Identity, Sovereignty and Narcissism

Part 1: Identity and Recognition

 

tom

As many of you know, one of the things I’ve been banging on about of late, is the way the current form of trans rights politics is widely understood to be postmodernism’s (not very red-haired) step-child. As we saw in the piece on Butler, the central idea here is that post-modernism/post-structuralism is a form of ‘linguistic idealism’ that thinks everything is ‘discursively constructed,’ that there is no ‘objective’ reality, and that, therefore, in the final analysis, meaning is just whatever we happen to say it is. This kind of commitment to the infinite possibilities of social construction – and the accompanying belief that social norms are just things we plucked randomly out of our back-pocket – is what is driving the batshit idea that sexual dimorphism is something we just made up one Tuesday, probably sometime shortly before the colonization of North America. It also seems to be implicated in what we might think of as the excess of ‘subjectivism’ going on – the priority currently being placed on individual feeling or experience over consensus reality. And my claim about all of this – and this is my story and I’m sticking to it – is that this ‘discourse all the way down’ version of events is basically a butchered interpretation of deconstruction, and that what trans rights politics is doing, moreover, actually flies in the face of what deconstruction tells us about the world.

identity

The notion of identity, and what we mean by identity, is key to this whole story. And the infinite irony of the way mangled-post-structuralism is currently washing around in the background of this debate is that if I had to sum up the core of deconstruction in one line, I’d say ‘it’s the critique of identity.’ That is, deconstruction properly interpreted is actually a really useful tool for explaining what’s so wrong with trans rights claims that ‘I AM WHAT I SAY I AM,’ and ‘I am the determinant of my identity,’ and, equally, the idea that identity is ‘a simple case of individual rights.’ Because the core deconstructive insight, as I’ve laid out before, is not that nothing means anything, or that things are just what we randomly decide they are, or that everything is simply ‘discursively constituted.’ The key deconstructive insight is that the being of things – that is, their ‘identity’ – is not just something which exists only and exclusively inside those things. It is, rather, something that exists between one thing and other things. That is, the key deconstructive insight is that identity is, in fact, a relation.

The thought that identity is an internal property of an entity is one of the oldest in the philosophical book. I could try and do a whirlwind tour here of Parmenides, and Plato, and Descartes, and the concepts of ‘essence’ and ‘substance’ in philosophical thought, but I’m going to spare us all the agony. Instead, I’m going to give you a diagram of the inside of Plato’s head and one of my favourite Derrida quotes. Like so:plato brain 2

If anyone is interested in the full philosophical argument, the first chapter of my thesis lays it out here (warning, I was trying to get a PhD, so it’s kinda dense). The short version is this: Western thought traditionally thinks the being, or identity, of things in terms of their possession of an internal, singular, simple, coherent, pure, absolute essence. ‘Identity’ derives, etymologically, from the Latin ‘identitatem’, meaning ‘sameness.’ An essence is what makes something the same as itself, and different from other things, and things are what they are because they have an essence, which, in the traditional Platonic account, consists of what is the same among all the things of that type. So, the essence of roses – or the roseness of roses – would consist of all the things that are the same amongst all instances of roses – the smell, the shape, the arrangement of the petals, the texture, etc – and it would be something that inheres, essentially, inside a rose.[1]

roses

This all seems kind of reasonable on the face of it, but it doesn’t take that much thinking for the petals to start coming off. Firstly, we are already, from the very start, dealing with a concept, and the concept of, in this case, ‘roseness’ is manifestly not something that actually exists inside a rose. That is, from the very start, the ‘identity’ of a rose depends on a relation between the rose and the mind that grasps the rose (and note, this doesn’t mean roses don’t exist without minds… but they don’t exist as concepts, and identities are, at least in good part, concepts). Second, the formation of concepts does not involve only the recognition of what is the same inside an entity, but also, what an entity is not. That is, the formation of any concept involves a relation between identity and difference, between what is the same and different inside and what is the same and different outside, in a way that means it’s not clear that ‘identifying’ something involves only understanding what its internal or inherent sameness is. Thirdly, even more broadly, the meaning of entities, and concepts, and words in general, consists of their relation to their context – objects gain meaning thorough their position in a world of other objects, in relation to the social functions they fulfill, and words mean by virtue of the words next to them, and the specific social and emotional contexts in which they’re used. (We can, after all, say ‘fuck off’ in a way that means ‘I love you’ when we do it the right way at the right time). Lastly, and this has a lot to do with our psychic investment in identity as self-sameness (we’ll get to that in the next part) – no entity is entirely self-supporting. The relationality of meaning is also existential. All things arise out of other things, through dependence, and exist in a state of constant interaction that informs and sustains them. Or, to make an awful mess of John Donne for present purposes, ‘no rose is an island.’

So why does this all matter now? It matters now because when Western thought came to think about human subjects, and their identities, it thought them in the same way as it thought the being of objects, and concepts and words. We think ourselves as self-enclosed self-identities. And that matters in this debate, because it’s that idea that leads our friend Tom to think that the being of trans people is simply a matter of individual self-determination. That trans people have an essence that makes them what they are, that they are the only authority on that essence, and that it’s all just a ‘simple’ matter of ‘individual rights’ – an idea which would be just fine and dandy were it not for the fact that rights, like identities, are also, in fact, relations.

Kinesis

That identity necessarily involves relation all becomes painfully, politically obvious in how this whole thing is playing out in practice. Someone can claim that trans people have an absolute right to determine their identity, but were that actually a simple ontological truth, then we wouldn’t be in an endless, fraught spiral about pronouns and misgendering and the world’s recalcitrant refusal to offer up the correct ‘validation.’ Being what you are is not merely a matter of a feeling, or of a ‘feeling of some fundamental essence.’ It’s a matter of being recognised by other human beings as the thing that you think you are.[2] It’s a matter of social relations. And this is why we’re in this whole fucking nightmare mess. Because we have a political movement claiming, on the one hand, that this is just a matter of identity, and it doesn’t affect anyone else, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a nasty evil bigot, while, at the same time, because identity is all about social relations, they’re throwing a ton of their political weight into trying to control people’s speech, and behaviours, to enforce the validation of those identities.

Pride Soc

The issue about the conflict over spaces, and the conflict about competing rights, is, in some sense, simply an amplification of this fundamental ontological issue. The trans rights movement is committed to claiming that trans people’s access to spaces, and trans people’s rights, has no impact on women’s spaces, or women’s rights, in just the same way as they claim that trans people are the sole and singular arbiters of their own identities, and it doesn’t affect anyone else. Were any of this actually true, this god-awful scrap wouldn’t be happening, because, despite the daily bullshit turned out by the trans rights movement, none of it is happening because a bunch of left-wing feminist women were suddenly afflicted by a plague of inexplicable hatred. The fact that it’s manifestly untrue that this doesn’t affect anyone else – and that, despite quintupling-down, the advocates of the ideology know that it’s untrue – is entirely given by the exhaustive efforts to control the ways people respond to trans people. Indeed, as we saw when we looked at Stonewall’s definition of ‘transphobia,’ it is given, most chillingly, by the effort to proscribe as an act of hatred the refusal – or to be blunt, often just the plain inability – to ‘correctly’ recognise a trans person’s identity.

transphobia

It’s worth underlining here – and this matters with respect to the butchering of post-structuralism – that when I say that identity is a relation, I am not saying that something’s existence is only a matter of what we think it is, or that our concepts about the world arise in some kind of willy-nilly made-up way. What I am saying, as the ever-wise Kinesis points to above, is that concepts, and identities, arise through the interaction between us and the world. In Western thought we make an endless hash of understanding this, because our language has always already separated objects from subjects, and objects from concepts, and we’ve then spent the best part of two and a half millennia frantically trying to work out how to suture them back together. To solve the puzzle we have to start instead from understanding that everything, including ideas, are beings-in-the-world. That everything exists through with-being, or co-existence. A rose is a rose for us both because it is a rose, and because I recognise it as a rose. I recognise it as a rose because it is a rose, and it is a rose because I recognise it as one. It’s being as what it is for us arises in and through itself and its recognition, and the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ elements of this interaction cannot be neatly disentangled when we try to explain how we know what something is, because in the interaction through which meaning arises, they are not separate.

pronoun

Most of the time, apart from in philosophy departments, this doesn’t cause great conniptions. We mostly wander around correctly identifying things and getting on with whatever we’re supposed to be getting on with. But when it comes to trans politics it’s causing enormous conniptions. And it’s causing enormous conniptions because the explicit claims of trans rights politics are based on trying to deny the basic interactive being-in-the-world that is identity, and on trying to make the individual the sole and sovereign legislator of what their identity is, while at the same time – and entirely disingenuously – trying to impose rigidly prescribed ‘recognition procedures’ on everyone. As I’ve started to suggest, this is, in fact, the give-away, because the thing about being-in-the-world, and the way it usually works, is that we usually do a pretty bang-up job of identifying things, and no one has to compel us to do it right. The very fact that a political movement has had to initiate such baroque recognition procedures – and that it is attempting to enforce those recognition procedures by classing mistakes as an act of hatred – tells us something very important. And what it tells us is that they can’t just rely on us doing it right. And they can’t rely on us doing it right because, in some meaningful respect, trans-beings-in-the-world are not what they’re telling – indeed demanding – that we think they are.[3]

10- things

This is what I’m talking about when I say that the totalitarianism we see from the trans rights movement – the threats, the slurs, the bullying, the demands for validation, the lists of narcissistic diktats, the inveterate Woke Stasi bullshit policing of people’s Twitter likes and retweets – is all, at a basic ontological level, baked in. If you ground a political movement on the idea that people are actually something that they’re not – or, to be a bit more charitable, you decide, for the first time in history, that the identity of someone does not reside is any observable feature of that someone, but only in some imperceptible internal magic essence – then you will inevitably end up trying to turn that imperceptible essence into a reality by rigidly disciplining other people’s recognition procedures, and disciplining them, moreover, away from what they actually do recognise. Even if this didn’t all cash out into an fuck-off huge rights conflict over access to women’s spaces (which it inevitably does, for exactly the reason of the social recognition such access conveys), the claim that trans rights has no effect on anyone else would still, at this base ontological level, be a MASSIVE fucking lie. No purported civil rights movement has ever tried to mandate, with such coercive force, how people speak, what they can and can’t believe, and what they must pretend to perceive, all in contravention of what they actually do perceive. As Vulvamort discovered when she went back to the Hansard records of the original GRA debate in 2004, the fundamental totalitarianism inherent in prescribing in law that a male person must be recognised as female (or vice versa), was presciently foreseen by lawmakers at the time. In an effort to avoid the issue of same-sex marriage, it was an insight that they chose, pragmatically (or rather, homophobically), to hand-wave-away. And it’s that obviation that has now come back to bite us all – and the very functioning of our democracy – on the ass.

vulvamort

Part 2, in which I discuss the idea of identity and how it relates to notions of sovereignty,  domination, exclusion, and security… coming, erm, shortly(ish)

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[1] In the original Platonic account, the story is actually a little more complicated than this. Roses are roses because they possess, or partake, of ‘roseness,’ but the fundamental being of ‘roseness’ is, for Plato, an idea. The reason for the investment in essence being a conceptual abstraction is complex, but it has a lot to do with the fact that ‘ideas’ are universal, singular, eternal, changeless, immaterial and deathless. For Plato, the realm of ideas, or forms (‘eidos’), is more real that the reality of individual objects, because the realm of forms is not subject to the multiplicity and change of the realm of material things, and we can purportedly have a type of certain universal knowledge of ideas that we can never have of brute, feckless material objects. The core of early deconstructive analysis is dedicated to showing that the Platonic schema – and other essentialist forms of philosophical thinking that follow from Plato (which is a great deal of philosophical thinking) – is entirely dependent on thinking concepts, or ‘ideality,’ around the idea of ‘sameness’ or ‘identity.’ Ideas are formed by picking out what it the same in all instances of a particular object, and the significance of this idea of ‘sameness’ or ‘identity’ is that is allows you to think that the being of things is entirely inside of them, that things are what they are because they are the same as themselves. That is, an identity is an identity because it is identical to itself. And yes, when you put it like that, it’s exactly as empty as it sounds (a woman is a woman because of woman-essence anyone?). This investment in things being self-identical – or their essence being only an internal property, is, as we’ll see in the following discussion of sovereignty, largely motivated by a psychic security-drive, or a drive to the security of universal, contextless knowledge. We like the idea of insideness, because the idea of things being dependent on outsideness, or context, introduces vulnerability, and risk.

The aim of early deconstructive analysis is to show – by examining, and examining, and then examining again – that this idea that the being of things is just an internal ideal self-sameness is bullshit, and that the being of all things relies on a relation between sameness and difference, and between the inside and the outside (which is the same idea, because in the Platonic schema, the inside is sameness and the outside is difference (that is, foreign, other, and probably scary)). The reason, fundamentally, why people ended up thinking that deconstruction is a complete destruction of meaning is because almost everyone, whether they know it or not, is basically a Platonist. People assume that meaning must work by internal essence, and so, when you tell them it doesn’t work by internal essence, what they hear is ‘there is no meaning.’ That is, the whole clusterfuck of the butchered dissemination of deconstruction – and why I maintain that the philosophical and political importance of deconstruction has still not been heard – is because it is a critique of Plato that was interpreted inside a thoroughgoing Platonism. That is, as I keep saying to these fools turning up on my blog with their fancy arguments about why women don’t exist because – the horror! – there’s some variation, or non-self-sameness, in the category ‘woman’, this is all just reverse-Platonic idiocy…That is, the point of deconstruction is not to negate Plato while still assuming that Plato was correct, and to leave us all floating around in a pile of meaningless grey-goo in which anything is just what we say it is, the point of deconstruction is to grasp the philosophical and political importance of understanding that meaning, and the being of things, is always, necessarily, a function of relationality. Or, to put it in philosophese – the identity of something is a function of the relation between identity (sameness) and non-identity (difference). Which is kind of a paradox. Hello Taoism.

[2] This issue of ‘recognition’ is actually critical in my understanding of the core problem with the current form of trans rights politics, and it’s claim that the being of a man or a woman inheres only in an internal ‘essence’ called ‘gender identity.’ It is, a priori, impossible, to grant recognition to a non-observable essence, and it is doubly absurd to claim that it is an act of hatred to not recognize that essence.  It makes as much sense as saying someone is doing something wrong and hateful by perceiving a rose as a rose when the rose, in fact, has the essence of a daisy. If identity is not essence, but relation, then the identity of trans people must necessarily reside in some form of observable performance of the gender with which they identify for their claims to recognition to even make the barest sense. I am, as I have repeatedly said, prepared – because ontologically able – to recognize that a male person can meaningfully transition so as to be read, and hence treated in significant ways, as either a woman, or a trans woman. That is, male people can transition to move through the world as social women and be recognized as such. If those male people can still be legibly read as male people performing the social role of women, then that is something that can’t, and shouldn’t, be legislated out of existence, because they are read as a male person performing the social role of a woman because they are, in fact, a male person performing the social role of women. That is, they are read as a trans woman because they are a trans woman. The demand that we all pretend that this isn’t so, and that the perception of who is a woman be socially mandated not in line with observable phenomena that can be recognized, but in line with someone’s internal, sovereign identity, is ontological absurdity of the highest order. It is, in fact, a coercive demand that we all engage in extreme ontological absurdity because the only thing that matters here is validating someone’s internal sense of identity, and the belief that some people’s feelings constitute a sovereign right to coerce everyone into believing that they are something they observably are not. To say this tears a great big fucking hole in the fabric of reality is not, in fact, hyperbolic.

[3] To underline, and to be precise, when I say trans people are not what they are demanding we think they are, I am not saying that trans people do not exist. In fact, I am saying precisely the opposite, I am saying that trans people do exist. They are trans people. That is, they are people of one sex who identify and decide to perform the social role of the other sex. As many have noted, it is not, therefore, actually us, but the trans rights movement, who, in claiming that gender identity determines sex, and that trans women are, therefore, actually female, are actually denying that trans people exist qua trans people. If trans women are, simply, unequivocally, women, in exactly the same way as female people are women, then trans women do not, in fact, exist. The claim that gender critical feminism is therefore a denial of the existence of trans people is hence fundamentally absurd. The condition of someone being a trans women is that they are male, and hence, the recogntion of sex is actually the condition of possibility of the recognition of trans people. This, in itself, points to how disingenuous the argument about ‘denying people’s right to exist’ actually is. Because what is meant by that phrase – as with what is being packed inside the definition of transphobia – is actually, ‘it is an act of hatred to not (perform the) recognition that trans people are the sex they identify as and to thereby validate their identity as what they identify as.’ That is, all these conceits are coercive mechanisms which seek to regulate what I’ve called elsewhere in this essay, ‘recognition procedures.’

My argument would be that rather than engage in this act of coerced recognition, what we should actually be doing is working towards a state in which we recognise that trans people are trans, and that that’s okay. I understand that this isn’t easy for some trans people, because dysphoria produces an intense desire to be the other sex, and an intense desire to be validated as a member of that sex. That, in fact, is what, at base, is driving this whole thing at present. However, and we’ll discuss this in more detail in the following parts, this validation can never, actually, be fully forthcoming – because you will never be entirely granted recognition as something that you are not. It is the knowledge of this – and the narcissistic structure inherent in thinking that your own need for validation must take absolute precedence over other people’s reality, and their freely given recognition – which underpins the tendency of trans activists to react with such punitive, incandescent rage when anyone withholds the demanded recognition. It is this that is producing the absurd situation in which a group of people who claim to be women are spending much of their time bullying and threatening women. And it is also very notable that the trans women who are able to honesty confront the reality that they are trans, who we most easily accept as sisters, because it is only they who are truly able to identify with us, and who don’t treat us only as frustrations of their own narcissistic need for recognition.

 

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8 comments

  1. Reading this caused my thinking organ to relax considerably. Being in the world of Twitter trying to respectfully relate to this trans phenomenon in its current incarnation is very demanding; your blog posts help to stay grounded.

    You’ve mentioned a few times that Western philosophical thought leads to patriarchy, and I wonder what your experience is with Eastern philosophy which, while not buying into dualism and judgementalism, at least on an individual level, does have patriarchal structures. I am a Mindfulness practitioner, and when I sit with a sangha there is a hierarchy and the majority of teachers are men. I know a few women teachers and there are female only monasteries, but, as in the West, the lineage of the teachers begins with men. I’d be interested to know if you’ve come across a school of philosophy founded by women.

    I recently observed in a tweet that the majority of women are mothers which makes them ideally suited to resolving conflicts in community, thereby leading communities. Mothers parent girls and boys, and without mothers, none of us would make it into existence; I’m constantly flummoxed by the continued subordination of women who at the same time carry the greatest burden in caring for and resolving difficulties in our families and communities. It must be possible to imagine another way.

  2. An extraordinarily well-argued and useful essay. I am particularly grateful when smart people articulate what I think but cannot seem to speak. Thank you.

  3. I think I agree with all the ontology (to the extent I understand it), and I see how it’s important to the question of what is a biological male/female. But I don’t see how it implies much about the SOCIAL question of how we define the categories men/women, except as an analogy or maybe as a historical condition (“it thought them in the same way as”).

    We already accept self-identification for some identity groups, and we reject it for others. For example, the majority probably accept whether someone is, say, a Christian based on the person’s self-identification. They don’t accept whether someone is white, black, etc. based on self-identification (except for some border cases), even though some of those people may believe they have some kind of black essence or whatever. Different social policies, grounded on the same metaphysics.

    Or look how it varies across societies. Some modern societies accept self-identification for religious groups. Other modern societies—again, believing in the exact same secular, Western metaphysics—don’t.

    If male and female, man and woman were defined by essences, accessible through introspection, then yeah, that might have significant implications for social policy (though even then it wouldn’t determine it). But the fact that they’re not defined by essences still leaves the social policy question wide open.

  4. This is fantastic, thank you.

    In terms of this: “We think ourselves as self-enclosed self-identities … an idea which would be just fine and dandy were it not for the fact that rights, like identities, are also, in fact, relations”.
    The demands of the transcult to deny the relational aspect, while at the same time trying to enforce a relation to their fantasy on their terms is pathological. Ordinarily healthy adults don’t do this. This is basically narcissism, and narcissism and totalitarian tendencies would exist in people and culture regardless of the the prevailing philosphical zeitgeist, so it is at root a psychological issue I think.

    However, saying that, it is clear, and I really like the way you lay it out, that the “mangling of deconstructionism”, a generation raised on soundbites and wokeness and their own specialness rather than critical thought – and along with deep rooted misogyny, and homophobia that people pretended had gone away but never really did – has created a perfect environment for this to flourish.

  5. This is all a very academic way of explaining something obvious, namely that identity comes more from the perception of others than it does from your personal feelings. You can feel like a woman all you want; the Catch-22 of it is that if you “feel like a woman” but aren’t a social actor of any kind, words like “man” and “woman” are meaningless (indeed, any definitions that require knowledge of others outside of your solipsistic self are meaningless); these words only have meaning when you exist as a part of a group, and when you exist as a part of a group IT IS NOT YOU WHO DETERMINES YOUR IDENTITY. IF IT WERE, I SINCERELY DOUBT THAT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE WOULD CHOOSE TO IDENTIFY INTO RAPE, SLAVERY, AND TORTURE.

    People don’t seem to understand that concepts like “privilege,” like identity, exist outside of yourself and your desires. I do not desire to be white and therefore receiving more jobs, money, benefit of the doubt, others’ (and my own) secret beliefs and desires about white superiority; nevertheless, it benefits me more than it harms me (as the spiritual benefit of being born lowest on the totem pole is dubious at best). I do not desire to be female and therefore susceptible to rape all my life; I never wanted to be a lowly female easily overpowered and called nuts when I try to talk about it; I wish that the only way to have my voice heard on this matter would not have to be by being a consummate artist, which is to say, I wish I would not have to be ten times better than a man at anything just to be *heard.* I am sure many people of color, with visible disabilities and currently subjugated in the Global South would have something to say to me on this subject as well.

    We have very little say in identity or privilege. I could take hormones, cut off my breasts, and lift weights, and I’d gain some male privilege, sure, after that immense work and at the cost to my physical and mental health. I could work very hard or even go into a field I abhor and make a lot of money and then I’d move up on the ladder of class and I’d wear the kind of clothes and attend the sort of venues and have the type of house that would make others identify me differently, sure. I could work extremely hard, change my whole personality, and others would identify me differently, yes!

    As it stands now, my daydreams mean jack shit.

    This fascination with “identity” to me seems to me an interesting symptom of a society in collapse…that it comes at the expense of women, gay people, and children is not surprising but it is disheartening.

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