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