In a recent essay, Sam Warren Miell outlines the Lacanian theorization of sexual difference in an attempt to distinguish the authentic Lacan (whose role in locating sexual difference outside the symbolic is seen as cohering psychoanalysis and the ‘logic of transgenderism’) with the seemingly bastardized and reactionary Lacan present in Slavoj Zizek’s latest piece. Both writers focus on the naive theoretical tension between essentialist and constructivist conceptions of gender; Zizek writes that we must acknowledge the dual extremes of a world in which gender is de-ontologized and a world in which a stable hierarchy based on sex is established, while Miell emphasizes that a gender embedded in the Lacanian Real is neither discursive nor anatomical, but simply a reflection of the boundary line of symbolization as such, the “point at which logos itself fails.” Miell’s proposed alliance between Lacan and transgenderism is motivated by the purchase of Lacan’s project at precisely this crossroads- in seeking to subvert the illusory paradox of gender’s historicization and supposed biological grounding, Lacan is invoked as a sort of antinomical resolution, a way to explain the existence of gender identities in living subjects (“positions assumed in relation to the deadlock of sex”) without positively ontologizing gender.
The more I got to thinking about the possibility of explaining sexual difference via recourse to a fundamental gap in the Symbolic, the more I found myself returning to a basic idea in the philosophy of personal identity . Since Descartes, a good deal of philosophers have regarded the thinking subject (qua res cogitans) as an entity in the world capable of bearing assertoric predication. The structural grammar of the Cogito, if unchallenged, allows us to describe ourselves, on the most fundamental level, in terms that contain non-physical predicates. Once we agree that “I exist,” is universally true at all phenomenally experienced utterances, what stops us from saying “I have seen blue” or “I am fundamentally non-physical”? To many this does not seem problematic, since all three elements in these sentences (The ‘I,’ the predicate, and the the act of predicating the ‘I’ with said predicate) seem intuitive. However, the existence of the phenomenal subject, and the subsequent predication of this subject, are not philosophically uncontroversial movements. What I want to suggest in this essay is the following claim: a resolution similar to Lacan’s on the subject of gender can be made by demonstrating that the ‘I’ as traditionally conceived, and subsequently the act of predicating this ‘I,’ is at its core a confused concept. Just as the Real is the limit of the Symbolic, so the ‘I’ is the limit of predication- it is that through which all predication is seemingly established, but which itself is beyond predication’s grasp. The biological essentialist and the discurivse constructivist both seek to make gender a predicate of the subject- they just differ on what conditions are important when we go about doing this predicating. If I were an essentialist I would examine my biology and make a claim about my gender based on that biological information, and if I were a constructivist I would analyze my place in a historical discourse and make a claim about my gender (or lack thereof) based on that discursive information. But in both cases I would be saying something about myself, something that would seemingly extend beyond the external world of biology and discourse and into the internal world of the mind. If both of these positions are defeated in virtue of the invalidity of their claiming that the subject is one way rather than another, we will have demonstrated that whatever gender is, it eludes the grasp of predication.
The problematization of the (roughly Cartesian) subject is a move that occurs more than once, and I will look at four accounts of this problematization- Hume’s, Kant’s, Nietzsche’s, and Wittgenstein’s. I will keep this account brief- it has increasingly been my experience with metaphysical reasoning that lengthy diatribes are often insufficient in communicating an idea whose principal foundation is not shared with the reader. If the idea of a negative (formally non-existent) ‘I’ is not in some way soon apparent, there is little hope in attempting to ‘jump start’ a change of heart, and this issue is certainly one of perspectival immediacy rather than logical intricacy. My inspiration is from Hume: “In all abstract reasonings there is one point of view which, if we can happily hit, we shall go farther towards illustrating the subject than by all the eloquence in the world. (Hume 2004)”
Hume disagrees with the Cartesian view that there is a self that exists in the world. As an empiricist, Hume requires that whatever is said to exist should be accompanied by a concomitant impression(in Hume’s terminology, this roughly equates to being associated with a sensation), and upon introspection, he fails to find a distinct impression of the self. No one impression continues steadily throughout our lives- such an omnipresent impression is lacking among the oscillations between pain, pleasure, hunger, etc. What Hume does discover upon introspection is a variety of impressions and ideas operated upon by the imagination. (Hume 2004) The subject is for Hume nothing more than a fiction, a bundle of sensations that is improperly reified in the Cartesian tradition. Any attempt by a subject to describe itself would be nothing more than a relation being posited between something that does not legitimately exist with the object of some sense impression or mental idea. In saying ‘I am a human being,’ I would really just be saying that there seems to be a constant impressions of a certain biological organism in my perceptual field.
Certain readers will undoubtedly find fault with the end of the preceding sentence. “Does not your saying ‘my perceptual field’ indicate the existence of a subject?” In a logical sense it would, but then we would simply have to change the logic of our language to more accurately reflect our metaphysical reasoning. Wittgenstein, defending an idiosyncratic brand of linguistic solipsism, imagined a language in which all speakers would reference pains by simply making statements such as “there is a toothache” instead of “I have a toothache” (Wittgenstein 1975). Hence, comments about supposedly subjective sensation would drop the intermediary subject and transform themselves into claims about the world itself. This follows from Wittgenstein’s statements about the self found in the Tractatus, where he claims that the subject is not itself within the world, and thus possesses no positive existence, instead existing as the metaphysical edge of the world (Wittgenstein 1922). Since language finds its limits at the edge of the world, as a logical picture of that which is inside the world, the existence of the subject, and hence any attempt to describe it, is ineffable in the strict Wittgensteinian interpretation- it can only be shown.
One of the central targets in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is the supposed science of transcendental psychology, a field which seeks to make claims about the self simply upon the basis of the Cartesian Cogito. Transcendental psychology is based around four claims which Kant calls paralogisms, which posit the immateriality, incorruptibility, personality, and immortality of the soul. The most foundational critique offered by Kant of the paralogisms is not an attack on their specific claims to truth, but on their structure qua claims about the subject. Kant maintains that we can find no basis for transcendental psychology except the “simple, and in itself completely empty, representation ‘I’; and we cannot even say that this is a concept, but only that it is a bare consciousness which accompanies all concepts.” He continues (my italics), “Through this I or he or it (the thing) which thinks, nothing further is represented than a transcendental subject of the thoughts =X… consciousness in itself is not a representation distinguishing a particular object, but a form of representation in general, that is, of representation in so far as it is to be entitled knowledge… “(Kant 1929, 331-332). Here we see that the Kant’s negative transcendental subject is just the collection of formal conditions for the possibility of experience in general, and is not itself anything capable of positive description. If we attempt to describe it as a soul bearing non-physical properties, we will be guilty of paralogistic reasoning, and if we treat it as grounded in a physical substrate, we will be guilty of what Kant calls amphibolous reasoning. So Kant provides yet another obstacle to any attempt to describe the subject positively, and, a fortiori, as gendered.
Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morality that the subject is simply part of a process of continuous action that is exceptionalized as standing above the aforementioned determined chain of events. He writes “… there is no substratum; there is no “being” behind the doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is simply fabricated into the doing- the doing is everything” (Nietzsche 1998, 25).This passage is already well established in gender theory by virtue of its place in Butler’s Gender Trouble, but taken at its extreme, the quote does more than demonstrate that there is no gendered core prior to performance- there is no core, full stop. The idea that gender is then a performance must be critically challenged by the question- “a performance by whom?” and the intuitive answer “the subject constituted by their gender” replied to with “but there is no such subject ever.” It is not the case that gender is a crucial stage in identity formation, but that identity, if seen as a predication of a subject, is an illegitimate concept which holds that a continual process (the mechanized movements and emergent thoughts of the human body) can be isolated from the physical systems of which it is a part. To revert to the Wittgensteinian language, I would not say that ‘I perform my gender’, but rather, ‘a performance occurs’, and the self is at best simply watching, never itself positively gendered. (Note that this does not invalidate at all feminist critique surrounding the manner in which bodies are improperly gendered/sexed- these are physical extants, not philosophical subjects in the strict sense.)
The four above examples seek to conjointly cause problems for any account that seeks to claim that the self exists in a manner structurally analogous to things in the world, and that the self is therefore incapable of being described in a similar way. As I mentioned before, both essentialists and constructivists seek to describe the subject as being gendered, as if that gender were a property of the subject itself. Even those who claim that gender is determined by the body no doubt feel that this gender extends to the mind (hence talk of a “male mind” and “female mind”, a distinction increasingly fading under the weight of modern scientific evidence), and that if it does not, an important victory for essentialism has been lost (what gender traditionalist would feel comfortable with an unsexed/ungendered mind? Miell’s statement that Lacanian theory reads the unconscious as “essentially bigendered/bisexual” would not leave Lacanian theory neutral in popular contemporary debates on gender- rather it would position it firmly on the post/transgender side).
One might still ask: “Even if we suppose that gender can no longer be a property of a subject, the question remains- ‘so what’?” I claim the victory here is not dissimilar from the victory Miell obtains from the Lacanian reading of sexual difference. Since gender is established as existing always outside the realm of the symbolic, it cannot be forced into a theoretical discursive matrix, and the impetus then falls on the analyst to confront the actual lived experience of individuals engaging with their gender. If what I have said is correct, a similar result is obtained from thought existing prior to the psychoanalytic tradition. Gender, here always outside the logic of predication, is only understood by reference to the phenomenological experience of individuals in the world. No longer does gender make sense as an absolute predicate- rather gender becomes a facet of human experience and experience only. Introspection into a fictitious ‘self’ will never discover the ‘root’ of gender- rather a gaze outward- upon a mix of phenomenal content, internal sensations, and social factors, all appearing in sensation, will be the key.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and selections from A Treatise of Human Nature, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2004.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1929. Trans. Normal Kemp Smith.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Hackett, Indianapolis, 1998. Trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philsoophical Remarks. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1975. Trans. Raymond Hargreaves and Roger White.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD., London, 1922. Trans. C.K. Ogden.