Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The child, the mother's symptom, and the judge posted by Richard Seymour

From a certain perspective, notably that of radical feminism, all gender socialisation is child abuse.

In a recent, controversial case brought before the British courts, a judge took a child out of the care of its mother because it was deemed that the child was being forced to 'live as a girl' while in fact identifying as a boy. The mother, the judge claimed, fully believed that she was supporting the child's right to live as a girl despite having been assigned the male sex at birth. But, he went on, there was considerable evidence that the child did not identify as a girl, and that significant emotional harm was being done by the mother's practices.

This is one of those cases where we really need chapter and verse, and will not get it. We have the text of the judgment to go on, and we have the reactions of trans activists, who have expressed concern about the value judgments implied in the judgment and the absence of gender specialists consulted in court. There is a petition seeking to reverse the decision. Naturally, transphobes of various hues have taken a degree of satisfaction in the story, as it appears to reinforce their view of the dangers of currently ascendant ‘trans narratives’.

But it is a mistake to conduct the argument purely at this level, which necessarily involves people in smuggling in value judgments as factual claims. What I want to do is ask: what if everything the judgment says is true? I doubt that it is that straightforward, but supposing it is: what conclusions should we draw? For the sake of argument, then, I will assume the factual accuracy of everything that is claimed by the judge.

In particular, I will assume that the child identified as a boy, and did not consent to live as a girl. Or, more precisely, that the child would have preferred to identify as a boy, and only consented to live as a girl in order to please his mother. I will assume that the details supplied by the mother about the trans characteristics of the child are merely a record either of the mother’s fantasies, or of her own over-interpretation of statements made by her child, or of her ability to induce certain statements and ways of behaving. Finally, I will assume that all of the ‘concerns’ expressed by various agencies are all perfectly well-founded and in no way shaped either by transphobic valuation or professional ignorance. We can start by acknowledging that this would indeed be unarguably a case of abuse, regardless of the mother's sincere intentions.

It is, of course, not news that the language of liberation can lend itself to perpetuating abuse. Nor is it at all new for parents to narcissistically use children as extensions of their own earthly designs, or to expect them to live in a gender that they do not particularly wish to inhabit. Nor is the specific phenomenon of mothers preferring their sons to live as girls at all new. What would have the tincture of novelty is the specific invocation of the language of trans liberation. And, assuming the judge is correct, this reminds us not to underestimate the ingenuity of parents in finding ways to fuck up their kids — even where, as Larkin insists, they may not mean to.

However, it is also worth being exact about where the abuse would inhere in this case. It obviously isn't in the “emotional harm” identified by the judge. Emotional harm is, firstly, a thoroughly nebulous concept and, secondly, a possible product of abuse rather than identical with the abuse itself. A great deal of abuse of children by adult carers has no demonstrably harmful result, and lots of emotional harm results from transactions that we would struggle to qualify as abusive. If the judgment is correct, for example, then it may be entirely appropriate that the child was removed from the mother’s care (perhaps the imperative of keeping families together that guides Social Services practice prevented appropriate action). And yet this, designed to put an end to abuse, may turn out to be even more traumatogenic than the abusive treatment itself.

What would be abusive here would be the extent to which the child became the mother’s symptom. Every child is, to an extent, its parents’ symptom. Long before it has been physically conceived, it has been psychically conceived, dreamed up, wished for, wished on behalf of — always in a gendered way. The child is written into existence as the subject of its parents’ obscure, complex and to some extent unconscious desires, long before it can began to articulate any desire of its own. It becomes a vector for displaced dreams, conflicts and disappointments between parents, in advance of its own dreams, conflicts and disappointments. However, in this case, if the judge is correct, then the mother’s desire for the child to be a girl monopolised any claim to the child’s identity, leaving him (or her, as the case may be) no space to work it out for him (or her) self.

And yet, of course, if we take seriously the benchmark that all gender socialisation is in some sense abusive, we have no reason to be assured that the abuse, if that is what was happening, will stop here. After all, the default assumption that the child is a boy, based on birth-assigned sex, might also be imposed in just as unilaterally insistent a way, either by the father, or by the judge, or by Social Services. Perhaps the mother was right to think that the child wasn’t satisfied with being a boy. Perhaps her mistake was to rush to the seemingly logical assumption that the child must therefore be a girl.

Between parenting, the law, and the pseudo-sympathetic, therapeutic idiom of social workers, it is not clear that the child’s own questions about gender will be given space to work themselves out, or will be treated as anything other than a pathological manifestation of abuse. Of course, we are given to believe that the judge, the social workers and the father who dispute the claim that the child is trans, are open-minded about the matter themselves. That, they have offered the child a choice and observed the choices made in a non-partisan, open way. This is the sort of thing that adults might believe, but children never do. That is, adults might be lulled by the soothing neutrality of legalistic and therapeutic discourses, or the nurturing language of parents, but children tend to be quite astute and worldly in working out what adults, cares and authorities desire of them.

Sandor Ferenczi, writing on the way in which children seek to satisfy their parents’ desires, referred to an “uncanny clairvoyance”. In a sense, he genuinely seemed to believe that children could so identify with adults as to completely internalise their desires without error. This is to lapse into magical thinking. There is no reason to assume that we are ever more than approximately right about what others want of us. However, what can be said is that since their survival depends on understanding what parents want of them, children become sophisticated interpreters of the words, gestures and silences they are met with. One by-product of this is that they are so busy preempting, satisfying or frustrating the desires that others have of them that they never get to decide what they want for themselves.

The earliest questions that any child puts to the world are, “where do babies come from?” and “am I a girl or a boy?” These are existential questions, concerning sex in both of its main senses. The answers offered by adults are strange, and would give anyone a complex. Parents are apt to be evasive and anxious in answering questions about sex, particularly if they are unhappy about their sex lives. And of course, children are apt to maintain a muted dissent about the silly fables they are offered, whether it be about storks or mummies and daddies who love each other very much. So they continue to hunt for the answers, and construct theories.

Yet the same parents are usually strangely emphatic, insistent, about who is a boy and who is a girl, and about the strict relationship between birth-assigned sex and one’s future gendered life trajectory. They leave no doubt about the matter, even though many children quietly entertain the gravest doubts. Simply, where children want knowledge and independence, parents often communicate ignorance and obedience.

In this case, according to the court, the mother’s role was not to suppress the child’s knowledge. Indeed, the judge comments somewhat sniffily on the ‘inappropriate’ extent of the child’s understanding of  sexual anatomy, as conveyed by the father. Instead, the argument is that the mother coached the child, artificially inducting him into a form of gendered knowledge that would otherwise only be passed on tacitly, incrementally, allusively and almost automatically precisely to the extent that it accorded with ‘normal’ gender socialisation. Yet at the same time, the judge comments, while the mother was a skilful advocate of trans children in general, she seemed unable to say much at all about the specific wishes of her own child. In short, the judgement describes a child discerning and seeking to fulfil the mother’s desire, rather than the mother defending the child’s ascertained wish to be trans.

This suggests that far from breaking with an abusive treatment of the child, the mother merely inverted it in a way that conformed to her own wishes. We do not, of course, know what is really true in this case. But we can say that gender socialisation usually means that someone else has already written your life story for you: and there is always a sense in which that is unavoidable, and always a sense in which it is abusive. From the abolitionist perspective, to imagine a non-abusive form of parenting is to imagine a world without girls and boys.

The space between where we are and that horizon is obviously not one that can be compressed at will. There is still a need to raise children able to survive and make choices in this world. But one could say as a minimum that to be assigned the term ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ doesn’t have to be decisive, irreversible, or exhaustive of all the options. Doctors don’t have to be in such a rush to assign sex, that — for example — they prematurely force intersex children into one of the binary classifications. Parents don’t have to be so determined to produce children adapted to sex assignment that they suppress all doubts or alternatives. And children can be allowed to suppose that they have a role in determining whether they are girls, boys or something else, and what that means.

Even reaching this comparatively limited goal would require a far-reaching cultural shift, one that is underway only in certain progressive enclaves. It necessitates, certainly, further constraints and checks on the automatic authority of parents over their children. But it also necessitates, as a minimum, that parents find other ways to desire of and for their children. The economy of parental desire has to be reconfigured so that they can accommodate a more capacious and imaginative sense of what it means for a child to thrive and do well.

Oscar Wilde spoke of how socialism would relieve us of the sordid necessity of living for others. Child abuse can be defined as the sordid necessity of living for one’s parents or caregivers, as if one’s life depended on it. Relieving that burden, however incrementally, is a start toward a comprehensive liberation for girls, boys and everyone else.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

A rapist in the Oval Office posted by Richard Seymour

Say what you like about the second presidential debate, it seems to have struck an extraordinarily delicate nerve with some of the hacks. I say this because, reviewing the gluttonous expanse of instapunditry in respected outlets, there is something that no one appears to want to talk about.

This is the feminist writer Jessica Valenti, in The Guardian:

"That’s why [Trump] trotted out a pre-debate panel of women who have accused Bill Clinton of various offenses".

What offences, feminist Jessica Valenti? To what could you be referring, so obliquely? And why do none of the other reviewers talk about this?

On CNN, former Bill Clinton advisor David Gergen is similarly coy:

"The first was [Trump's] surprise pre-debate appearance with four female accusers of Bill Clinton. While a case can be made for re-hearing their claims of long ago...".

What are those "claims of long ago," former Clinton adviser, David Gergen? What could you be treading so lightly around? Why, again, do other pundits seem to consider it unworthy of comment?

The BBC finally clears things up for us:

"He essentially accused former President Bill Clinton of rape."

WHAT? Rape? Why is everyone so... mealy-mouthed and sleekit about this? What is with the euphemisms and the attempt to relativise them as claims of "long ago"? Is the former president a rapist, or is he not? What are these allegations? The BBC doesn't say, but only goes on to add a solemn, head-shaking Aunty Beeb note of disapprobation:

"It was easily the most tawdry exchange in 56 years of televised presidential debates - one that will likely cast a shadow over US politics for years to come. Mrs Clinton may have emerged the beneficiary, but the nation was the worse for it." 

That word 'tawdry' comes up, quite a bit in the reporting. It is a peculiar word to use in a way, since the airily dismissed "panel of women" includes one woman who alleged sexual harassment, and two who allege sexual assault. The implication seems to be that it is tawdry even to discuss such allegations against a former President - a claim that was not made about the discussion of Trump's bragging about sexual assault. Much of the reporting even seems to regard it as a bit silly - a "bizarre last minute ploy," as The Mirror put it.

Certainly, Trump has been plausibly accused of sexual assault, including the rape of a child. Certainly, his behaviour is that of a sociopath. Certainly, he is raising all this in a manipulative way. But doesn't the leaking of the Trump tapes have a clear instrumental logic? And yet it is something we should discuss. Likewise, the allegations of rape against Clinton, are something we should discuss.

Put it like this. Juanita Broaddrick plausibly alleges that she was raped by Bill Clinton. The White House - highly active in smearing or paying off everyone else in the period that these allegations came out - was remarkably reticent about Broaddrick. Clinton himself refused to say anything beyond referring to a lawyer's carefully worded statement. Do we believe survivors? Hillary Clinton, an active participant in her husband's administration, says that we should. But she also says that she doesn't, in this case. Broaddrick, for what it's worth, has also consistently alleged that Hillary Clinton threatened her in the weeks following the rape. Now, is that worth discussing?

If you take liberal principles seriously, if you consider yourself a feminist, the answer has to be 'yes'. Otherwise, how can you expect anyone to take your fully justified attacks on Trump seriously? If you have no respect for the principles underpinning your attack, why should anyone else? And if your loyalty to Clinton undermines your principled opposition to Trump, what comes first: your principles, or your loyalty?

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Sunday, October 09, 2016

Trumped down posted by Richard Seymour

If we assume that the Trump tape release was orchestrated by the Clinton campaign, as seems likely, then it is the first really skilful move they have made throughout the entire campaign - and with leading Republicans backing away from him, the RNC withdrawing funds, and the GOP leadership looking for ways to legally replace him as the candidate, it may be fatal.

The IMF, which calls Trump 'Voldemort' on account of the threat he seemingly poses to their idea of global economic order, will breathe a sigh of relief if the RNC are successful. Wall Street, which must already be looking with horror at Brexit and May's decidedly Trumpian turn, will too. So will, of course, any of the major constituencies whom he would cheerfully have victimised - women, immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, leftists, protesters, etc.

It is as though Bret Easton Ellis had decided to rewrite the mafia boss genre as a tale of ruling class soul-dead depravity. I can thoroughly well imagine Bill Clinton talking exactly like this, and suspect that this kind of braggodocious (dixit Trump) side of rape culture is common at the top of US politics. Certainly, Bush jr seems to have been entirely at home in the conversation.

But at some point, we should inquire into the other modalities of rape culture. It is obvious that the stuff about Trump being 'newly married' is a species of it. Would sexual assault be okay if his marriage was getting on a little, and he was bored? What about the 'wives and daughters' stuff? Isn't this clearly implicated in the dichotomy between good and bad women that sustains rape culture - as if, those who aren't anyone's wives and daughters, who are socially dislocated, are fit to treat as 'whores'.

More broadly, we might want to inquire into the libidinal underside of the reactions. I'm not interested in moralising about this, but it seems obvious that in the cool light of retrospect, analysis of the lulzy coverage will disclose a rich seam of excitement and fascination, barely disguised in all the jokes. The hubbub of "omg, can't believe he said that" is invested in glee at the transgressive nature of such "lewd" discussion of sexual assault, much like the fascination with his openly Oedipalised sexual objectification and denigration of his daughter. Isn't there an obvious enjoyment even in repeating his words in the fashion of this headline? We certainly get a kick out of imitating his highly imitable swagger and speech patterns. We enjoy Trump (although it goes without saying that we don't all enjoy Trump in the same way, if for no other reason than that patriarchy, 'whiteness', class resentments, geographical and social stagnation, and so on, do not affect everyone in the same way).

I am not at all claiming that people should stop making these jokes, and any attempt to make that happen by fiat would be doomed anyway. One of the functions of jokes is to give a certain regulated access to transgressive enjoyment, wherein we can advance an idea without 'meaning' it. So it is always a question of context, of how the joke works, at whose expense. I am just saying that we should analyse it, if we want to understand where the appeal of Trumpism comes from. Even if his campaign now collapses, as it seems to be doing, the psychopolitical sources of Trumpism won't dissipate on that account.

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Friday, October 07, 2016

Scripturience and speech posted by Richard Seymour

When I write – when I really write – I write in a dream. I was struck, recently, by the experience of writing a number of long-form pieces of work which, for the duration of their composition, became an obsession. It was a pleasure to work on them on long train journeys, or in unfamiliar bedrooms until the early hours of the morning because they had to be written. And I was almost sad, in each case, to finish.

This tends to happen when I’m writing something in a new way. When I am guided along not by points of an argument that I have already roughly worked out, but by questions that I keep circling around, working through, abandoning, then returning to. That is to say, the enigma I am trying to work through and the obscure connections, word-plays, and surprise revelations that thinking through the logic of the problem suddenly provides.

At times like that, I have to have my laptop with me everywhere, just because a new turn of phrase might suggest a whole new line of writing – which, naturally, cannot wait until later. A notebook isn’t good enough. I have to have the document open in front of me, I have to be able to go back and forth tweaking sentences, changing the order of exposition, reversing my conclusions, surprising myself with new formulations.

I was recently reading a few volumes on writing and psychoanalysis. They have a lot to do with one another, not least because most of what we know as psychoanalysis is its textual legacy. Freud’s major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, was often referred to by its author as the “dream book”. Composed “as if in a dream”. He had to “write the dream in order to come out of it”. The spell was such that at the beginning of each paragraph, he “did not know where it would end up”. This implies, of course, that the dream was in control, that he had ceded executive control to it. Freud was, he wrote, “entirely the dream.”

It also implies a level of excitement. Most writers will recognise this to an extent: often the least exhilarating form of writing is that produced purely for an income, in which you already know where each paragraph up to the last will take you. It is difficult, of course, to pitch a piece based on a few oracular thoughts and the promise that “I have no idea where this will take me”. Not knowing is, however, often a better place to start. The nature of this excitement, Freud would insist, is sexual in origin; the origin of all curiosity, sexual curiosity; the beginning of our detective work on this planet, the struggle to find out exactly what it means to say, in Adam Phillips’ phrase, that we are “fucked into being”.

More to the point, in The Interpretation of Dreams, the excitement was Oedipal. Not only because this was Freud’s first exposition of the Oedipal theory for a mass audience, but also because several figures that appear in the work point to the working through of a relationship to the maternal body. Above all, it is where “the navel of the dream” connects to the “unknown”, that one can detect a certain amount of awe and reverence with regard to the maternal body (which, of course, must remain “unknown” if the castration threat holds).

That would appear to lend itself to a stringent form of reductionism, wherein writing is a substitute for incest - as if all theory was, in a fashion, Oedipal theory; all writing, pornography. But to believe that, one would have to 'forget' that Oedipality is 'complex' - as I just did in describing it as Oedipal theory. One would have to believe that the prohibition in the Oedipal complex reducible to incest, much as one might think that Eros is reducible to procreation. This would be forgetting a lot. What writing substitutes for, what it sublimates, is not just one, but every gratification that one isn’t allowed. Even that would not be exhaustive, since there is a lot that is unforbidden, but insofar as we write in a dream, working through riddles, metaphors, displacements, then we are taking an adventure through the land of the forbidden.

In that case, might one say that speaking for an audience is a form of live, performed dreaming? Might we speak as if there is a hidden realm of meaning and enjoyment, a ‘latent content’ that is adverted to but never directly approached? We tend to think of speaking as the pre-text of text, the truth of writing, what writing always was in its primary state. But there is something about words that seems to require an embodiment, a script. And if, as Darian Leader argues, one of the things writing does is give us something to do with our hands, if writing is indeed a gesture of embodiment in which our hands give form to something of our existence, then the same can be said of our physical gestures when speaking – they are a kind of script.

If we try to speak from a script, as if we are not in fact writing, it will tend to come across as at best a recital or an incantation (which has its pleasures), at worst dry and dull. There is a kind of phallic writing that can be the cause of a great deal of unnecessary anxiety for the writer, and boredom for the audience. You rise to speak, or write, thinking that you are expected to pretend to omniscience and omnipotence, supposing that if you aren’t ‘magnetic’ enough, if you slip up, mis-speak, murder a syllable, then the audience will never forgive you. You expect, in a word, castration. So either you produce an overly performed oratory or avoid the risk by sticking closely to a pre-drafted script. That, of course, is exactly what one does in most paid writing.

Speaking on a strictly imaginary register, of course, one’s task as a speaker is seemingly to ‘get over’. One sells oneself before one sells the message, as if in a sense the medium was the message. But that is difficult to achieve by over-acting or staring at a page of notes. What one needs to articulate, before anything else, is one’s passion for the subject. If you expect an audience to care, you have to at least show that you care.

If you start with the idea that the phallus is not something that one has, that what is at stake is various forms and distributions of not-having, then it becomes possible to make a virtue of limits. A reference to one’s limits, a joke about nervousness, a cheerful admission of shortcoming, might go down well as self-deprecating, and get people rooting for you. A slip can be the high point in a speech, rather than an embarrassment. A Tory MP was making quite a drab speech to conference in which he meant to promise that the Tories would do Brexit properly – but said ‘breakfast’ instead. He offered a quick smile, and corrected himself. The audience, recognising that he had just let slip what really mattered to him, laughed with him. If the rest of the speech wasn’t much to write home about, his unconscious found a way to make a tedious talk slightly memorable to a hall full of hungry pensioners.

This is another reason why it makes no sense to worry about slips. Audiences don’t care, or at least they don’t object. They’re likely to be more interested in how you make them feel. They will forgive a lot, even an accidental lapse into an American accent, if you don’t bore them. And what is more boring than anything, in any form of writing, is to fake omniscience. Omniscient beings don’t have questions, and so they don’t open up questions for anyone else. They don’t desire, in other words, so they don’t engage desire.

In the seminars titled Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan famously considered the relationship between speaking and fucking: “for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it [sublimation] means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.”

That would imply that rhetoric is erotica (or, if you prefer, that fucking is a form of writing), and that your role as a speaker is not just to dream, but to impart the enjoyment (jouissance) wrapped up in the dream. This is, after all, one of the things that we dream for: it gives us regulated access to a quantum of forbidden enjoyment. We know from watching good orators that virtuosity consists in good writing: the mere fact of saying certain words with this particular vocal inflection, this particular music, in this particular order, and with this gestural embodiment is part of the persuasive value of the performance. It is ‘getting at’, ‘touching on’ something, even if we don’t know what it is.

All of this suggests that there is an angle from which being ‘understood’ is a decoy. Not that the so-called ‘manifest content’ of your dreaming is irrelevant, and not that you won’t impart some sort of understanding. But you can be fully understood and leave someone completely unchanged, unmoved as it were. You can mobilise the fruits of your education, and not leave a dent in the economy of their desire. You can articulate a case, citing figures, and well-known authorities, and bits and pieces of common sense, and assume that your position is unassailable – technocratic omniscience – until someone else with a better sense of the dreamwork involved in writing comes and does a Pied Piper job on your audience.

And if you want to know what that looks like, think of the unhappy fate of Nick Clegg, and the late, lamented ‘Cleggasm’.

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