Recently I came across this quote from Leo Bersani, which backs up a feeling I have been expressing for some time now:

If psychoanalysis were to have an innovative role in a Foucauldian genealogy of the human subject in Western societies, it would not be because it explains our nature in terms of our sexuality (this would be merely an addition to the history of attempts to define a “human nature”), but rather because it defines the sexual itself as that which profoundly disorients any effort whatsoever to constitute a human subject.1

This in fine highlights one of my problems with essentialism, particularly with essentialism of a non-strategic variety; mimesis (Irigaray) I will admit is of profound value. Essentialism as the bedrock of an identitarian politics, however, I cannot but see as problematic and ahistorical. What is ‘essential’ about the human condition is precisely its lacking of essence, the pure historicity of the factical elements of which the subject is a constitutive transcendence. In this sense, all identity is at root ‘strategic’, arising in response to a lack of innate procedures and incoherent drives in the face of a contingently granted and historical environment. I only insist on this point for politically consequential reasons, although those reasons may also be ontologically determinate. In this respect I think it is well worth making a clarification of my fundamental position on identitarian politics, which must be based on proper distinctions.

It should be established that not all ‘identity politics’ are equal, and not all can be criticised in the same way, or dismissed as being ‘merely’ identitarian. So firstly, ‘identity politics’ is a term in serious need of disaggregation. It risks meaning everything and nothing, from Femen, bell hooks, the Black Panthers, Sufragettes to the arguments of a fandom like the ‘furry’ community. Obviously enough, the crucial moment of genuinely political movements is always in a dimension concerning struggle against oppression. However, there is further to this another distinction to be made between anti-oppression identity politics (anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-colonnial autonomy, self-determination etc.) and the privilege-politics type of identitarianism. We must recognise that making this distinction is a contemporary move, and not a categorical one; some privilege politics have radical historical roots. However, where privilege politics are practised in abstraction from their radical roots — often in situations where critique drift may have occurred or where reactionary currents have recuperated radical methodology and even terminological formulations — the distinction will hold and the axis of oppression will be on the side of the identitarian argument. This we see of course in Men’s Rights Activism, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, even manifest in such purportedly ‘radical’ (but wholly reactionary) movements as the Taxpayers Alliance and in the general ethos of collectives such as Sp!ked Magazine and their organization on the basis of indignation and antagonism towards ‘political correctness’ and a perceived failure of liberal multiculturalism. In all these cases reactionary currents within social movements (which may or may not have originally been possessed by a radical impetus or struggle against oppression) merely inherit or mimic the methodologies and critical strategies of anti-oppression (radical) identity politics and put them to use in order not to mobilise an oppressed party but to act as a buffer zone for the oppressor to incorporate and use to its tactical advantage the very ethos of mobilisation itself. Thus, here we find the tedious MRA spouting critical terminology expropriated from feminist critique and re-tooled for a somehow ‘radical’ defence of the status-quo, and accompanied by an affectation of all of the indignation and affrontedness that authentically belonged to the original context. Here then, is identity politics in its problematic manifestation: as identitarianism.

Let’s be plainer: there can be no radical defence of the status-quo. There is nothing bolshy, political or activist in the so-called ‘contrarian’ views of a Brendan O’Neill figure simply because the existing order, the matrix of existing social oppressions, is already on their side. And when it is not totally on their side but only partially so, as in the case of Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminism, often the very meaning of the authentic cause (the struggle against and overthrow of patriarchal society) is risked for the sake of the defence of the existing dimension of oppression (where in society, exactly, are Trans people not already excluded?), so that the genuine cause is subordinated with respect to the defended oppressive axis.

It seems obvious to me that the regressive recuperation of critical terminology and methodologies by identitarian ‘movements’ (better considered perhaps not as social movements but as appendages of oppression) for reactionary defence of the status quo, this ‘political’ imposture through the reactionary assumption of radical means, is concomitant with the much more general acquisition of radical means for reactionary purpose found in neoliberal economics. The weaponisation of critique, its being transformed into an instrument of moral punishment and a means of eliciting shame — and a penitent process of self-instrumentalisation, self-commodification in accordance with the correct market, often presented as somehow therapeutic – attests very clearly to the process of its neoliberalisation.

My position is that there is nothing wrong (and very much which is radical, beautiful and good) in identity politics. But there may be a weakness in it strategically which predisposes it to a kind of exploitability by reactionary forces. The emphasis on identity, as such, to my thinking, is what exposes identity politics to the risks of critique drift and recuperation of its methods. It is not merely that social movements based on identity have strayed from their radical roots or jettisoned class struggles — indeed I do not see class struggle as a struggle of identity — it is rather that their multiple proliferation has been recast under neoliberalism as the plentitude of markets or ‘fields’ of merely competing (not struggling with oppression, but merely competing) ideas and lifestyles. This embourgeoisement or gentrification of struggle presents a perfectly post-political subjectivity who is free to assume and self-rectify (subject to market discipline, voiced as ‘critique’) an ‘identity’ which promises in itself to constitute a radical event of some kind. Bluntly put, the emphasis is all on being something, and not on doing something, as if the mere act of self-ascription were radical enough of an action to indefinitely postpone the need for collective political eventhood. It is, from the beginning, a rejection of revolution as such, a categorical denial that revolution can take place or is even necessary. Somehow, the dirty business of actually fighting against the oppressor can be short-circuited, the violence of overthrow can be circumvented, and we can all like nice liberals simply shame one another into becoming better people. I’m sorry to say this isn’t going to work, and identitarians are going to end up deserving the labels of ‘moralisers’ and ‘new puritans’ that the right wing throw at them for their efforts to control the way others see them. Recognition of your identity by the other is not a matter of moral negotiation and the policing of practices, but a struggle, perhaps even an armed struggle. Indeed, to cite Hegel, the dialectic is ‘a fight to the death’. This is of course what the radical element is, and once a social and political concern with identity becomes unmoored from this understanding that violence lies at the heart of every struggle, it ceases to be radical and becomes a bloodless identitarianism, its argument easily recuperated and used against it.

The strengthening of identity politics, its bulwark against becoming a mere series of identities ‘competing’ for representation (what I have dubbed neoliberal identitarianisms) can only come about as I see it through the de-centering of identity itself, that is, through the incorporation of dis-idenitification, the strategic refusal of identity, and finally the wreckage of the paradigm of identity itself taken as the ultimate identity, something in-assimilable as a self-determined identity. This would not require something like universal prescription of psychotherapy and the subjective destitution of every subject. All it means is something that Susan Buck-Morss has voiced, when speaking of the Haitian revolution:

[R]ather than giving multiple distinct cultures equal due, whereby people are recognised as part of humanity indirectly, through the mediation of collective cultural identities, human universality emerges in the historical event at the point of rupture. It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose cultures have been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits, and it is in our emphatic identification with this raw, free and vulnerable state that we have a chance of understanding what they say. Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences. A person’s non-identity with the collective allows for subterranean solidarities…

We are not going to transform the world into a better place if we cannot constitute a ‘we’ to do it: the ‘we’ which is capable of directing or altering the flow of history is united not by common identity but by the universal and vulnerable state of being incapable of coinciding with any identity, the ineluctable removal at which every human being stands with respect to whatever they take to be their identity. Against the political dimensions of oppression which cross and intersect is formed a subjectivity, but this subjectivity is not radical in itself, not radical merely for being oppressed. It is radical only insofar as it is capable of fighting, and that means not simply being something in varied situations, but doing something — mobilisation in concert. Concerted effort in conjunction with others is possible only if the stakes are not totally subordinated to our self-ascriptions and to the ascriptive politics that affirm them; there is ultimately something negative and self-negating that we must each do. We have to assume each other’s burdens, something not our own. We have to be at least this nugatory, this blasphemous, with respect to our sacred little selves. History is the burden of assuming such negation, the collective standing-apart-from-self and self-loss we must all suffer if there is any hope of salvaging the future. We will need much more irony than we seem able to currently muster.

Notes and References

[1] Bersani, Leo (1990) The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, Columbia University Press p.101
[2] Buck-Morss, Susan (2009) Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, University of Pittsburgh Press, p.133

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