Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nicole Morse reviews Shimmering Images

Eliza SteinbockShimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019. 248 pp.

Review by Nicole Morse

29 July 2020

A theoretically ambitious monograph in the emerging area of trans cinema studies, Eliza Steinbock’s Shimmering Images: Trans Cinema, Embodiment, and the Aesthetics of Change analogizes trans erotics to cinephilia in order to offer cinema studies a new concept: shimmering images. For trans studies, the book provides three conceptual models for thinking trans media history, emblematized by typographical markings: disjunction (/), suture (-), and proliferation (*). Drawing on selected cases from early cinema, art film, pornography, and cult cinema, Steinbock argues that shimmering images are those mediated experiences that allow spectators to explore change and transformation through the affective charge of desire. Ultimately, building on philosophical investigations of  “shimmering” by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Susan Stryker, and Steven Shaviro, Steinbock uses “shimmering” to describe how both cinema and trans embody change.

For Steinbock, the concept of shimmering is particular and universal. Steinbock argues that “trans & cinema” are united across the ampersand by their connection to change, but Steinbock also invites readers to create their own ampersand constructions of how cinema invites ways of looking, knowing, loving, and desiring that are intertwined with identity, positionality, and community (p. 3). In this way, Steinbock’s theory of shimmering images is a new take on the long history of scholarship linking cinema to change.

Meanwhile, by reading trans as change, Shimmering Images touches on key debates within trans studies. There are intellectual, theoretical, and political risks in those trans exceptionalist arguments where trans stands in for every kind of transformation, variation, and, of course, change. These risks become most apparent when cinematic suture is reductively compared to surgical suture (p. 35), but they are also present in Steinbock’s broader claim that “the heart of both transgender embodiment and cinematic experience” is “the potential for change” (p. 25).

Change is a universal experience, but Steinbock argues that cinema and trans share a unique status in that they capture the positive aspects of change, rather than the more negative aspects of change that can be found in illness, aging, and death (p. ix). According to Steinbock, shimmering is “change in its alluring, twinkling, flickering form” (p. 9); as such, shimmering seems to be aligned with the radical, liberatory, anti-normative possibilities that are often attributed to trans liminality. However, this framework neglects the negative, harmful, and burdensome aspects of liminality. In Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Che Gossett and Juliana Huxtable argue that trans liminality disproportionately impacts Black trans people; similarly, trans liminality’s effects on trans feminine people have been highlighted in GLQ and TSQ by Gabby Benavente and Julian Gill-Peterson as well as Andrea Long Chu and Emmett Harsin Drager, respectively. The tension between positivity and negativity emerges in Steinbock’s close reading of the docu-porn film Trans Entities: The Nasty Love of Papí and Wil (2007), where Steinbock proposes repurposing Deleuze’s concept of “dark shimmers” in order to explore how trans cinema intersects with questions of race, ability, and nonnormative sexual practices.

Shimmering Images is often exquisitely poetic, evoking Roland Barthes’s work as it describes the author’s passionate investigation of media, mediation, and embodiment. Like late Barthes, Steinbock attempts to articulate the erotics, the intimacy, and the affective experience of spectatorship. If, like Barthes, their account is ultimately limited because it is so personal, nonetheless, this account of trans cinema and trans desire is important precisely because the personal is political. Within trans media criticism, there is often significant hesitation to touch on the critic’s own desire. As Steinbock demonstrates, however, we come to media as complex constellations of experiences, desires, and identities, and we respond affectively to media in ways that can be intensely personal and hard to articulate.

In Shimmering Images, Steinbock offers a way to try to communicate to others that peculiar resonance that we feel with certain media objects. Of course, the gap between our experience and our ability to translate it into language can never be entirely closed. Nonetheless, Steinbock’s concept of shimmering images expresses how we thrill to certain mediated moments not in spite of, but because of, who we are and who we are becoming—in dialogue with the media that we encounter, that we seek out, and that shimmers in our lives.