So, last night this thread turned up, which Lorelei pointed to, because she was, quite rightly, objecting to what she saw as the erasure of the material basis of her disability. It kind of blew my mind and infuriated me in equal measure, and I was wondering if I should get out my virtual pens and scribble all over it. I decided to, partly because what blew my mind and infuriated me might be usefully illustrative, and also, in good part because one of the awesome Scottish women told me that Harry is becoming something of an intellectual star up their way, and so, there might be some service to them in thinking through why this is such a philosophical clusterfuck.
Let’s start by summarising Harry’s main argument. There are two main prongs. The first relies on Harry’s creation of the character of the ‘straw tran,’ who is, basically, the character we claim could abuse self-ID procedures and declare themselves trans for nefarious purposes. As suggested by the nomenclature, Harry’s assertion is that this person could not and does not exist (Wax. My. Balls), and moreover that it shows ‘complete ignorance’ to think this person could exist, because this person does not conform to what Harry understands to be ”actual trans lives.” There is a lot of half-reasonable stuff here (I’ll get on to why only half-reasonable in a mo), about ‘performative gender’ as a “whole set of ways of being in the world over time,” and social identities as “historical being in the world,” and how such identities are not just assumed and lived on the basis of singular speech acts. All of which indubitably conveys Harry’s experience of their own transness and maybe of many of their community, and all of which has absolutely no bearing on the fact that self-ID procedures would involve only a single declarative act and that checking people are involved in a process of meaningful lived transition is precisely why we have the current gatekeeping system embedded in the GRA. So basically Harry, you’ve just produced a really decent account of why the current system is a good idea, and the only thing you’ve got to ground your claim that it’s not is the baseless assertion that there are only good actors in this situation. Which is to say, the baseless assertion that creepy as fuck predatory males do not exist and will not manifestly abuse loopholes around the safeguarding of women and girls. To which I repeat: Wax. My. Balls.
The second prong of the argument is where it gets more philosophically interesting, and also where I get FUCKING INFURIATED. This is the place where Harry tries to completely elide the difference and relation between being the member of a class on the basis of material givens, and being the member of a class on the basis of a deliberately assumed and lived social identity. Both of these things exist, and both of them are meaningful, although I think it is only correct to call the second ‘identity.’ For example, I am a member of the class of female persons, I am not a member of that class by virtue of an act of identification, I am a member of that class by virtue of the material fact that I am female. As Harry says, that can then also – but I’d add, not necessarily – be coupled with a political identification, in my case as ‘woman-identified’ or ‘feminist,’ which is a deliberate, assumed and lived identification with the political interests of female people as an oppressed class. But these are two different (although interacting) things. There are many many many female people who do not have class consciousness as female, who do not identify themselves with the political interests of female people, and who do not see the events of their lives through the lens of how power acts on female people. None of which means they are a) not members of the class of female people or b) not being affected by power because they are female. Here’s the funny thing about reality. It doesn’t just depend on your perceptions of it. And thinking that it does is called idealism.
All of which brings me to where I get infuriated by this. There’s a lot of lip-service in this thread on how a social model of identity doesn’t imply “disregard” for the “material facts of bodies” which effectively just handwaves the fact that claiming you can identify into a social class which you don’t materially belong to is exactly disregarding the material facts of bodies (in the case of race, sex or disability), or of socio-economic reality (in the case of class). Yes of course those material facts interact with social and lived experience in complex way which means that the ‘material facts’ are not the sum total of what it means to belong to that class. But being a member of the class of females is a matter of being female, and politically identifying with the interests of females is a matter of how the world treats females because they are female. You can tell me that you identify with the political interests of women, but if you persistently refuse to understand that many woman-identified women understand that identification in terms of how power acts on them because of their material reality, then I’m afraid your identification is being conducted in complete disregard of our experience, and isn’t worth a great deal to us. It is your need, and your interests, that leads you to assert that the material basis of our political identification is nugatory, and no amount of flinging Butlerian distortions of Beauvoir at us is going to convince us that our political interests are best served by playing make believe about our femaleness.
Of course, what we get to, under all this, is just one more iteration of the common trans trope that anyone who believes in material reality is guilty of some egregious ontological naivety that all the most erudite and oh-so-sophisticated thinkers have cleansed themselves of. This is why Harry asserts that ALL the gender critical philosophers are of the Analytic flavour, because then Harry can paint a caricature of a bunch of leaden dolts who are still committed to preposterous positivist ideas about reality actually existing. (Apologies to my esteemed colleagues…apparently you all stopped reading after Language, Truth and Logic). This pisses me right off. It pisses me off on a personal level because I’m a Continental philosopher, and I’m trained in exactly the traditions that Harry thinks supports their case, and it pisses me off especially because the fact that Harry thinks it supports their case is because Harry doesn’t understand that the deconstructive feminist strand of French thought, when properly understood, doesn’t get you to fucking idealism. It is, in fact, exactly intended as a critique of idealism.
To explain: According to Harry, Kathleen and the rest of us all think – a century after Wittgenstein no less! – that concepts or words still “refer completely and coherently to transcendent truths.” (Oh, how sweet!) That is, Harry is claiming, basically, that we are all committed to a fundamentally Platonic, or essentialist, account of meaning… In Plato’s model, words have meaning, and in fact, objects only exist, because they are what we would call ‘instantiations’ of essences. The best way to understand this is through the system that was informing Plato’s account of how all this worked, which was geometry. So for example, the ‘essence’ of a triangle, the thing that makes a triangle and triangle, and the ‘core’ of the concept which allows us to identify a triangle as a triangle, is ‘something with three sides whose angles add up to 180 degrees.’ What’s important about geometrical concepts is that they are entirely abstract, immaterial and contextless. A triangle is a triangle in any time or place, it never changes, and arguably, if you destroyed all the material instantiations of triangles on the face of the planet, the core of the being of a triangle – the idea of a triangle – would still exist. Plato basically thought that this model was how all concepts worked… up in the sky was the land of immaterial conceptual forms or ideas, and all the things down in the world were just material copies of these forms, which we’re able to identify because we also have the same form in our heads (how the form gets there is a bit of a problem, burble something about seeing it in the world of the forms before we were born and then recollecting that later so, um yeah…). Anyway, the point is this… people using this metaphysics think that things exist because they are instantiations of ‘transcendent truths’ or essences, and that concepts function by us perceiving such essences… which, in good part they don’t.
There is a lot of good and important philosophy which explain what is wrong with essentialist accounts of meaning – as Harry suggests, possibly the greatest of these is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, written after Wittgenstein was doing some hammering on his sister’s roof and suddenly realised that his crystalline account of how meaning worked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was a pile of idealist bullshit. The hammering is important. It turns up also in Heidegger. And it matters, because one of the main issues with idealist, Platonic accounts of meaning is that they fail to understand that language is not, principally, a mental picture or representation of reality. It is, rather, a tool with which we interact with the world around us. Not understanding this is why we tie ourselves into endless, and frankly fucking tedious, epistemological pretzels about how we know whether our concepts map the world accurately, and spend our stoned adolescences wondering whether we are all just solipsistic Keanu Reeves’s with our brains in a vat. Once people have grasped that they are able to successfully walk across their living room without stepping on the cat or have somehow managed to consistently avoid being hit by heavy machinery moving down the road I really do wonder why they’re still worrying about it. We are, as Harry says, beings-in-the-world. And a major part of successfully being-in-the-world is using concepts to accurately interact with and navigate material reality all the fucking time.
What really pisses me off here is that people take the critique of essentialist or idealist accounts of how meaning arises – when they read, say, Wittgenstein or Derrida – and because they are still implicitly committed to an idealist or essentialist account of how concepts work, they then conclude that concepts don’t work at all, and actually, they’re not mapping onto anything in the world, and that therefore we just make shit up willy-nilly. But concepts are like a hammer. And if there’s no nail there, you’ll learn about it fast. The reason why I think ‘female’ is a useful concept, and why I’m committed to the grave ontological naivety of thinking female people actually exist, is not, fundamentally, because I think ‘makes large gametes’ tells me something about the essence of what it means to be female. The reason why is because the concept of ‘woman’ has served reliably since at least the beginning of written records (and I’d wager long before) to meaningfully pick out and facilitate consistent and accurate interaction with a certain aspect of material existence – which also happens, in this case, to be a central part of my own material existence. If the sex-based concept of ‘woman’ didn’t map on to anything meaningful we wouldn’t have been using it for so long, and we wouldn’t still be using it in so many places in our social organization. Concepts don’t last if they don’t work. And the point here is that when we try to substitute a sex-based concept of woman for one based on gender identity, it turns out it wreaks havoc all over our social processes.
What Harry is doing, by claiming we could only appeal to a material reality – we could only think it meaningful to refer to ‘female people’ – on the basis of a belief in ‘transcendent truth,’ is, fundamentally, to assert that things only exist or are meaningful because they have essences, and that, further, anyone who thinks things exist or are meaningful is simply not sophisticated enough to understand that essences are basically bullshit. But the correct conclusion to draw from the critique of essence is not that things don’t exist or have meaning, but that things don’t exist or have meaning by virtue of possessing essences, and in fact, they never did. What Harry completely fails to grasp is that by suggesting that female people could only exist on the basis of ‘transcendent truth’ they are still, in fact, committed to the idea that essences must be how this whole thing works, and they’re not and never were. And what Harry then further, infuriatingly, fails to grasp is that they are still, therefore, trapped inside an idealist account of meaning and existence. It is one of the great ironies of the history of philosophy that a critique that should have led to a greater understanding that we are beings-in-the-world whose concepts develop through the constant interplay between ourselves and the social and material world actually collapsed into another iteration of the thought that our concepts are just things that exist inside our heads – or that they only arise because of that mass amplification of our heads we could call ‘discourse’ or ‘history’ or ‘social construction,’ but not, you positivist fools, because of the ways our being-in-the-world is shaped and constrained by given material or psychophysical limits.
This defence of materiality is all, ha ha, a bit metaphysically abstract… but I do think it matters. It matters because an awful lot of what is going on in trans ideological argument is pointing at the existence of female people and trying to undermine it by making anti-essentialist arguments that posit themselves as the height of intellectual sophistication but are based on a fundamental fucking error. Mountains don’t exist because they are instantiations of a concept of ‘massive pointy lump of rock,’ and the fact that we can’t quite point to a line when a large hill becomes a small mountain doesn’t mean that ‘hill’ and ‘mountain’ are meaningless ideas. The world is not made of triangles. And it’s not made ex nihilo from our great massive Godbrains either. All material things for which we have names have edge cases and exceptions because material reality isn’t geometric ideality, and yet, somehow, the words still work. The reverse-essentialist arguments being leveraged against the class of female people could just as well be used to undermine the meaningful existence of pretty much every group of people or any object in the world. And they’re not. They’re being leveraged against us because our material existence is anathema to the fulfilment of the desires of those who want to appropriate that existence. And male people’s desire has always mattered more than the trifling matter of female people’s bodies. So, let’s just be clear about what’s going on here. This is sex-based domination. Dressed up in swaths of oh-such-sophisticated bullshit.