Humanity on the Line
A review of ‘From the ‘Neutral’ Body to the Posthuman Cyborg’
Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit – Life!
- Emily Dickinson, 1860
How did we arrive at this point where people assert themselves as not only the opposite sex, vis-à-vis “gender identity,” but also demand “affirmation” through medical interventions? Recently published by Spinifex Press, Silvia Guerini’s From the ‘Neutral’ Body to the Posthuman Cyborg: A Critique of Gender Ideology gives a vital, highly engaging critique of transgenderism, focusing on it as an industrialized, alienated war against the body. Her analysis emphasizes the technologized dismemberment of sex as the dismemberment of shared humanity for women, men, and children.
“Women and women’s bodies have become the terrain of appropriation and confrontation, but in this terrain I want to yield nothing,” she argues, “for what is at stake is an anthropological and ontological mutation of the human being” (pp. 2-3). Under the guise of the “neutral” body, which never truly exists as such, contemporary “progressive” thought has advanced transgenderism and surrogacy, most evidently at the expense of women and children. Thus, Guerini argues, the refusal to consider nature, the denial of it, “prepares the way for the construction of the posthuman cyborg” (p. 3). The body not only becomes other than the self, even more so, but also fundamentally a product of commodity culture. The coming age of the posthuman cyborg, which Guerini critiques with brilliance, can only make humanity less than, never transcending an endless alienation.
“Why,” Guerini asks us at the start, “was a dissociation from embodied sex added to the LGB movement, which is based on embodied same-sex attraction?” (p. 1). Certainly, it makes little sense that lesbians and gay men, for whom sex matters, have been grouped with people who despise their sex, if not themselves, and seek cosmetic procedures. “LGBTQ+” organizations, however, invented “the community” as we know it today. Money has been the most obvious motivating factor in the market for human flesh since time immemorial. For years, Jennifer Bilek has noted the extensive funding by, most notably, the Arcus Foundation and Open Society Foundations. In brief, millions of dollars at a time from medical and pharmaceutical technologies have been poured into the modern “LGBTQ+” movement.
As Bilek and Guerini make clear, it has been the massive profit to be made from the distortion of sex into a medical and pharmaceutical commodity. From the beginning, transsexualism was evidently at the intersection of sexism and capitalism, not in resistance to any existing institutions. As I have argued in the case of George/Christine Jorgensen, transition initially functioned to “normalize” a homosexual male, otherwise gender-nonconforming, into a “heterosexual female.” Bilek and Guerini analyze this distinctively twenty-first century, highly consumerist, liberal gender ideology as being not only against nature but also against humanity.
Transgenderism represents the most obvious contemporary manifestation of the medical-industrial complex functioning by its commercial interest. The marketing of “sex change” is not, as sexologist and endocrinologist Harry Benjamin argued, “life-saving,” akin to insulin for those with diabetes. Its best justification has been through distractions it gives people from lives they wish they could escape by changing their bodies.
The artifice-as-authenticity selling point makes perfect sense in this context. Guerini quotes U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott on the power of the medical-industrial complex. Interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in 2009, McDermott noted how “the medical-industrial complex in this country is bigger than the military-industrial complex. And people don’t recognize that, but it is a huge industry that is resisting change” (p. 120). Ironically, though, Democracy Now! has not critically addressed transgenderism and surrogacy as part of the medical-industrial complex.
On the rise of transsexualism and the notion of transition, Guerini notes the parallel to race, a point that has increasingly been raised since the earliest critiques of transsexualism. There have been, she writes, “some people who felt trapped in their black skin,” who found skin lightening creams marketed to them (p. 97). Skin lightening has been a beauty practice, and, symptomatic of the Jim Crow era, increasingly targeted Black consumers. “Pigmentation change,” Guerini writes, “did not ever become a mainstream medical practice” (p. 97). Such discomfort has arisen from experiences of racialization under racist social conditions.
Not so clear to one isolated from more rigorous analysis, the individual body was not the broader social problem at play. It was, she explains, “society that needed to be changed, not the individual” (p. 97). Transracialism did not get the same uptake as transgenderism in terms of becoming a cultural phenomenon. However, a psychic sense of disembodiment responded to by the physical modification of the body prevails across sufferers. Still, the commodification of sex, particularly as it regards women and children, has been more permissible than the commodification of race as it affects racial and ethnic minority groups expressly including men.
When gender nonconformity entered therapeutic categorization, understood in the deviation from expected sex roles, therapy functioned socially and politically to maintain particular sets of sexual and social relations. The “sissy” would be dissuaded from being too “girly” for a boy, while the “tomboy” would be dissuaded from being too “boyish” for a girl. Where prior interventions were behavioral, to make the individuals conform to the roles expected of their sex, the new interventions medicalize them into being the opposite sex. Drawing upon Raymond’s work, namely The Transsexual Empire, the first book-length feminist analysis of transsexualism, Guerini writes:
The classification of transsexualism as a therapeutic category also inserts non-stereotypical behaviour into a medical paradigm that will implement a political and social structuring of what should be masculine and feminine behaviour. […] Medicalising suffering related to stereotypes puts the individual in the hands of the medical and pharmaceutical system, and thus, instead of changing the structures of society, those individuals who do not fit the stereotypes will receive treatment. […] The overall result of these surgical treatments is that the ‘transsexual’ becomes a participant in a society that encourages conformity to stereotypes, and the medical solution becomes a social tranquiliser. (p. 99)
For parents and young people, most of whom buy into therapism, the medical paradigm for gender has been seductive. It allows the individual an escape, albeit transitory, from problems in favor of submitting to extensive medical treatment that, at best, functions to distract the victim from the difficulties of everyday living. With the advertising of this paradigm, we may consider the rise in individuals living online more and more. Importantly, Guerini notes, “Young people who, in the solitude into which they are plunged, perpetually in front of a screen, are less and less able to cope with normal adolescent challenges combined with increasing discomfort toward their own bodies, relational difficulties, and psychological fragility” (p. 103). Identification as “transgender,” a self other than one’s body, offers an escape, more hallucinatory than real. Body modification becomes a way of getting away from coping with typical human difficulties.
Among the chapters in her book, Guerini has a particularly valuable discussion of the link between anorexia nervosa and trans identification, a connection typically obscured in analyses in deference to more sexological explanations. Referencing the work of Eliza Mondegreen, Guerini gives us a brief, but extremely valuable, discussion of the connection that, I think, will encourage readers to investigate more on their own. In my research on anorexia nervosa, I have noticed a pattern of girls expressing a desire to be “boys” not being an unearthed “trans boyhood” but a relatively common metaphor for bodily discomfort among young females. Children may come to believe, as the idiom goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” except, here, it is about the other sex and life being better. On anorexia nervosa and its connection to gender dysphoria, Guerini writes:
Anorexia can be interpreted as the desperate search for a perfect physical form which underlies an objectification of the female body according to certain standards of thinness. But it could also be interpreted as an extreme refusal of precisely that objectification of the body and an extreme refusal of sexual development, and of a female body that tends towards an androgynous or ‘neutral’ body. [...] In the case of eating disorders, extreme self-doubt can lead them to want to deny their bodies by stopping eating. In the case of so-called ‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria,’ girls wage war on their own bodies by destroying them with hormones and surgery. It is self-harm, a hatred towards your body that you don’t accept because, basically, you do not want to be a woman. It is once again the female and maternal body that becomes a battlefield as it has been for some time in transhumanist appropriation, re-signification, cancellation, and artificialisation. (pp. 106-107)
Guerini’s analysis is so important here, because it links the prevailing issues back to how the body has become a battleground. Another connection between anorexia nervosa and gender dysphoria would be the way these illnesses, apart from functioning as social contagions, have corresponding industries: the “beauty” industry and, increasingly, the sex/gender industry. Dissociation remains the rule in the industrial defacement of the body and the destruction of one’s sense of connection with it.
Freedom has been one of the hollow promises offered by the body modification of transgenderism. Toward the end, Guerini brilliantly critiques how the concept of freedom has been distorted to the point where it may as well mean slavery. She writes:
Freedom is today an abused, tortured, and fetishised word. Let us ask ourselves what conception of today’s freedom underlies integrity, relationships, feelings, motherhood, body, sexual difference, and, ultimately, being human? It is the freedom of atomised and de-sacralised human beings: self-entrepreneurs, without ties, without memory, without roots. It is the freedom of these times of de-sacralisation of the living made not only available, but also consumable. (p. 142)
What is freedom if it means the disintegration of the body and the self, the decline of integrity to the point of medicated numbness? The notion that one can be free doing whatever one desires, even if it results in a deeper loss of freedom, its most extreme absence, is profoundly misguided and deadly, especially for the young. There are many online, as Guerini notes, who experience a baptism of alienation, clinging to the belief in living beyond the bodies we have. With the addition of a highly well-funded medical apparatus, the negation of the self becomes realized in the mutilation of the flesh.
Guerini challenges us to engage in the most revolutionary act of the present time: staying human. Each moment this part of the medical-industrial complex remains unquestioned is a moment a child, somewhere, becomes subject to medicalization. Bilek has been right in arguing that we find ourselves at the eleventh hour: this last stand not only for the body politic but for the human body and its most fundamental embodied meaning. Guerini ends her book with the following call to action: “Ours is a race against time, but we absolutely cannot avoid taking part” (p. 158). For the little ones, for all of those harmed, even those who most despise us for demanding the moral responsibility of humanity over the medical authority of corporatocracy, we must fight.
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