Identity and narcissism

So it would seem that Flavia Dzodan — an Amsterdam-based marketing consultant — denounced me last night. All this as part of a highly-public (online) breakdown of staggering proportions. Not just me, of course. Quite a few others were likewise singled out for abuse in Dzodan’s hate-filled tirade, endearingly titled “I hate you all media vultures.” Most of those she called out were well-known feminists: Louise Pennington, Laurie Penny, Michelle Goldberg, Becca Reilly-Cooper, Glosswitch, Helen Lewis, Meghan Murphy, Julie Bindel, and Gia Milinovich. Everyone else who belongs to our “ilk,” as well. This is something I’m particularly proud of, incidentally, long having wanted to be included in an ilk. In a roughly thousand word blogpost, dripping with invective, she accuses everyone of profiting at her expense. We’re “media whores,” according to Dzodan, “the top of a vat of turds floating in our own media shit.” By contrast, she and her supporters are “the bootstraps we pull in the hopes of rising to the top,” since we’ve allegedly co-opted her language, ideas, and freedom.

Clearly, we should all stop what we’re doing immediately and start cutting her royalty checks. Nevermind that Reilly-Cooper isn’t even a journalist, without any media connections to speak of. Still more puzzling are some of Dzodan’s other accusations, bizarre ad hominem attacks and baseless condemnations. Lewis is supposed to have driven one of her gay coworkers to commit suicide. Apparently I’m a supporter of NAMBLA. Who knew? This she cleverly deduces from my former membership in Platypus, or at least what she can tell by reading Richard Seymour’s open letter. Platypus doesn’t really endorse anything, to the best of my knowledge. Its president, Chris Cutrone, said back in 2009 that the Spartacist League’s stance on NAMBLA is one of their better positions (which actually says more about the Sparts than anything else). His opinion doesn’t necessarily represent that of Platypus as an organization, nor that of its individual members. Obviously, it’s even less likely to reflect the opinion of an ex-member such as myself. Either way, though it’s ridiculous that I should even have to disclaim this, allow me to make clear that I have never supported, let alone “promoted,” NAMBLA. If you’d be so good as point out even a single instance where I’ve said anything of the sort, it would be a big help.

My true crime, it should be noted, has nothing to do with any of this. What originally set her off was just a casual remark about a picture someone sent me of Flavia after I said the impression I got from her website photo was that she was “white.” Didn’t mean anything by it. Seemed reasonable to me considering her last name sounded Serbo-Croatian — something Slavic from the Balkan peninsula. Anyway, the photo I received afterward only confirmed my initial impression. One doesn’t have to invoke the old distinction between phenotype and genotype, which is often spurious, in passing such a judgment. If someone asks you to give a physical description of someone, apart from the person’s height and weight, hair or eye color, skin complexion is usually a logical next step. People usually tell me I look white, not that I really give a shit one way or the other. Going from the picture above, I have to say that if I saw her on the street I’d probably just assume she’s white. That doesn’t mean she is white, or that she identifies as white. Just means that she looked white to me. Unfortunately for everyone involved, merely stating my opinion resulted in her throwing an epic tantrum across the Twitterverse. Reilly-Cooper later noted, correctly, that Flavia’s whole reaction was almost “textbook narcissistic rage.”


Flavia with a cat

(Julie Burchill, a feminist and communist daughter who was rightly criticized for her 2003 support of war in Iraq, was nevertheless correct to point this out last week in her breathless polemic against intersectionality in the British magazine Spectator titled “Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege.” Although some of it comes across as a bit too personal for my taste, borne of a deep-seated bitterness at what feminism has become, Burchill ought to be commended for deathless lines like “every thought is an ism, every person an ist in the insania of intersectionality.” She acerbically observed: “Intersectionality, like identity politics before it, is pure narcissism.” Christopher Lasch may have been right all along. In his classic study of The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch decried “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness” and the degenerated political forms that typically attend it:

The degeneration of politics into spectacle has…made it more difficult than ever to organize a political opposition. When the images of power overshadow the reality, those without power find themselves fighting phantoms. Particularly in a society where power likes to present itself in the guise of benevolence — where government seldom resorts to the naked use of force — it is hard to identify the oppressor, let alone to personify him, or to sustain a burning sense of grievance in the masses. In the sixties, the New Left attempted to overcome this seeming insubstantiality of the establishment by resorting to politics of confrontation…The attempt to dramatize official repression, however, imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance — a mirror-image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.

Today’s networked political theater finds a different stage, not in the streets but in the depthless realm of cyberspace. It would be too neat an inversion to take very seriously, but the temptation is there all the same: Could Frantz Fanon’s disquisition on Black Skin, White Masks have finally turned back on itself, so that an emancipatory politics subjectivity can only be articulated from the standpoint of the most oppressed? Perhaps a kind of “white skin, black masks” approach to radicalization? This insight would hardly be limited to Flavia Dzodan, extending to many white radicals for whom the only authentic form of struggle is that of “the Other.” Mike Ely of the Kasama Project comes to mind as the sort of archetypal whiteboy who likes to call other whiteboys “crackers,” in some vain throwback to 1960s black nationalism. Standpoint epistemology, though less popular in politics today, lives on in privilege theory and intersectionality.)

Dzodan is so attached to this sense of identity that she seeks to reinforce it by other means. She lists her various qualia at every turn. Over and above what she does (vocationally a writer and a media maker) and what she believes (ideologically a feminist of the intersectional persuasion), she places a great deal of stress on who she is (biographically a Latina, sudaca, and immigrant). Continue reading