The Historical Future of Trans Literature


Arts & Culture


Whatever happens against custom we say is against Nature, yet there is nothing whatsoever which is not in harmony with her. May Nature’s universal reason chase away that deluded ecstatic amazement which novelty brings to us. —Michel de Montaigne

If you were trying to get anywhere in the late thirteenth century, the Hereford Mappa Mundi wouldn’t have been particularly helpful; the map is rife with topographical omissions, compressions, and errors—the most egregious of which is perhaps the mislabeling of Africa as Europe and vice versa. Of course, as any medievalist will tell you, mappae mundi weren’t intended for cartographic accuracy anyway. Rather, they were pictorial histories, encyclopedias of the world’s mythological and theological narratives, records of medical fact and fable. Notable places—Carthage, Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Jericho—appeared, but their placement on the map emphasized their symbolic import rather than their geographical specificity. Thus, Jerusalem, at the very center of this map, was the moral center of the medieval world. The map’s graphic histories were organized chronologically, with the outermost strata of the circular map representing the deepest, most sedimented layers of recorded history and theology.

Bounding Africa, due east of the Nile, was a corridor of oddities, a single-file parade of queer embodiments and types: the Blemmyae and Troglodytes, Himantopodes, Cynocephali, Amazons, Marmini, and Monocoli. These foreign, “abnormal” people, marginally situated in this uniquely “African” space (though it was erroneously labeled Europe), were characterized by the peculiar adaptive technologies of their bodies: the Blemmyae were depicted as having mouths and eyes lodged in their breasts; the Sciopods were distinguished by their giant foot, which grew out of a trunk-like leg at the center of their body and which shielded them from the sun. Particularly interesting among these foreign peoples is the figure identified as “hermaphrodite”; unlike the other figures represented—the race that exclusively ate food through straws, the hirsute peoples that walked on all fours—the hermaphrodite was not a cultural or site-specific identity. If every other form could be understood, from the cartographer’s European vantage, as a foreign but intelligible adaptation to the world’s varied topography, the hermaphrodite’s difference was ambiguous, a maladaptive representation of corporeal strangeness and sexual illegibility. Though most of these “monstrous races” were rendered naked, thereby signaling their non-European primitivity, the hermaphrodite was unique insofar as their uncanniness was solely a matter of their genitals. That is, if each other example of a monstrously raced person was monstrous for their general strangeness, the hermaphrodite was monstrous for genital strangeness. 

It is odd that the hermaphrodite would be represented as specifically African, excluded from the European continent, as if to suggest there were no European hermaphrodites. In fact, European Middle Ages canon and civil law dealt rather extensively with the hermaphrodite—who they might marry, how they might dress, where they might live—indicating, through this voluble legal opining, their definite presence in European society.

It is unclear what the map’s figuration might represent in today’s terms—perhaps the intersex body, perhaps the transgender body. The term hermaphrodite has fallen from use, as has invert, another term once used to describe someone who today may or may not identify as trans or gender nonconforming. In part, the difficulty of ascribing a contemporary meaning to the Hereford Mappa Mundi’s hermaphrodite is one of category error: though intersex and transgender are hardly new realities, they are new identities, new terms by which we might better know ourselves—or, in a more suspicious reading, terms by which we might better be known, categorized, metabolized, identified. The category that we call transgender emerged only in the midtwentieth century, a product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sexology and emergent surgical and endocrine technologies. It’s difficult, if not impossible, then, when rooting through the historical record, to know how we might today refer to historical subjects in excess of binary gender without falling into the snares of anachronism.

Under the banner of new terminology, queer theory and trans theory—primarily fixed in the outer strata of contemporary academia, cartographically unlocatable—have attempted to theorize the transgender body and the technologies that enable its “plasticity” or its “fugitivity.” Central to these theories is the way in which the trans body—sometimes through endocrine and/or surgical technologies, sometimes not—undoes our understanding of what a body might be or how a body might become. Transgender is heralded as a potentiality for divine escape, a bridge toward the posthuman, the fabulous and fabular techno-body. In such theorization, technologies of bodily unmaking and remaking extend the Utopian promise of “destroying gender”—or at the very least unsettling some of our most securely held gender values. A quintessential gloss of this view: the transgender body is seen, in Jack Halberstam’s phrasing, as “futurity itself, a kind of heroic fulfillment of postmodern promises of gender flexibility.” (Something of a buzzword in queer and trans theory, futurity is not simply the future, the soon-to-be; rather, futurity refers to the queer still-to-come, the excess and potential of the not-yet-here, that subjects actively orient themselves toward in the present.) Thus, transgender becomes the logical extension of late capitalism’s dream of flexibility, self-fashioning, unconstrained potential. But as the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz notes, we don’t all get to be the princesses and princes of futurity. For those who are poor, those who aren’t white, those who can’t or won’t pass as cisgender, futurity might have less to do with the ecstatic transgression of posthumanism than it does with wondering whether you’ll keep your job tomorrow or have a place to sleep tonight. Muñoz’s critique gently but resolutely reminds us: the yoking of transness, or queerness, with futurity is optimistically proleptic.

But we might also ask: Why do those who affirm a kind of trans vanguardism assume that promises of gender flexibility are specifically postmodern? In a beautiful turn—or return (as Freud writes, “the finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it”)—contemporary transgender writers are finding the language appropriate to represent the transgender subject in the historical archive. At a moment in which academic trans writing fancies our bodies as sites of dizzying transgressive potential, and popular journalism remains obsessed with litigating which bathrooms our genitals do or don’t belong in, trans fiction writers and poets are offering a new cartography of the trans body—one that looks to the past rather than the future.


Jordy Rosenberg’s brilliant novel, Confessions of the Fox (June 2018), reimagines Jack Sheppard—the notorious English jail breaker of the early eighteenth century, immortalized in John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, William Hogarth’s 1747 Industry and Idleness, Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), and the Brit glam rockers Chicory Tip’s B-side track “Don’t Hang Jack” (1971)—as a young trans man. While one might argue that Rosenberg’s vertiginous footnotes and citations announce a decidedly postmodern project, the real invention, and intervention, of Rosenberg’s project is his amplification of a trans archive. Alongside contemporary critical theories of resistance and self-determination, he situates the trans body in intertexts—Defoe’s The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, Bailey’s Canting Dictionary, the 1714 Vagrancy Act, Georges Arnaud de Ronsil’s A Dissertation on Hermaphrodites, Spinoza’s Ethics, Behn’s Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave—that are early modern rather than exclusively postmodern. If trans theory imagines the trans body as the harbinger of a techno-future, Rosenberg looks instead to an earlier historical moment. This allows him to reimagine the flexibility of transness while casting the term transgender aside. It’s not incidental that Sheppard is so lithe that he contorts himself through the ducts in his escape from jail. Rosenberg does away with other wounding and calcified clichés: the scene of self-recognition in a mirror or the sensational descriptions of the trans body. Instead, Rosenberg takes a different tack, imagining a flexible trans body, where flexibility has both everything and nothing to do with the body. Sheppard’s transness is incidental, one characteristic among many. Equally, if not more, important is Sheppard’s proto-Marxism, his keen understanding of the exploitation of the laboring body. That Rosenberg finds an ally in Marx isn’t surprising; Marx was himself writing about the derangements and rearrangements—the hard limits of flexibility—of a body wrecked and worn by vampiric capitalism.

Of course, Rosenberg doesn’t completely disregard the term transgender. The novel’s frame narrative concerns a trans academic, Dr. Voth, who happens upon the as yet unauthenticated Confessions of Sheppard. A pharmaceutical-cum-publishing company with tentacular investments in Dr. Voth’s heavily surveilled university (“You know how it is with neoliberalism these days … Everything’s a subsidiary of everything!”) presses Dr. Voth into editing the manuscript for publication. Sullivan, the company rep, celebrates the “earliest authentic confessional transgender memoirs known to history.” Dr. Voth corrects him—“Western history”—tacitly agreeing that the text is a “confessional transgender memoir,” but Dr. Voth is not as rabid to name and commercialize it as such. It is as though the two are speaking entirely different languages. In his Confessions, Sheppard, seeking to understand his gender, reads the encyclopedia entry on “Sexual Chimeras.” A footnoted back-and-forth between Dr. Voth and Sullivan on that section of the text ensues: Sullivan asks Dr. Voth to provide “SPECIFICITY TO THE MEANING OF SEXUAL CHIMERA AS IT IS USED ABOVE. READERS NEED TO BE ABLE TO VISUALIZE.” Dr. Voth’s response: a marbled page. The sexual chimera will be described with no more specificity.

In the New York Times Book Review, Garrard Conley describes this homage to Tristram Shandy as “key to [Rosenberg’s] narrative. It serves primarily as a rebuttal to an indignity many transpeople have faced at some point in their lives: the intrusive gaze of a non-transperson eager to glimpse their genitals. This novel is an antidote to that gaze.” But Rosenberg’s novel is that and more. If the marbled page serves as a corrective to what Montaigne calls “that deluded ecstatic amazement which novelty brings to us,” it is a corrective insofar as it both refuses the standard neoliberal trans narrative and opens up the possibility of an entirely new cartography of trans literary genealogies. By turning to the historical archive, Rosenberg brilliantly threads a connection between the eighteenth-century trans body, histories of mass incarceration and colonialism, and today’s struggle for life under late capitalism’s brutal indifferences. Such a move gestures toward something more than the possibilities of the singular transgender body: Rosenberg’s novel wants us to think about the possibilities of coalition, the possibilities of a collective becoming.


In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus is the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. The ninth-century scholar Remigius of Auxerre writes that “Hermaphroditus signifies a particular lasciviousness of speech that obtains when the reasoned search for truth is neglected and the superfluous adornment of speech above all pursued.” That is to say, Hermaphroditus is concerned with the pleasure and play, the sensual excess and ornamentation of poetry.

Pulling from an even more distant past than Rosenberg, Jos Charles, in her dazzling poetry collection feeld (August 2018), takes her language from the Middle Ages—from this language of pleasure, trauma, excess, and enfleshment. If Rosenberg’s novel refuses the contemporary discourse of transgender, then Charles shatters that discourse from the outside in and turns it into something only distantly, hazily recognizable. In Charles’s hands, the language itself transitions, defamiliarized, and in its new spellings, it opens to a poly-vocality where words contain hidden meanings. Most everything in feeld is a pun—or two, maybe more, at once. A “feeld” is a place where something might grow (or lie fallow or rot), or the agrammatic past tense form of to feel. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in her book Touching Feeling that internal to the word feeling is a double meaning: “tactile plus emotional.” In this double meaning, feeling implies both the body and the feeling that moves it as it moves through it.

Charles writes transness as form and deforming, informing, performing, dendriform:

a tran lik all metall is a series of sirfase in folde  /  wee
call manie of thees foldes identitie  /  sum spase shufles
betweene /  trama or hemorage or othere  / this is 1

Transness, for Charles, is something folded, involute, and invaginated. This in part explains why the most promising language to articulate—and disarticulate—transness is not that of the future but that of the past: it is something to be folded back on itself. The very structure of transness is one of folding and refolding such that “pitt from plum,” “a whord from its thynge,” or the horse knowing “the feeld from its bit” is always a series of labyrinthine returns, of chiasmatic touching between histories and potentials, without the simple linearity and cleanliness of a straight line.


What Confessions of the Fox and feeld share with trans theory is an orientation: they’re after some queer elsewhere, a distant vision of liberation. These texts are about change, about looking out onto the horizon, squinting at the faintly emergent outlines and forms, and rushing to meet them—or, as Charles calls it:

                                a figure
apeerynge  /  inn the distanse

But where trans and queer theory provide a program—however strategically articulated—offering us a way forward, Charles and Rosenberg do not. Transgender is, for them, elusive—and necessarily so. To pin it down in space would contravene the acrossness, throughness, and beyondness of trans. Rosenberg’s novel concludes with an explicit rejection of directions: “You will not need a map.” There’s no path to follow to get us where they’re going. However much of the queer horizon unfolds before us, Charles and Rosenberg are already there, at the other side of the feeld, deep in the archive, waiting for us to turn back.


RL Goldberg is a Ph.D. candidate in English and humanistic studies at Princeton.