A Conversation Against Identity



A member of our Institute recently had a fruitful discussion with a comrade, ST, who reached out to us with a critique of a remark we’d made in our article, “Class Composition and the Organization of Pessimism.” This allowed us to make some important clarifications regarding our positions, so with their permission, we’ve reproduced the dialogue below, lightly edited for readability.

 

ST:

I had a remark about the text “Class Composition and the Organization of Pessimism” that I wanted to share with you. I know that this is strange and unsolicited, and this makes me uneasy, but this looks like an important issue to me. “Class Composition and the Organization of Pessimism” was, like most of your texts, quite excellent, but I have an issue with one sentence of the piece: “another is the highly reactionary, though understandable, desire to cling to any remaining ‘identity’ not yet melted into air that we can affirm, be it race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or gender.” This sentence regroups under the umbrella “reactionary” a diverse set of “identities,” which have little in common with one another. Race and gender are no less material relations than class is, whereas effectively, one could consider religions or nationalities to be mere fictions. But this collapsing of all these terms together equates gender and race with religion or nationality. This process indirectly also equates a single-gender revolutionary feminist group or an antiracist organization with a white suppremacist group or a nationalist party. Or maybe you were, through this phrase, targeting liberal identity politics, but if this was the case, this would be an attempt lacking too much clarity.

Maybe I'm reading too much in this and the last case is true, and if this is true put this misreading on the distrust coming from the experience of the wide-ranging bad faith of a large part of the Left and beyond (because neither the ISR nor myself consider themselves “Left,” after all) when it comes to this topic.

 

ISR:

You’re right that what we meant in that sentence was not particularly clear, and that we included heterogeneous categories in the same list. We probably shouldn’t have dropped in such a controversial claim, only tangentially related to the principal topic of the article, without any further explanation.

There’s a tendency on the Left to treat so-called identity politics, or even any talk of gender or race whatsoever, as merely a divisive distraction from the serious business of ‘building class power.’ I hope it’s clear that that’s not at all our position — especially since this article is about how it is presently neither possible nor desirable to affirm class as a positive identity.

I would challenge, however, the strict distinction that you draw between, on the one side, gender and race as “material relations” (which they undoubtedly are), and on the other side, nationality and religion as “mere fictions.” The constituted ‘reality’ of nationalities is backed by pervasive, institutionalized state violence: ask refugees in detention centers or ‘illegal’ migrants shot down by border guards if they think nationality is “mere fiction!” Something similar could be asked of those slaughtered in the ethnic-religious conflicts that continue to plague Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, right down to massacres in synagogues and mosques here in the ‘civilized’ west.

Indeed, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, and gender can be seen on one side as mere fictions, and on the other, as brutal realities (albeit in different ways, as they are all quite different categories).

They are all what Adorno would call “socially-necessary appearances [scheine],” illusions that possess a fetishistically-constituted social objectivity. Their reality exists in socio-historically specific relations of domination between people, but we come to (falsely) see them as having a substantive reality ‘in themselves,’ which inheres in particular individuals — qualitatively incommensurable individuals are identified with, and violently subsumed under, these categories, the ‘essence’ of which is generally ascribed to physical data that are as such mute (skin pigmentation, anatomy, genetics, place of birth, etc.), and that in a free society would have no social meaning attached to them.

We all have no choice but to act as if an individual ‘is’ a woman, ‘is’ an American, ‘is’ black, etc., but this is fetishism: it turns a negative relational category into a positive essential category. I would argue that this kind of “identity logic” is ultimately rooted in the practical abstraction of exchange, which identifies the non-identical (as Adorno put it, “if we no longer had to equate ourselves with things, we would need neither a thing-like superstructure nor an invariant picture of ourselves, after the model of things”), though the social constitution of each one of these identitarian categories has its own history, and it is precisely this history that disappears when we, in our daily practice, are compelled to treat these categories as if they had a substantive, quasi-natural reality.

Thus I’d argue that every single one of these categories must be subjected to negative critique, and that communist revolution must aim at the abolition of race, the abolition of gender, the abolition of nationality, etc.

It would obviously be preposterous and irresponsible to simply put a “revolutionary feminist group or an antiracist organization” on the same level as a “white supremicist group or a nationalist party.” But that doesn’t mean the former are necessarily immune to radical criticism. If the particular (hypothetical) group in question views ‘womanhood’ or ‘blackness’ as a positive substance that ought to be affirmed and ‘liberated’ from external ‘oppression’ by ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘white supremacy,’ then I would not consider such a group to be fighting for the same goals as we are, the same way I would not consider trade unions that promise ‘class power,’ or traditional Marxist organizations that advocate a ‘republic of labor’ in which the proletariat is exalted (rather than abolished), to be fighting for our goals. This is not to say that we’d oppose every action such groups might take, but ultimately, they aim to preserve what we aim to negate, and it is in this sense that we call all such affirmations of identities “reactionary.”

This is an inherently difficult position to hold, and it involves us in a necessarily contradictory double-movement: at the immediate level, we must of course fight against proletarianized individuals having their wages slashed, racialized individuals being killed by the police, feminized individuals getting raped, individuals ascribed a nationality being deported, an ethnicity being genocided, a religion getting shot in a hate-motivated spree-killing, etc. But the viewpoint that affirms identities and condemns oppressions stops at this unreflected immediacy, whereas our negative task as Critical Theorists is to disclose this appearance as itself mediated, and to aim at overcoming the social processes of identification as such.

All of this is not just airy talk and academic hairsplitting — this is a very important issue to me as well, so I’ll speak from my own experience. I (the principal author of the “Class Composition” article under discussion) am a queer transsexual woman, and I am made painfully aware of the materiality of the relation of domination that posits me as such every time I’m attacked in public by a stranger. But I don’t think I ‘am,’ in some essential way, a trans woman, and that the problem is merely that I am ‘oppressed’ by mean, bad transphobic cis straight people, and if only this ‘oppression’ could be removed, my beautiful trans ‘Being’ would be free to flourish. I am only identified with this mutilated form because the identitarian categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ have fetishistic social objectivity. The reality of the category ‘queer trans woman’ does not exist in me, but between me and everyone else — there is thus nothing to affirm, nothing to liberate, only a relation of domination to be negated and overcome. Thus my emancipation would not entail the freedom to be a queer trans woman, but the freedom to not have to be a man, woman, trans, queer, straight or any thing else, to “not need an invariant picture of myself after the model of things,” but to “abjure such prescribed choices” (Adorno); not to be any thing, but to be “in the absolute movement of Becoming” (Marx).

And so we are critics of all the real processes of identification that operate with terroristic force in this society, not merely of liberal identity-politicians, who are only particularly obtuse, annoying voices in the identity-affirmative chorus. In the long run, we must also part ways with any ‘radical’ groups that at base hold an affirmative conception of identity, no matter how ‘revolutionary’ their rhetoric or methods.

 

ST:

I mostly wholeheartedly agree with you here, but I would just like to make a few points. Firstly, I must say that my characterization of race and gender versus nationality and religion was effectively poorly phrased and thought out. Regarding the oppression that is sometimes attached with religious practice, I am uncertain of the exact nature of it in places like India, on which I know much less than I would like to. But at least I can say that in Europe and probably the United States, “Islam” is mostly used as a covert and more broadly accepted way to say “Arabs:” its use is clearly racialized. Similarly, Jewish people are both adherents of a religion and member of an ethnicity/people, but despite this one could talk of their situation in the terms of race, because they are racialized: some stereotypical physical features, social positions and character traits are associated with them. Of course reality does not follow the clear-cutted segmentations of theory and is a blurry and complex thing, with different categories overlaping and mixing, but I still think that in the cases that I touched upon in what precedes, race is the primordial factor. To finish, I find the use of the term “reactionary” for these “affirmations of identities” quite exaggerated (not of course for groups that are openly so, such as TERF or black supremacists) in the present situation: they are not, for the moment, really fighting to stop the revolutionary movement going forward, because I don't really see for the moment a lot of signs pushing for the abolition of race and gender. As you say, it would probably take place only in the long run. Hopefully (even if we are pessimist) this point will be reached in our lifetimes, but it is impossible for us to know yet.

 

ISR:

I think you’re generally right about religious persecution in the west often being a thinly veiled variant of racial persecution (or even a kind of misdirected, one-sided, fetishized anti-capitalism, as Postone, Bonefeld, and Stoetzler have argued regarding antisemitism), and that these categories all overlap in social practice. I suppose I just wanted to point out that religions, as powerful institutions that remain for many people the “heart of a heartless world,” have a social reality and material effects that we’d be unwise to dismiss as fictions, and it seems that you agree with us here.

I also have to admit, you’re right to say that our terming identity-affirming positions flatly “reactionary” was exaggerated. We tend to write in a polemical style, and can get carried away drawing hard lines to the detriment of nuance. When we wrote the “Class Composition” piece, we were very frustrated with the popularity among Leftists, and even some communists, of certain identity-essentialist ‘decolonial’ positions like, for example, those of le Parti des Indigènes de la république, which we do see as genuinely reactionary, and we probably overstated the case in a line of dashed-off invective that we didn’t adequately explain or support.




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