Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: Identity

In defence of binaries

2000px-toilets_unisex-svgOur age is against binaries: it is against the division of things into opposing categories or elements.

In Jacques Derrida’s view, any binary is a ‘violent hierarchy’, where ‘one of the two terms governs the other’. To say man or woman, black or white, life or death, is to create opposed camps, composed of dominating and dominated parties.

Even the binary of the toilet door, the signs that say ‘male’ or ‘female’, which divide a social group into two separate lines – even this most common-place and incidental binary is seen as problematic.

The vice president of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, got the signs changed on toilet doors:

After about two years and many long and testing conversations with old men about the concept of gender non-binaries, gender neutral toilet signs have finally arrived in Catz.

The liberationary figure today is the non-binary, the trans; the position staked outside binaries, against them. In literature and cultural studies departments, binaries are deconstructed: made conscious, then reversed, then made to collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions.

There are insights in all this about the rigid and restrictive nature of certain binary forms. And yet binaries should not be thrown on the scrapheap: they have a fundamental role in human thought and social organisation. If we want to say anything at all, we must use the binary.

1. The primitive binary

The binary did not begin with Western civilisation: primitive thought is primarily concerned with oppositions, with the division of the world into opposing elements. These commonly included things such as high and low, day and night, left and right, summer and winter, male and female, earth and sky.

Faced with the mass of sensory experience, the waxing and waning of forms, the human mind fixes on the cardinal points: east/west, hot/cold. It fixes on the essential polarities, the extremes, the points of contrast, in relation to which the gradations of experience can be oriented. It is the distinction, the polarised difference, which strikes the human mind as meaningful.

Common primitive binaries
high / low
day / night
right / left
sacred / profane
summer / winter
male / female
sky / earth
land / sea
odd / even
peace / war
stability / movement

In The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss showed how a society’s ‘logical structure begins with a simple opposition’. A conceptual system is composed of related oppositional pairs, encompassing microcosm and macrocosm, society and nature: so men could be related to sky, summer, and right; women to earth, winter, and the left.

The binary system of the Solomons uses two birds (the wild cock and the hornbill), two insects (the pharma and the mantis), and two divinities (Mr Wise and Mr Clumsy).

The binary system of the Solomon Islands
wild cock / hornbill
pharma / mantis
Mr Wise / Mr Clumsy

Among the Kiwai in Papua New Guinea, the opposition between the sago people and the yam people corresponds to the emblems of a nude woman and a bull-roarer, and is also related to different seasons, and opposing directions of wind.

Here, elements are given a polarity, and so made different or similar to other things. To us, it appears that there is no common charge between the sago people and a nude woman and a particular direction of wind. To us, it appears that false polarities are being set up, such as between two insects, or between the use of the right or the left hand.

And yet, in these simple conceptual systems, we can see the power of human thought in its early stages.

To make a phenomenon part of a binary, is to give it a sort of positive or negative charge. The polarity is its self-definition: the sign that it is not something else, that earth is not sky, that the wild cock is not the hornbill. The polarity is also its relation to other things, the thread that ties sky to men, the left hand to women. Things are placed in a web of dissonance and association.

It is not that the wild cock and the hornbill truly have an oppositional charge in relation to one another. Instead, the charge comes from these animals transformed into elements of human thought, when they are given meaning as part of a conceptual model of the world.

2. The fluidity of the primitive binary

The primitive binary is non-hierarchical: it contains elements that are antagonistic, but complementary. It is not a question of the dominance of one over another, nor is it a contrast between elements that are seen as essentially outside of or apart from one another. The primitive binary is the two sides in a relation, two contrasting aspects of the same totality.

The two sides of a pole act in correspondence with one another, and cause the changes seen in time: summer moves to winter, life moves to death. This can be seen in the Chinese system of Yin and Yang, which brings phenomena under one or another of these two opposing forces.

Yang and Yin
light / dark
active / passive
hot / cold
dry / moist
beneficent / malignant
positive / negative
masculine / feminine

This distinction is not one of superiority and inferiority, nor it is given the moral sense of good and evil. Yin and Yang are present in all things, and exist in a constant flux in time, first one predominating, then the other. One expert on Chinese thought said that the world represents:

‘A cyclical totality constituted by the conjunction of two alternating and complementary manifestations.’ (1)

In the philosophy of Tao, the aim for the adept was to perfectly integrate the elements of Yin and Yang within himself. In this manner he became equivalent to the primordial situation, and achieved the desired ‘fullness of life, spontaneity, and bliss’ (2). There was an interest in artistic forms that contained both Yin and Yang, such as bronze figures of owls with solar eyes: the figure of night contained its contrary.

Therefore, the primitive binary exists as:
a. A complementary relation, between two sides that are necessary to one another;
b. As part of the single totality of life; and
c. In constant interplay: the two elements meld together, in sequence or in single objects, causing the varied forms of things.

3. The truth of the binary

Thinking in binaries grasps an essential truth, which is that nature, and human life, proceed through the dynamic of opposition: there are conflicting forces, opposing elements, which play out beneath the surface of things. After all, nature itself contains poles: of positive and negative, attraction and repulsion.

It is for this reason that Greek philosophy – which made great gains through leaps of the mind, overreaching a still very limited technology – was also based to a large extent on binaries. Aristotle was largely concerned with marking the distinctions between definite things, and seeking balance between opposing elements.

Some of the Pythagoreans employed a sort of mathematical version of Yin and Yang, believing that ‘the opposites are principles of entities’, including (3):

Pythagorean binaries
limited / unlimited
one / many
right / left
male / female
still / moving
straight / bent
light / darkness
good / bad
square / oblong

So while primitive thought may be mistaken about the content of its binaries, which are arbitrary or fantastical, it is correct in seeing the world as composed of opposites – fluid elements existing in relation to one another, in a constant process of motion and change.

4. The rigid binaries of industrial society

The binary became something quite different in modern industrial society (a society that has precursors in the ancient world, but was only definitively achieved with the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries).

New binary categories developed, which were tighter, more logical than before: they had lost the arbitrary, mutating qualities of the primitive binary. Yet, whereas the primitive binary flowed, and interacted, these modern binaries were highly rigid, hardened like bone. They appeared to be made of entirely different substances to one other: to be outside of one another, and not naturally relating. In many cases one side of the binary was dominant over the other.

Polarised distinctions that were set up in philosophy (and about which deconstructionists complain) included those of subject and object, existence and non-existence, reason and the senses. The subject and the object were seen as essentially unrelated, and a great deal of thought went into the difficulty of bringing the subject into a true relation with the object, and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the world.

The binaries of modern philosophy
subject / object
existence / non-existence
reason / senses
body / soul
subjectivity / objectivity
idealism / realism

Hegel criticised the separation of body and soul:

‘If both (body and soul) are presumed to be absolutely independent of each other they are as impenetrable for each other as any material is for any other and the presence of one can be granted only in the non-being…of the other.’ (4)

Here, body and soul – the two aspects of the human person – are split asunder into different materials, which do not relate, or intermingle, or form two sides of the same universality. Philosophy then picks over these different materials, puzzling that the same person could be both a body and a soul, or both a particular person and a rational universal being. It is unable to bring these two thoughts, these two elements, together.

In the social world, too, all of life appeared split asunder, divided into polarised spheres, such as art and science, or individual and society:

The binaries of industrial society
art / science
individual / society
town / country
public / private
high / low culture
subjectivism / naturalism
intellectual / manual labour
male / female

(These are the rigid binaries that Susan Sontag complained about in her Rolling Stone interview).

The different spheres seemed to be one-sided, to contain only one side of thought or action. So philosophy was pure reflection, estranged from action; industry was the rote performance of action, estranged from reflection. Science was mechanical and mathematical; art was purely aesthetic and indifferent to practical life.

(These divisions had not existed a few centuries before, in the Renaissance, when artists designed siege defences for towns and conducted scientific experiments and dissections.)

Some of these binaries were hierarchies, dividing into owner and owned, master and servant, as was the case for the binaries of male and female, town and country, rich and poor.

Therefore, deconstructionists are correct in the insight that certain Western binaries had become ossified and hierarchical. But they see the rigid hierarchical binary as the model for all time, and the model for human thinking as such. They did not have the energy of transcendence, the fluidity of thought, which people had previously brought to this problem.

5. The transcendence of binaries

There has always been a power associated with the integration of binaries, the figure who is 2-in-1, who includes opposing elements as different sides to himself. The bi-sexual or hermaphrodite god exists in many cultures, as a vision of a supreme creative power at the beginning of time.

Primitive ideas of transcending binaries tend to be posed as a return to the beginning of time, before the distinctions of the world were created.

In modern times, people sought a synthesis of opposing elements, deliberately bringing them together as two sides of the same figure. The synthesis, or transcendence, is now a future imagined state, brought about through battle and effort.

Within philosophy, there has been an effort since the early nineteenth century to transcend the subject-object division, started by philosophers such as Hegel. The distinctions of subject and object, presence and absence, mind and body, were not seen as ossified or abstract elements, apart from one another.

Instead, Hegel sought to show how these distinctions existed within a fluid, unified reality: subject and object determine one another, penetrate one another; presence was becoming absence, absence becoming presence.

‘The abstractions of existence and non-existence both cease to be abstract when they acquire a definite content; existence then becomes reality.’ (5)

It is not that binaries are dispensed with: this is still a philosophy of opposites, of contradictions and sharp polarisations. Only these distinctions exist within a moving, pulsating whole, like a living organism. A living thing only stays still through constant movement – of growth, repair, breakdown, the movement of blood and fluids. Once reality is looked at as a thing alive, then there are no fixed distinctions (of life/death, stillness/movement), no eternal opposites set up for all time.

The transcendence of rigid binaries came when philosophers sought to think, to live, more dynamically.

If you touch the world, and change it, you no longer feel that there is an unbridgeable void between yourself and the world of things. If men and women are free to develop their individual character and talents, when gender is something to occupy rather than a straitjacket, then there no longer appears that there is an iron divide between the sexes. The different poles are continually being brought together, related to one another.

This is not the abolition of distinctions between art and science, male and female, body and soul, individual and society. These things are different in quality, in make-up, in scale, or in logic. Rather, it is to see these distinctions as essentially related, as part of the same person, or the same common human world.

6. The errors of our non-binary moment

People now say that they are against binaries, and think themselves to be superior to everyone else who is trapped within old systems. But it transpires that it is they, the non-binaries, who are trapped within reified binaries: it is they who cannot think fluidly about opposites, and so oppose them on point of principle.

They take a stereotype of hierarchical binaries, of male/female or black/white, to stand for the whole enterprise of making distinctions. For them, opposites can only exist as rigid, stereotyped and dominating.

Having lost the element of transcendence – the energy, fluidity, action, hope, that fueled attempts to transcend or synthesise binaries – they are left merely with the shells of the past, which they turn against.

The non-binaries are therefore highly dependent upon these old, rigid forms: these are the adversary, the material upon which deconstruction can work. If there are no hulking frameworks, there is nothing to take apart; if there is no binary, there is no basis to the non-binary, which exists only as much as it is not-that.

In truth, it is only through the binary, the distinction, that we can think and organise our world. It is through the polarity that we can model the dynamics of nature and of history.

At the same time, we can be for the transcendence of rigid binaries – so that distinctions and polarities can take their places as different parts of the same active, curious human person.



(1) La Pensée Chinoise, Marcel Granet
(2) A History of Religious Ideas, Vol 2, Mircea Eliade
(3) Aristotle, The Metaphysics
(4) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
(5) Quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness


Demi-boys and the new enslavement to gender

It is increasingly common for young people to identify with ‘non-binary’ genders: to locate themselves on a ‘gender spectrum’, or align with one of the dozens of new gender categories. Here are some observations about this phenomenon:

original1. For non-binary teens, the search for the self is taking the form of a search for a gender category.

That is, the question of discovering themselves as a person – and leaving behind the world of childhood, parents and family – becomes a question of finding a new gender label.

‘I’m gender queer, and I’m starting to explore the possibility of identifying as trans.’

‘I’m not exactly sure what (I am) yet, somewhere between agender and androgine.’

They chart their biographies and life experience as movement through gender categories:

‘I came out as a tomboy at 4. Bisexual at 17. Lesbian at 18. Queer around 22. Genderqueer/non-binary at 24-ish.’

2. People who are ‘gender questioning’ are much more defined by gender, than those who are not.

Non-binary people put a lot more store by their gender than others; the gender category is the thing that ‘supports’ their identity, and makes them feel ‘secure’. Non-binary twitter profiles tend to mention gender identities before any other interests:

• he/they • nonbinary/transmasculine • aro/ace (aromantic/asexual) • Disney obsessed • booklion • usually over-caffeinated •

By contrast, those who are an ordinary man or woman need not think very much about their genders. The gender binary is now something that can be worn lightly, without implications for the lives we will have or the people we will become.

3. New gender categories are still based on the idea of a naturalised ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.

This is most obvious when somebody describes their identity as a particular point on the gender spectrum, and therefore as a sort of chemical formula, an admixture of the masculine and feminine:

‘I am 2/3 boy and 1/3 girl

‘You could fall anywhere along this (gender) line, for example, you could be 78.25 male

This is also the meaning of many of the new gender categories. For example, a demi-boy is someone who is mainly male, and a bit female.

Bi-gender is someone who feels male and female (either both at the same time, or one after another).

Therefore, in effect, the traditional elements of masculinity and femininity have been preserved, only these have become like free-floating gender substances, which can be mixed together in various combinations.

4. Even very fluid gender categories have a naturalised, pseudo-physical basis.

It is no coincidence that gender categories are often described as one might a physical waveform, or a mutating substance.

Crystagender: gender randomly changes, often feels broken or fractured between mulitple genders

Antegender: A protean gender which has the potential to be anything, but is formless and motionless, and, therefore, does not manifest as any particular gender

If gender is unknown, or confused, this takes on the significance of some unknown (perhaps as yet undescribed) gender substance. For example, the category elissogender has been represented as a waveform:


Elissogender – a term used to describe a gender which vaguely moves around with no direction.

(Pink is femininity, blue is masculinity, black is agender, grey is the confusion or grey area amongst genders, yellow is unknown).

5. Non-binary individuals are very hostile to the idea that they might be defined in any way by other people.

There is a hostility to social ascription, to the idea that they would be put in a category by society or other people.

‘The very first thing doctors tell parents is if their baby is a boy or a girl.’

Being a man was the norm that was placed on me, but I don’t identify with that.’

Their objection is not so much to any particular arduous consequences of being a man or a woman, but to the very social act of naming, or making a distinction. The new gender categories are therefore anti-social on principle.

6. Freedom from the traditional gender binary does not mean freedom to be your own person.

Being non-binary does not mean that a person is free to develop their vocation, character, self-expression in a way that is personal or undetermined by notions of gender.

Instead, to be non-binary is to enter into a private marriage with the gender category of your choice. The freedom of our age is to not be genuinely self-determined, but to choose one’s determination from a menu of options.

7. The reason for this is that we are free of the sexual division of labour, but we are not yet free.

We have seen the breakdown of the sexual division of labour, under which men and women were assigned opposing roles, destinies, and characters. People are free of social domination: their gender will no longer determine their profession, their legal rights, their dress, or the ways in which they talk or move.

Yet people do not yet feel themselves to be completely free to determine themselves according to their personal capacities and inclinations.

Therefore, the qualities previously tied to the sexual division of labour – the substances of masculine and feminine – become free floating, mixing in various combinations to form the new series of gender categories.

The naturalised elements of masculinity and femininity are not overcome, but translated into the terms of consumer choice.



On the narcissism of trans activism

Is it ‘transphobic’ for lesbians to refuse to sleep with trans women? Should radical feminists be forced to see trans women as ‘real women’?

The growing conflict between trans activists and lesbians/radical feminists shines a light on today’s strange new breed of identity politics.

In a YouTube war, NeonFiona, a bisexual woman with a trans girlfriend, said that lesbians were downright bigoted for refusing to date trans women. Lesbian YouTubers and writers such as Arielle Scarcella and Taylor Fogarty responded with videos arguing that ‘Nobody should be coerced into having sex with anybody. If someone does not want to fuck you, it does not invalidate your identity.’

Meanwhile, radical feminists have been labelled TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) for not seeing trans women as real women, a conflict that occasionally spills over into real violence. At a recent feminist Hyde Park rally, a 60-year old feminist was punched and grabbed around the neck by an apparently male-bodied trans woman. The ‘punch a terf’ meme is a theme on Twitter, where TERFS are compared to Nazis: ’deck a terf’, ‘punch terfs. transpobes suck’, ‘have you punched a nazi or a terf today?’.

Trans people have been part of the gay movement for decades: this is not about transgenderism per se. Nor is it about most trans people, who don’t want to punch anyone. Nor is it about the misunderstandings that can occur when straight people change sex: these situations are not unprecedented. At my college LGB Society 20 years ago there was a woman who identified as a gay man. Everyone was welcoming of him but the gay men were not interested; they wanted men, biological men. The situation was a bit awkward but nobody made a big deal about it: it just was what it was. Sometimes in life people miss each other.

Now this same situation has become a political line, a matter of political principle, the source of demands and recriminations. Gay women’s rejection of trans women is treated as an invalidation of trans identity, based on prejudiced ‘cultural conditioning’ and irrational fear.

Today’s trans activism involves a kind of narcissism, a failure to distinguish between your own and other people’s point of view. Self-ascription is treated as an absolute right: you can call yourself whatever you want to, and people have to mirror and affirm it. If you say you are a woman then it is harmful for other people to not treat you absolutely like a woman in every respect. ‘It’s harmful to trans folks to associate lesbian with “vagina only”’, tweeted one activist. ‘You’re not an LGBT advocate if you think trans women who don’t have surgery or take hormones are not women.’ In the demand for recognition, there is a denial of the independence of the other person’s point of view.

But the truth is that the world is independent of us: it has its own eyes, its own logic. We may wish to be seen as a woman or man, just as we may wish to be seen as funny or attractive, but this cannot be demanded as a right. In reality, we are very rarely seen as we wish to be seen, and indeed this is not a bad thing. It is a reality check. It is just life. We can work to earn other people’s opinions but we can’t demand them.

Today’s identity politics demands that the world be a perfect mirror, that it reflect your self-ascription, that it never present a denial, discomfort or refusal. The argument that lesbians should have sex with trans women even if they don’t want to (that they should want to want to) shows how this demand for affirmation represents a violation of the bodies and wills of others.

There is a questioning of lesbians’ ‘preferences’ for the female body. NeonFiona’s video put ‘preferences’ in quote marks, which she made with fingers over her head. ‘”Preferences” are super transphobic’, read one tweet. The message of the video is: question your preferences, ask why you prefer the things you do, because it could just be pure bigotry. An article on Slate discussed lesbians’ ‘knee-jerk resistance’ and ‘feelings of fear or disgust at the idea of a partner who they perceive as “really” a man – feelings that are rooted in transphobic cultural conditioning’. It said that lesbians were even worse than cis-men for a ‘freak-out’ or ‘yuck’ reaction when they discover that the woman they are dating has male anatomy.

Here, people’s feelings and desires are placed in quote-marks, as prejudiced, conditioned, in need of re-education. It becomes legitimate to ask why you prefer the people you prefer. Why do you never date trans people, or black people, or disabled people? As if your love list should correspond to a diversity chart in order to be entirely even handed. The intuitive, personal issue of sexual attraction becomes something for others to comment upon and judge. As Arielle Scarcella put it, activists can be ‘aggressive in telling lesbians how to define their sexuality and how to feel in their attractions’.

Ultimately, the narcissism of trans activism comes from the fragile nature of the contemporary self – its lack of independence from the world. The person demanding recognition as a perfect mirror has no place apart from the world. This aborts the efforts in Western philosophy over the past 2000 years, which has sought the independence of the self from the world. In his Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius told himself not to be affected by other people’s stinky breath or the stupid things they say about you. The Stoic’s aim is remaining rooted in your person, master of your ship, regardless of what others say or do around you.

Self-identity now is reduced to the single dimension of a social mask: how you are seen, what you are called. This is why non-recognition can spark such upset and rage. ‘When terfs attack, we fight back’, tweeted one trans activist: feminists’ refusal to see trans women as women is experienced as a kind of attack, which calls for violence in return.

But behind the aggression and accusation lies the fragility of contemporary identity, which has no point upon which to stand.

I will be discussing ‘Diversity – Does it Matter?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 28 October.

Transsexualism and the breakdown of personality

In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.

Tattoos and piercings were part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.

The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this phenomenon. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.

The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation, but instead exist as a polarity, of A or B. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.

In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality: you are not occupying it, making it yours.

Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.

Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes entirely contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. You might choose to affirm the body in which you exist, just as you equally might not.

That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.

At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.

This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.

What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.

Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The person you really are is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, it is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.

Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.

The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.

The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’

(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006

(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999

‘Just call me “ze”.’ The trouble with gender-neutral identities

Genderimage A friend’s 14-year-old son goes to a south London comprehensive. Two of his classmates identify as neither male or female: one has two personalities, between which he alternates; the other is a ‘non-binary non-cis-gendered woman’.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with people going against their gender or primarily considering themselves a person or a human being. Nor is there anything wrong with androgyny. There is more freedom than ever to be or look androdynous: women can wear suits, men can wear sarongs and jewellery, with hair as short or long as you like.

But the gender-neutral identity is quite different. It is not an indifference to categories, just being yourself, ignoring demands to fit in with models or roles. Instead, there is an obsession with categories (gender neutral, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender questioning, agender, bigender, or many many others). The quest for the right category is the quest to establish a basis for the self. Your identity box and pronoun become as important as your name. One formerly gender neutral man introduces himself: ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are “he” and “him”, how about you?’

This means that the formation of the self plays out not in an interior world, nor in relation to close others, but in relation to reified categories that a person has invented or found on the internet. People go in search of an identity box that ‘fits’, in the way that in the past they might have sought a religion or vocation.

When Facebook announced 71 different gender categories for UK users, an adviser said that Facebook ‘will finally allow thousands of people to describe themselves as they are now’ and ‘allow future generation of kids to become truly comfortable in their own skins.’ Your feeling in your own skin; a website’s drop-down menu: there is no difference.

Traditional social categories, such as man or woman, or nationality or class, were based on some generally accepted physical distinction or division within social structure. The new categories, by contrast, exist apart from someone’s position in society or the social relations they enter into, as well as their physical reality. Your identity box can be independent of your appearance: you can identify as black though biologically white (as with Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be ‘trans black’); or identify as a woman though you have the body of a man. Your identity category can even be independent of your relationships, with one woman saying that she identifies as queer while in a long-term relationship with a man.

Gender-neutral websites always advise on never assuming someone’s gender, never assuming anything about someone on the basis of how they look or who they are with. The identity box is only incidentally related to social or biological reality. The box is both arbitrary – someone can choose anything they want – but also strangely naturalised as if they haven’t chosen it at all. Therefore, it is a private relationship with some sort of external determination.

Gender neutral identities involve a kind of grating at the social, an objection to being touched by anything social or universal in content. After all, a regular pronoun describes an individual as something general: to be called ‘he’ is to say that this person, Tom, is something universal, a man. The new identities express a dislike at being part of any general group or category, at being touched or judged by frameworks that are commonly accepted. One gender-neutral student said:

Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, “Who are you talking to?”‘

The gender-neutral pronoun is a violation of language and the meaning of words. To ask other people to use ‘they’ or ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is to make them twist their tougues into unnatural shapes, and use words in ways that violate their actual meaning. A person is called either a plural, or an object. It is worse with invented pronouns, such as xe/xem, zie/hir, e/em, fae/faer, and co/cos, because people do not understand what they mean. People are asked to use words that don’t mean anything.

(The problems are accentuated in gendered languages such as French or German, where things such as job positions are also gendered. A Humbolt university professor uses ‘x’ instead of gendered endings, replacing Professor (male) or Professorin (female) with ‘Professx’. Another man complains that his gender-neutral German pronouns are not being understood: ‘By using “xier/sier” most people think that I try to say “sie” with a bad German pronunciation, and if I use “nin” (although I quite like the sound of it), no one understands anything.’)

The pronoun-based identity is something that can only happen in public, through requesting a particular, unnatural treatment from the world. You find yourself by asking people to call you something different. One man says: ‘For two years I used “ze” and “hir” pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.’

A man (not a ‘cis-man’, just a man) can be relatively independent of his pronoun. His pronoun can be incidental to him; he does not think about it, which means that the individual is free to go his own way and do his own thing. In accepting a general category, the individual can go their own way as something distinct from this. Indeed, early philosophies of individual independence encouraged an indifference to the outside world: Stoicism, for example, recommended remaining steady on your inner axis through a cultivated immunity to anything anyone said about you or anything that happened.

The gender-neutral person has no point of independence, no point apart from the world on which to stand. They are their identity box; they are their pronoun. And the content of this identity box is nothing but the violation of the commonly accepted category. It is an identity founded on the negation of the categories of social life, declaring them ‘binary’ and null and void.

Therefore, the gender-neutral identity means the effacement of the independent individual, as well as the universal social category – both of which are collapsed into the drop-down menu and the pronoun ‘ze’.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

Microaggressions – fostering the alienated self

enhanced-buzz-1002-1386285201-29-2The current trend of identifying ‘micro-aggressions’ is not about social categories of exploitation or dominance. Nor is it just about personal touchiness or sensitivity. Instead, it is a prism through which social life and the world is experienced, as something set against and hostile towards the self.

This was shown in a perceptive satire of microaggressions by University of Michigan student, Omar Mahmood, in character as ‘womyn of color’. The satire captures how the experience of aggression structures every aspect of a person’s relations and environment. Even the falling snow: ‘The blistering cold did not turn my eyes from all the white privilege falling around me.’ The ‘womyn’ slipped over on to some steps and was approached by ‘a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man’; she detected the ‘patronising sneer’ behind his words, ‘Cold, isn’t it?’; and when the man offered her his hand she observed ‘a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me’. In the end, the womyn realised that it was not about her colour but her left handedness (an awareness triggered by the cis-man’s comment, ‘I was just trying to do the right thing!’):

The right thing… The right thing… I became so aware at that moment of the left hand that I had thrust out before falling, and suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss. The words rang in my eardrums, and my blood throbbed.

The satire captures the arbitrary nature of the categories being employed. Categories such as ‘WOC/cis-male-hetero’ are detached from social structure: they do not represent groups or their relations, any more than does left-handedness or snow. Some of these categories are taken from past relations of inequality, but they exist as utterly transformed (which is why they use different terms and are described in an often unrecognisable jargon).

Instead, micro-aggressions represent the polarisation of everyday relations. The offer of a hand, or a consoling comment, is experienced as an act of hostility. In micro-aggressions, to be black, or female, or gay lacks much positive significance; there is little celebration of black or gay pride, or feminist sisterhood. The role of the category (of women, colour, handydnyss) is to give form to the feeling that social relations undo us, are aggressive. That others are set counter to us.

A glance, a question, the direction of someone’s gaze is experienced as a devaluation or an aggression for the individual. One Latino student complains about the way another student ‘noticed my Frida Khalo lighter and was more concerned about her appearance than the actual painting on it’, which was representative of ‘white supremacy at work’ and the exclipse of Mexican art by Eurocentric art. Another student complains that cashiers are not sufficiently cheery with them, perceiving a greater cheeriness with white people before and after them in the queue.

Often, the reality of the situation shines through: you can see the ‘aggressive’ person is just being curious, or making conversation, or making a guess, or a mistake. They ask why you don’t speak Spanish or whether you can read a Japanese character. They call you Jaime Garcia rather than Jaime Rodriguez. A person is offering you their hand and the gesture is transformed into an aggressive act, only because everyday sociality is experienced as a form of hostility.

It is sometimes the case that genuine acts of racism and sexism get called microaggressions, but these are in the minority. The essence of the category (which is why it has a new name) is the individual experience of dissonance with the world. This is why many of the complaints are highly subjective: you can sense a person’s upset and anger, but you cannot understand what the problem was. Why is it a problem that someone said ‘you do not look like the type of person that is interested in watching sports’? Why is this an invalidation?

Groups of all kinds are experienced as toxic, hostile, uncomfortable and painful, even those of one’s own identity category. One gay black woman complained that:

The queer community on this campus can be so incredibly toxic & policing, especially for womxn of color. Identifying as queer is such a hard experience on this campus because of all the heavy internalizations of queerphobia, but not feeling able to sit fully and comfortably with my qwoc self in queer/qpoc spaces is the most painful.

It is notable that the category of micro-aggression is authored by the victim. In effect, they are authoring the narrative of their own non-subjectivity, and the cis-hetero-male aggressor is constructed as a part in this narrative. The cis-man is holding his hands up, saying hey, I was only trying to help, I didn’t mean anything by it.

This means that the category of microaggression doesn’t only express the individual experience of dissonance with the world; it also actively fosters it. Experiencing the world in this way means that someone becomes attached to their alienated condition. A person starts to cultivate dissonance, to almost to revel in their non-identity with the world. The self becomes attached to the experience of alienation; it creates itself as alienated.

This new basis of identity is the reverse of the classical individual, who was based on the extent to which a person distinguished themselves. The personalities of ancient heroes were defined in the extent to which they left established boundaries, and went out seeking voyages, quests, ordeals. By contrast, the micro-aggressed self is defined in terms of what has been inflicted upon it. Therefore, they stake themselves upon their unfreedom, upon their object-character to the wills of others.

Yet of course, this is not an individual at all, but the eclipse of individuality. The same act that estranges the individual from the social, also estranges a person from themselves, from their individual abilities and qualities. Someone becomes not Carol or Jane, a specific individual with a specific inner life, but a ‘qwoc self’, with the self as a composite of queer-woman-of-colour-etc etc. As the satire put it: ‘Suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss’. Such a person is, at base, uncomfortable – with others, with themselves.

Therefore, the new phenomenon of micro-aggressions reflects neither exclusion nor oppression; nor is it merely the over-sensitivity of people who must be told to buck up. Instead, it reflects a new social structure; a new alienation in social relations, which is reaching into the most everyday encounters and people’s experience of their own personalities.

The solution can only be in combating these structures, and posing against them the truth and innocence of the everyday encounter, the person who is just offering you a hand up or asking about you because they are curious. We must also affirm the individual who is comfortable with themselves, who is not a category but a person, and who is not glowering and counting offences but throwing themselves into the curiousities and delights of our varied social world.

Gay/bi/top/bottom…fake identities and the structuring of public life

One of the first questions gay men ask each other is: ‘Are you a top or a bottom?’ A person’s preference of sexual position becomes what one is: a top, or a bottom. The question of subjective preference in the context of a relationship becomes hardened into different categories of people – as if, one gay man said, ‘two entirely different species of gay male humans’.

A similar process is at work in many other areas of life. Indeed, it is such stereotyped categories of identity which to a large extent provide the structure for social life now. These categories both form personal identity, group individuals together, and structure their relations to one another and to other groups.

We can see this in the process of electoral campaigning: there is a pink battle bus for women, an Operation Black Vote, Operation Disabled Vote, Operation Muslim vote, and so on. This is the way in which an electorate is categorised and structured: not Labour v Tory, Middle England v Welsh pit towns; not constituencies of interest but categories of individuals.

With the end of the political party and association, some social theorists imagined that social life would be without structure. Zygmunt Bauman talked about the endless ‘fluidity’ of life, individuals moving into temporary and structureless connections with others: his ‘liquid modernity’ is formless and insubstantial. Jean Baudrillard imagined the post-political society as like a ‘mass’, a silent, expressionless and immobile lump which absorbed all meaning.

Yet what has happened is not this, but the emergence of a new social structure based on the category. Society is becoming an interlocking series of boxes, which break down into endless subdivisions. A person is male/female; gay/straight/bi/BDSM; top/bottom; versatile top/total top…and so on.

These categories have a rigid, caste-like quality. Even if you choose to be gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim, there is a way in which the category takes on a life of its own and seems to structure you. A study of the relations of top and bottom quoted men saying: ‘I sort of fell into this image of myself as being a very aggressive bottom’; ‘There’s a mindset about being a top’; ‘I hate to say it, but I’m a bottom … I don’t like to be identified like that because I feel it turns me into something all the way from my feet up to my head.’

Having chosen a box, they found that the box then ‘turns me into something’; it took away some of their individuality and made them a stereotype of a person, as well as determining their relations to others along stereotyped lines. The identity category, like the old social structures of caste, or feudal estate, is experienced as something foreign and external to the individual, as determining them.

This is quite different to the relationship of the individual to a  political party or association of which they are a member. As a party member, subjective interests are channelled into social forms, and in turn structured by them. An individual is part of the living body that is the association: one makes and is made by it. In the life of a voluntary association, the individual and the social group are in constant relation, forged by one another.

The category is more like a box: a box as an external form within which the individuals sit as separate items. It is a social form based not on dynamic interrelation between individuals, but on some common quality possessed by them: a genus. These categories have the appearance of something very private and personal to the individual – their sexuality or preference – but in fact they are ossified and hardened, and take over the inner life.

As part of a category, one’s actual personal and subjective life is eclipsed. You start to become your category, and to relate to others not as yourself but through it.

It is striking how the different identity groups are so hostile towards one another. The gay/lesbian/bi/trans community is taken up with fractious bickering between the different sections; a jostling for priority, and arguments about who is ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ in any particular initiative.

This can even reach the level of ‘trans’ people demanding that lesbians ‘accept them as sexual partners’; and lesbian feminists in turn defending the ‘safe space’ of their toilets against these trans invaders. The question of who has sex with whom, and which toilets people use, takes the strange form of a negotiation between tribes, as if sex again is a matter of endogamy or exogamy. There even appears to be a certain hostility between ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’.

This hostility has a different quality to past relations of social antagonism between, say, different professions, classes, or religious sects. In these cases, the antagonism was the consequence of the internal life of the association – it reflected the extent to which the interests of the association came into conflict with those of others.

By contrast, today’s identity categories lack this genuine internal life and real social existence: they are not an association but an aggregation of individuals. In a way, therefore, a category only comes to life in conflict with opposing categories. What one is is therefore defined primarily in the moment of conflict, set against what one is not.

A person is increasingly only really ‘trans’ or ‘Muslim’ when they are complaining about Islamophobia or the ‘lack of trans representation’. Only in the moment of opposition is a category-identity constituted – albeit in a shallow and stereotyped fashion – which is why these conflicts seem to be sought out as an opportunity for self-constitution.

This explains why individuals who have almost nothing to complain about spend all their time complaining. People have an opportunity to be who they want, love who they want, follow the religion they want – yet they seem to be prisoners to their labels, and locked in relations of mutual hostility with different labels.

The proper war now is not between the fake categories of identity, but of people against the categories. ‘We have to stop letting these titles wear us’ writes one gay man; another calls the divisions ‘stupid’: ‘whatever happened to love, chemistry and falling for a person?’

This is a claim both to be yourself, and to form meaningful relationships and associations with others. The war of people against the stereotyped and boxed forms of social identity would be the salvation of both the individual and the collective association – not to mention romance.

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