Trans and Nonbinary Identity in the Age of Profilicity
I’ve recently been enjoying the YouTube channel Carefree Wandering, presented by German philosopher Hans-Georg Moeller. Moeller’s work centers around the concept of identity, specifically what he calls “identity technologies” — basically the different sociocultural modes through which identity is constructed and understood. Moeller identifies three basic identity technologies which exist historically and in different cultures: sincerity, authenticity, and profilicity. Sincerity is the most “traditional” of these, and it involves fitting neatly into culturally-given categories of identity, such as being a good son or a reliable merchant. Authenticity arose more recently and it deals with a more romantic notion of identity — namely, being true to one’s “inner self” more or less. Ideas of “following your dreams” in life or finding “true love” are formulated using the identity technology of authenticity.
Moeller asserts we are currently experiencing a shift from understanding identity through this mode of authenticity, to understanding it through profilicity — the newest identity technology and perhaps the most complex. Profilicity involves curating a public profile for the purpose of expressing and developing identity. Whereas in sincerity what was important was how traditional social groups perceived you, and in authenticity how you perceived and reflected some kind of genuine inner self, in profilicity, identity is judged by what Moeller refers to as “the general peer.” Basically, you are curating an identity by judging how it would be received by an abstracted audience of peers. A phenomenon such as “virtue signaling” can easily be understood through this identity technology: you’re not necessarily trying to express your deep inner desires or trying to fit neatly into a pre-defined social role — you are expressing a certain attitude that you believe will be favorably received by an audience composed of peers and by doing so, curating a certain “profile” for yourself. I give this example because “virtue signaling” is something which can happen just as easily in the face-to-face context as it can in digital spaces, and while social media is obviously a crucial factor in the development of the identity technology of profilicity, this way to approach identity is not completely reliant on tech platforms.
Moeller’s work isn’t normative — he isn’t trying to claim that any of these identity technologies are good or bad in themselves, or that any of them are somehow more effective at creating “real” identity. I do think the development of the identity technology of profilicity has some interesting social and psychological ramifications, however, which is what I’d really like to discuss in this post.
While identity technologies have always involved concern with how others see us (“am I fitting in well to the social roles?” in sincerity and “am I coming across as a unique, genuine individual?” in authenticity), I think there is an additional layer of self-awareness or self-consciousness that has developed under profilicity. We are no longer as inwardly-focused as was the case under authenticity, with always trying to measure identity against intuitions of a true inner self. Instead, identity is more immediately social, with it being constructed through contemplating how it is received by the general peer. Identity under sincerity was also very social in this way, but the difference here is that profilicity does not provide pre-figured cultural roles to which one must conform. Instead, we are simply considering how our identity would be received by a much more abstract entity — that being the general peer.
I’m thinking about Moeller’s categories a lot in terms of the recent focus on gender in terms of one’s identity. In sincerity, gender is expressed simply through adherence to gender roles given to you, and in authenticity, gender is experienced through true inner feelings unique to your individuality (which is absolutely how a lot of people DO primarily experience gender — these different technologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive and authenticity is still prominent, even as profilicity is on the rise).
But in profilicity, gender identity becomes primarily a phenomenon of feeling satisfied with how you believe you are being perceived by the general peer — it becomes a question of how you are seen by others, not simply how you understand and perceive yourself in accordance with some authentic inner reality.
I think the recent prevalence of trans and non-binary identities is due at least in part to the shift towards profilicity as an identity technology, but of course greater social acceptance and resources for trans people has been instrumental in this as well. This isn’t at all to say that people who come to trans identity under conditions of profilicity are somehow less genuine as a result, but rather that a proliferation of transgender and non-binary identities is simply an outcome of profilicity, just how certain modes of being rose to greater prominence when authenticity came on the scene (heterodox thinkers, hopeless romantics, and visionary artists being some examples).
I think this helps explain the recent phenomenon of trans people who claim they don’t experience any gender dysphoria yet still wish to transition socially to be seen as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. There’s a lot of nuanced discussion in trans spaces about what exactly counts as dysphoria and the different ways this experience can manifest, but regardless of where those discussions land, it seems likely to me that within the context of profilicity, where one understands one’s identity through imagining how one is viewed by the general peer, it is only natural that intuitions to modify one’s gender expression are more common now than within the context of previous identity technologies.
As we go through this transition of identity technologies, it seems inevitable that there will be some rockiness. Evaluating a person’s identity with the technology of authenticity when they are operating under profilicity will naturally cause disconnect, just like how trying to judge someone by the standards of sincerity when they are operating under authenticity is a recipe for conflict (much of feminist movement in the 20th century arose out of this conflict).
And since we can only evaluate identity through the identity technologies given to us, there is no meta-standpoint from which it is possible to evaluate which identities are ultimately the most real (Moeller is very Kantian in this sense — we cannot get to the-thing-in-itself of identity), but even that kind of endeavor is something very much stemming from the identity technology of authenticity — assuming that there is some fundamentally real inner-identity which can be accessed.
If authenticity is an inner-alchemy of pure self-discovery, then profilicity is an alchemy of perception and appearances. In that way, profilicity is more social, contextual, and immediately connected with a world outside of an atomized individual, which has some benefits. Ultimately in my own life I find myself torn between authenticity and profilicity, though these two technologies are not always necessarily in conflict. Identity exploration can be exciting and rewarding in either mode, and likewise with sincerity — I mean, I do ultimately want to be a good friend, son, etc. independent of how that relates to my inner self or how I am perceived!