Yesterday I posted a brief exchange between Michael Rectenwald and myself about the pernicious effects of “identity politics” on the contemporary Left. Today I’d like to spell out two different uses of the term “identitarian” as a term of critique on the Left.
“Identitarian” ideology under Fordism
The first form of thought identified as “identitarian” here comes from Adorno. In his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno seeks to critique ideological representations of society that minimize or suppress real antagonisms and unresolved antinomies that historically persist. Adorno approaches this problem from the highest level of abstraction in modern (Western) philosophy, the split between subject and object. He takes issue with philosophies that contend that objects can be perfectly comprehended by the concepts of an apperceptive, epistemic subject. Though this seems to place Adorno at a further remove from Hegel’s speculative idealism and closer, as some have maintained, to Kant’s transcendental epistemology — in which the thing-in-itself, the original source of all a subject’s intuitions, remains forever unknowable — the non-identity of concept and object is not a permanent natural condition, but a potentially transient social condition. For Adorno, continued division, disharmony, and disequilibrium in cognition are constitutive of a society in which capitalism has not yet been overcome. Identitarian thinking, which obscures these uneven realities, belongs to a conceit symptomatic of the tendency to deny social conflict:
Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies — that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity — of the object itself to the thought of it — come to live in identity.
To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Negative Dialectics, pg. 149)
Put differently, “identitarian” ideology for Adorno occurs wherever apparent homogeneity masks underlying heterogeneity. This can be elucidated with reference to the historical problem he was addressing. Following the end of World War II, with the defeat of Nazism and the onset of the Cold War, a kind of consolidation was achieved between Keynesian economic policies in North America drifting leftward and social-democratic economic policies in Europe drifting rightward. With the Fordist state’s periodic intervention to “correct” the market’s inherent volatility, by manipulating interest rates, controlling currency, and the creation of large bureaucratic welfare agencies through deficit spending, it appeared that the massive class conflict of earlier periods of capitalism had finally been resolved. Labor appeared to have been largely integrated into the new postwar constellation through collective bargaining and the emergence of big unions to match big business and big government.
Adorno insisted that this integration was a false one: class divisions still seethed beneath the surface, but consciousness of these antagonisms had receded. What was concealed beneath the veneer of the harmonious social whole during the Fordist era was the old contradiction between wage-labor and capital. Identitarian ideology, Adorno insightfully remarked, was correct in its demand for consistency. However, it was wrong to think this identity of subject and object had actually been achieved in a society that had not usurped capital.
“Identitarian” ideology under neoliberalism
The second form of thought identified as “identitarian,” for our purposes, crops up in the analysis of Walter Benn Michaels. Yesterday I mistakenly attributed the term to Adolph Reed, Jr., though Reed’s own appraisal of identity politics is clearly consonant with Michaels’. Reed wrote a glowing review of Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Came to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, which was even blurbed on the back cover: “Michaels’ logic is impeccable; his argument is radical in the old-fashioned sense: it penetrates to the conceptual and normative roots underlying the politics that focus on celebrating or recognizing identity while showing how central that politics is to the idolatry of the market.”
(Just to be clear, the adaptation of the word “identitarian” to mean “the affirmation of different identities” is relatively recent; the older usage remains, though this is usually limited to its logical application of asserting identity between two different things, without always possessing the social implications described by Adorno).
The more abstract conceptual underpinnings for this variant of “identitarian” ideology qua “affirmation of difference” may be found in a text released only a couple years after Adorno’s Negative Dialectics: Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968). In a crucial passage, Deleuze writes:
History progresses not by negation and the negation of negation, but by deciding problems and affirming differences. It is no less bloody and cruel as a result. Only the shadows of history live by negation: the good enter into it with all the power of a posited differential or a difference affirmed…That is why real revolutions have the atmosphere of fêtes. Contradiction is not the weapon of the proletariat but, rather, the manner in which the bourgeoisie defends and preserves itself. (Difference and Repetition, pg. 268)
Here I am not looking to indict or caricature Deleuze’s thought, despite my recent run-in with one of his less impressive followers, but rather point out the key difference between a critical theory based on negation and a metaphysical philosophy based on affirmation. This dovetails with Benjamin Noys’ analysis in The Persistence of the Negative, in which he critiques “affirmationist” thought starting with Derrida and Deleuze, for whom dialectical negativity through reflection was dropped in favor of positive différance through repetition. An objection might reasonably be raised, however: aren’t “identity” and “difference” polar opposites, metaphysically speaking? Yes, in a sense. To be sure, throughout most of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition he opposes identity to difference, objecting to the Hegelian subsumption of difference under the rubric of sameness (in Hegel’s phrase, “the identity of identity and non-identity). At first blush this sounds reminiscent of Adorno, who similarly rejected such overhasty “syntheses.” However, for Adorno the problem with Hegel was that he purported to resolve at the level of ideas that which was really unresolved. Resolution, consistency, and non-contradiction remain the goal for Adorno, but a real transformation of existing conditions would be required for this to be the case. For Deleuze it is quite different: he wants to posit difference in order to effect a rupture within the existing, self-identical totality. But how does one “affirm difference”? Quite easily, it turns out, both conceptually and politically: one simply affirms his or her own distinct identity by highlighting what makes it different from the dominant or privileged social identity. Of course, it’s a very individualistic procedure, listing or appending all the positive qualities that make someone different from others, his or her own “personal identity” that individuates them. Deleuze was wise enough to avoid identifying the self-affirmed differences of individuals as their own distillate or “fixed identity,” but all the same followed Foucault in asserting a flexible process of “collective individuation” through which groups or communities came to define themselves in terms of their “essential otherness”:
History, according to Foucault, circumscribes us and sets limits, it doesn’t determine what we are, but what we’re in the process of differing from; it doesn’t fix our identity, but disperses it into our essential otherness. (“Life as a Work of Art,” Negotiations. Pg. 95)
Accordingly, Deleuze rejected the notion of a class such as the proletariat serving as the “universal Subject” of History conceptualized by Marx and Hegel. Instead of the thought-figure of a universal Subject as the agent of revolution, Deleuze preferred the notion of a continuous process of “subjectivation” or “subjectification” generating particular subjectivities as nodes of “resistance”:
A process of subjectification, that is, the production of a way of existing, can’t be equated with a subject, unless we divest the subject of any interiority and even any identity. Subjectification isn’t even anything to do with a “person”: it’s a specific or collective individuation relating to an event. (Ibid., pgs. 98-99)
Now we come to the critique of “identitarian” ideology specifically under neoliberal capitalism, picking up on Reed and Michaels’ intuition. “Identitarian” ideology here occurs wherever apparent heterogeneity masks underlying homogeneity. When individuals assert the uniqueness of their various identities, and recite all the various experiences and factors that make them different from the dominant narrative or “hegemonic order” of society, they neglect to consider the way that capital operates by making that which is seemingly incommensurable commensurable. Far from being inherently radical or occupying a marginalized vantage within society not fully captured by the logic of capital, these various identities are regarded by capital as so many niche markets through which groups or individuals can semi-consciously cultivate the illusion of being different than everybody else. This is not to say that racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on are not problems; they are. But they are bound together by a social dynamic that runs deeper than the facile notion of “intersectionality”: namely, the totality of capitalist social relations, in which these phenomena coexist and interrelate. These different “identities” do not provide a true basis for transcending capitalism, nor are they properly outside of capitalism; they are generated, layered, and recombined within the neoliberal configuration of capital. As Moishe Postone writes, conclusively:
[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity. (“Theorizing the Contemporary World.” History and Heterogeneity, pg. 106)