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On Critique of Identity Politics (and the inability to read)

One of my blogging pet peeves is the inability of people to read.  This is not a complaint about someone's possible illiteracy, because I understand the limitations to comprehension that the accessibility of education causes, but about the self-proclaimed literate crowd of smug and satisfied internet experts who feel that, after reading a paragraph quickly, they can pipe in with comments or complaints that demonstrate they haven't even read even that paragraph very well.  In many ways this is a problem of the medium, and I would be lying if I pretended that I was not also guilty of quick-reading blog posts and internet articles (there is so bloody much!) and sometimes putting my proverbial foot in my suddenly ignorant mouth.

Still, the innumerable hasty and inaccurate readings get on my nerves.  First of all, there are the readings that obviously misinterpret what was written.  Then, and this is more of a problem, there are the readings that demonstrate an inability to understand nuance, ignore all moments where there have been attempts to complexify the object of discourse, and leap to positivistic judgments.

The first problem is pretty easy to deal with, though it is highly frustrating (and often, to be honest, makes we wonder, when it happens to me, whether I'm at fault for having been unclear––and yes, sometimes I definitely share the blame), because all one needs to do is point out the misreading, demonstrate the reader hasn't read a sentence (if they have even read more than the title of the article in the first place), and hope that the complainer is honest enough (which they rarely are) to admit their mistake.  Take, for example, one of the more absurdly banal comments on my old rant about Slavoj Zizek's analysis of 300.  Turns out that some fanboy, posting courageously as "Anonymous", felt the need to correct me for confusing Alan Moore with Frank Miller: they thought that I was claiming that Miller wrote Watchmen when, in fact, I only mentioned the film adaptation of Watchmen that was made by Zak Snyder, the director guilty for also adapting 300.  And although I didn't make that mistake, it is also quite hilarious that this misreading had nothing to do with the post's argument; it was simply a fanboy complaint, a trollish "get your facts straight, asshole" when they were correct to begin with and they didn't bloody matter in the first place.

The second problem, however, is worth examining in more detail because it is a product of how we are taught to think and not necessarily the result of lazy, dismissive reading.  That is, the inability to grasp nuance and complexity and assert, once one's sacred cow is attacked, that the author must mean this other extreme!  Like how bargain basement liberals assume, because you critique the porn industry, you must be some sort of sexual prude of the religious fundamentalist variety.  Or how first world movementists assume, when you discuss the limitations of spontaneity, that you are opposed to spontaneous uprisings.  Or how leftists indoctrinated by cold war propaganda decide, when you argue against a certain ideological lens that has produced an ahistorical narrative regarding the Soviet Union under Stalin, you are a defender of gulags.  (Okay, so I might be somewhat guilty for encouraging the erroneous reading of the last assumption due to one polemical, and intentionally troll-baiting, post I wrote in the past!)  And it is the thinking behind this problem that I attempted to interrogate in my recent entry on dialectical thinking.

In this post, however, I want to examine this second problem in reference to my posts on "identity politics", specifically the one consisting of ten theses.  For some reason, despite the back-links and what I thought were adequate qualifications, I still received the largest number of misreadings––both in the comment string and in emails or comments on other sites where it was reposted.  This has bothered me to no end, and not simply because I am annoyed by trollish "YOU ARE WRONG, DUMBASS!" style comments, with no real argument, that I occasionally received.  Especially since, at the same time, that post also received an equal amount of glowing comments (both on and off the blog) that were appropriate and an equal amount of supportive comments that were inaccurate.  And while it might be correct to assume that these conflicted readings were due to my poor ability to communicate (which is always possible in the context of a blog), the fact that I went to great length to back-link to previous posts that would provide some background, and that often attacked the assumptions made by those inaccurate (both negative and positive) comments/emails demonstrates some short-circuit in the reader-writer relationship.  A short-circuit worth addressing in further detail, just so my position in what I take to be an important debate is not misunderstood.

First of all, my critique of identity politics is primarily concerned with praxis and the type of movement that comes out of a politics devoted entirely to the "identity politics" approach.  To be clear, I have never argued that the general concerns of identity politics are worthless, only that the theoretical framework in which they are mobilized is devoid of revolutionary praxis.  This conclusion is actually quite materialist considering that none of the most radical contemporary revolutionary movements (i.e. the multiple people's wars in the global peripheries that have erupted since the 1980s) have had any patience with the political practice of identity politics.  And yet many of these movements have been concerned with much of the same subject matter, and yet have approached this subject matter in a different manner.  In my mind, if the radical movements on the part of those who are most oppressed do not use the framework of an approach that sees itself as the approach to anti-oppression and yet is only practiced in the most privileged countries of the world then there is some contradiction worth interrogating.

Secondly, following from the first point, I am opposed to the naive abandonment of the concerns of identity politics simply because the foundational framework is erroneous.  After all, the practice of identity politics emerged from a post-modern/post-structuralist/post-colonial ontology, and similarly it is quite juvenile to dismiss writers such as Foucault, Butler, Said, Spivak, etc. simply because there are problems with their theoretical foundations.  I may disagree with Foucault, for example, about the philosophical assumptions behind his analysis (i.e. how his concept of power is idealist and ultimately resembles the same notion of power that Eugene Duhring had in the 19th century), but that does not mean he is not an important thinker devoid of critical insights.  I am generally embarrassed by the tendency, amongst marxists, to dismiss these thinkers simply because they are not marxist––I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of marxists who dismiss these thinkers haven't really read them.  (Such as Vivek Chibber's attack on Subaltern Studies which, sadly for Chibber, is now known as something of a farce since Partha Chatterjee showed up at one of his talks and demonstrated that Chibber knew very little about what he was critiquing.)

In other words the following internet comic, which straw-persons all critiques of identity politics by associating them with the worst (but, to be fair, somewhat common) critique, is not what I'm arguing:

Wish I knew the original source of this comic...

For me it is not that the concerns of identity politics are invalid, but only the framework in which they are made to operate.  My argument has always been that a historical materialist, revolutionary communist approach to these multiple problematics is necessary and that we need to get beyond a practice that is fragmentary and often self-righteous.  None of this is to say that there is no such thing as "privilege", or that we should focus on some unconditioned concept of class, but only that all notions of privilege and oppression must be made sense of, in the last instance, by sophisticated class analysis.  Theorists of identity politics, after all, speak of "intersectionality" without every really theorizing what this intersectionality means beside the fact that it exists––my argument is that the intersection is social class and that class needs to be understood, in this context, as a material relation rather than its own unique site of oppression.  Class reductionism?  Maybe.  But definitely not class essentialism.  And let's be clear, even bell hooks, one of the authorities of the concept of "intersectionality", once argued that no one has ever delivered on a proper explanation of intersectionality… except for Butch Lee and Red Rover, in Night Vision, who claimed that social class was the moment of intersection.

Thirdly, I have little toleration for the "positive" (mis)readings of my critique of identity politics that assumed I was endorsing the very class essentialism I was also, and at the same time, critiquing.  Simply because I find the identity politics discourse, by itself, problematic, I have little patience for the vulgar marxist "let's just talk about class as if it has nothing to with race, gender, sexuality, etc." approach to reality.  As I have argued in multiple posts, this position is in itself another variant of identity politics, and perhaps the worst form of identity politics.  Why?  Because it unreflectively assumes that class is an identity position rather than a social relation: in the mind of this kind of marxist, the proletariat is imagined in such a way that, judging on the empiricist qualifications that are usually mobilized in the definition, it could only be some white heterosexual man working in a unionized auto factory.  Hence all the cliched bullshit about how "the working class isn't ready" to hear about "sophisticated" problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia––as if the working class is not racialized, gendered, and co-determined by multiple sites of oppression.

Fourthly, I feel that there needs to be a distinction made, as it has been made in the past, between critiques from the left and critiques from the right.  To critique identity politics from the left does not mean a (rightist) defense of the white/hetero/able-bodied/male.  All it means is that a practice and "idealinguistic" approach associated simply and only with the latter is inadequate for a revolutionary movement… of course all theoretical approaches grounded on the primacy of these privileged sites should be seen as suspect.  Once again: nuance.

And yet many people still enamoured with identity politics should be able to find this distinction between left and right critiques sensible if they took the time to reflect on the theorists and critiques to which they are drawn.  For example, in the context of Canada, there is a left critique of the institution of multiculturalism that is popular even amongst those who inure to an identity politics approach.  This critique is not, obviously, the same critique that conservative hacks make about multiculturalism, which is tantamount to out-and-out chauvinism, but operates on a different level.  Similarly, Angela Davis and bell hooks' critiques of the institutionalization of "affirmative action", in the context of the US, should never be understood as the same critique reactionaries make about affirmative action.  In both of these [related] cases, the left critiques, unlike the right critiques, are based on going further than the institutionalization of supposed "anti-racism" rather than, as rightists would argue, turning the clock back to when even these paltry privileges thrown out to the oppressed were disallowed.  Multiculturalism and affirmative action exist because of struggles on the part of the oppressed while, at the same time, work in an institutional framework to neutralize these struggles from going forward––such an argument bears little resemblance to the right critique that demands a return to the "good old days" of oppression.

Thus, finally, my critique of identity politics must be understood as a critique from the left that is not interested in turning the radical clock back to the "why can't we all get along (but according to this shitty definition of class)" version of marxism––which I actually don't think was ever the hegemonic type of marxism worldwide, though it is now popular to pretend that this was the case––but an attempt to incorporate the concerns raised by identity politics in a framework that identity politics by itself is incapable of producing.  I am arguing for a new return to revolutionary totalization and the foundational solidarity that can only come from an historical materialist approach that is unified in such a way.


  1. the author of comic can be found here:

  2. As someone frustrated with the limits of identity politics but who also appreciates many of the lenses it provides this insight is very helpful. It seems that progressives at the university I attend are inundated with identity politics but cannot effectively develop a revolutionary analysis because of the lack of Marxist education/class analysis to accompany it. In my attempts to respect and understand identity politics to the best of my ability I have found that I am usually only left more confused about reality and what can be done. The Marxist analysis is the only that has provided clarity. Thanks for the post.


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