Activists often claim a kind of sacred wisdom about transgender issues. But in the UK, at least, that's now up for debate.
In a Labyrinth of Untrammeled Individualism
Elisabeth Roudinesco’s The Sovereign Self: Pitfalls of Identity Politics introduced me to a new term, homonationalism. It was coined by an American intellectual, Jasbir Puar, who argues that gay Americans collaborate with the American security state to outrage black and brown bodies across the globe. Gay Pride, she contends, is a tool of American nationalism, an effort to push to the margins and dispossess all those Muslims, Arabs, and Blacks who do not subscribe to the decriminalization of homosexuality and the right to marry. Post 9/11, gay Americans made gains across a broad front—the courts, assemblies, classrooms, and boardrooms—and a new American norm was birthed at just the moment that Arab bodies were being tortured in Abu Ghraib.
Homonationalism is the contention that Gay Pride is a weapon furthering the hegemonic appetite of the American state. To speak of black and brown bodies, instead of people, is part of the left’s current lexicon. The purpose of the switch is to convey a sense of menace that pervades what otherwise seems like a somewhat healthy liberal democracy. Talk of bodies comes with intuitive associations of war, crime, and sex, which helps promote the left’s sense that people of color are under permanent assault. The idea is derived from the French postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault, who penned careful historical studies to unearth how power and capital had targeted the body to make use of its productive energies. His work helped spawn queer and anti-colonial studies which now make up a hefty chunk of the books published today by university presses. Roudinesco—who studied with Foucault—thinks Puar’s is a radical anti-Enlightenment reading of Foucault, a corruption of the thinking of a man who worked in the highest traditions of the French academy. Roudinesco comments, “If we are to believe Puar, the terrorist thus tortured was the new figure of queer alterity, a victim of the worst possible discrimination.” Homonationalism is a twin of pinkwashing: the term capturing “a nation-state or group to advocate exemplary treatment in favour of homosexuals or LGBTQIA+ persons in order to feign a progressivism designed to mask other much more serious assaults on human rights.”
Your head is likely spinning, but welcome to narcissism at the close of the Enlightenment. The Sovereign Self: Pitfalls of Identity Politics explains:
At this stage, the study of identitarian representations resembles a bottomless pit, since it leads those who see themselves as its adherents to reproduce discriminations that they had once fought against, and to invent categories destined to create opposing camps according to the modalities of a culture of perpetual denunciation, with each camp catalogued in terms of increasingly narrow identities.
In Roudinesco’s telling, postmodernity was a continuation of the West’s great tradition of skepticism and sought to bolster the Enlightenment by clearing out its ugly colonial baggage. Its leading lights—Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida—were committed to the Enlightenment ideal of universal emancipation but their ideas fell victim to a regressive reading in our universities. In the belief that power and capital had wheedled their way into every pore, a competition broke out to find each and every instance of assault. From time immemorial, the response to being a victim has been to find allies and turf out the enemy. As Adam Smith warned when talking about the “conspiracy of the merchants,” there is an ever-present threat of tribalism, and tribalism, in the guise of identity politics, finally caught up with the high theory of the postmoderns.
This regressive reading has moved on from Sir Roger Scruton’s politics of repudiation to a politics of denunciation, with accusations flying as each tribe scrambles to accede “to the status of kings of an identitarian kingdom.” The scramble induces vertigo, and the cost is twofold. One is the abandonment of Enlightenment rationality. “Such a project induces a sense of vertigo: how can one describe and analyze something that is defined as permanently fluid and that escapes ontologically from any rational analysis?” Irrationalism indulged, the other cost is mental health. The psychiatric establishment has been subverted by a politics of the inflated self.
A Latter-Day Dante
How did the austere rationality of a figure like Kant collapse into political narcissism? A historian and psychoanalyst, Roudinesco blames a misuse of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, a confused appropriation of postmodernity where blends of gender, sex, race, ethnicity, and subjectivity privilege membership in a tribe just like me. Twitter and TikTok are awash with solemn declarations: “I am transgender, intersectional with a queer-decolonial bent, ethnically Afro-Hispanic, racialized. I am discriminated against by people who are cisgendered, transphobic … as well as by the homonationalism of whites who have become heteronormalized while becoming hostile to subalternized blacks.” This mishmash of postmodern code is the issuance of a professoriate who “twisted the thinking of their elders … in the name of a postmodernity that has aged badly, they have locked themselves into radical criticism of everything they have inherited.” A leading consequence is the very real damage this has done to the mental health establishment.
Our Dante-like guide into the delirious adulterations of postmodern theory is Elisabeth Roudinesco, who sits at the heart of France’s intellectual, psychoanalytical, and publishing establishment. Her college teachers included Deleuze, Foucault, and the French Jesuit postmodern theorist, Michel de Certeau. Her mother was an influential pediatric psychoanalyst, and a close friend of Lacan, and her father, a doctor, was an avid consumer of history. For her career, Roudinesco combined her parents’ interests: she has a psychoanalytic practice in Paris and is a historian of Freud and Lacan. She teaches a seminar on Lacan at the École Normale Supérieure and teaches history at Paris Diderot University. Roudinesco is married to the CEO of France’s historic and influential publishing house, Éditions du Seuil. An earlier book on Freud was published by Harvard University Press and her writings are translated into 30 languages. We are blessed to have such a guide into the murkiest regions of high theory.
Subversion of Psychiatry
The Sovereign Self: Pitfalls of Identity Politics is a history book. It takes up the post-war development of post-colonial studies, gender and queer theory, and philosophical debates around identity in France and the US. Roudinesco argues that gender studies started to replace class struggle in the 70s, just at the moment that hospitals made altering the body possible. She works in mental health and worries about the shift from transsexualism to transgenderism, “a shift that allowed individuals affected by the syndrome to escape from psychiatric classifications.” It is quite legitimate, insists Roudinesco, to seek reform of psychiatric practice, but this has not really happened.
Astutely, Roudinesco points out that politics is now a function of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Inspired by the linguistic theories of Lacan and Derrida, the philosophy of language has been ground zero for two generations of college professors. A consequence has been that, as Roudinesco puts it, political debate has moved on from clashes over the prefix (trans-, homo-, hetero-, inter-, and post-) to debate over the suffix. Lefty populism is a peddling of the DSM, opponents riddled with accusations mined from “the systematization of phobias.” A phobia is a genuine pathology, but the DSM is a hodgepodge of over 500 phobias that can only encourage serious mental health confusion. It lists a severe perversion, like pedophilia, but also something labeled pedophobia, a “repulsion towards children.” Roudinesco observes: “It is on this muddled list straight from the DSM, however, that the adherents to identity politics draw in order to identify all the enemies apt to discriminate against them or offend them: homophobes, transphobes, Negrophobes, nanophobes (repelled by dwarfs), Judeophobes, lesbophobes, grossophobes (repelled by overweight people), Christianophobes, people with phobias against poor people, Siamese twins, residents of the suburbs or the inner cities, and so on.”
The classifications of psychiatry are alive and well, just not actually doing much healing. Psychoanalysts like Roudinesco think the mushrooming of the DSM is a function of bad therapeutic care. Turning every symptom presented by a patient in therapy into a disorder diminishes the likelihood of making a diagnosis. Most critical to any therapy, they contend, is identifying the underlying structure generating the symptoms. Grouping symptoms is not finding the reason for nor addressing the cause of what ails the patient. If the grouping of the phobias in the DSM is not aiding a cure, it is unsurprising that the promulgation of wide-ranging disorders and hatred is then put to other uses.
Roudinesco contends that the employment of phobia to drum up hatred was part of a populist subversion of the psychiatric establishment. The sophisticates of postmodernity may have brought the Enlightenment low in order to raise it in yet greater glory, but, amidst a great post-war sweeping away, the privilege of being a medical practitioner had to go:
Having become full-fledged subjects, and, what is more, self-promoting “entrepreneurs,” these “declassified” people began to speak out in order to avenge themselves against the medical power of which they had been victims. Authority was no longer in the hands of scientists charged with studying “cases”; it now belonged to individuals who refused the status that medical and psychiatric science had ascribed to them.
Lefty populism, argues Roudinesco, has an uncanny resemblance to religious revivalism. “A trans is at once—and at will—a man or a woman, and the ‘transition’ thus is more like an initiation.” Roudinesco is an ardent secularist and an advocate of abortion rights, and identifies in lefty populism a religious intolerance and obscurantism:
a declaration of war on anatomical reality in favor of a “gendered” imperative … it could be said that the sexual, sexuality, the sexualized, in short everything that has to do with sex, is being banished in favour of a puritanism that wants to hear no more about sexuality, on the pretext that the word refers to a scandalous biology of male domination—which, however, is not the case.
A psychoanalyst, she can only see in this an attempt to turn back the clock before Freud and his Enlightenment project of bringing sex under the scrutiny of scientific rationality.
Roudinesco acknowledges that the desire to change one’s sex is a phenomenon found in the histories and myths of all cultures, but the psychic problem of identity has morphed into a matter of surgery that cannot escape biological reality without shocking effects on the psyche. Again, she finds a pre-Enlightenment hearkening to religious ordeals: “it is hard to keep from thinking that the pleasure felt in acquiring an entirely mutilated body is of the same nature as the pleasure experienced by the great mystics who offered to God the torment of their wounded flesh. This is at least my hypothesis.”
Make no mistake, Roudinesco rails at the French identitarian right, too. She argues that a rightist populist like Éric Zemmour may pepper his speeches with Lacanian psychoanalysis, but he is no heir to Lacan, nor even the rich tradition of French conservatism. Zemmour is no more correct about Lacan than is Slavoj Žižek, whose Marxist imports into psychoanalytic theory have completely mangled Lacan for the reading public. Roudinesco argues that it is largely through Žižek’s efforts that Lacan has become a darling of the left, but he thought himself an Enlightenment conservative.
With Lacan’s seminal and humanistic contribution to psychiatry being slung about as a political football, a vacuum has opened to be filled by the big business of hospital care, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as university departments of neuroscience supporting “identitarian typologies.” In the contemporary landscape of mental health provision, “recourse to surgical procedures offered in vast clinics where the most simplistic discourse is associated with the most effective technologies: a blend of the ideology of well-being, in the style of a dating website, and delirious beliefs in the supremacy of the body over intelligence.” These clinics are structured around “the protocol of initiation” supposed to eliminate mental fracture, but “in reality, there are no solutions to such contradictions. And we must be well aware that the apocalypse of transidentity will never take place.” It is not taking place, but mangled postmodernity generating theoretically watery psychology has delivered us “a movement of normalizing regression.”
We have reached a critical stage. Prior to the age of sexual majority, children are given powerful drugs “erasing anatomy in favour of a gendered construction that had emerged from a child’s imaginary universe—a universe that we know to be populated with myths, beliefs, and fantasies in which men and women disguise themselves as animals, dragons, or chimera.” Roudinesco draws our attention to the scandal at London’s Tavistock Clinic. A once famous venue of British psychoanalytic study and practice, the Gender Identity Development Service became mired in scandal and is being shuttered by the government. Transition requests by minors mushroomed by over 200% between 2010 and 2018 and an independent inquiry found that too many cases were accelerated without considering alternate sources for holistic health. In light of the damning report, the associate director of the clinic, Marcus Evans, resigned, confessing: “the fear of being accused of transphobia immobilizes all ability to think critically. There is nothing alarming in the fact that thousands of girls and a large number of boys are filled with disgust for their own bodies.”
“Nothing is more regressive for civilization and socialization than to align oneself with a hierarchy of identities and memberships,” Roudinesco insists, adding that, “the duty of truth must never be converted into a duty of identity.” The Sovereign Self: Pitfalls of Identity Politics is a call to “a secular and republican culturalism … detached from the ideals of identitarian self-enclosure.” Though she has a religious background, Roudinesco is committed to the French model of radical secularism in the public square, and she is disturbed by the return of religious political rites. Secularism is essential, she believes, for guaranteeing freedom of conscience and transmission of knowledge. Hence, those religious conservatives who rail at identity politics have a bitter pill to swallow: “In France, in fact, the republican school system is based on an ideal that aims to detach children to some degree from their families, their origins, and the particular features of their identity.” Republican secularism is a model that “must be defended at all costs because it embodies a tradition that grew out of the Revolution and the separation of church and state.”
History Needs Theory
Psychoanalysis has a rich account of liberty that assumes “the self is not master in its own house and thus the subject is never reduced to an identity.” In Freud’s thinking, “only access to civilization could curb the destructive drive inscribed at the heart of humanity.” The high values of Enlightenment civilization are critical to mental health, and therefore, liberty. Even appreciating that this is a history book, I was surprised by the thin use of psychoanalytic theory to back up claims made in this volume. Roudinesco is an astute observer, and many of her points seem right, but without theoretical support, they can come across as journalistic. The postmoderns were correct that theory is required to distill the best of the Enlightenment, and Roudinesco needs to borrow some to tease out what is most valuable in the legacy of the French Revolution. Like queer studies, she invokes equality and emancipation, so we need a theoretical account of the meaning and scope of these lest we spiral down, too. The need is very real for her champions, Sartre and Foucault, but also for Robespierre and Saint-Just. The problem is pretty obvious: the ideas of these thinkers concluded in horrible political choices. The Enlightenment has suffered radicalization before.
For example, Sartre and Foucault both fantasized about ending rule of law and returning to the people’s tribunals of the French Revolution. Yet, a significant part of this volume is a defence of establishment against the never-far-away madness of populism. As Albert Camus—who is absent in the book—pointed out, the ideas of Robespierre and Saint-Just were plainly murderous. Sartre and Camus, who had been close friends, had an epic falling out over Camus’ dim assessment of the “heroes” of the Revolution. Roudinesco is a huge fan of Sartre, but Camus’ words ring truer: “Finally,” he wrote in his unjustly maligned The Rebel, “I choose freedom. For even if justice is not realised, freedom maintains the power of protest against injustice and keeps communication open.”