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Taking Stock of Fiction and the Issue of Feminism and Trans Women

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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I don’t have the definitive answer as to why so many academics I otherwise respect have decided that my articulating the thoughts just expressed are ‘hateful’ or ‘transphobic’; nor why many others, who have no skin in the game either way, seem so content to let them go unchallenged. I think partly it is to do with feminist philosophy being a small club, and with me being an outsider to that club…

I have spent quite a bit of time over the last few months trying to put across an alternative to the dominant ‘inclusion’ narrative: trans women are trans women; they should be protected from all discrimination by the building of special resources for them, wherever they face violence and intimidation; and they should be provided with opportunities to participate equally in society (so perhaps, to get their own shortlists, prizes, and so on). But it is not a ‘right’ of a trans woman to enter a female-only space, or get access to a female-only opportunity, on the basis of saying they are a woman, or even legally counting as such; and it would harm females to allow this.’

The assault upon extreme intentionalism has come from two sides: first, literary theorists, usually influenced by continental philosophy, and second, analytic philosophers. It’s grounded (or ideally should be) in a Gricean approach to language in general, which most continentally-influenced literary theorists would reject, I assume...’

Kathleen Stock writes on the philosophy of fiction, and on issues in feminist philosophy. She’s been doing this for quite some time. In June she wrote ‘ Fourteen years ago, in an opinion column in The Guardian provocatively entitled ‘Gender Benders, Beware’, lesbian feminist activist Julie Bindel wrote that:“I don’t have a problem with men disposing of their genitals, but it does not make them women, in the same way that shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man.”

I vaguely remember reading this at the time, slightly bemused both at the piece and then at the subsequent outraged public reaction to it. Fast forward to a few months ago, and I’ve just published some blog pieces which, though not reaching Bindelesque proportions, have proved moderately controversial in my discipline, academic philosophy. As I discuss and defend my views on social media, and watch others discuss them, the name of Julie Bindel comes up repeatedly, as an example of company which, it is presumed, I absolutely don’t want to keep. A well-established male philosopher intones repeatedly about Bindel’s ‘offensive, transphobic’ comments in the past. Another describes her to me as a ‘loopy extremist’, and ‘potty’. I go back to find the article online and rather disbelievingly check whether it’s the same one I vaguely remember. It is.

Now, to attempt to mitigate against such perceptions, which perhaps you share, I could tell you about Bindel’s frankly stunning track record of effective activism, working on behalf of natal women and girls world-wide with an energy and bravery which borders on heroic. I could tell you that the context of her Guardian piece was partly a discussion of an attempt by trans woman Kimberley Nixon to sue Vancouver Rape Relief for not allowing her to work with traumatised natal women fleeing male sexual violence: a case which rumbled on for another three years before Nixon lost, costing the shelter thousands of dollars to defend against…’

She ends the piece, in which she also discusses Germaine Greer, with this feisty paragraph : ‘The constant harping of progressive men on supposedly salutary examples like Bindel and Greer sends a message to natal women. Don’t say what you think. Don’t express an opinion on what women are; leave it to trans women to decide that. Don’t be assured. Don’t be bold. Don’t be whimsical or linguistically playful. Don’t try to be funny. Watch your mouth. Given the typical circumstances of female socialisation, natal women are already highly susceptible to such messages, and to feeling shame as a result. So here’s a task for any progressive males reading. Next time a natal woman expresses herself in a way you find unattractive, unseemly, unkind, or downright rude about trans people, then, assuming they aren’t “screaming it in a trans person’s face”: why not shut the fuck up and keep it to yourself.’

Here she discusses two issues: from the philosophy of literature extreme intentionalism, why it is often rejected by both so-called continentals and so-called analytics, why she defends it, whether it can be applied to all the arts or only literature; and then from the philosophy of feminism the toxic issue of transgender, what her position is, and why she thinks fellow academics and others have objected to the arguments in the way they have. This latter issue is particularly relevant today in the UK as proposed changes to the law are being discussed in Parliament.

3:AM:   What made you become a philosopher?

Kathleen Stock: My Dad taught Geography at an East End school in London in the 60s. He started a degree at Birkbeck in the evenings, and got the only First in Philosophy in the University of London that year (no grade inflation back then!). He then got a job at the University of Aberdeen, met my mum – who was teaching physiology – and had me and my sister. We grew up in a house where no platitude was taken for granted, nor preference unquestioned (apart from a love of jazz and West Ham United). I spent a lot of my teenage years intensely infuriated at not having good answers to my Dad’s challenges, but it obviously set me up well. I added Philosophy as an afterthought to my French degree at university, and was reasonably competent at it, but never thought about pursuing it professionally. I did a Phd at Leeds to put off having to do something ‘proper’. Towards the end of that, I applied for a one-year lectureship at Lancaster without any expectation of getting it, and again with no clear further objective in mind. I did get it, however, and started to realise quite quickly I was good at lecturing: not just, or even particularly, the research, but other aspects of the job in the round: teaching, communication, management, mentoring, etc. My granny, on my mum’s side, was a fiercely dedicated – some would say, quite scary – teacher and it’s thought in my family that some of that has rubbed off on me.

 Only Imagine

3:AM: You’ve defended a position you call ‘extreme intentionalism’. This is a position about fictional truth or content and says that fictional content is whatever the author of the fiction intended us to imagine. It’s an unfashionable position – so perhaps first it would be useful for you to say something about why it’s no longer fashionable. What are the main objections to it and why have the objections been thought to be so effective?

 KS: The assault upon extreme intentionalism has come from two sides: first, literary theorists, usually influenced by continental philosophy, and second, analytic philosophers. It’s grounded (or ideally should be) in a Gricean approach to language in general, which most continentally-influenced literary theorists would reject, I assume. They – mistakenly in my view – tend to think that any attempt to tie meaning down, as it were, is incompatible with the rewarding, open interrogation of a text. On the other hand, analytic philosophers might not reject the Gricean approach to language generally, but they don’t seem to like it as applied to fictions in particular. They complain, for instance, that it leaves the meaning of a fiction unacceptably ‘hidden’ from the reader; that it ‘decentralises’ the fictional text as the source of meaning, and that leaves no room for an author making mistakes. None of these objections work, or so I argue. The key insight of Grice was that we can understand what people say or write by reference to the conventional meanings of words, plus a background understanding of their purposes in so speaking or writing, and a grasp of some general rational principles they are appealing to, which they assume hearers understand too. This model can be applied to the writing of fiction too, even if the purposes involved are different to those found in ordinary conversation.

3:AM: Why isn’t extreme intentionalism a position you hold for art generally? For example, you say that it wouldn’t work for film because it would be impractical, given the number of people involved in film – so presumably another account has to be given for film. You’re also not talking about literary meaning or poetics and so forth either but if that’s the case, why not generalise whatever account you have for film, or whichever account would cover everything?

KS: I’m not sure whether this model, suitably adapted, works for film or not;  but at least we can say that it doesn’t work straightforwardly there, both because of the number of agents involved in film production, and because films have images, which usually cannot be interpreted conventionally as words can. So I preferred to start with the most simple case – a single author producing a fictional text. I have related reservations about intentionalism with respect to static pictures. Meanwhile, I’m not talking about symbolic meaning or poetic meaning, and so on – whether of a single text or of any artwork – because I think that works differently and is not governed by authorial intention. In the past, defenders of intentionalism have queered their pitch by extending the view to all art, including visual art, and not specifying the kind of meaning they have in mind. Conversely, critics of intentionalism choose too easy a target by discussing this overly broad version. For a harder target, they should focus more narrowly on intentionalism with respect to the literal content of fictions: what fictions make ‘fictionally true’ or ‘true in the fiction’. There, it works much more plausibly.

3:AM:  Is it because imagining is such a broad umbrella term that you focus as you do on just a narrow kind of imagining?

KS: I think that fictional texts ask us to imagine things, and that is central to what they are. But ‘imagining’ is a contested term, and understood by lots of people in different ways, so you have to try to narrow down the kind of imagining involved. My general strategy is to try to develop, simultaneously, an account of fiction as something that calls for imagining, and an account of the kind of imagining called for by fiction. In doing that, I try to accommodate a lot of things that we ordinarily say about both fiction and imagining, but obviously – as ordinary usage in both cases is fairly chaotic – you can’t accommodate everything.

3:AM: Why do you say that the fact that there are no automatic strategies of interpretation of fictional content provide evidence that extreme intentionalism is true – and how do David Lewis and Gregory Currie get this wrong?

KS: Lewis and Currie each try to provide a single principle, or small set of principles, about how to interpret the literal content of fictions (a.k.a ‘fictional truth’). They think at least one of the principles they offer get applied in every case. But actually, I argue, there is no single substantive principle we inevitably apply, in fictional interpretation. At each turn, we defer to what we take ourselves to be intended to do by the author, and that may vary. In the book I try to show that slavish application of the principles offered by Lewis and Currie result in some highly counterintuitive interpretations of famous novels.

New Waves in Aesthetics

3:AM: Why is your extreme version better than modest and hypothetical intentionalism, and value maximising theory, the three main rivals in the analytic tradition?

KS: So-called ‘modest’ intentionalism says that the author’s intentions determine fictional content, some of the time – but not, say, where the author’s intentions are not successfully ‘realised’ in the text. Yet in ordinary conversation we allow that a speaker means what she intended, even where that meaning is imperfectly conveyed through some error or confusion. We can allow that too, in the case of fiction; and in fact, we already do, as when readers recognise, and correct for, authorial mistakes, continuity errors, plot holes, and so on. Hypothetical intentionalism isn’t really a form of intentionalism at all: it says, roughly, that the fictional content of a work is determined by working out what a hypothetical being, who had penned this work, intended it to mean. I argue that there’s no need for such a convoluted process, and in fact, applying it in practice leads to lots of counterintuitive interpretative conclusions. Finally ‘value-maximising’ doesn’t work at all for deriving fictional content or truth. It’s far too unconstrained. It only makes sense to apply a value-maximising approach to content once you have already interpreted most of it, and are left only with ambiguity between possible interpretations. At that point, you can meaningfully ask: which of these interpretations would produce a more valuable work? But in that case, I argue, you can reconstruct what you are asking, as in fact asking about what the author intended you to imagine; because it’s reasonable to assume, especially with competent authors, that the two will coincide.

3:AM: You’ve recently been trying to negotiate the rather toxic discussion regarding sexuality, gender and transsexuality. Can you sketch for us your position?

KS: I think sex classes (male and female) exist, as material natural categories, and are not wholly socially constructed. Sex classes are helpfully understood as ‘homeostatic property cluster kinds’, which is just a fancy way of saying that they share stable similarities, as a group, which can be explained by reference to a limited number of underlying recognised causal mechanisms. This allows us to accommodate intersex people within either male or female categories, since it does not require any particular property as essential to femaleness or maleness. But at the same time, it means there are limits to what counts as a member of each group; and merely feeling very strongly that you are a member of a different sex class is not what makes you a member. Nor does taking hormones or having surgery.

Sex-based oppression of the female sex class exists, and is documented across a range of vectors. This is oppression based on a ‘folk scientific’ conception of what being female is. So, for instance, historically, being categorised as female has made you more likely to be sexually assaulted by males, on the presumption of having female sex organs; to be employed less securely on the presumption that you are likely to get pregnant; to be categorised as ‘weaker’ on the presumption of having less physical strength than males; to be belittled as stupid on the presumption of having more ‘emotional’, ‘hormonal’ brains, and so on. This is not ‘biological essentialism’ in the pernicious sense of saying that females must embody these traits, as part of their biological destiny. It is to say that it is a social construction of the meaning of the female sex class, and one which harms females. And it is still very much present in contemporary society. A small number of ‘passing’ transwomen may very well suffer exactly this kind of oppression, but the majority, who do not ‘pass’ and so are not socially categorised as female, do not. They have their own battles, but they are not the same ones.

In recognition of sex-based oppression, Western society has developed two broad means of combatting it: i) special protections for females, especially to minimise sexual violence (e.g. granting female-only spaces where they get undressed or sleep) and ii) special opportunities and resources for females, to try and promote equality of opportunity. In the UK, we currently face a political movement intent on forcing acceptance of the claim that males who self-identify as women are literally women (not just legally ‘as if’ women), where this is also frequently conflated with being female. This includes males with penises who have no intention of undergoing surgery, and it includes males with a heterosexual orientation towards females, who are now classed as ‘lesbians’. In the UK, political lobbying groups for transpeople demand that self-identifying transwomen be allowed to enter female-only spaces, and have access to female-only opportunities such as shortlists, quotas, scholarships and prizes. This inevitably results in further harm to, and inequality for, females, who had precious little enough of these protections and resources in the first place.  It also harms lesbians – understood as female homosexuals – in particular, who consequently lose political protections as such.

Image result for trans riot

 In response to a government consultation happening at the moment, I have spent quite a bit of time over the last few months trying to put across an alternative to the dominant ‘inclusion’ narrative: trans women are trans women; they should be protected from all discrimination by the building of special resources for them, wherever they face violence and intimidation; and they should be provided with opportunities to participate equally in society (so perhaps, to get their own shortlists, prizes, and so on). But it is not a ‘right’ of a trans woman to enter a female-only space, or get access to a female-only opportunity, on the basis of saying they are a woman, or even legally counting as such; and it would harm females to allow this. (With respect to the ‘spaces’ issue in particular: we normally recognise easily enough that, though not all males are violent, some small number are, and for that reason we exclude all males from spaces where females are particularly vulnerable to violence. Most don’t get upset about this.)

3:AM: It’s a position that has been seen in some quarters as controversial. This isn’t a problem for philosophy: good philosophical theories invite push back. But the nature of the push back hasn’t been conducive to good philosophical disagreement and dialogue has it? What’s gone wrong here – are there some subjects that are just not available for open disagreement in our universities at the moment? Or is it that some people are just lousy at doing philosophy but no one has told them so? Or that identity politics is fascist? Or what?

KS: I don’t have the definitive answer as to why so many academics I otherwise respect have decided that my articulating the thoughts just expressed are ‘hateful’ or ‘transphobic’; nor why many others, who have no skin in the game either way, seem so content to let them go unchallenged. I think partly it is to do with feminist philosophy being a small club, and with me being an outsider to that club; partly to do with people’s commendable intention to be ‘inclusive’ but without facing the hard questions about how to enact that intention in a complicated world with many extant patterns of oppression; partly to do, ironically, with certain gendered stereotypes  which tends to position me, as a female, as particularly unkind in saying what I say, without seeking more charitable motives. It’s also to do with the appalling lack of reliable statistical data in this field, gathered from a neutral, apolitical perspective – this allows emotive narratives to dominate. And of course, it is to do with the public and aggressive attacks that have taken place on those arguing as I do, which have nothing to do with trying to engage with the arguments in good faith, and everything to do with trying to shame and intimidate interlocutors into silence. That sort of atmosphere doesn’t exactly encourage others to get involved.

3:AM: It seems ironic that as a leading philosopher who is also a woman that you are being subjected to this bad behaviour. Is there anything you think universities should be doing to stop all this?

KS: Universities need to keep reiterating that they are universities, not clubs – there’s no need for everyone there to think the same, or all be friends. It’s an important function of Universities to interrogate dominant political ideologies and social movements. Academics can themselves be caught up in social trends they do not properly understand – so to mitigate against this, we need a lot of voices, freely contributing, arguing with each other, and examining each other’s data and views, without fear of being called hateful and socially ostracised in the process.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend that will take the readers here at 3:AM further into your philosophical world?  

KS: I don’t read whole philosophy books very often so I’d rather recommend novels. I think reading these 5 books in my teens and twenties set me up for life:

Loitering With Intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

La femme rompue/Monologue/L'age de discretion

La Femme Rompue by Simone de Beauvoir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall hanging around with some older interviewees.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 19th, 2018.