It was when I was in grad school that I first started wanting essays to be performative, probably because that's when I first got the language. I’m not a theorist of any sort, although I do enjoy reading theory for the sounds of the words and then improperly applying the ideas to my own thinking. I started with the easiest idea of performativity, like how “I decline the cupcake” performs and so completes the declination of the cupcake. Performative words seemed like hypercharged language to me, and so I wanted all language to have that charge, to do something by saying it. Incantations. Dictee read with this energy. Some of Kathy Acker, some Akilah Oliver. This is also a time in my life when I would wear that tee shirt that says “Not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you” and has a picture of a housewife with a gun on it. It was important to me to wear the shirt then but I’d probably be embarrassed to wear it now, even though I guess my relation to the sentiment hasn’t much changed. As I read more about the performative, it brought me to the expected places (Butler, Muñoz), and the emphasis on the action of language continued to excite me. Readers often talk about the essay by talking about description, and in particular on faithful and true descriptions of reality. The essay as a lens. To want my essays to be performative means that I care less about what and how they describe and more about what they do. Because essays do something, even when they’re describing.
It’s what is done by the essay “Before/After, 2009-Present” that makes me love it. The essay is by Z Drucker and A.L. Steiner and is available on Art F City. It is part of IMG MGMT, “an image-based artist essay series,” the whole of which is worth checking out. Drucker is maybe better known as Zackary Drucker, and she is an artist who works in performance, photography, video, and the like. Steiner works in similar forms and is also part of a collective band, Chicks on Speed. “Before/After, 2009-Present” alternates between either a single photo or photo diptychs of the artists and True or False statements, such as “Being in the feminine role is a super-pleasure for me,” “In the feminine role, I am exclusively attracted to women,” and “I have taken female hormones regularly for six months or longer.” When you respond to a statement and click on either “T” or “F,” it changes from pink to grey. And when you reach the bottom of the essay, you get the result of your quiz. “YOUR ANSWERS INDICATE THAT GENDER IS A DRAG” is one possible result. Another is “YOUR ANSWERS INDICATE THAT YOU SHOULD READ SOME JUDITH BUTLER OR MONIQUE WITTIG.”
It would be difficult to find words that don’t do something, of course. Even when I get frustrated with words and they feel flimsy they still do something. What has been useful to me, in those frustrated moments, is to look straight at the speech acts that don’t seem to do anything, to stare at them and see what they do. I have a heart tattooed on my middle finger, for instance, and I forget that it’s there most of the time, and really it means about nothing to me, less than most of my tattoos. But there it is all day, doing something anyway. Or if I’m in a bad mood and the guy I live with says “It’s really nice outside today,” that will probably push me into a worse mood rather than make me happier for some reason.
I can better think about what the Drucker/Steiner essay does if I think about what its component parts do first. The photographs are excerpted from a parallel project, also called “Before/After,” and are at first glance highly gendered. Drucker and Steiner in these self-portraits are doing gender, are iterating it, in the way Butler talks about performing gender (opening a door is also a way to do gender, as is sleeping). But more importantly than that, I think, I see two friends playing together. They are using performance as a way to have fun, and as a result what the performative does in the images is not to create a fixed and repetitive thing (gender), but instead a thing that is destabilized by being performed (gender). The title of “Before/After” also recalls the excessive pop culture depictions of people transitioning genders in which stereotyped norms (putting on makeup, brushing hair, selecting a dress with dainty hands) are performed for the audience, with the audience assuming the iterations are intended to make steady and real the gender. Mesh body suits and skirts aren’t allowed to do that in the photographs of “Before/After,” in the essay where there is play, because play is when things are in the air and you can’t assume the outcome, like footballs.
Part of why it is important for me to remember that all language does something, that it all performs, is that it makes it more difficult for language to be normal. It's like how we might look at someone who is doing gender in an unexpected way and say, yes, I can see how this gender is trying to do something. But if we look at someone who is doing gender in a very boring and usual way, we are less likely to think that the gender is doing anything, even though it's really doing just as much (a bro is a gender, too, bro). When I apply this to essays it allows me to see them all differently, too. Even if I am reading an essay that strikes me as boring, or as following a set formula for the type of essay that is, if I stop to think about what the essay is actually doing in the world it becomes much harder to dismiss it, as instead it becomes active, weird, and individualized. It's interesting to do something.
Similar to how the photographs work, the true and false questions of "Before/After" echo the kind of prescriptive tests transgender people often encounter in order to receive medical care. The particular questions come from a test I was able to find online and which claims to measure “Cross-Gender Identity and Transsexual Transition Progress,” although I can only find one other example of its existence aside from the IMG MGMT essay, and on that source there is an author listed as “Richard F. Doctor, Ph.D” (dick doctor), so its origin is maybe questionable. Regardless, in this essay the questions do a similar destabilizing, are unable to complete their usual action. In asking the reader of the essay to consider the veracity of “If I am wearing a sexy dress I sometimes feel more attracted to men,” its iteration is of the gendered expectation, but its actual doing is again of play, like a wink before the big punchline of the quiz result. It’s not a description of gender, but gender as an action without an expected result, gender as a site where we can make choices, can attempt, to use the essay parlance.
So then what does the essay do on a whole? I read it as a collage essay, the different image-ideas recombined, so that Steiner lifting her breast with a wrapped chain and the nearby gendered statement “As a man, I am exclusively attracted to women” collect a variety of components that pre-exist in the world (Steiner’s body, the concept of heteronormativity, the masculine object of the chain, the psychological test) and assemble them into something new. It plagiarizes gender, which is okay because there’s no ownership in collage. Steal that lipgloss, please. But it’s also a participatory collage, maybe a relational collage, in that the reader is allowed to tic the “true” or the “false” with each sentence. We don’t get to comment directly on the artists and their bodies and genders, wonderfully, but we do get to assert our own bodies and genders, and those become elements of the essay. We do gender, too. And we do it in a way that feels playful, as we have permission to play given to us by the opening images and the obvious, safe friendship of the two artists. We can even change our answers, skip questions, reload the page. We can time travel through gender, if we want.
I think this is a very exciting thing for an essay to do. When we read essays that are in some way about gender they tend to be very, very occupied with describing genders, or bodies. And this makes sense, why this is. I often feel obliged to describe my gender, even if only with a word or two, because maybe in doing so I can become legible, which is arguably preferable to being misread. But I still like “I decline that cupcake” more than “The cupcake is yellow and too sweet.” And “Before/After” does. It reminds me that the essays I like are the places where I can flip switches, where the essayist does something and there is room for me to do something, too. It’s the essay as gender, as a form of self-expression and way to share knowledge that is both intimately a part of the individual and by necessity out in the world as well, being read. It reminds me that an attempt is an action without an obvious result, and that my favorite essays, like the opening image of "Before/After," walk around with a sweater pulled over their head and with no pants on. Because an essay can never decide between True and False-- it's too busy destabilizing the thing that it's trying to do, which is yet another way to say attempting. Because being in the essay role is a super-pleaure to me, and because your answers indicate that writing is [a] drag.
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande) and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM.