…it’s as if one morning millions of people woke up to find that they possessed something none of them had ever suspected themselves of having before: a gender identity. Not since the invention of sexual orientation had a new kind of fact about personhood so suddenly and insistently announced itself. The cisgendered, as they now knew themselves, had something unexpected to account for: in addition to the sexed bodies they seemed to have, and the gendered social roles they played with greater or lesser enthusiasm, a new truth had appeared…
For “democratic materialism”, Badiou says, “nothing exists but bodies and languages”. There are male and female bodies (and a few other kinds, given that nature does not always colour within the lines drawn by medical classification). There are masculine and feminine personae, social roles, each with its own proper idiom. It is conventional for male-bodied persons to perform in the masculine idiom and for female-bodied persons to perform in the feminine idiom, but the rule of democratic materialism decrees that languages should aim for a maximum of performative freedom, dynamically reconfiguring the bodies that support them: let there be white rappers, black CEOs, Burberry-clad delinquents, privately-educated Trotskyites with impeccably flat vowels. (I am not arguing that there should not be any of these things, only that they do not in themselves represent a break with the logic of democratic materialism as such). “Femininities” and “masculinities” proliferate beyond even the encyclopaedic competence of J. Jack Halberstam. We are subject, in effect, to two contradictory imperatives: to know one’s place (to perform as expected, to uphold convention), and to be versatile (to retool, re-skill, re-orientate oneself in response to fresh requirements). Defiance of the first imperative is always only a few breaths away from recuperation as obedience to the second (the contestants in RuPaul’s Drag Race are virtuosi of self-fashioning, but they are not gender subversives in the old-fashioned sense).
It’s understandable that the iconoclastic “gender atheism” of radical feminism should attempt a rescue of the body, in its authentic and original integrity, from the clutches of language (that is, from the gendered symbolic law). What the “masculine” and “feminine” idioms perform is first of all power: the power of bodies coded in one way over bodies coded in another, or the self-yielding receptivity of one kind of body to the self-asserting potency embodied in the other. There’s plenty in those dynamics to ooh and aah over, but the routine gets tired - even if the performers are allowed to switch roles on special occasions. “Our bodies, ourselves” is a slogan which offers to re-situate selfhood in the body where it lives, prior to its alienation and disfiguration by the law of gender. But the body is not immediately a self, and the life of the self is not immediately identical with the life of the body; to link the two requires an identification.
Nothing exists but bodies and languages, Badiou says, except that there are also truths. A truth is a novel supplement, a “plus-one” which unbalances the structure into which it is inserted. There isn’t a place in the sexed-bodies/gender-roles system for gender identity. On the one side, it seems to “naturalise” gender, to make it an attribute of bodies, which is absurd: gender is a social construct, which we are forbidden on pain of being spoken to like small children to “essentialise”. When we try to add gender to the body, we get something spiritualised and chimerical like “brain sex”, which plainly won’t do (as Cordelia Fine will tell you). On the other side, the notion of gender identity threatens to “culturalise” the body, to dematerialise “biological sex”, making it an artifact of language, subject to volition, a performative will-o’-the-wisp. Neither our sense of bodily potency nor our awareness of bodily vulnerability can survive such a translation. At first sight, this supplement’s chances in the world as it is look slim.
It is, however, necessary to think gender identity, and it is necessary because an event has occurred: something that existed absolutely minimally in the world, that was treated as a phantom or a bit of a joke, has come to exist with singular force. When trans people talk about their “right to exist”, I believe that they are not only talking about the murderous violence that is so often directed against them, or about their continuing struggle for rights and access to appropriate medical care: it’s my belief that this phrase also concerns that fact that trans people no longer exist minimally in this world, and will never again be reduced to inexistence. (I should acknowledge a problem with this way of putting it, which is that it seems to equate social “inexistence”, or extreme marginalisation, with personal “inexistence”, or a lack of selfhood. It’s possible to know with great urgency who you are, and at the same time experience a kind of social death - John Clare’s “I am: yet what I am none cares or knows” speaks powerfully of the anguish of being in this position. Existence or inexistence is always relative to some particular world. That which inexists in some particular world - the social world of mutual care and recognition - can nevertheless contain worlds within itself, as any introvert will tell you).
So, here - from the perspective of someone whose gender identity is cis - is a rough sketch. For a self to identify as the self of a body, for a body to recognise itself as (having) a self, some identification must occur. Lacan sees this identification as taking place in the “mirror stage” - the infant sees itself in the mirror, and through the medium of its reflection comes to connect its stimuli and motor impulses with a wriggling being that appears all of a piece. But we don’t have to rely on Lacan to talk about this. Among the ways the body regulates its own movements in space is through the mechanism of proprioception, a sense we have of where the various bits of us are in relation to each other. Proprioception is not perception - you can do it with your eyes shut - but it is part of how the body has a sense of itself as a body in space, and at the same time part of how the self has a sense of itself as embodied and as having some control over “its” body. The point is this: the body-self (somato-psychic) circuit passes through all kinds of mediating mechanisms, some “internal” like proprioception, some “external” like self-perception (with or without the assistance of a mirror). You can’t collapse those circuits and obtain an instantaneous identity of self and body. They aren’t separable things - neither is itself without the other - but they’re not the same thing either.
Gender identity, I submit, is a patterning of the mediating circuits that connect the sexed body to the self which knows itself as the self of that body. A body without a self has no sex, but only a certain morphology: to be a sexed body is to be a body that identifies as a certain sex: that acts and experiences and regulates itself (at every level from the autonomic right up to the elaborately socio-cultural) through a somato-psychic system which can be rigged up in all kinds of ways. A cis-sexed body-self system is rigged up one kind of way; a trans-sexed body-self system is rigged up another (and not all systems under either designation are rigged up the same way). Not all of this rigging happens “in” the body, because the circuits of the body-self system pass in and out of the body’s ostensible boundaries: language is involved, gesture is involved, gendered social performativity is involved. But it is never not “somatic”, just as it is never not “psychological”.