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ContraPoints on ‘The Aesthetic’

by Jonathan J Galloway

An Unexpected Pastime

One thing I’ve done a surprising amount of recently is watching YouTube videos. That’s partly because my grandmother uses our television to watch old Inspector Poirot DVDs, but in some ways I can’t deny it’s also because in my year as a graduate student of English, reading has become a strangely anxious experience for me.

But nonetheless, YouTube has become an unexpected pastime and I became more invested in YouTube as a media format after I discovered some surprisingly ‘theoretical’ channels. There was, for example, Lindsay Ellis’s short YouTube series, The Whole Plate, where she explains several theoretical lenses (Marxism, Feminism, Queer Theory, to name a few) by applying them in an informed critique of Michael Bay’s Transformers film series. In quite a number of her videos Ellis jokes about trying ‘to make the video essay a thing’, and most of her videos are indeed sustained critiques or analyses of various pop-cultural objects. But, for all this, Ellis’s videos are not in themselves explicitly political: Ellis tackles cultural objects, not political topics, per se. But a lot of YouTube is of course focused on discussing political topics, and the medium can be genuinely informative. One of the political YouTubers I’ve been watching a lot of is Natalie Wynn, better known by her channel name, ContraPoints. Wynn is often considered a spokesperson for part of the contemporary American new-left, and her videos focus on topics such as race, capitalism, ideology, queer identity, and discussing the recent emergence of a new alt-right presence on YouTube. Many of her videos also relate to her personal experience as a trans woman, and these are often conducted loosely in review of or in engagement with certain theoretical frameworks. 

Wynn’s latest video was uploaded on 19 September (2018), titled simply “The Aesthetic | ContraPoints”. The video was in some part controversial amongst Wynn’s usual fanbase at the time of its release, in no small part due to its controversial handling of already controversial subject matter.

 

Tracy Mounts in ‘Colour Praxis’

Wynn starts off her video with a brief introductory segment. This occurs even before the title screen appears, and features Wynn as “Tracy Mounts”, a character that appears to be in drag or at least visually and performatively styled through the aesthetic of drag. Wynn frequently creates characters for her videos – a point I should emphasise. Through creating several on-screen characters Wynn plays with a sense of ventriloquism, a displacement of her voice that allows her to investigate and engage with different ideas and philosophies in varied ways. Many of her videos feature heated debates between two or more of her created characters, but it is not always necessarily Wynn (or, ContraPoints) herself who is talking.

So, the video opens with Tracy Mounts:

Hi girls! I’m Tracy Mounts, guest host of ContraPoints, the internet show where we talk about sadness, fascism, sexual deviation, cults. This week we’ll be talking about (pops tongue) colours!

Colours! What the fuck are they? …Now according to some so-called experts, colour is really different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. But what about the shadow illusion? Same wavelength, different colours. Some people say I’m a man dressed as a lady, but I’m actually a lady who used to be a man, dressed as a man dressed as a lady. Explain that, Professor Butler. Illusions! What matters more? The way things are, or the way things look?

Here ContraPoints is framing what will be the primary topic of The Aesthetic, namely, that the video concerns the relation between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ as it bears on transgender identity. When Tracy Mounts refers to herself as “a lady who used to be a man, dressed as a man dressed as a lady”, she is playing with the notion that her drag persona is, in a sense, presenting itself as a gendered illusion: when drag is considered a mode of male queer performativity, a woman performing drag slightly destabilises the performance, and this is considerably complicated when that woman is specifically a trans woman: who is then essentially considered to be historically a man who transitioned into a woman who is now, as a woman, performing a man performing a woman. It’s not necessarily that Mounts’ thinks this example seems to defy Butler’s theories of gender as performativity: rather, it’s a moment in which Mounts stretches the boundaries of the theory, pushing it in a sense towards its limits. The point appears not necessarily to be to refute the theory, but rather to try and test it. A discussion of ‘the aesthetic’, the way things look, as it relates to gender identity is fundamentally a discussion of performativity, and in this way ContraPoints is engaging with the ideas of Judith Butler, but, more importantly, ContraPoints poses the question of gender performativity specifically as it relates to transgender identity. However, as the video develops it becomes clear that the issue at hand is not only performativity, but also that of recognition – but more on that later.

Tracy Mounts then suggests to the audience that we should watch an informational video to learn more. Ominous electronic music plays and the camera zooms in on Mounts’s small television set. Depicted then is a brief segment of ‘The Freedom Report’, a fictional show hosted by another of Wynn’s created characters, Jackie Jackson. Jackson is hosting a debate between a liberal cis woman, Abigail Cockbane, and a radical leftist anarchist trans woman named Tabby – all played by Wynn. The climax of the relatively short segment is that Abigail eventually refers to Tabby as “clearly a biological male in some sort of costume wig” and even goes as far as to purposefully misgender Tabby by referring to her snidely as “sir”. Tabby struggles to respond and says only “that’s a human rights violation – I’ll smash your fucking face”. Abigail Cockbane then uses Tabby’s emotive response as an example to argue that ‘transgender ideology’ is violent towards the liberty of freedom of speech.

 

I’m trying to help you girl - If you don’t want to get misgendered it helps to fem it up a little”

The remainder of the video consists predominantly of a conversation between Tabby and her friend Justine: taking place after Tabby’s appearance on ‘The Freedom Report’, it appears to be Justine’s attempt to comfort her friend by inviting her for tea.

Justine’s advice to Tabby is essentially that she should consider the way that she is perceived aesthetically as a woman. Justine’s point is that Tabby should work on her ‘performing womanhood’ – it wasn’t that Tabby acted morally wrong in her ‘failed’ debate, instead, Justine claims that “worse, it was aesthetically wrong”. Tabby disapproves of the idea that reality should be taken at surface level, but Justine tries to convince her that even though truth matters, identity itself is situated in the realm of politics, and ‘our America, our Internet’, as the domain of politics, is experiencing itself as an age of aesthetics:

T: This is all you ever say to me. “It’s bad optics, it’s bad aesthetics.” Well is reality better at all to you? Because the reality is that I am a woman, and maybe a bunch of ignorant people don’t think I look like one, but the way things look isn’t all that matters

J: Tabby, this is politics. Have you ever had a conversation with the average voter? Reality plays no role in politics. Politics is aesthetics.

T: “Politics is aesthetics?” That’s literally what fascism is. Have you ever read Benjamin? “Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” – the military parades, the pageantry – “and communism responds by politicising art”

J: Look, instead of trying to make art into propaganda, why don’t we fight the pageantry of fascism with pageantry of our own? … Look, the point I’m trying to make is that the world we live in is not a philosophical world. Think about Instagram. It’s all about transforming your life into an enviable spectacle. If you cry yourself to sleep every night who cares? No one sees that – they only see the show you’re putting on.

T: Okay but life is not a show.

J: Mmm. Politics is a show. (ominous music starts playing) Look around you Tabby, try to understand what’s happening to the world. The president of the United States is a reality TV star. The 21st century is an aesthetic century. In history there are ages of reason and there are ages of spectacle, and it’s important to know which you’re in. Our America, our Internet, is not ancient Athens – it’s Rome – and your problem is that you think you’re in the forum when you’re really in the circus.

Justine’s point is that in the modern world appearances have become increasingly important. But this underlies another point: namely, that identity exists to a large degree in the public eye, more specifically, that there is some part of the “I” that is not entirely within the subject’s agency alone. This echoes Butler’s idea of recognition: in Ferrarese’s words, “From the outset, the question at the heart of Butler’s thinking is the non-ownership of self: ‘One comes to ‘‘exist’’ by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the Other’” (Ferrarese 761). For Butler there is a (structural) Other that must recognise the subject in order for the subject to even exist as subject.

In some ways it is important to understand that by this point the dominant topic of the video has already become recognition. Although the video does engage with ideas of performativity, the main issue itself progresses towards the idea that the subject’s identity rests in the recognition by the Other. The idea is not necessarily that trans women are all play-acting: rather, ContraPoints establishes a discussion of why performance is important to trans women identities, and that question inevitably has to due with the fragility of identity that lies on the necessity of recognition by the Other.

Justine then goes on to mention a debate between another trans woman YouTuber, Blair White, and ‘that YouTuber with the pink wig’. This is in fact a reference to a debate that ContraPoints had herself engaged in with Blair White (published on 19 April 2017, on Blaire White’s channel, under the title “Heated Debate w/ Genderqueer Feminist”):

J: Do you remember that debate between Blair White and that YouTuber with the pink wig, what was her name? I dunno – she was relevant back in 2017. Anyway, this was before she had transitioned and in that debate Blaire looked like she had two X chromosomes and the other one looked like this awkward dude in an anime wig not looking at the camera. The pink wig lost that debate so bad. It was embarrassing to watch.

T: Not really. I mean, she was right – and her arguments were better.

J: (cackle) Ah, Tabby. Sweetie, honey, angel, darling, princess, baby. Arguments don’t matter. How pretty you are matters.

T: Is this really where you’re going with this?

J: If you’re a transwoman in the public eye, what matters is one thing and one thing only. And its always been the thing that matters.

T: What?

J: The realness. Verisimilitude. You have to look like a fucking woman. We don’t say it in public, but we all know it, and we all feel it.

T: What does it even mean to look like a woman?

J: We all know what it means.

T: I don’t know what it means. Women have a lot of different looks. There are bald women, bearded women, muscular women, wide-shouldered women –

J: And what is society’s opinion of those bald, bearded, wide-shouldered women?

Tabby questions Justine’s ‘idea of womanhood’, but ultimately Justine asserts that there is nonetheless a societal expectation for the performance of womanhood – that is, that there are certain societal (although not necessarily naturalised) conditions for the recognition of womanhood. This is what Butler refers to as ‘the differential distribution of recognizability’:

I want to argue that there are schemes of recognition that determine in a relative sense who will be regarded as a subject worthy of recognition. We can call this the differential distribution of recognizability. As such, we see that issues of power and inequality are central to the articulation of any ‘scene’ of recognition. Moreover, if recognition is fully lacking, that is, a life is unrecognized, is refused recognition, and has no standing before the law, or is deprived of legal rights and protections, then that life is actually imperilled by the lack of recognition (Butler in Willig 140)

In some sense this condition for the possibility of recognition precedes the performative act itself: “the discursive condition of social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of the subject: recognition is not conferred on a subject, but forms that subject” (Butler, Bodies That Matter 226). Justine’s point here is that, ultimately, the recognition of society (the big ‘Other’) does have an influence on the identity of the subject. Women who are not recognised as women in a sense do not ‘exist’ as women in the public eye. If recognition is not granted then the very agency of the subject – the very ‘humanity’ of the subject – is under threat: “Imagine the quite plausible scene in which one is called by a name and one turns around only to protest the name. ... And then imagine that the name continues to force itself upon you, to delineate the space you occupy, to construct a social positionality. . . Indifferent to your protests, the strength of interpellation continues to work” (Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative 33).

Justine then elaborates on what it means for a trans woman to be ‘performing womanhood’. This is also the section in which Judith Butler is herself explicitly referenced:

T: Who puts on that much make up to drink tea at home?

J: Good banter, well done. But transwomen have to overdo it. You need to be so good at make up that every cis woman you know comes to you for advice. (ominous music starts playing) You need to toss our hair and cross your legs. You need to smile, even at people who hate you. Eliminate every aggressive impulse. You must be a blossom floating along the surface of a stream. Your hands are not tools, they are ornaments on the ends of your arms.

T: So you literally are what TERFs[1] think trans women are. Literally a man’s idea of a woman.

J: Well, men have the power, men make the rules, and it’s ultimately men who are the judges of womanhood. So, you can’t really blame me for having to deal with that situation.

T: I can blame you for dealing with it by demanding that we all conform to a bunch of ridiculous stereotypes.

J: Not stereotypes. Performances. You like philosophy so much, haven’t you read Judith Butler? Gender is performance. We're all born naked and the rest is literally drag. Womanhood is not what you are, it's what you do. And trans women have to be virtuosos of womaning.

T: So according to you there's no difference between a trans woman and a drag queen?

J: No, you're misinterpreting what I'm saying. I don't mean performance in the sense of pretending to be something you're not. I mean performance in the sense of everything you do, the way you style yourself, your posture, the way you speak. An authentic performance is just a habitual performance, and nothing more than that.

T: So trans women just starting their transition are pretending to be women?

J: I mean, isn't that kind of what it felt like? You transition the same way you get anywhere in life: you fake it till you make it.

T: So according to you a trans woman is just a full-time drag queen.

J: That's what any woman is.

T: What about gender non-conforming cis women? They're not "doing womanhood" in that way.

J: Well, yeah, that's why those women are marginalized. They're going off the grid of what society recognizes as womanhood. And you don't want to end up like that, do you?

To Justine ‘performing womanhood’ means performing womanhood within a discourse that precedes it. More particularly, performing womanhood is in some senses also to perform a certain discourse – but that is only as much as saying that performativity is a discursive act. To Justine, the ‘idea’ of womanhood exists, in a sense, outside of actual women: that is, womanhood is in part established by the societal recognition of it, and that recognition in turn locates itself within an already established network of power.  Women that are outside the ‘idea of womanhood’, that is, the conditions society has placed for recognition of womanhood – these women are essentially marginalised, that is, that society does not recognise their womanhood as reality.

Tabby seems to be able to accept this, but still argues that a performative theory of gender cannot necessarily account for why trans people exist in the first place:

T: Look, your performance theory doesn't explain why trans people exist in the first place. If gender is just a bunch of learned behaviours, then why did we reject our male upbringing and decide to live as women? What matters is that we identify as women. We can express that identity in different ways, but it's the identity, not the performance, that makes us women.

J: But you can't be a woman without performing womanhood. Without action, and without social recognition, the identity is meaningless. If womanhood is nothing to you but a private daydream, then you may as well do what those assholes say and identify as a helicopter. Because unless you're living womanhood, the identity is literally that meaningless.

T: That's very unfair to pre-transition trans people. Identifying as a woman before you transition is a psychological reality that implies a potential to live your inner truth. No one has ever sincerely identified as a helicopter, it's just a troll example.

J: True. But even if they were sincere there would be no reality to it because helicopter is not an actual social role. Whereas you can become a teacher, a doctor, or a woman. But you have to work to get there, and ultimately, society has to let you.

T: But that analogy means that our womanhood can be revoked at any moment, all it takes is being misgendered.

J: It's scary, but isn't that the situation we're in? Why did you get so angry when that TERF called you "sir"? Isn't it because in that situation she robbed you of your womanhood?

T: That's ridiculous. I am a woman. That's my reality. It doesn't depend on other people's opinions.

J: I know you're a woman. I'm just saying that in that one moment, you effectively had your gender cancelled. Another way of looking at it is gender is aesthetic, not rational. Either you're perceived as a woman or you aren't. There's no reasoning your way into it.

In this section ContraPoints is utilising her two on-screen characters to convey a kind of tension: there is an anxiety between being and being-recognised-as-being. Tabby’s point is ultimately true: performative theory cannot necessarily explain why people identify in certain ways, but then again Justine’s point cuts across any illusion of complete agency in identity. Even the potential to ‘live your truth’ is bound to the same fundamental fragility as the subject’s recognition by the Other. The notion of ‘in that moment effectively having your gender cancelled’ shows exactly that fragility in action: ultimately the identity of the subject does not entirely lie within the agency of the subject. This is a ‘tension’ because ultimately the goal is still to live your inner truth, but doing so fundamentally also means putting your humanity in the hands of the structural Other. In Butler’s words:

We are born into a world in which those conventions are already operating, so we enter those conventions – or they enter us – without a strong sense of choice. Certain quandaries follow: is it myself that I present, when I make use of those conventions that make human subjects recognizable, or am I in some ways making myself interchangeable through the use of those conventions, and even deflecting from what may not be easily expressed within the existing norms that govern who is recognizable and who is not? What part of my speech is thus conformist, and what part is expressive of who I am? Is it possible that these two issues are necessarily confounded? (Butler in Willig 141, my emphasis).

 

Proximity of Difference

When I originally stumbled onto ContraPoints’s channel I remembered what ‘brought me there’ was an interest in similar kinds of philosophical theory. Wynn often creates content relating to Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, and so on – and she usually does so with a refreshingly relevant application based in modern culture[2]. But what kept me watching was in fact a kind of sincerity. Not only did I find her channel to be very informative, but I also found Wynn’s creation of her content to be a very earnest act: as one would say of a film, ‘it has heart’.

My own personal experience of hearing/seeing ContraPoints’s sincere disclosure of the difficulties of trans woman identity in a sense evokes for me another of Butler’s concepts – that of proximity to difference:

When Judith Butler writes about a proximity of difference she is contemplating the value that lies in moments of uncomfortability and unfamiliarity. To Butler this is a moment in which one finds one’s self “disturbed by the proximity of the unfamiliar, the proximity of difference that makes me work to forge new ties of identification and to reimagine what it is to belong to a human community in which common epistemological and cultural grounds cannot always be assumed” (Butler, Precarious Life 38).

For Butler “the very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the Other” (Butler, Precarious Life 23), and so, these moments  which unsettle the relation between the ‘I’ and the Other – these moments will always point us back to ourselves, and back to ourselves both as bodies and as body-concepts, and as friends and as lovers, and as individuals and as members of families and communities.

What I mean by this is that for me a lot of ContraPoints videos offer a valuable theoretical point of contact with the ‘big ‘Other’’. I do not mean that I am uncomfortable watching ContraPoint’s videos – I thoroughly enjoy them – but through her own sincere disclosure of her own experiences my own ‘self’ is brought into question: that is, that the “I” watching is called into question by the relation opened up through many of Wynn’s videos. In a sense it is my identity as a cisgendered man in relation to other (gender) identities that has the potential to now become for me a point of inquiry. I am ‘unsettled’ in as far as my reality, and perhaps more specifically, my own personal engagement with theory, is brought into question. Another way to say this is to say that this contact point “challenges the foreclosure of [my] ‘reality’” (Butler in Willig 142). Above all, ContraPoints is a channel that is essentially educative: although I am certain for Natalie Wynn herself the boundaries between entertainment and education are valuably contestable, the fact remains that her videos are, at the end of the day, sincere reflections and responses to elements of modern experience. If I mean that they teach through a proximity to difference, then I only mean that they end up teaching because they are sincere, because they are fundamentally and undeniably human, that is, human life.

 

[1] ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’

[2] But it should be noted that more often than not this has been predominantly centred around American culture.

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