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. Continue reading “Preliminary Considerations on Politics, Identity and Language”