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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mother's Tongue

A short movie I made in New York based on the idea of "word therapy" I have used in my Italian memoir, La figlia della gallina nera, Nottetempo, 2008.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Homeland. Truth Troubles

by Gloria Origgi and Ariel Colonomos. Published on the Berlin Review of Books, december 17th 2012.

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
John 8:32

This passage of the Bible is inscribed on the marble walls of the lobby of the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. After passing through heavy security, this is probably the first thing visitors entering the building would see. Homeland – the 2012 award-winning American TV series – Obama’s favourite, we are being told – raises one important question: What is, then, the price to be paid for knowing such truth?

“I have never been so sure and so wrong”. This line in the mouth of Carrie – a manic bipolar CIA officer determined to stop Nicholas Brody, a former Marine and prisoner of war, who has been released from Iraq after eight years of torture and has been “turned” by Al-Qaeda – is the quintessence of the whole series, now in its second season.
Homeland brings together two essential dimensions of truth and identity, in a breathtaking superposition of identity of the self and political identity. The two main characters – Carrie and Brody – have both multiple identities. Carrie goes through phases of mania and depression. At the peaks of her condition – when she is hyperactive or utterly dejected – she delivers essential truths about the identity of her counterpart, Brodie, and about the future of the United States.

Brodie is Carrie’s enemy and her raison d’être. As such, naturally, he becomes her lover. Brodie is an equally ambiguous character. He has been turned, yet not completely: as such, he is a classic case of double allegiance. He is a congressman and yet is ready to blow himself up in a room where the top US military and the vice-president are gathered. Brodie is the reflection of the fantasies of the West, whose patriots fear being invaded from within by their natural enemies: Muslim fundamentalists. Last but not least, Brodie is also bisexual, another fear of the “enemy within”, i.e. the deep drives of the unconscious we all have to deal with. Believe it or not (for anyone who has not watched the show, this might seem a bit of a stretch), Brodie has been sexually ‘turned’ by US number one public enemy, Abu Nazir – a fancy Bin Laden.

There is no truth without ambivalence. This is the striking message carried by Homeland. Heroes are also traitors, and masters of intelligence are also delusional. Yet, there is something special in the way in which ambivalence is staged here: the essential dramatic texture of the whole story is based on the fundamental ambivalence not only of the characters, but of the values they embody and of the emotions they solicit in us. As if the series was able to broadcast the slow but inevitable loss of the monopoly of truth – the Good Truth, the Right Truth, the one we attain through the appropriate methods – which America is facing today.

Carrie is a modern oracle. Her outstanding ability to track the truth is invaluable, and her bosses at the CIA know this very well. Yet, her methods are sometimes odd, based on intuition instead of evidence, and her style of inquiry too disrespectful of rules. She allows herself to make unauthorized moves in order to come up with results, thereby putting herself and the CIA at risk. At the same time, she is a very attractive woman, with a restless mind of rare subtlety.

Brody is the mirror image of Carrie’s ambivalent truth: he has actually been turned by Abu Nazir, but now that he is back, he hesitates, goes back and forth, from the horrible tortures he underwent in Iraq, to the memories of the discovery of a new world of values with Abu Nazir, who protected him, helped him and became his lover. His being turned touches upon all the dimensions of his life: psychological, sexual, political and religious. When – at the beginning of season 2 – his wife discovers that he prays as a Muslim, she exclaims in horror: “This just can’t happen!”.

Brody elicits in us mixed feelings: we are horrified by the intolerant and narrow-minded reaction of his wife, who cannot acknowledge another religious credo, but are also horrified when we discover that he is actually ready to kill the vice-president. Yet, his reasons for losing faith in his country are the killing of civilians, including children – notably, of Abu Nazir’s son.

Brody’s truth is unstable, Carrie’s truth is volatile, and the audience is trapped in their ambivalent posture, going back and forth between heroism and cowardice, between objective truth and intuition, between reasons that are too many in number, yet seem all in all plausible.
What is shocking to an audience of our generation is that, for the first time, a U.S. TV show puts on stage the duplicity of truth, as if discriminating between good and evil were a long by gone endeavour. And this state of permanent moral ambivalence permeates the psyche of the audience to the point of exhaustion: we simply cannot bear such an uncertain world. We oscillate between the two sides of the truth as the plot unfolds through a series of spectacular turns and twists that are the mirror of this feeling of instability.

Carrie and Brodie are imprisoned in their double truths and are looking for a way out. They disturb the certainties of the people around them. They also dissolve the simplistic commitment to “The Truth” and “The Good” of the other characters. Indeed, the other characters are monoliths by comparison. Thus, Carrie’s mentor is a (good Jewish) father figure, Saul Berenson, who has just broken up with his wife, an Indian woman, whom we see (towards the middle of season 1) leaving her husband to return “home”. There was no place to stay for her in Saul’s patriotic and monastic life in Washington DC. Brodie’s wife is middle-class America at its best, with all its limitations. Her truth is simple and transparent. She strives for stability and a linear career that will land her husband in the White House (and, as for herself, will ultimately allow her to host charity dinners with the wives of other DC power brokers).

The uncertainty of the global order becomes the psychical instability of its subjects, in a sort of “collective manic-depression” in which we can no longer choose the right course of action, but can only oscillate permanently between a two-sided truth. Ironically, during the Cold War, bipolarity was used to refer to the stability of the balance of power that ruled the relation between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the post-9/11 era, bipolarity is internalized in the deep instability of the self, which reflects the trouble relation between the US and its ‘devils du jour’, both internal and external.

Homeland reminds us that the moral and political order of our world and its cognitive/epistemic order are impossible to disentangle. The ‘homeland’ that we all miss today is the homeland of a simple objective truth about how things are and how they should be. A truth that used to reassure us and made our decisions and actions grounded on a firm footing. As Odysseus already knew, outside our lost homeland, there is hell, permanent doubt and, in the end, loss. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Don't Talk to Strangers

This post is online on the website of the International Cognition and Culture Institute

Why is Misinformation so Sticky?

When my mother was warning me against talking to strangers in the street, she might have had not only security concerns, but also epistemological ones. Misinformation, whichis so widespread in contemporary societies, is sticky! According to Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook, the authors of an excellent survey article on the topic, “Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing”, just published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, once you start believing bogus information it becomes very difficult to correct, even when you are told that it was bogus.


The article discusses the main sources of misinformation in our societies and the cognitive mechanisms that may be responsible for its resilience in our minds, even when we are exposed to retractions. The authors also offer solutions to the problem that may help researchers, journalists and practitioners of various kinds to find the right packaging of counter-messages that challenge previously acquired beliefs.
Misinformation is not ignorance: it is worse. When you are merely ignorant about something you are not opinionated. People who do not know anything about a subject often come out with simple heuristics (as argued in particular in a 2002 paper by Goldstein & Gigerenzer) that help them make the right guesses, whereas when you have been misinformed and have made the effort of acquiring the false belief about, say, the potential harm of a vaccine or Barack Obama not being eligible as President of United States because he was born in Kenya, you don’t easily let your beliefs go away without anything in exchange, because you usually made up costly justifications and narratives in order to sustain it.

Four main sources of misinformation haunt our lives: (1) rumours and fiction; (2) governments and “propaganda”; (3) vested interested of various organizations and, of course, (4) the media.

Communication then plays the major guilty role in rooting bullshit in people’s minds. This is, I would argue, because when we engage in a communicative exchange, we take a stance of trust, at least for the sake of conversation, about what it is said: we follow rules of good cognitive conduct, by presupposing that those who are communicating with us have something relevant to tell us. In most contexts, to be exposed to what other people say is enough to come up believing that what they say is true. Once we accept, even if provisionally, what others say for the simple reason that they say it, then further checking is not really elaborate (in the absence of strong reasons to think that someone wants to fool us). Our filtering strategies limit themselves to checking the compatibility with other things we hold true, the coherence of what has been said, the (apparent) credibility of the source and the possibility that other people believe the same thing.

Thus, mere exposure to malicious communicative sources can infect us with beliefs that we think we have reasons to accept because we have “legitimized” them (by telling ourselves that they come from credible sources, that they are coherent, or that there is a social consensus about them, etc.)

What is most striking about misinformation is its resistance to retraction: even if exposed to retraction, even if they have understood the reason why the information was wrong, people hesitate to change their minds. Updating information is costly. We construct narratives, mental models about a certain event that stick to our mind and that we re-enact when presented with retractions. Also, it is humiliating to be asked NOT to believe what we previously believed and usually we ask something back to change our views.
Allegory of Spring. Or is it?

The last section of the paper presents strategies to correct misinformation, based on some simple principles. When people are presented with retracted information, they typically have the misinformed content repeated. It is more effective to build an alternative narrative that avoids repetition of the original bogus one. Also, the alternative narrative is the “goodie” people may like to have in exchange for giving up to their beliefs. I once remember having read a new interpretation of the allegory represented on the Italian Renaissance painting La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli. It put forward an alternative, highly structured narrative according to which the central character of the picture was not an allegory of the spring, but the muse Philosophy and the whole picture was a representation of the wedding between Philology and the god Mercury. The relevance of the alternative narrative was high enough to “erase” the previous narrative I had learned at school.

The article ends with a nice illustration on how misinformation can be corrected (see below), and some simple recommendations for practitioners.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Le Arti dell'Islam al Louvre

Le arti dell’Islam
Parigi, Louvre, court Visconti, apertura: 22 settembre 2012
di Gloria Origgi

Un velo di maglie dorate si posa morbido come un tessuto a ricoprire l’intera corte Visconti del Louvre, dove si è inaugurato sabato 22 settembre il nuovo spazio espositivo dedicato alle arti dell’Islam. Quella tettoia ondulata e translucida, progettata dal milanese Mario Bellini e il parigino Rudy Ricciotti, in bilico tra il tappeto volante e lo chador, riassume il senso riconciliatorio del progetto di un’ala di arte islamica nel cuore del più grande museo di Francia, paese della laicità, che nel 2004 bandì con una legge il velo islamico in nome della Repubblica.

I visitatori che accedono dalla piramide d’ingresso del Louvre ai nuovi spazi, 2800 metri quadrati su due livelli, sono accolti in un ambiente scuro ed epurato, volumi in vetro e pavimenti di piastrelle nere incrostate di scaglie d’ottone che creano un eco cromatico con i riflessi della tettoia dorata e il cemento nero dei muri portanti.

All’entrata, sulla sinistra, una lastra di pietra scura commemora i nomi dei mecenati del progetto, finanziato per un terzo dallo Stato francese e per il resto da sponsor privati e donatori mediorientali: si ringrazia sua maestà il re Mohammed IV del Marocco, sua altezza lo sceicco Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, emiro del Kuwait, sua maestà il sultano dell’Oman… la Francia repubblicana si piega a un rito diplomatico delicato e necessario: il riconoscimento da parte dell’occidente di una cultura islamica ricca e influente con cui il nostro passato e il nostro futuro devono fare i conti.

E difatti, le bellissime mappe digitali che accompagnano la mostra, incise anch’esse su lastre nere, s’illuminano di un azzurro iridescente per indicare l’espansione della civiltà islamica dal VII secolo in poi, dalla penisola arabica fino all’India e alla Spagna, un mondo immenso, una vera civiltà, con una sua unità estetica e culturale. Un racconto attraverso più di 2500 oggetti preziosi che rivoluziona la nostra concezione della storia, che mette in questione la retorica del ruolo centrale e unico della civiltà greco-latina nella formazione della cultura occidentale e la separazione netta tra oriente e occidente che ancora oggi influenza così profondamente la nostra lettura del mondo.

L’Islam, insistono le didascalie politically correct, non è solo una religione, è una civiltà. I suoi prodotti culturali vanno ben al di là della sfera religiosa: gli oggetti destinati alle élites - lampade, vasi, tappeti - hanno un’unità estetica e spesso i loro fruitori non erano neanche musulmani, come in Siria ad esempio, dove nel XII secolo la popolazione era ancora prevalentemente cristiana. La distinzione tra cultura islamica e religione musulmana è dunque il perno programmatico dell’intero progetto di presentazione di questa collezione di oggetti, la cui raccolta cominciò all’epoca della fondazione del Louvre e proseguì fino alla creazione, nel 1893 di una sezione del museo di “arte musulmana”, soprattutto religiosa, per poi evolvere, dal 1946 in poi, nella denominazione “arte islamica”, una concezione molto più vasta di questa espressione culturale, che per circa mille anni, dal VII al XVII secolo, si estese su un’area geografica enorme che ancora oggi porta le tracce di quel passaggio in certe forme che si ritrovano a Toledo come a Nuova Delhi, come i jalis, quei reticoli di pietra che coprono finestre e creano effetti di luce nei palazzi spagnoli e nelle regge dei maragià.

Così, la collezione ci trasporta per questo regno di mezzo, il trait-d’union tra oriente e occidente, tra i tappeti a decorazioni floreali di Samarcanda, ai motivi fitti di piante, animali e di calligrafie, ai cicli di immagini che si ritrovano su fregi, medaglioni, scatole in avorio, candelabri, lampade magiche. Ritroviamo le atmosfere incantate da Mille e una Notte, le spezie, i colori, gli azzurri profondi, i legni intagliati con i motivi a stella, gli ori e gli argenti. D’un tratto, una miriade di culture si fondono insieme sotto i nostri occhi: gli arabeschi spagnoli, la Sicilia, le steppe dell’Asia fino alla Cina, i profumi di zafferano, le pietre preziose, le turcherie, i Berberi, i magici elisir. Perché la cultura islamica non è solo cultura araba: i sultani di Bagdad, a partire dal XIII secolo, furono Turchi, e la conquista dell’Africa nera in nome dell’Islam è opera dei Berberi.

Dopo la visita al piano sotterraneo della mostra, il visitatore risale al livello della tettoia dorata: tra le vetrate si scorgono i muri della corte Visconti e, come per incanto, i motivi tipici disegnati sui mattoni di pierre de taille parigina che si ritrovano sulle pareti esterne di buona parte del Louvre, assumono qualcosa di orientale.

L’ala delle arti dell’Islam del Louvre è un atto simbolico concreto: dà un senso nuovo ai nostri occhi sospettosi occidentali a quella relazione ambivalente di appartenenza sognante e di paura che l’Europa intrattiene da secoli con l’Islam: rende i sogni d’oriente, i veli e i profumi, compatibili con il nostro mondo occidentale. E, in una strana mescolanza tutta francese di universalismo, grandeur e umiltà, è davvero un passo avanti per imparare che la tolleranza passa per nuove forme di racconto della nostra storia e modi nuovi di classificare e giustificare il nostro essere tra le cose.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Homo Singularis

C’è un vento nuovo nelle scienze sociali. Parole come visibilità, reputazione, riconoscimento, prestigio, invadono il vocabolario dei libri più interessanti che stanno uscendo negli ultimi anni, come se in tanti stessero girando attorno a un fenomeno che è sotto gli occhi di tutti, ma al quale per troppo tempo si è stentato a dare peso scientifico, o a comprenderne l’unità teorica. 

Eppure, ripeto, è sotto gli occhi di tutti: ça crève les yeux, come recita l’incipit del nuovo libro della sociologa francese Nathalie Heinich, De la visibilité (Gallimard, 2012) quasi seicento pagine di analisi del perché, in società che si definiscono democratiche, il paesaggio sociale sembra sempre più strutturato intorno a immensi scarti di visibilità, ossia, alle capacità di alcuni individui, idee e oggetti di essere infinitamente più visti degli altri. Come ci vediamo visti, la parte del sé che affidiamo allo specchio degli altri, è un motore profondo del nostro agire, una passione sfrenata di esistere nello sguardo altrui che spesso supera le motivazioni dell’homo oeconomicus, interessato ossessivamente a ottimizzare il suo utile, ma forse una maschera troppo “autistica” di noi stessi per spiegare la socialità ipertrofica dell’io contemporaneo.

Notti intere su Facebook a confezionarsi un’immagine di sé per amici immaginari, a selezionare quel che di noi è spendibile socialmente: foto in cui siamo più belli, interessi musicali singolari, posizione in un network sociale che ci faccia guadagnare un po’ di status. Perché? Nessuno è diventato ricco con Facebook, tranne il suo fondatore, eppure quasi un miliardo di esseri umani in giro per il mondo perde tempo a curare la sua immagine virtuale come se da essa dipendesse la sua vita. Casi spettacolari di ossessioni reputazionali, come la storia recente di Orlando Figes, celeberrimo storico inglese dell’Unione Sovietica, il quale, dalle stelle alle stalle, è stato beccato a scrivere sotto pseudonimo recensioni velenose dei libri dei suoi colleghi su Amazon. Non è vero solo che la società ci manipola in modo univoco: siamo noi che manipoliamo in continuazione la nostra esistenza sociale curandola, travestendola, emendandola, nel tentativo di darle singolarità, di renderci unici agli occhi degli altri.
Il fenomeno non è interamente nuovo: già Hobbes definiva la passione della gloria come l’ambizione tanto fondamentale quanto vana di essere riconosciuto superiore dagli altri, di lasciare una traccia unica nel nostro breve passaggio su questa Terra. Quel che è nuovo è che il fenomeno assume oggi le dimensioni di un fatto sociale totale, come definiva l’antropologo Marcel Mauss quei fatti che si svelano da soli e per dare senso ai quali abbiamo bisogno di un nuovo paradigma che tocchi tutte le dimensioni delle scienze sociali: economia, antropologia, filosofia, storia, estetica.

Così, sempre in Francia, tra i due saggi più influenti di questi anni, due attacchi alla teoria economica dominante, uno alla teoria neo-classica del mercato, L’économie des singularités del sociologo Lucien Karpik (Gallimard 2007), e l’altro alla teoria del valore, L’empire de la valeur, dell’economista André Orléans (Seuil 2011). Entrambe le critiche si focalizzano sullo stesso punto: il valore si crea nello scarto qualitativo, non quantitativo: l’economia, che riduce tutto a merce/quantità, deve integrare la singolarità. Il progetto di Orléans è rifondare la teoria del valore di mercato senza cercare di ridurre il valore a una grandezza che gli pre-esisterebbe, come l’utilità, il lavoro o la rarità. Il valore è un prodotto autonomo dello scambio, ed è fine a se stesso. Come due specchi rivolti uno verso l’altro, il valore si genera nella relazione tra le cose: non è nelle cose stesse. Contro un’economia delle quantità o delle grandezze, Orléan propone un’ economia delle relazioni. Così Karpik, con la sua economia delle singolarità, ossia di quei prodotti che hanno valore solo se giudicati bene o male dagli altri, propone uno studio sistematico dei dispositivi di giudizio che creano le differenze di mercato. Insomma, come diceva Karl Mannheim, fondatore della sociologia della cultura, l’essere umano pensa ed esperisce il mondo gerarchicamente, non coglie la realtà se non attraverso l’insieme di valutazioni che derivano una dall’altra.

Le nuove tecnologie sociali della rete sembrano la realizzazione stessa di questa visione del mondo: all’era dell’informazione si sta sostituendo un’era della reputazione nella quale tags, giudizi, rankings, voti, numero di citazioni - ossia tracce di ciò che gli altri hanno detto di qualcosa – diventano l’unico accesso possibile alla cosa stessa. L’analisi di Nicoletta Cavazza nel suo libro recente Pettegolezzi e reputazione (Il Mulino) mostra, tra l’altro, i meccanismi reputazionali che tengono insieme l’intera economia dell’informazione in rete, da Wikipedia a eBay.
Siamo davanti insomma a un cambiamento di paradigma: la nascita di una “scienza della relazione” che prende come un’unità di analisi non l’individuo, né la società nel suo insieme, ma l’io sociale, ossia l’individuo cosciente di essere guardato dagli altri. Come dicevo, le implicazioni sono in tutti i rami del sapere, come mostra il bellissimo saggio filosofico di Barbara Carnevali in uscita sempre da Il Mulino, Le apparenze sociali: per una filosofia del prestigio, che spazia dall’estetica, alla teoria letteraria, alla fenomenologia sociologica per fondare filosoficamente una teoria della parte sociale del sé, troppo spesso considerata come immateriale, superficiale, insomma, causalmente irrilevante per spiegare i veri rapporti di forza soggiacenti alla costruzione della società. Per riassumere la sua tesi con la bella citazione di Oscar Wilde a epigrafe del libro: “Solo le persone superficiali non giudicano dalle apparenze. Il vero mistero del mondo è il visibile, non l’invisibile”.
Essere visibile è una relazione. Della realtà che abbiamo da studiare sotto gli occhi non rimane altro che questo. Una rete di relazioni in cui diventa sempre più impossibile distinguere i fatti dai valori. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review of Barbara Carnevali: Le Apparenze Sociali

All rights reserved. Published on the cultural supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore on Sunday, September 23rd

"Ciò che sappiamo sugli altri e ciò che gli altri sanno su di noi si fonda essenzialmente su apparenze". Non esiste un accesso diretto all'anima altrui, a un io profondo, che non passi per le apparenze che socialmente si manifestano nell'interazione con i nostri simili. L'incipit del saggio di Barbara Carnevali, Le apparenze sociali (Il Mulino, in libreria il 6 settembre) non lascia scampo: basta con i piagnistei romantici dell'io autentico corrotto da una coscienza sociale alienata, basta con il contrasto tra essere e apparire: siamo quello che sembriamo perché la nostra identità più profonda si struttura proprio in quei meccanismi di presentazione del sé, di costruzione dell'identità sociale che tanta filosofia condanna come il sintomo di una patologia prettamente moderna. Con grande erudizione unita a una rara originalità, in questo saggio Barbara Carnevali affronta la questione delle apparenze sociali proponendo un vero e proprio programma di ricerca filosofico: un'estetica sociale che prenda sul serio il ricco sistema di segnali che offriamo alla percezione altrui e che struttura le nostre relazioni sociali. La società è lo spazio di scambio di questi segnali, un immenso sensorium che include tutte le percezioni socialmente significative: i gesti, le espressioni, gli accessori, gli ornamenti, i segnali di status. La dimensione estetica della sfera pubblica è per la Carnevali necessaria. E questo è l'aspetto più originale della sua ricerca: le apparenze sociali non solo trasmettono contenuti sociali, ma li plasmano, li costituiscono. Beh, nell'era di Facebook, in cui milioni di persone passano ore al giorno a plasmare e ritoccare la propria immagine sociale condivisa pubblicamente, ci voleva finalmente un'intellettuale che avesse il coraggio di dare consistenza teorica all'inspiegabile perdita di tempo collettiva di farsi belli agli occhi degli altri!
La dimensione estetica non è quindi riducibile a quella sociologica, come per esempio scriveva il sociologo francese Pierre Bourdieu nel suo libro, La distinzione: critica sociale del gusto (Il Mulino, 2000). Secondo Bourdieu, i nostri gusti estetici sono l'espressione della nostra posizione sociale; più che segnalare agli altri lo status attraverso i gusti, come nella teoria del consumo ostentativo del sociologo americano Thorstein Veblen, per Bourdieu i gusti "incorporano" l'appartenenza sociale, in un habitus che assorbiamo piano piano nel modo di essere e di sentire sin da piccoli. L'estetica sociale proposta dalla Carnevali, benché chiaramente nella tradizione di ricerca di Veblen e Bourdieu, rompe con il riduzionismo sociologico: apparenza estetica e appartenenza sociale sono in una relazione osmotica molto più complessa. Non si può ridurre una all'altra. E, per tornare all'esempio dei network sociali, ma non solo, mi sembra che l'analisi della Carnevali sia un passo avanti per comprendere fenomeni sociali contemporanei che vanno ben al di là della pura distinzione di classe.
Spaziando da Rousseau e il suo discorso sull'origine e i fondamenti della diseguaglianza tra gli uomini, alla società-spettacolo di Guy Débord, dalle provocazioni estetiche di Andy Warhol all'iconografia del prestigio nella storia dell'arte, dalla sociologia della vita quotidiana di Goffman, allo snobismo proustiano, la Carnevali articola una teoria dei fenomeni estetici come fatti sociali totali, per usare l'espressione di Marcel Mauss, ossia quei fatti che informano e organizzano pratiche  economiche, sociali, legali apparentemente molto distanti tra loro.
Rilassiamoci: il nostro io sociale non è una costruzione da cui ci possiamo liberare: l'ambivalenza tra quel che mostriamo di noi e quello che siamo riassume la condizione umana stessa. Ci voleva forse una filosofa donna e milanese per ricordarci che, in fondo, tra forma e sostanza non c'è poi tutta questa differenza.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review of Michela Marzano: Avere Fiducia (Mondadori 2012)

This article has been published on the cultural supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore on Sunday, September 16th  2012. All rights reserved.

Il saggio filosofico, un genere letterario tipicamente francese, si sta imponendo anche nella nostra penisola. Reso celebre nella modernità da Michel de Montaigne, il saggio, a differenza dello studio filosofico, (ciò che in linguaggio accademico chiamiamo monografia) è tipicamente a tesi, affronta un tema con uno stile polemico e non risparmia le riflessioni personali, evitando la postura “oggettiva” del libro di ricerca. E’ indirizzato a un pubblico di lettori colti, ma non specialisti, pur mantenendosi in vivace conversazione con la comunità intellettuale e le sue tesi dominanti, che costituiscono proprio il bersaglio preferito dell’essayiste. E siccome in Italia, quando s’importano mode dall’estero, si diventa più realisti del re, il saggio italiano è sempre più spesso firmato da donne le quali, tradizionalmente erano più timide degli uomini a “spararle grosse” e si rifugiavano nel lavoro erudito, lasciando le luci della ribalta ai soliti noti colleghi tromboni. C’è da rallegrarsi dunque di questa nuova apertura stilistica nella nostra cultura e anche della sua encomiabile parità in termini di quote rosa.

Eppure, i risultati di questa nuova importazione non sono sempre soddisfacenti, tanto che viene da chiedersi se non fosse migliore la nostra cultura vecchiotta, i nostri libri infarciti di note a pié di pagina e di bibliografie sterminate - che i francesi manco si sognano - ma che hanno garantito la solidità culturale del nostro paese, complicato sì, ma ricchissimo di colti studiosi, forse pedanti, ma di grande raffinatezza, modestia, erudizione e indifferenti alle sirene della prima pagina.

Prendiamo l’ultima fatica saggistica di Michela Marzano, dedicata alla bellissima questione della fiducia. Un argomento che sembra ideale per questo genere letterario: chi di noi, infatti, tra crisi economiche, bolle speculative, crisi d’identità nazionale, globalizzazione, minacce di non fare più credito addirittura a stati sovrani, non s’interroga oggi su cosa resti della fiducia nelle nostre società? La fiducia è la dimensione nascosta del nostro vivere insieme, quel patto tacito quotidiano che fa sì che ci fidiamo che il cibo che compriamo sia commestibile, che i soldi che mettiamo in banca il 27 del mese siano ancora sul nostro conto il giorno dopo, che lo stipendio arrivi puntuale, che il ponte che attraversiamo in automobile non crolli, che il farmaco che ci ha prescritto il medico sia quello giusto e così via, fino alle questioni più intime della nostra vita, come l’amore, il tradimento, il rispetto della parola data. La fiducia è un concetto affascinante proprio perché è strutturalmente instabile, e quando pensi di averla spiegata, definita, catturata, ecco che ti sfugge di mano. La fiducia è fondamentale e fragile insieme: la si dà e la si pretende senza mai essere certi di essere corrisposti. E’ come se la certezza del legame sociale si fondasse su un’incertezza strutturale, irriducibile, una scommessa con gli altri continuamente rinnovata in una perenne postura da equilibristi che caratterizza la condizione umana, o, almeno, la condizione di noi moderni.

Ma alla Marzano tutta ‘sta incertezza moderna non piace. In realtà, secondo la filosofa, le nostre società, in cui si parla di fiducia in continuazione, sono società della sfiducia, in cui non ci si fida di nessuno, a meno che quell’altro non sia obbligato da un contratto firmato e controfirmato a rispettare gli impegni presi. Questa, secondo la Marzano, non è fiducia: al massimo è credito, un concetto tutto economico che rappresenta bene il degrado mercantile della nostra società, in cui la stoffa dei nostri rapporti sociali è intessuta di contratti, incentivi e sanzioni. E ciò perché la gente non ha il coraggio di fidarsi e basta e, senza chiedere nulla in cambio, correre a braccia aperte verso i suoi simili. Secondo la Marzano è proprio questa mancanza di fiducia, e quest’affidarsi solo a relazioni regolate di credito che ha provocato le recenti crisi finanziarie. E qui entriamo nell’analisi più bizzarra del volume, che occupa tutta la prima parte, in cui attraverso una superficiale ricostruzione della storia delle istituzioni monetarie dal Seicento fino alla crisi dei subprimes, la Marzano ci spiega che è proprio la fiduciaimmateriale e vuota che diamo alla moneta, che non rappresenta più nulla, che ci fa affondare nel disastro. 

Ora, il lettore resta lievemente spiazzato: quale sarebbe la colpa delle istituzioni finanziarie? Di usare la moneta e le azioni fiduciarie? Di farsi credito sulla base di contratti? Per farci davvero del bene e fidarci tutti insieme dovremmo tornare al baratto? Ma non sono forse gli eccessi  di fiducia nel mercato che creano le bolle? E non sono proprio coloro che i contratti non li rispettano, che si fanno fiducia facendosi l’occhiolino perché sanno di far parte della stessa cordata di strapotenti che può fregarsene delle regole che hanno portato il mondo a catafascio? Secondo la Marzano no. E’ la visione manageriale della fiducia razionale, quella - diciamo - che si studia con la teoria dei giochi, il dilemma del prigioniero e tutte quelle stregonerie, che ci sta sotterrando. Chi dà ragioni per fidarsi, chi pensa che cooperare possa essere razionale, fa parte di un complotto di razionalisti che sta portando la società sul lastrico. Anche i successi della bioetica, come la legislazione sul consenso informato che regola in modo nuovo, ragionato, i rapporti spesso paternalistici tra medico e paziente, non convincono pienamente l'autrice. Perché la fiducia, quella vera, “si impara unicamente dal momento in cui si accetta di saltare dalla finestra” (p. 11). Senza chiedere nulla in cambio, neanche che qualcuno ti venga ad acchiappare.

Il salto nel vuoto della Marzano lascia perplessi. Qual è il bersaglio? La società decente, per usare la bella espressione del filosofo Avishai Margalit, quella dove si ha ragione di far fiducia agli altri e di sviluppare norme e aspettative sull’affidabilità del prossimo? La Marzano conclude ieratica: “La scommessa della fiducia è la scommessa dell’uomo”. Ma che c’è di così morale, profondo e fondamentale nell’essere sicuri di perderla? 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Reply to Paul Faulkner's Comments

On line at:

I thank Paul Faulkner for his insightful comments. I am flattered that he found the time to go through my paper so carefully. Yet, I do not know exactly what I am supposed to do now because the paper is already published and his comments are in the style of a competent “referee” — I should have received it before the publication! Also, we are on a blog of social epistemology, discussing epistemic injustice, and we cannot pretend I have studied analytical philosophy at Oxford. Thus, in order to avoid a conversation that involves the biases, the identity prejudices and the epistemic injustices that we are here to debunk, I ask the reader (Paul included) to situate my intervention (and my paper) as coming from an Italian scholar living and working in France for whom English is her third professional language. Among the many epistemic injustices that we commit in academia, one of the strongest is linguistic injustice — a much debated subject at least in continental Europe[1] — and some of my arguments may appear less convincing than those coming from an Oxford educated philosopher because the style of writing and structuring of thoughts we have learned is radically different.
After this cautionary remark, let me try to defend some of my points and clarify some issues that were left underdeveloped in the article. Paul says that the two aims of my paper that I announce at the beginning — to broaden the spectrum of biases and prejudices of that sustain testimonial injustice beyond identity prejudices and to detail these mechanisms — do not fit one with the other, because Fricker’s testimonial injustice is defined in terms of identity prejudices. Thus, if I say that there are other prejudices and biases that may explain testimonial injustice, I am contradicting the very definition of testimonial injustice (that, in Fricker’s account, is based on identity prejudices). This objection seems a matter of terminology more than of substance. However, I meant that there are all sorts of prejudices that are not just identity prejudice, although they may sustain testimonial injustice; that is, an incorrect allocation of credibility to a speaker. In this sense, I am broadening Fricker’s definition of testimonial injustice beyond identity prejudices. Given that there is no copyright on philosophical expressions, let us say that I keep her productive idea of testimonial injustice while going beyond her definition that a necessary and sufficient condition for testimonial injustice is identity prejudice. I do not know so much about the identity of the supporters of Moon landing denial. My credibility deficit in this case is based on my perception of my own identity and the values that I am not willing to trade in order to buy a dubious theory.
Paul discusses my own definition of epistemic trust. Given that both of us have worked at length on this notion (my first paper in Episteme “Is Trust an Epistemological Notion?” was published in 2004), he criticizes my notion by referring to his own terminology. I do not want to go through the 2004 paper and my other works here. But I think it is clear I see trust as a default attitude that is typical of communicational contexts and that I have developed a sort of “pragmatic of trust” in which epistemic trust is actively constructed in communication (see also Sperber, Origgi et al. 2010).
Paul criticizes my definition of trust as an attitude that has two components: a default trustful attitude and a vigilant attitude. He writes: “If trust is an attitude, it cannot have as a more basic component the attitude of trust. Either default trust and vigilant trust are distinct attitudes of trust, and ‘epistemic trust’ is not properly described as an attitude of trust; or epistemic trust is an attitude of trust and ‘default trust’ and ‘vigilant trust’ are not properly described as attitudes of trust” (2012, 2).
Again, this objection seems purely terminological/stylistic. I can clearly say that an aesthetic experience has two components: an experience of appraisal and an experience of high cognitive engagement with the object of art. What is the problem with this? If the objection is that the definiens of the term cannot contain thedefiniendum, I invite Paul to concentrate not on the word “attitude” that appears in both sides of the definition, but on the term “epistemic trust” that is defined as a two/sided notion that contains a “vigilant” attitude and a “default trustful attitude”. Epistemic trust has two components — a vigilant attitude and a default trustful attitude — that makes it different from other forms of trust such as rational trust in social situations. I articulate these two aspects of epistemic trust because, in my view, a default trustful attitude is possible insofar as there exist cognitive cultural, social, emotional, moral, institutional mechanisms of epistemic vigilance (that I detail in my article) on which we rely in a sort of “default” and, very often, tacit way. In a sense, we are trustful about the existence of vigilant mechanisms and, in normal conditions, rarely check if we are justified in trusting them (as in the example of the Moon landing or in the “Smoking kills” example). Hence, here is the complex relation between the two components of epistemic trust: yes, we are trustful, but not towards the others; rather, towards the mechanisms of vigilance on which we rely to filter information. And sometimes we are wrong.
I do not understand Paul’s notion of epistemic trust as predictive. Trust, as a cognitive notion in rational choice theory, is always predictive because it is a bet on the future outcome of an interaction. But I do not accept what other people say because I predict that what they say is true just on the basis that they say it. I may trust people even if I do not bet on our future relation or on their cooperation. What Paul calls “predictive trust” reminds me more of trust as a performative act of commitment to other people’s words (just because they have said that!) in the line with the analysis of Richard Moran’s 2005 paper on Grice.[2] This makes the notion of epistemic trust much more difficult to pinpoint than the classical cognitive/predictive notion of trust.
As for the grounds for vigilance versus good grounds, Paul is right in saying that I present a series of heuristics of vigilance without prying apart those which are justified and those which are not. I think that the justification for each of these heuristics needs a complex empirical and normative analysis on how we use them, trust them and how they are institutionally and culturally organized. I did my job and analyzed in detail how we trust certain signs of reliability of academic publications in my 2010 article in Social Epistemology on“Epistemic Vigilance and Epistemic Responsibility in the Liquid World of Scientific Publications”. In the article, I explained that certain signs of reliability that are publicly used as mechanisms of vigilance on the quality of information are simply invalid (such as the D.O.I. attribution number). I also explored other domains, such as the Web, in a more recent article (Origgi 2012). Sometimes the way in which vigilance is socially organized and maintained makes difficult for the single individual to be aware of some flaws in the mechanisms of vigilance.
In sum, I think that our divergences are often a matter of style. I see epistemic trust as a “phenomenon” that I am trying to approach with all the possible intellectual means I have, at the risk of being sometimes metaphorical in my way of describing it. But what I would like my readers to concede is that I am grasping a phenomenon out there. Paul sees “epistemic trust” as a normative notion that has to be defined to be operationalized in philosophical arguments. That is where our styles diverge. I think that philosophy talks about something real, out there, that we can experience in our everyday lives. That is why social epistemology is a naturalized project for me in continuity not only with cognitive sciences, but also, and even more, with social sciences such as anthropology, sociology and political science. Epistemic trust is sustained by our whole cultural and institutional world. And sometimes we need to get our hands dirty and see how our culture is organized and our institutions are legitimately or illegitimately maintained.
Contact details:
Faulkner, Paul. 2012. Trust and the assessment of credibility. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (8): 1-6.
Origgi, Gloria. 2004. Is Trust an Epistemological Notion? Episteme 1 (1): 1-11.
Origgi, Gloria. 2008. Trust, Authority and Epistemic Responsibility. Theoria 23/1 (61) 35-44.
Origgi, Gloria. 2008. Qu’est-ce que la confiance? VRIN, Paris.
Origgi, Gloria. 2012. Epistemic Trust. In SAGE Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences, Byron Kaldis, general editor. New York: Sage Publications.
Origgi, Gloria. 2012. Designing Wisdom Through the Web: Reputation and the Passion of Ranking. InCollective Wisdom: Principles and Mechanisms, Hélène Landemore and Jon Elster, editors. 38-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sperber, D., F. Clément, C. Heintz, O. Mascaro, H. Mercier, G. Origgi, and D. Wilson. 2010. Epistemic vigilance. Mind and Language, 25th anniversary special issue, 25 (4): 359–93.
[1] Cf. P. van Parijs. 2011. Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. Oxford University Press.
[2] Cf. R. Moran. 2005. Getting Told and Being Believed. Philosophical Imprints 5 (5):

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Transgender Trouble

Draft. Do not quote without permission. Submitted to the journal: VERIFICHE. Under review.

This paper has been written with Sandra Vial, Professor of Sociology of Health at the University UNISINOS - Porto Alegre. Thanks to the FERIE Program in Paris and the CAPES Program in Porto Alegre which made our collaboration possible through their generous grants.

Gloria Origgi - CNRS - Institut Nicod, Paris
Sandra Vial - UNISINOS - Porto Alegre

This paper stems from a collaboration between a philosopher and a sociologist of health and human rights both interested in transdisciplinary approaches to social sciences. While working together in Porto Alegre and in Paris, we realized that sex,  more than gender, is one of the most interesting transdisciplinary notions in contemporary social sciences and that the failure of treating it in transdisciplinary terms still has heavy consequences in political and legal decisions about the recognition of transexual identity. We focus our analysis on the normative consequences of ambiguous conceptions of sex by comparing some in legal sentences on sex change in Brazil and Europe and will comment on the recent adoption in Argentine of a jurisdiction that recognizes transgender rights by clearly prying apart gender identity from the anatomical/biological sexual identity determined at birth. We conclude that a full-fledged consideration of transexuality as a human and health right should normatively account for the distinction between sex and gender. This will in general improve the rights not only of transexuals but also of all the transgender attitudes towards sexuality that struggle to be recognized because of the conceptual confusions among different interpretations of what sexual identity is.

A Transdisciplinary Approach to Transexuals’ Rights

Since the publication of Judith Butler’s book, Gender Trouble, in 1990, gender studies have progressed in an impressive way, by overcoming the binary polarization between male and female as the two unique possible expressions of gender identity. If the classical feminist debate aimed at debunking a fixed correlation between gender and sex, that is, between a set of stereotypical practices and norms of behavior and a biological bodily expression, thus showing to what extent sexual roles were socially constructed (cf. De Beauvoir, 1949), Butler’s essay paved the way of a new interpretation of gender by challenging a restrictive notion of gender associated with received notions of masculinity and femininity.[1] According to her view, gender is the “cultural meaning that the sexed body assumes”.[2] Clusters of properties, traits and behaviors that are traditionally associated to one gender or the other may be distributed in a variety of ways when not constrained by restrictive social norms and coercive institutions that force individuals to mold their behaviors and attitudes in order to fit social stereotypes. As she says: “The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it”.[3] Transgender social types, that is, patterns of behavior that mix in a creative and original way traits coming from the two main genders (masculine and feminine) are today an acknowledged subject of cultural studies[4] and, at least in some parts of the world, an actual option of expression of the self.
Yet, while the study of gender has evolved in a direction that frees people from a too rigid determination of their sexual identity, in most countries legal and social norms about gender determination have not always taken into account these interesting developments.
If we look at the way in which legal norms deal around the world with transexual identities, we realize to what extent the binary gender distinction as well as the mimetic relation between gender and sex evoked by Butler still shape litigations and court decisions about the expression of gender identity and the rights associated to it.
This opens two orders of debate about the role of the state and the legal system over the determination of gender identity: (1) on the one hand, one may simply ask why should the state have the power to define sex? Which rights and duties clearly follow from the sex distinction? And do these rights and duties justify the power of states to define once for life the sex of their citizens?[5] (2) On the other hand, even if we give (1) for granted and acknowledge the right of states of determining the sex of, their citizens on what conception on male/female distinction should a nation ground its power of defining sex/gender identity?
In what follows, we will argue that the notion of “sex” on which states base their power to establish a sexual identity of their citizens fails to take into account the transdisciplinary dimension of this notion. We will also argue that the way in which legal systems define sex is normatively charged and biased toward a binary conception of sexuality and a mimetic interpretation of the relation between sex and gender according to which gender distinctions should mirror the binary sexual distinction.

1. Sex as a transdisciplinary notion
If one takes a closer look at the medical definitions of sex, it is easy to realize to what extent we are dealing with a plurality of notions that come from very different fields of research.The definition that we may find in a standard medical dictionary distinguishes among:
Sex (chromosomal):  A distinctive character of most animals and plants determined by the presence of the XX (female) or the XY (male) genotype in somatic cells, without regard to phenotypic manifestations.
Sex (endocrinological): Based on the type of gametes produced by the gonads, ova (macrogametes) being typical of the female, and spermatozoa (microgametes) of the male, or the category in which the individual is placed on such basis.
Sex (anatomical): That part of the phenotypic sex that is determined by the morphology or genital tissues.
Sex (behavioral1): The sum of functional and behavioral characteristics of living things that are involved in reproduction and that distinguish males and females.
Sex (behavioral2): The sum of social orientations and intimate behaviors that characterize the sexual identity of an individual.

As we can see, these definitions appeal to a variety of scientific expertise, from genetics to endocrinology, from anatomy to psychology and sociology. The biological received view about sexual determination is that each human has two sex chromosomes coding for maleness and femaleness that produce gonadal differences in utero and initiate a cascade of sexual differences in pre and post-natal development. But the relation between genetic and phenotypic expression is far from being understood in modern biology, and a certain determinism that characterized genetic biology in the XX century, according to which genes determine the phenotype is today obsolete.[6]
The anatomical view associates phenotypical expressions to morphological traits. But, as classical research on hermaphroditism has shown,[7] the morphological expression of the gonadal anatomy is not enough to determine the sex of the individual. In a famous survey over more than one hundred cases of children hermaphodytes, the psychologist and sexologist John Money[8] suggested that gender should not be assigned to hermaphrodite children according to their anatomy, but according to observation of their behavior after the age of two-and-a-half-year. By the way, it is interesting to remind that Money was one of the first psychologists who claimed that distinguishing between sex and gender was necessary in cases of sex reassignment, although he is notoriously famous for the sad case of the sex reassignment of David Reimer (born Bruce Peter Reimer in 1965), whose penis was accidentally destroyed during a circumcision when he was a child and was reassigned and raised by his parents as a female  - following the suggestion of Dr. Money. The reassignment, based on Money’s insights about the opportunity of a gender/sex distinction, ended up in a disaster. He decided to go back to his male identity during his adolescence, and, after a series of ups and downs and a broken marriage, he committed suicide at age 38. This sad story shows how delicate is to stick to the anatomical expression of sexual tissues to a permanent identity.
As the behavioral characteristics associated with sex, there exist a vast empirical literature that shows how weak and contextually dependent these associations are.[9] As we have said, deconstructing the binary boundaries of gender has been a major intellectual achievement of gender studies in the 1990.[10] But, as the definitions of sex discussed above show, it is clear that the notion of sex also is problematic, heavily socially constructed and normatively used in many contexts.[11]
Instead of restating what the literature on gender studies has already said, that is, that both gender and sex are socially constructed notions, we would like to take a transdisciplinary stance and insisting on the vectorial, multidimensional transdisciplinary dimension of the notion of sex. Sexual differences are a societal norm, a biological reality, a strong social intuition that allows us to make sense of the social world is around us. Revealing their socially constructed dimension doesn’t mean that we can get rid of them: reading the social world as a sexed reality is something that is there to stay, even if we can avoid many prejudices and injustices by acknowledging the transdisciplinary aspect of the notion.
2. Health as a transdisciplinary notion
Health is also a transdisciplinary notion that is unstable between a normative and a descriptive reading. The World Health Organization defines health in the following way: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.[12] “To be in good health thus describes a much more complex state than just the absence of any infirmity: the definition points to a state of well-being whose realization goes far beyond the medical competences and involves the whole organization of society.
In order to assure health as a fundamental right, a legislation must exist that is able to realize the infrastructures, the institutions and the social conditions for the realization of this right.
Sexual health is defined by the OMS in the following way:
“Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”[13]
Thus, as we may see, health is not a medical notion, rather, a complex, transdisciplinary notion that involves all the layers of society: legal, social, economical and moral. The definition of sexual rights is also complex and far from being uncontroversial: On the website of WHO, although the definition is not considered as “official” (yet, it is odd that an “unofficial” definition is displayed on the website…) we find the following defintion:
 Sexual rights
Sexual rights embrace human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus statements. They include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, to:
    .             the highest attainable standard of sexual health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care services;
    .             seek, receive and impart information related to sexuality;
    .             sexuality education;
    .             respect for bodily integrity;
    .             choose their partner;
    .             decide to be sexually active or not;
    .             consensual sexual relations;
    .             consensual marriage;
    .             decide whether or not, and when, to have children; and
    .             pursue a satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life.

The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.
As we may see, here also, we deal with a cluster of notions, norms, descriptions, desiderata, that involve educational issues, norms on marriage, reproductive needs, and information disclosure. There is no single discipline that can deal with the different cultures of marriage, the access of sexual education and the prevention of infective diseased sexually transmitted. There is no discipline that may set the standards of what is a “satisfying, safe and pleasurable sexual life”.
In the following we will take this transdisciplinary perspective to discuss the right of the determination of one’s own gender as a fundamental human and health right. As we hope to show, the failure to take into account the transdisciplinary dimensions of all these notions (sex, gender and health) has created ambiguous interpretations of the law and a normative vacuum on the right of deciding of one’s own gender determination and the practices associated to the public acknowledgement of this right.

3. A brief history of transexualism
Historically, transexualism was identified in psychoanalysis as an undifferentiated perversion, close to a cluster of pathologies  such as transvestic fetishism (DSM IV, 302.3) that involves cross-dressing. The first operation of sex reassignment was performed in Germany by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1931.[14] But the first case in which transexualism was recognized as a distinctive gender dysphoria from transvestitism and other pathologies was in 1952, when Christine (George) Jorgensen was operated in Denmark under the claim that he was a woman “trapped” in a man’s body. This allowed for the definition of a new syndrome, distinct from the pathology of transvestitism, called “transexualism”. The endocrinologist Harry Benjamin defined in 1954 transexualism as unique illness, a non-psychopatic sexual disorder, distinct from homosexuality and transvestitism and perhaps related to endocrinological problems. In United States, between 1950 and 1970, there was a lively discussion around Benjamin’s idea of a special transexual illness, especially among psychoanalists who went on for longtime considering transexualism as a mental pathology to be healed through psychotherapy and not through clinical surgery.[15]
The current diagnosis of transexualism in the DSM and in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) is a medical condition although not a mental illness. For reasons that are left unspecified (genetical/endocrinological) transexual subjects feel and declare that they belong to the opposite sex. As the DSMIV specifies: “The cross-gender identification must not merely be a desire for any perceived cultural advantaged of being the other sex. There must be also evidence of persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex […] To make the diagnosis, there must be evidence of clinical significant distress or impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning” (p.533). The ICD-10 classification reads as follows: “"F64.0 Transsexualism A desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one's anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one's body as congruent as possible with one's preferred sex."

Transexualism as a “social kind” to use the expression of the philosopher Ian Hacking, has thus an unstable history: one the one hand, its conceptualization as a mental illness was challenged by scientists and by transexual people, claiming that it was not just a variant of “gender identity disorder”, but a real physical state of being “trapped” in the wrong sex. On the other hand, this claim promoted the surgery of sex reassignment, thus the strong association between sexual identity and the anatomical expression of sex, an association that, as we will see, has been challenged in the recent years. In the Seventies, the John Hopkins hospital became in United States the center of the competences for sex reassignment surgery, under the influence of psychiatrists such as John Money and Eugene Meyer surgeons such as Milton Edgerton. The reaction of the psychiatric/psychoanalitic community to this practice was strong: there were many who affirmed that those who practiced sex reassignment plastic surgery were complying with psychopats: They attacked surgery as non-therapeutic. If patients' requests represented "a  surgical acting out of psychosis" (Volkan and Bhatti, 1973), then surgeons were guilty of  "collaboration with psychosis" (Meerloo, 1967:263). In an arm race of surveys and publications, evidence was found for the two positions: it was shown that most of the patients applying to the surgery were affected by various psychotic diseases, such as schizophrenia, neurosis, thus confirming the idea that sexual reassignment surgery was a “way of collaborating with psychosis”. Yet, Pauley (1968) reviewed 121 cases of transexual surgeries and concluded that patients had improved their psychical condition after surgery. These data are today challenged by other surveys (see Billing and Urban 1982 for a review)
Thus, the making of “transexualism” as a special condition has a complex history that alternates two interpretations of this psycho/physical state as well as different “fights for rights”. The recognition of transexualism as a distinct condition thanks to the research at the John Hopkins hospital in the Sixties was certainly an improvement towards the rights of transgender people and the public awareness of a further option of sexual identity beyond the male/female distinction. Yet, the price for this recognition was to stick together the surgical intervention with the transexual identity, thus paving the way for a legal recognition of transexuality in terms of physical/surgical change of the sexual apparatus.
As we will see in the next section, the “sociomedical construction” of transexualism as a disease whose only cure was represented by the sex reassignment surgery had heavy implications on the legislation and the rights associated to the possibility of changing sex.

4. Transgender Rights, Legal Decisions and the Evolution of Norms of Identity
In 1989 in Europe, a recommendation of the Assemblée Parlamentaire of the European Council (recommendation n. 1117)[16] invited the member states to develop a legal framework to treat these cases. The recommendation recognizes transexuals as people who have a “double personality” (without any mention of a mental illness) in which their physical sex doesn’t correspond to their psychical one, thus endorsing a classical theory of gender-identity in which sex determines gender. It is then stated that “Thanks to the advancement of medical research and to the possibility of surgical intervention for sex reassignment” the condition of transexual people can be improved. Finally, it encourages the member states to allow for the change of sex at the physical level and at the legal level. Even if a clear-cut causal or normative link between the medical sex-reassignement and the legal sex-reassignement is not stated, the recommendation clearly reads as the two were closely related. It is the existence of a medical technique of sex reassignment that makes the legal sex reassignment possible.
The legal endorsement of the member states of the recommendation has been different in each state.  Sweden, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Turkey have promulgated laws about the conditions of sex-reassignment. Two states, Andorra and Hungary, do not allow sex reassignment surgery. Other states, like Great-Britain, have adopted a pragmatic stance, that is, a case by case strategy, although specific legal measures have been taken to avoid discriminations of transexual people at work, through a 1999 regulation on gender reassignment.[17] As for the extension of legal rights to people who have undergone sex-reassignment, the British governmental policy recognizes the following rights:
“Once they are living permanently in their acquired gender, most transsexual people want their official documentation to reflect their new gender identity. They may obtain some official documents (including passports, National Insurance cards and driving licences) in their new name and gender, and the Department for Work and Pensions will make special arrangements for handling their records sensitively. Many private companies too have special arrangements for transsexual people. They are not currently entitled, however, to have their birth certificates revised, nor to enjoy any rights legally confined to persons of the gender to which they feel they belong. They cannot marry in their acquired gender, nor draw the State pension at the age appropriate to that gender”.
However, after the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in Goodwin -vs UK, delivered on 11 July 2002, Great-Britain has simplified the procedures for the legal sex-reassignment. A Gender Recognition Panel, composed by a medical as well as a legal staff, is now enough to deliver a certificate of recognition of the new sex.
Spain has promulgated a law in 2007 that doesn’t require anymore the sex-reassignment surgery in order to ask for legal gender reassignment. In general, the most advanced policies in this matter have simplified the administrative procedures to obtain the legal gender reassignment and relaxed the medical criteria to recognize to the person the need of reassignment.
It is interesting to notice that in many legal literature, having gone through an operation of sex reassignment was seen not only as a pre-condition for asking legal reassignment, but also as a “sign” of commitment of the person, given the sufferings and the efforts of the operation: “The United Kingdom national health service, in common with the vast majority of Contracting States, acknowledges the existence of the condition and provides or permits treatment, including irreversible surgery. The medical and surgical acts which in this case rendered the gender re-assignment possible were indeed carried out under the supervision of the national health authorities. Nor, given the numerous and painful interventions involved in such surgery and the level of commitment and conviction required to achieve a change in social gender role, can it be suggested that there is anything arbitrary or capricious in the decision taken by a person to undergo gender re-assignment. In those circumstances, the ongoing scientific and medical debate as to the exact causes of the condition is of diminished relevance”.[18]

 In France also, there is no substantial legislation on gender reassignment, and a case by case policy is encouraged by the government. In 1992, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France in the case B. Vs. France for violation of the article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (concerning the rights to the respect of private life). Miss B appealed to the court after having being denied gender reassignment, even if she had undergone an operation,  on the basis of the conclusion of the judges that a person having acquired the physical “appearances” of the other sex cannot be considered of that sex if he or she lacks some fundamental characteristics of that sex: in this case, the “fundamental characteristic” was reproduction: being recognized as a woman would imply, for that judge, to be able to  make children!

Although the first surgery of sex reassignment in Brazil was performed in 1971, that is, during the hardest years of the dictatorship, it was only after the first Federal Constitution promulgated in 1988 that discriminations on the basis of sexual behavior started to be sanctioned. The first article of the new Brazilian constitution affirms the dignity of the human person as the foundation of a democratic state based on rights and the third article states that the objective of the democratic state is “to promote the well being of everybody without prejudices of origin, race, sex or color”. The Brazilian Federal Medical Council allowed the sex reassignment surgery in 1997 (resolução n°1.482/97) and extended the conditions and criteria in 2002. In 2008, the Ministry of Health institutionalized a processo transexualisador and acknowledged the right of performing sex-reassignment surgeries in public health structures. By doing this, the Ministry of Health, was acknowledging a conception of health as a transdisciplinary notion, well beyond the narrow sense of “absence of infermity” and involving a societal dimension of recognition of one’s own personal identity. Sexual orientation and gender identity were thus considered as fundamental elements of health, as a general well-being that involves conditions of respect and expression of one’s identity and personality.
It is important to notice that it was in the name of the respect of identity as a condition of well-being that rights to sex reassignment were expanded, and not in the name of the medical condition of “transexuality” as a precise disease. Newcomers in terms of rights and health rights, such as Brazil, which has a fairly recent constitution and healthcare system, have avoided the ambiguities of older legislations in which the medical condition of the transexual as a pathology was a crucial element in the determination of the rights to perform the operation. Since 1997, the surgery has been considered “ethical” in order to provide healthcare to transexual patients that cannot live a life within a sexual determination that doesn’t correspond to their actual sexual identity.
As in most countries, Brazil has established a series of procedures to accord the right of sex reassignment surgery. Candidates must be under observation for two years by a multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, legal experts, surgeons, social workers, etc. They must be 21 years old and not showing other conditions that may conflict with a surgical intervention. As we have seen, these criteria, with some variations, are present in all countries that accept the sex reassignment surgery.
Yet, some recent decision have acknowledged legal sex reassignment  and change of name in absence of any surgery:
Ementa: APELAÇÃO. RETIFICAÇÃO DE REGISTRO CIVIL. TRANSEXUALISMO. TRAVESTISMO. ALTERAÇÃO DE PRENOME INDEPENDENTEMENTE DA REALIZAÇÃO DE CIRURGIA DE TRANSGENITALIZAÇÃO. DIREITO À IDENTIDADE PESSOAL E À DIGNIDADE. A demonstração de que as características físicas e psíquicas do indivíduo, que se apresenta como mulher, não estão em conformidade com as características que o seu nome masculino representa coletiva e individualmente são suficientes para determinar a sua alteração. A distinção entre transexualidade e travestismo não é requisito para a efetivação do direito à dignidade. Tais fatos autorizam, mesmo sem a realização da cirurgia de transgenitalização, a retificação do nome da requerente para conformá-lo com a sua identidade social. DERAM PROVIMENTO. (Apelação Cível Nº 70030504070, Oitava Câmara Cível, Tribunal de Justiça do RS, Relator: Rui Portanova, Julgado em 29/10/2009)

This goes with the tendency of many countries around the world (as we have seen Spain, for example, in Europe) to overcome the rigid OMS interpretation of transexualism as an infirmity that must be surgically treated and that integrate a broader notion of gender identity that comes from the debates we mentioned at the beginning of this paper. Here is another decision in this direction:

Ementa: APELAÇÃO CÍVEL. TRANSEXUALISMO.RETIFICAÇÃO DE REGISTRO CIVIL. NOME E SEXO. É possível a alteração do registro de nascimento relativamente ao sexo e ao nome em virtude da realização da cirurgia de redesignação sexual. Vedação de extração de certidões referentes à situação anterior do requerente, sob pena de discriminação. RECURSO IMPROVIDO. (Apelação Cível Nº 70028694479, Oitava Câmara Cível, Tribunal de Justiça do RS, Relator: Claudir Fidelis Faccenda, Julgado em 28/05/2009)

That is, a country such as Brazil, with a past of hard sexual discriminations, that has adopted a democratic constitution only in 1988 is more easily integrating a view of the rights of expression of gender identity as “rights of persons” than as “rights of patients”.
The same can be said of the recent approval (2012) in Argentine of a legislation proposed in 2011 of “rights for gender identity” that allows citizen to freely change their gender identity without any need of surgical intervention or any diagnosis by teams of specialists:
Gender Identity Law
Article 1 – Right to gender identity. All persons have the right,
a) To the recognition of their gender identity;
b) To the free development of their person according to their gender
c) To be treated according to their gender identity and, particularly, to
be identified in that way in the documents proving their identity in
terms of the first name/s, image and sex recorded there.
Article 2  – Definition.  Gender identity is understood as the internal and
individual way in which gender is perceived by persons, that can correspond
or not to the gender assigned at birth, including the personal experience of the
body. This can involve modifying bodily appearance or functions through
pharmacological, surgical or other means, provided it is freely chosen. It also
includes other expressions of gender such as dress, ways of speaking and
Article 3  – Exercise.  All persons can request that the recorded sex be
amended, along with the changes in first name and image, whenever they do
not agree with the self-perceived gender identity.
Article 4 – Requirements. All persons requesting that their recorded sex be
amended and their first name and images changed invoking the current law,
must comply with the following requirements:
1. Prove that they have reached the minimum age of eighteen (18) years,
with the exception established in Article 5 of the current law.
2. To submit to the National Bureau of Vital Statistics or their
corresponding district offices, a request stating that they fall under the
protection of the current law and requesting the amendment of their
birth certificate in the records and a new national identity card, with
the same number as the original one.
3. To provide the new first name with which they want to be registered.
In no case will it be needed to prove that a surgical procedure for total or
partial genital reassignment, hormonal therapies or any other psychological or medical treatment has taken place.

5. Conclusions


[1] Butler’s essay was a major contribution to the field of Queer Studies and LGBT studies, that have become an established academic field since the 1980. See E. Sedwick (1985) Epsitemology of the Closet, University of California Press.
[2] Cf. Butler, p. 9.
[3] Cf. Butler, p. 9.
[4] Cf. L. Feinberg (1996) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to RuPaul, Beacon Press, Boston.
[5] Paisley, Currah, “Defending Genders: Sex and Gender Non-Conformity in the Civil. Rights Strategies of Sexual Minorities”, 48 Hastings L. J. 1363, 1363-68
[6] Cf. R. Lewontin (2000)
[7] Cf. Money, John, Joan Hampson and John Hampson
1955 "Hermaphroditism: Recommendations concerning assignment of sex, change of sex, and psychologic management." Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital 96-97:284-300.
[8] Money, John 1972 "Sex reassignment therapy in gender identity disorders." International Psychiatry Clinics
[9] Cf. Kessler, S., McKenna, W. (1978) Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, Chicago University Press.
[11] See Laqueur (1990) Making Sex, Harvard University Press. For a review of the literature on the social construction of sex, see:
[12] Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
[14] Cf. Pauly IB (1965)” Male psychosexual inversion: Transsexualism: A review of 100 cases” Arch Gen Psychiatry.
[15] For a historical review of the debate, see: D. Billings, T. Urban: “The socio-medical construction of transexualism: an interpretation and critique”, SOCIAL PROBLEMS,  Vol. 29, No. 3, February 1982