18 January 2017
A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 2: embodiment and the chain of being
John Milbank has an excellent long-form essay up on the Catholic Herald, which gets well into the philosophical nitty-gritty of how the putative radicalism of the transgender movement in fact draws from and strengthens the capitalist-consumerist homo œconomicus anthropology, which consists of a disembodied rationality which chooses between supposedly-embodied desires. But even apart from that, he highlights a particular aspect of the realist approach to sex which I believe to be valuable and worth noting.
I spoke before – appealing specifically to Plato – of the realist need to consider erōs as a powerful and pre-rational force, which is never fully under the control of our rational faculties; and furthermore, that realists need to consider it as a force which is potentially ennobling, because of that pre-rationality (or even irrationality). Realists have historically understood that rationality is fragile and malleable, and that however valuable and noble our rationality is, it does not and cannot render us masters of ourselves, merely by the fact that we have it and can use it to get what we desire. This insight – in the fallibility of human reason – is what has driven realist understandings of politics, foreign affairs, theology and history. Applying the same insight to œconomics and sex should not pose an insurmountable difficulty.
But one of the key features of the ‘regressive’, post-modern left that it is necessary for realists to push back against is the idea that gender is a social construct and that it is not tethered at all to biological sex. The reader who suggested this theme for a series of essays in the first place, was worried that I was giving in too readily to constructivist and post-structuralist readings of gender, and that’s something I want to address here. The vast, vast majority of human beings (apart from very rare genetic irregularities like intersex) are conceived and born with a distinct biological sex, of which there are only two. This biological sex qualitatively conditions our experiences throughout childhood and into adulthood in ways that are never fully commensurate with the opposite sex (but never fully incommensurate either). The first, at least, is an obvious truth and condition of human experience which should not (but for some reason apparently does) need pointing out again and again. And the second would seem to follow from that. We are human beings (with all that biologically entails, including in the vast majority of cases a given male or female genetic structure), and not disembodied ‘agents’ who choose a gender which has no relation to our biological sex.
To qualify that a bit: gender identity and gender presentation can and do vary from culture to culture, and even from individual to individual. We can talk about certain qualities that appertain specifically to having male chromosomes and genitalia, and how those qualities are best honed, inhabited, socialised – in other words, we can talk about the masculine virtues, and how the acquisition of those virtues can vary based on context and personal inclination. The same, of course, goes for women, their biological equipment, and the acquisition of the feminine virtues. But it is not only naïve, but insane, to think of these things as completely untethered from the brute fact of biological sex which is common to all cultures and modes of human expression.
Many things which are now being trotted out in the wake of transsexualism as ‘identities’ deserving protection – erotic vampirism, ‘furries’, otherkin and so forth – ought rightly to be classified as paraphilias, because they are utterly divorced from biological reality. Such paraphilias can only be sustained on a basis which takes the individual, the consumer, in isolation from all biological-habitual contraints. In fact, the post-modern ideology leads us back to a kind of Gnosticism: the idea that matter and the facts of biology are to be denied and rejected, rather than honed, inhabited and socialised. And that denial and rejection, as Milbank shows, far from making us stronger and more sexually-secure, instead makes us vulnerable to market-driven alienation even from our own bodies, fashioning a consumer ‘identity’ which has very little to do with our actual situated, social, biological nature.
That is not to say, by the way, that we ought to succumb to fallacious naturalistic thinking. The idea that because something occurs in nature or even in our own nature, that it must by that fact alone be good or worthy of pursuing, is another argument entirely. I plan to tackle the naturalistic fallacy in a later essay in this series. But simply observing the fact that we do have a nature, a biological sex and a biological morphology, that is not subject to negotiation without massive technological and social intervention, is not engaging in fallacious thinking.
This is why the (neo-)Platonic scala naturæ is actually such a necessary philosophical conceit for the realist. The ‘chain of being’ serves not as a rejection of what we have in common with proteins, phytoplankton, fish and so on, but rather as a recapitulation and an expansion of that commonality. We do not escape our embodiment (being carbon-based, being cellular organisms, having the drive to procreate) merely by the fact that we have rationality and souls and advanced social organisations; rather, we participate fully in a nature which is common both to more limited forms of existence, while participating imperfectly in higher forms. We are rooted in our biologies, in our physical makeup and in our sex drive, even if the expressions of those fall partially under our social habits and rationalisation.
As Milbank deftly pointed out in his Catholic Herald piece, it is not radical – that is, by definition it does not go to the roots of human experience or allow us to rethink our shared political and social life – to splinter that experience into an endless, atomising, relativistic kaleidoscope of mutually-unintelligible and mutually-incommensurate ‘gender identities’ and ‘narratives’. In short, blowing apart the chain of being does not free us. And the sooner the Anglo-American political left realises this and gets out of the permanent intellectual wedgie that post-modernism has put it in, the better.