TRANSGENDER ‘IDENTITY’ & THE CONSCIOUS SUBSTITUTION OF THE SURREAL FOR THE REAL
Just as so often will be the case in these occasional ‘Popular Topix’ installments, so too in this inaugural instance we would do well to remember Harry Frankfurt’s pointed opening to his essay, On Bullshit. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”
Frankfurt’s explication of the ‘theory of bullshit’ will serve us well today, as we consider what one stalwart defender of advertising and monopoly media called “The Making of Caitlyn Jenner: A Media Campaign Like No Other.” The author described simply what was “(t) he goal: To make it possible for Bruce Jenner to live normally, and perhaps even profit from, his new identity as Caitlyn Jenner.”
|This missive in no way disrespects the possibility or choice of transgendered identity; it does not criticize or cast aspersions at Jenner herself, or at the former Jenner himself; it does not question the right of anyone to make such choices.But it fiercely disputes the celebration of celebrity culture and the elevation of incredibly marginal social phenomena to the absolutely central, obsessively and strategically so, spectacle that the whole affair has become.|
How this concerns bullshit is simple. Varied cases of the framing of Jenner’s decision have used descriptors such as courage(), commitment(), human rights(), determination(), and freedom(), among other fashionable phrasings of identity and individualism. At best, such characterizations tell barely half the story, and precisely this partiality and selective focus are the prototypical attributes of propaganda and other aspects of contemporary public relations and purposefully mediated bullshit.
Before unfolding the brief that constitutes the fleshing out of this relatively simple concept, i.e., ‘Caitlyn Jenner’s reinvention = bullshit,’ we would do well to recognize a few things that this missive is not. It in no way disrespects the possibility or choice of transgendered identity; it does not criticize or cast aspersions at Jenner herself, or at the former Jenner himself; it does not question the right of anyone to make such choices.
But it fiercely disputes the celebration of celebrity culture and the elevation of incredibly marginal social phenomena to the absolutely central, obsessively and strategically so, spectacle that the whole affair has become. Its stalwart critique, today at any rate, stems from four central points, and one intellectual assessment, though with even a modicum of additional attention, the entire assessment could easily expand to cover many a monograph of social deconstruction.
To inaugurate this discussion, one might focus on data about just how widespread anything that we might call transgendered life and consciousness is. Finding such information, despite the billions of clicks that Ms/r. Jenner’s experience has caused, proves difficult. However, at least one source(), vaguely authoritative, does present readers with a sense of how likely transgender phenomena have become since such an idea has gained popularity over the past half century or so.
The upshot of this search is the likely fact that in sixty-nine years—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—plus-or-minus 36,000 people() have had similar psycho-physiological experiences as has Ms. Caitlyn Jenner, in that they have moved beyond a mere inclination to consider themselves as different from their birth gender to take steps to transform into the other half, as it were. In other words, at any given point over the past seven decades, maybe ten or fifteen thousand folks would have fallen into an active embodiment of a transgendered experience.
Having started with a quotation from the good professor’s Bullshit monograph, I would ponder the deeper meaning of that number. After all, we inhabit a planet on which seven billion people or so live, on which a billion or so a day are in the process of starving, on which tens of millions of people have died in combat during the same span, on which hundreds of million or even billions have faced stark conditions of incarceration over the same decades. Literally one could go on and on and on and on and on in tallying those whose cause, let alone whose person, has failed to merit a spot on the cover of Vanity Fair or Time Magazine.
From this I would posit an initial argument, first, that the amount of notice that s/he has received is wildly disproportionate either to the general extent of the social occurrence that sets Jenner apart, or to the actual numbers of real people involved. Without any doubt, other groups—vastly larger—and at least equally deserving of attention—their relative obscurity at least in part a function of both their not having come from inherited wealth and their not focusing fanatically or even exclusively on themselves—have not garnered as much publicity or interest.
Essentially limitless examples exist of very precise social types—to go along with the more general social sets noted above—who are, at a minimum, equally ‘dedicated’ as Jenner, equally ‘brave’ as Jenner, equally ‘individual’ as Jenner, whose stories and accomplishments rank with Jenner’s, and who are just massively more numerous than are Jenner and all h/er/is coventurers. To name just a tiny few, we might consider plus-or-minus a hundred million veterans who have served in wars, the more or less five million veterans who have died in wars, uncounted tens or hundreds of thousands of people who have killed themselves because of their ‘medications,’ a smaller but still substantial cohort of people who have killed others because of their ‘medications,’ sixty million or more people who have suffered abuse because of their refugee status, billions of people who have faced horrific victimization because of their ethnic status, tens of millions or more people who have lost their homes, further billions of people who have endured the ravages of poverty and homelessness, etc., etc., etc.
Whether in the supermarket isles, where tabloids give credence to the notion of an ‘All-Jenner-All-the-Time’ media, or in more ‘serious’ broadcast, web-based, or print journalism over the past few months or so, basically nothing—till Charleston’s grotesque mayhem evolved—has outperformed Caitlyn’s and Bruce’s ratings. Hell, they’ve outhyped the NBA playoffs and the Stanley Cup by a ratio of five or ten to one on many measures. Although one might hope the conclusion would be obvious, one can never take such points for granted in the kind of vapid vacuum that typifies contemporary critical thinking.
Therefore, here is that deduction that ought to ‘go without saying:’ this almost incredible level of promotion of a particular cause, at best a little brazen, and completely bizarre to boot, has zero to do with the social or philosophical or scientific importance of the underlying eventualities, which is to say that a wealthy superstar has been taking hormones, has elected not to cut off his penis or root out his testicles, and now can claim to look pretty striking in fashionable and no doubt extremely expensive women’s attire. Something is out of kilter in this whole scenario. It is much more than merely a ‘tempest in a teapot,’ another case of a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Having come to this point, then, second, I simply must contend that the reasons why Ms. Caitlyn Jenner has received this blessed attention are important to understand. Among them is the fact that, as already alluded to, s/he came from substantial money, with recent evidence of this fact clearly present, such as in her/is membership in a $300,000 membership private men’s club that primarily offers its members chances to play golf. Jenner’s birthplace in Westchester County New York was one of the world’s wealthiest places, and his place at that point in such a scheme of things ought to be obvious in relation to his marriage to Kris Kardashian, the trust-funded heiress whose husband had been the “high-powered” and upper-crust barrister, Robert Kardashian.
While nothing about silver spoons inherently condemns them to evil ways or vicious beliefs, no matter the Nazarene’s thoughts about any particular camel’s difficulty in waltzing through a needle’s eye, both one’s capacity to pay for the expenses of sex-change fetishes and the networks and cashola to manage a massive media campaign about such a choice are much easier to manifest if one has a gigantic bankroll to bring to the process. In part because he was a savvy businessman before she came to the forefront, in part because he was ‘to the manor born,’ Jenner has brought just such wads of cash and plethora of connections to all of his ventures.
Another rationale for this really wacky level of interest in this erstwhile paltry matter is that it focuses on a particular element of individuality, or identity, that by its nature one can imagine as exclusive in every sense—i.e., ‘no one else is precisely like me,’ and ‘only those very much like me are welcome, or worthy of membership, in my club,’ for example. An obsession with self, in other words, on anyone’s part, may represent a sine qua non of becoming a cause célèbre. That such a ‘culture of narcissism’ (lasch) prevails in the good old U.S.A. is, if not utterly certain, an easy-to-argue possibility that many people who study such things closely would agree is a part of the cultural heritage of Yankee life, the ‘American Century,’ and so on and so forth.
An additional component of zeroing in on why this rich person’s highly and purposefully personal affairs ended up so popular is that such a project entails a substantial potential for developing commodified interventions—the special dildos to keep her/is faux-vaginal opening ready, willing, and able; fashion lines for that specific ‘plus-size’ that includes former pro athletes who have feminized themselves; training schools for the surgeons and attendants who participate in various aspects of the ‘big snip;’ and so on and so forth, etc., etc., etc.
|This substitution of magic nonsense for any real sense of achievement or transformation is a major piece of how capitalism manages its social and psychological difficulties in a fashion that does not threaten the system whatsoever.|
One overall aspect of this section would also be a discussion of commodity fetishism, possibly in conjunction with alienation. This substitution of magic nonsense for any real sense of achievement or transformation is a major piece of how capitalism manages its social and psychological difficulties in a fashion that does not threaten the system whatsoever. The assertion that nonsense is a part of the package is as simple as the fact that Jenner has elected to keep her penis, even as she insists that absolutely nothing is amiss in her assertion of a female status.
The overall point of this second sort of assessment of the Jenner juggernaut basically adds up to being real about both the sources of the story’s every reaching the top-of-the-fold, so to speak, and being clear about what the narrative will never really be about. Thus, in any event, such focal pieces of Caitlyn’s story have next-to-nothing to do with human rights, absolutely zero to do with social justice, and less than nothing to do with serving humankind generally.
Third, for this initial new blog item, one has little choice but to explore the very definite social imbroglio, with immense potential for real harm, that inevitably attends this very intentional obsession with her/im. For one thing, this genuflection to Jenner provides a flashpoint for conflict that not only can go nowhere, but also must in fact make people want to give up dialog and engagement completely.
For another, more obviously, the capitalization of bullshit inevitably causes a huge opportunity cost, in that little or no mediated space is available for actually crucial problems and issues that afflict, every day, all men or all women, which happens to be almost exactly one hundred thousand times more people than have undergone, in seventy years, what Caitlyn has experienced of late. Of course, plenty of crucial issues, which receive little or no sustained attention of the sort that Ms/r. Jenner has attained, also affect everybody on Earth, which is to say two hundred thousand times more people on a daily basis than fit in Jenner’s fetishized category over the course of seven long decades.
Again, bringing such discourse to the table does not for an instant question Jenner’s rights to live as a woman, her/is legitimate expectation of decency and respect or at least a willingness to tolerate on the part of other citizens, her/is freedom to promote herself/himself in any way that he wants. But it critiques and calls to account all of those who would orchestrate these rights, expectations, and freedoms as centrally—or really even marginally—important elements of the general social dialog about humanity and how we are to live and thrive in relation to each other instead of collapsing and dissolving in fantasies of individual fetish and distorted views of life and psyche and nature.
Fourth, in keeping with this inevitable grappling with nature’s imprimatur, if one wants to foster even the merest modicum of integrity, one must deal with biology, even if that will make probable major shitstorms of contention and abuse. While one can posit masculine and feminine as social categories that aggregates of different people, at different times, have constructed differently, one simply cannot avoid the bedrock reality and necessity of male and female as biological categories that have the same potent essence as categories of plant and animal, of primate and ungulate, of newborn and elder, and all of such elements of nature’s sweet and sour panoply.
Moreover, in the specifically human realm, whatever the role of constructed identities, the overwhelmingly vast majority of men live as men and women live as women. So much is this so that, in percentage terms, at the absolute maximum one two thousandth of one percent of men or women are following the Jenner way, so to say. And such a generous view of the matter would assume that all 36,000 of trans folks from the past seven decades were creating themselves anew now, which the data do not support.
Again, to repeat, this does not demean Jenner or any of his tiny coterie of cohorts. It does not impugn their election to switch. It does not impinge on their liberty to spend their trust funds or hard-earned coin as they see fit. It merely points out the biological anomaly that they evince and questions, stringently, the manipulated spotlight on Jenner that has resulted in a mediated frenzy about this very, very tiny slice of human existence. Surely, wondering about the rationality, not to mention the optimality, of such a relentless highlighting is worth a thought or two or three.
In this regard, the recent brouhaha about Rachel Dolezal provides a rich nexus of instruction. In terms of her storyline, she is essentially indistinguishable from Caitlyn. Of Czech, German, and Swedish genealogy, for reasons of inclination and opportunity, she ‘passed’ as a Black woman for many years. She now maintains that such a decision was justifiable because she ‘identified,’ or in other words, liked to believe that she was an African American, precisely analogous to Jenner’s ‘identification’ as a woman, which amounts to little more than her/is sensibility that this choice-of-identity makes her/is assertion of it a fact.
In this regard, Dolezal bears more than a passing resemblance too to untold but possibly large numbers of partially African-American folks who’ve passed themselves off as ‘Caucasian’ over at least the past couple of centuries, including even light-skinned slaves() who escaped the lash by going on safari with darker members of their families, who played their chattel and their servants for the show. These types of accounts prove dispositively that the whole concept of ‘race’ is nonsensical from the start(LINK). Unlike gender, racial categories have absolutely zero biological basis.
The reason is simple why this story about a fabricated racial identity appears here, adjacent to a critique of how the social presentation of Caitlyn Jenner’s fabricated gender identity has unfolded. Jenner’s handlers offer her/im up as a heroine, whereas Dolezal wears the mantle of the charlatan and the villain. If for no other reason than to inquire about double standards, Ms. Dolezal deserves her turn on our stage. In other words, “Why is Caitlyn Jenner a heroic role model, while Ms. Dolezal is an execrable fraud?”
A reformulation of the ‘why’ question can round out the analytical section of this essay. We definitely find narratives like this alluring, whether Bruce or Caitlyn is the tagline, a man’s abandonment of himself to become a female simply an irresistible premise for clicks and views and what not. These yarns tantalize us like the science fiction of M.A. Foster, whose characters lived for centuries and generally spent a hundred years as a woman, followed by ten decades or so as a man, and then back again.
The deep fascination that we feel for such sorties more or less fully emanates from the way that, with a dark intensity, the font and frolic and frenzy of our fucking—sex and human sexuality in all possible ‘flavors’— compels a level of captivation that is unsurpassed in its ferocity. Eros provides half or more of literature’s energy source and nearly all the wellspring from which our continuation as a species is possible. Is Caitlyn Jenner’s coming-out party really so special in this light?
|Caitlyn’s story has next-to-nothing to do with human rights, absolutely zero to do with social justice, and less than nothing to do with serving humankind generally.|
One could easily turn to a Nobel Prize laureate like Sigrid Undset, whose Kristin Lavransdatter and Master of Hestviken series ooze erotic fervor and every sort of twisting and turning of the masculine and feminine that are today au courant. Or one might delineate how Geronimo, when he was leading the Apache resistance, used cross-dressing tactics to instill terror and foster mayhem among gringo and Spanish cavalry alike. Or one would be able easily to locate manifold mythic traditions that have bent gender’s ‘natural’ appearance: father’s assuming mother’s garb at rites of passage can be de rigueur; maenad fury at prying men’s participating in their ritual abandon forms the stuff of legend and drama. These and countless other examples are readily accessible, any one of which is at once juicier and richer than the innuendo and pretense that are the primary material of the Caitlyn shtick.
Furthermore, and finally, in the course of a life fairly full of incident and experience, I personally have encountered transgendered people, in contexts that compelled interest and attention, though no one had the public relations muscle and hustle to command a Vanity Fair or Time Magazine cover. My first long term sweetheart, dear Doris, when we broke up in a burst of gory glory, ended up with a fine fellow who within a decade had taken Bruce’s route for himself, albeit two decades ahead of Ms/r. Jenner. Doris’ partner kept his ‘equipment,’ but otherwise he lived as a woman, so that his two sons had, in a complicated sort of way, a birth mother and a father-mother as well.
In another instance, in one of the many logistical interludes that formed a part of my ‘back’s supporting my wrist’ strategy for almost a quarter century, a good friend whom I moved for the third or fourth time promised me a rare treat “for your story files,” as she put the case with a knowing nod. After I had assembled the bed and attached all the mirrors and such, she ushered an extremely striking woman into our midst. She was at least six foot three inches tall and extremely well-proportioned. She was once a he, my friend explained later, something that I had almost instantly surmised, though I wouldn’t have guessed that s/he had served as a flanker for the Atlanta Falcons, a pro-bowl candidate, moreover, whose orientation was gay.
He “switched teams,” as my merry friend stated things, and broke off his long-term relationship with one of his opponents on the New Orleans Saints, an even burlier Black linebacker with whom he had been lovers since college days. “She wanted to try men who wanted women,” my client said. Three years or so later, this friend and customer called to schedule another relocation, and she took the time to give me an update as well. “There’s a lot more,” she conveyed with a tone of amazement.
The football couple had cared too much for each other’s company to part permanently, so the newly inaugurated she took up again with her former lover, only this time as a heterosexual experience. That went on for a time, and then the once-fully-gay linebacker decided that he wanted to experience attachment with men who really dug women, so he went through the change as well, surgery included, like his former gay and now transgendered sweetie. That kept on for a year or so, but the connection between these two athletic specimens was just too powerful, so they became, in the end, a transgendered lesbian couple, which continues to this day, despite the wear and tear of managing their manufactured vaginas.
These tales are captivating; no one can deny that, whether one’s perspective is judgmental or tolerant, whether one is like me and subscribes to a live-and-let-live philosophy or feels that morality should rule between the sheets and below the belt, so to say. The point, however, is that, in a final sort of assessment, their meaning is much more about the fancies and fetishes that we buy, the alienated itch to try a different path, and mediated manipulation that aims to distract people from certain types of stories by substituting other renditions in their place, than it is about rights or courage or any other significant moral, ethical, or social good. And that conclusion stands in stark contrast to the tone and content of Caitlyn’s and Bruce’s plus or minus hundred million Google hits.
At the end of the day, another remark from Harry Frankfurt, early in his essay, provides an apt way to end today’s episode. “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.
The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all.
The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.“
The Princeton philosopher’s observations clearly apply, both to Mr. Jenner’s marketing decision to become Ms. Jenner, and to the carefully crafted contextualization of this elective move as a ‘courageous,’ ‘determined,’ and deeply ‘personal’ ‘commitment’ to such values as ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights.’ Such a storyline is bullshit, and today’s posting proffers, if nothing else, an inaugural and limited corrective to this.