Postscript on identity, intersectionality

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Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampires’ Castle”:

The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.

When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.

First, we have his opponents:

Next up, Fisher’s allies:

Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampires’ Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.

Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Three articles belong to this “third camp”:

Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:

The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…

A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in.

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)

Either way, I must say I’m surprised by the backlash to Fisher’s article. Here I’d been thinking that these sad postmodernist and post-structuralist tropes were on their way out, deservedly consigned to the dustbin of outmoded thought. It turns out this judgment was far too optimistic. My hope had been that these sub-political fixations were passing phases symptomatic of the broader “end of history,” and that with the subprime mortgage crisis and global unrest of 2011 they’d fall by the wayside once again. History had been restarted, right? Gloriously reborn, according to Badiou.

But alas, no, and despite more than twenty to thirty years of invective and mutual antagonism between these competing Weltanschauungen, with a few post-Marxist (Laclau, Mouffe) and “postmodern Marxist” (Resnick, Wolff) exceptions along the way, the postmodernists/post-structuralists finally seem to have gone quietly into the night. Yet Marxism’s response to this welcome development, bafflingly, is: they were right all along! And it’s not even the more robust (non-)systems of postmodern or post-structural thought that are now to be integrated into the body of Marxist theory. Indeed, classic postmodernism and post-structuralism represented real efforts to test the limits of theory and language. What Marxists today seem bent on appropriating is rather their more pale vulgarizations in “intersectionality” and identity politics. This comes through in Seymour’s handwringing displays, which attempt to reconcile Marxism with identity politics and intersectionality. All this while continuing to chastise Marx for his supposed “Orientalist accretions.”

Without wanting to venture too far into the swamp of this wretched debate, I’d like to close with a couple scattered impressions followed by a few quotes from acquaintances who probably know more about this subject than I do and whose opinion I hold in high regard. Generally, my attitude toward most of this identity and intersectionality stuff is negative. I’m profoundly skeptical of its radicalism, and even its effectiveness in resolving the problems it claims to address.

That said, the abstract appeals to communism as expressing some kind of primordial Idea or libidinal “desire” strike me as fairly weak tea when it comes to providing an alternative to the slapstick and buffooneries of identity politicians. Rather than conjure up the image of the good old days, when the proletariat was actually a world-historical force to be reckoned with, striking fear into the hearts of capitalists and statesmen around the globe, there must at least be some recognition that our present position is the outcome of over a century of crushing defeats. The proletariat will not suddenly reappear just because it’s been magically summoned back into existence. Nor can its revolutionary subjectivity be replaced by recourse to some sort of aggregatory lumpenism — a process of indiscriminate addition whereby the fringes of society are retheorized into one giant, raggedy mass. Someday they’ll amalgamate, or so we’re told, to overthrow Capital, Patriarchy, the State, and assorted other metaphysical entities. Or something.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say on the matter. Now I’ll abruptly hand it over to those more qualified than myself. Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist from Australia, on “intersectionality”:

“Intersectionality” as politics is just some neoliberal incarnation. It began as legal theory and ends as a framework whereby identities collide in a zero-sum game. The concept survives only by strawmanning its predecessors, and locks many present self-declared identity groupings — like “sex workers” — into some anti-materialist, end-of-history stasis.

Michael Rectenwald, a professor at NYU and an occasional contributor to Insurgent Notes, on “identity politics”:

Identity politics is circular. As soon as one makes a critique of identity politics, one’s identity is deemed the cause of said critique — as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Identity is a trap. [E]veryone is in their own impenetrable identity chrysalis. What’s the point in saying anything? Or even listening to anyone else?

On “intersectionality”:

Intersectionality isolates different standpoints based on how “power” intersects differently with particular identities, and crosses various peoples in several ways. The upshot is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for “most oppressed” via a “one-downsmanship,” more-subaltern-than-thou ethos of complaint. It’s useless politically, except as has been suggested for the neoliberal capitals who benefit from it.

Someone once said: Identity is the identity of identity and non-identity. That will have to serve as a conclusion.

28 thoughts on “Postscript on identity, intersectionality

  1. Pingback: Postscript on identity, intersectionality | Research Material

  2. Probably the most reasoned response I’ve read this week.

    Speaking from a position of utmost obscurity in UK academia (I’m a grad student and I think most staff in my department still think I’m one of the maintenance workers) I think Fisher’s point that:

    The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups – the more “marginal” the better – into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering – those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.

    is absolutely right from my perspective. Many academic networks I’ve seen seem to be based on an economy of marginalisation and an ethic of “more radical than thou”. Bourgeois hypocrisy abounds in much of this intersectionality stuff.

    Anyway, a “wretched debate” indeed. It seems that just as there’s a realisation of the validity economic discourses opposing neoliberalism in mainstream debate, “the left” (whatever that means anymore) ramps up the internal bloodletting.

    ’twas ever thus, no?

  3. Find it a bit odd to be described as Fisher’s enemy. I disagree with his position here & question his politics, but I’m also very happy to have him as an ally in discussing mental health. My article even says it’s not a critique of Mark Fisher the man but Mark Fisher as an event (really just an arsey way of saying “this article”). To say that someone is his enemy seems to individualise things in just the way the critique of the VC is aimed at. Although I might just be being stupid here…I’m veeeeeeeeeeery tired.

  4. I like and agree with much of what you say. I would like to add that some real investigation of the social conditions would dissolve many of these apparently intractable oppositions. Rather than taking for granted these opposed identities, we ought to take seriously the shifts taking place. Everyone says gender is fluid, but refuse to see that the relations between the sexes have been massively changed. Both the late Tony Cliff and also Geoff Mulgan and Helen Wilkinson were interested in the way social change altered sex relations – but that is lost in current grand-standing of gender difference. Reality is on our side.

  5. Nothing good will come of this. If critiques of identity politics need to be made, they need to be made by people who are not white males. This should be obvious, even from a pragmatic and not moralistic standpoint.

    • But such critiques don’t *need* to be made. Nothing is politically *necessary* because nothing is politically *possible*. Identity politics is an attempt to politically repackage an apolitical situation. Such critiques are not needed, not from anyone. Political needs only derive from the exigencies bearing upon a politically engaged subject, and no such subject exists today. Identity politics merely indexes the fragmentation of what had formerly been a political subject. That subject was not originally forged out of theoretical concerns and it will not be reforged from such concerns. It does no matter from whom they issue.

      • I disagree. It seems to me that the very loss of subject is what’s necessary if we are going to accomplish a revolutionary break with Capitalism. Class doesn’t manifest on the level of appearance but is the necessary precondition for a production process that supplants all qualitative values with a quantitative value. Recognizing what we’re losing, what we’ve lost, is going to be a part of the process of revolution I think.

      • Doug,

        I appreciate your point. Certainly what is fundamental about class is not the appearances which we tend to associate with it (e.g. all the trappings of “working class culture” invoked by Fisher), but the structural dynamics of the production process of which those appearances are one-sided expressions.

        Yet class in its very essence “must appear”, though the historical relation between this essential appearance and the broader aesthetics of class is complicated. Class must be, as it were, neither merely in itself (an inapparent essence or potential) nor merely for itself, explicated in a particular and one-sided form, but must become in-and-for-itself, grasping the determinations of appearance as simultaneously those of essence.

        The desubjectification experienced by (nascent) proletarians is absolutely significant, but only insofar as it manifests in the struggle for the very freedom that is historically ‘imposed’ upon them. The proletariat as modern subject must come to identify with the very negativity, the potential to surpass all concrete determinations, that separates it from social reproduction, be it through the crisis of premodern agricultural labor or the continuous crisis of unemployment within bourgeois society.

        In this sense, proletarians have to identify with bourgeois society and struggle to integrate themselves within it: they have to fight for their part in the very freedom that grows in the “loss” of traditional subjective being (belonging to some particular community with concrete roles, rules, values, expectations, etc). The proletarianization of bourgeois society occurs through the struggle of the proletariat to bourgeoisify itself. It is precisely in this that the principle contradiction (constitutive) of capitalism consists: the struggle over the surplus product – the materiality of modern freedom in its rawest form – between bourgeois and capitalist. Bourgeois society cannot completely constitute itself because it is premised on production relations that reproduce the separation of producers from the surplus product, and thus the retention of ‘necessary labor’, even after it becomes technically obsolete.

        The settling of this problem must be political, that is, a matter of the constitution of social subjectivity, or the free self-determining will of society. That subjectivity is constituted at present – this is just what ‘democracy’ means – but in a horribly stunted form, contorted by concessions to unfreedom (e.g. Bonapartism, authoritarianism, Stalinism) made in the name of preserving the infrastructure of production relations. It is not so much that there is ‘no’ political subject as that there might as well be none, because contemporary political subjectivity only exists to preserve and edify social unfreedom, i.e. necessary labor.

        So I think posing this in terms of “what we’ve lost” is deeply problematic. We’re better off to have lost it, and where it (that is, premodern social relations and their concomitant political subjectivity, what Marx called the “democracy of unfreedom”) has returned has amounted to the undoing of the (bourgeois) revolution, which is not an a break with Capitalism but with the unfreedom of socially-mediated natural necessity (necessary labor). The truth of the “supplant[ing] of qualitative values with a quantitative value” rests in the revelation of necessary labor (now universally intelligible thanks to the form of value) as the essence of unfreedom, and what Marx called “disposable time” as the essence of freedom – any qualitative value that does not originate in the free activity of subjects is only the dissimulated tyranny of nature’s accomplished fact. Capitalism is merely the name of the persistence of this unfreedom within bourgeois society, or the incompleteness of that revolution.

        Breaking with capitalism, and with the whole history of unfreedom that Marx and Engels called “class struggle”, does require the loss of subjectivity, but this loss must come to recognize itself as what Hegel called “self-related negativity”, which finds its objective expression in the political structures of bourgeois society. Moreover, this has revolutionary significance not because we might remember what was lost, but because we can come to embrace and identify with this loss, strive to realize the values of bourgeois society and thereby fully constitute the political subjectivity to which it gives rise – even if this ultimately requires its revolutionary sublation through the dictatorship of the proletariat.

  6. I won’t pretend to pass myself off as a scholar on these issues. I have only worked at the grassroots as an activist. As a practical matter, I have to confess to some bafflement at the fury with which the existence of both identity and intersectional politics has been debated in this discourse. It almost seems as though those positioning themselves on each side in the debate imagine that the nature of these political phenomena are metaphysical and abstract. The debaters seem highly convinced that by positioning themselves rationally and appropriately on the merits or demerits of the phenomena, they will settle the questions and the phenomena will either parish, be altered or be enhanced by their brilliant arguments.

    This assumption would be laughable were it not derived from the thinking of persons purportedly schooled in leftist thought. One can only engage in this sort of narcissistic discourse by failing to comprehend how identity and intersectional politics are both an economic and social expression derived from real material conditions. To divorce them from this context and to debate them in the abstract is a meaningless exercise.

    To paraphrase Trotsky concerning the debate of abstract ideas outside of their material conditions, it is the difference between looking at a photograph and watching a motion picture. Like the abstract idea, It is impossible for an examination of the photograph to really inform us of what is actually taking place because it is static. Reality is continuously changing like the motion picture.

    As social and political forces, it is fairly predicable that both identity and intersectional politics are here to stay and morph. Groups within the working class are just uniquely oppressed in a capitalist system and it is just not remarkable to observe that they will discover it. Guess what? They will want to fight it. Can such elements be brought together? Can they discover their self interest as a group is tied to the liberation of the working class as a whole? Can they learn to be more inclusive? The answer to all of these questions is yes. To agitate for this, is one of the many tasks of the socialist left.

  7. One of the values of anti-sexist and -racist politics and political analyses (besides, you know, insisting that racism and sexism suck) is that they point out the differential in the ways that capital exploits and the state represses, where and what rates surplus-value is extracted and where the lines of national belonging are drawn. Of course in some analyses, the identities become fetishized and essentialized and even taken on with pride, and then they do become identitarian. But that’s not what Fisher is criticizing; if he were he’d point to specific instances of that happening. Instead, his specifics-free rant (and the childish name-calling architecture he builds it on) becomes a general complaint against those that raise questions of sexuality, gender, and race because those things are personal, not political.

    This is why Fisher’s foregrounding of class is disengenous: Like Dean, Wark, and Heartfield, he could give fuck-all about exploitation, and like those people — and most of the traditional (socialist, Leninist) left — he doesn’t even pretend to have a theory of political economy. Averring the primacy of class and calling for a return to Marx when you don’t care about questions of value and exploitation is silly. Class becomes an empty signifier, and since it’s notational rather than material, it becomes an identity in the same sense Fisher thinks of gender and race. “Intersectional/identitarian” politics at least address exploitation and attempt something like a material analysis of the state. It recognizes, like thoughtboy295 says above, that identities are produced by capital and the state. It takes a lot of hubris to declare the class identity is superior and more essential than those things. Especially when you can’t be bothered to show how class is produced.

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