Once again on the term “identitarian”

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 speak­ers 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.”

3 thoughts on “Once again on the term “identitarian”

  1. There is also enough of a far-right European ‘identitarian movement’ to merit its own Wikipedia page, and frequent references to it in the European press:

    “The Identitarian movement is a pan-European socio-political movement that started in France in 2002 as a far-right youth movement deriving from the French Nouvelle Droite Génération Identitaire. Initially the youth wing of the anti-immigrant, far-right Bloc Identitaire, it has taken on its own identity and is largely classified as a separate entity altogether with the intent of spreading across Europe. The Identitarian movement advocates rights for members of specific European ethnocultural groups.”

    Which makes the waffling of Seymour, Butler and co look even stupider.

  2. Pingback: “Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno | The Charnel-House

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