An aging man makes a last grab at the brass ring of glamour once earned, now dissipated. Razzle-dazzle aside, it is a melancholy spectacle. Caitlyn Jenner himself is more an object of compassion than of interest. What is interesting, and still clamors for attention, is the piety with which the punditi and everyone else rushed to assign feminine pronouns to him.
To emphasize the dependence of truth on well-ordered language, cultural critic Karl Kraus once quipped that every correctly placed comma is decisive. How much more consequential, then, are the words used to describe the pseudoreality of Caitlin Jenner. Implicit in the prevailing derailment of usage is a pervasive mood of assent to the veracity of simulation.
Imbedded in the temper of our time is a growing submission to the sovereignty of facsimiles over realities. Hooked to the drip feed of virtual reality, we ingest fantasies of a world remade in the image of our own imaginings. The truth of things is less compelling than our willed experience of them. Credulity beckons.
Jenner’s Genes Won The Game In His Mother’s Womb
When Caitlyn menstruates that will be time enough to apply feminine pronouns to him. There is little chance, though, of ever having to make good on that concession. At sixty-five, Caitlyn — were he a real woman — would be post-menopausal by now. But he is not real; he is counterfeit. No amount of surgery and hormone therapy annuls the Y chromosome carried by every cell in his body. Even if he were to delete the male genitals he has kept so far, that implacable chromosome remains. The man can play Let’s Pretend for the rest of his life, but his genes won the game in his mother’s womb.
That prompts two approaches to the refashioned Jenner. One is to see him as a man willing to mutilate himself in an extreme act of performance art. (In the 1970s heyday of the genre, self-wounding was integral to the act.) The second is to gawk at an expensively crafted, carefully maintained freak. Instead of Anne Jones, Barnum & Bailey’s Bearded Lady, we moderns have Caitlyn Jenner, pop culture’s Breasted Gent.
There is more at work here, though, than circus. Anne Jones was naturally hirsute. (Which did not stop her from marrying. Twice.) By contrast, Caitlyn Jenner and his brotherhood of transwomen, are biotechnical artifacts. Their feminine characteristics are commodities, purchased from the technological and pharmaceutical marketplace of advanced consumer culture.
Call Him Caitlyn of Malibu
It is tempting, then, to take Jenner as a symptom of American vulgarity. Call him Caitlyn of Malibu, and let the place name conjure up the rest. However, the coded handle does not cover transwomen like Chelsea of the Pentagon, aka Bradley Manning; or Michelle of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, born Robert Kosilek, wife-murderer. It leaves out the suggestible kids at Camp Aranu’tiq, a get-away for transgender and “gender-variant” youngsters, some still in grammar school.
There is nothing specifically American about transsexualism. Sex change surgery, begun in Europe, was initially resisted by surgeons here as “medical mayhem.” In 1951, a Bronx-born veteran named George went to Denmark for sexual reassignment, returning home as the celebrated Christine Jorgensen. Scandinavia still leads. If passed, a bill newly introduced in Norway will allow prepubescent children as young as seven to choose — with parental consent but without psychiatric or medical evaluation — to which sex gender they belong.
Sex-change operations are performed worldwide from Athens and Istanbul to Bangkok, Tehran, Gdansk, and points in between. However American the style — Malibu again — of Jenner’s impersonation of womanhood, the substance of the transgender phenomenon points elsewhere.
Our Era’s Tilt Toward Unreality
The pseudosex delusion of transgenderism, and public deference toward it, is a symptom of the opium den contemporary popular culture has become. We live with simulation in so many aspect of our lives, from politics to entertainment. Fake realities become ever more seductive. Illustrating the simplest level of purchased fantasy, Omaha’s Lied Jungle, an artificial indoor rain forest, passes as the real thing.
The New York Botanical Gardens hired a set designer to “reimagine” Frida Kahlo’s Mexican garden. Visitors can masquerade with a “Frida Selfie.” The painter’s relationship with Trotsky is more instructive than her plants. But people come for spectacle, not understanding. A product of expanding publicity over the last twenty-five years, Fridamania sells.
Our era’s tilt toward unreality is fueled by increasing layers of illusion: virtual identities, cyber-selves, video gaming, all-enveloping multi-modal simulation. The production of experiences — sensory and psychic immersion in invented realities — keeps customers coming. Even The Weather Channel offers users the means to create their “personal weather experience.”
The 2008 presidential candidate who made a stump speech between styrofoam columns on a political stage set had taken the temperature of the electorate with exquisite accuracy. What Daniel Boorstein referred to in 1962 as the “bewitching unrealities of American life in the twentieth century” have become the universal currency of modernity — bitcoins for digital utopians. They are abstractions with no reference to anything actual outside the desires of the aspiring spender.
The creeping ascendance of technology-induced spectacle follows us into the twenty-first century with no apparent brake in sight. Pace Mort Zuckerberg, virtual reality is not simply the Next Big Thing; it is the Big Thing. Technology is no longer simply a tool. It has swollen into a habitat, become an end in itself. It is the environment to which we increasingly trust our social relations, our politics, and — ultimately — our ethics. Reality, too, is a show.
So-called sexual reassignment exists because galloping technology permits the myth of Tiresias to be tried on in real life, free of concern for wider societal consequences. Transsexualism is inseparable from the swagger of modern technology and the belief system it generates, a bent sustained by the parallel ascendency of the therapeutic imagination. (Not for nothing was Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic subtitled Uses of Faith After Freud.)
He Slides Effortlessly Into She
Faith in images — quickly, easily grasped — displaces the slow, strenuous effort by which a morally animated society maintains itself. A YouTube clip of Caitlyn Jenner discussing hair extensions with his daughter presents the two as equal partners in girl talk. That a father can be as girlish as his daughter is seemingly the most natural thing in the world. The video lulls viewers into experiencing Kylie Jenner’s womanhood and her father’s mimicry of it as equivalents. The cultural gauge by which disorder is measured dissolves in the sway of image over fact.
As our conceptual habits change, so does our orientation toward reality. Powers of reflection and scrutiny diminish. Language follows suit. He slides effortlessly into she. New words are spawned that permit a synthetic state of affairs to eclipse reality. The word transphobia and transphobic are the latest sophistries to deflect resistance to those manufactured layers of illusion that combine in gender ideology.
Some four decades back, philosopher Thomas Molnar, arguing with Arnold Gehlen’s earlier Man in the Age of Technology, wrote:
No matter what sophisticated machines we build, man remains man and machines, insofar as they enter our imagination at all, will be strange, freakish, monstrous, or ridiculous Frankensteins.
Since then, culture has loosened its grip on Molnar’s fidelity to the human condition. It has hedged the difference between man and his techniques. Unless we guard our language, we become incapable of the distinctions on which moral judgments are made. Without them, we make ourselves monstrous.