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Tefillin by Chesdovi CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Binding Berlant

The burgeoning subfield of queer and trans studies in religion is opening up avenues for understanding our bodily attachments within and beyond religion. With Berlant’s sensibility as a guide, scholars of queer and trans studies in religion might seek to explore the paradoxes of desire and love that Berlant theorized with a generosity, curiosity, and clarity we can all hope to emulate.

It has become a commonplace in teaching religion to note that the term “religion” may derive from the Latin for “binding together.” While this is not the only possible derivation, it is the one I bring to my students’ attention early in the semester. Religion may not have a single coherent definition, but one indispensable aspect is the way that it binds adherents together as a community –and, just as importantly, marks as outsiders those who are not so bound. 

What queer and trans studies in religion can specifically do is to help us attend to the many forms this binding can take, and the crucial role of embodiment in such binding. How is the individual bound together as a coherent subject? How are communities bound together, and through what processes do they maintain and navigate their boundaries? How do religious, crypto-religious, and post-religious discourses of gender and sexual regulation show up in and on the bodies and practices of those bound to them and those straining against such bonds? 

My own interests in trans, disability, and religious studies lie at the intersection of three fields in which Lauren Berlant did not directly work, but to which they contributed enormously valuable concepts. One example from each field will suffice to illustrate the point. B Lee Aultman’s “The Trans Complaint” provides a trans gloss on The Female Complaint, reading Andrea Long Chu’s work through Berlant’s theorization of desire to describe how “[t]ransness is rooted in practices that weave together complex associations of desire and fantasy. Transness is a living texture enabling the durability of a subject’s world” (Aultman, 108-9). Chu complicates being trans beyond the medicalized emphasis on dysphoric suffering and the popular portrayal of individual self-actualization, emphasizing the role of fantasy: “transness [is] a matter not of who one is, but what one wants” (Chu, “On Liking Women,” 59, cited in Aultman, 91).

Rather than expressing an essential inner truth, transition – like other scenes of fantasy – is a practice that can simultaneously “enable [one] to assume a stable-enough identity” and “reveal the fundamental non-coherence of the subject” (Berlant, Desire/Love, 76, 80). Just as Berlant calls for “a policy of female disidentification at the level of female essence” (Berlant, “The Female Complaint,” 253), a form of solidarity and mobilization without the erasure of differences and contradictions among (or even within) individual women, so too Aultman calls for “trans disidentification at the level of essence,” the rejection of “narrative closure,” and the embrace of multiplicity and messiness (109).

Similarly, Katerina Kolarova’s “The Inarticulate Post-Socialist Crip” offers a crip reading of Berlant’s Cruel Optimism,noting the extent to which the book’s language and concepts dance around disability without explicitly naming it, and seeks to expand the titular concept by centering disabled lives. Cruel optimism names a specific structure of fantasy whereby “the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially” (Cruel Optimism, 1). While Berlant describes all attachment as optimistic, and while all fantasy might be considered a delicate dance between the production and dissolution of the self, optimism becomes cruel specifically “when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving” (ibid., 2). Under neoliberal capitalism, life is saturated with cruel optimism, from hustle culture to the wellness industrial complex. Kolarova explores the uses of compulsory health and able-bodiedness in the cruel optimism of 1990s Czechoslovakia, illuminating the role of ableist structures in all forms of cruel optimism: “Berlant’s concept of toxic and hurtful promises and her repertoire of critical analysis of fantasies of the good life call for encounters with crip versions of ‘life’ as well as for a cripping of the notion of the ‘good life’” (269).

In religion, meanwhile, the affective turn has made Berlant’s work ever more relevant, since they helped shape an intellectual milieu in which feelings are taken seriously as both products and drivers of social and political forces. What draws people to religious practices, communities, doctrines? What keeps them involved even when (as inevitably) some aspects of their religion repel them?

Religious studies as a field is increasingly recognizing its past neglect of the role of feelings and the politics of said feelings (see, for just a few examples, Karen Bray and Stephen D. Moore, Religion, Emotion, Sensation; Donovan O. Schaefer, Religious Affects; John Corrigan, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion). One of Berlant’s major contributions is the ability to think about what makes us feel good or bad, but not as something mystified or apolitical, but specifically as these feelings are shaped by political and structural forces. 

Berlant taught us how to embrace incoherence and contradiction, but still be intellectually rigorous; how to be serious, and talk about serious things, but also be playful, free-associate, have some fun. In that spirit, I want to use some Berlantian concepts to explore a particular trans/crip form of “binding”: the transmasculine binding of chests. 

The transmasculine practice of chest-binding might be considered an expression of trans desire and fantasy to be embodied otherwise. To bind one’s chest is often physically painful and can potentially be damaging over the long-term. It is a crip form of attachment, alleviating one form of debility (dysphoria) with another (pain and constriction). Binding is affectively complicated: the binder is loved for the flatness it can produce, but simultaneously hated for its very necessity. Binding can become another factor in the transnormative citizenship described by Jasbir Puar in The Right to Maim, helping to produce the exceptionalized cis-passing trans man. Binding can become a site of Berlant’s cruel optimism: when surgery is financially inaccessible, one must bind in order to go to work to earn money for surgery, but the binder makes work harder, more exhausting, potentially more disabling. Binding can become a site of neoliberal capitalist inclusion, when the big box store’s Pride month collection features cute and fashionable binder designs.  

Of course, the mainstreaming of binding brings the same downsides as any form of trans recognition today: backlash and scapegoating exacerbated by the newly visible minority. As the overdetermined cultural sign of transmasculinity, the binder represents cissexist fears of “irreversible damage” to young putatively female bodies; TERFy concern-trolling about dysmorphia and internalized negative body image; scopophilia around the public display of trans bodies; the binding-together of the coherent trans self. This complex set of connotations is reflected in anti-LGBTQ religious condemnations of “self-mutilation,” but also in pro-LGBTQ discourses, religious or otherwise, that focus on the authenticity and sovereignty of the “true self” supposedly excavated and expressed by the one transitioning. Whither performativity! 

With Berlant at our backs, can we move away from these tired and tiring discourses, and instead bring chest-binding into conversation with another queer form of binding, that of bondage? Perhaps binding and bondage might function as tropes for thinking about trans and queer survival under the relentless assault of ordinary crisis (or “crisis ordinariness,” to use Berlant’s term from Cruel Optimism), both political and affective, brought about by wave after wave of anti-trans legislation as well as dysphoria. 

Both body modification and BDSM are sites for play and exploration of bodily possibilities; both zero in on the co-incidence of pain and pleasure; both intensify the contradictions of the bindings we seek and those we chafe under. In trans bodily practices and in queer forms of sexuality, we can explore the paradox of freedom within constraint, of voluntarily seeking to be bound, of pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure. Queerly upending of the expected order of things, we make the choice to give up choice, to cede power within a bounded circumstance, and perhaps also to find it where we least expect it. 

Religious bindings may also be played with and explored in such a queer manner. One vivid example is Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah’s “Meditation for T’fillin,” which explores the Jewish prayer practice – derived from Deuteronomy 11:18 (“Therefore impress these my words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead”) – of wrapping leather straps on one’s arm and head to attach leather boxes containing words of Torah.[1]

I cannot bind myself to You 
I can only unbind myself continually and free 
Your spirit within me 

So why 
this tender‐cruel parody of bondage 
black leather straps skin 
gut and 
sacred litany of power and submission which bind us 
Your slave-people 

My own answer is wound around with every 
binding and unbinding 
blood rushing heart pounding life‐force surging 
pushing panting straining struggling to break through to You 

With God as BDSM play partner, this poem plays with paradox, unbinding and being bound, collective and individual identity, spirit and flesh, all swelling into the orgasmic rush of rhythm at the end. While chest-binding is not, to my knowledge, explicitly evoked in this poem, it is not difficult to read it, too, into the resonances of tefillin and bondage, particularly given the gender-play inherent to a woman’s reclaiming of the traditionally male practice of wrapping tefillin. 

Like any other attachment, the (literal) attachment of tefillin may become cruel (or “tender-cruel”) if it frustrates its own promises, and for many this is precisely what traditional religious practice does: the promised liberation (whether from the secular world, the grip of sin, self-centeredness, or the cycle of reincarnation) turns out to be simply another form of bondage (to empty rituals, a counterintuitive ethical code, an abusive religious leader, a tyrannical divinity). The poet resists narrative closure, easy redemption, or straightforward answers, instead “straining” and “struggling to break through,” seeking not creeds and dogmas but a sensual and affective relation to the divine Other. This binding is, perhaps, an embodied practice of seeking community, not for specific ends but for its own sake: what in Cruel Optimism Berlant calls “an attachment to the process of maintaining attachment” (260).

More explicitly transmasculine is my own effort at versification, titled “Unbinding” and written on the anniversary of the surgery that ended my personal relationship with chest-binding.  

Get up, son. Long before dawn. 
Shoes off, medical robe on. 
You built this altar. Lie on top. 
This time the angel doesn’t say stop. 
Count down from ten. She raises the knife. 
You’re your own ram, your substitute life.
Suture, incision. Reassembled division. 
Cleavage, an offering, circumcision. 

These scarlines mark a glorious chart, 
Contours that map a surpassing test. 
A petroglyph, icon of surgery’s art. 
Your flesh engraved with memory blessed. 
These words shall be upon your heart. 
You shall bind them for a sign upon your chest. 

In this case, tefillin are obliquely invoked, their liturgy torqued into misquotation at the end, but the primary religious referent is the binding of Isaac. Again, queer reversal and inversion are at play, expressing the trans surgical experience of finding something generally considered negative to be life-giving. Much recent transphobic commentary has expressed anxiety about transmasculine chest surgery specifically, framing it as “mutilation.” At its most sophisticated, this commentary can seem to frame medical transition itself as a kind of cruel optimism, kindling a desire for “true” manhood or womanhood in those who, due to their very transness, can never really achieve it.

To seek an alternative version of the good life – one that takes pride and pleasure in its trans and crip deviancies, the very things that are excluded from normative visions of the good life – is to repel this framing. To cultivate a love for one’s scars is perhaps to embody, even momentarily, a world beyond the cisnormative structures of feeling that can only ever imagine transness as lack, loss, and failure.

As these examples demonstrate, the burgeoning subfield of queer and trans studies in religion is opening up avenues for understanding our bodily attachments within and beyond religion. With Berlant’s sensibility as a guide, scholar of queer and trans studies in religion might seek to explore the paradoxes of desire and love that Berlant theorized with a generosity, curiosity, and clarity we can all hope to emulate. 

[1] Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, “Meditation for Tefillin.” Quoted with permission. This poem is published in: Sylvia Paskin and Sonja Lyndon, eds., The Dybbuk of Delight. An Anthology of Jewish Women’s Poetry (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 1995); Elyse Goldstein, Seek Her Out (New York: UAHC Press, 2003); Tamar Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Inhabiting queer religiosity

Drawing from ethnographic research of Indonesian Muslim queer experiences, this essay addresses Lauren Berlant’s conceptual legacy in understanding tensile relationships between queerness and religious affects.

Feminist (Theological) Fantasies

Berlant’s work points us to other possibilities that avoid, that resist, the fantasy of redeemed gender—calling for us instead to reside in the messiness of our attachments and providing space and ways for us to negotiate them, rather than seeking to transcend them. Whereas the efforts to transcend gender seem to, paradoxically, deepen our attachments to gender norms, it is also the case then that in negotiating the messiness of those attachments, one finds space for other ways of doing gender that perhaps subvert or move us beyond its constraining norms.

Binding Berlant

The burgeoning subfield of queer and trans studies in religion is opening up avenues for understanding our bodily attachments within and beyond religion. With Berlant’s sensibility as a guide, scholars of queer and trans studies in religion might seek to explore the paradoxes of desire and love that Berlant theorized with a generosity, curiosity, and clarity we can all hope to emulate.

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