by Florencia Shanahan
I have prepared some preliminary comments formulated as far as possible in the form of questions. They are designed in the first instance simply to open up the space for a possible conversation.
A conversation about what? The trans phenomenon? The trans question? You will see from the start that it is above all a matter of finding the right vocabulary, the best way of taking up these questions. How then are we to speak well on this theme and what kind of well speaking would we be aiming for?
The question of how might in turn be related to the question why. Why are we speaking about this now? On what basis and in what terms? What gives us the right to be speaking about the trans question and on behalf of whom would we be speaking? These are all question to be situated on the frontier, in a relation still to be defined, between psychoanalysis and what we might call the trans movement.
There is a second distinction that I thought might be a useful way of trying to frame our conversation. This is the distinction between the clinical and political registers. How are we to understand the distinction and articulation between these two registers?
Following the launch of Zadig movement, one of the key issues for contemporary Lacanian psychoanalysis is that of the stakes of the entry of psychoanalysis onto the political stage. These are questions still in the process of being elaborated and are far from resolved. How, for instance, do we understand the alignment of the political orientation with our clinical orientation?
In the clinical domain we abide by the lemma ‘one by one’. Does this still apply when it comes to the political domain, a domain more traditionally characterised by modes of collective representation? Or does our presence in the political sphere require a different mode of discourse, a different way of speaking, one that is still in the course of elaboration but which will obviously have its roots in the clinical discourse?
The trans question is by no means a new one as a cultural or clinical phenomenon. There is a considerable history of clinical treatments in the modern era from both analytic and non-analytic perspectives. These could be referenced to the names of John Money, Harry Benjamin, Robert Stoller, to cite only the most well-known authors. Not to overlook Lacan’s own early reference to the role of transsexual jouissance in the case of President Schreber.
And yet today we find ourselves taking up the trans phenomenon not so much as a clinical but rather as a political question. We clearly have the resources for clinical work with trans subjects on a one by one basis, treating them just like any other suffering subject with respect for symptomatic solutions and subjective positions. Here we should not ignore the profound democracy of the Borromean clinic, which explores modes of knotting and unknotting on a singular basis without any hierarchical conception of normative solutions in relation to which any subject could be judged in deficit.
But we could say that the novel development is that the trans phenomenon has become a political question. I propose this formulation in all its resonances with Saint Just’s comment at the time of the French Revolution that happiness had become a political question. Proposing that the trans phenomenon has become a political question is a way to try to situate it at the appropriate level, in a line stemming directly from the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.
Exploring these questions on the threshold between the clinical and political domains thus allows us to take into consideration the effects associated with this shift in registers, both from the side of psychoanalysis and on the side of the trans phenomenon itself.
For psychoanalysis we could say briefly that the extension of our clinical discourse into the political sphere raises questions of the kinds of adjustments or modifications in our way of speaking that might be involved the positions taken up on a public stage, on a political platform, and conversely makes room for the consideration of what the experience of negotiating the political register might have to teach us about the contemporary stakes of clinical practice.
On side of the transgender phenomenon, we can pose the corollary question of the effects involved in the transition between the clinical and political registers. Is it the same question when played out in these different spheres? Or is the question to some extent diffracted depending on the register within which it is taken up?
At the clinical level we have already referred to a respect for the singularity of subjective and symptomatic solutions. Symptomatic solutions, yes, but symptomatic of what? If change of gender, gender reassignment, is supposed to be the solution, then what is it that it would be the solution to? Here we might take our reference from the notion of gender dysphoria, admittedly a diagnosis framed in the terms of DSM categories, but one that tries to capture something of the experience expressed more colloquially in the notion of not feeling at home in one’s own body.
Although perhaps only one aspect of the question, this notion of not feeling at home in one’s own body at least serves to highlight the primacy of the relation to the body as something more fundamental than the question of gender identity itself. What is it after all that allows any one of us to feel at home in our body? The primary experience of jouissance would suggest that none of us are actually at home in our own body. Despite all our operators of inscription and stabilisation, traditional, standardised, customised or invented, the body remains a perennial source of all kinds of unheimlich effects.
Within the rather simplistic framework of problem and solution, surgical modification of the body in the name of gender reassignment is proposed as a solution, as a treatment, for what is called gender dysphoria. Yet this still leaves open the question of the conditions under which it is the opposite sex, the other pole of gender identity, that becomes the destination, the solution of choice, for this sentiment of not feeling at home in one’s own body.
In a psychoanalytical context we would take into consideration the component of certainty entailed in the attachment to any particular solution, along with the role played by that solution in the limitation and localisation of jouissance. These are of course elements of the broader question of how we understand the relation between the considerations at stake in change of gender and the push to the woman in the clinic of psychosis, questions that have to be addressed on a one by one basis in the light of the circumstances of each case, each subject.
But although these might be legitimate questions to explore at the level of clinical practice, it is not clear that they can be posed in these terms at a political level. Within the political register the trans question is currently taken up predominantly in terms of the vocabulary of rights and recognition. What seems to be at stake is the legitimacy of the trans solution, upholding the right to choose one’s own gender in the face of any attempt to pathologise or symptomatise this option.
The political discourse thus seeks to frame this question with reference to the discourse of equal rights and distributive justice, the principles of equality and election, the freedom to choose, as well as the right to recognition of the legitimacy of that choice, taking support from all the liberal values associated with Western democracy precisely since the French Revolution.
What we might then be said to be witnessing is a cultural and political movement towards the erection of the trans signifer as the reference for a new cultural norm. Here we might also note that the introduction of the term cis-gender as correlate to the promotion of the trans signifier at least in principle entails an inversion of the relation between norm and exception. Cis-gender subjects might thus be considered simply as trans-gender subjects in waiting, a term for those who have not yet arrived at the point of enlightenment in taking up their trans option.
One question for us to consider would then be whether the rejection of any attempt to pathologise or to symptomatise the trans phenomenon entails some kind of push to the norm that is here functioning in the place of a reference to the name of the father. This substitution of the norm for the name would of course be perfectly in alignment with the wider dynamics that we see being played out both in the clinic and in contemporary culture precisely as a reaction to the effects of generalised foreclosure brought to light in an era in which the non-existence of the Other becomes increasingly evident.
How then from a psychoanalytical point of view are we to try to take up these questions in all their clinical, political and cultural ramifications, to find ways to address the questions at stake in the trans phenomenon validly and respectfully without exposing ourselves to allegations of pathologisation and discrimination?
Here the notion of ‘docile to trans’ proposed by Jacques-Alain Miller is clearly aligned with our clinical position of the one by one. But at the same time Miller has emphasised that this position does not amount to acceding to every demand nor accepting everything that is posed in the political discourse in terms of rights and revindication.
This applies especially at the point where psychoanalysis finds itself implicated, interpellated in this political discourse, whether at the level of an appeal to psychoanalysis for support for political demands or at the level of the critique of medico-clinical positions on the matter. In allowing themselves to become included in the psychiatric discourse some schools of psychoanalysis have indeed left themselves exposed to the broad cultural and political critique of the psychiatric approach to the question of gender reassignment.
Here we might take up a minimal but vital indication from Jacques-Alain Miller’s initial conversation with Eric Marty where he reminds us that gender is in the first instance a linguistic rather than a biological term, a category of grammar. We might do well not to lose sight of the status of gender as a signifier, a signifier around which a discourse has been elaborated. This is a discourse, furthermore, that emerges not from the clinical or political realm, but rather from the academic domain in the form of the discourse of gender studies.
Gender, be it cis-, trans-, or fluid, is thus not a clinical structure. It can rather be considered more usefully as a discourse into which subjects insert themselves by operations of identification and appropriation. From Lacan’s work we are already familiar with the role of discourse as an apparatus for the distribution of places and positions, signifiers of identification and modes of jouissance. This is encapsulated in the notion ‘bodies captured by discourse’ that provides the title of the last chapter of Seminar XIX.
Taking a trans-structural approach to the question of gender as a discourse would allow us to consider the transgender discourse as a site of construction and contestation, making room for the question of subjective positions within this discourse without necessarily symptomatising or pathologising the subjects caught up in it. Rather it would allow us to consider the rise of the transgender discourse itself as a symptom, as a cultural rather than a subjective symptom or more precisely as a symptom of the subjectivity of our times.
But, once again, as a symptom of what? In first instance we might consider it as a symptom of a mutation of discourse, of some kind of modification of the underlying discursive organisation of our era, with effects most obviously at the level of the way in which bodies are situated in discourse, hence also with consequences for the discursive framing of modes of jouissance.
In a recent interview for Lacan Web Television, Marie-Helene Brousse sets out from the distinction between gender and sex, positing the introduction of the term gender in place of any reference to the real of biological sex as the index of a more fundamental modification of the relations between semblant and real in the contemporary era.
She situates the emergence of the transgender discourse not just in the context of the post-modern discourses of cultural relativism but more fundamentally as a symptom of an ongoing modification of the relation between language and the body produced by the effects of the scientific discourse. While psychoanalytical practice takes the speaking body as its fundamental point of reference the scientific discourse is in the process of effecting a separation, a disarticulation between these two terms, speaking and the body, in order to have unimpeded technical access to the body.
The new means of direct technological intervention at the level of the body have the correlative effect of producing a short-circuiting of the relation to speech and hence to the Other of the signifier. In other words the relation between jouissance and the body no longer has to pass via the circuit of the Other of speech, with inevitable disruptive effects on the organisation of the register of unconscious fantasy.
The disarticulation introduced by science into the relations between speech, bodies and jouissance thus gives rise to a real of jouissance increasingly freed from any link to the register of speech. The question for psychoanalysis will of course be to trace out the effects of these modifications at the clinical, cultural and political levels. It is perhaps worth pointing out here that of all the contemporary discursive practices it is only psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis of the Lacanian orientation, that appears to have the resources not just to carry out this task but also to grasp the nature of the stakes involved.
One effect of this discursive reconfiguration highlighted by Marie-Helene Brousse is the collapsing of the space of metaphor correlative with the effacing of the relation to the Other. Signifiers thus come to operate ever more literally in the effects that they produce on the body. We therefore find ourselves faced with a strange inversion by which it is the signifier that becomes real and the body a semblant open to infinite modification.
This in turn seems to entail some kind of new articulation between rigidity and relativisim that might be key to some of the effects that we see being played out in the field of politics more generally. In his original interview with Eric Marty, Jacques-Alain Miller refers to a new politics of relativism and intolerance. Each one has the right to their own truth, which at the same time cannot be contested, cannot be disputed.
The whole register of post-truth politics can be indexed on the lack of any common reference, any common ground where divergent positions could come together, hence the rise of extremist forms of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise. The questions of truth, knowledge, belief and opinion thus become increasingly subjugated to the primacy of the right to jouissance.
We could perhaps try to situate this new logic of relativism and rigidity at the heart of one of the central paradoxes of the transgender phenomenon, which consists in upholding the binary framework of the two poles of gender, while claiming the right to transition between them. This position appears to entail some kind of fundamental adherence to the essential validity of the two poles of gender while asserting the freedom to choose between them.
It is not immediately clear what might be at stake in the logic of this position, which adheres to the framework of gender while denying the real of sexual difference. It does not appear to entail in the first instance the erasure of the physical markers of sexual difference. If anything, it appears rather to retain the reference to the phallus as signifier of difference, as index of the physical difference between the sexes, while highlighting its arbitrary nature as anatomical attribute.
In either case, this position appears to rest on some more fundamental disarticulation between bodies and the sense of identity. The very notion of being born in the wrong body implies an upholding of the primacy of identity in relation to the relativism of anatomy and biology, but without taking the question of subjectivity into account. This leads us to the somewhat paradoxical outcome of resorting the the solution of the surgical modification of the body in order to better align it with a sentiment of identity that remains ineffable, unquestioned and unexplained.
All of this would suggest that what we are witnessing at the level of contemporary culture is some kind of return to the medieval disputes between nominalism and realism being played out in the field of sex and gender. This might be taken as the sign of a rearticulation not just of the relation between discourse and bodies but more fundamentally of the Cartesian space within which the mind/body problem was formulated at the birth of the modern era in terms of the distinction between substance in intension and substance in extension.
The real question for us would then be whether the discursive configuration that underlies the emergence of new modalities of the speaking body in our times heralds in some way the disappearance, the closing down of the space within which psychoanalysis emerged historically and within which it is deployed as a clinical practice, essentially the space of what we have know as modern subjectivity.
However sketchy the outline of these speculations, they would at least provide us with a slightly different angle on the question of the political stakes of the trans phenomenon for psychoanalysis. In addressing these questions I think it is important for us to be as clear as possible that it is not at all a question of psychoanalysis versus the trans movement in some kind of competition for cultural air-time or political supremacy. On the contrary, it may be that psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis of the Lacanian orientation, is the only cultural discourse that can accomodate, can make room for the trans phenomenon in all the seriousness, profundity and cultural implications that it warrants.
But as psychoanalysts we cannot afford to remain silent, to remain shut off from these questions as if they are no concern of ours. For it turns out we do have a stake in the matter: we either find ways to address this new configuration seriously, with all the attention it deserves, as a symptom of a more profound shift in the tectonic plates of the modern era, or we face up to the prospect of the disappearance of psychoanalysis as a viable clinical discourse.
These considerations cast new light on the significance of Lacan’s introduction in Seminar XX, Encore – the same seminar in which he publicises the provocative assertions that the woman does not exist and that there is no sexual rapport – his introduction of a third mode of substance, the notion of enjoying substance, the substance of jouissance, foregrounding the question of the mode of enjoyment as third term between signifier and body.
It may well be that these references give us the minimal elements for a new mode of articulation between speaking subjects and their bodies based precisely on the primacy of a singular mode of enjoyment, hence providing us with the foundations of a new psychoanalytic clinic the parameters of which Jacques-Alain Miller has been sketching out for some years now.
Presentation at the London Society of the NLS ‘Conversation on the Trans Question’ on Saturday 12th June, 2021.