November 27th, 2009


The late, mannerist years of identity politics

1. Last week, talking about Polish theatre, I referred to a character in Roman Polanski's film The Tenant as a "tranny". (In fact, the man, played by Polanski himself, dresses up as the former occupant of his apartment, possessed by her spirit.)

2. Brigitte Godot, a commenter with a blank LiveJournal, informed me yesterday in a comment that this term is offensive to transsexuals and went on to suggest that I'm probably unaware of the multiplicity of genders beyond the male / female binary. As someone who's had sexual relations with a transsexual, I'm perfectly aware of this multiplicity. Although I'd prefer to say that there's a fluid identity-continuum between two fixed biological genders rather than a plurality of genders.

3. So I refer the commenter to a Click Opera entry in which I wonder what would happen if there were 12 official genders instead of just two. I conclude, there, that this would lead to a lot of in-fighting because of Freud's narcissism of minor difference.

4. Difference is the important word here. As that entry says, quoting Sophia Phoca, the shift from feminism to postfeminism in the late 60s in Paris meant a shift from a quest for women's equality with men to the celebration of women's difference from men.

5. However, if you remove the idea of the pre-eminence of men (The Man as "the thing to be different from" or "the thing to be equal to"), what you get is a highly unstable system in which everyone asserts their own differences from everyone else. A baroque game ensues, of hair-paring self-definition, self-assertion, endless schism, and an overconcern with "the stigma treadmill". This becomes a politics we're all too familiar with, concerned with the policing of labels, and endless attempts to make other people -- accused of insensitivity and disrespect -- conform to our self-definitions.

6. Brigitte Godot isn't interested in theory. She says I'm "evading admitting direct culpability" by sending her "to some ancient post commenting on some pseud's ivory tower blather on post-something or other drivel". Ivory tower, pseud, blather, drivel... they don't exactly resonate with respect, do they? What does it mean, that the author of Postfeminism for Beginners is derided so savagely by someone demanding a respectful terminology for herself?

7. Godot goes on to suggest that there's a slippery slope, "in the real world", between using the word "tranny" and murdering transsexuals: "I'm talking about the real world effect such terms have on the thousand and one genders that aren't clearly male or female, not intellectual mind games that torture sentences to wring the subtext out of the banal. This November 20 was Transgender Remembrance Day, honoring all those murdered for their lack of gender conformity. Tranny Day to you, mate. Sorry I missed your post on the subject, I was too busy mourning the dead."

8. I google to see whether "tranny" is generally considered offensive and find a Boston Herald headline Wife-killing tranny denied electrolysis for time being and a Wikipedia article which says "the transgender community typically use the short form "trans", or simply "T" as a substitution for the full word "transsexual", e.g. TS, trans guy, trans dyke, T-folk, trans folk. Some may even use terms that have become controversial to some, such as tranny and/or trans, despite others considering these terms to be offensive. Those who do use these terms claim that they are diminishing the power of the term as an insult..."

9. I reply politely: "My point is that I'm quite aware of the multiplicity of genders, but that I think there's an inherent flaw in PC identity politics, which is that fine-slicing personal identity definitions -- and investing ever more in angry, self-righteous policing of labels and etiquettes -- is six political steps backward. This isn't ivory tower at all, it's very practical. As I put it in Three conflicts summarised, describing a conflict between RWOCs (Radical Women of Color) and black feminists:

"Here, enacted before our very eyes, is exactly why oppositional politics tends to disintegrate into bitter internecine squabbling -- much to the delight of the bigots it should instead be attacking. These people need to get behind a common cause, and preferably one unrelated to the assertion of ever-more-baroque personal identity differences."

10. I then say that insisting that the word "tranny" be seen as offensive and insulting might be politically counter-productive and even reactionary, a way of:

a) inducing guilt in an ally
b) alienating an ally
c) splitting a united front against bigots
d) actually re-introducing stigma into the whole idea of transgenderism

11. In last Friday's Judgment of Paris post, I suggested that my problem with late-period identity politics is that "there is a lot of sexism built into anti-sexism".

12. This relates to what I've jokingly called Humperson's Third Law of Meta, which states that:

"No critical statement is exempt from its own strictures. Every statement which seeks to summarize and critique a pre-existing statement will tend to exemplify, in itself, the things it deplores in the original statement, thus opening itself up to the same critique, and so on, recursively. And incrementally, for a summary of a statement tends to exemplify its faults more succinctly and intensely." As a critique of sexism, anti-sexism is open to the charge that it incorporates and intensifies the very thing it claims to combat.

13. This also relates to what I was saying in my entry The arrow and the frame, which suggested that an expressed opinion was less important than the framing presuppositions of an argument. In other words -- and as Google Adwords tends to confirm when it advertises racist products next to an anti-racist conversation -- stating you're against sexism or racism is less important than being "on the same page" with racists and sexists in the general framing of the debate. Letting them, in other words, set the agenda.

14. Adam Curtis' Century of the Self gives a very valuable account of how the counterculture of the 1960s turned, in the 1970s, into narcissism and schism, both political and personal (EST, in particular, saw many reaching the revelation that the self is both everything and nothing), and how this "self-actualization" led fairly seamlessly into the nihilistic consumer-entrepreneurial ideology of the 1980s.

15. It's this narcissism which I think underlies the late-period identity politics which pops up in my comment columns so much. It's not so much "womanist" as "mannerist", both because it's a late, decadent development of 1960s radicalism and because it's obsessed with manners. Identity politics in the 60s and 70s fought for the public visibility of people who were different. In the 80s and 90s -- the Reagan/Thatcher years -- identity politics flipped polarities and entered its PC phase, becoming a campaign for the invisibility of differences. Late identity politics dovetails with Reagan/Thatcher politics: ban public advocacy of homosexuality, don't offend people, keep differences invisible, change language, assume and police stigma.

16. I am X, and I am different from Y. Other people are ignorant of the difference between X and Y. They must be educated. People, you must call me X and respect my difference from yourself, and from Y. You must refer to me by the term I have chosen to refer to myself by, and stay tuned for any changes I choose to make in this label, and new terms you must use to describe me -- those new terms which the stigma treadmill or reclamation of previously-taboo terms may, from time to time, make it necessary for me to substitute. If you self-define as X, you may participate in the reclamation of previously-taboo terms. If you don't, you must simply wait for us to tell you it's okay again to use terms like "queer" or "fag".

17. It's not so much "political correctness gone mad" as "rad gone trad".

18. Thin-sliced, baroque identity politics and the stigma-policing that is its main praxis is as far from a radical progressive politics as it's possible to get. Two steps forward, six euphemisms back.