Trans Politics, Philosophy, and Being

There seems to be little need for philosophy these days, especially in the arena of trans politics. That division–between philosophy (as thought) and politics (as doing)–is a distinction over two thousand years old, and is out in force today. There is nothing philosophical about a bathroom ban or the negation of human rights, or the very dislocation of one’s being human from trans people. These are real and violent. I can’t help but wonder why this division persists when it is clear that our very ability to think about ourselves in terms of bodies, genders, sexes, races, and other imported traits, is defined in some fundamental sense by a thinking and a doing that happens simultaneously. For example, I cannot think but for my embodied-ness. It is impossible to go to some outside of what I have experienced. For to do so would be to speculate in a new language, a new grammar, that seeks to bring meaning to those illegible items in my mind that, but the virtue of my new itinerary, cannot be made legible–I cannot escape my body. So if this division between philosophy and politics may be broken entirely, and the elements that were siloed into each laid bare in their togetherness, what could we say about ourselves, our bodies, and our engagements everyday applications?

These are not new questions or considerations. They relate to an ongoing set of considerations that have their modern roots in Heidegger and his follows–Foucault and Derrida. It would follow that our engagements with real world political systems of power, how we think of them, would have to circle back to these philosophers and activists (both in their own right). I find it impossible not to think in Heideggerian terms lately–not simply because I have taken a more active interest to understand his work. I have found couched in his theories of Being a language and perspective more capacious and far more fulfilling than other thinkers. He brings to the table the possibility of a rupture out of a way of thinking and talking and speaking plagued with an old metaphysics. This metaphysics, for instance, treats gender in either fluid or fixed ways–but never both; a metaphysics that considers sexed consciousness in terms of a “match” between the consciousness and the born body. This rupture must occur if we are to allow any unfolding in our social relations that provides a ground of openness, dignity, and self-constitution. Because time, or temporality, and belongingness in the world are central to understanding what we have termed human being, Heidegger provides a phenomenology that capaciously critiques any and all discourses that seek to confine the essence of Dasein–that is, the unfolding emergence of Being in (the) (hu)man.

First, let’s consider gender and sex–if these two items can be distinguished nicely at all–as extensions of a scientific understanding of certain bodily characteristics. If we think of gender in terms of its linguistic history, emerging from medical discourses in the 20th century, and we think of sex as emerging from the growing discipline of medicine and anatomy as far back as the 5th century, then our commitments to inquiry are already limited as a matter of course. We have a starting point, somewhere in time, that is conditioned by the social, political, and medical alliances of that time, and form what gender studies has as its subterranean point of departure. That phrase, point of departure, is misleading on its face. It is supposed to suggest a conceptual place from which investigation can diverge. But it also suggests a baggage, a continuation of investigating and thought that must, by necessity, have some structural relation to that originating point. On the voyage away, we can certainly dispel with some, but not all, of that baggage. So if the medical model of gender/sex has embedded itself in the very ways we conceive of our embodied being, then in what way can we speak about ourselves that doesn’t privilege this kind of technical knowledge, the organismic knowledge, of chromosomes, hormones, cells, textbooks, and other biological imperatives? How do we not already smuggle in a certain kind of desire (of the sexual and mostly heterosexual kind) that interlink the fundamental understanding of a gender/sex system?

We might begin to see where this is neither purely a philosophical set of questions or observations, nor something that is purely political–but is situated in between. Derrida had suggested that moving beyond a discourse, “one risks ceaselessly confirming, consolidating, relifting, at an always more certain depth, that which that which one allegedly deconstructs” (135). There, no destruction is really happening–but merely a reaffirmation, sometimes if only a silent one, of the internal structure that’s being attacked. Attempting to speak of gender in purely social terms engages in this explicitly. If we have as our itinerary the plan to call into question gender’s importance and existence altogether then we risk prioritizing norms over ordinary life, and the body itself. This could be taken as a demoralizing discourse that isn’t very revolutionary–but speaks of beings as merely effects of a kind of power and saps the agency of trans people to identify at all. It hardly gets at the plural iterations that beings take within such norms, let alone their complex relations with norms. On the other hand, we could “violently break” from the old terrain–but this venture is doomed to repeat in some fashion the old excesses of a previous language. Breaking the medical model doesn’t revolutionize discourse by its very act and thus releases us from its narrowing grammars of sexed being. That move, rather, attempts to radicalize social relations, as social, and soon finds itself trapped in the metaphysical circle of re-defining humans and humanity. It must constantly refer back to that old language in order to justify its new-ness. These are all politically charged courses of action. They all have deeper meanings for life in its everyday experiences. It is neither purely theory nor purely political and praxis.

Now, B, how does this relate to trans politics in its American form? I think this question belongs to three kinds of considerations. First, trans politics must decide how to manage political institutions that, from the outset, privileges stable identity over fluidity. Liberalism is a doctrine of individual rights. Individuals are self-present and have a continuous consciousness that streams birth and death. One can change, but not their essence as individually self-possessed persons. Thus, our political institutions are more likely to privilege medical models of human existence over socially situated and living expressions of being in the world. This seems to be the case where bathroom bills fix identities in either/or categories of sex, and freeze identities in government issued documentation. If, as many argue, there is not single trans community, trans narrative, or trans “normative” way of life (as I do), then the consequence might be to compromise and lose the vibrancy of diverse narratives–and risk invisibilizing. Second, medical models are often the basis for accessing health care, transition related or otherwise, that are instrumental for the unfolding of gendered embodiments. This commitment to a medical grammar affects social and popular discourse on trans life (where people think being trans is pathological, is “realized” somewhere during an otherwise “normal” course of conscious existence–when did you realize you were trans?) but also forces a certain kind of narrative structure on some, but not all, trans modes of existence. Third, in order to think of social movements and their interconnections, a commonality (of oppression and resistance) is often the necessary connective tissue. But if there is a move to destroy the old models of trans existence, that would risk resistance from those who have adopted such models. If there is a move to merely alter language, there is a resistance, again, from communities that seeks to liberate trans knowledge out of a the complex of medical hegemony. These have obvious political import on organizers and activists, and those whose lives are, under the new trump administration, violently thrown back into the margins from which they had just, until recently, escaped.

So the question: What is to be done? That, I wish, is something that philosophy or politics could tell us straight away. But that isn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be the end of either. Both forms of thinking about and interacting with the world are always situated within it. They are both already fixed within the body, the living moment, the temporal and historical moment. So, if anything, it gives us a way to think ourselves out of that metaphysical circle that keeps a privileged position for the clear, the fixed, and the always present. Heidegger and Derrida both considered the moment of philosophical destruction as a means of seeing, and hopefully actualizing, an exit from that circle. But at what cost? It could mean the reconnection of a new circle, a new seeming totality that re-figures life in structural ways. But it would be subject to the same critical engagement that allowed its break from the former circle. Thus, to be, and to be human, is subject to an ongoing set of possibilities bound but also undone by a constellation of meaning we have forged for ourselves for the last two millennia. It means, as Derrida suggests, speaking in multiple languages, in multiple times, and persisting that human life is not so easily definable. It means considering that deviations from the norms of our culture are not themselves the act of violence–rather, the very installation of those norms constitutes the original violent act. If that can be taken as something worthy of the name truth and of political significance, then our political institutions are in a constant reenactment of an original violence one might tentatively call “defining man.” If when “defining man” took place in political forms, its rights, privileges, and immunities as citizen were also violently attached. If so, then recuperating the liberal rights model seems self-defeating to a movement that must prize, above all else, self-creation, style, and survival itself. One cannot continue to survive in a model that merely tolerates human diversity for the sake of a mythos of individualism.

Is there a way to  overcome such political violence where we must all look  and act like everyone else (white and protestant)? Where equality has come to stand in for the radical sociality that constitutes our shared ethical existence and world? And where such political commitments have managed to mask the historical collusion of racism, sexism, and classism from their critical and obvious relationship with mass incarceration, extra-judicial police killing, transphobic body politics, and the election of a fascist? Certainly things to think about.


Cite: Derrida, Jacque. 1968. “The Ends of Man.” In Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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