Two thousand years ago, Saul of Tarsus changed his name to Paul. Abandoning the Jewish faith, and his former career as one of the most violent opponents of the religious movement that would become Christianity, he announced that he had been transformed into a “new man” by a mystical encounter with Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who had already been dead for some time. Despite his new name and beliefs, Paul remained, however, what he had been before—an antagonizing, persecutory self-promoter. Whether trying to purge followers of Jesus from Jewish life, or what he would call “Judaizers” from the emerging Christian church, Saul/Paul made exclusionary enmities his ladder to positions of leadership.
In his letters to churches throughout the Roman Empire, Paul gave an account of himself as being uniquely guilty and abject—the “chief of sinners”—and especially favored by God. In doing so, he created a powerful and enduring model for the way people seek attention and influence in Western culture, from the Confessions of Augustine to the ubiquitous self-narrations of our own moment. Flamboyant rejection of a former life, a lurid picture of its depravity and danger, the wrenching rapture of being overtaken and undone by an outward power, a new self to be declared and recognized by others, new enemies (shadows of the old self) to be exposed and attacked, and a continual staggering back and forth between declarations of one’s utter unworthiness and ethical exaltation.
One of the most successful contemporary practitioners of this mode of confession, in which a conversion is narrated in a mode of self-abasement and self-aggrandizement, is the essayist Andrea Long Chu. In 2018, Chu, who transitioned from male to female, established her reputation with essays for N+1 and The New York Times on her desire for femininity and her feelings about her new vagina. “Few of us” trans women, she argued, “dare to talk about” the truths she purportedly exposed in these essays—that transition is motivated by fetishistic investment in the most external, sexualized aspects of traditional femininity (“Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts”)—and that transitioning had made her more dysphoric and “suicidal.”
Chu positioned herself in national publications as declaring hidden truths that other people like herself had been too cowardly to avow. Publications from The Point to The Nation to Vogue interviewed her, and New York magazine has more recently hired her, while scholars devote articles and even special issues of journals to her contributions to gender theory. The most notorious of the latter was her 2019 pamphlet-length book, Females, published with Verso, a press that once had something to do with the left. In Females, Chu worked on two different double registers. She played at once comic and serious, giving herself the right to backtrack her most radical claims as ironic “bits.” She gave, moreover, a reading of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto (1967) as a statement about the nature of desire as such, for everyone, and as a kind of prefiguring of her own transition. It was as if Chu became the protagonist of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, who is convinced that a local writer’s autobiographical poem is in fact the elaborately allegorized story of his own life. Where Solanas had called for the extermination of men, she took her plan only as far as a failed attempt to murder Andy Warhol. Females ends with Solanas, at a distance of half-a-century, killing another “Andy”—Chu’s former, male self.
Chu had been wanting to kill Andy well before transitioning. While Females and her essays from this period detail her investment in femininity (conceived as a state of blank, mute, sexual accessibility, and the opportunity to wear cute clothes), her hostility to men—or rather heterosexual male self-hatred—was first evinced in a 2013 essay for the Duke student newspaper, in which Chu declared that, as a white man, “I am a racist.” Chu was particularly racist toward her “Chinese” girlfriend: “every day I oppress her because she’s a woman and because she’s Chinese … I fetishize her Chinese qualities and use them to massage my own colonial sense of multiculturalism. I relish the notion of having mixed-race children but I remind myself that I would never raise them with a backward Chinese notion of family. I objectify her. I exoticize her. I see her race and her gender before I see her.” The essay demonstrates what it claims. The unnamed girlfriend appears only as an empty vessel for Chu’s racism and misogyny, rather than an individual with agency, who, for whatever reason, remained in this oppressive relationship, on Chu’s account, for several years.
To be a sensitive heterosexual white man is perhaps necessarily to be at risk for such self-hatred. And Chu may have been especially primed for such guilt by her conservative Protestant background; she discusses in one interview how her childhood religion gave her such a warped understanding of sexuality that “for years I couldn’t have an orgasm without, like, crushing guilt afterwards,” and in a 2011 blog post for the Duke theater program, asserted that playing a gay male character was a brave act of rebellion against his parents. The cultural left politics of Duke gave Chu a way to imagine that she was rebelling against this view of sex as sin, while in fact simply reframing it as white male guilt.
Feelings of guilt, whether inspired by Christianity or political correctness, were compounded by what Chu documents, in interviews and essays, as her compulsion to consume “sissy porn,” a genre of pornography playing on the fantasy of straight men (figured as the viewer) being transformed into hyperfeminine and submissive bimbos. Part of the pleasure of such pornography, surely, is that it allows the viewer to annihilate awareness of and therefore responsibility for his own sexual agency—as though he hadn’t searched for the videos in the first place. A straight man who feels guilty about oppressing his girlfriend by his very existence, and is disturbed by the aggression and violence inseparable from male desire, can imagine himself the victim rather than the villain, as a passive receptacle rather than a sexual agent. He can even imagine that the consumption of pornography is not a choice on his part, but a symptom of “forced feminization” and a self-stylized “addiction.”
Since killing “Andy,” Chu has transitioned again, shifting the themes of her writing to race, and particularly to what she now identifies as her Asian-American-ness—completing the process of becoming her ex-girlfriend, who is now not only fetishized, objectified, and exoticized, but taken as a model for a fantastically appropriative form of imitation. In her 2021 essay “China Brain” and 2022 essay “The Mixed Asian Metaphor,” Chu—who is three-fourths white—stages her Asian ancestry (which, in a flourish of self-Orientalization, stretches through the generations like “paper lanterns across the sky”) and sets herself once again as a brave truth-teller who can admit what most of us are too timid or unthoughtful to say: that racial identification is a matter of desire, driven by our lonely, desperate longing to be a part of a group. As she concludes: “People want race … they want friendship from it, or sex, or even love; and sometimes, they just want to be something or to have something to be.”
It remains to be seen whether media and academia will be as enraptured by Chu’s contributions to the discourse on Asian America as they were by her writings on transness—but if anyone will be able to run where Rachel Dolezal walked, it may be Chu.
Part of Chu’s success lies in her ability to pass off in her writing ideas from practitioners of a certain pseudo-academic intellectual configuration that is often called “theory.” A former undergraduate at Duke University, a center of this type of thinking, Chu then studied at NYU’s comparative literature program, where she encountered Tavia Nyong’o, a performance studies professor whom she credits with pushing her to publish what became her breakout essay “On Liking Women.” She returned the favor by lifting Nyong’o’s ideas about “the impossibly burdened figure of the biracial child” of Black and white parents, who “cannot conceivably do the work of utopia that we impose on her,” transposing them onto her own claims about the way “we” supposedly imagine children with white and Asian ancestry.
Chu gave a nastier turn to Avital Ronell, the quirked-up queen of deconstruction in Chu’s department at NYU, who in 2018 gained unlikely notoriety for sexually harassing a gay male graduate student. (Ronell’s previous most scandalous breach of academic sexual propriety was shacking up with Derrida’s high-school-age son while she worked with the father as a graduate student in the ’70s, living out her version of Call Me by Your Name.) Ronell was, embarrassingly, defended by such colleagues as Judith Butler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Slavoj Zizek, who asserted in a public letter that, given Ronell’s “keen wit” and “international standing,” she could not have been guilty. Chu countered, in an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I Worked with Avital Ronell. I Believe Her Accuser,” that Ronell was in fact a needy, pushy jerk, and therefore guilty. Both the big names of “theory” and a young graduate student in a hurry to become one apparently agreed that guilt or innocence in such matters depends on whether or not the accused seems to be a nice person.
Chu, however, had her own motives for going after Ronell. The latter had written a preface to Verso’s earlier editions of the SCUM Manifesto (in 2004, republished in 2015). While Chu does not cite Ronell’s work on Solanas in Females, she was obviously familiar with it, attacking it in the Chronicle for being insufficiently feminist and focused on interpreting the SCUM Manifesto through the lens of male writers like Nietzsche and Derrida. Thus, while “[p]ersonally, Avital may be a feminist, in the Taylor Swift sense of a woman who doesn’t like being oppressed, but professionally, she is not a feminist scholar.” Ronell is a mere Taylor Swift; Chu is a professional feminist scholar (and these days, a professional Chinese woman).
Yet Ronell’s preface to the SCUM Manifesto, for all its author’s characteristic annoying puns and other slashes of drearily performative unseriousness, is a sharp reading of the text that forecloses the sort of appropriation Chu attempts, and with it, any such pseudo-feminist politics that purports to liberate women by destroying maleness. Ronell observes that Solanas inverts some of the traditional sexist figurations of male and female, positing that women are superior to men because they recognize, while men desperately deny, that subjectivity is founded on a constitutive absence and longing—that is, we all lack something essential to us. Men assert themselves, often through aggression, in order to feel an illusory sense of power and plenitude, covering over the vulnerability that characterizes all human beings. They are, however, unconsciously fascinated by death, and seek it out, drawn by the lure of relief from the lifelong strain of their impossible effort to disguise their weakness. They are sick, dangerous, and must be eliminated.
While Solanas exercises a “castrative glee” in her text as she imagines exterminating men, Ronell notes, she ultimately—in the sort of irony deconstructionists love to detect—enacts and services the very forms of maleness she claims to want to eliminate. Men desire to die; Solanas wants to kill them. By her own definition, Solanas is male, and she fulfills male fantasies. The escape from maleness is therefore not so simple as killing all men—or castrating oneself. Ronell suggests, with a wisdom only apparently belied by her kooky overgrown Lolita persona and notorious sex life, that we cannot escape the constitutive binaries of sex and gender through purifying violence or rageful disavowals, but rather must learn to live with both the “female” and “male” aspects of ourselves—that is, with both our radical vulnerability and our desperate longing to conceal it.
In her own reading of SCUM Manifesto, Chu seems to enact the hypermale aggression Ronell diagnoses in Solanas, attacking masculinity with virile hostility. In other writings, however, such as “The Impossibility of Feminism,” Chu applies—with obtuse overextension—Ronell’s lesson that maleness, as a polarity of psychic life, cannot simply be annihilated. Here Chu declares that feminism, of which the most rigorous and radical expression was the “lesbian separatism” of the 1970s, has failed. Women, she argues, can never exorcise their desires for the “male style” (aggression, agency, etc.), to say nothing of their desire for flesh-and-blood men. They will always be tempted by, or to act like, men, and thus can never achieve liberation.
One does not have to be a professional feminist scholar to ask why women’s liberation should be conceived in such impossible terms of escape from a nonempirical psychic force called “maleness,” rather than as the achievement of a greater degree of practical autonomy and material well-being for women (many of whom will want to partner with men, and all of whom will of course find themselves having to relate to masculinity and its symbols in their own psyches)? Indeed, it should be rather obvious that this abstract “maleness” can be denounced (as in Females) or accepted as an ineradicable ill (as in “The Impossibility of Feminism”) but not incorporated into a tolerable form of life.
Chu ascribes to all women a rather particular condition of wanting to escape an absolutized, and inescapable, symbolic universe of maleness—an impossible longing perhaps shared by herself, Solanas, and some lesbian separatists, but by no means a condition that should be seen as paradigmatically female, feminist or transfeminine. Chu, in a feat of narcissism, takes her problems to embody feminism’s failure, while conservatives like Rod Dreher take her to be a representative case of transgenderism. Neither of these is true.
Chu, after all, described herself as feeling more dysphoric rather than less after transitioning, and has railed against what she sees as the gatekeeping medical establishment that would attempt to determine who might actually benefit from medical transition (we might say, trans people) and who would not (we might say, people for whatever reason invested in a fantasy of transness)—and has written about the debilitating depression that followed surgery. Soon after joining womanhood and feminism, a former man declares them impossible and bad; it’s surely enough to make anyone depressed.
Chu’s reading of feminism’s impossibility is, in one sense, mere projection, much like her description of women’s condition in Females and “On Liking Women” (in which she reduces women to fetishistic signifiers of femininity and sexual subordination). Her intensely singular vision could appear plausible to readers at prestigious publications, however, in part because it built on the work of Lauren Berlant, the recently deceased professor at the University of Chicago whom Chu calls “the greatest thinker of their generation” and whom she feared “plagiarizing” (as she apparently did not fear performing what she has called the “hard labor of plagiarism” on Nyong’o or Ronell).
Berlant is a favorite of the N+1 set and has been profiled in The New Yorker (which has also graced our national consciousness with in-depth profiles of the deeply consequential activities of some of her Chicago colleagues, from Agnes Callard’s promiscuity to Martha Nussbaum’s Botox injections). Her most notable idea—if it can be qualified as one—is the titular concept of her 2011 book Cruel Optimism, which points to the fact that people want things that are, in fact, bad for them.
Cruel Optimism puts breathtakingly obvious observations about human nature in the abstract, perplexed, ungainly prose that strikes some graduate students and writers for The New Yorker, it seems, as the mark of Big Think. Phrases like “the built and affective infrastructure of the ordinary,” the “institutions of intimacy,” and “absorption in new attunements” have a verbal novelty that suggests insight—surely no one has written these phrases before—but in context resolve into either quite ordinary meanings or nothing at all. Poetic flights, such as “[s]cenes like this magnetize a noncoherent cluster of desires … that can converge into a mirage of solidity—it’s a vitalist, pointillist notion of the object of desire,” find us ranging—as if in a page rejected from Ashbery’s Three Poems, or a dream annoyingly recounted at the breakfast table—through a series of half-thought implicit metaphors that never encounter the concrete or culminate in an insight.
Fans of such clunk are surely saddened that Berlant’s personal blog has been deleted. But snippets of it still circulate in citation, showing how Berlant paved the way for Chu by applying her idea of cruel optimism in a more personal, essayistic style. Here, in a post from 2012, Berlant began: “My mother died of femininity ... she took up smoking, because it was sold as a weight-reduction aid. When she died she had aggressive stage 4 lung cancer. In her teens she started wearing high heels ... Later, she had an abortion and on the way out tripped down the stairs in those heels, hurting her back permanently. Decades later, selling dresses at Bloomingdale’s, she was forced to carry, by her estimate, 500 lbs. of clothes each day.”
Femininity is a succubus, an entity that drains the life from its host while seducing it through promised enjoyments. Yet anyone whose mind is not beclouded by an inordinate fixation on the specters of gender might notice that Berlant’s mother seems to have been injured by accident (falling down the stairs) and forms of exploitation (oppressive conditions of labor, perhaps lack of proper medical care, the systematic lies of tobacco companies) tied, above all, to the functioning of our economic system, which uses any hook it can find (including transness) to sell products to consumers of every race, gender, sports-team affiliation, or other conceivable identity category.
In her magisterial The Second Sex (1949), for example, Simone de Beauvoir gave exquisitely detailed, sensitive, and often scathingly moralistic attention to the seductions of femininity—from the role of mommy’s good little girl to that of the vamp, the housewife, or the lesbian—without, however, ever forgetting that the point is not to condemn either individual women’s choices or a free-floating “femininity” (as ghostly and unkillable as the “masculinity” at which Solanas and Chu took aim) but to change our material conditions.
For Chu, following Berlant, however, the horizons of politics and feminism have receded to an anguished coming-to-terms with our problematic desires. Gender, and indeed race, appear in her work as something one ought not to want. Femininity, especially in the autogynephilic form Chu revels in, strikes anyone who has gone to graduate school in the humanities as the historical product of pernicious ideologies of patriarchal power. Race, such people likewise know, is an exclusionary, imaginary community founded on the violent suppression of difference and the establishment of hierarchies. But Chu wants them, and she insists that “we” want them, too. As she put it to an apparently delighted Anastasia Berg, “everyone should be allowed to want things that are bad for them.”
In Chu’s essays, Berlant’s attempt to consider how our desires may lead us to self-defeating patterns of identification and action—particularly, she argued in the more lucid moments of Cruel Optimism, in our political and economic context characterized by “impasse” and declining prospects—becomes an excuse to celebrate, first, “bad” desires as fascinatingly messy and complex, and second, Chu herself, as someone at last brave enough to admit that we want bad things.
Chu deserves credit for insisting that, although we increasingly take them to be set either by our own assertions or by socially determined facts about ourselves, “identities” like gender, race, etc., are worked out by us through our often-unconscious wishes. We are not simply, automatically, white, Asian, Jewish, or anything else, either by self-declaration or social convention; even the most apparently inalterable elements of what the existentialists called our “facticity” (our height, skin color, parents, etc.) are aspects of ourselves to which we are continually giving meaning, not least through yearnings and alterations.
In recent years it has become more and more difficult to ask questions about why such-and-such a person wants to identify in a particular way, or why they feel so animated, in such-and-such a fashion, about this rather than that element of their facticity. Or indeed to ask what we should do with our desires, how we might, in acting on them, participate in forms of life with other people to make the world more bearable and interesting. These are not moral questions (“Is my desire acceptable? Am I a bad person for wanting this?”) but ethical ones (“How will I live today?”). An inability to understand the difference between the two perhaps accounts for why so many progressive young people retreat on occasion from the zealous moralism of their milieu with nihilistic stock phrases like “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” with the clear implication that therefore it’s OK for them, personally, to buy cocaine that contributes to gang violence, or engage in “sex work,” or be a “socialist” and work in finance. Paralyzingly stern moral injunctions—ones that make teenage boys feel evil for having erections or being white—coexist with the idea that ethics is impossible.
Indeed, rocking in an unsteady to-and-fro between an increasingly outmoded progressive politics that says race, gender, etc., are social forms that perpetuate histories of inequality, and the libidinal pulsing that makes her want to participate in certain of those forms (to become, as much as possible, an Asian American woman), Chu can only imagine herself as helpless in the face of what she takes to be her undesirable desires. These desires could be invitations to rethink her political and moral commitments, such that she might ask if perhaps there is nothing so very wrong with femininity or masculinity, with being Asian, or even with being white and male. But Chu cannot concede this, which would be tantamount to letting the old Andy live. It would mean, moreover, accepting as legitimate the aggression toward others and efforts to control her own desires that she characterizes, along with Solanas, as distinctly male.
In 2019 Chu wrote, ostensibly about Brett Easton Ellis, but more painfully about the old Andy, that his work is “designed to convince comfortable white men that they are, in fact, ‘outsiders and monsters and freaks’ … Ellis does not realize he is talking about himself, an angry, uninteresting man who has just written a very needy book.” White men, full of rage, long to be marginal, because they are unable to bear self-knowledge of how much they want attention, how much they are the architects of their own abjection, how much they are responsible for their own actions and desires.
Self-knowledge isn’t Chu’s strong point either. “Wanting to be a woman was something that descended on me, like a tongue of fire,” Chu wrote in Females. It came down from heaven, like Saul’s summons to transition into Paul. Sissy porn thus has its spiritual antecedent in divine visitations. Chu feels this way even about her personal writing, which she describes as imposed on her by a bizarrely curious society: “when people ask … ‘What’s it like being trans?’ the answer is again, ‘It’s answering questions from you fucking people.’ … That narrativization isn’t just something that we’re doing for ourselves, it’s something that’s constantly being asked of us by the people around us, especially if you work in media but also if you don’t. And that relationship to narration, that becomes constitutive of being trans.”
To be trans—which was forced on Chu through sissy porn, as Jesus supposedly forced himself on Saul, who then became Paul—is therefore to be compelled to write self-aggrandizing stories of how the teller was brought low into abjection, redeemed by some external power, and made into a new person brimming with universally applicable insights into the human condition. It is, in other words, to manifest the familiar Western problem of being troubled by desire, and unable to be good, out of which Paul produced a new religion. We still cannot kill what he called the “old man” and “old Adam”—the original “old Andy”—within us.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.