Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

The historical project

Manfredo Tafuri
The Sphere and the
Labyrinth
(1979)
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There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jigsaw puzzle. But unlike the jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.[1]

In this way Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi synthesize the labyrinthine path of historical analysis and the dangers with which it is fraught, in one of the few recent volumes that have had the courage to describe, not the Olympian and definitive results of research, but rather its tortuous and complex iter. But why should we propose, at the beginning of a volume dedicated to the adventures of architectural language, the problem of the “jigsaw puzzles” characteristic of historical research? In the first place, we could answer that our intention is to follow an indirect path. Contrary to those who pose the theme of architectural writing — the term “language” should, it seems to us, be adopted only as a metaphor[2] — we shall present the theme of critical writing: is it not the function of criticism to constitute the historical (and thus the real) specificity of artistic writings? Does not historical work possess a language that, entering perpetually into conflict with the multiple techniques of environmental formation, can function like litmus paper to verify the correctness of discourses on architecture?

Only in appearance, then, will we speak of something else. For how often, when probing what is on the fringes of a given problem, do we discover the most useful keys for dealing with the problem itself — particularly if it is as equivocal as the one that we are about to examine.

Let us further define our theme. Architecture, language, techniques, institutions, historical space: are we simply lining up on a wire stretched over a void a series of problems, each with its own intrinsic characteristics, or can we legitimately contest the “terms” used here to trace these problems back to an underlying or hidden structure, in which these words can find a common meaning on which to rest? It is no accident that we have reduced to “words” the density of historically stratified disciplines. Every time, in fact, that the critic’s zeal causes his guilty conscience to erupt, constructing linear routes that force architecture to migrate into language, language into institutions, and institutions into the all-encompassing universality of history, one feels the need to ask how such a totally illegitimate simplification could gain currency.

After the persuasive demonstrations of the untranslatability of architecture into linguistic terms, after Saussure’s discovery that language itself is a “system of differences,” after the calling into question of the conspicuous features of institutions, historical space appears to dissolve, to disintegrate, to become a justification for disordered and elusive multiplicity, a space of domination. Is this not the final outcome reached by a good part of the “Lacanian left” or by an epistemology of pure registration? And after all, is not architectural writing (this phantasm that we now recognize as divided and multiplied into techniques incommunicable among one another) itself an institution, a signifying practice — an ensemble of signifying practices — a multiplicity of projects of domination?

Is it possible to make a history from such “projects” without breaking away from them, without abandoning the multiple perspectives of history itself, and without inquiring into that which permits the very existence of history? Is it still necessary to remember that the totality of the capitalist means of production is a condition for both the cohesion and the diffraction of techniques, that the “mystical character of the commodity” breaks up and multiplies the relationships that are at the base of its own reproduction?

A series of questions confronts the historian who discovers the dishomogeneity of the materials of his work. These questions go to the very roots of historiographical work, uniting indissolubly the question of languages, of techniques, of sciences, of architecture, with that of the languages of history. But which history? Toward what productive ends? With what long-term objectives?

The questions that we are posing arise from a precise assumption. History is viewed as a “production,” in all senses of the term: the production of meanings, beginning with the “signifying traces” of events; an analytical construction that is never definite and always provisional; an instrument of deconstruction of ascertainable realities. As such, history is both determined and determining: it is determined by its own traditions, by the objects that it analyzes, by the methods that it adopts; it determines its own transformations and those of the reality that it deconstructs. The language of history therefore implies and assumes the languages and the techniques that act and produce the real: it “contaminates” those languages and those techniques and, in turn, is “contaminated” by them. With the fading away of the dream of knowledge as a means to power, the constant struggle between the analysis and its objects — their irreducible tension — remains. Precisely this tension is “productive”: the historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis.”[3] Franco Rella writes:

Interpretive knowledge has a conventional character and is a production, a positing of a meaning-in-relation and not an uncovering of the meaning. But what is the limit of this operari, of this activity? What is the locus of this relationship? What lies behind the Fiktion of the subject, of the thing, of the cause, of the being? What, then, can bear this “awful plurality”? The body. “The phenomenon of the body is the richest, the most significant [deutlichere], the most tangible phenomenon: to be discussed first [voranzustellen] methodologically, without coming to any decision about its ultimate meaning.”[4] This, then, is the limit of interpretation, that is to say the locus of the description… In fact, through criticism and the “plurality of interpretation” we have acquired the strength “not to want to contest the world’s restless and enigmatic character,” and in this way genealogy has proved itself to be a critique of values, for it has discovered the material origin of them, the body.[5]

Thus emerges the problem of the “construction” of the object — disciplines, techniques, analytical instruments, long-term structures — to be put in crisis. Immediately the historian is confronted with the problem of the “origins” of the cycles and phenomena that are the objects of his study. But is it not precisely in the study of long-term phenomena that the theme of the origin seems mythological? However much Weber’s “ideal types” or Panofsky’s conceptual structures appear to be instrumental abstractions, is it not precisely in them that the fundamental difference between beginning and origin is posed? And why a beginning? Is it not more “productive” to multiply the “beginnings,” recognizing that where everything conspires to make one recognize the transparency of a unitary cycle there lies hidden an intertwining of phenomena that demands to be recognized as such?

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On the term “identitarian”

Yesterday I posted a brief exchange between Michael Rectenwald and myself about the pernicious effects of “identity politics” on the contemporary Left. Today I’d like to spell out two different uses of the term “identitarian” as a term of critique on the Left.

“Identitarian” ideology under Fordism

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The first form of thought identified as “identitarian” here comes from Adorno. In his late magnum opus Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno seeks to critique ideological representations of society that minimize or suppress real antagonisms and unresolved antinomies that historically persist. Adorno approaches this problem from the highest level of abstraction in modern (Western) philosophy, the split between subject and object. He takes issue with philosophies that contend that objects can be perfectly comprehended by the concepts of an apperceptive, epistemic subject. Though this seems to place Adorno at a further remove from Hegel’s speculative idealism and closer, as some have maintained, to Kant’s transcendental epistemology — in which the thing-in-itself, the original source of all a subject’s intuitions, remains forever unknowable — the non-identity of concept and object is not a permanent natural condition, but a potentially transient social condition. For Adorno, continued division, disharmony, and disequilibrium in cognition are constitutive of a society in which capitalism has not yet been overcome. Identitarian thinking, which obscures these uneven realities, belongs to a conceit symptomatic of the tendency to deny social conflict:

Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies — that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity — of the object itself to the thought of it — come to live in identity.

To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Negative Dialectics, pg. 149)

Put differently, “identitarian” ideology for Adorno occurs wherever apparent homogeneity masks underlying heterogeneity. This can be elucidated with reference to the historical problem he was addressing. Following the end of World War II, with the defeat of Nazism and the onset of the Cold War, a kind of consolidation was achieved between Keynesian economic policies in North America drifting leftward and social-democratic economic policies in Europe drifting rightward. With the Fordist state’s periodic intervention to “correct” the market’s inherent volatility, by manipulating interest rates, controlling currency, and the creation of large bureaucratic welfare agencies through deficit spending, it appeared that the massive class conflict of earlier periods of capitalism had finally been resolved. Labor appeared to have been largely integrated into the new postwar constellation through collective bargaining and the emergence of big unions to match big business and big government. Continue reading

Three models of “resistance” — Introduction

Introduction

Image: Elena Feliciano, Resistance

A glance at the way “resistance” has been theorized over time — in both political and extra-political contexts — might help illuminate the Left’s changing sense of its own subjective agency during the last sesquicentenary. Three models may serve as an index to its shifting historical aspirations, and capture its oscillating feelings of hopefulness and helplessness at the prospect of their attainment. Before embarking upon this exposition, however, a few facts regarding its political usages should be particularly borne in mind:

First, as Stephen Duncombe pointed out a few years ago, the concept of “resistance” is in a way inherently conservative.[1] It indicates the ability of something to maintain itself — i.e., to conserve or preserve its present state of existence — against outside influences that would otherwise change it. Resistance signifies not only defiance but also intransigence. As the editors of Upping the Anti put it a couple years back, “resistance” automatically assumes a “defensive posture.”[2] It thus appears to be politically ambivalent: it depends on what is being conserved and what is being resisted.

Secondly, “resistance” as a property can belong to any number of things, whether conscious or unconscious. The world, or nature, can “resist” our conscious attempts to transform it. Likewise society, or second nature, can prove similarly recalcitrant. Either way, this “resistance” tends to be unconscious (always in the case of the first, and usually in the case of the second). With nature, the conditions that obtain at any given moment appear objective and material. With society, by contrast, the conditions that obtain at this or that historical juncture appear quasi-objective and ideological.[3] The situation can be reversed, however. Insofar as society and the world operate unconsciously to transform the general conditions of existence, groups and individuals can consciously choose to resist these processes. Continue reading