When regarding prehistoric cave paintings and contemplating human identity, one imagines a time when it is possible that the question Who am I? was less externally determined than simply understood through comparison: threat versus prey, dead versus living, male versus female. Millennia onward, human identity is now in a stage of almost unbearable variation and malleability. Contemporary Homo sapiens has infinite choice with regard to determining identity, including the choice of no choice, which may be communicated in statements like: “The idea that identity is subjectively defined is utterly preposterous.” For the “biological determinists” who often promote this form of rhetoric, gender identity in particular is objectively determined and rigidly fixed. But this fixity is now also regarded as equally preposterous to many – most specifically to the group I will refer to as “identity émigrés.” This group has emigrated (digitally, if not physically) from the homeostatic world of gender binary into a new realm, and is in the midst of constructing a novel language – the internet’s lingua franca – to describe the people of their world. I believe that the truth of identity, if there is such a thing, is much more complex than either of these groups, who both view each other as an intense threat to society, is willing to entertain.
The need for, and cause of, identity differentiation has often gone hand-in-hand with human migration, and has varied and metamorphosed over time. Slavoj Žižek analyzed the loss of one identity and the subsequent establishment of another – in this case ethnic identity – through his interpretation of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of desire. Lacan posits that we do not mourn the loss of something we desire. We in fact mourn the loss of our desire for that thing.
[Lacan’s] point is that what happens in melancholia is not that … you lose the object cause of desire. Everything is here, [but] you lose the desire for it. So the true lost object in melancholy is this desire, and I think this explains very nicely a subtle paradox, since we are here in the United States, melting pot, lost European – or whatever, African, Asian identities. Let’s say you decide to go to [the] United States and you are sad about leaving your country. What really makes you sad? I claim it’s not that ‘Oh my God, this is my country I will never see it again’; it’s something much nicer … It is that what you are silently aware of is that after ten, twenty years in [the] United States, you will stop missing your country. You will lose the desire for it. That’s the true horror.
Žižek’s United States is a melting pot composed of people who “lose” their ethnic or cultural identity of origin only to gain the identity of being another ingredient in a cross-cultural human soup. Arguably, the rise of social media and the manner in which we have emigrated and assimilated (or at least acculturated) to living “on the internet” has caused a new phenomenon of identity loss across all categories, with gender standing out as the most significantly altered.
Whether we like it or not, we all now cohabitate in a digital melting pot, where degrees of presumed or actual difference hold at bay the creeping feeling of overwhelming similitude. This similitude creep is everywhere you look and listen, demarcating ever finer points of similarity in what would formally be considered the “unalike.” Which is, perhaps, why predictive social media algorithms are always cynically aligned with our undisclosed interests, versus continually perplexed and bewildered by our inability to be categorized. If this technology didn’t seem to understand us so well, we likely wouldn’t mind it as much.
The incessant identity-debating of these two groups often amounts to what is essentially an online Civil War, with two warring factions battling to create a system of governance that aligns with their interests. Biological determinists view the introduction of legislation that favors identity émigrés to be a menace to the sanctity of their traditional values. Identity émigrés view any opposition posed by biological determinists to expanded gender identity rights as proof that this group is fueled by bigotry. But this “war” is not due to our recent discovery of some Mariana Trench of unfathomable and uncrossable differences in identity, nor is it due to a need to simply get back to some imaginary time “when women were women and men were men.” Contrary to the intense separation that many in these two groups propose is the most fundamental characteristic of our burgeoning reality, I believe many in our newly globalized and digitized world are, as Žižek describes, in mourning for the illusion of difference and separateness that an earlier existence allowed us to experience, and for the idea that we can separate ourselves so easily by either inborn or externally defined traits. By reifying certain identifying structures (by which one remains, in essence, loyal to the gender values of the identity Old World) – or conversely, by insisting that we all comply with a completely new approach to identity classification (ergo charting unknown gender territory in the identity New World) – we are attempting to resolve our melancholic loss of the illusion of separation.
Similitude, at least at an aesthetic level, can be clocked everywhere. It’s in the fact that our public intellectuals have virtually the same TikTok cadences as the Kardashian sisters. It’s in the idea that, in 2016, one could be red-pilled or woke, and each term meant that you are finally seeing through the bullshit to “what is really going on.” It’s seen in the fact that conservative commentator Tomi Lahren, socialite Paris Hilton, and transwoman Gigi Gorgeous are all physical clones of one another, yet each represents a completely different notion of American femininity. More tellingly, it’s revealed in gender warfare like #MGTOW and #METOO, where just two letters open a chasm between men and women that for some can never be crossed – yet feels uncannily similar at its core. And it’s also and perhaps foremost displayed in the idea that whether one is an identity émigré or a biological determinist, the through-line for both parties is both a significant online presence and an absolute obsession with defining identity and with influencing others to comply with one’s definitions.
But similitude only reveals what we choose to recognize as comparable between us. Some (biological determinists) try to wade at the edge of the digital melting pot, where they can throw metaphorical rocks at the strange, intermingling flavors before them and continue to view men and women as wildly different categories – nearly different species – ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Others (identity émigrés) choose to act as if the melting pot has no solid bottom – it is a Lake Baikal of individual difference – and that gender as a category either doesn’t exist at all or is infinitely definable.
Whether one maligns the supposed collapse of differentiation of gender roles, or, conversely, welcomes the ideas that men and women are more alike than different, few have pondered what either of these beliefs – both of which signal to my theory of expanded similitude creep – mean relative to desire. I should preface this by saying that the fear of losing desire is nothing new. I would argue that the physical human migration that defined the past two thousand plus years was likely sponsored by a similar similitude creep, and a search for novelty amongst tribes. The similitude creep we are experiencing now is just an especially novel and widespread version.
But, as it so happens, we humans are particularly deft at constructing on-the-spot differences to fluff up desire and abate lack, in an attempt to dodge the melancholic specter of lost desire. Take, for example, the social climate of the past six or so years, which suggests a severe form of what Anna Freud termed “reaction formation,” an ego defense structure that is simply “believing the opposite” in the face of an unacceptable reality. So, rather than acknowledge the similarities that the internet melting pot has revealed to its new inhabitants, biological determinists and identity émigrés are now entertaining the delusional mindset of being absolutely polarized – they couldn’t be more different if they tried, and are in fact condemned to a fate of unbridgeable opposition. If we look closer at these cohorts, we can see that both employ strategies that come about naturally in human psychosocial development to create contrived states of lack necessary for the foment of desire.
The strategy I would connect mainly to the biological determinists is one of “calculated disgust.” In psychosocial development, calculated disgust can be seen in the way a child may refuse to eat his dinner out of both a dislike of, say, mushrooms and the fact that refusing to eat is basically the only way a young child can exert power and control in his given family dynamic. A little boy may not like mushrooms especially, but his utter refusal to eat them or even look at them, and his gagging when presented with them, may constitute perhaps less an inborn disgust than an external, unconscious “protest” over his lack of power in a given situation.
Calculated disgust allows for the biological determinists the construction of identity reification, which works if not exclusively at least primarily to create stronger alliances (Hitler’s disgust of Jewish people in opposition to Aryan “purity” is a fundamental example of the type of the power that can emerge from a particularly virulent form of contrived disgust). In the world of biological determinists, if the male/female binary is under attack, we must band together to defeat the enemy at the gates. This approach is also the cornerstone of what American family psychiatrist Murray Bowen termed triangulation, wherein a couple – meaning two united parties, not necessarily two individuals – strengthens their tenuous bond by creating a common “enemy.”
We see this type of triangulating in moderate doses all the time. How many of us have attended a wedding where the groom calls the bride “the most amazing woman I have ever met,” thereby assigning literally all other women to the yuck pile of “less-than-she.” This type of statement is seen as blissfully romantic, but it’s really a nakedly external attempt at differentiation between the object of desire and the object of disgust, all in an attempt to create and sustain that which is most elusive: eternal desire. Arguably, at least from my perspective, the similitude creep of contemporary life presents a problem for men and women who need extreme differentiation to feel desire. By constructing a third party whom they can regard with disgust and also see as a threat, biological determinists are able to view themselves as different not just from one another – I, man; you, woman–but also different from these barbarians at the gate of “normalcy.”
But how much of this rhetoric around traditional values is “real,” and how much is contrived to hold up this group’s desire-sustaining matrix, versus their objective ethics? Biological determinists may famously bemoan surgeons who remove breasts from biological females transitioning to male identities, yet these same surgeons – or perhaps not the exact same ones, but surgeons nonetheless – will also augment the breasts of anyone who wants this service to make them look more like … females. To say that one surgery is criminal and to keep mum about the other is surely illustrating one’s engineered disgust specific to visual gender ideals, and perhaps also a belief that any cosmetic alteration is endemically feminine and should therefore be geared toward a traditional interpretation of feminine beauty. Versus, say, one’s outrage at the excesses or blurred lines of the endlessly opportunistic medical industry as a whole–which would be, to my mind, a much more ethically sound proposition.
A young girl who grows breasts at the onset of puberty (as early as age eight or nine) can choose (subconsciously or consciously) to wear shapeless clothing, or starve or overfeed herself to hide her new shape. Or she can accept being overtly sexualized as a “woman” at an age when she’s likely still playing with dolls. But she can’t choose to simply not be looked at as a newly sexually mature “adult” – both men and women will do this to her. Men may try to conceal their gaze or they may not, depending on their understanding of the “rules” of looking at females and breasts. Women may notice a girl’s development and check her out as “new competition,” telling her, archly, “You’re a woman now.” Knowing this, and the fact that the designation of womanhood can feel more like a diagnosis or an assignment than a “fact,” can we really say that the identity of a woman “just is”?
With this in mind, I do not find the fact that some very young girls now want to have their breasts removed (or to not develop them at all) surprising. Girls have historically used many tactics to change their developing body in order to dodge the premature application of an externally defined sexuality. They now just have the means of the medical industry – which, in these cases, typically asserts itself as either ethically neutral or capitalistically determined – to perform this service. A similar argument can be made for developing boys, and I find it astounding that more attention isn’t given to the lack of agency children have in determining how they are looked at and by whom, and how this controls their identity (which, in puberty, is arguably neither subjectively nor objectively defined, but instead relationally and socio-culturally administered).
So does that mean that the identity émigrés are “right”? Do we need new rules for determining gender identity? Their response to the rising heat inside the internet melting pot, where they have come to renounce their identity of origin and take up new citizenship, seems to point toward individual distinction versus binary difference. More specifically, there is the belief that identity is something one feels on the inside, and that this feeling must be given not only the privilege to express outwardly, but also the exact type of recognition and accommodation the “identity feeler” decrees acceptable. The objectively unrealistic telos of this expression is validation: whatever one feels on the inside must be acknowledged and regarded as “true” by all others. However, this promise of infinite variety seems to inadvertently reveal a finitude of “real” – in the Lacanian sense – difference. It also reveals the shadow side of melting pot cultures: the deeper one wades into this human soup, the less special they feel, which in some may lead to a nervous contrivance of “fashionable” identities invested in displaying one’s calculated distinction.
German sociologist Georg Simmel, in his book Fashion, makes the claim that, “Changes in fashion reflect the dullness of nervous impulses: the more nervous the age, the more rapidly its fashions change, simply because the desire for differentiation, one of the most important elements of all fashion, goes hand in hand with the weakening of nervous energy.” While Simmel is speaking of fashion in terms of style, trend and dress, he is also alluding to what he terms, “the teleological individual [who] represents the counterpole of the imitative mortal. The imitator is the passive individual, who believes in social similarity and adapts himself to existing elements; the teleological individual, on the other hand, is ever experimenting, always restlessly striving, and he relies on his own personal conviction.” In identity émigrés, we see this striving and experimentation in the multitude of identities presented, and we also see how this results in identity trends that deliberately seek to buck established norms while also seeming all too similar to each other.
Like calculated disgust, “calculated distinction” is also a behavior found in children who wish to exert power and control within their family dynamic and have little recourse of action to do so. With calculated distinction, a child can pretend to be a lion or a dragon or a mix between Snoopy and Superman, and insist with absolute authority that they be regarded by their family as such. If a little girl pretends to be a lion, she is essentially demarcating herself as more special and unique, or at least very different, than the other humans around her. This is a tactic that identity émigrés seem if not completely invested in, at least attracted to. If disgust is the move used by some biological determinists (Simmel’s “imitative mortals”) to create desire, distinction seems to be the play that some identity émigrés (Simmel’s “teleological individuals”) employ in an effort to compete in the internet melting pot of similarity by creating desire via the largely unconscious notion that one must be “a creature unlike any other.” Those who favor the aesthetics or optics of infinite difference perhaps do so with the belief that they can create a kind of vacuum to draw in desire. The identity émigré feels that without contrived difference there may be only indifference, and fears being washed away on a wave of this indifference. For this cohort, distinction keeps the idea of desire beyond the “traditional” gender binary alive.
If these groups are separated by no “real” differences beyond the coping strategies they employ to keep desire alight and lack of desire (the creepiness of similitude creep) at bay, why do they hate each other so much? This might be another side effect of the internet melting pot, which comforts those lost in its murky seas with the promise of affinity-minded communities and relationships that are often defined in opposition to other groups (incels come to mind, reflecting Lacan’s view of ascetics whose greatest desire is to not desire at all). It is obvious that social media is engineered for precisely this type of affinity collation, but I feel an even more duplicitous aspect of affinity collation is found on dating apps. These services match people primarily on looks, but an attractive appearance (believe it or not) is just one aspect of desire. What these apps really achieve is to pair those with similar interests, political perspectives, activity preferences, geolocations, and so forth. This sponsors the notion that what people “want” is to be with people who act and think like them, which does little to cater to the electric, incalculable difference that often defines authentic desire.
In my experience, authentic desire has no regard for political affiliations, typically makes no sense, and has an internally defined logic that bewilders anyone outside of it (and often those inside of it). Rather than trying to cater to the largely uncaterable desire drive, these apps instead create a world of cozy couples whose love affairs sometimes feel more like political alliances than anything else – which is perhaps why the neutered term “partner” has become so popular in this time period. These couples, some of whom will never know the messy thrill of inconvenient or transgressive love, need external contrivances like triangulation to bond; they need the shared disgust of a third party to create an “us versus them” mentality. Or they need to feel like they’re two utterly unique misfits in a world that doesn’t understand them, to be warmed by the codependent embrace of a relationship that allows for a “me and you against the world” mentality.
Despite the overwhelming emphasis on identity in recent years, I do not believe we are experiencing a global identity crisis: We are experiencing a desire crisis. The term desire can be traced to the Latin word desiderare: “to await what the stars will bring.” Biological determinists may have no respect for the manner in which cultural evolution often drags humanity haplessly along with it. And identity émigrés may have no respect for the laws of nature, and how these laws represent deep truths about the manner in which matter creates being. But whatever one feels or believes or holds dear, the one inescapable aspect of human existence is the call of desire, which tends to locate difference in confusing and unexpected ways. Whether one chooses to heed or ignore their desire, it exists in complete disregard of logic or accountability or traditions or pronouns. It is the glue of our reality, beckoning us ever forward into the arms of our most inconvenient truths.