Social Construction Theory and the Transgender Turn
An Enlightened Conversation
In the introduction to her groundbreaking book Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective of Sexual Difference, Patricia Gherovici states: “Trans people’s experiences may force us not just to re-evaluate our notions of gender, but also to reconsider how we think about other forms of difference as it unravels identity as a construction.” In engaging with the insights she delivers in the first four chapters of her book, I want to unpack this remark in order to highlight the additional, subtle but crucial contribution that Gherovici’s work implicitly makes. Namely, Gherovici’s contribution suggests that trans embodiment is key to solving an important theoretical puzzle that for decades has obstructed the successful application of the ‘constructionist’ turn in the social sciences. The point of my engagement will be to articulate the way(s) in which the ‘trans’ turn described by Gherovici advances that conversation by tackling points that troubled social constructionists in the past.
It has been a long time since the rise of social construction theory first revealed to us that what we believed to be ‘natural’ (as in the product of fixed, innate biology) is in fact the fluid — and therefore changeable — product of human action and history. To this end, a diverse body of work was produced by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians for the sake of historicizing sexuality and debunking an essentialist (and hegemonic) approach to human behavior. In this way, one of the most important achievements of the social construction paradigm was to expose the fact that sexual acts, identity, and desire are always mediated by cultural and historical factors, and not predetermined by physiological mechanisms.
This conceptual openness, however, was not free from trouble. As Carole Vance underscores in her piece, “Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality,” a careful engagement with the vicissitudes of social constructionism entails taking note of the fact that understanding that sexuality is constituted differently in different times and places opened the door to a range of different attitudes towards the articulation of sexuality as a distinguishable working notion in itself. To the extent that social constructionists were focused on showing that practices and motives substantially changed as historical periods and locations varied, it became more and more difficult to describe sexuality in terms of a stable category of human action, as different communities seemed inclined to disagree on the specifics of what should be regarded as “sexual.”
According to Vance, in facing this theoretical challenge many social constructionists opted for embracing a “total deconstruction of the category of the sexual,” while many others landed on a spectrum of more measured responses. Yet, it was possible to identify some level of consensus: to understand what counts as sexual acts in a given time and space, it is necessary to take note of the role the body plays within that sociopolitical context. In arriving to this conclusion, social construction theory seemed to have completed a 360 degree turn, all to come back to the starting point which, in theory, social constructionists so adamantly wanted to leave behind: the role of the physical body. Simply put, the challenge the social construction framework encountered then involved the demand for the articulation of an embodied (materialist) theory of sexuality — that is, a theory of sexuality that could address and elaborate on the phenomenology of the physical body — which could nevertheless effectively avoid the pitfalls of biological determinism.
Patricia Gherovici’s research represents an important effort to answer the question Carole Vance formulated in her seminal essay from 1989: “if we wish to incorporate the body within social construction theory, can we do so without returning to essentialism and biological determinism?” Vance’s article not only presented the question but also proposed that the answer to this issue was not to be found in a return to essentialism, but in an exploration of more sensitive and imaginative ways of conceiving the body and its functions. Vance believed that social construction theory could show us that “[t]he future is less closed than we feared, but perhaps more open than we hoped.”
Gherovici, on the other hand, speaks from the future of Vance’s 1989 piece. And in doing so she delves into the openness described by Vance, in order to show that the material body not only can but should be placed at the center of the reconceptualization of social construction, a reconceptualization that is always negotiated in the intersection of having and being. In Gherovici’s words: “being trans is not an experience of ‘having’ but a strategy of ‘being.’ As my clinical experience has taught me […] transitioning is more often than not a matter of life or death.” To do justice to the intricate theoretical turns that have addressed the existential negotiation of having and being a body, Gherovici argues that we should turn to Lacan’s “most radical political intervention,” and take note of the distinction he introduced between the phallus as a symbolic instrument, and the penis as a physical organ. It is this dichotomy that grounds the distinction between ‘gender as a symbolic construction’ and ‘sexual difference as a biological phenomenon.’
Against this background, Gherovici invites psychoanalysis to regard gender variance, and gender fluidity, not as pathological symptoms, but as instances of the Lacanian “sinthome” (viz, singular inventions conceived for the purpose of “allowing someone to live”). Perceived under this new light, the transgender experience ceases to be in need of a cure. Rather, it presents itself as an imaginative way to exercise one’s sensibility vis-à-vis one’s condition as an embodied being. It speaks to the political considerations involved in the process of assuming a body, and the potential for transformation that comes with doing so. Baudrillard (as cited by Gherovici) says it better, when he regards transgenderism “not as [a] deviation from the natural order,” but rather “the product of a change in the symbolic order of sexual difference.”
According to Transgender Psychoanalysis, such a change is often a question of life or death. I interpret Gherovici’s approach as one that defines living as a phenomenon to be articulated in terms of an experience of relations. Being alive thus entails undergoing a relation with our environment but also with our material bodies. In making these relations intelligible, we write — our bodies and our world — to communicate our choices and our interpretations. In this way, we partake in the unfolding of a symbolic order that is always under construction, just as our bodies are. Taking note of this subtlety allows us to realize that, as in Gherovici’s view, “beauty is more ethics than aesthetics,” insofar as beauty may function as a creative activity with an ethical function, that is, that of enabling a deliberated exercise of existence. In thinking more deeply about the meaning of being and having in the context of Gender Studies, it becomes obvious that while having certain traits may be optional to a certain extent, clearly, to qualify as a person in our society, it is necessary to have a body. Gherovici exposes the way the body blurs the line between identity and existence, and between aesthetic considerations and ethical pronouncements, for the body does not simply convey an expression of identity but “an affirmation of existence.”
This is an important realization to inform our returning to the issues Vance pointed out have puzzled social constructionists. As we have seen, some of the most difficult to overcome obstacles troubling the successful embrace of social construction theory revolved around the difficulty reconciling a constructionist approach to sexuality with the “body’s visceral reality,” in a way that avoided relapsing into biological essentialism. But what is this “visceral reality” that Vance fears? My intuition is that the ‘reality’ to be associated to the materiality of the body that Vance and her colleagues took issue with was a reality that could not make sense of the negotiations that take place at the intersection of having and being (a body). While social constructionists poignantly recognized that anatomical differences or societal prescriptions were undoubtedly not enough to explicate sexual and gender identity, they lacked the tools that Gherovici borrows from Lacanian psychoanalysis: the assumption of a sexual position (whatever that may be) involves more than just a combination of biology and social conventions, it also involves the unconscious sexual choice that Lacan called “sexuation.” The choice one makes as a result of this process of “sexuation” will permanently impact the way in which one assumes her gendered body. Yet, the choice is itself experienced as a process and not as an unchangeable fact of life. In light of the unfolding, dynamic experience of positioning oneself along the spectrum of sexual difference, the body becomes much more than its mere materiality or a given symbolism. As Gherovici tells us “Psychoanalysis conceives the body not simply as an organism but as a libidinal entity reconfigured by language.”
In closing, I want to highlight the importance of thinking how this libidinal entity (the body) in the context of transgender experience is reconfigured by an intentional focus on the language of being and having, in a way that allows for a more deliberate exercise of embodiment that is crafted as an ethical (and, by extension, political) pronouncement. In bringing the transitional disposition of the body to the forefront, the transgender experience gestures to a way of being-in-the-world that is never exhausted in description/prescription, but it is always already carving a space for existing in becoming. At the same time, as Gherovici is eager to underscore, it would be a mistake to assume that this embracing of becoming evinced in fluid navigations of gender ends in bodily transformations. Instead, this predisposition for becoming informs these transformations while pointing to the fact that “something else [than purely physical alterations] is needed for the process of embodiment to be successful.” In thinking about everything that may be encapsulated within that “something else,” we find ourselves back in conversation with social construction theory, but now armed with a much more subtle and rich understanding of what it means to have/be a body that is in and of itself never a given, and never done once and for all, but always becoming.
Dora Suarez is a PhD student in Philosophy and an Onassis Fellow at The New School for Social Research. Her research revolves around the intersection of Epistemology, Social, and Political Philosophy.