Poetic Operations: Trans of Color Art in Digital Media
Duke University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Sam Turner
In Poetic Operations: Trans of Color Art in Digital Media, micha cárdenas brings trans of color artists’ work into focus via algorithmic analysis toward anti-violent action and solidarity with multiply marginalized communities. Contributing to a constellation of voices across trans studies, digital humanities, women of color feminism, visual and performing arts, and critical ethnic studies, cárdenas powerfully highlights the need for more fully perceiving trans of color experiences, especially in ways that hold space for a meaningful acknowledgement of the truth of anti-trans violence, while also creating and engaging decolonial survivalist strategies rooted in trans and gender-non-conforming embodiment, lived experience, and liberation.
The focus of the book involves the poetics of art—including video games, street and embodied performance, poetry, and music videos—created by trans and gender-non-conforming people working in digital media. Building from Glissant’s concept of poetics as an “expressive material force that flows, with political impact, between people and cultures,” cárdenas understands poetics as a set of operative gestures that work towards specific, action-oriented ends.
In the Introduction to the book, cárdenas offers algorithmic analysis as a method of perceiving art and action that specifically contribute to the safety and survival of trans people of color. Citing the ways algorithms have been taken up primarily by colonizing and militaristic projects as well as STEM studies, she seeks to reorient how algorithmic analysis may be engaged as an addition to ethical engagement with art and poetry. In this context, an algorithm is akin to a recipe or a ritual; it includes both a list of parts and instructions for how those parts interact, or operations. It is through algorithmic analysis that trans of color poetics might be identified and elucidated. cárdenas’s concept of operations mainly involves “nonvisual elements, embodied gesture, and ways of using time that divert from Western aesthetics’ focus on the visual, the linguistic, and linear time,” and are thoroughly explored in Chapter 1.
The rest of the book is organized around three broad poetic operations that cárdenas locates as common gestures in the work of trans artists of color: the cut, the shift, and the stitch, drawn from Gilles Deleuze’s work. Though organized as distinct categories with specific traits, cárdenas is clear about the ways these operations are always already interacting with and mediating one another in ways that move, weave, rupture, heal, and (in)visibilize trans embodiment.
Chapter 2, “The Decolonial Cut,” both describes and demonstrates one method of algorithmic analysis (the cut) as it functions within two performances from cárdenas’s project, Autonets. For cárdenas, cutting is the process of “breaking a problem down into underlying operations.” Autonets is a collaborative performance piece that involved a group of people moving together in a public space mediated by digital technology, including digital video, photography, and networked media. In this way, the performers made cuts in multiple networks, including art circuits and state surveillance. In describing the impact and poetic intent of Autonets, cárdenas makes clear the opportunity for deep connection between cuts in time, space, visibility, technology and fields of mediation and the literal cutting of transgender peoples’ flesh in gender affirming surgeries. Thus, a cut can also become an ethical possibility, as to “cut into a flow of mediation that supports colonialism, such as the binary gender system or the informational apparatus of policing systems, can be a decolonizing cut.” In this way, cuts can modulate (in)visibility and, crucially, enact opacity in ways that protect trans people of color against the state’s demands of legibility, exposure, and definition.
Chapters 3 and 4 address the shift and the experience of shifting in the work of trans and gender-non-conforming artists of color. Chapter 3 demonstrates how Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis and cárdenas’s own code poetry (lines of C++ or Java code) include the poetic of shifting, which draws upon the mutability practiced by trans women of color in facing the violence of the everyday and shifting their presentation as a survival strategy. Shifting, then, represents identity as always in flux, in process, and multiple. Chapter 4 describes how two video games by trans of color artists—Mattie Brice’s Mainichi and cárdenas’s own Redshift and Portalmetal—use poetics to create the experience of shifting for players. In Mainichi, players play as the game’s designer, Mattie Brice—a Black trans woman—as she navigates everyday threats of violence. Redshift and Portalmetal is likewise figured as a game based in the experience of trans shifting. In Redshift, space travel is used as a lens through which to better understand experiences of migration for a trans woman of color. Importantly, cárdenas offers each of these projects as examples of how shifting can create a poetics of relation.
Relationality and community are further fleshed out in Chapter 5, “The Stitch,” which describes a new operation that “adds complexity and form” to trans of color poetics. In relation to the shift, which “provides the variables, elements in movement and transition,” the stitch “provides the mechanism for holding variables together.” The resonances here with trans embodiment remain (the stitch is just as material and conceptual as the cut and shift before it) but cárdenas also deepens how we imagine the stitch by introducing how it operates in textile and woven arts, as well as Indigenous histories of stitching algorithms (quipus), and broader imaginations of ‘stitching’ that extend beyond individual experience to create networked relations and communities. Notably, the stitch is a way of “imagining the community-building work necessary to create community-based responses to violence.” Importantly, cárdenas makes clear the incredible versatility and iterative nature of trans of color poetic operations; for example, depending on the context or work, a cut may actually enact the operation of a stitch, and vice versa. In this way, the algorithmic analysis of trans of color poetics may reveal layers, complexities, relations, and ontologies perhaps obscured by other ways of looking or knowing.
At its core, Poetic Operations is a decolonizing project, building from Glissant’s poetics of relation, resonances with women of color feminism, and the exigency of methodological reorientation within humanities fields. Application of algorithms in humanistic projects may feel dangerously aligned with rigidity, scientific objectivism, or definitional essentialism, but cárdenas takes many opportunities to remind audiences how improvisational and in-progress trans of color poetics are; they modulate, flow, adapt, enact, and resist. cárdenas convincingly argues that scholars in trans studies and the humanities need not shy away from engagement with algorithms, and instead can enrich their projects by reclaiming and expanding mainstream concepts of algorithms. Scholar-activists across fields stand to benefit from cárdenas’s contribution to trans and digital media studies, especially as Poetic Operations reminds us of the importance of listening to trans people of color as they share and organize around experiences of not only incomprehensible violence and subjugation, but also joy, connection, healing, and solidarity.
Responding broadly to the trend within Western transgender studies to center white trans visibility, cárdenas shifts attention to an engagement with trans studies rooted in queer of color critique. At every turn, cárdenas generously reminds audiences whom she honors in her scholarship, making Poetic Operations an exemplar of critique from a place of love, à la Black feminist theorists like hooks and Lorde. Each chapters’ investment in adding to—not replacing—academic contributions by Black feminists is made explicitly clear, as is the opportunity scholars have to engage algorithmic analysis in working towards safety, survival, and liberation for trans people of color.