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Everyone knows that a transformer is a robot in disguise, or an electrical device that transfers electrical energy between two or more circuits through electromagnetic induction.

But looking at the first entries for “transform” in the Oxford English Dictionary gives a sense of the word’s relation to uncontainable strangeness, to the numinous and inexplicable, rather than the commodifiable and containable – what Rebecca Solnit calls “the obscure, the ineffable, the unmarketable, the unmanageable, the local, the poetic and the eccentric” (Hope in the Dark).

c1340 R. Rolle Prose Treat. 15

In transfourmynge of þe saule in þe Godhede.

▸c1384 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) 2 Cor. iii. 18

Alle we..ben transformyd into the same ymage.

c1400 Mandeville's Trav. (Roxb.) iv. 11

Of Ypocras daughter transformed from a womman to a dragoun.

1483 Caxton tr. Caton b vij b,

This myn owne daughter the whiche by the plesure and wylle of god hath ben transfourmed in to a catte.

1548 N. Udall et al. tr. Erasmus Paraphr. Newe Test. I. Mark i. f. 5v,

That thynges of muche contrarietie maye easely be transformed, and tourned one into an other.

The soul transformed in the Godhead; transformed from woman to dragon; a daughter transformed to a cat – transformation is the relation between “things of much contrariety,” the possibility that what seems impossible might in fact take place.

Taking guidance from trans activism and theory, perhaps we can redefine trans-form as a political, social, cultural, spiritual, aesthetic and embodied redefinition of “form” itself – so to “transform” is not just to change one thing into another (an articulated plastic construction resembling a car into an articulated plastic construction resembling a robot), or move something from one place to another (although energy is not a thing, and moves constantly), but to address the condition of form itself, and the contrarieties it contains. To think about “form” not just as commodity or material or status quo or bureaucratic document, but about how all these meanings contain their own instability within them. Filling in a form? Trans-form, using the set questions to question the expected answers.


“Some philologists refer the word to the root of ferīre to strike; others compare it with Sanskrit dharman, neuter, holding, position, order, < dhar, dṛ, to hold.”

To hold to position, or to strike (against it): form means both to give shape to something, and that shape; both change, and the thing that is changed. Transforming form means hearing that contradiction as generative, as energy: that which moves and keeps (us) moving.

What does 'transformation' mean to you? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments below.


So Mayer is a UK-based writer, editor, educator and activist with a passionate commitment to arts and social justice. She is a member of queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes and Raising Films, an organisation set up to improve working conditions for parents and carers in the film industry. She's a lecturer in film at LCC and Queen Mary University of London, and a film journalist for Sight & Sound and The F-Word, where she focuses on independent, experimental, and feminist films and film culture.

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