Žižek’s Essentialism

So, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. Again. This time, it’s Žižek. Again. I’ve still not read any of Žižek’s own work, but people mention him often and he is a shameless self-promoter. In this video clip, he responds to whether gender is a social construct. Unfortunately, he conflates gender with sex, and his examples cite transsexuals not transgenders.

sex is about biological sex assignment

To set the stage, sex is about biological sex assignment—the sex category you are assigned into at birth: male, female, or other for some 1.8%. This is a simplistic categorisation: penis = male; vagina = female; both or neither: rounding error. In some cases, a decision is made to surgically conform the child to either male or female and ensure through prophylactic treatment that this isn’t undone hormonally in adolescence.

gender is about identity

Gender is about identity. As such, it is entirely a social construct. All identity of this nature is a function of language and society. In this world—in the West—, females wear dresses (if they are to be worn at all) and males don’t—kilts notwithstanding. In this world, sex and gender have little room for divergence. so the male who identifies as this gender (not this sex) is ostracised.

The example I usually consider first is the comedian Eddie Izzard—a cross-dresser. He’s probably a bad example because he does identify as a male. He just doesn’t wish to be constrained by male role restrictions and wants to wear the makeup that’s been reserved for women in the West at this time.

Žižek eventually gets to an argument about essentialism—so we’re back at Sorites paradoxes and Theseus again. At the start, I could argue that the sexual distinction has few meaningful contexts. For me, unless I am trying to have sex and/or procreate, the distinction is virtually meaningless. For others, only procreation remains contextually relevant. In this technological world, as Beauvoir noted in the late 1940s, strength differentials are not so relevant. End where they are, sex is not the deciding factor—it’s strength.

Žižek’s contention seems to be that the postmoderns (or whomever) disclaim essentialism in favour of constructivism but then resolve at essentialism as a defence because ‘now I am in the body originally intended’. I’ll argue that this is the logic employed by the person, but this person is not defending some academic philosophical position. They are merely engaging in idiomatic vernacular.

I am not deeply familiar with this space, and if the same person who is making a claim against essentialism is defending their actions with essentialism, then he’s got a leg to stand on. As for me, the notions of essentialism and constructivism are both constructed.