October 30, 2020 | 16 minutes read

Transkensteinian Monster: Responding to Federici’s Beyond the Periphery of the Skin

It's spooky season! Drawing on Frankenstein and his Monster, a comrade reflects on Silvia Federici's Beyond the Periphery of the Skin from a trans- perspective.

Transkensteinian Monster: Responding to Federici’s Beyond the Periphery of the Skin

Silvia Federici’s Beyond the Periphery of the Skin, released in 2020, gets a lot of things right; she is highly regarded in Marxism for a very good reason. Her articulation of solidarity across class and racial intersections of gender are principled, considered and strategic (the three pillars of good analysis). It’s a worthwhile read, and her contributions warrant her a great deal of grace.

But when it comes to transgender people and our politics, it is frustrating to see Federici fall into haphazard error. This includes basic mistakes, such as referring to ‘men, women and trans’ as categorisations. A charitable interpretation is that she misworded her phrase, and instead meant “men, women and non-binary people”. The cynic might guess that she views women and trans(women) as distinct, and men and trans(men) as distinct. Throughout the text she launches a well-considered assault on the likes of Butler, unearthing them and other post-structuralists from a materialist perspective. However, she habitually lumps postmodernist theory with “trans theory”, as if such a category homogeneously exists, and can be scrutinised without distinction to Butler. The realities of our lives seem completely out of her grasp. The problem, at its core, is that Federici seems to have a primary concern in the liberation of women, and a secondary concern with the liberation of all those who suffer under patriarchal capitalism. Her support of us seems conditional on whether we preconfigure in support of her liberation. So much of her references to our trans- bodies and our trans- lives are implicit, edited out perhaps, and yet crackling through the words like the electronic static that has become a trope in horror scores.

Federici’s victim of choice is that of “body remakes,” used to encompass all from tattooing and bodybuilding to plastic surgery and gender affirmation surgery under a “craze for remakes” in contrast to a time when “we saw each other as beautiful because we were defiant, because in freeing ourselves from the prescriptions of a misogynous society we explored new ways of being, new ways of laughing, hugging, wearing our hair, crossing our legs, new ways of being together and making love”. She links these remakes to oppressive aesthetic ideals and unthinking acceptance of medical god-like creators. Luckily for her she need not be explicit: we are used to reading between the lines.

What this piece will hopefully show is not only points of error in the comrade’s work, but also how a reframing of some of her implicit questions and concerns can result in the stronger, liberatory and materially-driven movement she advocates. I have a particular pair of figures in mind to help us do so: Victor Frankenstein and his Monster.

A key argument throughout Beyond the Periphery of the Skin is a resistance to conforming to capitalism, in terms of production and ideological impositions on the body. Federici argues that in these body remakes, whether medical, reproductive, surgical or technological, we can see capitulation to capitalism. And this is apt: we cannot celebrate reforms if they reinforce capitalism rather than supplant it; our struggle must be against material conditions and the mode of production that creates and depends on complex and fluctuating gendered divisions of labour, and not solely resisting the socially oppressive devices in service of that production. If technology is developed, if capitalist states and pharmaceutical corporations encourage certain technological or medical augmentations, how can those remakes resist capitalism? Federici’s scepticism is, to an extent, welcome – in a time of ever sharpening eugenics, we should not treat capitalist medicine as neutral. Federici envisions that our direction is towards a cybernetic future, where labouring bodies are mechanised to maximise efficiency of production. But she fails to address the complexities of this question from a transfeminist perspective.

Federici argues that ‘Dr Frankenstein’s dream is back on the table, not only in the form of a human-shaped robot, but also as a technologically enhanced human being of the kind that the implantation of microchips in our bodies is already preparing’.

It is odd that Frankenstein’s Monster is Federici’s fear, when the Monster represents capitalism’s horror so perfectly. As Moretti writes, ‘The fear of bourgeois civilization is summed up in two names: Frankenstein and Dracula’.The body of the Monster came from the working graves Victor had robbed. In the time of Shelley’s writing, this was a common reality (see McNally’s Monsters of the Market): the bourgeois class in the Netherlands and Britain, in particular, would take the bodies of the working class dead and use them for decadent entertainment. There are records of week-long events where the rich would gather to watch dissections, eating and drinking as they watch bodies being carved. This also served as a form of cartographical enclosure, whereby the organs and anatomies of working-class corpses were made into obtainable, ownable property at the probing hand of an enlightened, exploring scientist.The body itself becomes a site for class: ‘difference in rank must now be inscribed more deeply: in one's skin, one's eyes, one's build’ (Moretti). It is Victor Frankenstein, then, that represents working class horror, and the Monster represents capitalism’s dread.

Mary Shelley’s text is an ode to liberation. The Monster can be understood as a depiction of how the gender nonconforming have been created, made fugitive and forced to fight back. Indeed they (used happily as the gender neutral singular, with a nod to the plural) can be read convincingly as gender nonconfirming, perhaps specifically non-binary in that ‘The monster...is always described by negation: man is weIl proportioned, the monster is not; man is beautiful, the monster ugly; man is good, the monster evil. The monster is man turned upside-down, negated’. The dialectic between oppressor, Frankenstein, and oppressed, his Monster (named only in relational terms), reveals to us that the violence of the creation of class, or gender, or race, creates resistance that necessarily turns on the oppressor. Victor Frankestein, the embodiment of the ruling class, is a scientist, and regales the reader with his belief in enlightenment philosophy and his desires to harness nature and to rule over it. He obsesses over his vision of creating life (absent of any other, especially the women made absent in his life), and when he finally achieves this goal he treats them with contempt, fleeing as soon as they open their eyes. We must not pity Frankenstein’s fate: he created his monster, and thus he created his demise. Federici’s implicit assumption of an original and universally featured gendered body, in the term “body remakes” comes from enlightenment thinking – that which Frankenstein inhabits. Biological originality as posed by Federici is itself opposed to a materialist perspective of the body, thus putting her enlightened sensibilities at odds with the very materialism she otherwise advocates.

Federici’s use of Frankenstein’s Monster as an exemplar of the horror of the very real and terrifying technofascist future she conceives of is misplaced. It is Frankenstein himself who is the villain of the text, and it is he whom we should resist. We cannot blame the Monster, who did not create themself. As Shelley places from Paradise Lost into the epigraph of her novel, ‘did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man, did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?’. And yet “Frankenstein” has come to mean the Monster more so than the scientist, showing how even in this parallel we can see that the real villain has managed to shift the blame of the name onto the made-victim Monster. In constantly referring to her issues with trans- people supporting capitalism, along with people who get plastic surgery or tattoos, one might be forgiven for thinking that Federici has it in for us. To quote Frankenstein’s Monster’s first recorded words, “I expected this reception”.

All That Is Solid

Federici identifies various ways that trans people can be productive for capitalism; she is not the first, and again seems to wade into the trans-sphere without adequate equipment. A strong example comes from Dan Irving’s Normalized Transgressions: Legitimizing the Transsexual Body as Productive:

‘In Transsexual Workers: An Employer’s Guide (2003), Janis Wolworth makes the case for hiring transsexual workers, as well as for maintaining the employment status of those transitioning. It is here that (trans)sex and gender mediate economic needs to render the transsexual laboring body industrious, and in ways that are strikingly similar to how the neoliberal political economy renders all workers susceptible to decreasing wages, fewer benefits, and precarious positions (such as contract work). As Wolworth writes, “while in transition, transsexuals are strongly motivated to earn enough money to pay for the desired procedures and to maintain above-average performance in order to keep their jobs.” Furthermore, corporations can influence the construction of effective transsexual bodies through investing in procedures for sexual reassignment and instituting antidiscriminatory policies that protect gender identity and expression. She states, “Once transition is completed, a transsexual employee is likely to become more productive.”64 Transsexual individuals can be viewed as viable neoliberal subjects: they have proven to be flexible and fluid, self-sufficient, and major contributors to their families, workplaces, communities, and societies.”

Distinctly but relatedly, Federici argues that capitalism ​needs​ a genderless workforce, hence we see fashion becoming ever more androgynous. This argument doesn’t follow, as the fashion industry is far from normative when it comes to workplace disciplinary devices such as uniforming. Androgyny, a play on boyishness, is not the same as gender fluidity or genderlessness, and her assumption here only demonstrates her lack of knowledge on the topic. It might be better to say that the “gain” of opening up workplaces to women means that the labour is less gendered, opening up the crevices of gender to greater nonconformity. This leads to capitalists such as those in fashion seeing profitability in an increasing demographic rather than that they are creating our existence as some project of capitalism. We existed long before capitalism (something Federici seems to reject, given her articulated positioning of us as recent and remade), and will be there to tell its horror stories long after.

Capitalism will use anything for its malevolent purposes. Anything. To quote from Isabel Fall’s controversial dystopian novella I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter, arguably a harbinger of capitalism's propensity for appropriation: ‘And the moment their work reached a usable stage—the moment society was ready to accept plastic gender, and scientists were ready to manipulate it—the military found a new resource. Armed with functional connectome mapping and neural plastics, the military can make gender tactical’. They can use any of us; even revolution itself, as Lenin famously warned in the first words of State and Revolution, can be ridiculed, reduced, recycled and retailed. But the problem is that Federici seems to blame trans- people, particularly those who can and do opt into medical avenues, for buying into capitalism. Little does she recognise that the project of capitalism is to deradicalise and reduce our inherent, bodily resistance via violent coercion – that ‘these efforts to normalize trans bodies as productive forego the possibility of establishing alliances with anti-capitalist and anti-globalization activists who engage in [resisting] all facets of political economy’ (Irving). She is unwittingly forging an alliance with Frankenstein, and us Monsters can only sigh in despair.

Similarly, whilst she is not wrong that we must investigate the social and political realities of ‘going beyond the binary’, it is hard not to read into her words that she believes in a possibility that there ​is ​a binary; we need to start from the default premise of our non-binary personhood. She is correct to in all these ways offer warning, but any attempt to brush all these things together is lazy and potentially reactionary. We have to be better than that: she may not want to get into the mud of gender nonconformity, but it’s where the battle is.

Federici herself makes a compelling argument for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the context of women more broadly. In her arguments against performative understandings of gender, Federici states that firstly it ignores institutions/wider structures (agreed!) and secondly that it erases the resistance present in consent. She does not expand much on this compelling point, but there is some truth to it; gendered resistance can come in many forms, and not just in the most stimulating and obvious. But to extrapolate, then, transgender resistance to our oppression exists in (relative, and never completely obtainable) gender conformity as well as in gender non-conformity. We must then extend that good will to the trans person who opts for medical routes, and encourage their resistance within that context, rather than give the housewife the benefit of the doubt and not her.

On transmedicalism

Federici writes:

‘​paradoxically, a testimony to the relevance of difference in our experience of our physical makeup comes from a large section of the trans movement that is strongly committed to a constructivist view of gender identities, as many undergo costly and dangerous surgeries and medical treatments in order to transition to a different gender’.

Federici is somewhat articulating that we cannot abandon all bodily considerations when undertaking gendered struggle, and to that she is correct; in combating a biological essentialism that rejects trans- people, we should not fall into an abandonment of all that is spacial. As Barad writes in criticism of Butler and Foucault, ‘​they take for granted the materiality of nonhuman beings/ bodies and do not consider the productive workings of natural forces’.

But the trans- eye, dull and yellow, sees what Federici is doing here. A wagging finger accusation of paradox, of inconsistency, of damaging the broader gender liberation movement is entirely familiar; the blame, here, is on us. At other points she linguistically equates gender reassignment surgery with plastic surgery, talking of “dismembering” along with cloning and genetics. These decrees are known to us.

What Federici is pointing to here, in less specific terms is the damage of transmedicalism – the argument that trans people are defined by a desire, or undertaking of, medical avenues. Federici is not the first to raise this particular finger, and does so without any engagement with the expansive discourse that the trans- communities have had about the topic.

She is correct to suggest that the argument that trans- people must necessarily desire surgery to be accepted as transgender has its roots in violence; specifically a medical, institutional and social violence imposed onto us rather than exacerbated by us. Hapless critique completely ignores how this is internalised violence when undertaken by trans- people. Trans- people who buy into the violence of transmedicalism might be replicating those violent, oppressive structures, but it is the gender conforming who reap the benefits. Trans- people themselves should not be blamed: indeed, the act of blaming is so often infused with transmisogyny, whereby trans- women are made to account for their medical avenues far more than anyone else. Given Federici’s stakes in this argument ostensibly being the liberation of (cis) women, we can assume her ire is here focused on trans- women too. The pressures of wanting to be a ‘real woman’ are far more fiercely imposed on trans- women than on those trans- & non-binary people whose experience of the violence of transmedicalism does not overlap with transmisogyny. For example these parts of the trans- community often don't even desire men-only spaces and still have many other options, as opposed to people excluded for being 'not real women' who are already denied access to all other spaces. This results in our own community being torn in our interests on the issue, with transmisogyny rearing its head even internally – and Federici’s interjections aren’t helping.

Frankenstein’s Monster, having learned from the world (and Frankenstein himself, most of all), comes to believe that a companion Monster would remove their woes. This request is entirely understandable, and yet objectionable. To blame the Monster for this natural conclusion from the world would be misplaced: we must blame Frankenstein and the enlightened, patriarchal, bourgeois world he embodies and excels in. The world is not redeemed by casting out the Monster for their problematic yet logical conclusions; it is saved by revolting against Frankenstein.

Cis people should combat transmedicalism and biological essentialism within their own communities, as well as the transmisogynistic capitalism towering over it all, not decry trans people who have internalised that violence. Leave caring, accountability and tensions within our communities to us, where we have struggled with some success. This is not about “knowing your lane”, but that the trans- community has found it ever more difficult to be a radical political community, and we need to be able to have these struggles to grow, strengthen and relearn how to be the radical voice of an ever-liberalising LGBT+ movement. And, if someone like Federici does want to wade in, they should recognise the majority voice of trans- people who object to a blanket essentialist transmedicalism (as opposed to her claim of “a large number” saying the opposite), instead of scapegoating us as accidental biological essentialists. Capitalism’s medicine is our enemy. When we object to assigning genders at birth, that is putting us squarely at odds with the bourgeois medicine that Federici too worries about. Simply look at how trans- people, particularly black trans- women and gender-nonconforming people, have led resistance to medical, psychiatric and institutional approach to gender, both agitationally and organisationally. We are not advocates of capitalist medicine; we are some of its chief critics and victims.

Unnatural Horror

swallowing elixirs
beneath the moon, i am
a slow-burning alchemy
in midnight’s tube. shape-shifter,
skin-changer, doctor’s daughter, i
am demon mother
with barren womb. sweet nectar
puddling in my pores. sometimes, to survive,
we must become more than alive.
more than woman, and
more than man.

the doctors
want to know
if i take hormones
because i hate my body.
it is because i love
my self.

the other night i dreamed
that there were two flowers
budding inside my chest.
like cereus, my body blossoms,
beneath cool,

Kai Cheng Thom

Federici understands the body as something in continuum with the natural world; a natural and beautiful thing all in harmony. It’s a compelling and comforting depiction, no doubt. When Victor walks the valleys and roams nature, he recalls that “these sublime and magnificent scenes afforded [him] the greatest consolation that [he] was capable of receiving”. But then, a figure bounds into view: the Monster, appearing to him for the first time in years, erupts into his tranquil relationship with nature, filling him with “rage and horror”. The monster seemingly disrupts this natural state, this natural order.

I wonder if Federici, somewhere, doesn’t feel like trans people fit into this harmonious accordance with nature. Not that she views us as unnatural in the most reactionary of senses, but views us, and particularly those who can/do opt for any form of medical support, to be polluting how things should be, that original body that she seems to believe in.

Federici seems to view the natural world as something at odds with human involvement, when she should instead view it at odds with antagonistic exploitation. This view of the natural is shaped by a colonialist worldview. When conservationists, particularly within the rewilding movement, make reference to "natural wilderness" for example, this erases the work of indigenous people in shaping landscapes, thus justifying its colonial conquest. When we depict nature in virginal terms, it highlights the centrality of patriarchal notions of purity and conquest. To contrast the body with this version of nature, then, ignores that body alterations are not a recent invention of patriarchal capitalism – they have existed in various forms across many cultures. Tutankhamun, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh had stretched ears, for example, as did the Buddha, and as do many modern indigenous communities across Tanzania and Kenya. The oldest naturally mummified human found in Europe, a Bronze-age person called Otzi the Iceman, also had stretched lobes, not to mention 61 tattoos across their body. Body alterations have been a part of spiritual, religious, cultural and aesthetic practice in human societies for a long historical period; societies that often had very different conceptions of gender to the binaristic modernist European formulation. It is only through the colonial, Christian reification of the "natural body", of the bourgeois sensibilities of the likes of Frankenstein that Federici tiptoes into, that such things can be viewed as being some form of detriment – a "dirtying" of God's perfect creation. Opposition to body alterations can therefore be every bit as steeped in patriarchy and colonial mindsets as the practices themselves can be steeped in capitalism.

This type of patriarchal understanding of nature is so typically flung at trans- people. In Susan Stryker’s trans- reading of Frankenstein, she comments that her body ‘is unnatural... flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born’. This text well illustrates just how we should respond to the implicit claim of our naturality, which is so often met with objections on the grounds that we are actually normal, acceptable, traditional. In Stryker’s words:

‘When such beings as these tell me I war with nature, I find no more reason to mourn my opposition to them-or to the order they claim to represent than Frankenstein’s monster felt in its enmity to the human race. I do not fall from the grace of their company-I roar gleefully away from it like a Harley-straddling, dildo-packing leatherdyke from hell.‘

The Monster is in motion. It bounds at superhuman speed, in the way that the ground shifts under our own feet. It feels prescient to have, just before the moment the monster is seen, Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Mutability’ quoted by Mary: ‘nought may endure but mutability’. For not only must the natured sensibilities of Frankenstein and Federici be tempered by our presence, we perhaps represent the most natural thing of all: mutability, motion and transition without start and without end.

The Monster is also collective. They are the sewn sinews and melded bones of the dead working class, the genders of these corpses never assigned in the text. It might be argued that, although perhaps the individual body is less distinct from one another regardless of gender, the transgender body exists this more than most. We embody beyond the peripheries of the skin. Perhaps in our multiplicities, hugs, intersex, spare estrogen-dropped-round-your-house, tears, shoulders, knowing glances, stubble and tongues-in-cheeks advice-giving, we inhabit each others bodies in a way that is closer to the Monster’s beautiful, tragic body of bodies.

Federici’s objection to medical routes seems undialectical; where are the lines drawn? Does she reject Hormone Replacement Therapy? Gender nonconforming clothes? Our gender seeps out of our bodies, with many of us finding greater gender solace in objects and the natural world than in prescriptions of man or woman. And in our communities, families, relationships and bodies we transfigure a future we see with Federici, where we create our own medicines, collective caring and funnels of distribution. We must inhabit our own, mutually embodied Monster, as people and a movement.

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”

“If this is your path, as it is mine, let me offer whatever solace you may find in this monstrous benediction: May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world.” –Susan Stryker

Federici understands, correctly, that gender is contested terrain. There is no metaphysical gender-truth, but genders that develop and evolve based on material conditions and our responses to them, in synchronicity and resistance. To build liberatory movements, Federici rightly advises that trans movements should learn from the past and recognise that these struggles are collective struggles against our conditions, not for piecemeal recognition. This suggestion is achingly welcome: as trans- people forfeit struggle for book deals, and our activism amounts to petitions of outcry that the petition before was ignored, we need to radically reconceive how we fight. As homonationalism bolsters imperialism, and Hillary Clinton and Theresa May herald themselves as feminist icons, we will be damned if the trans- communities allow ourselves to be de-monstered.

If Federici too understands gender to be murky waters and unstable ground by definition, who contests this terrain? Whilst all genders operate on this ground, the vanguard of gender resistance is populated extensively by us, the trans- and gender nonconforming fugitives. We face death for nonconformity and designations of unnaturality: we should not respond with fleeing, but we at least ask others to recognise our work in the struggle.

To state, as she does, that ‘we have the power of making and unmaking’ is most apt for our communities. This is not just in principle, but in tactics. For example, Federici stops just short of actively calling for a reproductive strike, nonetheless viewing such a method as politically sound albeit tactically difficult. To then distinguish and exclude trans people (particularly trans women) from this, rather than viewing trans- people’s uncomfortable relationship to human reproduction as natural allyship to undermining this gendered labour capitalism depends on, forfeits tactical advantage for no clear reason.

We offer, in Federici’s buried acknowledgement, a ‘rejection of gender, with all its implications expressing a questioning of the sexual division of labour’. In this, we must acknowledge that it is in our precarious gendered lives, bodies and politics that we see a fundamental opposition to capitalism and its tools. That is not without exception, but to focus on those exceptions as Federici does is dishonest.

We are horrifying, and yet beautiful. The Monster learns to speak, their poetic cadence obtained from an inherited Paradise Lost, as they learn to survive, desire, feel emotion and make demands. They long for the warmth of fire, to get burnt, and of people, to get cast out. And the Monster responds by chasing Frankenstein to the ends of the earth for justice. We might be the Monster, in our rage and aches and gleeful horror, but it is time to organise the Monster’s wrath.

So lastly, to Federici: A Monster, understood in antiquity, is not something that embodies evil. A Monster was, and remains, a warning of what is to come. Side with the Monster as you sided with the witches, and let’s go ruin some wedding nights.