Segregated toilet doors are today at the center of a big legal and ideological struggle. On March 29, 2016, a group of 80 predominantly Silicon Valley-based business executives, headlined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, signed a letter to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory denouncing a law that prohibits transgender people from using public facilities intended for the opposite sex. “We are disappointed in your decision to sign this discriminatory legislation into law,” the letter says. “The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business.” So it is clear where big capital stands. Tim Cook can easily forget about hundreds of thousands of Foxconn workers in China assembling Apple products in slave conditions; he made his big gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, demanding the abolition of gender segregation… As is often the case, big business stands proudly united with politically correct theory.
So what is “transgenderism”? It occurs when an individual experiences discord between his/her biological sex (and the corresponding gender, male or female, assigned to him/her by society at birth) and his/her subjective identity. As such, it does not concern only “men who feel and act like women” and vice versa but a complex structure of additional “genderqueer” positions which are outside the very binary opposition of masculine and feminine: bigender, trigender, pangender, genderfluid, up to agender. The vision of social relations that sustains transgenderism is the so-called postgenderism: a social, political and cultural movement whose adherents advocate a voluntary abolition of gender, rendered possible by recent scientific progress in biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Their proposal not only concerns scientific possibility, but is also ethically grounded. The premise of postgenderism is that the social, emotional and cognitive consequences of fixed gender roles are an obstacle to full human emancipation. A society in which reproduction through sex is eliminated (or in which other versions will be possible: a woman can also “father” her child, etc.) will open unheard-of new possibilities of freedom, social and emotional experimenting. It will eliminate the crucial distinction that sustains all subsequent social hierarchies and exploitations.
One can argue that postgenderism is the truth of transgenderism. The universal fluidification of sexual identities unavoidably reaches its apogee in the cancellation of sex as such. Recall Marx’s brilliant analysis of how, in the French revolution of 1848, the conservative-republican Party of Order functioned as the coalition of the two branches of royalism (orleanists and legitimists) in the “anonymous kingdom of the Republic.” The only way to be a royalist in general was to be a republican, and, in the same sense, the only way to be sexualized in general is to be asexual.
The first thing to note here is that transgenderism goes together with the general tendency in today’s predominant ideology to reject any particular “belonging” and to celebrate the “fluidification” of all forms of identity. Thinkers like Frederic Lordon have recently demonstrated the inconsistency of “cosmopolitan” anti-nationalist intellectuals who advocate “liberation from a belonging” and in extremis tend to dismiss every search for roots and every attachment to a particular ethnic or cultural identity as an almost proto-Fascist stance. Lordon contrasts this hidden belonging of self-proclaimed rootless universalists with the nightmarish reality of refugees and illegal immigrants who, deprived of basic rights, desperately search for some kind of belonging (like a new citizenship). Lordon is quite right here: it is easy to see how the “cosmopolitan” intellectual elites despising local people who cling to their roots belong to their own quite exclusive circles of rootless elites, how their cosmopolitan rootlessness is the marker of a deep and strong belonging. This is why it is an utter obscenity to put together elite “nomads” flying around the world and refugees desperately searching for a safe place where they would belong–the same obscenity as that of putting together a dieting upper-class Western woman and a starving refugee woman.
Furthermore, we encounter here the old paradox: the more marginal and excluded one is, the more one is allowed to assert one’s ethnic identity and exclusive way of life. This is how the politically correct landscape is structured. People far from the Western world are allowed to fully assert their particular ethnic identity without being proclaimed essentialist racist identitarians (native Americans, blacks…). The closer one gets to the notorious white heterosexual males, the more problematic this assertion is: Asians are still OK; Italians and Irish – maybe; with Germans and Scandinavians it is already problematic… However, such a prohibition on asserting the particular identity of white men (as the model of oppression of others), although it presents itself as the admission of their guilt, nonetheless confers on them a central position. This very prohibition makes them into the universal-neutral medium, the place from which the truth about the others’ oppression is accessible. The imbalance weighs also in the opposite direction: impoverished European countries expect the developed West European ones to bear the full burden of multicultural openness, while they can afford patriotism.
And a similar tension is present in transgenderism. Transgender subjects who appear as transgressive, defying all prohibitions, simultaneously behave in a hyper-sensitive way insofar as they feel oppressed by enforced choice (“Why should I decide if I am man or woman?”) and need a place where they could recognize themselves. If they so proudly insist on their “trans-,” beyond all classification, why do they display such an urgent demand for a proper place? Why, when they find themselves in front of gendered toilets, don’t they act with heroic indifference–“I am transgendered, a bit of this and that, a man dressed as a woman, etc., so I can well choose whatever door I want!”? Furthermore, do “normal” heterosexuals not face a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? One could even say that “man” (or “woman”) is not a certain identity but more like a certain mode of avoiding an identity… And we can safely predict that new anti-discriminatory demands will emerge: why not marriages among multiple persons? What justifies the limitation to the binary form of marriage? Why not even a marriage with animals? After all we already know about the finesse of animal emotions. Is to exclude marriage with an animal not a clear case of “speciesism,” an unjust privileging of the human species?
Insofar as the other great antagonism is that of classes, could we not also imagine a homologous critical rejection of the class binary? The “binary” class struggle and exploitation should also be supplemented by a “gay” position (exploitation among members of the ruling class itself, e.g., bankers and lawyers exploiting the “honest” productive capitalists), a “lesbian” position (beggars stealing from honest workers, etc.), a “bisexual” position (as a self-employed worker, I act as both capitalist and worker), an “asexual” one (I remain outside capitalist production), and so forth.
This deadlock of classification is clearly discernible in the need to expand the formula: the basic LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) becomes LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) or even LGBTQQIAAP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, Pansexual). To resolve the problem, one often simply adds a + which serves to include all other communities associated with the LGBT community, as in LGBT+. This, however, raises the question: is + just a stand-in for missing positions like “and others,” or can one be directly a +? The properly dialectical answer is “yes,” because in a series there is always one exceptional element which clearly does not belong to it and thereby gives body to +. It can be “allies” (“honest” non-LGBT individuals), “asexuals” (negating the entire field of sexuality) or “questioning” (floating around, unable to adopt a determinate position).
Consequently, there is only one solution to this deadlock, the one we find in another field of disposing waste, that of trash bins. Public trash bins are more and more differentiated today. There are special bins for paper, glass, metal cans, cardboard package, plastic, etc. Here already, things sometimes get complicated. If I have to dispose of a paper bag or a notebook with a tiny plastic band, where does it belong? To paper or to plastic? No wonder that we often get detailed instruction on the bins, right beneath the general designation: PAPER–books, newspapers, etc., but NOT hardcover books or books with plasticized covers, etc. In such cases, proper waste disposal would have taken up to half an hour or more of detailed reading and tough decisions. To make things easier, we then get a supplementary trash bin for GENERAL WASTE where we throw everything that did not meet the specific criteria of other bins, as if, once again, apart from paper trash, plastic trash, and so on, there is trash as such, universal trash.
Should we not do the same with toilets? Since no classification can satisfy all identities, should we not add to the two usual gender slots (MEN, WOMEN) a door for GENERAL GENDER? Is this not the only way to inscribe into an order of symbolic differences its constitutive antagonism? Lacan already pointed out that the “formula” of the sexual relationship as impossible/real is 1+1+a, i.e., the two sexes plus the “bone in the throat” that prevents its translation into a symbolic difference. This third element does not stand for what is excluded from the domain of difference; it stands, instead, for (the real of) difference as such.
The reason for this failure of every classification that tries to be exhaustive is not the empirical wealth of identities that defy classification but, on the contrary, the persistence of sexual difference as real, as “impossible” (defying every categorization) and simultaneously unavoidable. The multiplicity of gender positions (male, female, gay, lesbian, bigender, transgender…) circulates around an antagonism that forever eludes it. Gays are male, lesbians female; transsexuals enforce a passage from one to another; cross-dressing combines the two; bigender floats between the two… Whichever way we turn, the two lurks beneath.
This brings us back to what one could call the primal scene of anxiety that defines transgenderism. I stand in front of standard bi-gender toilets with two doors, LADIES and GENTLEMEN, and I am caught up in anxiety, not recognizing myself in any of the two choices. Again, do “normal” heterosexuals not have a similar problem? Do they also not often find it difficult to recognize themselves in prescribed sexual identities? Which man has not caught himself in momentary doubt: “Do I really have the right to enter GENTLEMEN? Am I really a man?”
We can now see clearly what the anxiety of this confrontation really amounts to. Namely, it is the anxiety of (symbolic) castration. Whatever choice I make, I will lose something, and this something is NOT what the other sex has. Both sexes together do not form a whole since something is irretrievably lost in the very division of sexes. We can even say that, in making the choice, I assume the loss of what the other sex doesn’t have, i.e., I have to renounce the illusion that the Other has that X which would fill in my lack. And one can well guess that transgenderism is ultimately an attempt to avoid (the anxiety of) castration: thanks to it, a flat space is created in which the multiple choices that I can make do not bear the mark of castration. As Alenka Zupančič expressed it in a piece of personal communication: “One is usually timid in asserting the existence of two genders, but when passing to the multitude this timidity disappears, and their existence is firmly asserted. If sexual difference is considered in terms of gender, it is made — at least in principle — compatible with mechanisms of its full ontologization.”
Therein resides the crux of the matter. The LGBT trend is right in “deconstructing” the standard normative sexual opposition, in de-ontologizing it, in recognizing in it a contingent historical construct full of tensions and inconsistencies. However, this trend reduces this tension to the fact that the plurality of sexual positions are forcefully narrowed down to the normative straightjacket of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine, with the idea that, if we get away from this straightjacket, we will get a full blossoming multiplicity of sexual positions (LGBT, etc.), each of them with its complete ontological consistency. It assumes that once we get rid of the binary straightjacket, I can fully recognize myself as gay, bisexual, or whatever. From the Lacanian standpoint, nonetheless, the antagonistic tension is irreducible, as it is constitutive of the sexual as such, and no amount of classificatory diversification and multiplication can save us from it.
The same goes for class antagonism. The division introduced and sustained by the emancipatory (“class”) struggle is not between the two particular classes of the whole, but between the whole-in-its-parts and its remainder which, within the particulars, stands for the universal, for the whole “as such,” opposed to its parts. Or, to put it in yet another way, one should bear in mind here the two aspects of the notion of remnant: the rest as what remains after the subtraction of all particular content (elements, specific parts of the whole), and the rest as the ultimate result of the subdivision of the whole into its parts, when, in the final act of subdivision, we no longer get two particular parts or elements, two somethings, but a something (the rest) and a nothing.
In Lacan’s precise sense of the term, the third element (the Kierkegaardian chimney sweeper) effectively stands for the phallic element. How so? Insofar as it stands for pure difference: the officer, the maid, and the chimney sweeper are the male, the female, plus their difference as such, as a particular contingent object. Again, why? Because not only is difference differential, but, in an antagonistic (non)relationship, it precedes the terms it differentiates. Not only is woman not-man and vice versa, but woman is what prevents man from being fully man and vice versa. It is like the difference between the Left and the Right in the political space: their difference is the difference in the very way difference is perceived. The whole political space appears differently structured if we look at it from the Left or from the Right; there is no third “objective” way (for a Leftist, the political divide cuts across the entire social body, while for a Rightist, society is a hierarchic whole disturbed by marginal intruders).
Difference “in itself” is thus not symbolic-differential, but real-impossible — something that eludes and resists the symbolic grasp. This difference is the universal as such, that is, the universal not as a neutral frame elevated above its two species, but as their constitutive antagonism. And the third element (the chimney sweeper, the Jew, object a) stands for difference as such, for the “pure” difference/antagonism which precedes the differentiated terms. If the division of the social body into two classes were complete, without the excessive element (Jew, rabble…), there would have been no class struggle, just two clearly divided classes. This third element is not the mark of an empirical remainder that escapes class classification (the pure division of society into two classes), but the materialization of their antagonistic difference itself, insofar as this difference precedes the differentiated terms. In the space of anti-Semitism, the “Jew” stands for social antagonism as such: without the Jewish intruder, the two classes would live in harmony… Thus, we can observe how the third intruding element is evental: it is not just another positive entity, but it stands for what is forever unsettling the harmony of the two, opening it up to an incessant process of re-accommodation.
A supreme example of this third element, objet a, which supplements the couple, is provided by a weird incident that occurred in Kemalist Turkey in 1926. Part of the Kemalist modernization was to enforce new “European” models for women, for how they should dress, talk and act, in order to get rid of the oppressive Oriental traditions. As is well known, there indeed was a Hat Law prescribing how men and women, at least in big cities, should cover their heads. Then,
“in Erzurum in 1926 there was a woman among the people who were executed under the pretext of ‘opposing the Hat Law.’ She was a very tall (almost 2 m.) and very masculine-looking woman who peddled shawls for a living (hence her name ‘Şalcı Bacı’ [Shawl Sister]). Reporter Nimet Arzık described her as, ‘two meters tall, with a sooty face and snakelike thin dreadlocks […] and with manlike steps.’ Of course as a woman she was not supposed to wear the fedora, so she could not have been ‘guilty’ of anything, but probably in their haste the gendarmes mistook her for a man and hurried her to the scaffold. Şalcı Bacı was the first woman to be executed by hanging in Turkish history. She was definitely not ‘normal’ since the description by Arzık does not fit in any framework of feminine normalcy at that particular time, and she probably belonged to the old tradition of tolerated and culturally included ‘special people’ with some kind of genetic ‘disorder.’ The coerced and hasty transition to ‘modernity,’ however, did not allow for such an inclusion to exist, and therefore she had to be eliminated, crossed out of the equation. ‘Would a woman wear a hat that she be hanged?’ were the last words she was reported to have muttered on the way to the scaffold. Apart from making no sense at all, these words represented a semantic void and only indicated that this was definitely a scene from the Real, subverting the rules of semiotics: she was first emasculated (in its primary etymological sense of ‘making masculine’), so that she could be ‘emasculated.’”1
How are we to interpret this weird and ridiculously excessive act of killing? The obvious reading would have been a Butlerian one: through her provocative trans-sexual appearance and acting, Şalcı Bacı rendered visible the contingent character of sexual difference, of how it is symbolically constructed. In this way, she was a threat to normatively established sexual identities… My reading is slightly (or not so slightly) different. Rather than undermine sexual difference, Şalcı Bacı stood for this difference as such, in all its traumatic Real, irreducible to any clear symbolic opposition. Her disturbing appearance transforms clear symbolic difference into the impossible-Real of antagonism. So, again, in the same way as class struggle is not just “complicated” when other classes that do not enter the clear division of the ruling class and the oppressed class appear (this excess is, on the contrary, the very element which makes class antagonism real and not just a symbolic opposition), the formula of sexual antagonism is not M/F (the clear opposition between male and female) but MF+, where + stands for the excessive element which transforms the symbolic opposition into the Real of antagonism.
This brings us back to our topic, the big opposition that is emerging today between, on the one hand, the violent imposition of a fixed symbolic form of sexual difference as the basic gesture of counteracting social disintegration and, on the other hand, the total transgender “fluidification” of gender, the dispersal of sexual difference into multiple configurations. While in one part of the world, abortion and gay marriages are endorsed as a clear sign of moral progress, in other parts, homophobia and anti-abortion campaigns are exploding. In June 2016, al-Jazeera reported that a 22-year-old Dutch woman complained to the police that she had been raped after being drugged in an upmarket nightclub in Doha. And the result was that she was convicted of having illicit sex by a Qatari court and given a one-year suspended sentence. On the opposite end, what counts as harassment in the PC environs is also getting extended. The following case comes to mind. A woman walked on a street with a bag in her hand, and a black man was walking 15 yards behind her. Becoming aware of it, the woman (unconsciously, automatically?) tightened her grip on the bag, and the black man reported that he experienced the woman’s gesture as a case of racist harassment…
What goes on is also the result of neglecting the class and race dimension by the PC proponents of women’s and gay rights:
“In ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman’ created by a video marketing company in 2014, an actress dressed in jeans, black t-shirt, and tennis shoes walked through various Manhattan neighborhoods, recording the actions and comments of men she encountered with a hidden camera and microphone. Throughout the walk the camera recorded over 100 instances coded as verbal harassment, ranging from friendly greetings to sexualized remarks about her body, including threats of rape. While the video was hailed as a document of street harassment and the fear of violence that are a daily part of women’s lives, it ignored race and class. The largest proportion of the men presented in the video were minorities, and, in a number of instances, the men commenting on the actress were standing against buildings, resting on fire hydrants, or sitting on folding chairs on the sidewalk, postures used to characterize lower class and unemployed men, or, as a reader commented on it: ‘The video was meant to generate outrage… and it used crypto-racism to do it.’”2
The great mistake in dealing with this opposition is to search for a proper measure between two extremes. What one should do instead is to bring out what both extremes share: the fantasy of a peaceful world where the agonistic tension of sexual difference disappears, either in a clear and stable hierarchic distinction of sexes or in the happy fluidity of a desexualized universe. And it is not difficult to discern in this fantasy of a peaceful world the fantasy of a society without social antagonisms, in short, without class struggle.
[Appeared in The Philosophical Salon, on August 1st 2016]
- Bulent Somay, »L’Orient n’existe pas,« doctoral thesis defended at Birkbeck College, University of London, on November 29 2013.
- See https://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2014/11/18/nice-bag-discussing-race-class-and-sexuality-in-examining-street-harassment/