Each body has its art, its precious prescribed
Pose, that even in passion’s droll contortions, waltzes,
Or push of pain—or when a grief has stabbed
Or hatred hacked—is its and nothing else’s.
Each body has its pose. No other stock
That is irrevocable, perpetual,
And its to keep.
– Gwendolyn Brooks, “Still Do I Keep My Looks, My Identity…” (1944)
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
– Langston Hughes, “Theme for English B” (1951)
In this article I want to make some critical comments about what has been called the politics of identity and of privilege. I am certainly quite sympathetic to many of the emancipatory projects that are undertaken in its name, and have taken part in a fair number of them myself. At the same time, I have some theoretical as well as personal issues with it, at least in the ways I have often encountered it. This is – one might say ironically – a purely personal experience and reflection on the subject, both in its theoretical and its personal dimensions. It’s driven by both some very bad experiences I have had with the socially corrosive and psychologically destructive effects that ‘privilegetalk’ can have, as well as some theoretical concerns with how it seems to be a somewhat undertheorized kind of language – something that sounds like a theory but is not really a theory.
I may be wrong about this, and to some extent this will no doubt remain a matter of dispute, but my strong feeling is still that the potential universality of its language is the absolute premise of any emancipatory project that goes beyond the subjective, the personal, and its limitations in time and space. It is not a hankering for science in the masculinist-positivist sense of the 19th century (although that amuses me somewhat in Jules Verne and similar books), but it is an Enlightenment desire to go beyond the personal and the particular, however justified one’s ideas are in personal experience, toward the universal and the general as the prerequisite for emancipation. (Of course, this is only one side of the Enlightenment legacy, but it’s the one I think is good.) Without this, I fear, one is forever bound to one or another form of parochialism, solipsism, or a culturally relativist paralysis, which ultimately proves to be much more harmful to real emancipatory causes of all kinds than the alternative.
The history of the impositions of universalizing narratives on others is perhaps a history of oppression, but as such critics as Aijaz Ahmad, Vivek Chibber, and others who have critically engaged with postcolonialism and poststructuralism have pointed out, the history of the ‘local’, the strong normativity of the ‘cultural’, and the essentializing of individual identities is not necessarily a better one in terms of emancipatory outcomes, and it risks giving up on the possibility of universal theory, which is a loss that the oppressed people of this world cannot afford. No social phenomena are without their contradictions; I have done my utmost here to show my recognition that the politics of identity, for me and at least as much for many others, has been something of a liberation. I have been wary of writing this precisely to avoid appearing dismissive or finding academic or ‘left’ reasons to attack something that keeps many people going through their struggles – I am well aware of the risks of ‘Marxsplaining’. I hope this will be taken in a spirit of charitable reading.
Since a lot of different things are going on at the intersection between language, personal experience, and politics, I felt compelled to begin with a rather abstract theoretical analysis of what I take the politics of identity to be and how it relates to social structures. This will probably appear rather dull and formal, but it serves an important purpose. Precisely to avoid the classic kind of academic, patriarchal dismissal of identity politics as not dealing with ‘real’ things or not being objective, it is necessary to deal at least implicitly with what is really meant by objectivity and reality in this sense. Underlying my analysis here is a pragmatist idea of truth as formed at the collective level by the social relations between people mediated through language, where the criterion of objectivity becomes its conformity with certain already-existing and collectively held rules of language, and truth is the successful use of ‘objective’ language in this sense towards an individual or collective purpose. This is grounded in the ideas of Wittgenstein on the impossibility both of ‘founding’ truth, as a form of human language, in anything outside humanity, as well as the equal impossibility of a ‘private language’, i.e. of deciding for yourself what the rules of the language game and thereby of objectivity and truth will be.
This matters for identity because identity, as I will argue, is a way of linguistically expressing experience peculiar to our time and place. The abstract argument of the first half or so of this essay therefore serves to establish that while the politics of identity are not ‘objective’ in the scientific sense, this sense is itself a higher-order form of a sense in which identity is ‘objective’, and therefore it cannot be dismissed so easily. However, identity also contains an irreducibly individual and subjective component that differs between every human being. Because this component is an essential part of it, this ultimately creates serious problems for the universalizability of identity as a locus of emancipatory politics, and it shows that it can as much be a tool of division and mutual destruction as it can be one of collective action and liberation. Both of these are possible, but since much has been written on the strengths of identity politics, in particular in the form of ‘intersectionality’, I will focus somewhat more on the negatives. Much has been written, and rightly and necessarily, about the way the ‘universalizing left’ has contributed to silencing and oppressing particular people, and the politics of identity is historically perhaps a response to that. This essay tries not to acquit them, but to show that the politics of identity and privilege as an alternative has, no less, contradictions of its own. As this essay is absurdly long, I have divided it into sections.
Subjectivity and objectivity of identity
Like all linguistic descriptions involving people (or anything with intentionality), identity in the sense of the politics of identity contains both a subjective and an objective element. The subjective element is clear enough – this concerns whether a given person themselves identify in a particular way. The objective element is objective because it is externally given, but not necessarily objective in the scientific sense described above. Rather, it is externally given because an important part of one’s identity in a given society is what that society itself considers you to be, not just what you are. There is a causal element to identity in this sense that extends beyond the subjective component: you are queer not just when you say you are, but at least as much because other people say you are. Same for being a particular gender, race, and so forth. These descriptions of others in turn are not merely the products of some pure act of will by the individuals of a given society, but are themselves the results of the positions and functions the people so described have in the given society.
This produces the sensation of reality to identity that it does not have in a scientific sense: the sense that ‘everyone knows’ someone is black when they ‘are’ a particular way, or that someone is gay, or a woman, and so forth. This is strongly persistent despite the familiarity of the idea that that these are provably historical and cultural products, subject to considerable contingencies and changes over time (even within fairly short periods of time, in fact), and thereby in no way universalizable in the sense required for the larger sense of objectivity.
Before I can say more about this, it may be necessary to unpack this larger sense of objectivity first, so as to forestall ideas about what I mean by ‘objectivity’. Of course, fundamentally even scientific description is a use of language for a purpose, and thereby subject to the same social construction of reality as identity is – one cannot escape in any way whatever from a language game, and there is no possibility of a private language or an ‘outside’ language, as Wittgenstein demonstrated. But there is a substantial difference nonetheless, which impinges on our understanding of identity as a socially subjective and objective, but nonscientific, category. Within scientific descriptions, there is the criterion of universalizability, as mentioned: the idea that the rules of evidence are in principle accessible to all and their application in a given case could be shown to follow from them in any society and by any person. This is more a striving than a reality in many cases, as the fraught history of anthropology for example reminds us, but it is nonetheless a very important legacy of Enlightenment thought that operates within the language of science, and that constitutes science (within or without academia) as a community of language.
The other criterion is the practical criterion, which is another major distinction, and one relevant in this case as well. This is what I tend to think of as the bridge argument: as the Dutch novelist and polemicist W.F. Hermans used to say, “either the bridge stands, or the bridge falls down. There can be no social construction of this.” He used this as an argument against the claims of the social sciences, but I understand this differently. For me, this is the necessary corollary of the kind of pragmatist ideas of epistemology I have alluded to above. While we need not be concerned with the ‘truth’ of our descriptions outside human language communities – and can thereby do away with a tremendous amount of useless bickering about how realism ‘works’ – the real test of a particular theory must come in the practical application of this for human purposes, in the achieving of human aims. In some cases this is as simple as the bridge test: whether or not it is ‘true’, for human purposes we want to be able to cross the bridge, and if one idea about physics and engineering permits it to stand, whereas with another it falls, we are going to consider the former ‘true’ and the latter not.
However, for most theories it is not as simple as that – as philosophy of science has extensively shown, it is generally not possible even within natural sciences to prove or disprove a theory on the basis of any given single experiment, and there are complex interrelations between data and theory in any given research program or theoretical conception that require longer term interactions to sift the ‘true’ from the ‘false’ in this sense. In the realm of social science and politics this is even more so, since they inherently allow little to no room for experimentation and isolation, the main weapons of the natural scientist. For this reason, the power of abstraction must replace both, and this brings with it an even greater degree of remoteness of theory from the actual cases that would test it, a greater degree of generality and nonspecificity. In order to overcome this problem, one requires a corresponding practical criterion. Ultimately, these social and political theories must prove themselves in the practice of their application for human ends, but on the basis of universality. As Marx stated in the Theses on Feuerbach: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
This, then, is the sense in which I use ‘objective’ to refer to abstractions of and about the social realm. Of course, whether a given practice disproves such a conception or not is a hotly debated question, and is one that is often not resolved, leading to the various schools of thought one finds in any social science. But they share within a given discipline an agreed upon set of rules of evidence and a common understanding of the boundaries of application of these, a kind of ‘overlapping consensus’ (to take a term from Rawls out of context) about the universalizable principles underlying given classifications, even if there is little agreement on which case should be classified as what. This sense of objectivity is not true for the more immediately social applications of language, even as abstract descriptions, such as identity is. To recap, the social construction of identity is such that it retains the subjective and objective elements described above, but this objectivity is not one of the universalism of language, but an objectivity of social causality. What I mean by this is that the practical criterion for its application operates at a level more immediate than that of the social sciences: it is given immediately by the political, social, and economic constellation of a given society and its most immediate ideological representation of these, rather than mediated by the language community of scientific universality, which abstracts from the immediate experience of place and time.
Identity and social relations
All of this no doubt sounds tremendously abstract, and does not seem to help us any further. I think the abstraction can’t wholly be helped; it is not because this topic is not important in people’s lived experience, but rather on the contrary, precisely because it affects our language so directly. This means a rather ‘meta’ approach is inevitable for reflecting on it. But here I can become (slightly) more concrete in analyzing the nature of the subjective and the objective in identity, if (as I argue) they are not constructs of a scientific descriptive nature. The two elements, subjective and objective, are mutually interrelated and mutually constituting (dialectical, if you like that term). One identifies in a particular way because one feels a particular way of processing the stuff of personal life experience in social interaction, as well as within the mind itself, is a better way than others. This way of recapitulating experience in a manner that achieves self-understanding and the ability to translate experience into a practical, ‘this-sided’ relationship with the given world in the time and place you are in is what forms the sense of a coherent, more or less singular personality.
Identity is a peculiar aspect of this personality, a particular moment (in the philosophical sense), or element, of this personality that is brought to the fore by the interaction between this element and the outside world. But what brings this particular element to the fore? This is the objective part of identity, the constituting of identity of the individual by the society they are a part of. One’s experiences are themselves a function of the position one has in the given society, determined by the economic, social, political, and representational processes present in that society. More simply put: the notion of race becomes part of one’s experience because one is born into a society that is already divided into races in each of these dimensions of social relations. It is in this sense that being white is constituted by experience. The position you enter into that society is such that your experiences are ‘white’ experiences. The interaction between whiteness and the economic, social, political etc. dimensions of practical life reproduces this whiteness on an ongoing basis as a socially objective and causal category.
I say causal, because it is clear that this is not purely a question of an act of will. The subjective element of identification is a personal recapitulation of the experiences of life, and in this sense personal and undetermined as all intentionality is. But it is not wholly arbitrary for those identities that I have called ‘salient’, and this distinguishes them, I would provisionally argue, from the identities that are. For the salient identities, there is a strong causal element: not only are they already given in that society as identity categories (race, gender, etc), but they significantly causally affect, if you will co-determine, your reproduction as an individual within that society. This can be very fundamentally the case. For example in cases of racial segregation or discrimination, whole swathes of the realms of social relations (spatially and socially) exclude you because you are understood to be of a particular racial identity. This in turn directly affects what economic positions you will have, whom you will meet and therefore have relationships with, what your social network is including your backup in case something disastrous happens in your life, and even such immediate aspects of social reproduction of the self as education and healthcare, whether you live or whether you die.
For this reason, the salient identities are ones where the subjective element is not clearly the dominant one. As the rather doubtful experiences of Tim Wise can illustrate, you cannot just opt out of being white because you don’t want to be white any more, nor do societies tend to permit the subjective identification of people of a racial identity low on the racial ladder to identify ‘upwards’. Obama is a prime example of this: someone who would, if whiteness and blackness were scientifically objective categories, be as much white as he is black will in the US always be considered black. On the other hand, one can conceive of various identities which have the same linguistic structure as the salient ones (“as a X, I am/do/want…”), but that are not, or very little, causally reproduced by the social relations of the given society. One could identify as a ‘gamer’, or as a ‘nerd’, or as a ‘wine buff’, or a ‘outdoorsman’ or what have you, never mind being a ‘belieber’ or a ‘secret reincarnation of an Egyptian princess’; but if one subjectively redescribed one’s inward and outward experiences into other terms, this would not much change your position in society, and it is not reinforced causally by pre-existing mental representations that order the economic, social, and political dimensions of that society.
What I mean then is to suggest that there is a universal level at which in every society, at least since the rise of class society if not even before, collective agents have had a particular place in the reproduction of that society in the most material and concrete terms. These collective agents then generate ideological, social, and political forces that either reinforce or weaken their position in the division of labor, and whose agency in this way shapes the experiences of people born into that society. These experiences are strongly or weakly determined by that position, but in any case always suffice to make it clear to someone where in that division of labor they belong. In the post-1968 West, this has taken on the peculiar form of ‘identity’, around which an explicitly political language has arisen that talks about the effects of experience in this way on the formation of identity, and which replaces the analysis of society as a collective totality with the language of the various identities of individuals in their experiences and struggles within this totality. This I call the politics of identity. This politics of identity is then in its usual formulations opposed to the language of larger ‘objectivity’ in the sense of universalization that characterizes the social sciences when talking about the same subject – and yet, this political language describes ‘real’ phenomena in the sense that they are causally structured by the actions and reproduction of those same collective agents.
The politics of identity and privilege
The so-called politics of identity, and its corollary in the politics of privilege, relates as I understand them precisely to this interaction between the objective element in identity formation for salient identities and the problematic of the proliferation of (any) identities in the subjective sphere. Privilege, in this interpretation, is a way of talking about the socially causal forces that operate to form the salient identities. Here, one has privilege if the objective element of one’s identity is caused by one’s incorporation (often from birth) into a position at the top of this particular dimension of social life, whereas one is not privileged, or oppressed, if the same causal forces have experientially put one in the bottom of that dimension. (I may be mixing metaphors here.) At the same time, there are many subjective identities that may not be salient, and in those cases questions of privilege do not apply so much.
In this sense, privilege and identity theory are not really ‘theories’ in a social science sense, and this is somewhat of a misnomer: they are more attempts to generalize the experience of how the subjective element of salient identities is formed by the objective element, and this also makes them so often highly personal and deeply felt, even when applied to people other than oneself, in a way that is not true of (say) the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, or Marx. They concern the subjective and objective elements of identity, but not objectivity in the scientific sense as described above, and it would be mistaken either to praise or critique them as theories in this domain.
The politics of identity and privilege are further often confusedly interpreted because they become, by being linguistic (re)descriptions of others, part of the same representational part of social causality. In other words, by talking about other people having an identity or not, and thereby having particular privilege or not, and all the political and normative claims that come with these, one takes part in a process of normative descriptions of others and the correct behavior and position in social relations that comes with this. This can have powerful effects – precisely because the very construction of the identities that the politics of identity is about has itself come about in this way. Not to say that this resides merely in language: as mentioned, the salience of such identities is generated in practice through social and material relations that are collectively constituted.
Language is the vehicle through which the idea of identity can be expressed, so that even if powerful economic and social forces cause a particular set of experiences, it is only through language of identity and representation that these are collated into a particular self-description, and in turn a (re)description of others. Therefore, the power of such normativity is not to be underestimated, because it is essentially telling other people what their experiences amount to in social practice, for them as well as for everyone. Now often the impetus of doing so in the politics of identity and privilege is explicitly against the prevailing language of representation and the forces of social and material power that operate through them: going against the idea of the self-evident role of white men as spokesmen and theorists, or that being disabled means that it is natural one cannot access whole spatial parts of society, or that an ‘objectively’ given gender is a doom from birth that must be accepted for the stability of society, and so forth. Here, the language of redescription is used to powerful effect against the prevailing ways in which experience has already been translated or formulated linguistically, and for the better.
But however sympathetic to such an undertaking I am, I nonetheless think there is room for some critical remarks. The first is that redescriptions of others are often a painful and humiliating process. This is true for the way in which the salient identities mediate the experiences of those that have them (and then I am talking about those whose salient identities are of the oppressed ranks, so to speak), and equally true for when those are in turn extended and applied to others. A clash can easily occur between the way one subjectively translates experience into identity, including all its political implications, and how others describe one. For both the one and all the others, it will be an intensely personal question: each has the whole ensemble of mental and social experience to back up their ideas about identity and what it means, and the result is often enough that arguments about identity and privilege become extremely hostile, personal, and painful for all involved.
Sometimes, this argument is countered with the observation that the humiliation that may be experienced by someone in the privileged ranks of the salient identity in question is not really significant, as it is merely a reflection of the humiliation felt by those in the oppressed ranks of that identity. In a certain sense this is precisely true, because the linguistic process of redescribing the experiences of others that imposed this oppressed identity upon them, and the linguistic process of redescribing the experiences of the person with the privileged identity (often in constructing them as privileged, or as naturalizing their social position) are indeed identical. However, the proliferation of ways in which experiences can be translated into identity, and the very political nature of the struggle of what counts as a salient identity and what does not, and the dependence of these interpretations themselves on particular wider social scientific ideas (the larger objectivity) of how society works and how representations are made true or false in them, creates an almost infinite regress of argument. It becomes profoundly circular as well as being profoundly personal. The risk is here of a vicious cycle of offense and hurt.
A more concrete way of talking about this is by observing that almost anyone can be both privileged and oppressed along some kinds of identities, and that therefore the painful process of redescription can be extended by anyone on anyone virtually ad infinitum. This can lead to struggle session type situations in which all participants, over time, are able and justified, through the language of identity, to destroy each other’s interpretations of their personal experience. They can proceed by dismissing these as the experiences constituting the privileged identity rather than the oppressed one, and ignoring the pain caused by this dismissal on those grounds. The net result tends to be that very little is achieved except a tremendous degree of personal hurt and confusion. (I will provide an anonymized example of this below.)
Is identity the best locus for political action?
It is a cliché to say that no two people are ever the same, but this speaks a powerful truth about the difficulty of using identity as the springboard for political action. There are very many cases one could mention where arguments in the nature of identity and privilege inadvertently redescribe others in ways that do not match their personal experience, and which they subjectively reject despite a presumed commonality of identity. A very clear example of this is the debate about Rachel Rostad’s slam poetry against the depictions of Asian women in Harry Potter, which in turn led to equally personal rejections of it by other Asian women whose life experiences translated into their same salient identity in a different way. Obviously I don’t want to comment on the merits or demerits of Rostad’s point, but just to note that such cases happen; probably a great number of times.
In a certain sense, I feel language inherently inclines towards the universalizing over time, if the technological and social conditions allow it, as surely they do now more than ever before. (Perhaps there is an analogy here with the idea of ‘information wants to be free’.) For some, for this reason, literature and writing have been expressions of freedom, precisely a freedom from having an identity and the struggle based upon it. The poet Reginald Shepherd has described this in his essay “Against Identity Poetics”:
“The identity card school of poetry is very popular in our current era, when rhetorical fantasies of democracy and equality in cultural life have become tin-pot substitutes for the real things in social, political and economic life. But literature is one of the few areas of life in which I do not feel oppressed, in which I have experienced true freedom. In the literary realm one is not bound by social constructions of identity, or required to flash one’s assigned identity card: one can be anyone, everyone, or no one at all. This is one of literature’s most precious qualities, the access it allows us to otherness (including otherness to ourselves)…”
Identity politics – I suspect inherently – risks committing two political errors at once: both being too individualistic, by taking the individual’s life experience as the locus of politics, and being too generalising, by moving directly from such personal experiences as translated into identity to the assumption that such identity for everyone will have the same political implications. As if it were not the case that so many queer people, and so many women, and so many black people, and so many trans people, and so forth disagree on any imaginable number of topics, political and scientific included. One can do great hurt by using redescriptions of identity to mobilize politically, and immediately dismissing all objections as arising from the experiences of those in the privileged rank of a particular identity dimension, without realizing what this can do both to the very many people who will be non-privileged along some dimension or another as well as to the very possibility of an emancipatory politics that is more than personal.
The drive for universality can here actually serve the emancipatory cause of identity, as the narratives of identity are so often based in the recognition of their counterparts: one is queer because most are straight, one is identified as a woman in relation to the power of men, and so forth. It seems then that this is a case not unlike Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, which can only be overcome by the abolition of both positions. As Robert Brandom puts it: “Hegel’s discussion of the dialectic of the Master and Slave is an attempt to show that asymmetric recognitive (sic) relations are metaphysically defective, that the norms they institute aren’t the right kind to help us think and act with–to make it possible for us to think and act.” Put less abstractly: the achievement even of the fullest, most equal recognition on the basis of the potentially infinite variety of identities would still not transcend the same oppressive social forces that constitute these identities in the first place. This is not to dismiss the possibility and necessity of reforms. It is rather to recognize, as in so many other spheres, that the conceptual basis for reform is often the same thing that makes the reforms necessary in the first place, creating a struggle that can never be won.
This relates to another major risk: which is that in making the political nature of the personal the source of political critique, one takes away the potential of the larger objectivity, that is of universalizing language, to form the basis of such a critique. The nature of much activism in Western societies since the 1960s or so has been that of ad hoc coalitions of ever increasing groups mobilizing on the basis of such identities, and making their political critiques on the basis of this shared experience. Again, this is not a bad thing given the way socially causal forces make that identity ‘true’. Nonetheless, it seems a phenomenon that is both local and fairly recent, from a historical perspective, and especially strong in the highly individualized societies of the wealthy West, and that should at least give us pause with regards to the political power and applicability of such ideas across the board. It may be, as my inclination is to think, that the politics of identity and privilege can do its work as part of a larger political narrative, but cannot overcome its contradictions its own.
The historical story of how many of the first generation of identity-based political activists in the 1960s and 1970s were easily co-opted by the individuating drive of neoliberalism is another reason for at least strategic caution. Under capitalism, expressions of individuality and identity can very easily be accommodated through the mechanisms of market competition and choice; something well understood by the critics of those who seek to overcome its effects by buying fair trade and so forth. The risk is that the result of an intersectional understanding of privilege is precisely a permanent competition between identities about their relative significance, which is likely to come at great personal emotional and psychological cost while being relatively little effective in the wider sphere of politics. Not to say that nothing has or can be achieved by an identity-based approach, far from it; but again, the preponderance of the evidence seems to indicate it is not enough on its own, and that its costs are quite high ought to be recognized.
Already, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton have written a work called Identity Economics incorporating identity quite tidily into the neoclassical microeconomic analysis of personal choices to maximize utility. Indeed, identity, not unlike the notion of ‘institutions’, can end up supplanting a more substantively theorized social analysis and reducing them to the interaction between essentially arbitrarily constituted or given individuals, robbing political critique both of its macro-level social understanding as well as of its historical dimension. For Akerlof and Kranton, politics then ends up being described as follows, in a paragraph at the end of their book:
“Politics, too, is often a battle over identity. Rather than take voters’ preferences as given, political leaders and activists often try to change identity or norms. Some of the most dramatic examples of regime change involve changes in norms regarding who is an insider and who is an outsider. Fascist and populist leaders foster racial and ethnic divisions. Symbolic acts and transformed identities spur revolutions. Mohandas Gandhi’s Salt March sparked the Indian independence movement and a new national identity. The French Revolution changed subjects into citizens. The Russian Revolution turned them into comrades.”
(2) It may be clear what an impoverished idea this is of what politics and political change are about, and how it comes to reinforce a particular liberal view of how society works. Not that I suspect most people interested in the politics of identity to be in any way like the myopic neoclassical economists in their treatment of social relations, but I am worried by the ease in which such an individuating perspective can be incorporated into such a framework, and end up perhaps crowding out, politically and psychologically, a more politically powerful perspective.
Often, the answer to this is sought in the concept of intersectionality; in my language here, this is basically the interrelationship of various salient identity dimensions by their rootedness in one and the same personal experience. Again, intersectionality is not so much a theory in the larger objective sense as it is objective in the more immediate sense: a generalisation of lived experience. The problematics of class-blind feminism or race-blind Marxism and so forth are avoided by an awareness of how one and the same lived experience for a person can feature dimensions in which that person is privileged as well as in which that person is oppressed, and it demands awareness of both. This is good as far as it goes. But I am not convinced it can wholly solve the circularity of identity as a political language. Even intersectionality does not necessarily overcome the kind of Mutually Assured Destruction described above.
Some of the language of intersectionality has recognized some of the pitfalls of the politics of identity described above very well, and is consciously aimed at the co-optation of particular forms of identity based struggle into a larger capitalist logic. This idea of intersectionality seems to have received a much wider circulation through Flavia Dzodan’s now famous article “My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit”. Here, as I understand it, she makes the essential point that any mobilizing on the basis of identity can indeed become a question of competition, or divide and rule, between given identities constructed on the basis of nothing more than the particularity of the experiences that constitute that identity; in other words, that feminists only care about women, anti-racist campaigners only care about racial identity, and so forth. In such a situation, the interconnectedness at the collective level of the various forces generating oppression in terms of ‘salient identities’ is obscured, and the result is the failure of such movements to truly become emancipatory to the degree required to overthrow these forces. This is a very important point, and goes in my view a considerable way towards the integration of the identitarian politics that allows for a more universalizing perspective.
But in and of itself, it is not clear that intersectionality can go beyond the recognition of the plurality of identities. It can oppose the oppression of the one in terms of the emancipation of the other, and thereby the inherent contradictions stemming from the different experiences of individuals. But this does not itself amount to an actual theory of their integration. Dzodan has just now written another good piece exposing certain feminist language as being framed entirely within the neoliberal perspective of the marketplace of identities and ideas, in which competition between the individual experiences and identities is inherent and in which success is therefore a matter of mobilizing oneself for the purpose of selling one’s identity as a commodity (not ncessarily directly, but certainly politically). This, again, is a point well worth making, and in fact exposes a problem with the politics of identity similar to my argument above: the inherent individualism and competitive element of it easily reproduces the same socially causal forces of capitalism that generate or strengthen much of the oppression they are designed to address. Identity itself is, or can be, a pre-eminently liberal construct, taken as the locus of political action. All the more so when the emancipation on the basis of a given identity, or even the mutual recognition of a plurality of identities of all kinds, is expressed in terms of an abstract freedom to enjoy these identities. If intersectionality is merely a mutual cease-fire between the different groups agitating for recognition, it is ultimately quite compatible with the abstract freedom and noninterference of the capitalist market, where everyone encounters each other as individuals on the basis of formal equality.
This points to the larger problem: the language of personal experience can make a political struggle against the effects of social power into an unintended war of all against all, and to divide and atomize people according to a multiplicity of identities, rather than attempting to find ways in which the social forces that generate these experiences can be collectively overcome. The recognition of the diversity of human wants and the ways in which they can be thwarted can give great insight, but if it does not transcend the (inter)personal, it may dissolve either in the very same liberalism it was designed to combat, or into an empty pluralism of ‘communities’ – a pluralism desired by the new conservative communitarian theorists like Charles Taylor and Amitai Etzioni, whose ideas underlie the policies of the ‘Big Society’. This is then the conservative counterpart to the ultimately liberal revolution of the politics of identity: again, I would suggest its very possibility should give us pause as to the limits of the emancipatory potential of the language of identity.
Vivek Chibber puts this as follows, responding to postcolonial theory’s turn towards the subjective and the relativist, which shows remarkable analogies with the question of identity politics domestically: “It’s perfectly fine to say that people draw on local cultures and practices when they resist capitalism, or when they resist various agents of capital. But it’s quite another to say that there are no universal aspirations, or no universal interests, that people might have… For two hundred years, anybody who called herself progressive embraced this kind of universalism. It was simply understood that the reason workers or peasants could unite across national boundaries is because they shared certain material interests. This is now being called into question by subaltern studies, and it’s quite remarkable that so many people on the Left have accepted it. It’s even more remarkable that it’s still accepted when over the last fifteen or twenty years we’ve seen global movements across cultures and national boundaries against neoliberalism, against capitalism. Yet in the university, to dare to say that people share common concerns across cultures is somehow seen as being Eurocentric. This shows how far the political and intellectual culture has fallen in the last twenty years.”(3)
This potential is not a mere hypothetical. Already, the language of identity and identity politics is being used for avowedly reactionary ends: right-wing and fascist movements in various countries of Europe are presenting themselves as ‘identitarian’ in order to use the language of identity oppression against the forces of emancipation. A work of the French ‘new right’ like Guillaume Faye’s Why We Fight is explicitly presented in ‘identitarian’ terms. The same phenomenon can be found outside the Western sphere, where similar language has been co-opted by the powerful fascistoid Bharatiya Janata Party in India. Other examples can be found such as the recasting of the Canadian identity by the Reform Party in Canada and Pauline Hanson’s politics in Australia.(4) The identity language used by these groups is more generally a language of a clash of cultures, not of privilege and oppression, for obvious reasons, and I am in no way suggesting that the politics of identity and privilege used on the left is equivalent. But what I do want to suggest is that it reveals something about the category of ‘identity’ itself and its role in the contemporary global political economy: one that combines in neoliberalism an imposed individualism and atomization with an ever-increasing sense of competition and an ethos of personal advancement. This is a society where increasing insecurity and fear of one’s position go hand in hand with the idea that it is ultimately up to your own ability to sell your personality that determines whether you survive in this competition. In this way, the ‘cultural turn’ meshes well with the false agency offered to the atomized individual of capitalist modernity.
The politics of identity can be a destructive force
This, then, is the core of my criticism. Behind all these abstractions lurk the following concerns. Identities are ‘real’ or ‘objective’ in the sense that, insofar as they make a political-economic difference, they are more than just subjective. Even purely subjective identifications in terms of taste and so forth are not arbitrary, for they are attempts to understand the variety of human experiences (social and mental), but what I have called ‘salient identities’ are even less so, because one’s experiences are the result of particular social forces that ‘put you in your place’ either high or low on the political-economic ladder, and their translation into an identity is therefore as much given from the outside as from the inside. But the politics of identity risks reducing this to a question of individuality. Of course, such identities are contingent on the particular social forces that created them, and are bound in place and time. But that’s not the most important thing. What is more important is that they are from the very start ‘always-already’ irreducibly social, and the result of the agency of particular social actors at the collective level in reproducing the society in which those identities matter.
To cite one of my friends: “When politics proceeds by people recognizing a category they have been placed in, and then identifying with that category, this can be a powerful means of building solidarity, situating oneself, establishing a launchpad for concerted action. But often this identification is ordered such as to be a ratification of the system whereby an individual has attribute x, belonging-to-category x, and a reification of that attribute as a quality of their being. at the risk of repetitive excess: the dominant ideology says there are individuals who are white, black, gay, men etc as indwelling qualities and it is a radical departure to instead say there is whiteness, blackness, and so on, that these are real (objective even if not scientific) formations which people are placed in, and that while these formations are real they do not exist in the same way as dark skin, male genitalia, etc, that their origin is not within but without, from society and socialization.”
If one does not live under capitalism, the identity of ‘working class’ has no meaning or significance. If one does not live in a society in which a racial division is a historically grown part of the division of labor, the identity of black or white has no meaning or significance. It seems therefore that in the same way in which the overcoming of capitalism entails the overcoming, not the victory, of the identity of ‘working class’, so too the emancipation of identities ultimately should strive to overcome the language of identity. If not, it is strategically reduced to comprehending a totality of society as a mere adding-up of its individual identities in their plurality, in a language of mutual respect and recognition, but not in a language of collective action and the striving for universalism. As Dzodan’s second piece perhaps implicitly points to, there is no possibility of achieving equality of recognition, nor is it clear whether such a thing would even be desirable for any sense of the ‘normal’.
In this sense, it is identity itself that must be overcome to solve this contradiction. It remains subjective, individualistic, and thereby ultimately self-defeating. Nobody’s experiences will ever quite be the same as another’s, and nobody will have quite the same combination of subjective and objective elements create one’s personhood the same way as another’s. This is a good thing: the diversity of people is one of the greatest aspects of humanity. But such intersubjectivity will ultimately always be partially impossible to communicate. The language of identity and privilege is designed to overcome this, but it retains too much of its rooting in the particular individual experience that grounds identity to be able to allow an at least potentially universal narrative of emancipation between one person and another.
This, I suspect, is at the root of much of the deeply personal, painful, and wrenching arguments that a thorough application of the politics of identity gives rise to. In my own personal experience, which I will now briefly come to, I have seen the language of identity help many people (including myself) in becoming stronger, more vocal, more able to deal with their experiences and to turn them into a force for good. But whether one believes me or not, I have just as often seen the destructive side of the language of identity and privilege. I have seen people, virtually all of whom were in one way or another themselves unprivileged, tear each other apart in an atmosphere of personal wounding, paranoia, and psychological breakdown that has quite literally traumatized all those who were involved, including myself. This was possible because the politics of identity was both intensely personal, a deep part of one’s personhood, and at the same time political, affecting everyone potentially. Whatever anyone said, they could always be attacked on the basis of their identity as privileged in some respect, and thereby failing their political commitments because of their failure of identity.
But (as intersectionality points out) everyone is potentially in one way or another both oppressor and oppressed within the framework of individual struggle. In this way, the politics of privilege risks ultimately becoming a question of what you are rather than what you do, and in a context of everyone ‘being’ both good and bad in this viewpoint, anyone at all can at any time be silenced, deemed in bad faith, or personally attacked on the basis of their identity in some respect; and this appears as justified, because those identities are ‘real’ in the sense of causally shaped as I have analyzed above. But this has had devastating results on everyone involved, since anyone could at any time be told that their very personhood was a political obstacle, and their very language tainted with their oppressive identity. Whatever that is, that is not an emancipatory politics I want to be part of, ever again, and unless this potential is addressed I remain sympathetic but wary of those who present the politics of identity and privilege as an undiminished good thing, without addressing its contradictions. I am not suggesting it is always like that, but if we are to consider individual experience as decisive for political questions, then my personal experience militates against it.
The effect of this war of mutual hurt has best been summarized by Shakespeare:
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace.
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss.
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offense’s cross.
1) Reginald Shepherd, Orpheus in the Bronx (Ann Arbor, MI 2007), p 51.
2) Akerlof and Scranton, Identity Economics (Princeton, NJ 2010), p. 125. Internal references omitted.
4) Johnson, Patten and Betz, “Identitarian Politics and Populism in Canada and the Antipodes”, in: Jens Rydgren (ed.), Movements of Exclusion (Hauppage, NY 2005), p. 85-94.
5) William Shakespeare, “Sonnets”, 34.
truth isn’t socially constructed just because language is. that’s just not a very materialist statement is it?
The politics of identity and privilege you are commenting on seem to me very similar to the political credo of the feminist movement of the 1970s and early 1980s ‘the personal is the political’. Likewise, this credo at first was a liberating and empowering notion, but later turned into a suffocating and authoritarian slogan that could be wielded to silence anybody whose ‘personal identity’ was deemed somehow tainted by privilege. And you rightly point to the devastating features of this kind of thinking: it is hurtful and damaging to individuals, but also prevents the conception of a common, universal value or purpose. In this way identity politics are frighteningly irrational, resistent to arguments aiming at a social policy that may trancend the particular. It devastates the very liberation it initially set out to produce. I am struck by the fact that in the activist left this kind of thinking apparently did not fade away thirty years ago but lingered on or resurfaced, complete with all its inherent pros and cons. I greatly appreciate your careful, clear, honest and productive critique of this kind of thinking. I expect you may be interested in the work of historian Joan Wallach Scott, who has been thinking and writing about this problematic in the political history of the past two centuries.