GET THE FRAC IN! Or, The Fractal Many-festo: A (Trans)(Crip)t1
Author(s): Sophia Maier, V. Jo Hsu, Christina V Cedillo, & M. Remi Yergeau
Sophia Maier (M.A., Penn State University) studies disability rhetorics, including especially the ways that disability rhetorics interact with feminist theory, queer theory, colonial theory, and rhetorics of science.
V. Jo Hsu is an Assistant Professor of English and the Associate Director of the Program in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Arkansas. Their research and teaching focus on the interrelations among identity, narrative writing, and struggles for social justice.
Christina Cedillo is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Houston Clear Lake. Her research focuses on the role of embodiment in communication, particularly in relation to race, gender, and disability.
M. Remi Yergeau is an Associate Professor of English and Associate Director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan. As an autistic academic, their scholarly interests include writing studies, digital studies, queer rhetorics, and disability studies.Tags: disabled, fractal, manifesto, many-festo, transgender rhetorics
You already know what we are talking about. We are talking about the experience of finding it impossible to fit in. No matter how you shape yourself, you are always further confined by infinitely regressive borders. These colonial scripts for how and with whom we belong are ever-receding horizons. They always require more of you. Every iteration of your identity—no matter how large or small—becomes a battleground.
This manifesto is an invitation to get the frac in (GTFI). You are tired of having to mold yourself for others. We know that. You are tired of watching your friends sequestered, imprisoned, evicted, institutionalized, deported. We know that too. And you are tired of trying to write/teach/learn in a place you were never meant to belong. We know this most of all. This manifesto, then, is dedicated to you. We dedicate to you a space, perhaps for now imaginary, where you may enter, complicate, transform, expand, and flourish.
We believe that trans people and disabled people are entitled to survive and to thrive. In a world engineered for trans and disabled death, there is no such thing as neutrality. When 77% of trans kids in the U.S. experience harassment in grades K-12, when 24% of young trans people have been physically attacked in school, when precarity follows trans people into adulthood as they struggle to work, to shelter themselves, and to survive, we insist that inaction participates in the marginalization and endangerment of trans lives. Similarly, disabled people are forced to navigate physical and social architectures designed for their exclusion—built to deny them housing, employment, and care. It is no accident that 39% of trans folks identify as disabled, compared to 15% of the general population (Grant et al. 35; Puar). These are two populations whose experiences are already deeply entwined, whose liberation depends on a clear articulation of the mutuality of their conjoined oppressions. To that end, we are calling for co-conspirators in a mass mobilization to end ableism and cissexism.
Our collaboration was precipitated by openly transphobic developments in the field of disability studies, which are reflective of broader academic, national, and international discursive trends. Even recent attempts for trans inclusivity in rhetorical studies have failed to acknowledge the multidimensionality of trans experience, as well as the ways trans of color, queer of color, and woman of color feminisms and activisms have made space for gender diversity (Pritchard, “When You Know Better, Do Better”). Such narrow disciplinary approaches not only deny the intersectionality of trans experience (that is, that many trans folks are also disabled and identify as sexual, religious, and/or racial minorities) but also preclude the powerful alliances that could be built among disabled communities and others working towards more inclusive and accessible worlds.
We offer this (Trans)(Crip)t to transcribe the imbrications of trans and disabled lives, which are all inevitably embedded in social worlds shared and acted upon by those who do not identify as either. The TransCript offers alternative scripts for identity and belonging that defy assimilation and border-policing. The TransCript exposes the paradoxes of gendering—the always-receding horizon of racialized masculinity and femininity of which we are only ever (poor) approximations. As a text, this is an invitation—an attempt to carve out discursive space through which we can continue to contest, contort, play with, and refuse the strictures of race, gender, and related bodily norms.
Throughout this manifesto, we utilize “fractal” as a theory-in-motion to illustrate both the distinctiveness and interconnectedness of trans, disabled, LGBQ experiences as well as the logics that inform racism, misogyny, and settler colonialism. Fractals inform textual structures and the development of literary genres (Dimock; Finan). But what if fractals also structure social worlds, historical and rhetorical forces, and struggles for power? What if fractals structure the choreography of heads that turn and stare as we enter grocery stores (Garland-Thompson), structure like verse “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” (Lorde p. 36)? Like fractals, social dynamics are recursive, chaotic, expansive, and interconnected. Like fractals, social encounters are also characterized by repetition, iteration, and associations with larger infrastructures. Fractals bloom, classifying space with increasing clarity. Likewise, social logics organize our lives through intersecting vectors of identity both huge and microscopic. Our entanglements with social structures are corporeal and psychic, ideological and material, abstract and concrete; they infiltrate our voices and vibrate our bones. We cannot escape the architectures that constrain and facilitate our survival. Linked as we are to expansive social geometries, we are all implicated.
Fractals are defined by marking out space, with demarcations growing progressively complex with each iteration. Across space and scale, fractals are connected by patterns, by parallel principles of mathematical order. They are geometric feedback loops that transverse sites, articulating differently sized increments across (and beyond) a canvas. A fractal organizes according to a pattern that continually delineates by lineating. It is a process of territorialization without termination, of identity in unending crisis. As the fractals delineate, they reiterate—a dialectic of the increasingly small and the unendingly large, of “finite parameters and infinite unfolding,” of microscopic detail and of “what keeps spinning out, in endless spirals” (Dimock 88-89).
Take, for example, the Koch snowflake (Fig. 1). In its first iteration, the Koch snowflake appears as an equilateral triangle. In its second iteration, three smaller versions of the triangle emerge from the center of each of the sides, converting the perimeter to a six-pointed star. In the third iteration, two more triangles bloom from each of the new triangles. In each subsequent iteration, the perimeter of the snowflake becomes increasingly multifaceted, but never complete. Any visual manifestation of the Koch snowflake is a simplification, a snapshot of an identity always-in-process. Fractals thus extend their mathematical principles across size and space, marking and patterning territory in asymptotic aspiration.
We find it generative to think about power, identity, and relation as fractally formed. If we understand ourselves as operating within a fractal, we have the opportunity to see one another as
- participating in related and repeating distributions of power, which is to say, self-similarity.
We can come to see our lives as “relational and constellated” because our praxes for living “are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters [we] have with one another within and across particular systems” (Powell et al.). The recent rise of “gender critical” feminism (or Trans-Exclusionary Reactionary Feminism) exemplifies a failure to see or acknowledge the reiterative connections among social oppressions—the fact that Indigenous peoples, Asian and Latin American immigrants, and Black Americans have all been dehumanized for their failures to obey white gender ideals; that trans women are punished for violating the strictures of femininity used to contain cis women; that disabled folks are subjected to the infantalization and deprivation of agency used to humiliate trans people and people of color. With the expansion of Western political, economic, and social powers, these scripts for racialized gender can be found across continents, classifying various groups of “Others” while denying the intimacies of our continental histories (Lowe).
This many-festo is dedicated to the question: What would it mean to regard coalition as fractal—as the ongoing re-examination and renegotiation of communal boundaries? We can’t help but notice, for example, that the same kinds of microaggressions reiterate across contexts and communities, and that these microaggressions also escalate into familiar macroaggressions. Moreover, we notice that carving out spaces for ourselves also requires repetition—recurrent battles over, explanations of, and justifications for our existences. Koch snowflakes that we are, we crip, trans, and queer spaces through community collaboration—after all, queerness is an intimate, relational process.
Although some fractals are sanctioned by colonial powers, our repeated carvings-out of spaces are often pathologized, regarded as echolalia or tics (Yergeau Authoring Autism) or willfulness (Ahmed). When they fail to be sanctioned by the powerful, rhetorical fractals appear to be perversely tautological, inappropriate fixations (perseverations?) of individuals who won’t stop talking about gender and disability. Likewise, tics are often conceived as pathological for their failure to terminate (Bliss). A tic is embodied tautology, embodied echo: it magnifies and lessens, recursively maneuvering across the body, often chaining and bonding with yet more tics, forming clusters and bands and coalitions of complex “sensory utterances” (to channel scholars such as Nolan & McBride). We can imagine fractals, conversely, to behold such failures to terminate as a kind of thriving, as a potential to go, move, link, constellate, constitute, ford, chain, rip, rev, be.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin root of “stimulus” refers to a goad or a stylus. For us, stims—known by doctor-types as self-stimulatory behaviors—refers to this persistent worldmaking. We stimulate ourselves—that is, we mark out our being with a stylus; we goad ourselves (and each other) into existence; we draw ourselves in the dirt with a stick. In this way, our identities and our bodies are implicated in our agenda-making—we are the TransCript as much as we make the TransCript. A TransCript thus refers to the reiterative making of trans, crip space by an active allegiance to, and obsession with, an agenda. Just as a fractal expands and deepens in accordance with mathematical principles (e.g. the Mandelbrot Set, Fig. 2), so our collaboration expands and deepens according to the principles of disability and gender justice. Just as colonial systems imbue toxic gender performances into everything from pens to zygotes to prisons, so our invitation to GTFI, to obsess with us about our agenda, extends endlessly. The TransCript is a pathological perseveration—an embodied, automatic, neuroqueer performance of being every bit as persistent as a tic or a stim.
Stimming is a world, but it is also a world that is constantly subject to extinction. Structural violences like ableism and transphobia are not only about epithets and intentional oppression; these are systems that manifest on the bodymind via routinized forms of (self) governance. We are taught to hide our differences and to regard marginalized identities as aberrations in everyday life. Disability, race, and gender matter everywhere, but only some configurations of these identities can remain unseen as the invisible norm (Browne and Misra; Kafer). Tanya Titchkosky speaks of these conditionals in terms of “justifiable exclusion” (77). How does this negation, this absence, come to be implicitly framed as a justifiable and reasonable absence? Noting the paucity of disabled people in her workplace, Titchkosky states that “the building is not missing disabled people and yet it is” (78). We are here and yet we are not. You are here and yet you are not. That there are few openly trans, nonbinary, and/or Two-Spirit scholars in our field speaks to the enduring effect of such erasure—a fractal reiteration of Titchkosky’s justifiable exclusion. In concert with trans, Two-Spirit, and nonbinary rhetoricians, we insist on the need to embrace more imaginative forms of knowledge-building (Rawson; LeMaster and Johnson; LeMaster et al.; Patterson; Hsu; Driskill, “Doubleweaving”). There are many more of us who have been drawn out of the fractal plane, who have been bounded and binded, rationalized (as) out of existence. “We” supposedly only need five accessible, gender-neutral restrooms for a campus of 30,000. This, dear readers, is safety and progress and high-five-worthy because we are here, and yet we are not here as long as our knowledges and contributions across fields and worlds are ignored.
Fractals are the geometries of collaboration. To “fractal” is to tack in-and-out of particular issues while maintaining political coalitions across multitudes. Fractals imbue entire fields with organizing principles, transforming conglomerations of space into systems of meaning (e.g. Sierpinski’s carpet, Fig. 3). To read social space as a fractal, one might trace, for example, how white ownership of capital is protected by state, social, and religious orchestrations of heteronormativity, racism, xenophobia, ableism, and transphobia. Fractal solidarity thus collaborates across distance and size, engaging every point in shared processes of resignification and renewal.
In tacking between the micro and macro, we practice what Stryker, Currah, and Moore describe as “transing.” Rather than focusing on “trans” as a horizontal migration along the spectrum of gender, Stryker et al. define transing as vertical movement between the experiences of individual bodyminds and the structures of “nations, states, and capital-formations” through which those individuals are made to live. Within our fractal coalitions, we tack in and out of our cultural contexts, commingling with the granular and the capacious. We find resonant conceptions of mutual socialities in cultural rhetorics, decolonial theory, crip communities and crip activism, and other communities maintained by people whose praxes are informed by theories in and of the flesh (Powell et al.; Escobar; Moraga and Anzaldúa; Calafell; Hamraie and Fritsch). Across disciplines and perspectives, we create constellative knowledge(s) with our relations.
At any given time, we are always contributors to various disciplinary field(s), members of various communities, subject to federal and state regulations, and other conditions of belonging. For that reason, when we advocate for trans communities or disability justice, we cannot align our interests with one group to the exclusion of others. Nor must we translate our advocacy into self-interest before we act. Our connections suggest that “their” problems are “our” problems—without erasing difference (e.g. distance, magnitude) and without demanding individual benefits from community justice. Each identity we claim is a locus of our power, but such power also comes with constraints, considerations, and responsibilities. We must be cognizant of the ways that our manifestations, our deeds and discourse, may silence or alienate others. Moreover, we cannot participate as scholars and teachers in disciplines that would deny facets of our identity.
Those of us who are multiply marginalized know how often we are pressed to acquire different forms of expertise in order to justify our own existence. We must constantly educate others regarding “what it means to live as” trans and/or nonbinary people, as people of color, as disabled persons, and only a small fraction of that labor is ever paid (if we are paid at all). You and we do not take our access to institutional resources for granted; we are all familiar with what it’s like when we are barred from some of those resources. Part of our work, therefore, consists of self-creating access—whether in the form of collectively compelling our institutions to accommodate our bodyminds, or struggling to invent new minutes and hours to finish our tasks (perhaps forgoing sleep or other important sustainability services), or independently developing the knowledge or skill to forage for our own resources, all while having our experiences dismissed and denigrated. Because we are so intimately familiar with the isolation and exhaustion of this labor, we take seriously Shawn Wilson’s call to research, teaching, and activism with the tenets of respect, reciprocity, and relationality at the fore, heeding these principles so as to “act with fidelity in relationship to what has been heard, observed, and learnt” (59). We are all worthy of basic human dignity, but we demand more. We want safety. We want freedom. We want joy. Collectively, then, we commit to community safety, dignity, and liberation.
The fractal reminds us that all oppressions are connected. Transphobia emerges from a colonial capitalist cis-tem of gender dimorphism and is upheld by neoliberal economic models that extract value from rigid gender norms (Driskill et al.; Driskill, Asegi Stories, “Doubleweaving,”; Boellstorff et al.; Besnier and Alexeyeff; Green and Bey; Snorton; Chen). The same colonialism that sought to eliminate Indigenous genders beyond the cis binary through cultural and physical genocide still endangers trans and gender nonconforming individuals, especially those who are disabled, people of color, poor, and/or forced by Western expansion to im/migrate across borders. Decolonial work inside and outside the classroom must honor the presence and struggles of trans and gender nonconforming relations, or else such work enforces ongoing colonialism and imperialism.
We need to divest ourselves of some very violent tendencies towards “diversity normativity.” When we neglect to account for experiences and needs different than our own, we must depend on retrofitting (Dolmage; Yergeau et al.; Wood), which equates presence with monetary value and highlights a failure to think about already Othered others. Retrofits are “passive aggressive” and “often aggressively delay access” while also suggesting that the work of inclusion is done (Dolmage 77). Likewise, we must find new ways to plan for an array of bodies and experiences, new forms of intentional and unanticipated coalition-building, a new Universal Design for survival, a new commitment to getting the frac in.
How Do We Get the Frac In?
Our many-festo is an invitation to “get the frac in,” to join a chorus of scholars and activists articulating the fractal anthem of the TransCript. We invite you into our constellation of energies to invent new affective and material worlds for trans and disabled people. Fractals are at once solid and mobile. Creating active solidarity through trans, crip worldmaking, we commit ourselves to:
- Valuing each other’s lives and experiences on their own terms, rather than in terms of their usefulness to us. We will align with one another not on the basis of our similarities but on the basis of our active decisions to establish community together.
- Troubling the ideas of neutrality and passivity. We recognize that “neutral” and “passive” positions are reiterations of fractal boundaries, creating the illusion of independence from the larger whole. In particular, we recognize that being cisgender is not a “default” and is every bit as much of a “choice” as being transgender—that the binary is a fiction imposed by Eurowestern colonial taxonomies.
- Earning trust. Especially for those working with historically marginalized groups to which they do not belong, getting the frac in requires humility. Allyship is not an identity; it is praxis. Allyship means learning from those who live the life, not debating your theoretical knowledge. Allies must do the work of creating (and relinquishing!) trans, crip spaces. Performative allyship and virtue signaling merely affirm the privilege of those who have the least to lose.
- Becoming better accomplices in one another’s struggles by researching the uneven social architectures we inhabit and pursuing more wholly inclusive and liberatory worlds.
- Taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the communities we write about/to. Practicing what Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Eric Darnell Pritchard model as “community-accountable” and “ancestor-led” scholarship and teaching (Pritchard, Fashioning Lives; “On Black Queer Literacies and Activism”; Gumbs).
- Understanding that citational politics matter, that the effects of our research matter, and that this is not a sport or a competition but a practice of mutual care.
- Dismantling the academic cis-stems that exclude trangender people. Trans knowledge exceeds esoteric niches. Academic spaces cannot be liberatory until we collectively struggle against transantagonism, trans-exclusion, trans-erasure, and trans-sequestering in all their manifestations.
- Building infrastructures of education founded on principles of mutual welfare, rather than on myths of meritocracy.
- Leveraging privileges and resources in solidarity with marginalized communities.
- Learning when to create space, when to occupy space, when to dissolve space, and when to withdraw from space in order to elevate those most affected by the issues at hand.
- Risking failure, imperfection, and embarrassment in pursuit of community care. The ongoing process of accomplicehood is messy and sometimes painful; we accept that. Even with the best intentions, we may hurt one another, and we will have to find ways to take responsibility for that hurt. We also accept that an untarnished reputation can itself be a form of privilege and that the fear of social sanction does not excuse a failure to do the work of accomplicehood.
How Do We Exercise Community Care?
This project is itself a practice of community care, through which we created opportunities for textual and spoken dialogue, for listening across difference, and for sharing our experiences and desires with a broader audience. Following the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, we hope that this manifesto is also an invitation, through which members of our fields might explore more opportunities to venture into unconventional academic genres, to make visible the substantive labor of cultivating more inclusive disciplinary spaces, and to foster open exchange of ideas, fears, and aspirations.
We say “community care” and not “self care” because we find ourselves webbed in systems of power, of affect, of material conditions, and of social conditions that extend far past the “sovereign” power of individual volition. Each iteration of a fractal is defined in relation to the iteration that precedes it. Like fractals, we contextualize ourselves within formative structures. “Self-care,” then, presumes a kind of universal access to individual care made possible by universal access to structural care. If you believe that “self-care” is really possible, that is because you have neglected to credit the innumerable persons and systems that care for you.
Thinking about community care, then, allows us to consider what forms of care are available in the context of unequal social structures. Approaching community care fractally enables us to consider how to build communities of power. The co-creation of this article is one example of what it means to build community care. In writing this paper, each of us authors have acted as nodes of support for one another. Within this network of social validation, we’ve built a social space that offers refuge from the unrelenting ableist and transphobic formations of academia. Like fractals, we conjoin to reiterate spaces of belonging—spaces defined by the affective, material, and social structures of our collaborative design. Though we hope others will stretch, transport, and transform our ideas, we offer the following initial principles for community care:
Community care requires perseverance, a “pathological” commitment to building spaces of social justice. We must make ourselves an unrelenting force (“fus ro DAH!”) of reiteration, of the rearticulation of our community home. Community care means working towards an environment where everyone can feel valued and affirmed. Regardless of any Supreme Court rulings, our personhood is not up for debate.
Community care recognizes the material and affective conditions that structure academia. The ability to afford rent is as much a part of an academic career as emotional wellbeing, as a sense of fulfillment, and as the ability to effect positive community changes. Our mentoring practices, our departmental procedures, and our citational practices should all be sensitive to how they impact others inside and outside academic institutions.
Community care acknowledges that surviving as a person may require community assistance. These needs do not indicate lack or deficit but signify many of the structural evils that silence and exclude marginalized communities and individuals. The one-size-fits-all model of accommodations reinforces normate violence, especially across diverse identities. Viewing diversity as an abstract concept rather than rooted in bodily and material realities can lead to retrofitting “at best” and complete erasure at worst.
Community care means calling folks in or out as needed and making strategic choices that reduce occasions for (re-)traumatizing students and colleagues. Community care means learning to avoid publishing in, assigning, or recommending journals that do not acknowledge historically marginalized perspectives or that publish writing that invalidates our experiences. This includes work in disability studies that refuses to acknowledge the inextricability of ableism from transphobia and other forms of social oppression. Such work is both harmful on an interpersonal level and plainly irresponsible scholarly practice.
We are calling for a collaboration of misfits. We are the snowflake pegs to their Mandelbrot-shaped holes. Drawing upon the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Aimi Hamraie describes fitting and misfitting as “material-discursive, relational, and interdependent categories.” As Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch show us, misfits are more than mere byproducts of oppressive forces: misfits “are engaged agents of remaking.” In this way, the TransCript summons a commitment to the program of disorderly survival—surviving as oneself by carving out spaces for oneself-in-community.
In writing this manifesto, we ask whether you would collaborate with us, whether you would tic with us, whether you would help us to invent and sustain and share trans, crip space. Whether you would like to articulate the TransCript together. Whether you would like to join the Gay Agenda.™ Not because you’re trans. Not because you’re disabled. But because you share with trans disabled communities a project of worldbuilding. Because you take pleasure in your tics, in your (gender)queerness, in your desire. We invite you to obsess with us. Echo with us. Perseverate with us. Drift in our Koch snowstorms and cover your floors with Sierpinski’s carpet. Connect to and manifest with us.
As scholars and teachers, we all have difficult choices to make. We have careers, families, students, and colleagues that depend on our presence within these field(s). We are all bounded by colonial scripts. Carving new spaces, (trans)gressing and (trans)cribing these boundaries is materially and emotionally demanding. For all these reasons, we know that some colleagues will gtfo. They will follow the scripts we have been handed, inhabit the stories we already know.
But, maybe you want something different. In which case—welcome! GTFI.
- We thank Jo’s 2018 FemRhet students and especially Alex Rogers for providing the term “Many-Festo.”
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