beauty, an analytical mind and a super luminal grace when she walks. She lacks nothing except a reason to live. (Schultz 2003)

[8.3] Following a suicide attempt, Seven of Nine attends court-mandated psychotherapy with Deanna Troi, former ship's counselor from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94). The story is a self-actualization narrative in which Seven of Nine acknowledges her own alienation from what should have defined success and happiness: wealth, traditional beauty, and sexual plenty. Milestones in her healing are the admission that women are her erotic center and, eventually, facing how her alienation has prevented her from experiencing authentic relationships. At the midpoint of the story, Seven decides to stop looking for a quick therapeutic fix and takes a radical departure from her previous life.

[8.4] As part of her therapy, Counselor Troi takes Seven to visit an autonomous women's collective:

[8.5] She'd never been to the Women's House before. Once called the Winchester House, it was an awe-inspiring concoction of chaos and organization. Once more it was moving in its original direction of perpetual construction. The wife of a man named Colt thought the eternal building of the structure would assuage the ghosts of those slain by Colt's firearms. Now it was always being built on to because the women needed the enclosed and not-so-enclosed spaces.

[8.6]…The house was built in a never-ending pattern of cells, much like some creatures that built their shells larger as they grew larger. Where the cells met was where you found things like doors that opened into walls, and stairs that went up to a solid ceiling.

[8.7]Some rooms were made into homes, some stood empty, some were tiny nooks or large chambers with eight or twelve walls. There were many balconies, sun decks, air wells and women. Especially women.

[8.8]Some young, some old, some with children, some obviously lesbian, even a few of the vanishingly few who could not tolerate new cloned parts. Two humans in shorts passed us, and I knew what Seven did. Each had a Cyborg leg. Seven about choked to see the two Cyborged females climb past us on the stairs.

[8.9]The females of forty interstellar races met here. Some were naked, some were over- dressed, some lean, some fat, some lonely, some with lovers in hand. Battered wives came here, for no males were allowed. House computer also had on file abusive girlfriends and wives. This place was a refuge.

[8.10] The Women's House is based on the actual Winchester Mystery House in San Jose; California and Troi's description is accurate. The Winchester Mansion was constructed with the fortune of William Wirt Winchester, a Civil War arms manufacturer. After the death of her husband, Sarah Winchester believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of those who had been killed by her husband's firearms. She consulted a psychic medium, who said the ghosts wanted her to build onto her house by complex, and sometimes architecturally unsound, designs (May 1993). (This may have also been a nineteenth-century strategy for cultivating customer loyalty.) Ironically, spending became the means of assuaging a guilty conscience made wealthy by a fusing of militarism and capital. For this reason, the power of the story involves taking a structure created by capitalist inequalities (and the military-industrial complex) and instead using it as a system of feminist empowerment and collectivism. This parallels the possibility of self-consonance offered by naming and rejecting dysphoric conditions.

[8.11] Trans academic Bobby Noble (2012) describes his bodily changes not as a radical shift from one hermetic gender category into another but as "grafting."

[8.12] This picture of transed bodies as grafted, where one materialization is haunted by the other, as opposed to crossing or exiting, also allows me to articulate the radical dependencies that these identities (lesbian and trans guy or, to update the lexicon, female masculinity and transsexual masculinity) have for me but also with each other historically (the invert + the lesbian + the transsexual). (253)

[8.13] Noble is searching for a metaphor to describe the apparent dissonance between his history and continuing identification as a lesbian with his embodied reality as a "transsexual man" with a queer female partner. This is relevant for trans people as we disrupt the temporal and ontological unity of liberal personhood—that one always and already inhabits a set constellation of gendered and sexual categories—as it exposes the ruptures and contradictions within identity categories and finds new forms of authenticity within the interstices. This is important for the political project of disrupting the universal subjectivity of whiteness and masculinity, which is the goal of Noble's embodied practices and selfhood but can also be applied to imagining new forms of political self and subjectivity. This move is anticipated in the move from bodies to text within the article: "This is the body not as foundation but as archive; this is the same chest, the same body, the same. Flesh I have always known, only now its text is totally different" (253).

[8.14] The move from body to text must be a considered one, as trans bodies are too often appropriated into cultural texts—sometimes to posit that our embodiments constitute the end of history. However, when considered within political programs that are attentive to the agency of trans people and the multivocality of the trans community, this can be a useful lens for imagining and repurposing the structures and systems of the body politic. The body as archive is (not incidentally) reminiscent of Abigail Derecho's foundational theoretical paradigm for transformative works, which posits an archival theory of literature. The text is not an original with derivations but rather is composed of the many artifacts within its archive (2006). In The Flax Seed, the archive represents a narrative strategy with political potential.

[8.15] "Haunting" in Schultz is particularly relevant as haunting represents the historical impetus for the mansion's construction. Perhaps the haunting might be read as pangs of guilt for participation in an unjust system and yet at the same time signifies the failure to acknowledge the source of this guilt and therefore to produce consonant solutions. The ghosts, whether real or a projection of an internal struggle, continued to haunt Sarah Winchester, who was continually building onto the mansion until her death. However, The Flax Seed links the haunting to its root causes in capitalism and patriarchy, with the mansion reshaped into an autonomous, intersectional space. The consonance of united cause and response is euphoric; it resolves the dilemma that produced the mansion. But euphoria is not a fixed point. The Women's House is constantly growing, "like some creatures that build their shells as they get larger"—it is a space that gives marginalized people the opportunity to actualize themselves. And so euphoria operates synergistically, urging one to greater opportunities for consonance.

[8.16] The consonance sought by the dysphoric body politic is sought through the relief of naming the dissonance and rage against the structures which produce it. The expropriation and repurposing of these structures is euphoria. As seen in Bobby Noble's concept of a "grafted body," euphoria is not the successful erasure of history nor the production of complete alterity. It is only legible and possible with reference to the past. Euphoria and dysphoria, therefore, might be understood dialectically, as a warning dissonance and sought-after consonance. The dysphoric journey is asymptotic.

9. Seizing the means of imagination

[9.1] At its core, this essay is a call to action. I've excavated my experiences as a trans person to give fandom the tools to deepen its own search for consonance. My goal has been to problematize the conventions by which fans represent and consume the idea of fulfillment. Our most common tropes leave intact the systems that produce the impulse to escape them. So how might we, as artists and readers, seek out this feeling of fulfillment in a practical sense?

[9.2] First, we must reject the idea of our powerlessness. We are accustomed to the compartmentalization of political imagination by elites, but elites have disproportionately manufactured the climate emergency and the destabilization of democracy. It is therefore up to the rest of us to take stock of our individual and collective scope of action. We must also reject the toxic ideas that art is not a political labor and that transformative works are not art. Art is what we make of it. Having sloughed off the disempowering ideologies which do not serve, it is possible to comprehend one's power.

[9.3] Second, we must create a dialogue between embodied knowledge and meaning. The three affects described under the heading of dysphoria—relief, rage, and euphoria—are heuristics pointing one toward greater embodied knowledge. However, affects are ethically neutral; for example, mass shooters most likely feel a combination of them. This is why affect must be informed by learning and listening. Naming my own feelings of dissonance became possible when I was able to make sense of my emotions by listening to other trans people and reading theory. I encourage everyone to become more educated about trans issues, and the theoretical texts named in this essay are already a good start. At the same time, one might personalize these feelings by identifying and learning more about one's own marginalized identities. Most of us share some intersection of oppression based on our bodies, by gender, size, race, class, disability, sexuality, or some other. Anti-oppression scholarship in any of these areas gives names for the dissonances already felt and processed by our bodies. They also provide frameworks for reevaluating fan fiction narratives for problematic patterns they can reproduce.

[9.4] Rage, for many of us, requires unlearning internalized and ubiquitous tone policing. Many of us learn preconscious anger suppression as part of gender socialization. Even more of us learn to direct our feelings of rage away from their sources, especially when their sources hold a monopoly on legal use of force. However, if we acknowledge our rage, this can motivate us to deconstruct its causes and point us toward new possibilities. I've acknowledged the rage I feel at mass media for the lack of progress it's made in justice discourse since my childhood. Seeing this, I'm motivated to write stories that fulfill my desire for greater equity. Perhaps other fans identify with this feeling and can reflect it in fiction. The conventions of our medium are not fatally compromised—rather, they dare us to dream bigger.

[9.5] Which brings me to euphoria. Euphoria is not a place of arrival, if such a place exists. Rather, euphoria represents moments in which the productions of rage inspire feelings of consonance. And these euphoric moments are so powerful that they produce momentum, a desire for greater self-harmony. I had euphoric moments when I pursued gender confirmation care, but now this quality of euphoria comes through moments of collective transformation. This happens as an activist, but the vision for my activism comes from fiction. This is the crux of my argument—that fiction gives us a foretaste of what we're striving for. And fan fiction even more so because we are already engaged in the labor of reimagining and making new. Really imagining a transformed society may seem like an overwhelming responsibility, but it also gives us access to fulfillment that is otherwise impossible. When we seize the means of imagination, we widen the scope of fulfillment itself.

[9.6] Let's imagine a coffee shop AU fan fiction story through this lens. A worker's collective coffee shop is being illegally evicted from its rent-controlled commercial space because the landlord wants to sell to real estate developers. The workers are laden with student debts, have no safety nets, aren't eligible for unemployment, and are facing actual homelessness. They have no choice but to fight back. They unionize and join a living wage strike. The labor strike joins the student climate strikes and suddenly there's mass mobilization for a general strike. It's 2020, and the strike suddenly puts a massive social and economic overhaul on the political agenda. Ilhan Omar becomes the first female and Muslim US president, with a strong progressive mandate. Suddenly, the nation is mobilizing en masse for social and ecological justice: zero emissions, free university education, universal public health care, a universal basic income, and expropriative wealth redistribution. Tenants' rights are bolstered in every jurisdiction, so the coffee shop keeps its lease.

[9.7] Suddenly, it's as if a burden slips off—one that everyone had been carrying for so long that they'd assumed that it was a part of their bodies. But it had always been Other, a parasite that fed on their labors and grew fatter with their increasing insecurity. It slips off, wriggling and obscene as a leech. Suddenly, the vista of life opens to a spaciousness that had been unimaginable. Most of the workers quit the coffee shop to pursue what they'd always wanted—art, permaculture, service work in the global South, or just chilling out and taking a well-deserved opportunity to process the trauma that was Trump and late capitalism. Some stay at the coffee shop, realizing that without the coercion and devaluation of their labor, working with people and making latte art is actually fun. And this is all crystallized in the developing relationship of two queer coworkers. Under the old regime, they had a preconscious terror of acknowledging their feelings. Suddenly, they can name the old fears—discrimination, disinheritance, more precarity. And from their newfound place of security, they finally have cathartic queer sex. It starts with the formulaic one-two-three fingers, but as touches becomes playful, poignant, contemplative, there's a quality of embodied intimacy that is too new for words. But it's real. More real than anything they'd experienced before…

[9.8] It feels good to dream.

10. References

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