Thursday, 24 November 2011

Everything; or: a short critique of identity politics

by Grant Farred[i]

Identity politics was founded as a critique of the grand narrative, charged with inaugurating a different mode of struggle. Instead of the Great White Man theory of history and politics, identity politics demanded thinking the political in its specificity; it undertook, in the wake of the post-War anti-colonial struggles and the anti-Establishment turmoil that rocked Western societies in the 1960s, the thinking of the Other. Identity politics sought to rearticulate the extant political categories by, inter alia, complicating the workings of class with race; attending to gender and sexual orientation in the campaign for national liberation; foregrounding the constitutive importance of ethnicity in political struggles. However, from its inception identity politics has been haunted by the question of how to think the specific against the grand political narrative.

At stake, in a moment when identity politics appears neither efficacious nor obsolete but still too easily mobilizable, are the political consequences of thinking specifically. As incendiary pronouncements, in the name of race (or party) solidarity, proliferate, the politics of identity presents itself as an urgent issue for South Africans. How does the critic of a Malema or a Miyeni or a Manyi argue against the expediently racialized narrative? Identity politics is an instrumentalist strategy, containing within its genetic structure always the potentiality (and, often, the intent) for silencing its adversaries, even those who can lay claim to the same identity. The politics of identity is grounded in the principle of exclusion bequeathing as it has to us the term, before itself an apologia, already a demarcation of its political limits, “strategic essentialism.” 

Identity politics makes one thing, above all else, immanent: the political cannot be thought narrowly. It is not without its transient virtues but it is, at best, a partial response. Identity politics can never provide a political thinking adequate to anything except its specificity – a malevolent self-interest, in many instances – which is itself, a priori, linked to larger political questions; thinking for a specific identity or interest group is, before itself, already linked to larger political intentions. Malema’s pontifications make him perpetually visible; Miyeni underwrites, literally, that cause; Manyi derogates. Through this, identity politics reveals the indivisibility of politics. The lesson of post-apartheid South Africa, whatever its failings, is that a politics organized around identity, whatever formation it takes, cannot be sustained; there is always political work to be done beyond and in addition to a particular mobilization. 

The only way to commit to identity politics, in even its best articulations, is to acknowledge its insufficiencies and to work for its liquidation in doing it. Barack Obama’s presidency is inconceivable without the Civil Rights movement; Obama’s presidency is only conceivable because he recognized the need to simultaneously mobilize and exceed that mode of US politics. Fighting for an identity amounts to conducting a Gramscian war of position in a spirit approaching bad faith; an “ethical” bad faith entirely absent from the politics of those conducting identity politics in contemporary South Africa.

If a return to the grand narrative is neither feasible nor desirable, the challenge of how to think politically remains. In this respect, there is at least one valuable aspect of the grand narrative that is now worth considering. Because of its propensity for the universal, the grand narrative requires, of necessity, the imperative to think abstractly – against, beyond, with specificity. It demands thinking in terms that, while it may often be grounded in the present (the basis for its thought), requires a conceptual imagining that exceeds the immediacy of the now, that refuses the strategic essentialism of the current conjuncture and exposes its (pernicious) limitations.

In its stead, a political thinking is proposed that admits everything – all political categories (specificities), all modes of being – into its thought. Such a politics risks everything. It is only through such an “abstraction” of politics that it becomes possible to think politics as a course of human action at once aware and far in excess of a specific set of interests named “race” or “sexual orientation” or, worse, a particular people’s party.  

It is in its infelicity to the abstract, in its inability to think everything at once, that both the grand narrative and identity politics fail politically. The grand narrative and identity politics are different in that they are infelicitous in different ways. The grand narrative ignores the specific because it believes that it already incorporates the specific within its broad ambit; identity politics fails in its rejection, a historically valid argument that is philosophically lacking, of the universal that cannot admit of how it is inextricably bound up in the universal. In their differences they reveal, unknowingly, their similarity. The grand narrative and identity politics cannot meet the standards of the abstract because they are both myopic. Identity politics commits itself to seeing, in the main, one thing; the grand narrative commits itself to seeing everything while overlooking much or, worse, too much.

Only an abstract thinking of politics takes as its project the need to see everything. It is only such an abstraction that makes possible a radical politics. That is, a politics of the impossible – an omniscient politics that cannot conceive of anything outside it – is the only politics worthy of thought because it is founded upon the possibility of not only seeing and understanding everything, but of attending fully to the entirety of human experience. Advocating for such a politics is not an argument for utopia but committing to a politics that excludes nothing (not critique of a right wing Afrikaner nationalism or a virulent black nationalism), that struggles for everything, all the time. This is a politics that, in the cause of struggling for everything, prioritizes nothing – in so doing, of course, it prioritizes everything. Unlike the grand narrative or identity politics, in this politics everything matters. Everything is the only order of business for a truly radical politics. There is nothing but a powerful materiality about such an abstract thinking of everything. Why should anyone settle for less than everything?   

[i] For Leonhard and Richard.