“All western culture rests on the murder of the mother.”
As many of us have observed recently, trans ideology – and its associated arguments and rhetoric – is what we might call a ‘scavenger’ or ‘magpie’ discourse. My sense is basically that it’s reverse engineered – a set of central claims fashioned to achieve political objectives, which have then been backfilled with whatever bits and bats of argument were needed to appeal to the woke, give succour to misogynists, and create the general impression that it makes some kind of sense. Although I don’t think the entire discourse is academic – we have no clear, or complete, academic genealogy for its development – it is certainly true that many of these bits and bats come from the academy. And one of the most important of these – particularly, I think, with respect to why many academics have been so mystifyingly receptive to this pile of incoherent wiffle – is the idea that trans ideology is doing the venerable, emancipatory work of ‘smashing the binary.’
What I want to do here then is think through what ‘smashing the binary’ would or should mean in its original context, and to lay out the fundamental conceptual mistake in how it’s being thought in trans ideology. My claim – surprise! – is that this conceptual mistake is so dramatic that when trans ideologues and their allies wheel out some vague-ish claim that they’re leading us to liberation by ‘undoing’ or ‘challenging’ binaries, they are, in fact, repeating exactly the problem that the original critique of ‘binaries and why they are bad’ was trying to address. What this comes down to is that people don’t understand the distinction between ‘a binary’ and ‘a difference.’ And in some sense this whole stupid clusterfuck – at least insofar as it is attractive to leftish thinking-people who should know better – rests on that confusion.
So first off, ‘binaries and why they are bad.’ As I laid out here – the critique of binaries descends from Beauvoir and Derrida, through the deconstructive strand of post-structuralist thought, and is central to French post-structural feminism. The central idea is that Western thought is structured around a series of conceptual oppositions, and that these oppositions are gendered.
They look something like this:
There are several thing to note about these binaries. The first is that they are hierarchical – the masculine term is privileged over the feminine term, that is, it is conceived as being better. The second is that they are defined by conceptual opposition – and this is where the concept of ‘othering’ comes in. The inferior terms of the binary are understood only as negations of the superior term – as things which lack the privileged qualities of the superior term (non-men anyone?). The significance of this is that the binaries inform the understanding of the people who are defined in opposition to the one who defines; a process by which the white male subject defines his others – women, and the non-white – as an inferior negation of himself. This conceptual mechanism has historically underpinned violence and exploitation aimed at people on the ‘wrong’ side of the binary. Ergo, binaries are bad.
Now we get the conceptual clanger made by intersectional feminists and adherents to trans ideology. The whole point of binaries is that they are conceptual discursive oppositions laid on top of natural differences. The effect of laying a binary on top of a difference is that it effectively denies being to, or erases, the inferior pole of the binary, because the inferior term in defined only as a negative mirror-image of the superior term, and is not granted reality, or given worth, in itself. The remedy for this, according to French feminist thought – that is, the way you ‘deconstruct binaries’ according to the intellectual tradition that thought hardest about it – is to insist on the reality of both parts of a natural difference, and to refuse the way they are hierarchically constructed in discourse. That is, according to French feminism, what you do is to spend a lot of time thinking through what women are, and what women’s lived experience tells us, in order to challenge the construction of ‘Woman’ as simply ‘the Other of Man.’
And this is where it goes completely, utterly off the rails for the woke. Instead of granting reality to both sides of the difference, and working to move our discursive structures away from the way our culture codes those differences, trans ideology has decided to try and abolish the difference itself. That they can’t grasp the distinction between ‘a difference’ and ‘a binary’ is demonstrated by the fact that they keep referring to the sexual difference between male and female humans – which is a difference in kind between two types of humans – as ‘a binary,’ or even worse, as the ‘gender binary.’ (*Headdesk*). What is so interesting – and distressing – about all of this, is that this act of not grasping that a difference-exists-which-is-not-a-binary, is structured by the basic patriarchal conceit which underpins the whole binary structure in the first place. That is, the inability of the patriarchal subject to relate to anything that differs from itself in without imposing its own projections onto it. As we’re all well aware from our interactions out there, what informs this inability to grant reality to a difference – and to allow that the purportedly ‘inferior’ term of a ‘binary’ might exist as its own difference – is good old fashioned patriarchal narcissism. A way of relating to anything that differs to itself only through an inverting mirror – and that cannot conceive there could be any other way of relating across difference.
For the well-meaning woke, it seems like this is all opaque. Binaries are bad, and so, the thinking goes, to abolish them we need to get rid of the difference that underpins them – a conflation which depends, as so much of the bad-thinking in this debate, on the inability to understand the distinction – and inter-relation – of nature and culture. What can’t be imagined, because the patriarchal structure of hierarchy, othering, and domination has made itself look so. damn. natural., is that there could be differences which were not made into hierarchies. And so, the story goes, if we want men and women to relate equally to each other, the only possible way could be pretending that men, or actually, really, women – are not.
This is evidently absurd – both because a) the difference between males and females is not made by discourse, and b) the way it is coded in discourse is not given by the difference, and to think it is, is to mistake narcissistic patriarchal opposition for reality. Moreover, for those driving this discourse – and who are merely leveraging the well-meaningness of the woke – the whole point of trying to abolish sexual difference is to allow the being of female people to be easily appropriated by male people. It is, in fact, the existence of sexual difference that serves as the basis for resisting the patriarchal binary, because it is the existence of sexual difference which grounds the claim that the female has its own being, outside the definition imposed upon it by patriarchal opposition.
When you abolish that difference, what actually occurs is a re-doubling of the erasure of the female effected by the binary itself, and a repetition of the appropriation that erasure has always allowed – because if there’s nothing there in the first place, how on earth could anyone be appropriating it? One thing this debate has made screamingly, terrifyingly, evident to me is the rightness of the French feminist assertion that – within the binary conceptual structure of Western thought – women do not actually exist. If we did, our being would never have been so easily handed over by nearly everyone concerned, and the appropriation we are resisting would never have been so easily caricatured as an act of illegitimate hatred.
Which is all to say, well-meaning woke, you’ve been played. And as for the rest of you misogynists….