Jack Halberstam’s Flying Circus: on postmodernism and the scapegoating of trans women


I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition. And then Jack Halberstam's article happened. Pictured: trans woman being given a turn on the rack by academic inquisitors.

I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition. And then Jack Halberstam’s article happened. Pictured: trans woman being given a turn on the rack by academic inquisitors.

With mainstream discussion around trigger warnings circling the drain of bad faith and broken ethics, Jack Halberstam’s article on the matter was as inevitable as it is unhelpful.

It belongs to the peculiar species of toxicity that activists produce when we struggle manfully against the Jungian shadows created by our work: we stridently accuse others of what we ourselves are, in fact, doing.

This is not to say that Halberstam’s piece is entirely wrong. Trigger warnings are overused in a way that condescends to the traumatised, creating an activist tic that serves primarily to signify fealty to a norm rather than do real community work around the issue of trauma. It is also true that we have indeed built an activist culture whose practices are individualist in their perspective, and thus a neat fit with neoliberalism—I myself have written about this.

Halberstam’s argument about the way current activist emphasis on individual trauma is commodified and consumed, then, has ample merit. But the flaws in his argument are legion, and potentially destructive. Halberstam’s overall thesis finds its foundation in scapegoating the young, recapitulating antediluvian clichés about “free speech” and “censorship,” and antagonising trans women, all while failing to grasp how his own favoured theories have led us into the very mess he decries.


It is altogether fitting that I should be writing this fresh from watching a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch. Halberstam uses a Python motif throughout his piece to illustrate his points about humour and censoriousness, which are at the heart of his argument. The gist of what he’s saying is that social justice activists exalt individual trauma to the point of treating all marginalised people as perpetually fragile time-bombs that must be treated with the utmost caution, forcing us to dispense with all edgy humour and satire.

The problem is that his assertions about activist humour seem to signify, a bit ironically, that Halberstam himself has not gotten the joke. For better and for worse, the latter day feminism and queer activism he derides is actually chock full of humour. Indeed, one instance of it has emerged to satirise Halberstam himself: the Twitter feed of one “Jock Halberslam.”

To a pixelated parade of gifs, image macros, and wildly relinked/retweeted YouTube videos, online activists either produce or consume a good deal of humorous culture. The much derided “toxic Twitter feminists” are, whether one wishes to admit it or not, actually quite intentionally hilarious. They do great shtick on Twitter, taking the medium’s many perverse limitations and minting edgy comedic gold with them.

The stereotype of the humourless activist, which Halberstam takes on only in its classical form as directed against second wave feminists, goes unchallenged in his piece.


This leads to the second, larger problem with Halberstam’s analysis, and it lies in the neat myth he recapitulates here:

“Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems.”

This is, to be quite frank, a self-congratulatory reading of history that is all too common among queers in academia, one that praises the pet queer theory of postmodernist vogue for things it has not done.

At the risk of relitigating a profoundly boring academic debate here, I have to say that to whatever limited extent Halberstam’s article is in any way correct, the problems it identifies are the result of postmodernism and queer theory, not something that happened in spite of them.

To collapse a mighty complexity into a few sentences: postmodernism and poststructuralism opposed “grand narratives” and “totalising theories” about the world, including Marxism, feminism, civil rights, trade unionism, and other dominant pillars of leftism. The idea was that these “narratives” were universalising theories that merely reinscribed power on those they purported to describe, violently effacing difference in favour of the master story.

Continental philosophers, and those inspired by them, became favourites of this burgeoning school. They were people who questioned the very idea that there was any such thing as “truth,” who questioned everything, and who pointed out the innumerable differences among us that put the lie to universalising notions about self and society.

At least, that’s the happy side of the story that often gets told when we get the vapours over Judith Butler or Michel Foucault.

Book cover of the text being described in the caption.

Since Professor Halberstam had a bit of a book club going in his article, I thought I’d make a few recommendations of my own. If you’re interested in a fuller elaboration of what I’m arguing about Foucault, check out Susan Neiman’s accessible book “Moral Clarity: A Guide For Grown-Up Idealists.”

The darker and more realistic tale is that there is a deep cynicism at the heart of the postmodern/structural enterprise, one that led directly to call-out culture, the consumption of individual trauma, and the more specious elements of Halberstam’s reasoning. Postmodernism, poststructuralism, and some forms of postcolonialism, reject “grand narratives” about justice and liberation as inherently confining covert tools of those in power. Indeed, Foucault is an odd ally for radicals; his theories are a wilderness of mazes, at the end of which lies only more oppression. For Foucault, regimes of power were becoming both more sophisticated and more deeply embedded in our daily lives, but they had become so much so that any attempt at reforming or changing them—in his mind—merely left us with yet more oppression.

As Martha Nussbaum so keenly observes of early Butlerian theory:

“What precisely does Butler offer when she counsels subversion? She tells us to engage in parodic performances, but she warns us that the dream of escaping altogether from the oppressive structures is just a dream: it is within the oppressive structures that we must find little spaces for resistance, and this resistance cannot hope to change the overall situation….

In other words: I cannot escape the humiliating structures without ceasing to be, so the best I can do is mock, and use the language of subordination stingingly. In Butler, resistance is always imagined as personal, more or less private, involving no unironic, organized public action for legal or institutional change.” (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

These theoretical commitments are the ones that Halberstam has advanced throughout his career as a tenured academic, and we can see quite plainly that these theories—strangely adored by idealists the world over—have a deep cynicism at their heart. They encourage a caustic scepticism of all institutional organising or political action that makes use of existing power structures.

What results is an activism that delights in individual transgressive practice by brute necessity. If we cannot rely on the state, unions, or even activist organisations and non-profits, we are left only with our own private practise and our own sense of authenticity or integrity as our guides. We must make our own lives into activism.

Postmodernism enforced a ruthlessly pointillist perspective on politics. Even as we spoke of grand social structures like white supremacy, patriarchy, or capitalism, we became fixated on the individual as the prime site of resistance. The war would be fought on our bodies, with our clothes, our motility, our speech, every millimetre of social practice. All would inform the struggle. We became fixated on distinction rather than commonality, developing lightning fast reflexes to point out when someone said something that, for instance, could not be applied to all women. Distinction mattered over all else.

It is the apotheosis of “the personal is political,” taken to asphyxiating heights unimagined by the original progenitors of the idea, one that was already potentially poisonous in its earlier forms.

As many others have pointed out, Halberstam's insights about safety rhetoric being co-opted by militarising forces in the state was not credited to some of its earliest progenitors: the folks at INCITE! Though he credits Christina Hanhardt and her book "Safe Space" with this, her conclusions were the result of fieldwork among INCITE activists in Manhattan. (Artwork by Cristy C. Road; more info here- http://www.incite-national.org/page/analysis)

As many others have pointed out, Halberstam’s insights about safety rhetoric being co-opted by militarising forces in the state was not credited to some of its earliest progenitors: the folks at INCITE! Though he credits Christina Hanhardt and her book “Safe Space” with this, her conclusions were the result of fieldwork among INCITE activists in Manhattan. (Artwork by Cristy C. Road; more info here- http://www.incite-national.org/page/analysis)

In the process, the complex insights of insurgent feminisms and anti-racist activism that prefigured true intersectionality were lost, homogenised and colonised by the neat little story that Halberstam tells in his article.

It leads, finally, to this:

“When we obliterate terms like ‘tranny’ in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place!”

The accusation of assimilation here is a content-free non-argument that only makes sense in the context of postmodern theory, which exalts individual transgression as the highest form of activism. Halberstam and others have joined the angry crowd of masculine identified people who desperately feel that we are “censoring” people like them who want to use the word “tranny” as edgy and violative, no matter what wreckage they may leave behind them. The charge levelled here by Halberstam—that trans women opposed to the slur are engaged in respectability politics and assimilationism—only has bite in the very activist culture that Halberstam disdains throughout his article, because it is an angry culture that is intimately concerned with reading the tea-leaves of everyone’s private behaviour.


Want to read more about cynicism and postmodernism? Timothy Bewes' "Cynicism and Postmodernity" will scratch that itch for you! This rather dense work informed some of my analysis here, and argues (among many other things) that postmodernism fuels a dangerous cynicism about politics.

Want to read more about cynicism and postmodernism? Timothy Bewes’ “Cynicism and Postmodernity” will scratch that itch for you! This rather dense work informed some of my analysis here, and argues (among many other things) that postmodernism fuels a dangerous cynicism about politics.

In the absence of “grand narratives,” what we are left with is a politics of the personal that demands an accounting of any and all personal affectations, language, comportment, and private choices. Suddenly, everything we say, everything we do, how we do or don’t fuck, is lardered with almighty political importance.

Postmodern ideas demand that we accept that there supposedly is no objective truth, and turn instead to the wisdom of experience: our unique experience, which is the only thing any of us knows for sure. And like a pointillist painting, hopefully everyone’s discrete dot adds up to a big picture. Thus comes the emphasis on managing private trauma as an important site of activism.

It is on these utterly broken terms that people like Halberstam judge the diverse coalition of trans women who know “tranny” to be a slur, and why he lumps us into the otherwise nameless pile of those he sees as perpetually-traumatised killjoys who need trigger warnings to read The Great Gatsby.

The argument turns on the fallacy that trans women are being insufficiently radical, and that our fight for dignity is really just a cynical play for respectability and power. It is a very Foucauldian argument, in that sense. We just need to allow ourselves to be more transgressive (in terms defined hazily by Halberstam), otherwise our personal behaviour is complicit with oppression, and thus wrong. This is how we can make sense of Halberstam’s valedictory prescription to “move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous.” His whole point is, ironically, to discipline what he sees as the defective personal behaviour of those he disagrees with.


Halberstam’s piece argues that his opponents are engaged in the literal censorship of free speech (“saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.”) and that we are just plain humourless. These straw men are wastes of a great mind like Halberstam’s and are dispensed with more easily by any number of wikis or fallacy-lists than anything else. After all, it sounds rather a lot like Daniel Tosh or Bill Maher talking.

But what ties it all together, and makes it pass muster before the eyes of the many activists who are praising Halberstam in the comments is the flimsy queer-theory that acts as the epistemological garnish to the whole thing, lending it the proper patina of transgressive academic reasoning and fashion.

Halberstam’s reading of the “tranny” debate is specious and oversimplified in a way that is not only disingenuous, but actually promotes exactly the ideas that lead to the toxicity he decries: he is, in essence, lobbing the loaded accusation of “assimilation” at us (from a tenured academic perch, no less) should we dare to have an opinion on the slur that he disagrees with, and accuses such people of being insufficiently radical. Believing that about someone is what leads to toxic call outs, purity wars, the demand for needless trigger warnings, and Twitter pile-ons, but Halberstam doesn’t own that or try to explain his way around it.

Put plainly, he scapegoats trans women for problems actually caused by the very philosophical school he delights in.

He decries radical excess in one breath, and then uses its unfalsifiable hand waves in the next to make what amounts to a lazy argument.

And finally, about the crotchety anti-youth streak in Halberstam’s piece (a characteristic shared by similar carnivals of fallacy penned by Andrea James and Riki Wilchins), I have only one thing to say to Uncle Jack, in a register he might appreciate:

That argument about young people wouldn’t voom if I put 4,000 volts through it. It’s bleedin’ demised. It’s passed on. That argument is no more; it has ceased to be; it’s expired and gone to meet its maker; it’s a stiff; bereft of life it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to your blog post it would be pushing up the daisies! This is an ex-argument!

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross grew up watching Monty Python and always looks on the bright side of life; that’s why she’s not a postmodernist.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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