Like all fluids humans excrete, language is sticky. “Gender fluidity” and “post-identity” are two trending terms designed to thrust us into a queer-for-all future. Here to define, refine, and contextualize theme are five forward-thinkers—unisex fashion designer Telfar Clemens, trans magazine pro Amos Mac, ambi artist Andrea Crespo, androgyne A.L. Steiner, and hot chaos philosopher Harry Dodge on gender, identity, post, past, fluid, solid, hot, not, I, we, and other kinks of language.
Fiona Duncan: What do “gender fluidity” and “post-identity” mean to you—personally, professionally, and/or culturally?
Telfar Clemens: I would think “gender fluidity” refers to a free-flowing perception of gender. I’m not familiar with “post-identity” as a common term, but to me, it would be an identity that you adopt after your original identity assignment.
Amos Mac: Personally, the term “gender fluidity” makes me think about those who do not have a “binary” experience with their gender. It doesn’t always have to be in one space—it can shift and be in constant motion. In the past, I’ve had people assume I’m “gender fluid” because I’m transgender, while my experience is actually pretty opposite. “Post-identity” sounds like a lovely catch phrase for my next business card, but I don’t really know what it means. It’s also interesting to think of this on the flip side: “post-gender” and “identity-fluid.”
A.L. Steiner: In my bio, I’ve always described myself in terms of gender, which has been a long-term experiment, although I’m not sure exactly where it’s led [laughs]. I describe myself as an “androgyne.” The word itself is useful or interesting to me because it’s talking about a fluidity that’s constant. “Androgyne” is slippery, while highlighting terms for the body, and it’s an etymologically fun puzzle, which I really like about it. I’m really most interested in being present within a context or a moment or a time, and that’s where I see gender being relevant. There’s this really nice quote by Lucy Lippard where she breaks the self into three parts: the body, soul, and the self. From her essay “The Scattering Self”: “The relationship between self and body varies within any single life. Body first determines self. Then self determines the body’s posture and adornments, and to some extent its physical characteristics… Identity, on the other hand, is more often imposed or arrived at collectively, compressed between internal and external needs and demands. Aside from a ‘proper’ name, identity (class, race, gender, vocation, sexual, geographic, and religious preference) is both predetermined and an ideological choice. Projected identities are a group phenomenon.”
Harry Dodge: First off, I don’t know what anything means. I eschew hubris. It seems to me that so many categorical words end up making cookie cutter ideas. Sure, they’re easy to throw around, and speed is fucking awesome for variety’s sake, but these categorical words are mostly useless because as one-word descriptors, they arrive with no ability to precisely or accurately convey any condition, situation, or flow that was at issue in the first place. See Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or Neils Bohr’s idea that science isn’t about nature, but about describing nature in the state of being observed and measured, or even Adorno’s idea of “non-identity,” which is what he calls the stuff that’s left over after you make a concept, the oomph and filigree that remains unconfined by your formed thought.
Now, having briefly mentioned my reservations and hinted at my turmoil, I’ll try to answer. For me, when I use the words “gender-fluid” (although I want to wretch talking about gender at all), I’m trying to say that I don’t sit in any position in relation to a “gender identity.” It flows. I flow. But really it crackles and pops and flips, so how fluid is that? I should say “gender fractal” or maybe just “roadkill” or “burnt bacon” or “rain” or “stacked” or “simultaneous” or “grainy,” or my spirit is anal-fist-fucked by a volcano of thuggish, ecstatic-leggy becomings with a french fry poking out of the top. I say “gender-fluid” sometimes as a repulsive shorthand, simply in order to tell you that I don’t have an experience of “man” or (maybe even) “woman.” We’re pressured to be in relation and response to this binary. It’s deeply disciplinary, and I am so fucking tired of talking about it, being in relation to it. Other people are so addled and excited to see people with interesting gender expressions that it’s all they can think about when they’re in front of you. It’s a kind of ongoing sense that I’m overwhelming everyone, or that I am dancing while we talk, but I’m not. I’m trying to get you to think about something with me, hopefully something that is actually interesting to me. Like sociality, electromagnetic flow, specificity, the sensual pleasures of thinking, particle physics, sedimentary rock, turbulence, love as QFT, and fried chicken—the way it cooks in flows, the water inside the item that’s being deep-fried boils, and the vapor pushes outward wanting to travel toward the surface.
As for “post-identity,” while I’m interested in the idea that culturally-constructed categories are violently general, and have been used as red herring differences (other-ing) to fragment the oppressed and keep us fighting for scraps, there is something about certain of these new current notions of “post-identitarianism” that lately, in practice, are promulgating a kind of homogenizing, color-blinded, fascistic mode. I’m interested in DIFFERENCE, not sameness. I’m interested in profusion, not minimalism. I’m really fucking amped up by the idea of cultivating difference in solidarity. I’m interested in flow, and in relation as the forming force. To paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari: “Collisions explain everything.”
Andrea Crespo: We like to change our gender fluid every day for extended mileage. We usually keep the fluids or essences in properly labeled containers; this makes them easily and instantly shareable. They do not override sexual difference.
FD: Could you clarify your use of the plural pronoun “we”?
AC: We are many, it helps us regulate and keep sane.
FD: I love that. I also love Harry’s idea of encouraging difference in solidarity. Identity, etymologically, stems from Latin and French words meaning “sameness” or “oneness.” As a fashion follower, when I think of identity, I think of infinite little semiotic differences, like subcultural codes of dress and identity, like cyber goth, gabbers, hippie punk, lipstick lesbian, etc. These codes are designed to express sameness and difference at the same time. For me, “post-identity” might mean moving past the idea that selfhood is one or whole, and with that, this idea that one can represent oneself in a fixed sign, like in one look, saying “I am femme,” or even, “I am an artist.” Both “gender fluidity” and “post-identity” are terms I personally would love to forget about, though, as they reaffirm the concepts they are trying to move away from. Still, I love language. I’m wondering if we can imagine new ways to address such ideas? For example, I’ve been thinking about this Native American language, Nootka, that I learned of from Alan Watts, in which there are no nouns, only verbs and adverbs; all that is described are actions and relations, so we could just be fluid, no “gender” needed. Another approach might be, rather than doing away with nouns, multiplying them, as we get with Facebook’s 71 gender options. How do you approach language traps like “gender” or “identity”? Do you even see them as traps?
HD: I’m with you on all this. I’m slowly developing an affection for nouns, as I deepen my lifelong practice of considering and experiencing even seemingly “inanimate” matter or “things” as agentic. This is kind of an offshoot from the concept of a plural subject, you know, part of that stream of thought is based on this fundamental interrogation of the seemingly immutable “subject/object” or “actor/acted upon” binaries. I’m absolutely interested in scale, continuum, the brackets of our human senses and the real-life goings-on that remain out of the field of our perception. That includes infrared light, cliff face erosion, the desire of lightning, love, quantum entanglement, and the coil of time.
“Gender identity flows. Really it crackles and pops and flips.”
AM: I’m all for creating new language and words—specifically around identity, if you don’t feel like you fit with a term that has already been created and thrown around. I usually don’t approach language traps. I stay away from labels and let people speak for themselves. I try never to assume anything in regards of other people’s gender, and I’m not someone who tells people what they can or cannot say or identify with, online or off. I mind my own business.
AS: One of the holdovers from the activism that I participated in the 1990s is about checking oneself a lot—that’s the call for movements like Black Lives Matter, and continuing conversations around erasure, violence and genocide, as well as privilege. And there’s always an attempt to systematically disappear such efforts by reactionary ideologues. Cultural and physical erasure are part of a violence towards bodies, and so language is power, knowledge is power. There’s no way around it. There’s no way to counter psychological, physical and cultural violence, oppression, suppression, and injustice without language and voice.
AC: The fluids sputter into a centripetal, computationally driven vortex, releasing little droplets which crystallize into a sort of pollen or fertile dust. At this point, they either directly infect a host (rare) or begin to multiply and interweave along the contours of various desiring circuits. They entangle their prey in their sturdy but flexible semiotic webs, luring them with libidinal mists, affirmative identity politics, and lavender essences. Nevertheless, I feel very alienated by LGBT/Queer® and its genderist doctrines. I’d rather focus on embodied and material operations that can’t be talked about in terms of identity, queerness, or cartesian gender fluids.
FD: What language(s) do you operate with then, Andrea?
AC: Patterns and mimesis. An occasional mutation or two.
FD: Telfar, you are a label in a way. Or, you’ve made a label out of yourself. How much of Telfar the person is in Telfar the brand? Would you say you “identify” with your brand?
TC: I 100% identify with the brand. It’s how I specifically have dressed and styled myself. It includes language, practices, and jokes that are specific to my style of living, as well as images of my face, and it’s named after me. It’s 100% about me.
FD: Could you speak to the gender of your label? TELFAR is often identified as a menswear brand, but you regularly show your clothes on female and androgynous bodies. What would you say is the gender of your brand?
TC: TELFAR is a genderless brand mostly focusing on functionality, but in terms of construction and some sizing, it does have a focus on traditionally masculine practices of clothing construction, even while fusing elements of women’s wear. For example, the side that I place buttons is traditionally masculine, but then I might use a specific detail mostly seen on women’s garments in a non-traditional functional way. I feel these aspects vary from collection to collection, but over time, it’s become its own language relating to the fluidity of fashion.
FD: Telfar’s clothing is sexy to me, I think because it perverts norms, like by cutting up uniforms, uniforms being porn-fare: the hot plumber, delivery man, security guard. I’m wondering what it is about norms—there must be something hot about them if humanity keeps reproducing them, if only to break with them.
AC: It sounds like norms are just more likely to sexually imprint us. My imprints are way off, so I find mitosis to be so much hotter than gender. I think meiosis is really traumatizing though, as it leads to sexual difference.
“I’m all for creating new words but I stay away from labels.”
AS: I think the idea of tension—of push and pull—is so critical to what we find fetishistic, what we find comforting, what turns us on. While the interior world of fantasy is a vast abyss of production and meaning, the external world has a lot of investment, literally and figuratively, in promoting and producing archetypes and rigidity; basically, marketing value. The implementation of standardization and institutionalization of sexuality was a mechanism of the Industrial Revolution. Ideas of normativity are beholden to it; the nuclear family, as well as hetero and homosexuality emerged very much out of this. But if we are thinking about revolutionary ideas around gender and sexuality, desire is a core part of that revolution. Focusing our languages solely on civic institutions like marriage and the military purposefully subverts liberation into institutional structures. We can’t counter patriarchal oppression and its violences and aggressions directed at our bodies unless we can talk about the liberation of our bodies. I think liberation requires manifestations of desire in language and action. It’s obvious that nothing’s more threatening to the oppressive order than the noncompetitive intimacy of bodies. The more desirous we are of, and disciplined by, the means of productions and reproductions of crapitalism’s destructive marching orders, the further away we are from liberation from those orders.
FD: I recently read this quote from Michael Taussig: “Always a step ahead of conscious awareness, fashion makes language race to keep up.” Which reminded me of José Esteban Muñoz’s idea in Cruising Utopia that, “aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.” All of the artists in this panel I consider time travelers, fortune tellers, forward thinkers: practicing future truths through aesthetic. What do you foresee in, or envision for, the future, based on the aesthetics of today?
TC: I foresee clarity through information and even more confusion due to information, and time repeating itself in all ways. I think this will shape culture and determine what’s socially accepted.
AM: I see a lot of denim, cracked iPhone screens, recycled gifs, untouched paper, genderless identities and post-trans experiences.
HD: Abolish money. No more financial debt. All of that stress is replaced by this ecstatic idea of obligation, roiling interconnection. I like Fred Moten’s and Stefano Harney’s idea in The Undercommons: “We owe each other indeterminacy. We owe each other everything.” But let’s be living it now. Realize we’ve been living it.
AS: Lately I’m thinking a lot about monologue and the interior voice, and what that can produce. I’m thinking about the inside, I guess. That’s the next step to José’s call, for me—to explain the interior in more detail and more adeptly than I have.
AC: To reiterate, the futurities we are interested in aren’t queer. We are more interested in teratological and machinic futurities that are beyond the scope of the popular queer imaginary but nevertheless imminent. An autistic or machinic aesthetic rather than a queer aesthetic. Our future may very well be radically weird, but that doesn’t necessarily make it queer. Queer does not hold a monopoly over all differences and potencies.
FD: Andrea, imminent or already here or both? I’m thinking about William Gibson’s oft-quoted “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Could you give me an example of the futurities you are interested in? What does or might an autistic or machinic aesthetic look like?
AC: Both. It spins like a fan. Sways and whirrs, perhaps a few erratic motions and automatisms. Even hug machines.
“Nothing’s more threatening to the oppressive order than the noncompetitive intimacy of bodies.”
FD: What do people think about the trendiness of concepts like “gender-fluidity” or “post-identity”? (I’d relate it to the increasing visibility and press coverage of transgenderism and other queer modes in pop culture and fashion.) To be honest, I’m ambiguously uncomfortable with the topic, like it’s a physical discomfort, not a simple, rational one. I think this has to do with a discomfort with saleable identity, like branded, commodified selfhood; the reduction of the complexity of being to a #tag or product. But then I have days when I’m really pumped! Does anyone else feel discomforted? Optimistic? What does it mean for a concept to trend?
TC: I actually think that there’s nothing wrong with this concept being a trend. It’s more interesting than most news and visuals I see daily. I think that’s why mass media and the general public are finding a way to brand and categorize gender identity: there’s an audience. I think if people can categorize or generalize something, it makes them feel like they have insight into a topic they actually know nothing about. I feel this is the way media works, which is the weird and funny thing to me, because it’s supposed to be informational. I think confusion causes a shift toward another alternative way of thinking, which I feel will happen, with individual minds that will defy the stereotypes of trending topics.
AM: It takes me so long to untangle the language when it comes to a certain discourse around these concepts. I’m usually uncomfortable when I’m asked about gender and identity at this point in my career; I can’t help but feel like a broken record. Just by talking about “gender fluidity” on this platform, we are moving the conversation forward—which conversation, I don’t know. In regards to trending, it can be exhausting to talk about the same stuff over and over again, but I do understand that when a topic is trending, it is part of my job as an artist who focuses on the visual stories and created spaces of trans and gender non-conforming beings. When a trans concept is trending high—which it always is, as we are in the middle of a trans civil rights movement right now—even if I’m in one of my anti-social media off-the-radar kicks, I can usually tell because my personal inbox gets flooded with requests for quotes or feelings, and I have to dig into my “stock trans answers” file folder so I can find something new to say and appear relevant and intelligent. Gender talk, and specifically trans visibility, has been trending for a few years now, but it’s getting bigger in terms of mass media stuff. I’m pretty optimistic that any day now, this won’t be interesting to anyone any more: gender fluidity, non-binary and trans experiences will be accepted, and the focus will be on our survival and treatment as humans with the same rights as everyone else, rather than it being just another hot topic.
Fiona Duncan is a writer and artist living between Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. She is a regular contributor at Adult, Sex Magazine, and Texte Zur Kunst, and can be found online @fifidunks.
Telfar Clemens (Liberian-American, b. 1985) is a fashion designer and artist. Launched in 2004, Telfar's namesake label incorporates unisex designs with the principles of comfortable sportswear and "simplexity".
Amos Mac (American, b. 1979) lives and works in New York as a photographer, writer, editor and publisher. In 2009, Mac co-founded Original Plumbing, the seminal quarterly publication documenting the culture of transgender men.
Andrea Crespo (American, b. 1993) lives and works in New York. A recent graduate of Pratt Institute, current interests include neuroscience, fandom/roleplay culture, and posthuman embodiments.
Harry Dodge (American, b. 1966) is a Los Angeles-based artist and writer. Recent exhibitions include the critically-acclaimed solo show, "The Cybernetic Fold" at Wallspace Gallery, New York (2015).
A.L. Steiner (American, b. 1967) is an artist who lives in work in Los Angeles. She's a collective member of Chicks on Speed, co-curator of Ridykeulous, and cofounder + Board member of Working Artists and Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.).
Amos Mac, Kinnon (for Original Plumbing magazine), 2014, Courtesy of the artist
Telfar, Spring/Summer 2015
A.L. Steiner, More Real Then Reality Itself (sketch detail), 2014, Courtesy of the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York