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As Obama finally commutes Chelsea Manning’s unjust sentence, Amy Hickman discusses the relationship between Manning, the presidency, transgender politics and Guantánamo.

Every year, the United States sends a cheque for $4, 085 to the Cuban government for the lease of the land occupied by the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. And every year, the Cuban government fails to cash the cheque: Guantánamo Bay is occupied territory. The first detainees were taken there in 2002, after the Bush administration declared it outside the legal jurisdiction of the United States. This careful disavowal of sovereignty, conversely, means that the United States can do whatever it wants there, since neither Cuban nor U.S. laws apply. Bound to no one, Guantánamo is legally nowhere, like an island in an island.[1] This is how Guantánamo authorizes itself to speak the truth. One of the first things it said was: “I am alone with myself.”

I USED TO BE UNHAPPY / OH YES / I LIVED IN THE CORNER OF A ROOM / THEN YOU CAME ALONG AND FUCKED THE SHIT OUT OF ME / I WON’T BE UNHAPPY AGAIN

One version of the story says that Clinton (Hillary) stayed with Clinton (Bill) because of their legacy as a political family. Stoic and solid as a rock, Hillary saw the necessity of appearing not to be suffering. She gained much from the scandal, politically speaking; in the eyes of the people, she went from being a powerful but dishonest woman to one who was loyal and good. The Clintons remained an American institution, a united Family. Another version of the story is that when she was asked, she said something to the effect of: “it’s just something that happens between two people.” That is, that there’s a kind of absolute privacy to sex that keeps it in the family of two. Even in such a very public scandal, a matter of national shame, the secret—of both suffering and sex—happens between two people.

chelsea_manning_with_wig

And then, of course, there was Prez. Clinton’s unwittingly Heideggerian moment: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.[2] During the Paula Jones lawsuit, his attorney announced that an affidavit was filed by Monica Lewinsky that stated, “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.”[3] This is the “is” that Clinton called into question. Clinton means: we are not having sex. There is no sex, right now, at this instant, in this courtroom—there is no sexual relation. We have heard this one somewhere before, under different circumstances. And he is not entirely wrong: it does, in some sense, depend on what the meaning of the word “is” is. It depends on whether the sexual relation that he did not have with that woman, Miss Lewinsky, does in fact designate any one thing. Or if it—the sexual—relates anything at all. If we were to claim that it does designate something that is, we would have to ask where it is, and when it is. Instead, if we announce that there is no sex between President Clinton and that woman, it would be to state exactly what is proper to it: that it is only ever something—but a verb, like to fuck—that happens between two people, a third thing between two.[4] Even when we are alone with ourselves.

SPRING IS A COCK THAT’S HARD / OH YES / I KNOW YOU’RE A SECRET TERRORIST / ‘CAUSE LOVE LEADS TO DEATH

Much of what we know about Guantánamo comes not from public officials but from the enormous release of the Guantánamo Files,[5] a trove of classified documents from Joint Task Force Guantánamo, comprised of 759 detainee assessment dossiers, released by WikiLeaks and traced to Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning. Because of this we know that Guantánamo operates as a truth machine, a system that takes in hundreds of people and performatively produces terrorists or detainees of high risk or high interrogation value. Even at the time of the leak, almost 600 of the detainees had been released by the Bush administration for lack of evidence.[6] Many of those “high-value” prisoners were shown to have made it all up, in the hope of better conditions or an end to the interrogations.[7]

This phrase, “Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning,” is important, not only because no news outlet seems capable of referring to her without this as a qualifier. They were slow to call her by her name, too. Some have suggested that no one could take seriously her gender on account of suspicions about her motives and her state of mind.[8] Some others have suggested that it goes the other way: Manning’s crossing of a particular border (gender) threw into question her position in relation to other borders (national, psychological), like, whose side are you on anyway? Manning became doubly a traitor and a patriot, a border-crosser or a cross-dresser or a double-crosser, depending on whom you asked. In any case, she was always—in the press, at least—between two. At the same time, her leaking of the Guantánamo files, along with the Afghan War Logs and the video known as “Collateral Murder”, seem inextricable from the problems that come with being a queer hacker in the military under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Obviously, and as the chat logs between her and Adrian Lamo evince, she was motivated by a sense of public good, but she also wrote to him that “living such an opaque life, has forced me never to take transparency, openness, and honesty for granted.”[9] Manning was always in some sense unfit to appear in public; as someone coded by the military and by public discourse as “private.” In some sense, her leaking of the files was a solicitation: a call that remains active and open, to a public that does not yet exist and which might receive her as someone capable of telling the truth.[10] The truth, in this instance, might filter out to transform the world into one wherein she is retroactively authorized to speak it, as a woman alone—like an island in an island.

I WON’T EVER BE UNHAPPY AGAIN / THOUGH IT’S BEEN A WEEK SO YOUR LOVE’S ALMOST OVER / THE WORLD’S ABOUT TO EXPLODE / TERRORISTS NEED NO MORE COVER / OH YES LOVE LEADS TO DEATH / OH YES [11]


[1] Amy Kaplan, “Where is Guantánamo?” American Quarterly 57 (3, 2005), 831-858.

[2] H. Res. 525, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess. (1998), 510.

[3] ibid., 509

[4] Jean-Luc Nancy, “The ‘There Is’ of Sexual Relation,” Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality, trans. Anne O’Byrne (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 1-22.

[5] Available at https://wikileaks.org/gitmo/

[6] Chase Madar, The Passion of Bradley Manning (London: Verso, 2013), 68.

[7] WikiLeaks, The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire (London: Verso, 2015), 76.

[8] Maureen O’Connor, “Why is it so Hard to Call Chelsea Manning ‘She’?” New York Magazine, August 22, 2013, http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/08/why-is-it-so-hard-to-call-chelsea-manning-she.html

[9] The full transcript was released by Wired in an article titled “Manning-Lamo Chat Logs Revealed,” July 13, 2011, http://www.wired.com/2011/07/manning-lamo-logs

[10] Lida Maxwell, “Truth in Public: Chelsea Manning, Gender Identity, and the Politics of Truth-Telling,” Theory & Event 18 (1, 2015), n.p.

[11] Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove Press, 1978), 122.



Amy Hickman is a new media artist and PhD candidate at Curtin University. Her work and research are interdisciplinary, engaging with queer and feminist theory, networked technology, visual culture, and political philosophy.

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