JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Dilating Destiny: writing the transreal body through game design

by micha cárdenas

Play Dilating Destiny here.

Destiny is a video game produced by Bungie and published by Activision, released in 2014, which is a clear example of what are referred to as Triple-A games. The franchise had a development budget of $500 million and "sold more than $325 million worldwide in the first five days" (Acuna). The game includes richly detailed 3-dimensional environments set on future versions of earth, the moon, Venus and Mars, among other planets. Dilating Destiny is a small, text-based game, available online, which I created with no production budget. Dilating Destiny is an obscure, personal game that very few people have played. I see Dilating Destiny as part of a genre of text-based games by trans women such as Merritt Kopas, which she describes in her article "Trans Women & The New Hypertext." My essay is intended to elucidate my inspirations for making the game, as well as situate it within the trajectory of my artwork and other artistic fields. Dilating Destiny was inspired by philosophers writing about drugs, and poetry and video games made by trans women. Dilating Destiny uses an aesthetic I have described as transreal, in that it blends truth and fiction and includes a performance of identities in both the reality of present day life and that of the online world of Destiny.

Theoretical inspirations

Avital Ronell is a contemporary philosopher of technology, literature and deconstruction. The “EB on Ice” section of Ronell's book Crack Wars takes a science fiction story as its form and uses it to analyze the link between “electronic culture… cyberpunk projection… virtual reality” and “drug culture” by imagining futures of pharmaceuticals that facilitate identity transformations (68). She writes,

“The girl ahead of me chose their six-month girloid program… I picked the hologrammatology program, because I needed to be in several places at the same time, and I didn’t want to fall into facile identifications”(67).

In that sense, Ronell’s work is similar to my game Dilating Destiny, which considers the experience of playing a video game while taking a large amount of pharmaceutical drugs. Ronell’s goals, as a philosopher, are expansive. Her book begins by responding to German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who states “addiction and urge are possibilities rooted in the thrownness of Dasein” (2004). Ronell deals with the question of engaging with Heidegger's work in great detail in The Telephone Book, due to her Jewish heritage and his association with the Nazi party. My own reading practice is informed by Ronell's, in that I also believe that some value can be found in the works of writers and artists whose lives may include actions that are unethical, and as such I choose not to completely dismiss Heidegger's writing. In particular I find useful the way Heidegger describes the thrownness of being as the quality of being off center, unstable, thrown. I read this in relation to my own work on necropolitical affect, or the feeling of life under necropolitcal regimes, which I will explain further.

Ronell’s invention of the word hologrammatology imagines a science fiction future of multiple bodies by way of Derrida’s grammatology, a chain of significations revealed through deconstruction. Pulling apart this word, which combines the words grammatology with hologram, allows one to bring in Achille Mbembe, the theorist who has described the deadliness of the dystopian neoliberal present we live in as necropolitics. Mbembe states that invisible killings are perpetrated by state and non-state actors today, facilitated by surveillance technologies including "hologrammization" (29). Holographic maps are used by the U.S. military to enhance targeting with 3-dimensional imaging (Dawson, 1). Mbembe's description of the constant threat of death for subjects in Palestine has relevance for black and trans people around the world who experience the daily threat of murder.

Dilating Destiny tells a story of a time of daily news of deaths of black and trans people, where the news kicks the main character when she is down, coming to her in a moment of already being off center, displaced, lying down, wounded, bleeding and healing from a wound, yet still yearning to get up and join the struggle for justice. The game is concerned with the feeling or the affect of the contemporary moment. Dilating Destiny is a text based game that uses a transreal aesthetic, which I will describe further below, to explore the experience of recovering from Gender Reassignment Surgery. The form of Dilating Destiny is an interactive series of web pages created with the Twine platform. (Twine is a game authoring software that allows user to easily create interactive stories with multiple branches and algorithmic logic, and it exports HTML so that the games are playable in a web browser.) The story in Dilating Destiny mixes real and fictional events, blurring the lines between everyday experiences of pain, medication and political solidarity with the fictional storyline of the game Destiny, published by Activision.

Trans-feminine writing as écriture trans-féminine

Dilating Destiny engages with the history of écriture au trans-féminine, or trans-feminine writing ,[1] a literature of intoxication and performative experiments with the body (Billingham 2010). Cixous argued for écriture feminine, which can be translated as women's writing or feminine writing, meaning that women must write literature because their bodies give them access to different kind of knowledge and language that had until then not been expressed or had been actively silenced (1976). She called on women to write the experience of their bodies (Cixous, 1976). Writing about transgender mixed race poet Trish Salah, Susan Billingham, Associate Professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham,

"traces a continuum between French feminist ecriture feminine, quebecoise/Canadian ecriture au feminin, and Salah's oeuvre. If ecriture feminine returns to the woman's body to reconsider sexual difference, recuperate suppressed voices, and construct feminine subjectivity, then what I call an ecriture au trans-feminine seeks to achieve similar recognition of the trans-woman's voice and body... At stake in the notion of ecriture au trans-feminine is precisely the question of agency: the transwoman's claim to participate in liberatory gendered discourse as a woman" (2010). 

My work is in dialog with Salah's in our shared concern for understanding trans-feminine experience as a contested site of agency, uncertainty and blurred boundaries. Many of my artworks have begun with an attempt to articulate the philosophical implications of my experiences as a transgender woman, including those of being the subject in transition, bodily transformation and beginning taking prescribed hormones in Becoming Dragon (2009);and more recently, the effects of stopping taking prescribed hormones on one’s mental, emotional and physical state in Pregnancy (2016). Both of these projects have been described by myself and others as bioart, beginning with engagements with my own biological material and using that as the basis for making art. Bioart is a genre of art often presented in museums and galleries and it extends the history of performance art's concern with the body to consider non-human bodies, parts of bodies and biological technologies. In Becoming Dragon I lived for 365 hours in a mixed reality environment using motion capture and a head-mounted display to perform with both my physical body and with a dragon avatar in the online 3-dimensional multi-user environment of Second Life. In the performance space I had my hormone prescription bottles on display and many of the poems I performed considered the relations between the biological transformations I was experiencing and my online virtual enbodiment. All three of these works—Becoming Dragon, Pregnancy and Dilating Destiny—begin by phenomenologically examining embodied experiences in order to challenge any simple notion of transgender as a binary crossing from one gender to another. I was connecting lines of flight across boundaries of species, scale and speculative realities. As my character in Dilating Destiny is non-human, the question of embodying another species is relevant here. Many other transgender authors and theorists have considered ways that transgender experience can have broader relevance to other forms of embodiment.

These works are also part of a history of engagements with the meaning, language and narratives of transgender experience as seen in the writing of Trish Salah and Sandy Stone. In Wanting in Arabic, in the poem “where skin breaks,” Trish Salah writes:

"tearing through these skins:                                   male, female, female, male

                                                                                until the body’s ceased to matter

                                                                             the body never does cease to matter" 
(2002, 38)

In Salah's poem I read a challenge that transsexual experiences of bodily transformation present to thought: how to exceed the identitarian limitations of an individual body to create poetry and theory that resonates with others, by engaging with experiences through one’s own body as it changes form. Salah’s writing responds to French feminists such as Helene Cixous, who wrote that “woman must write woman. And man, man,” making a claim that now seems overly binary and simplified in a world of an increasing proliferation of forms of gender non-conformity (1976, 877). Yet when I first read Cixous’ words,  I heard a story that resonated with my own experience as a trans woman yearning to “write” my own body by transitioning:

“She must write her self, because this is the invention of a new insurgent writing which, when the moment of her liberation has come, will allow her to carry out the indispensable ruptures and transformations in her history… Write your self. Your body must be heard,” (1976, 880).

When Cixous states “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs,” I hear an opening for fantastic science fiction imaginings of transformations into unimagined bodies. I referenced Cixous' work in one of the poems in my performance Becoming Dragon in order to link her idea of writing the body with my performance of a transgender body and a dragon avatar simultaneously (1976, 876; 2012, 124). Dilating Destiny continues this trajectory, writing myself into previously unimagined bodies, in this case the body of an alien race known as the Awoken, which is the race of my character in the game Destiny.

The way we experience the virtual bodies we inhabit in games is through our experience and memory of our own body. Vivian Sobchack writes,

“We do not experience any movie only with our eyes. We see and comprehend and feel films with our entire bodily being, informed by the full history and knowledge of our sensorium.” (2000)

One can extend to games as well the way that Sobchack rejects the binary split between film and audience. Elsewhere I have articulated the stitch as a kind of gesture in a trans of color poetics. I argue that stitching can be seen in the work of trans artists of color in the form of stitching fabric, stitching together code into algorithms, and stitching as connecting communities. I understand Sobchack's description of film as connecting her body to the bodies on screen as a kind of stitching that has relevance for understanding video games made by trans women. Sobchack looks to Steven Shaviro’s Deleuzian theorization of the place of the body in the experience of film. Sobchack quotes Shaviro, who states: 

“There is no structuring lack, no primordial division, but a continuity between the physiological and affective responses of my own body and the appearances and disappearances, the mutations and perdurances, of the bodies and images on screen. The important distinction is not the hierarchical, binary one between bodies and images, or between the real and its representations. It is rather a question of… degrees of stillness and motion, of action and passion, of clutter and emptiness, of light and lack. … For a fugitive, supplemental materiality haunts the (allegedly) idealizing processes of mechanical reproduction. …The flesh is intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus, at once its subject, its substance, and its limit.”

These affective continuities hold true for digital, virtual bodies as seen in digital games as well, perhaps more so, thanks to the interactive way in which a player inhabits a virtual body by taking a degree of control over its movement. In The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities I write:

“I propose that transreal aesthetics cross the boundaries of realities created by a fragmentation of reality that occurred as a result of postmodern theory and emerging technologies... thinkers such as [Jack] Halberstam, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gilles Deleuze propose a multiplicity of times and spaces which coexist. From there, one can look at contemporary artists’ attempts to create and work with realities as a similar form of multiplicity” (2008, 18).

In the book, I consider artists working with recent technologies including augmented reality and mixed reality, as well as artists who create works that they describe as alternate reality games. The Transreal describes transreal methods including transreal performativity—performing multiple simultaneous characters in different realities; transreal technologies that function on logics that exceed reality such as imaginary computational systems; and constructing transrealities—building narratives and environments that blend truth and fiction. In part, this method is meant to subvert the common dynamic of cisgender audiences who voyeuristically wish to know the truth of trans experience. I understand the audience for Dilating Destiny as including trans people with whom I wish to share some of the experience of dilation, as this is rarely discussed. For cisgender players/readers, I hope to expand their conception of trans experience and politics.

Transreal aesthetics have resonance with the genre of the "New Weird," which blends magic and science fiction with facts to reveal, in some cases, the horror of the everyday. In the case of Dilating Destiny, that horror is the ongoing deaths of black and trans people, which continues at the time of this writing as large protests over the killing of in Charlotte, North Carolina are being met with militarized police violence. Keith Lamont Scott, a disabled man and father, was shot and killed by police, and his family says he was simply reading a book in his car at the time (Norton 2016).

Dilating Destiny uses a transreal aesthetic to add to the list of bodies I’ve inhabited not just male and female, but also Awoken and warlock. While alien characters are common to science fiction and video games, they are rarely the subject of transgender autobiographical stories. In doing so I continue the thinking of theorists such as Sandy Stone who claims, “we can seize upon the textual violence inscribed in the transsexual body and turn it into a reconstructive force” by rejecting the gender assigned to me at birth, a kind of violence committed through enforcing language onto my body, and reimagining other possibilities through new languages (2006, 230). Stone’s analysis, though, is more than textual. She states that transsexual political struggle is a “circumstance in which a minority discourse comes to ground in the physical,” describing the transsexual body as “the battlefield” and “a tactile politics of reproduction” (2006, 230). In doing so, Stone demonstrates that transgender studies can be a mode of analysis using embodied experience as a ground for knowledge beyond textuality, and as such, provides a ground for affective, autobiographical media analysis through one’s body, which has resonance with éciture feminine, literature of intoxication, and Sobchack's continuum between the body and media.

Similarly to the way that Becoming Dragon engages with and critiques the platform of Second Life, Dilating Destiny is a meditation on contemporary video games. My previous twine game “A Survivor is Reborn” also engaged with the 2013 playstation remake of Tomb Raider to critique the way that it commodified depictions of sexual violence against women, portraying Lara Croft’s death as a sexualized scene over and over again. “A Survivor is Reborn” told a personal narrative of experience with sexual violence and the slippage of reality that the character in the game feels upon seeing #SURVIVOR billboards for the game around Los Angeles, as well as while playing the game. "A Survivor is Reborn" is no longer available online, like the game "A Synchronous Ritual" which I discuss later in the article. Online games made by trans women are often deeply personal, ephemeral and temporary. Dilating Destiny continues the exploration on the lack of boundaries between realities that some game players may feel, as well as the differences in audience reception of games based on their genders.

Dilating Destiny tells the story of a character who is taking large amounts of pain killers, just days after receiving Gender Reassignment Surgery. The following screen in the game—which one can see as a single poem if the game is considered a series of poems—was the initial inspiration for the project:

As I looked at my medication journal, I recalled a previous poem I had written for my performance Becoming Transreal, a performance which extended Becoming Dragon into a science fiction narrative of biohacking and pharmaceutical piracy. The one line poem in Becoming Transreal is this:

“prometrium 100mg.” (2012, 63)

With this poem I sought to convey that the drug prometrium, and the experience of it, was in itself a poem with unspeakable dimensions. The poem consisting of a list of drugs, above, spoke to me of other lesbian poets such as Gertrude Stein who also used repetition and lists in her work. Yet here I invite the reader to consider the depth of meaning of each individual medication.

Another main inspiration for Dilating Destiny is the artistic movement of trans women’s video games, many of which are made in Twine. Twine is a free, open source, easy to use authoring software that makes game creation accessible to a broad spectrum of authors. Merritt Kopas’ game “A Synchronous Ritual” allows the player to virtually take estradiol, a pill form of estrogen, if they wait for the proper time to take it, the time when the author of the game presumably has to take it. Thus, a ritual is enacted where estrogen is being virtually consumed synchronously with her actual consumption of it. I understand this game bringing the player into a small part of the experience of being a trans person, as well as creating an imaginary community of support for Kopas, which in a world with so much transmisogyny, is an important gesture, even if only imagined. The game is no longer available online. Twine allows authors to experiment with the form of videogames, expanding the kinds of interaction beyond the usual mechanics and expectations of entertainment to create digital storytelling experiments in which a primary game mechanic might be to take a pill, as it is in Kopas' game and in Dilating Destiny.

Game creation as an act of solidarity

Kopas' game was one of the inspirations for Dilating Destiny. Kopas released a call on social media for game developers to contribute to a bundle of games called “Devs with Baltimore" which could be downloaded by people who made a donation. Kopas had previously organized the “Devs with Ferguson Bundle” by asking independent game developers to contribute works into a downloadable bundle. The “Devs with Ferguson Bundle” raised $11,761.96 for the Ferguson Public Library in just a few days, following the Ferguson uprising in late 2014. When I saw her call for a similar bundle to support the Baltimore uprising, with all proceeds going to the Baltimore lgebra Project, a coalition member of Baltimore United for Change, "a coalition of concerned citizens and organizations working for justice in Baltimore city" (Baltimore).

I contacted her and told her that I wanted to create a game for the bundle. What resulted from that was Dilating Destiny, which describes my recovery process as I followed the events of Baltimore online. It considers how solidarity doesn’t always mean standing together, for people who cannot stand. It points out the ableism of political language that often goes unquestioned and tells the story of a character who wants to act in solidarity with Baltimore but is physically unable to get out of bed. Dilating Destiny continues the development of my thinking of the importance for solidarity between disability justice and gender justice movements, expanding the ways solidarity is thought to be embodied (cardenas 2014; e-fagia 2014; Digital Humanities 2012).

The Baltimore uprising occurred after Freddie Gray was murdered by Baltimore police, having his spine crushed while in police custody (BBC). In the days that followed, social media posts pointed out that a black trans woman, Mya Hall, had also been murdered by federal agents near Baltimore. While some would separate her murder from her gender, I see the violence of the prison industrial complex as co-constitutive with gendered and racialized violence against trans people, as trans theorists such as Dean Spade and Che Gossett have argued (Smith, Stanley). Dilating Destiny brings Mya Hall’s name into the story of Baltimore in an effort to challenge the persistent invisibility of the murders of transgender women. To date, while social movements have successfully demanded numerous investigations into the cause of Freddie Hall’s death, the city has dropped all charges against the officers involved (Linderman, 2016). I have not found evidence of similar demands for investigations into Hall's death, which follows the trend of trans women being murdered and no investigations being made into their deaths (Rivas, 2015). In an essay titled "They Were Our Sisters: Feminists Should Not Abandon Mya Hall or Miriam Carey," Katherine Cross states,

"When we talk about the oft-unmourned women of color slain by police, we would do well to recognize that trans women of color are very often the most forgotten of that already marginalized group."

Cross makes an important addition to the dialog about the focus on black male murder victims that inspired the #SayHerName hashtag, extending that concern to trans women as well as black women (Khaleeli 2016). The deep sadness and rage I feel about both of these murders challenge any attempt at a realistic rendering, leading me to try to address them through a trans of color poetics which shifts through multiple layers of affect and media.

Dilating Destiny describes a transreal narrative , slipping between the language and story of the online massively multiplayer game Destiny and the everyday experience of a transgender woman.In Crack Wars, philosopher Avital Ronell writes,

“You understood so very little about the chemical prosthesis which was the real, insubstantial vehicle constituting the virtual… The age of the chemical prosthesis had already begun” (70).

She brilliantly links the condition of the body and mind as altered by chemical substances to the space of possibility outside of the real, not just the virtual as in the digital, but also the realm of fantasy. Ronell describes the philosophical challenge she is taking :

“To gain access to the question of ‘Being-on-drugs’ we have had to go the way of literature… Drugs resist conceptual arrest” (51).

Focusing on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Ronell calls on a broad range of theorists including Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, to get a deeper glimpse of the implications of addiction and drugs in order to understand being-on-drugs. Similarly, Dilating Destiny also considers the implications of being, and writing, while heavily medicated on painkillers, expanding commonly held assumptions about the meaning of transgender experience. While people often assume that transgender art, literature and theory is limited to concerns about gender norms, Dilating Destiny expands the discussion by probing the limits of agency while one is affected by pharmaceuticals and the range of possible transformations that a body can undergo. Dilating Destiny questions the limits of solidarity and the forms solidarity can take in a form that blends genres of autobiography and science fiction. The game considers the experience of the trans body as one that exceeds reason through the experience of pharmaceutical drugs and which exceeds the options for gendered embodiment presented to us in interactive media such as video games. While the character Roja is described as female, my depiction of playing her as my avatar expands her binary gender to one that is transsexual. While Destiny's designers lack the imagination to give alien races new unimagined genders, the character’s performance of Roja in Dilating Destiny imagines a new gender in the form of a transreal trans woman, whose body is non-binary in its moment of healing, still bleeding. Roja's consciousness is defined by the blurring of realities caused by drugs, and as such she is part alien guardian of interplanetary space and part human woman on earth in passionate solidarity with those who would be guardians of black lives.

Notes

1. While I imagine that an international audience may be pleased to read more than one language, the usage of French here may need some qualification for non-French speakers. One reason I use this term is to refer to Cixous' concept of ecriture feminine, which may be translated as female writing or feminine writing, but neither translation encapsulates the rich meaning described by Cixous. Further, in the case of Salah, her work engages deeply with the politics of translation, as she is writing in a francophone, or French speaking, context in Canada. Trans studies scholar Vivianne Namaste describes in her book Invisible Lives the ways that limiting scholarship to English has the potential effect of marginalizing those who do not speak English. In her context, Montreal, many francophone people do not have the financial privilege of accessing English language education.

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