The Problem with Bruce Jenner

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America is accepting a wider range of attitudes about gender and identity.  My problem is that we’re doing this for the wrong reason.  We should do it because identity is irrelevant and nebulous, not because it is important and robust.  The current approach reifies the importance of identity.  This leads me (along with the odd bedfellows of some feminists and radicals) to two important problems:  The first is about gender theory and the second is about capitalism.

We’re having a problem noticing the difference between accepting people (not creating a social underclass  or restricting access to the common goods of life) and accepting what people claim about reality.

Bruce Jenner is a citizen, that’s enough for me.  Everything else is spectacle.  In a Baudrillardian way, I predict gender issues will expand as it becomes increasingly clear that gendered bahavior has always been mostly a learned simulacrum.  I see it as the expression of an anxiety about how thin and tenuous all of our identities are.

I remain unconvinced by the transgender narratives I’ve encountered because I don’t accept the distinction of gender these entail which presume a metaphysically confused notion of the self.  I think being a man or a woman refers to your body.  Bodies have brains, and one thing a brain does is create a consistent sense of relationship to others.  Identity to me refers to the way your desires to belong, thrive, contribute and be significant come in conflict with your introjections of perceived societal values and the unique meaning of your life experiences.  In other words, what have you learned about yourself from others and from your self directed comparison of these impressions to others.

It bothers me, too, that identity is so elevated because for identity to become a social role requires signaling.  Signaling under capitalism encourages the purchase of brand products.  It’s no surprise to me that Bruce’s transformation included expensive wardrobes, procedures and cosmetics to signal his important inner experience, as if it wouldn’t be taken seriously without them. (See Baudrillard, The System of Objects and Deleuze and Guatarri’s Anti-Oedipus.).  The key point is that production/consumption have been viewed as a dyad with production being paramount and consumption understood as passive.  Consumption, in the alternate view that I’m speaking of is an act of identity production as social roles have become increasingly subsumed by markets.

Here’s a pro-tip:  If an important authentic inner experience requires the purchase of products to be legitimate, chances are you’re a consumerist puppet.  Somehow market forces have conspired to make you feel inadequate or incomplete without some object relation to things.

It’s no surprise that important issues about human nature and our social world are not being discovered or discussed,   but are being marketed by entertainment media because the system will encourage anything that captures attention or enhances consumption.  This includes the promise of signaling nuances about your identity with trappings.

*Updated:  Based on comments, I thought I’d add to this.  It’s not just about brand products but about object relations under western liberal democracy and capitalism.  Transformational Objects (Bollas, C,  International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1979;60(1):97-107) manifest as a hyperbolized sort of object seeking – and I am in this case suggesting that the desire for transformative gender experiences enacted through association with object signifiers represents the trace of an ongoing process, a relationship to a signified concept, not a destination or the transformation of a self state.   In other words, don’t hear me saying that it’s bad/weak/immature to want to signal your role in society through relationships to objects (which in the broad sense includes things, jobs, relationships, etc.) – just realize that it will not produce an inner transformative experience.  Only a changed relationship to other people can tilt toward transformation.  I think the language of desire (how you want to be in society) is more productive, liberating and enjoyable than the language of authenticity (who you really are).

**Revised conclusion:  Another way to express my objection is that trans-gendered people are asserting an authenticity narrative.  They are hinging respect based on who they really are.  One good reason to adjust this view is that many people feel trapped by who they really are and can’t distinguish between this and who others expect/will allow them to be.  In other words, you can’t be a sexed male who is really female gendered because sexed females aren’t female gendered since gender is a signified concept.  You can’t be a concept, you can only relate to it.  I want the freedom to relate to concepts based on desire, not on identity because identity entails an absolute relationship to a concept.

I am asserting a more radical acceptance, to accept people’s expression of their desires rather than their identity.  This can have the effect of liberating everyone from the oppressive way we relate to ourselves and the defensive way we relate to others from feeling threatened.  You can enjoy yourself without appeal to a signified metaphysical concept of gender.  The internalization of this concept is itself the problem and I am uninterested in the reification  of categorical concepts. (See Feldman, 2011. Against Authenticity).

This is the psychology of innocence, radically opposed to the ethic of responsibility.

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Bruce Jenner”

  1. “If an important authentic inner experience requires the purchase of products to be legitimate…”

    (emphasis mine, of course) I would disagree with the use of “purchase”, though that’s how 99.9% of these transactions are completed.I wouldn’t even say it’s ownership, it’s possession. (Not that money and luxury don’t factor in). Otherwise, murdering another youth to take his Air Jordans would be so weird.

    Consider the fanboy who compulsively collects toys which sit in the box. The innate value of the items is secondary to having them. This also works in reverse, the compulsive disavowal of an identity through avoidance or vandalism. Say, music fans who will decry a band to define themselves as something “more authentic” or better. Or the boyfriend who feels mortified that he’s seen buying adult diapers or maxi-pads. He’s buying them, but because he’s alone they are for him. Hence, “I don’t want to be seen as/with/in…”

    1. I think I agree with you in the first paragraph especially. I’m not sure I follow the connection in the second. Feel free to elaborate – otherwise, just wanted to say I appreciate your attention to the article and your contribution by responding.

  2. > Signaling under capitalism requires the purchase of brand products.

    Which branded products was Rachel Dolezal buying to signal her identity(-ies)?

    I’m not seeing any branded content on this blog, does it (/do you) not have an identity?

    I don’t actively disagree with most of the points being made here, but the above struck me as over-reaching on a point, for presumably rhetorical purposes. Careful.

    1. Note: This comment thread is misplaced and should apply to the subsequent post.

      Thanks for the comment – One of my points here is that acceptance of transgender identities can reinforce apparent gender difference as something essential. Rachel’s identity claim tends to show the difference between races as arbitrary and constructed (not essential). The expansion of differentiated identities creates markets and will tend to be encouraged. My point regarding Rachel is the opposite of the received message – if accepted it would reduce the perceived difference between racial groups.

      1. the excerpt I quoted came from this post, not the following one.

        I brought up the other person not mentioned in this post only because it was convenient, given the related topics of follow-up post. But you could just as easily substitute in any other example (see for instance the second example in my original comment). My point is just that “signaling,” under the definition used here, does not bear a necessary relationship to consumer products or conspicuous consumption.

        That said, it often does; so in general I appreciate the point you were making. But strictly speaking, the relationship is not a hard necessicity. There’re plenty of forms of social role-signaling that don’t involve consumerist displays.

        1. I think I see your point now and agree with you. If you mean that the purchase of products is one way to signal identity but it isn’t a necessary condition of doing so, and furthermore that Rachel used stereotypical ethnic signs (clothing, hair etc.) which weren’t necessarily brand products then I think I follow you. I appreciate your comments, thanks.

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