‘Cisgender’ is a clever turn of phrase introduced by transgender activists to characterize the grounding of gender identity on the sex of one’s birth. It is meant pejoratively, suggesting that it is a social prejudice on par with other forms of discrimination that are based on one’s starting point in life or inherited identity. Thus, biased treatment based on, say, class, race or religion would have a similar ‘cis’ character. What makes the ‘cis’ move clever is that it fights prejudice by subverting the foundations of identity politics and its academic expression, cultural studies, which in general see nothing wrong with the class, race, religion—or gender—of one’s birth. Indeed, identity politics and cultural studies typically affirm people for who they ‘always already’ are. In contrast, the ‘trans-’ movement is about the prospects for mobility between even quite fundamental states of being, which transhumanists nowadays call ‘morphological freedom’ … [please read below the rest of the article].
Fuller, Steve. 2022. “The Problem of Cishumanity: Towards a Genealogy of ‘Trans’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (2): 1-5. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6uS.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Now consider the term cishuman. It was suggested to me by Social Epistemology’s current editor Georg Theiner to capture my view—inspired by Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses—that the ‘human’ came to be specifically identified with an upright ape only with Carolus Linnaeus’s coinage of Homo sapiens in the mid-eighteenth century. Homo sapiens appeared as part of his innovative two-named Latin-based system that is still used to classify forms of life. The metaphysical implications of this coinage were quickly picked up by, among others, Rousseau and especially Kant, who styled a normative science of ‘anthropology’ based on the conditions under which the upright ape might be rendered ‘human’. Nearly all our understanding—including the prejudices—of what ‘being human’ has meant over the past 250 years derives from this beginning. In this context, ‘cishuman’ amounts to interpreting this starting point as a material bias that has unduly restricted the expression of the underlying concept ‘human’.
Generally speaking, the prefix ‘cis-’ raises the possibility of ontological misrecognition. Usually the claim that ‘we are not who we seem to be’ comes from an external observer of our state of being—not from ourselves. ‘Trans-’ movements aim to have individuals incorporate this perspective into their own sense of self. We may have been born in the wrong bodies through no fault of our own as individuals. But that then places an obligation on us, again as individuals, to become released from that fallen state. When the Cambridge Platonist philosopher (and friend of Newton and Locke) Ralph Cudworth coined ‘consciousness’ as a technical term in the late seventeenth century, he meant something quite similar: namely, the place where God—as the ultimate external observer—is represented in the human mind. Consciousness originally included conscience but became purely cognitive only later. However, the ambiguity of the French word conscience retains Cudworth’s intent. The template for this entire way of thinking, which turns ‘being human’ into a site of potentially endless conflict is the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin, which may sound surprising. So, let me explain.
The Significance of Original Sin
The Biblical account of Original Sin is reasonably straightforward. The first human, Adam, who was specifically created in God’s image, disobeyed God and then lost nearly all his godlike qualities. Indeed, Adam’s descendants are presented as competing with the beasts of nature and suffering their fate—including strife, misery, mortality, etc. However, the one godlike quality retained by humans is free will, which in turn provides the opportunity for redemption. Exactly how that was to happen remains a matter of considerable dispute among the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). However, Augustine, a bishop in the early Christian church, urged believers to treat their history—in effect, their material ancestry—as a liability to be mastered and overcome on the path to salvation.
It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of this move for Western thought. It sowed the seeds of its major emancipatory projects, which were then imitated throughout the world. Keep in mind that the default tendency in most parts of the world has been for people to be identified and their lives legitimized by temporal lines of descent. By focusing on Original Sin, Augustine not only undermined that presumption but also opened the prospect that there was an alternative, ‘atemporal’ line of human descent. In the Greek fashion adopted by the Christians, under the influence of John the Evangelist, this alternative mode of being in the world was characterized as logos, and under the influence of Hegel and Marx became associated with the ‘dialectical logic’ of history. Augustine himself evocatively distinguished the (atemporal) ‘City of God’ from the (temporal) ‘City of Man’ as being in perpetual competition until ‘the end of time’.
However, it is worth observing that those who ‘go trans-’ are not normally Marxists or even Hegelians—but liberals. I think of the economist Deirdre (née Donald) McCloskey and the lawyer Martine (née Martin) Rothblatt. The former is not only a distinguished economic historian of the UK but also an early advocate of feminist economics. The latter is not only a pioneer in satellite communications law but also a long-standing champion of digital cloning and mind uploading as means to overcome the channeling of humanity that she dubs the ‘apartheid of sex’. It follows that we should pause to recall the radical character of liberalism, which turned on prying open a preemptively closed past to reveal a vast unexploited future.
The early Protestant Reformers associated ‘tradition’ (especially as espoused by the Church of Rome) with our ‘fallen’ condition. They took the seemingly endless plight of the Biblical Jews as indicative of humanity having repeatedly gone down the wrong path after Adam’s original separation from God, such that from God’s standpoint it looks like we’re wandering aimlessly in the world. (As Derrida and others have observed, this is the etymological root of error.) The image of the ‘path’ was secularized in modern times: Instead of Adam’s alienation from God, humanity is now alienated from its own godlike genius. Thus, economists nowadays diagnose ‘path dependency’ as a problem in technological development, whereby the first innovator to capture a market effectively closes a previously boundless space of opportunities, which results in the conceptual equivalent of owned land, in terms of which subsequent producers and consumers need to orient their minds and activities. It’s a form of rentiership—a swear word in the lexicon of both Marx and Ricardo—that amounts to a ‘narrowcasting’ of human potential.
Creative Destruction, Reform, and Trans-
When Joseph Schumpeter characterized the genius of the entrepreneur in terms of the ‘creative destruction’ of markets, he meant those who strayed from the established paths in order to open a vast new world of opportunities. He had in mind Henry Ford. The difference between the sacred and secular versions of this vision is that the Protestant Reformers who informed ‘the spirit of capitalism’, as Max Weber put it, thought of this ‘opening’ as a reopening of the sphere of mastery that Adam had enjoyed before the Fall. The depth of critique implied in the use of cis- should be understood at this level. Just because earlier generations made bad choices—or even suffered at the hands of fate—it does not follow that we must repeat and compound the initial disadvantage. We can retell the story of who we are, so that the seemingly inevitable is reduced to a reversible error, which in turn motivates the will to radical change. ‘Trans-’ people attempt to achieve this in their own lives by taking seriously—and often literally—that they were born in the ‘wrong body’ and that it is only through their own effort that they might be extricated from this fallen state.
Liberalism and radicalism were born joined at the hip at a time when ‘socialism’ was seen as the culmination of—not an alternative to—liberalism. The first movement to adopt the name ‘radical’ was Utilitarianism, which is not surprising if you consider Jeremy Bentham’s sympathy for the French Revolution, his contempt for English common law (which is based on a tradition set by precedent), and his enthusiasm for reforming political and legal institutions. He was just as happy as Robespierre to slash and burn the past—albeit with less overt terror and violence. This attitude was inherited by what became the ‘analytic’ school of philosophy in the twentieth century—and of course, ‘neoliberal’ political economy in our own day. It was underwritten by what the early nineteenth century French lawyer and liberal publicist Charles Comte (no relation to Auguste) dubbed permanent revolution, in the context of how radicals should respond to the ultimate failure of the French Revolution of 1789. As the saying goes: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The intellectual side of the Cold War was largely fought by the followers of Karl Marx and Karl Popper over who understood this imperative correctly.
However, like the Protestant Reformers, these original radicals were ‘anti-expert’ and even ‘populist’ in impulse but ‘institutionalist’ in execution. They were the anti-establishment that became the new establishment. Marx wanted to stop that pattern. He put his cards on the table in The Communist Manifesto, when he declared, in the wake of the 1848 revolutionary wave across Europe, that the liberals had sold out to the monarchists, preventing the rest of humanity—the ‘workers of the world’—from throwing down the chains of their past as the liberals themselves (aka bourgeoisie) had done.
To be sure, there was some brief synergy between Marxists and liberals in the generation leading to the First World War, as both tackled monopoly capitalism in the name of ‘Progressivism’. Monopoly capital had become the economic expression of the new rentiership that prevented most humans from escaping their subjugated status, only now transferred from the farm to the factory. Its ideological expression was ‘Social Darwinism’, which aimed to create a sense of inevitability that such hierarchy is natural, and that history is simply about getting the hierarchical ordering right. As mentioned above, the different strategies subsequently pursued by Marxists and liberals to abolish the very idea of a ‘natural hierarchy’ eventuated in the Cold War that defined the second half of the twentieth century. Of course, we now live in a quite different world, one where some people hope that nature will deliver its own hierarchy through catastrophic change, à la Nick Land’s ‘Dark Enlightenment’.
Nevertheless, Marx’s original concern remains relevant if we think that the future is our personal responsibility, yet it may also demand a transformation in who ‘we’ are. In this context, the current hostility to ‘trans-’ framings by some feminists and other identity politicians is striking. They reproduce the hypocrisy that Marx originally observed in liberals who refused to consider the need for what amounted to a second-order self-transformation. Thus, nowadays women who fight for recognition as women in a male-dominated society do not also fight for anyone to be recognized as a woman; Blacks in a White-dominated society do not also fight for anyone to be recognized as Black; etc. Just as the bourgeoisie impeded workers’ emancipation through a restricted sense of their world-historic mission, feminists and other identity politicians appear to want to close the door shut for other potential women, Blacks, etc., once they have passed through. But why?
Here we need to grasp the true meaning of ‘second-order self-transformation’. It requires, as Kant might say, a cosmopolitanization of one’s self-understanding. When I assert my identity, I call out to anyone else who might share that identity. To be sure, the respondents may not be those I expected—or even wanted. Nevertheless, insofar as I assert this identity of myself, I assert it potentially of anyone else. This is the spirit of Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. And it applies no less to human as an identity. Deployed ‘properly’ (and this is where the debate should start), the Turing Test should work as a cosmopolitan call to all potential humans. Thus, we might rid the world of cishumanity, whereby one’s humanity is primarily displayed by one’s Homo sapiens origins. It might even be a ‘carbon-neutral’ sense of humanity that permits silicon-based beings to count as human, including robots and, importantly, digital avatars of earlier carbon-based selves.
However, there is an implication of this entire line of thought for those who have one eye on the past and one on the future: Cosmopolitanism invites a radical revision of ‘our’ history in the name of a more inclusive future. This is true to the spirit of ‘permanent revolution’, which I have characterized in terms of quantum epistemology. In other words, some a priori unlikely candidate might pass the Turing Test, which in turn forces the testers to question what they were really testing for. The result may be a revisionary history of humanity, whereby we tell the story differently from the start because of what we have now allowed to pass as human. And once we open the door to multiple sorts of humans, we equally open the door to whence they came, which in turn should serve to redefine who we are.
Steve Fuller, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick.
Fuller, Steve. 2022. “Who are ‘You’ in the Future of Humanity?” Who are ‘You’ in the Future of Humanity?—Käte Hamburger Kolleg Aachen: Cultures of Research (rwth-aachen.de).
Fuller, Steve. 2019. “The Metaphysical Standing of the Human: A Future for the History of the Human Sciences.” History of the Human Sciences 32 (1): 23-40.
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