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Void Bitches

To be trans is to be already left out of the design of the world.

If trans writers have an affinity for the disaster of the world, maybe it’s because our bodies are a disaster already. Now that the whole planet has some kind of dysphoria, maybe it’s our time to shine.

It’s a ludicrous idea, I know, but one reads in these times with a measure of delirium.

I read something again to teach it and found myself making all new notes about it: Psycho Nymph Exile, by Porpentine Heartscape (Arcadia Missa Publishers, London, 2016). It’s a book by, for and about “these unresolved spirits, nymphs with eradicated and unborn domains.” To be trans is to be already left out of the design of the world. “I wish there was a world for us,” Heartscape writes, and I think: now, there’s no longer much of a world for anyone. “The world is boiling.”

The imaginary (non)worlds of Psycho Nymph Exile are populated by “void bitches.” I claim the right to call us bitches, as I too am a bitch, even though I am not a void bitch. As to what kind of bitch I am in this world — we’ll get to that. These are the things one can say of a void bitch: “It’s so easy to throw people like [her] away. It costs nothing, and no one will ever pay for it.” And: “Decades of being ignored by others have allowed her to walk through the world as if she cannot be seen. Unclean spirit.” Now that the ruling class is frankly treating whole populations as disposable, throwing them away like paper masks, the void bitch is at least one among many to whom this comes as no surprise.

The void bitch characters that recur in the book are Vellus and Isidol. Both women are around thirty. It’s not exactly a love story between them. Somehow the conventions of neither straight, gay nor lesbian narrative quite seem to fit T4T (trans-for-trans) stories. And so we have sentences like: “Vellus Satowary is hanging out with her girlfriend in their apartment. They get high and suck each other’s cocks and cry.”

Nobody in the text is ever actually called trans, which is a relief. Maybe the word has too much firepower to wield in intimate spaces. It gets over-coded with moral imperatives to be on one’s best behavior. There are a lot of details that resonate with trans life, though. Two impoverished women are “… sucking ketchup from packets, quivering happily at the salt infusion.” One is fired from a waitressing job because “the bones of my face are too big.” For another, the body is that familiar site of disaster: “I haven’t spent my life inside my own body. Always peering from it like a rat in a ruined building, at the bright lights invading.”

Two things complicate any sense of a trans identity in the text. One is class. Heartscape’s characters fell from, or never had, even a middle-class world. That world seems like an unreality with special effects. “Sitting at the dining room table of a house higher resolution than their bodies[.]” The trappings of prosperity don’t appear as the standard of what counts as real. “The client comes back in, wet hair slicked back along her skull. Her pupils are huge. ‘That was nice, wasn’t it?’ Something, presumably somewhere in history, has been nice.”

Their world is one of service work, sex work, or no work. Some sell their own piss, to be sold as if it was that of some celebrity. It’s a gag on the celebrity perfume industry, as if the labor of making that stuff was the micturition of girls. Their encounters with the world of money are like immersive fiction. “This is not the earth, where things are weighed down. This is the air, where porn physics reign,” Heartscape writes. “A furnace where hundreds of thousands of dollars burn to make real life feel like someone’s aesthetic blog. They must live in this hyper-real atmosphere like alien birds.”

Class cuts across any other sense of belonging, even to those grouped together by their trans-ness. “As if having a million dollars and the ability to make pain stop at any time didn’t make us totally different animals.” In a world in which there are now significant subcultures of young, out trans women with careers and mortgages — in tech, for example — this is key. Class divides us even, or especially, when we party. For Vellus and Isidol, “Everything they learned growing up watching horror movies and nature documentaries about predatory animals and blood and water, applies here. These people who want everyone to have a good time.”

The second thing that sets the world of void bitches apart is being survivors of major trauma. They’ve probably spent mandatory time in “Groups and therapy; toy worlds disconnected from the real one, where no progress is saved and nothing counts toward the final score.” They suffer from DSTP: Despair Syndrome with Temporal Purge. It’s a fractal condition whose symptoms includes temporal displacement, life-death, psycho-irradiation, pheromone-poisoning. “It is uncertain how people acquire DSTP. It seems entirely random. An innocent enough rape could be occurring when a beam of light falls from the sky and strikes a woman in the head, irradiating every cell of her body.” The light comes in different colors.

As in Torrey Peters’s Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, characters in Psycho Nymph Exile find an affinity for each other in having experienced the world-puncturing effects of surviving trauma, but struggle in spite of conscious intentions not to inflict more pain. “Even the ability to hurt each other is a richer existence than when they were alone…” With luck, they can keep each other alive. “Vellus looks back at her ruined life and wonders at the gaping magnitude of the wound that Isidol keeps in check. A girl and death stand on opposite trays of a scale and somehow, miraculously, it holds in perfect balance.”

Assembling these three attributes together — transness, class, trauma — marks a situation where void bitch characters do their best to live as disaster kittens in a crashing world. This world is a Philip K. Dick novel with the cladding of Japanese anime. It’s a world with a separate dimension in which spins the Psycho Pillar, an infinitely vast vertical of crystalized trauma, which must be constantly maintained with all the colors of DTSP. When it is not, whole other dimensions are cloned off in which titanic battles occur. Worlds that can disappear without consequence, according to “eschaton ethics.”

Worlds may be more — or less — real. In one, “glass walls mute the shoppers walking past. The blinding white light admits no detail beyond their silhouettes.” This world sounds exactly like Plato’s cave. Only it is not as if what is outside the cave is the real. It’s just caves and caves, some temporary burner worlds or shell worlds hived off from primary ones, but nobody is ever sure if they’ve found their way back home: “Trust no false worlds.” But it is not as if one can overthrow the society of the spectacle in this text. Rather one has to make another pocket world within its disaster. “I wonder if we’re still the true world.”

The language for describing worlds in Psycho Nymph Exile is more contemporary than the metaphors of the shadow-play of the cave or the theatrical image of the spectacle. “Her face is fully illuminated, as if the details are being recorded by the sun.” A language that comes from computer games, rave culture, anime and manga. “The world splits without a sign. Until the sky turns red, there is tremendous anxiety as humans await the status of their canonicity.”

There is one world in which Vellus is an EXILE, an Endoscopic Xeno-Integrated Liasion Empathy Surrogate, which is the name given to GAIGA pilots. GAIGA are Giant Armored Insane Guardian Axis, giant female mecha, although mostly made of flesh. “They lope like spider dogs, pointed rudimentary breasts, barbs between their legs.” The human-piloted giant mecha are probably most recognizable to those with only a casual interest in anime from Neon Genesis Evangelion, a show with a cult trans-femme following. Something about lurching through disasters, trying to control a hulking body that seems like an alien thing is relatable. The GAIGA, like trans women, “suffer from a heightened chance of osteoporosis.”

Vellus and SUGARCANE, her GAIGA, also remind me of gamers: “She fingers the joystick, sculpted from a neural stem. It tenses under her grip like a clit.” A game is a burner world in which to fight one’s demons, nesting the flesh in its abstract machine. A girl can be defeated in a game and live to fight another day. A defeated girl defeated in a burner world faces traumatic consequences: “Vellus’s GAIGA is frozen above the city, voice stuck on a single frame, a 1-second scream that lasts forever. Her GAIGA is buffering.”

The relation of EXILE pilot to GAIGA mecha veers from dysphoric disaster to erotic euphoria. “She imagines someone, the faintest outline of a someone, manifesting behind her like a jellyfish and sinking into her, pressing the fabric of her bikini against her asshole. Their outline would not harden into delineated, insistent, tearing parts but infiltrate her body like slime, expanding to fill her orifices but no further… Her cock stretches the bikini bottom until her balls are visible from the side. She rubs against SUGARCANE’s palm, crushing her cock into the groove of the lifeline. Out here in the sky there are no humans, no demon brains. Her giantess will protect her from all harm.”

Isidol is a different type of girl, a magical girl. They are born with a crystal that makes people hate them. “The crystal gives them an allergic reaction to language. Each girl has a unique combination of trigger words…. These allergic reactions manifest as euphoric eruptions of prismatic light, adrenaline flooding, rapid regeneration, a feeling of tweaked-out invincibility.” They burn bright, they fly. “The adrenaline high of beauty comes from the distance you have to fall back to earth.” The magical girls seem more like ravers than gamers to me.

More my type of void bitch, but not quite.

There are other types of girl. Catgirls, who might get to do the more lucrative kinds of sex work, and tiny girls — for crush videos. And there are the trashers, who remind me of dumpster-diving punks. There are only girls in this world, girls at war with false worlds, which reads like a cross between Monique Wittig’s The Guerrillas and Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls.

Then there are the Pink Rubber Animals, headless kink girls, femme versions of Georges Bataille’s headless Acéphale figure. When they’ve not gone feral, they seem quite devoted to service. “Pink Rubber Animal’s neckhole sucks her cock as she lies on the couch, eyes narrowed, staring at the wall. She’s about to cum, thighs clenching around Pink Rubber Animal with a squeak of rubber. She’s almost got a nice image together… The image shatters as a beam of DSTP-Orange blast through the roof of her apartment, illuminating it like a muddy, humid cave full of fire. Dormant memories hatch all over her body.”

In a world almost entirely populated by those that this world considers less than human — the poor, the mad, the trans — there are new genres of those less than less than human — Pink Rubber Animals, tiny girls — with whom reciprocity and recognition doesn’t happen. Girls aren’t moral angels in these worlds, and powerlessness is not purity.

These are worlds on intimate terms with the proximity of pleasure and desire for violence; in which real power can’t be seen and yet is doubled by a spectacle which repeats its essential logic. In what reads like a riff on William Burroughs’s obsession with death erections, there’s a snuff reality TV show. “A woman locked in a guillotine is getting assfucked by her girlfriend, laughing, drooling, gnashing her teeth, total serotonin dump from a crazy hit of girlchunks, and when their pleasure is at its height, the guillotine slams shut, slapping her head across the room. Her death spasm clenches her ass around her girlfriend’s cock and her girlfriend orgasms, blood spurting from the woman’s jerking neckhole like an eruption of crimson cum.”

The immediate forms of power structure in the prime world of Vellus and Isidol are the institute and the academy, forms of disciplinary apparatus that read like a psych ward and a reform school, respectively. These are places that militate against any kind of girl to girl solidarity: “Ex-magical girls and biomech pilots and trash women are incentivized to inform on each other for small or non-existent rewards. The hope of being returned to society.” Vellus and Isidol are outcasts from these places. As they see it: “Who would want to be around a person of authority when, mystically, they are moved to commit some grievous violation, or make some note in some document that limits her future.” It’s not even a question.

Here we find out what kind of bitch I am in this world: “Older magical girls had accrued a dangerous knowledge. By a certain age they either demonstrated total absorption into the aims of the academy, and could serve as teachers or recruiters — or they are old enough to have seen the cycle, and watch the younger magical girls buy into everything they’ve been through, never told the cost of burning your crystal hot for years and years and years[.]” Vellus and Isidol exile themselves from the kinds of compromise an old bitch like me has made, although the book does acknowledge that “People hate old women because they collectively contain the knowledge of why the world is broken.”

In their psycho nymph exile, Vellus and Isidol have to create other forms of life, but — as you might suspect by now — there’s no easy solidarity or community among the girls. Vellus “sees another hormone cyborg on the street ahead of her, black strap hanging off the shoulder, bare legs under a pink tennis skirt. Recognizes her by how hot she burns for never having burnt at all, by the reality-distorting body shattering images in its wake. She feels anxious and sick. She knows this glimpse of plurality will disappear and she will be once again non-canonic and people will bend their vision to look around her. We can’t give each other succor, she thinks. We are too separated. Too encrypted… This is not the century of our becoming. But what of those of us who have become?” This language triggers more and better thinking about this — not uncommon — situation than simply labeling that feeling internalized transphobia.

The concept of family by choice has its nuances. “If blood relations are seen as superior because they precede intent, creating that bond deliberately feels powerful, like the creation of a shadow lineage.” The creation of such bonds might be the condition of possibility for enduring in the ruins. “Rumors of a squat for ex-magical girls out in the abandoned mall in the GAIGA blood swamps… where they try to learn new words, theorizing that the fragmenting of the crystal wasn’t a loss of linguistic power but a rearrangement, and that beyond the grid of known language are strange new moves.”

Here exile from power meets exile from language at the crossroads between the worlds of formal experimentation and the need for a language in which to live the particular kind of damaged lives inflicted on certain kinds of girls.

Experimentation could be not just with language but with the pleasures of the body. Magical girls in particular know those of the rave. “Underground party for magical girls. The strobe light is a magical girl spamming transformations at hyper-speed, frothing out of her mind on a superdose of girlchunks cut with biomech piss crystals.” But magical girls dance on into the morning with “the background tension of knowing the euphoria is ticking down, which is scary because life has no meaning for them, and only this xeno-euphoria they pierce into themselves feels worth existing for… this alien visitation that comes and goes but is not naturally produced by the body.”

The main thing keeping Vellus and Isidol going is their shared life. It’s not always great. “Sometimes what she does with Vellus feels like an intellectual pleasure, a joy she marks in ritual pegs and jots. To tell oneself, I have satisfied the conditions of my enjoyment.” And yet sometimes it is. “There is nothing like sharing a dark room with another. Waiting for something to happen, some vague divine event in our future, unknowable by present tactics, only the romantic feeling imparted by media that someday everyone is changed.”

One of their symptoms is future withdrawal. The romantic narrative can’t be lived as something that always might have been but is tragically foreclosed. It’s Romeo and Juliet reversed: They have to not kill themselves for love to not have a future together.

“Fuck my mutilated brain-damaged corpse… lick all the places I’ve been hurt.” They have the kind of T4T sex trans girls can have sometimes, caught between a body layout and a hormone regime that don’t match. “Isidol is actually getting off a little, shards glitching out.” Sometimes “they locate sex outside the body, in objects and fluids.”

Heartscape lovingly describes, in a language that avoids such words, the sexuality of the estrogenated girldick body. “The spongy jumble in her black leggings is so nice, squishing and pulsating and hardening under my hand, a snake hissing from a nest of eggs. She gets still and silent, like she’s concentrating. Her fluid soaks my hand, an orgasm of water, piss doesn’t burn out like fire, it keeps flowing, she is the sea… Calm and warm and steady, not jagged and mountainous and terminating.”

It’s hard to make a bond with another when you’ve learned to distrust the persistence of all worlds. It takes Vellus two years of not being raped by Isidol to trust that she won’t. The high point of the book has the same figure of lost love as a dead language with which I started Reverse Cowgirl: “Love is a language, she thinks, and when one of us dies, we will be the last speaker of a dead language,” Heartscape writes. “The ability for one person to understand you in the world. To be known. All that time explodes into the atmosphere and gets sucked into space.”

How can bonding to another be a link in something larger the couple form? Psycho Nymph Exile is not romantic about community, even — especially — that of void bitches. There are betrayals, recriminations. Wanting too much from the magic of community can break the spell in vile and violating ways. Still, perhaps there’s a world where “they can take back the space that has been pushed inside their own skin.” This is hardly something to hope for, of course, when “All resistance has failed, and all resistance to the resistance has failed.”

There’s no turn to politics in Psycho Nymph Exile which, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue, is maybe always a procedure of capture anyway — capture through supplication. Some girls argue about the supplication protocols. Heartscape: “There were incessant arguments that the transmissions somehow had an effect on the random cruelties and rewards that emanated from the places of power.” Instead, the exile girls engage in a bit of home-brew reality hacking. “Vellus and Isidol run through the dust storms of the shell worlds, bonebag bodies clinging to them like a fickle mutiny of skeletons, rescuing their alt selves in a flash of micro-portals they rigged up from common household parts on the floor of their apartment.”

Rather than distributing our various fantastic selves across dissociated burner worlds, and leaving them there to die, what if they could come home with us? Where there is intensity, there isn’t life; where there is life, there isn’t intensity. Only in false worlds does it appear we really live; in real worlds, we live falsely. There is no world for us. Although perhaps there’s a possibility for living in making art that makes another world which evades the languages of those on offer.

The possibility of world-making might look more like an aesthetics than a politics, one cut and paste together from anime and games, from delinquent theorists like Guy Debord, and from pulp fabulists like J. G. Ballard. It’s an aesthetic that refuses the celebrity-bound forms of both entertainment and academic culture. One that assembles itself out of its own detritus. “She stares at the book, stupefied. Is this real? Do people write this goddam shit? … It could be randomly generated… Many members of the new generation look down on human designed art, arguing that it lacks the unpredictability of generated art… humans are limited by cultural pressure… Finally this great and tortured myth of conscious design can end.”

There’s agency in not imagining one’s hot takes are even one’s own. Heartscape: “There is no such thing as thoughts. Thoughts are what we call elements, which operate with no more concern for us than fire or water.” Language is a virus too. The least one can do is turn it inside out to see what it’s like when it’s not addressing us as if we were there already in the place it marks for us, patting the sofa and gesturing us in. Where us = those addressed by language: and who isn’t?

Well, battle-scarred, impoverished trans women are not really addressed, other than to put them in their place. All the better to evade the vector of language and deflect it, flip it over, show what it looks like when it’s addressed back to its own glitchy coding. As in these two sentences, which fabulate an artificially intelligent kudzu: “She gathered the information from the atmospheric emissions and slaved insects of the kudzu, and the kudzu that people ate, digested, and excreted. In the intestines she performed deep serotonin scans. The shit of her gathered in the sewers and discussed what she had learned.” Or this, where our familiar characters become aliens: “Their skin-encased organs walk toward the food bank, pointing the cones and stalks of their ears, mouth, eyes at each other, the breathing truce of bodies.”

How are we to live, those of us with the dumb luck to be alive, in our bubble worlds a temporary safety in the middle of disaster? I don’t know, but I don’t think I picked this book back up again by accident. It’s the void bitches whose very existence is several shells of disaster, but who struggle to find the form in language unique to it, outside the falsified slogans of the given — that’s who I want to read.

McKenzie Wark (she/they) is professor of culture and media at The New School for Social Research. Her most recent book is Capital is Dead, Verso, 2019.

This piece was originally published at Public Seminar on May 21, 2020.

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