Angela Mitropoulos, an Australian academic and author of Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, recently posted a note on her blog about the origins of the term “identitarianism.” This is something that’s come up at different points in debates over the past few years, including the controversy sparked by the late Mark Fisher’s article “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” so I thought it might be germane to treat the issue at greater length. Mitropoulos directly intervened in that debate against Fisher, moreover, so it’s appropriate to engage with her at that level as well.
“Identitarianism” is an unfortunate word, for several reasons. First of all, it’s an awkward and off-putting construction. Ugly neologisms — phrases like “pluriversal transmodernity,” “phallogocentric ontotheology,” “decolonial epistemology,” etc. — are these days sadly all too common. Second, it’s a polysemous expression, signifying more than one thing. Often it refers to things which are not just distinct from one another but even opposite in meaning, a problem I’ve written about before. Lastly, it has both positive and negative connotations depending on what’s meant and who’s using it.
Hopefully, this will become clear in what follows. Returning to Mitropoulos’ entry, mentioned at the outset, we find:
Adorno coined the term “identitarianism” in Negative Dialectics (1966), prompted by critique of Kantian and Hegelian philosophies.
The argument, very briefly, goes something like this: Like Hegel, Adorno rejected the manner of Kant’s distinction between noumenal and phenomenal forms. Put simply, Adorno granted Hegel’s claim concerning the historically- and conceptually-generative qualities of non-correspondence, but wanted to press Marx’s critique of philosophical idealism further against Hegelian Marxism. Adorno remains a dialectician. But, unlike Hegel and more like Marx, he eschewed the affirmative, synthetic moves of consciousness (i.e., philosophical idealism) and accorded epistemological-historical priority to the object (matter, materialism) rather than the subject (idealism) in explaining the course of this generative, non-correspondence (or non-identity). Identitarianism and the idealist philosophies of Kant and Hegel are thereby contrasted to a materialist philosophy of non-correspondence, or what Adorno calls “negative dialectics.”
How it happened that “identitarianism” came to be plausibly used as a synonym for “identity politics” — or, more accurately, co-opted by arch-identitarian Hegelian Marxists against any emphasis on race, gender and/or sexuality, and in their defense of more or less explicit arguments that class is the a priori or primary categorical division of substance — is a mystery to me.
Mitropoulos distinguishes, in other words, between the homogeneity asserted by logical operations of equivalence or identity, which declare unlike things (A & B) to be alike (A = B), and the heterogeneity asserted by various identity groups with competing sectional interests, which declare themselves different from everything else. She indicates, quite correctly, that the former was criticized by Adorno in the sixties, whereas the latter has been criticized by figures like Adolph Reed, Walter Benn Michaels, Nancy Fraser, and Mark Fisher over the last fifteen or so years.
While I agree with the general thrust of her distinction, the term “identitarianism” appears nowhere in the English edition of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. “Identitarian” appears as an adjective in a few different places throughout the book, but it’s never elevated to an -ism. Even if one grants that this adjectival use of the word does occur, however, this is hardly a novel coinage on the part of Adorno. An artifact of translation, rather, since Ashton renders Identitätsphilosophie as “identitarian philosophy,” Identitätsdenken as “identitarian thinking,” and identitätslogisch as “identitarian logic.” Perhaps he wanted to capture a more sinister resonance by having it echo “totalitarian.” But in my opinion these words would be better Anglicized as “identity-philosophy,” “identity-thinking,” and “identitary logic,” respectively.
So far as I can tell, “identitarian” as a shorthand or synonym for “identity politics” only began to show up in the 1990s. Gayatri Spivak, though often seen as a progenitor of subaltern studies and a postcolonial theory, sardonically mentioned it in her 1993 book Outside in the Teaching Machine. “As a politically correct Asian, I find that the academic insistence on a politics of difference may be… competitive in intent. To a London audience…eager to hear a speech on cultural value, it is important that the speaker’s identity that afternoon was ‘Asian’ with underclass differentiations out of sight. Identitarianism can be as dangerous as it is powerful.” For Spivak, then, “identitarianism” was an ambivalent category, powerful yet potentially dangerous.
Judith Butler a few years later lamented “the tendency to relegate new social movements to the sphere of the cultural, indeed, to dismiss them as preoccupied with what is called the ‘merely’ cultural, and then construe this cultural politics as factionalizing, identitarian, and particularistic.” She was concerned that, increasingly, “identity politics is being used as a derogatory term for feminism, anti-racism, and anti-heterosexism.” Expanding on these remarks at a 1998 workshop organized by the journal Theory and Event, Butler continued: “One of the arguments that’s emerged over the last year is that cultural leftism has somehow abandoned the project of Marxism, … that the cultural focus has splintered the Left into identitarian sects.” Here we are already approaching this second sense of the term indicated by Mitropoulos.
Butler’s partner, Wendy Brown, seemed to better grasp identity politics as an historical byproduct of political defeat than. In spite, or perhaps because, of the fact she’s the more Marxist in this power couple, Brown is less well-known than Butler. Rather than assign identity politics causal efficacy of its own, Brown instead construes it as the result of a long process of sociopolitical fragmentation. As she wrote in her 2001 book, Politics Out of History,
to the extent that identity politics are institutionalized — in academic programs and in political caucuses or other political organizations — they are susceptible to the profoundly depoliticizing logic of liberal institutions: historical conflicts are rendered as essential ones, effect becomes cause, and “culture,” “religion,” “ethnicity,” or “sexuality” become entrenched differences with entrenched interests. But precisely because effects of power have been discursively converted to essentialized entities, their interests cannot be addressed within that discourse. To put this problem another way: identitarian political projects are very real effects of late modern modalities of power, but as effects, they do not fully express its character and so do not adequately articulate their own condition; they are symptoms of a certain fragmentation of suffering, and of suffering lived as identity rather than as general injustice or domination — but suffering that cannot be resolved at the identitarian level. It may be easier to see this dynamic in discourses that essentialize conflict in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or South Africa. To formulate the problem in those regions as one of Catholics versus Protestants, Arabs versus Jews, or blacks versus whites, rather than understanding the oppositional character of these identities as in part produced and naturalized by historical operations of power (settler-colonialism, capitalism, etc.), is a patently dehistoricizing and depoliticizing move — precisely the sort of move that leads to moralizing lament or blame, to personifying the historical conflict in individuals, castes, religions, or tribes, rather than to potent political analysis and strategies.
Richard Seymour came quite close to Butler’s retrograde formulation of the problem in the conclusion to his 2015 polemic Against Austerity. “A certain emerging type of criticism of the contemporary Left from within is that it has spent too much time on trendy ‘identitarian’ concerns, from anti-racism to Gaza, and not enough time focusing on class,” he wrote. “We have to break with a limiting assumption about identity. It is often assumed that identity politics is a form of ‘particularism’ whose political radius extends no wider than the specific group or subculture identified… Yet identity is a much more slippery concept than this would imply. Identity politics is a ‘politics of location,’ certainly. But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far one can see. Such is the basic proposition of the feminist notion of ‘intersectionality’.”
Over the last fifteen years, “identitarian” has acquired a somewhat more affirmative tinge among decolonial theorists and far right Euronationalists. George Ciccariello-Maher has made it a point to “underline the dialectical importance of identitarian struggles in forging the universal.” Markus Willinger, young spokesman of the right wing German Identitarian Movement [Identitäre Bewegung], similarly deplores Enlightenment universalism: “But you want to save the world. To bring the world democracy, human rights, and capitalism. You try to modernize the world, to force your false modernity and arrogant notions of progress upon everyone you encounter. Nothing insults and offends the proud and ancient cultures of India, China, Russia, Persia, and so many other lands more than your crusades to teach and ‘improve’ them. We, your children, can imagine their hate quite well, for we too know the feeling of being uprooted and set adrift. So it is that we understand the peoples who despise you and reject your ‘progress.’ For we are generation identity.” Reactionary forms of “resistance” to capitalism possess newfound appeal as the tide turns against the global neoliberal order. As Moishe Postone observes, reflecting on recent political developments,
phenomena like Donald Trump, some wings of the supporters of Bernie Sanders, the Brexit movement, the right in France are no longer expressions of the traditional reactionary classes, but expressions largely of the declining industrial working classes. It is not enough for the Left simply to call them racist, xenophobic, and small minded — even though they really are racist, xenophobic, and small-minded. And it would be a terrible mistake to opportunistically adopt their mindset, even if one takes their misère seriously. In that case one is not adequately confronting the crisis of industrial capital. Instead, we need another way of viewing the world, beyond identitarian politics of the Left as well as the Right. As members of a cosmopolitan configuration, we cannot simply say that multiculturalism is cool because we enjoy walking through the streets of a city like London, which is a true metropole, and experiencing in a thousand small ways the globality of it all. We cannot just write off everybody in the North of England. The fact that they have made a mistake does not mean that there were no good grounds for them to feel radically dissatisfied. So, the new danger of fascism, and I am using “fascism” now in a very loose sense, is generated by the pain and misère caused by the dynamic of capital.
Perhaps it would be wiser to recognize “identity as ideology” — as Siniša Malešević has put it, drawing on the Balkan experience — rather than reify the various identity-formations handed down from the past or invented in the present. Malešević identifies “identity talk,” or identitarianism, as “a leading ideological paradigm of our age.” He continues: “Under the guise of ‘need to belong’ identity often becomes a mystical phrase, a new name for the old Herderian Volksgeist, a praise for ‘roots’ and an imagined aconflictual social order… Despite all the talk about identity politics, the celebration of cultural difference, and self-actualization, identity is in analytic terms a profoundly depoliticizing concept.” It is in fact Adorno, as Marcel Stoetzler notes in his critique of Butler, who better understands the sociohistorical context in which identity attaches to determinate predicates as inherent and invariant qualities throughout time. For “if men no longer had to equate themselves with things, they would need neither a thing-like superstructure nor an invariant picture of themselves, after the model of things.”