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When trans translates into tolerance - or was it monstrous? Transsexual and


transgender identity in liberal humanist discourse
Randi Gressgrd
Sexualities 2010 13: 539
DOI: 10.1177/1363460710375569
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Article

When trans translates


into tolerance or was it
monstrous? Transsexual
and transgender identity
in liberal humanist
discourse

Sexualities
13(5) 539561
! The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permissions:
sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/1363460710375569
sex.sagepub.com

Randi Gressgard
University of Bergen, Norway

Abstract
The article explores the way in which trans people represent a cultural difference that
has to be managed in liberal-democratic societies of today. The point of departure is
liberal tolerance discourse, as analysed by Wendy Brown, in which the threatening
others are being regulated in order to prevent the social order from being destroyed
from within. In accordance with liberal norms and values, tolerance promotes individual
choice and autonomy: the individuals freedom of identity. It also assumes, however, that
identities, such as trans identity, issue from an essence or inner truth to be found in the
person. This subjectivity-constituting contradiction lies at the core of liberal tolerance
discourse. Trans people bring into question this contradiction, thereby challenging the
foundations of normative subjectivity. The key question that emerges is whether liberal
humanist tolerance defies horror and hostility or whether tolerance discourse creates
its own gendered and sexualized monsters suitable for late-modern, flexible regimes of
governmentality.
Keywords
liberal humanist discourse, monsters, normative subjectivity, tolerance, trans identity

The term transgender came into usage in the late 1970s and early 1980s by people
whose personal identities fall somewhere on a spectrum between transvestite and
transsexual and who were reluctant to be categorized as either transvestites or
Corresponding author:
Randi Gressgard, Centre for Womens and Gender Research (SKOK), University of Bergen
Email: randi.gressgard@skok.uib.no

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Sexualities 13(5)

transsexuals. By the late 1990s, the meaning of transgender had expanded to


include a variety of practices and identities dened by their transitivity. It has
eventually settled as an umbrella term, a catch-all category, covering those who
cross over, cut across, move between or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/
gender boundaries (Stryker, 2006a: 254n2, 2006b: 4; Whittle, 2000, 2006). In its
broadest sense, transgender refers to persons whose gender identity or expression
does not conform to the social expectations for their assigned sex at birth (Currah
et al. 2006: xiv). In many contexts, the transgender category also includes intersex
persons (those who are born with an ambiguous combination of dening physical
attributes such as chromosomes, gonads and genitals). Some activists argue, however, that being intersex concerning material embodiment is not the same as
being transgender, which they take to be an issue of identity and desire (Intersex
Society of North America, 2008). Similarly, some transsexual activists prefer not to
be identied as transgender because of the terms connotations with queer theory.
Still others seem to speak of transgenderism and transsexualism synonymously,
sometimes in opposition to gender queer.1
Transsexualism or transsexuality is normally used to describe a felt disjunction
between body and gender identity, clinically classied as gender dysphoria syndrome or, more recently, gender identity disorder (GID). Although gender confusion in general, and GID in particular, cannot be ascribed to transsexuals only,
and although transsexuals dier from each other with respect to numerous psychological and social factors, most of those diagnosed with GID seek hormonal
and surgical intervention to make their bodies resemble more closely the body type
of the opposite sex group. The transition treatment, either from male to female
(MTF) or from female to male (FTM), was formerly known as a sex change
operation but is now called gender conrmation treatment or sex reassignment
surgery (Brown and Rounsley, 1996: 6; Whittle, 2000: 12.).
As I have just indicated, some of those diagnosed with GID identify as transgender, while others primarily identify as transsexuals, though they might refuse
the pathologizing language of the psychological and psychiatric disciplines. The
GID diagnosis requires that applicants for surgery and hormonal treatment show
evidence of strong and persistent cross-gender identication. In addition, there
must be evidence of persistent discomfort about ones assigned sex. Without refuting the idea of immutability, however, many trans people reverse the traditional
idea that gender is an expression of sexed bodies and instead take gender identity to
be the pre-social xed category, arguing that biological sex characteristics are cast
as aspects of genders (Currah, 2006: 18). They may strategically deploy the language of transsexualism so as to match up with the GID criteria. As Judith Butler
points out, the transsexual diagnosis makes many assumptions that undercut
trans-autonomy and self-determination, but it also facilitates entitlements to
medical treatment and to legal status, helping trans people to achieve their goal
(2004: 7677).
Needless to say, it is not only those diagnosed as transsexuals who use hormones
and surgery. Nevertheless, medical treatment that breaks with the current gender

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norms is, in many countries, either illegal or requires a diagnosis. A woman who
wants breast reduction, Butler notes, requires no psychological certication,
whereas a man who wants penile reduction may well require it (2004: 87).
Similarly, Elizabeth Loeb points out that the legal and cultural permission to
undergo invasive surgeries holds steady only as long as those choices map onto
the landscape of normative and normativizing physical norms of race, sex and
gender. Taking out a rib so that I can model for the Gucci show? Yes! Cutting
o my penis to more fully express my felt gender? No! (2008: 47). Loeb suggests
that the modern humanist idea of corporal wholeness or integrity makes some
practices, notably practices of cutting, unbearable. The primacy of integrity the
privileging of autonomy and self-determination seems to render some crossgendered body modications intolerable to society.
Scientic language no doubt contributes to the (re)production of the primacy of
bodily integrity in liberal-democratic societies. Even though a number of gender
researchers, trans scholars in particular, have criticized the pathologization of trans
identities and expressions, research institutes and state institutions continue to keep
trans people within the sphere of mental pathology and regulation. And even if
critical scholars disclose the regulating practices of these institutions, there is no
guarantee as to how this knowledge aects social justice. As researchers, we inevitably amplify some voices while silencing others. When pinpointing mechanisms of
exclusion and othering, we always risk falling prey to the structure we aim to
criticize. We might even give rise to new modes of subjection. Nevertheless, we
have to arm this risk; we have to arm the complicity of theory with its objects of
critique (Spivak, 1987: 201; cf. Derrida, 1997: 24).
As several trans scholars have argued, the term transgender is a complicated
social category, which oers political possibilities as well as risks (see e.g. Currah
et al., 2006: xv). It risks implying a common identity that outweighs dierences,
while at the same time allowing for analytical scrutiny, political alliances and solidarity. On a political level, the category draws together people who believe that
individuals should have a right to determine and express their gender without fear,
stigmatization, marginalization and punishment (2006: xv). I think it is fair to posit
that trans people, notwithstanding their great variety, comprise a cultural dierence that society has an interest in managing or regulating; society must be
defended, to paraphrase Michel Foucault (2003a, 2003b). Like Paisley Currah
and Dean Spade, I believe that the real impact of discrimination against transgender individuals is to be found in the cracks and crevices of the modern regulatory
state, including decentred state power, and the more contact people have with the
state agencies that dene and regulate gender, the more they are forced to comply
with prevailing gender norms (Currah and Spade, 2007: 3; see also Spade, 2006).
In advanced democracies the regulation of what Foucault (2003b) describes as
social monstrosity is not so much realized through the law. Neither is it realized
principally through disciplinary strategies of isolation and/or expulsion. Rather,
late-modern normalizing power is linked to positive techniques of intervention
and transformation, and regulation seems to be increasingly masked as liberal

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humanist tolerance. In the following I want to argue, however counter-intuitive it


might be, that when trans people nd that they are treated with minimal tolerance
in society, the solution may not be to call for more tolerance. Tolerance might just
as well be conceived as part and parcel of the problem. The salient question is not
so much whether or not trans people are being tolerated as why they are subjected
to tolerance discourse in the rst place. Based on my reading of Wendy Brown, I
address this issue in the rst part of the article. In the second part, I juxtapose this
argument on tolerance with my reading of, among others, Judith Halberstam and
ask whether tolerance discourse represents a monster-producing technology even
while it counterposes horror and hostility.

Part I: Tolerance and individual choice


In her book on tolerance, Regulating Aversion, Wendy Brown (2006) examines the
regulatory functions that tolerance discourse performs in contemporary liberaldemocratic societies. Her attention is focused not on tolerance as an individual
bearing, understood as a willingness to abide the oensive or disturbing predilections and tastes of others (2006: 13), but on the political, regulatory function of
tolerance discourse. As Brown sees it, tolerance aims at managing a dangerous,
foreign, toxic, or threatening dierence from an entity that also demands to be
incorporated, and the limits of tolerance, she argues, are determined by how much
of this toxicity can be accommodated without destroying the object, value, claim,
or body (2006: 27). Tolerance cannot be legally or doctrinally codied, because the
meaning and work of tolerance is bound to its plasticity, that is, to when, where
and how far it will stretch (2006: 1112). Owing to this plasticity, the question of
limits is a recurrent issue where tolerance is concerned, which suggests that the
mechanisms of power implied by its application are not those of classic, archaic
sovereignty but something far more exible.
In the 1970s, Foucault developed the term governmentality to designate a
non-sovereign, decentred state power. Governmentality is a formally non-political
and non-legal mode of power concerned with the production and regulation of
subjects and populations.2 In contrast to the unied power of sovereignty, governmentality stems from no single source; it operates through both state and non-state
institutions and discourses (see Foucault, 1991, 2008). As Foucault notes in The
History of Sexuality, modern power is tolerable only on the condition that it masks
a substantial part of itself and hides its own mechanisms (1998: 86). Power is
indeed most ecient when it is believed to be extrinsic to freedom, truth and
subjectivity.
According to Brown, governmentality is what congures tolerance discourse
today. By virtue of being a decentred state speech act, tolerance is not conned
to state institutions but is, rather, promulgated from a variety of sites in civil
society; it circulates in and among schools, churches, civic associations, museums,
street conversations and so on (2006: 7879). The eciency of tolerance as a mode
of regulation pertains to its depoliticized, moral and private character, allegedly

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devoid of power. Late-modern tolerance is above all concerned with identity,


because it is ones race, sexuality, culture or gender that is considered to generate
the consciousness, beliefs and practices the dierence that must be tolerated
(Brown, 2006: 43).
An eloquent example of how trans identity is depicted as something both tolerable and accommodated in liberal Britain, as opposed to something evoking
feelings of horror and hostility, is provided by Liz Hodgkinsons statement in
her book Bodyshock: The Truth about Changing Sex (1989): At one time objects
of pity, disgust or horried fascination, known transsexuals now exist in almost
every walk of life, as civil servants, entertainers, nurses, doctors, professional tennis
players, artists, writers, computer consultants, university lecturers, teachers and
housewives (cited in Whittle, 2000: 27). What is of interest here is less the validity
of Hodgkinsons argument than the fact that she alludes to a temporal and normative line of demarcation between normal, tolerable subjects and objects of pity,
disgust or horried fascination. Tolerance is equated with liberal values, which are
in turn equated with normality. Another example, from the opposite end of the
spectrum, is Viviane Namastes account of trans people who are not tolerated
precisely because of their markers of dierence. They are thought to exceed not
only the respectable standards of the majority community but naturalized gay
standards as well. Transgender people who cross-dress are, in her view, reduced to
coifed personalities and pure spectacle (2000: 11). When Namaste discerns between
tolerance and freakishness (somewhere between the norms), she alludes to the same
correspondence between tolerance and normality existing in the rst example.
Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to ask how tolerance has come to be
equated with normative subjectivity and on what basis some people are thought
to merit tolerance, whilst others are deemed intolerable. Browns charting of tolerance discourse illuminates how autonomy is the liberal good that tolerance aims
to promote but how conversely and somewhat contradictorily tolerance discourse requires in advance the very thing that it is also promoting, namely autonomy (2006: 154). In order to be(come) a normal, autonomous individual, the
subject must be abstracted from social or cultural constraints; one becomes tolerable to the extent that one is able and/or willing to transform cultural, religious or
sexual practices into individually chosen beliefs or practices. Only by being converted into privatized choice can cultural, religious or sexual identities be made
compatible with individual autonomy (see 2006: 152, 154, 171).
Given the fact that trans people who undergo surgery and hormonal treatment
make a choice of dramatic and profound kind, to use Butlers words (2004: 74),
we might assume that their choice would be regarded as an exemplary one with
respect to the prevailing norm the normative subjectivity. We might imagine that
to voluntarily break with dominant norms and, for some, to radically alter ones
own body would be perceived as the utmost expression of liberal freedom and
individual choice. However, this does not seem to be entirely the case, in so far
as trans people are considered to comprise a dierence that must be regulated by
society. In the following, I will address this paradox by pointing to the way in

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which modern subjects are identied with certain attributes and practices that
accord with their inner truth: an identity which diers fundamentally from the
identity or the core truth of others.

Inner truth and identity


Drawing insights from Foucaults (1998) account of subjectivity and identity,
Brown contends that the modern subject is believed to have an inner, core truth
or identity that generates certain beliefs, practices, experiences and consciousness
(Brown, 2006: 41f.). Acts that, prior to the 18th century, were regarded as contingent become, through 19th-century medicine, psychiatry, pedagogy, religion and
sexology, increasingly constitutive of identity. Identities are built around sexuality,
Ken Plummer notes; an experience becomes an essence and it is embraced, willingly, from within (1995: 86). For example, homosexual acts are seen as expressions
of the homosexual subjects, who in turn regard themselves as homosexuals.
Transsexualism is, likewise, discursively treated as an inner truth that is nearly
exhaustive of subjectivity and identity. And as long as the truth the ascriptive
identity is cast as signicant enough to provoke rejection or hostility in society,
Brown maintains, tolerance discourse is invoked (2006: 44f.). In this respect, contemporary tolerance is oriented towards and presupposes essentializing identity
categories, even though the object of tolerance is not the social group but individual marked subjects who carry the group identity (2006: 45).3 Social group identity
is rendered ontological, and on the basis of this belief in a real identity, it makes
sense to assert that a particular person does not really understand that shes a
woman (2006: 42). Conversely, it makes sense to claim that Im really a woman,
only Im trapped in the wrong body.
Sandy Stones path-breaking essay, The Empire strikes back: A posttranssexual
manifesto (2006), takes issue with confessional narratives which purport to discover the truth about the transsexual persons. The linear progression and plots of
the MTF (auto)biographies on which she bases her analysis dealing with suering, epiphany/coming out, transformation/survival add up to what Plummer has
termed sexual stories, a category which ts into the major archetypal forms of
storytelling (1995: 54, 131). Perhaps more importantly, the participant stories
adhere to a conceptual framework that converges with that of the pathologizing
modern psycho-sciences. What sort of subject is constituted in these texts? Stone
asks (2006: 224). They all replicate the stereotypical male account of the constitution of woman: dress, makeup and delicate fainting at the sight of blood (2006:
227). Stone poses another sticky question: Who is telling the story for whom, and
how do the storytellers dierentiate between the story they tell and the story they
hear? (2006: 228). In her view, we must rearticulate the foundational language by
which both sexuality and transsexuality are described, defying lexical categories
such as wrong body. Writes Stone: Under the binary phallocratic founding myth
by which Western bodies and subjects are authorized, only one body per gendered
subject is right. All other bodies are wrong (2006: 231; cf. e.g. Sullivan, 2008).

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Even though Stone provides a compelling deconstruction of monistic gender


identities and their foundational assumptions, she nevertheless seems to perpetuate
the modern idea of integrity or wholeness, however complex or mixed that whole
might be. Her overall message to trans people seems to be the following: rather
than conforming to reductive cultural criteria, you should come out as the complex or mixed gendered person that you really are. In her view, the process of
passing as normal forecloses the ability to authentically represent the complexities
and ambiguities of lived experience. Passing means the denial of mixture, she
argues (2006: 231). [A]uthentic experience is replaced by a particular kind of
story, one that supports the old constructed positions (2006: 230). Contrary to
Plummer, Stone seems to base her analysis of confessional narratives on an opposition between authentic experience and storytelling (see Plummer, 1995; cf. also
Ekins and King, 2006).4 I shall return to the issue of sexual storytelling in due
course, but for the moment I want to pursue the issue of authenticity, alongside
that of autonomy. How should we conceive of the relationship between autonomy
and authenticity, and how do these concepts relate to tolerance discourse?
In his book Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1989) scrutinizes the idea of an
inner space to which every individual has privileged access. We tend to think of our
thoughts, ideas or feelings as being within us (1989: 111). In Taylors view, this
inwardness is the point of origin for the stream of modern thought the origin of
the modern idea of individual autonomy indicative of the Age of Enlightenment
(1989: 364). Another cultural source of the modern subject is the late 18th-century
idea of personal uniqueness, based on the premise that each individual is dierent
and original and that this originality determines how the individual ought to live
(1989: 375). The latter position, which is characteristic of Romantic expressivism,
gives rise to ideals of subjective expressive integrity and authenticity and concomitant goals of self-expression, self-realization and self-fullment (1989: 507, 510).
Signicantly, both the autonomous and the unique subject signify inwardness, this
hinging upon a fundamental separation between the human being and its social
surroundings (see e.g. Dumont, 1986: 37). While the autonomous subject is interiorized in terms of being free from external constraints or bonds of necessity, the
unique subject is interiorized by virtue of being an inner essence, normally associated with identity.
However, even though both the autonomous and the unique subject hinge upon
the same opposition of inner/outer, and although they, each in their way, invoke
notions of bodily integrity, they diverge with regard to content. While the autonomous subject is based on the Enlightenments idea of sameness (as opposed to
dierence), the unique subject is based on Romanticisms idea of distinctness and
authenticity. This distinction engenders a tension between autonomy and identity
where modern subjectivity is concerned.5 As for tolerance discourse, we have seen
that identitarian dierences are recurring objects of regulation; identities are tolerable only as long as they are consonant with individual autonomy. It is here that
a contradiction emerges. The crux of the matter is that liberal tolerance, in its
endeavour to set the subjects free from social or cultural bounds, discursively

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intensies the identitarian features of the subject, producing an inherent and permanent condition to which tolerance becomes the solution (Brown, 2006: 45).
As I read Brown, this subjectivity-constituting contradiction, which lies at the
heart of tolerance discourse, testies to the more general contradictions that are
constitutive of liberal discourse. In her book States of Injury, Brown (1995)
expounds on how the key terms of liberal humanist political discourse, such as
equality (sameness), liberty, autonomy and rights, depend on their opposition to a
subject and a set of activities that are rendered subordinate: dierence, necessity/
encumbrance, dependence/dependents and needs/relations/duties, respectively. She
discerns how the dominant the normative terms in these dualisms are achieved
through their constitution by, dependence upon and disavowal of the subordinate
terms (1995: 152).
Provided that the constitutive opposite of autonomy is dependence, we could
posit that the liberal conception of autonomy pertaining to tolerance discourse is
predicated upon dependence. Drawing insights from Foucaults account of power,
we could dismantle the liberal contradiction by arguing that individual autonomy
is structured, though not determined, by social norms. Or we could say, as formulated by Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose: [O]ur own idea of the human subject as
individuated, choosing, with capacities of self-reection and a striving for autonomy, is a result of practices of subjectication (2008: 8). In concrete terms, Butler
illuminates how trans people are engaged in practices of self-determination, an
exercise of autonomy, alongside practices of correction, adaptation and normalization. Trans-autonomy is, for instance, conditioned by bonds of necessity such as
the support of a community (Butler, 2004: 76f.).
Autonomy and self-determination seems to be a paramount concern to transgender and gender-transgressive movements. In their introduction to Transgender
Rights, Paisley Currah, Richard M. Juang and Shannon P. Minter state that
the material we are publishing here . . . grapple with questions of autonomy and gender
self-determination . . . Despite their profound dierences, these groups [transsexual
men and women; gender queers; butches who move complexly among lesbian and
transgender identities and communities; androgynous femme boyz] all share a
common political investment in a right to gender self-determination. (2006: xvxvi)

As Kendall Thomas sees it, trans activism pursues a complex and sophisticated
double strategy. At one level, one endeavours to disestablish gender from the state
by ending the states authority to police ones gender identity and ones gender
expression. This is the disestablishment strategy. At another level, one argues in
favour of gender freedom, which entails abolition of the regime of compulsory
gender. This is the free exercise strategy (2006: 321). While the disestablishment
strategy is apparently informed by a freedom from approach, involving a negative, liberal freedom, the free exercise strategy seems to imply a freedom to choose
approach, gesturing towards an existentialist concept of freedom. The latter

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strategy gestures perhaps also towards a Romantic concept of freedom in terms of


self-realization, suggesting that one has to develop ones inner essence or nature in
order to live a free and authentic life (cf. Stone, 2006). Taken together, Thomas
remarks, the two strategies are aimed at multiplying the possibilities individuals
have to imagine (and reimagine) their relationships to ideas about gender and
gendered human being (2006: 321).
According to Currah, the transgender movement seeks in fact the dissolution of
the very (identity) category under which it is organized. The language of trans
identity is used as a means to an end, namely to open up for a plurality of possibilities for gender identities and expressions (2006: 24). Correspondingly, Dean
Spade uses the term self-determination as a tool to express opposition to the
coercive mechanisms of the binary gender system (2006: 235n9).6 So, rather than
adhering to the liberal taxonomies, these scholars and activists, in their claim
to autonomy or self-determination and organization around identity, call into
question the liberal humanist discourse and, thereby, the socially constructed
boundaries of human(ist) ontology (see Thomas, 2006: 314).

Part II: Revisiting the limits of tolerance


In Part I we saw that an autonomous individual, within the parameters of liberal
humanism, is a unied subject with a sense of wholeness. Because of subjective
integrity, the gap between mind and body is eased, and given this humanist notion
of mind and body, the autonomous individual is distinguished from the other
within well-dened boundaries of the body (Shildrick, 1999: 79, 2008). However,
as I also made clear, the processes by which the humanist subject is xed and
maintained as unied and autonomous are threatened and disrupted by various
kinds of non-normative body identities and expressions. Some of these are subjected to discursive normalization and rendered tolerable within a liberal humanist
discourse, whereas others are intolerable owing to their non-normative gender
expression. The question as to what makes someone eligible for tolerance while
others are deemed intolerable, was in Part I treated as a question of limits: up to
when, where and to what extent will tolerance stretch. Following Brown, I argued
that people are tolerated as long as their cultural, religious or sexual practices do
not undermine the liberal concept of autonomy.
Even if this is an adequate answer to the question posed, we should, at this
juncture, rephrase the question in order to address the issue of human(ist) ontology
and its boundaries. The most crucial question, I will argue, is not the one about
limits of tolerance in the strict sense of the word up to when, where and to what
extent will tolerance stretch but the question about limits in a broader sense
pertaining to the constitutive framework of tolerance. Why is there a liberal
humanist interest in tolerating, and up to what point? In the following, I will
address this question by examining the liberal human(ist) ontology and the
conceptual framework within which the objects of tolerance are created.

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The subsidiary question, but no less important, is whether tolerance discourse is,
despite its hostility-defying purpose, a monster-producing and monster-regulating
technology.

From figures of display to objects of tolerance


I take as my staring point Foucaults (2003b: 66) assertion that in each epoch, there
have been privileged forms of monsters, and I think this holds true for cultural
variation as well. Owing to the masking of power indicative of western contemporary tolerance discourse and the concomitant opposition of individual choice and
identitarian constraints, the regulating power of tolerance diers in signicant ways
from rites of passage typical of less inwardly-oriented, less individualized societies.
When pertaining to cosmological ontology, rites of passage is by some inuential
scholars taken to be constitutive of individuals as elements of an imagined totality
in the form of a normative community (communitas) (see e.g. Gennep, 1960;
Turner, 1969). Although social anthropologists do not agree as to the nature of
rites of passage and liminality, many subscribe to the supposition that liminal
practices display through excessive demonstration the regulatory power
involved in processes of transition; liminality renders visible the work of subordination implied by processes of incorporation. The practices of transition comprise
a ritualization of subordination that generally makes evident the management of
liminal dierence, whether these liminal gures are depicted as dangerous, toxic,
threatening or sacred.7 In any case, the ritual management of liminal gures is a
matter of incorporation and regulation of the presence of the threatening other
within (cf. Brown, 2006: 27). The liminal monstrous gure is called upon to demonstrate the limits of the cultural order, to map out the contours of normality. The
liminal monster is, in every possible way, a gure meant for display.
The ritual display of power was also the function of historical freak shows in
western societies. At noted by Clare Sears in regard to the cross-dressing law and
the freak show displays of 19th-century San Francisco, the municipal law, which
served to exclude cross-dressers from the public space, attempted to draw and x
the boundaries of normative gender (2008: 172). From its inception, Sears argues,
the cross-dressing law was specically concerned with public gender displays,
targeting cross-dressing practices in public places. Yet at the same time, the
law unwittingly incited cultural fascination and the desire to see, manifested in
the freak show that displayed non-normative bodies and cross-gender performances (2008: 177). Municipal law both produced and regulated the freaks: the
sexually ambiguous, the indecent, the racialized and the diseased. Moreover,
while the law prohibited the public visibility of problem bodies, expelling or
concealing improper bodies, the freak show required their visibility (2008: 179).
In a certain sense, therefore, we could conceive of the freak show as a supplementary normalizing power in relation to the power of the law. Contrary to the
subtle normalizing power characteristic of late-modern governmentality, however,

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the freak show involved public display within limited and indeed liminal
space.
The freak show displayed liminal beings that were carrying the taint of all that
must be excluded in order to secure the ideal of an untroubled social order. The
displayed gures were granted status as quasi-humans, as monsters, inasmuch as
their aberrant corporality failed to match the normative standard of human
being (see Shildrick, 2002: 3). Susan Stryker notes that the term monster is derived
from the Latin noun monstrum, formed on the root of monere, to warn (2006a:
247). In addition, the term is associated with monstrare to show or display. As
several scholars have pointed out, monster gures are identied with excess, lack/
deciency and displacement in relation to something else, namely normal human
beings (see e.g. Braidotti, 1996; Foucault, 2003b; Shildrick, 1999, 2002). Their
invocation is aimed at upholding normative subjectivity to conrm the normality
and closure of the centred self.
According to Margrit Shildrick, the western notion of subjectivity, including the
bounded body, is both guaranteed and contested by those who do not or cannot
unproblematically occupy the embodied subject position, such as trans people
(1999: 79, 2002: 5). However, as long as the transitional stage of transgenderism
is considered to be a personal matter, its regulatory incorporating power (achieved
through tolerance) is hidden. In Part I we saw that the power of governmentality is
masked by the way in which tolerance is rendered a private, innate quality of the
individual, assumed to belie personal feelings of horror and hostility, and yet tolerance discourse continues to produce threatening others within society. It is my
contention that in so far as essentialized identities ontologically saturate the subjects and intensify their identitarian features, liberal humanist discourse creates its
own peculiar monsters.

We still keep our monsters ready


In her book Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995),
Halberstam posits that the monster announces itself as the place of corruption.
Monstrosity signals a category crisis, a crisis of knowledge pertaining to the
limits of intelligibility and normal subjectivity. In accordance with this outline,
she considers monstrosity to be a technology of subjectivity, one which produces
its deviant subjectivities in opposition to the normal, the healthy and the pure. In
her analysis of gothic horror narratives, she contends that the monster is a sign
intended to promote self-discipline, a warning of what may happen if the body
is imprisoned by its desires in case of the failure of this quality (1995: 72). An
otherness is produced against which normative subjectivity and social order can
be framed.
Given that the western logos is structured according to an innite number of
binaries that ground all knowledge in the interplay of sameness and dierence,
Shildrick argues, it is only by making such distinctions by having a clear sense

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of self and other that it is possible to mark out the parameters of self-identity
(2002: 17). According to Halberstam, conventional humanist readings invest in the
idea that monsters and humans are always distinguishable, separate entities, thus
feeding into the modern ideas of clarity, identity and essential natures (1995: 119).
Modern humanist models of monstrosity adhere to the idea that individual wrongdoings represent oences committed against all of society and that the sources of
wrongdoings lie within the individual: the abnormal individual (1995: 120; cf.
Foucault, 2003b). Gothic narratives tend to insist upon such psychological interpretations, Halberstam remarks, gesturing towards the humanist conception of the
self, divided between an inner and an outer being: a hidden or secret reality versus
an outward appearance (1995: 55). The monstrous self within the self the other
self functions as a stereotype of otherness (1995: 80); the totalizing monster of
humanist discourse functions as a negative identity formation which represents
other subjectivities as less than human or inhuman.
In so far as gender is linked to the category of humanness, improper gender
tends to become allied with inhumanity. Improperly or inadequately gendered
bodies, Halberstam argues, represent the limits of the human; they present monstrous arrangements of skin, esh, social mores, pleasures, dangers and wounds
(1995: 141). Thus, to the extent that trans people constitute a negative identity in
relation to normative gendered subjectivity, trans people are, within a modern
humanist tradition, likely to be perceived as less than human. And their lessthan-humanness is, moreover, considered to be the cause rather than the eect
of cultural narratives about otherness (1995: 56). If, on the other hand, we see
monstrosity as an eect of cultural narratives of otherness, monsters and humans
can no longer be regarded as separate entities.
In contemporary horror, Halberstam emphasizes, monstrosity no longer takes
the form of an anomaly; now a category crisis indicates a crisis of identity, notably
sexual identity (1995: 6). What used to be anomalous monsters are now, in latemodern horror narratives, facets of identity, which means that the other can no
longer be safely separated from self.8 In the same vein, Shildrick argues that monsters speak to both radical otherness that constitutes an outside, and to the dierence that inhabits identity itself (Shildrick, 2002: 11, 28). What is at stake, she
notes, is not simply the status of those bodies that might be termed monstrous,
but the being in the body of us all (2002: 3). The monsters that engage us most, she
moves on to suggest, are indeed those which speak, both literally and metaphorically, a human language (Shildrick, 2002: 19). As Halberstam observes, we still
keep our monsters ready (1995: 163).

Dressed for success and failure


Although unusual morphologies are increasingly candidates for the corporal cut, as
Shildrick (2008: 34) observes, corporal dierence is less frequently codied as monstrous abnormality against which society must be defended (cf. Foucault, 2003b).

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Today, horror and hostility are more likely to be evoked when subjects exceed
normatively gendered embodiments (Gressgard, 2006). For instance, the trans
character Eve in Angela Carters novel The Passion of New Eve (1977) fails to
pass as a woman not because of an anomaly but because she ts too well within
the category. As Henrietta Moore comments, the artice is evident not in its failure
but in its success (1994: 143). In a similar mode to Moores, Elisabeth Bronfen
comments on the death of cross-dresser Venus Xtravaganza, killed by a client in a
hotel room in New York in 1989. According to Bronfen, cross-dressing can lead to
the real killing o of the performing body as long as the appearance is declared to
be the real thing (2001: 243). By reference to Peggy Phelan (1993), Bronfen conjectures that Venus was murdered not because of failed passing but, quite the
reverse, because her passing was successful. All too successful cross-dressing
evokes horror, she suggests, because it eaces all traces of incongruity between
the posing subject and the attire it has chosen to appropriate (Bronfen, 2001: 244).
Perhaps the most poignant lesson to learn, then, she maintains, is that cross-dressing never fails as dramatically as when it fully succeeds (2001: 243). A cross-dressers successful appropriation seems to have toxic side-eects that are beyond the
pale of tolerance, signalling the ultimate crisis of identity.
As the foregoing discussion has suggested, trans people bring into question the
subjectivity-constituting contradiction of freedom and subordination; choice and
submission; autonomy and dependence; liberty and necessity. Even when trans
people make choices of a dramatic and profound kind, they still demonstrate
how individual choice is imbued with cultural norms and docility (see Butler,
2004). The (gendered) boundary between individual freedom and submission is
blurred as their interconnection becomes obvious. And bearing in mind
Foucaults assertion that modern power is tolerable only on the condition that it
masks a substantial part of itself and hides its own mechanisms, the blurring of
boundaries the disclosure of the constitutive power of normality creates unease
within the liberal humanist order. In their inversion of gender categories, trans
people bring into view the constitutive exclusions that are the necessary supplements to liberal discourse.9 We may infer, then, that trans people are monstrous by
reason of their embodied inversion of dominant gender identity and, concomitantly, their embodied demonstration of the contradiction in normative subjectivity. Moreover, trans peoples improperly or inadequately gendered bodies
pertaining to the contradiction between outward appearance and inner truth
which they embody maintain the norm while challenging the naturalness of
relations between inside and outside at the same time (see Halberstam, 1995: 72).
That renders trans people into limit cases for humanness.

Productive crisis
Provided that trans people fortify and, at the same time, corrupt the humanist
conception of gender as an innate identity (based on the division between inside

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and outside), it is, then, sometimes hard to discern between conservative pronouncements about male/female and external representations of gender attributes
which displace the meaning of gender identity (see Halberstam, 1995: 167, 176).
Owing to the fact that monstrosity involves excess and displacement, it inevitably
has the potential to disrupt normative models of gender. Halberstam posits that
contemporary monstrous gender rips previous denitions apart at the seams before
sticking gender back together again as something much messier than just male or
female (1995: 143). Numerous gender researchers and trans scholars have argued
along the same lines. For instance, Thomas argues in favour of a trans human
being beyond the boundary of gender a trans being at, or over, the edge of
humanity (2006: 32223). Shildrick, for her part, contends that the normal body
is materialized through a set of reiterative practices that speak to the instability of
the singular standard. In so far as the normal and natural body requires maintenance and/or modication to hold o the constant threat of disruption
(Shildrick, 1999: 80), the practice of body modication alerts us to the crisis at
the boundaries of the body which is never one (1999: 90). Correspondingly,
Sullivan (2006a) contends that all body modication practices could be perceived
as trans practices, suggesting that transsexual surgery is just another way of modifying ones body (cf. Stryker and Sullivan, 2009). Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah
and Lisa J. Moore address this issue by asserting that it is problematic to assume
that certain people are trans or crossers, while others are characterized by bodily
boundedness and xity (2008: 11). Still others contest normative subjectivity and
endorse a productive crisis by highlighting the promise of monsters (Haraway,
1992; Stone, 2006), monster beauty (Braunberger, 2000), monstrous aliations
(Potential, 2004) and queer, unbound monsters of somatechnics (Stephens, 2009;
Sullivan, 2006b), just to mention a few.
While some authors, such as Currah (2006) and Spade (2006), choose to occupy
the dominant norm alluding perhaps to Spivaks (1987) concept of strategic
essentialism and Butlers (1997) strategy of performative contradiction in
order to produce an internal subversion of its terms, others arm the subjugated
terms, such as monstrous and inhuman, in search of a subversive potential. This
might suggest that overdoing gender could easily slip into undoing gender, or at
least that excessive femininity or masculinity have the potential to deconstruct the
hetero-patriarchal norm by way of mimic reection (see Butler, 1990; see also e.g.
Cole and Cate, 2008). According to Butler, trans people can produce a crisis a
productive crisis that allows for a critical release of alternative imaginary schemas, a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to
matter at all (1993: 23). The question is, however, to what extent researchers and
activists in their search for new possibilities in the void between the human and
inhuman, and the normal and monstrous radically contest the boundaries of
human(ist) ontology.10 To be more specic, we could ask whether Butlers productive crisis and Halberstams prospect of a post-human construct of the self alongside other attempts to rearticulate the dominant norm and its terms require in

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advance what they are also promoting, namely a radically new (post-humanist)
cultural matrix of meaning.

Successful, flexible subjectivity


Within the context of the cultural shift from industrial society (Fordism) to the
contemporary period of exible regimes of production (see e.g. Harvey, 1990;
Sennett, 1998), Robert McRuer (2006) addresses the late-modern crisis of identity
and subjectivity that pertains to the destabilization and fragmentation of rm
foundations or grounds. Over the past decades, the universal subject of classical
humanism and hitherto invisible, dominant identities have been severely challenged
by scholars as well as social movements, including feminist, queer and trans scholars and activists. According to McRuer, dominant forms of embodied identity (i.e.
white, heterosexual, able-bodied subjects) have, in response, made themselves visible by exhibiting a remarkable tolerance towards non-normative identities.
Through tolerance discourse, which entails a exible accommodation of a certain
amount of otherness, the normative subjectivities come to terms with the crisis so
as to reconstitute themselves as whole (see 2006: 12.).
In this process, the non-normative gures are cast as exible and adaptable
bodies that, although still visually and narratively subordinate, no longer mark
an absolute deviance from the norm within a rigid cultural system. The crux of the
matter is that the bodies experiencing the epiphany must be exible enough to
make it through a moment of crisis, while the other bodies must function exibly
as sites on which the epiphanic moment can be staged; they must exibly comply in
order for the normative subjectivities and dominant identities to exibly expand
(McRuer, 2006: 16.)
[T]he exible subject is successful precisely because he or she can perform wholeness
through each crisis . . . They manage the crisis [through tolerance] . . . they adapt and
perform as if the crisis had never happened. (McRuer, 2006: 17, my interjection in
brackets)

Because all of this happens in a discursive climate of tolerance, McRuer moves on


to argue, the normative subject, as well as the culture that produces him or her, can
easily disavow how much the subjective expansion of dominant identities are contingent on compliant non-normative bodies (2006: 1819). Tolerance masks how
putatively normative subjectivity and dominant identity are achieved, to paraphrase Brown, through their constitution by, dependence upon and disavowal of
subordinate subjectivities and sets of activities.
Owing to the exible logic of governmentality, non-normative bodies appear
when, and as long as, they are necessary for the expansion of the normative subjectivities and dominant identities. McRuer emphasizes that non-normative bodies
can be moved from centre stage as that expansion takes place (2006: 29).

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Accordingly, exibility does not only pertain to subjectivities and identities, but
signies a general cultural logic, including the exibility of regulating power. As
indicated in Part I, governmentality is indeed a exible power compared with the
more rigid juridical power and tolerance, being one of governmentalitys key techniques, involves exibility in at least three senses. First, it creates exible subjects;
second, it can be stretched (i.e. the limits of tolerance are bound to their plasticity);
and nally, it can be applied as required.
If we link up the rst with the second type of exibility, we could ask whether
inexible subjects mark the limits of tolerance, and if so, why is inexibility hard to
tolerate? To pursue these questions, I want to return to the issue of display.
According to McRuer, attention must be drawn to the late-modern crisis of identity in order for the resolution to be visible, but too much focus on the crisis too
much visibility would be to act out inexibility (2006: 17). Given the interconnection between exibility and tolerance, we might infer from McRuers argument
that the inexible subject not only performs intolerance but is, in turn, hard to
tolerate because of the display of crisis. What makes inexibility intolerable,
I would tentatively suggest, is not simply the subjects inability to resolve the
crisis but, importantly, the display of the crisis as a structural element of subject
formation and identity formation. This can be amplied by recalling the distinction
that I draw between liminal practices of transition and late-modern western transitional practices.
I argued that liminal practices display through excessive demonstration the
regulatory power involved in processes of transition. At this juncture, it should be
added that a dening feature of rites of passage is their threefold structure,
consisting of a pre-liminal phase of separation, a liminal phase of transition
and a post-liminal phase of reincorporation (see Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1969).
If we recall the structure of sexual stories referred to in Part I, we recognize a
similar composition of generic elements: suering, epiphany or coming out and
transformation (see Plummer, 1995: 54). It is interesting to note that sexual
stories, like rites of passage, tend to include metaphors of border, territory,
crossing and transitivity (Halberstam, 1998: 42, 164). And it is likewise interesting
to note that McRuer, in accordance with the generic elements of sexual stories,
deploys the term epiphany when analysing contemporary narratives of crisis and
the subsequent moment of unparalleled subjectivity, that is, the sense of subjective wholeness (2006: 16). He also speaks of the out (able-bodied and heterosexual) subject when discussing the visibility of the crisis and the epiphanic
process (2006: 12).
Unlike rites of passage, however, these sexual stories do not display the incorporating power of a community but, on the contrary, draw attention to the subjects individualized sense of integrity. Unless too much attention is directed to the
crisis, the dominant identities emerge not as compulsory but as results of choice,
compatible with individual autonomy. Conversely, subjects who put too much
emphasis on the gender crisis, such as trans people who give an account of their
coming out experiences by way of confession, are likely to be deemed inexible

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and in some instances intolerable. At any rate, as our discussion has suggested, latemodern monsters are not anomalous gures meant for display, but are nevertheless
displaying the subjectivity-constituting contradiction the crisis of normality.

Reproductive crisis
Bearing in mind the exibility pertaining to tolerance, we may now return to the
question as to whether Butlers productive crisis and Halberstams prospect of a
post-human construct of the self require in advance what they are also promoting,
namely a radically new cultural matrix of meaning. In a critical remark to feminist
attempts to unsettle normative conceptions of gender by means of invocation of the
strange (Butlers invocation of drag being the paradigmatic instance), Linda Zerilli
(2005: 42) points out that any particular sets of criteria for sex dierence can be
elastic to the point of instability without undermining our basic sense that there is
something called sex dierence. [F]rom knowing that there are empirical exceptions to the two-sex system, it does not follow that we acknowledge that there
might be alternatives to the two-sex system (2005: 64).
Perhaps ironically, as Halberstam astutely notes, it is not the xity but the
elasticity of cultural taxonomies that ensures their longevity (1995: 27). So, even
if trans people push the limits of prevailing categories, it could be argued that the
crisis of gender and sexual identity to which they call attention and the language
of tolerance to which they are subjected contribute to the elasticity of gender
taxonomies, thereby expanding the meaning and normative limits of man and
woman, rather than corrupting them. As long as trans gender expressions are
managed and hence (re)appropriated by the language of tolerance, gender transitivity serves to reproduce not only the male/female dualism but, more generally, the
gendered constitutive dualisms of liberal humanist discourse.
I want to suggest that trans translates into monstrous once the contradictory
nature indeed the crisis of normative subjectivity is demonstrated, and trans
identity remains monstrous as long as it is needed. Monsters are kept ready in any
given instance where normative borders and boundaries are at stake, but unlike
liminal freaks who rmly demonstrate the limits of normative community (communitas), contemporary liberal-democratic societies do not need spectacular, totalizing monsters that mark absolute deviance. Todays monsters need to be suitable
for exible regimes of governmentality. It is crucial that trans people, residing at
the cusp of normativity and otherness, are eligible for both tolerance and monstrosity. By virtue of constituting facets of normative identity, they are exibly
being pushed to one side of the line or the other (cf. Pugliese, 2008).
It is my contention that liberal tolerance could be seen as the humanist solution
to an identity crisis created by the exible logic of governmentality. The solution is
characteristically paradoxical, however, inasmuch as it does not aim to resolve the
crisis as such, but seeks instead to restore continuity.11 Tolerance discourse creates
the exibility that allows for the crisis to be eased and the normative subjects to
perform wholeness as if the crisis had never happened. At the same time,

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tolerance discourse reproduces the monstrous facets of identity that allow for
governmentality to perpetuate the crisis the identity crisis whose nal resolution
would be fatal for society.
Acknowledgements
I am deeply grateful for the anonymous referee comments on earlier versions of this article. I
would also like to thank Ellen Mortensen and Christine M. Jacobsen for their valuable comments at the nal stage, and the copy-editor, Elaine Corke, for her careful work on the text.

Notes
1. Queer theory, which forms the basis for many gender queer identities and expressions, is
most often associated with Judith Butlers ground-breaking book Gender Trouble (1990),
in which she draws attention to the normative conditions under which the categories of
sex and gender are formed. She endeavours to rethink sex and gender beyond the binary
frame, and in so far as trans people inhabit these categories differently they are considered to be disruptive of the heterosexual imperative, testifying to the contingency of both
sex and gender (see e.g. Butler, 1990, 1993). Arguably, this depiction of transgenderism,
by means of which the categories of sex and gender are destabilized, has generated dissent
among trans activists and scholars who consider transition to be the route to natural
identity and bodily integrity. See e.g. Prosser (1998) for a critique of Butler. In a later text,
Butler concedes that a tension arises between queer theory and both intersex and transsexual activism concerning the question of sex-assignment and the desirability of identity
categories. Queer theory de-naturalizes all identity claims, including stable sex-assignment. According to Butler, there is no easy way to distinguish between what is materially true and what is culturally true about a sexed body (2004: 87). Hence, it would be
impossible to perceive sex outside of the cultural matrix of power relations (2004: 9495).
2. Governmentality is formally non-political but, as Nikolas Rose notes, [t]he term politics can no longer be utilized as if its meaning was self-evident; it must itself be the
object of analysis (2008: 200).
3. As Iris Young points out, not all groups are constitutive of identity. For example, some
women deny reflective awareness of womanly identity as constitutive of their identity
(2000: 88). Significantly, heterosexual women are not normally assumed to constitute an
identity group or a collective, and they are hence not subjected to the language of tolerance (see Brown, 2006: 48ff.).
4. For a critique of standpoint epistemology and the realist concept of lived experience, see
for example Scott (1992) and Brown (1995: 41).
5. To draw a sharp distinction between autonomy and uniqueness is not always illuminating
where modern subjectivity is concerned. In another context, it might be more pertinent to
conceive of autonomy and uniqueness as two aspects of a more comprehensive category
of autonomy (defined in relation to the metaphysical concept of the universal, undifferentiated subject). See Gressgard (2010) for an elaboration of this argument.
6. Spade recognizes that the notion of self-determination is bound up in specific understandings of individuality understandings that obscure the mechanisms of oppression
we are seeking to overcome. Nevertheless, freedom requires strategic employment of
ideas like self-determination, Spade asserts, as long as we still experience ourselves
through heavily entrenched concepts of individuality (2006: 235n9.). It is interesting to

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7.

8.

9.
10.

11.

557

note, moreover, that Spade uses Browns critique of tolerance discourse to advocate for
gender self-determination (see Spade, 2006: 230ff.).
When conceptualizing ritualization of subordination, we always run the risk of conjuring up notions of monstrosity in terms of community of blood and cannibalism; it is the
problem of the absorption of the social body by each individual, or of the absorption of
each individual by the totality of the social body (Foucault, 2003b: 103). Hence, we also
risk (re)producing a theory that dissociates their societies from our societies.
Modernity has eliminated the comfort of monsters, Halberstam (1995: 162) argues, since
we have been obliged to recognize that evil often works as a system, proliferated through
institutions by way of governmentality, we might add. It is worth noting that
Foucault, when approaching the problem of racism in Nazi society, contends that the
classic, archaic mechanism of sovereign power the power to take life or let live which
signifies a metaphysics of blood and purity coincides with the new, disciplinary and
regulatory mechanism of power. Indeed, Nazi racism is bound up with the technology of
power, not with mentalities, ideologies or the lies of power (Foucault 2003a: 258ff.)
Halberstam maintains that the monster, as we know it, died when Hannah Arendt
(1963) published her Report on the Banality of Evil entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Adolf Eichmann was a conformist clerk who, according to this report, did his job
without asking questions; he stood trial for crimes committed against humanity as a
leading representative of a Nazi system of unspeakable horror and yet he himself was
terrifyingly normal (cited in Halberstam, 1995: 161ff.). Monstrosity works as a banal
(common to all) mechanism, manifesting itself as a seamless norm rather than as some
monstrous disruption (1995: 162). As Giorgio Agamben points out, the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, as lice,
in the most profane and banal ways, completely emancipated from sacrificial ideology
(1998: 114). Significantly, Agambens concept of homo sacer denotes a sacredness that
defies sacrificial ideology, referring instead to bare life, beyond both profane and religious law. The figure of homo sacer is said to belong to a limit sphere of human action; it
is at once human and non-human, residing at the threshold of natural life (zoe) and
political life (bios) a monstrous hybrid of human and animal (1998: 105). In so far as
Agambens account takes as its starting point sovereign juridical power, however, his
notion of monstrosity resembles what Foucault designates as the old category of the
monster from the domain of somatic and natural disorder (2003b: 74). See Foucault
(2003b: 93ff.) for an account of monstrosity and sovereignty.
According to Jacques Derrida, a supplement serves as a constituting aid to something
allegedly original or natural, denoting both substitution and accretion (1997: 200).
It must be noted that the inhuman does not, in this context, designate that which is at
odds with the western, humanist tradition (something evil or immoral). Rather, it refers
to the constitutive outside of the human, which simultaneously escapes and animates us
(see e.g. Lyotard, 1991).
In ancient Athens, Wendy Brown points out, the term krisis was a jurisprudential term
identified with the art of making distinctions, essential to judging and rectifying an
alleged disorder. Recognition of a crisis, she remarks, entails the passing of judgements and provision of a formula for restorative action (2005: 5). Ancient Greek crisis
signals rupture and the need for accurate assessment and effective strategies of action
to stave off catastrophe. Crisis might, then, cause anxiety but above all it evokes an
immediate need to comprehend the specific condition by sifting, sorting or

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separating its elements in order to judge and to respond to it so as to restore continuity (2005: 7).

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Randi Gressgard is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Womens and Gender
Research (SKOK) at the University of Bergen. She is also aliated with the
research unit International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER) in Bergen.
Her research interests focus on minority research, gender studies and the philosophy of science. She has published a number of articles and books on these issues.
Her most recent book is Multicultural Dialogue: Dilemmas, Paradoxes, Conicts
(Berghahn Books, 2010).

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