April 28, 2012

Transgender and the mind and body conundrum


An instinct for soccer.
Given the strong criticism om the very idea of using Jung for studying the transgender psyche, I think it is time for me to make clear what I mean about the interaction between mind and body and terms like "the inner woman" and "the inner man".

Can instincts and archetypes generate symbols?

In the discussions at this blog wxhlup has repeatedly criticized  me for arguing that crossdreaming may have a biological core.

Her argument argument seems to be that crossdreaming is an expression of symbols, semiotics or language, and instincts have no language. Instincts cannot be expressed in symbols, and therefore they cannot influence the way we think about ourselves and others.

Because of this, the argument goes,  it makes no sense to talk about "an inner woman"  or "inner man", as I do, or about  instincts or archetypes that shape the way we see the world. Instincts and archetypes are not cultural and therefore cannot be translated into language or symbols.

Similarly the biological base cannot generate the desire to be a man or a woman, since both sex and gender -- according to this line of thinking -- are social constructs and social constructs only.

If I understand this line of thinking correctly, this also means that Jung's idea of primordial biological patterns or archetypes influencing the content of dreams, myths and fantasies, must be wrong.

These symbols are not produced by the human body, but by the "language games", "schemata", "belief systems" or "semiotics" of human culture. They are produced by the "cultural software" and not the "biological hardware".

The role of symbols

I have actually learned a lot from the kind of post-structuralist philosophy wxhlup is so fond of. I have no doubt the cultural belief systems we grow up in wields enormous power over our way of understanding the world. That is: Our words and concepts and the word views they are part of, forces us to think in certain ways.

My deconstruction of the "autogynephilia" narrative of Ray Blanchard is indebted to the postmodern philosophy of Michel Foucault, and my constant nagging about the differences between the genders being negligible as regards abilities and personality traits is also based on this way of thinking.



We see what we are brought up to see, and not what is really there. Normally it is only those that are forced onto the narrow path are, in the end, able to see the suppression and the terror.

Still, I absolutely refuse to let Foucault, Butler, Deleuze and the lot free me from one prison, only to  put me into another. And that is exactly what happens when these philosophers become the only guides to understanding sex and gender.

These thinkers have painted themselves into a corner where it is simply impossible to even consider the effect biology has on the mind. Butler would not be  able to recognize an instinct if it came with an hammer and hit her on the head, simply because she lives in a world where only language may produce meaning.

(My instincts constantly hit me in the head. That is the problem.)

Judith Butler does, for instance,  a brilliant analysis of how our view of not only gender, but also biological sex, is socially  constructed. And if you read, as I have, the history of biological research on sex, it is easy to see how these researchers have been caught up in the prejudices of the day.

But the fact that experts and scientists have projected their own prejudices onto the canvas of human bodies, does not prove that your gonads have absolutely no effect on your behavior or the way you look at the world. Personally I think the effect is minor, if not close to zero, but Butler's theory does not prove this. All she can prove is that our understanding of sexual differences are influenced by the dominating cultural beliefs.

The role of instincts

I find it extremely hard to believe that the symbolic mind cannot be influenced by the instinctive body.

After all, add hormones, alcohol, caffeine, morphine, or a severe disease to a human body, and he or she starts seeing the world in a different way. She may become depressed. She may become euphoric. She may hallucinate. She may find it hard to think coherently. What seemed impossible yesterday, suddenly becomes child's play.

And yes, drugs and disease may trigger avalanches of symbolic content, ideas, images and fantasies. I know this, as I once had my own journey down into hell, caused by a severe infection mixed with morphine provided by the hospital. It is not that the hallucinations I had  were not using imagery fetched from my life and my culture. Of course they were! But the fever and the drugs caused my mind to produce seriously weird mash-ups of those symbols, images and stories.

To me it is obvious that the psyche is influenced by what takes place in the body. I have seen the change of a diet change the whole mentality of a man! And if caffeine can make me think differently, you can bet a an instinct can.

Instincts contain information

Instincts (or fixed action patterns as they are called now) may not contains symbols or language, but they do contain information. The mind will try to make sense of this information. That is the bridge between instincts and semiotics.

We know of newly hatched chicks whose instincts make them run for cover when they see the silhouette of a hawk, but not the shadow of a pigeon. The chick has never seen a hawk before and has no theory of hawkness, but the instinct does drive it to action. "Danger! Run!" (cp. the work of Nikolaas Tinbergen).
Semiotic overload

Walter B. Cannon described the flight or fight response where a perceived threat automatically triggers a long rage of physiological and psychological reactions preparing an animal or a human being to escape or attack.

The threat triggers the instincts which again triggers the physiological reaction, which are mirrored in the feeling of fear. The feeling is conscious. The feeling immediately becomes "semiotic", that is part of that human being's understanding of the world and how it works.

The instinct triggering this fear and anger cannot be observed, but it perfectly clear that a man threatened by a lion or another human being translates this feeling into some kind of narrative or threat analysis in order to make sense of it all -- unless, of course, the threat is a forbidden urge or feeling that is taboo and must be denied.

If that happens the individual is likely to attribute the threat to someone else. The fear is projected or it is denied completely. At that point fear is turned into angst or anxiety -- i.e. a feeling of fear that sees no immediate threat. Still, there is no denying that the instinct and its effects triggers the production of  symbolic content.

The games that we play

Both pups, kittens and young human beings love playing hide and seek. In the animals it is obvious that the young ones are training for adulthood. Knowing how to hide for predators and how to catch prey is absolutely necessary. Their instincts drive them to try out this behavior again and again. Indeed, it brings them much pleasure. It is fun. This is what life is about.

I  find it very hard to believe that  human children are completely different from the animals in this respect. Oh sure, the human kids put their basic need into a cultural context. They are cops and criminals, cowboys or Indians. But they share the most of the genes of their furry counterparts and even in this day and age escape is an instinct that may come in handy.

By the way, both dogs, cats and obscenely  well paid grown men take much pleasure in chasing balls. The men have developed a complex set of "semiotic" rules and rituals around this basic instinct, but to me at least this is clear proof of instincts influencing human behavior.

The "catch the thing that moves" instinct leads the human mind to develop symbols and theories to explain and contextualize this behavior.

Beyond the the simple moves

The question is, of course, whether instincts, archetypes or directed biological drives  may generate more complex psychic content. Does it, for instance, make sense to say that archetypes  generate characters and action lines in myths and fairy tales?

Secondly, does the symbolic content production (i.e. thoughts and ideas) triggered by these instincts show any kind of consistency across cultures and individuals? In other words: Is there a relationship between the inborn instinct and the content patterns produced?

Jung certainly think so. I think it is perfectly possible that he is right.

To give an example: When it comes to more advanced children's games, like hopscotch, we find archetypal patterns similar to the ones found in fairy tales.

I have seen kids play hopscotch in many countries. If you ask the kids (or their parents, for that matter) what the game means they will just shrug. It is just a game.

What they are doing, though, is replaying the myth of man's journey from the normal world up to the celestial heaven and back again. The hopscotch pattern is a church and a tempel. The game reflects the archetype of the hero and his journey from normal life to the world beyond -- that is a world where every truism is questioned --  and back again.

For each level they reach, it becomes harder to succeed, just as in real life. This is a pattern repeated in many modern role playing computer games. They are mythical and archetypal, and the most obvious explanation for why people are drawn to such drama, is that it satisfies some kind of inborn instinct or archetype. My analysis of the Japanese animated movie, Ponyo, points in the same direction.

Many transgender people are forced onto the hero's journey whether they want it or not. But they have an access to an inner  "guide" that helps them navigate this chaos. Jungs point is that the games and the myths express this underlying and basic pattern in various ways.

Hopscotch pattern (Wikipedia)
There is no hopscotch chalk drawing programmed into the archetype of the hero's journey, but there may be a drive towards self-reflection and a need to discover the unconscious part of the psyche.

This drive will be quite similar to the "archetype" found in the seed of a tree: Make leaves and branches in this way! Then make seeds!

The main difference is that as human beings we have developed a language that makes it possible to illustrate and talk about the effects of such archetypes.

Indeed, this exactly why we are not completely in the power of instincts and drives. We have ways of controlling their effect on our lives, but that does not mean that they have no effect.

The archetypes do not contain symbolic content

I do not mean that there are fairy tales embedded in our genes. What I mean is that there are simple behavioral patterns, drives that drives us towards certain ways of behaving. The myths, dreams and fairy tales are the mind's attempt at making sense of these drives.

The reason the same motives pop up in fairy tales all over the world is that all human beings share certain life experiences. Everyone know the concept of the journey, which is why the mind easily use the journey as a symbol when trying to grasp the effects of the hero archetype.

Jung was very clear about this: The archetypes do not contain symbolic content in themselves, but they do influence the psyche to produce symbolic content, so that they psyche becomes able to grasp what the archetype is about.

He writes:

"Again and again, i encounter the mistaken notion that an archetype is determined in regard to its content, in other words that it is a kind of unconscious idea (if such an expression be admissible). It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree. A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it has become conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience."
(Collected Works 9, par 155.)

Inner woman

When I use the word "inner woman" about the inner lives of male to female crossdreamers, I do not mean that they have an internal instinct that contains a strong sense of color coordination, a desire for expensive French handbags and an urge to stay chained to the kitchen stove.

Of course not!

The terms "inner woman" and "inner man"are just shorthand for whatever it is that triggers the avalanche of transgender identification, being that an association with cultural feminine values, body dysphoria or crossdressing fetishes.

The terms "inner woman" and "inner man" point to the belief that there is some kind of inborn set of factors that makes them experience themselves as women, or men, or gender queer.  Then they try to express that side of themselves by using symbols found in their surrounding culture.

This set of factors may be grounded in a biological factor or -- much more likely -- a large number of factors.

But even if this is so, that alone cannot explain the complexity of the various transgender conditions. The symbolic and cultural side of man always plays an important part in how this condition is played out in a human beings life, and since each and every one of us has a unique life trajectory, not one of these incarnations are alike.

The idea of "a woman trapped in a man's body" makes sense as a metaphor. But it can not be understood literally, that is, as if trans women embed a kind of internal "Eternal Woman" that contains all the various feminine traits and behavior the Pope, Michelle Bachmann or the Taliban think is God given.

But there may be something that triggers the deep felt sense of being a woman, or -- which is just as likely -- which influences the way we place ourselves in relationship to other people.

So let me just make this perfectly clear: The idea that the instincts are unable to generate symbolic content in the mind is as meaningless as saying that the external world cannot influence the conscious or unconscious psyche.

The fact that the I cannot observe the external world (Das Ding an sich) directly, does not mean that it is not there, or that it has no effect on my understanding of the world. And the internal world is as real as the external. In fact, seen from the view point of the ego, the instincts are part of the external world.

(By the way, it was not biology that inspired Jung to develop the theory of the archetypes, but Immanuel Kant's idea of inborn categories used to interpret the world.)

Navajo sand mandala
Do we need the biological basis for archetypes?

Still,  wxhlup would be right in asking why Jung needs a biological basis for the archetypes. It is possible to develop a theory that makes them the end product of socialization and culture.

For instance: Motherhood is ubiquitous in all human cultures, due to the simple fact that breastfeeding is a natural process that requires a special relationship between the child and its mother.

You do not need a biological explanation for the similarity between the mother goddesses of the world.

In the same way you could say that the archetype of the trickster (the mischievousness coyote in Native American folklore and the jester in Medieval Europe) will appear everywhere, because cultural and dogmatic repression requires figures who can express the true  uncertainty of life.

Or maybe the visual similarity between Indian, European and Native American demons are caused by cross-cultural influences.

Western mandala, a rose window, a symbol of the Self
Maybe. This will actually not make much of a difference when it comes to using the archetypes in the interpretation of the transgender condition. You can still use the concepts to interpret the effects of the unconscious  mind has on our understanding of ourselves.

The geometry of the mind

It should be noted, though, that Jung (and others after him) have found cross-cultural similarities that are hard to explain without some kind of biological anchoring.

This especially applies to the use of geometric, non-human, figures to symbolize the whole of the psyche.

You find mandalas in China, India, Europe and among Native Americans, where they all use them to illustrate the balance between different forces in the world and/or in the psyche.

Personally, I have not finally finally concluded as regards the biological basis for Jung's archetypes -- although in my studies of art, myths and my own mind I have found much that point in that direction.

If there is such a basis it cannot be reduced to a banal one to one relationship between -- let's say -- genes or regions of the brain -- and the individual archetypes. This is because the archetypes blend and overlap.

Eastern mandala, Buddhist sand paining
In other words: The complexity of the world of archetypes can only be explained by a similar complexity in their biological basis.

Back to the "inner woman"

What wxhlup finds so disturbing is that I believe that there is a biological trigger behind the male to female crossdreamer's dream about being a woman or the female to male crossdreamers urge to be on  top in bed.

But the truth is that the term is useful even if you believe that the transgender condition is produced by the mad interplay of symbols and of signifiers and the the signified.

Even if there is no real difference between the masculine and the feminine in reality, it is a fact that we -- as transgender -- react to a cultural context that insists that these concepts have meaning. On our hero's journey the terms may help us grasp who we are, and who we are not, even if it is by transcending them.

As the Buddha will tell you, at the end of the journey you will have to abandon all concepts.

More posts in the psychology series.

By the way: Thomas Dolby has written a great song about the point where drives meets the semiotics of desire.

Appendix: Reading post-structuralist philosophy

I hesitate to put up a list of recommended post-structuralist books on sex and gender, because -- seriously! -- you will probably need some kind of  university course in philosophy to make sense of them.

Still, they are worth the effort, so I include some references to books that may help you understand relevant post-structuralist thinking on sex and gender.

Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality
Judith ButlerGender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity 
Judith Butler:  Undoing Gender
Judith Butler: Bodies That Matter: On the discursive limits of "sex"
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 
Eugene W. Holland: Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis
Chrysanthi Nigianni and Merl Storr: Deleuze and Queer Theory 
Claire Colebrook and Jami Weinstein (eds): Deleuze and Gender

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!