8 March 2023

Slavoj Žižek: puberty blockers are woke capitalism

The Marxist philosopher speaks of wokeness, the progressive cult of awareness and awakening, giving an evocative psychoanalytic reading of it. And warns that despite appearing under attack today we will have to deal with it for a long time to come
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In a striking article published by Compact, entitled Wokeness is here to stay -which we translate and partially reproduce here- the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek tackles the subject of wokeness, the movement of 'awakening', analysing its critical aspects but also underlining the reasons why we will have to deal with it for a long time to come.


Some argue that 'wokeness' is in decline. In reality, it is gradually being normalised and conformed even by those who inwardly doubt it, and is practised by most academic, corporate and state institutions. That is why it deserves our criticism more than ever - along with criticism of its opposite, the obscenity of the new populism and religious fundamentalism.

We start with the Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon's government pushed the cause of 'awakening' and LGBT issues (almost) all the way. December 2022 heralded a 'historic day for equality' after Scottish lawmakers approved plans to make it easier for people to legally change their gender by extending the new self-identification system to 16- and 17-year-olds. Basically you declare what you feel you are and get registered as what you want to be. A foreseeable problem emerged when Isla Bryson, a biological male convicted of rape, was locked up in a women's prison in Stirling.

Bryson decided he was no longer a man after appearing in court on rape charges. So it was a person identifying himself as a woman who had used his penis to rape two women. It is quite logical: if masculinity and femininity have nothing to do with one's body, and instead have everything to do with one's subjective self-definition, then one must put a penis rapist in prison with captive women. After the protests, Bryson was locked up in a men's prison. But even this is problematic under Scottish law, since we now have a self-identified woman in a men's prison.

Sturgeon resigned because she did not consider that part of the population that is not anti-LGBT, but simply rejects such measures. The point is that there is no easy solution because sexual identity is not in itself a simple form of identity, but a complex dimension, full of inconsistencies and unconscious rats, something that in no way can be established by direct reference to how we feel.

The recent controversy over the use of so-called puberty blockers concerns another aspect of this same complexity: the clinical Tavistock in London was ordered by higher authorities to restrict the use of puberty blockers that suppress hormones and thus suspend a child's sexual development. Tavistock administered these drugs to young people between the ages of 9 and 16 who appeared to be unable to choose their sexual identity. The Tavistock doctors argued that there is a danger that young people who are unable to determine their sexual identity will make a forced choice under pressure from their environment, thus repressing their true inclination (mostly being trans). Puberty blockers would be necessary to enable such young people to postpone their entry into puberty,

Puberty blockers were administered to almost all children sent for evaluation at Tavistock, including autistic and problematic young people who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. In other words, life-altering treatments were administered to vulnerable children before they were old enough to know whether they wanted access to medical care. As stated one of the critics  "a child suffering from gender discomfort needs time and support, so as not to be started on a medical pathway that he or she might later regret".

The paradox is clear: puberty blockers were given to allow young people to pause maturity and freely decide on their sexual identity, but these drugs can also cause numerous other physical and mental illnesses, and no one asked the boys if they were willing to receive drugs with such consequences. Dr Hilary Cass, one of the critics, wrote We ... have no way of knowing whether, rather than buying time to make a decision, puberty blockers can disrupt that decision-making process. Brain maturation can be interrupted temporarily or permanently'.

One should make a further step in this critique and question the claim that arriving at sexual identity is a matter of mature free choice. There is nothing 'abnormal' about sexual confusion: What we call 'sexual maturation' is a long, complex and mostly unconscious process. It is full of violent tensions and reversals, not a process of discovering who you really are deep inside your psyche.

In many gender clinics throughout the West, doctors feel obliged to adopt an 'unquestioning affirmative approach', he said. observed one criticwith little regard for other underlying mental health problems afflicting children. The pressure is indeed twofold. First, doctors are intimidated by the trans lobby, which interprets scepticism towards puberty blockers as a conservative attempt to make it more difficult for trans people to realise their sexual identity. This is aggravated by a financial constraint: More than half of Tavistock's income, for example, came from treating the sexual problems of young people. In short, what we have here is the worst combination of politically correct persecution with the brutal calculation of financial interests. The use of puberty blockers is another case of woke capitalism.

Both of these controversies led to at least a partial victory for the 'anti-awakening' forces: Sturgeon resigned and the Tavistock clinic was closed. But the forces at work have a momentum that far exceeds the opinions of individual politicians and the dynamics of particular institutions. If anything, individuals and institutions are constantly trying to adapt to restrictions from elsewhere, rather than imposing them from the top down. It is therefore certain that similar scandals will continue to multiply.

As if the agitation of interest groups and the constraints of capital were not enough, awakening can also draw on reserves of religious strength. In our official ideological space, revival and religious fundamentalism appear as incompatible opposites, but are they really?

Almost a decade ago, former Muslim activist Maryam Namazie was invited by Goldsmiths College in London to give a lecture on 'Apostasy, blasphemy and freedom of expression in the age of ISIS'. Her speech, which focused on the Islamic oppression of women, was repeatedly and abruptly interrupted by Muslim students. Did Namazie find allies in the feminist college society? No. The feminists sided with the Goldsmiths Islamic Society.

This unexpected solidarity is ultimately based on the similarity in the form of the two speeches: wokeness operates as a secularised religious dogma, with all the contradictions that this entails (...)

Woke are a relatively privileged minority of a minority allowed to attend an elite university seminar (...)

Psychoanalysis has a clear answer to this paradox: the notion of Super-io. Superego is a cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and mocks my failed attempts to meet them. It is the agency in whose eyes I am all the more guilty the more I try to suppress my 'sinful' efforts. The old cynical Stalinist dictum about the accused at mock trials professing their innocence - 'the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot' - is pure superego (...)

As Freud noted, the more we obey the commandment of the superego, the more we feel guilty. The paradox also holds true in the Lacanian reading of the superego as an injunction to enjoy: enjoyment is an impossible-real, we can never fully achieve it, and this failure makes us feel guilty (...).

'Wokeness', awakening, actually stands for its exact opposite. In his Dream Interpretation Freud reports a a father's dream who falls asleep while keeping vigil before the coffin of his son. In this dream his dead son appears to him, uttering the terrible plea: "Father, can't you see that I am burning?" When the father wakes up, he discovers that the cloth on his son's coffin has caught fire from a fallen candle. Why did the father wake up? Perhaps because the smell of smoke had become too strong, so that it was no longer possible to prolong sleep by including it in the improvised dream? Lacan proposes a much more interesting reading: if the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream after all can come so close to the reality that provokes it, can it not be said to correspond to this reality without coming out of sleep? After all, there is such a thing as somnambulistic activity. The question that arises and that all of Freud's previous indications enable us to produce is: What is it that wakes the sleeper? It is not, at dream, another reality? - the reality that Freud describes as follows - Dass das Kind an seinem Bette steht that the child is next to his bed, ihn am Arme fasst She takes him by the arm and whispers in a reproachful tone, und ihm vorwurfsvoll zuraunt: Vater, siehst du denn nicht , Father do not see dass ich verbrennethat I am burning? Is there not more reality in this message than in the noise with which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the next room? Is not the missed reality that caused the child's death expressed in these words?

It was therefore not the intrusion of the signal from external reality that woke the unfortunate father, but the unbearably traumatic character of what he encountered in the dream. Insofar as 'dreaming' means fantasising to avoid confronting the Real, the father literally woke up so that he could continue dreaming. The scene was as follows: when his sleep was disturbed by the smoke, the father quickly constructed a dream incorporating the disturbing element (smoke-fire) to prolong his sleep; however, what he faced in the dream was a trauma (of his responsibility for his son's death) much stronger than reality, therefore woke up in reality to avoid the Real....

Ed is exactly the same for much of the current 'awakened' movement: the awakening awakens us - to racism and sexism - precisely so that we can continue to sleep. It shows us certain realities so that we can continue to ignore the true roots and depth of our racial and sexual traumas.

original article heretranslated by Marina Terragni


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