Viviane Namaste's "Undoing Theory: The 'Transgender Question' and the Epistemic Violence of Anglo-American Feminist Theory"
Viviane Namaste’s article, "Undoing Theory" is a very sobering intervention in debates surrounding the relationship between Anglo-American feminist theory and trans people. For over twenty years now, feminist theorists have used the lives of transsexual, transgender and transvestite people to further their work. Transsexual women, particularly, have been poorly served by feminist theorists.
In this way, Namaste claims, feminist theorists have adopted a colonial attitude towards their (indigenous) subject, that is, by appropriating their subject’s knowledge for their own projects, thereby altering and even erasing their subject’s knowledge and experience: “Anglo-American feminist theory has provided an intellectual framework in which the specificity of transsexual” actual, empirical, lives is erased. Hence, “the knowledge gained has been of little benefit to transsexual women” (27).
Judith Butler is the theorist under closest scrutiny. While Butler uses trans people throughout her work to advance her epistemological reflections into gender (in Gender Trouble , Bodies That Matter  and Undoing Gender , notably), she has cared little for trans people own experience. Though Butler makes “gender” a central element of trans people’s lives, Namaste argues that labor is, instead, the cornerstone of the trans experience. “The exclusion of labor in Butler’s analysis of violence against transsexual women is authorized” Namaste believes, “by a vision of feminist theory that accords primacy to the concept of gender” (18). While performance is indeed an important component of trans identity, Namaste points out that “relations of labor are central to such performances” (19):
“performances of female impersonation in the United States are characterized by an explicit relation to work—performers solicit cash contributions from the crowd, often singing and attempting to embarrass audience members until they are handed a dollar or two” (19).
It is through such performative work, often linked to various degrees to sex work, “that transsexual women are able to physically embody […] sex changes, and thus to interact in the world as women. It is in and through work that the gender of transsexual women is constituted” (19).
New research protocols need to ground the collaboration between theorists and trans people in order to avoid the latter’s knowledge and experience being mined away from them. Namaste here finds helpful guidance in post-colonial methodologies and aboriginal research protocols, which articulates the bases of meaningful social research. For research to be meaningful to the community, Namaste remarks, it must first and foremost show relevance as well as equity in partnership and ownership (26).
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.