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. Continue reading

“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

Those who oppose Marxism, Enlightenment, or even liberal ideologies on the ground that they are Eurocentric or colonial impositions, and propose as an alternative supposedly more organic, authentically indigenous lifeways and autochthonous, communitarian wisdom, are themselves simply victim to another European ideology: Romanticism. I hope it is clear in the following that I do not share the views of Massad or Bouteldja.

Homonationalism and “pinkwashing”

Since her refusal to accept the Berlin Pride Civil Courage Award, Judith Butler has been a leading critic of “homonationalism” and the closely related phenomenon of so-called “pinkwashing.” Homonationalism is understood here as an ideology which uses a nation’s liberal attitudes toward homosexuality as a means of encouraging racist attitudes toward other nations, on the grounds that they are supposedly less enlightened. Butler stated in a May 2010 address on “Queer Alliance and Antiwar Politics” in Ankara, Turkey that “in some parts of Europe and surely in Israel as well, the rights of homosexuals are defended in the name of nationalism.” Or as she put it in Berlin, what was supposed to be her acceptance speech: “Lesbian, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] warmongers involved in cultural wars against immigrants through Islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In this time, through these instruments, we become recruited for nationalism and militarism.”

Reference is only made in Butler’s latter statement to NATO and the US — which partly rationalized their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or at least made them more palatable to left-liberals, by presenting them as an opportunity to liberate women — but Israel is clearly also implied. Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBT scene has been deservedly praised for its openness and acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities, but this reputation simultaneously serves propagandistic ends. Juxtaposed against daily life in the Gaza strip, where Hamas is in power and things are difficult due to crippling economic blockades, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oasis surrounded by a desert of Islamist homophobia. Israel uses this contrast to present a tolerant image of itself, and to divert attention away from the bitter realities of occupation. Forget for a moment the string of stabbings last summer at the Jerusalem Pride festival by Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-orthodox Jew.

In November 2011, New York Times ran a brief op-ed by Sarah Schulman on the “pinkwashing” practice of modern Israel. According to Schulman, the official government as well as unofficial travel agencies instrumentalize the country’s strong record on gay rights (compared to the rest of the region, anyway) as a “messaging tool” to counterbalance some of the bad press it’s received from ongoing human rights abuses. Schulman’s original article was decent, but much of the subsequent debate dismal. Discussions of Israeli public relations, commonly euphemized as “explanation” [hasbara], tend to devolve rather quickly. They either veer into conspiracy theory, repeating the old charge that Jews (er, Zionists) control the media, or end up denying such a policy even exists, when fellowships are regularly awarded to advocates on Israel’s behalf. Forward, the bilingual Yiddish daily founded in 1897 by followers of Daniel De Leon, had a sensible take: “Not all Israeli gay messaging is pinkwashing. Most of it is just adspace meant to attract gay tourists to Tel Aviv. Which it does.” Jay Michaelson, the author of the piece, nevertheless took issue with a highly manipulative full-page ad placed by Rabbi Schmuley in December 2014.

Butler and Schulman are of course right to point out that Israel’s progressive views on gay rights do not excuse its national oppression of Palestinians or ethnic chauvinism toward Arabs, but the inverse should also hold true: Hamas’ so-called “resistance” to Israeli militarism does not excuse its organizational antisemitism or illiberal stance on rights for women and gays. Continue reading