There is a certain trend in identity politics that seems more concerned with protecting intellectual property rights than, say, marginalised communities articulating shared interests and organising together in the pursuit of justice.
And honestly, it belongs in the bin.
Ash Sarkar’s recent tweets — arguing against possessive critiques of queer protestors using the phrase “Say Her Name”, in response to the murder of Brianna Ghey — have caused a perhaps not unsurprising amount of vitriol. Since the phrase was first chanted to refer to often-overlooked black, female victims of police violence, then the suggestion seems to go that any broader usage only obscures other, more “original” (and still ongoing) struggles. But to insist upon the singular use of a word or phrase, in Sarkar’s view, only undermines our capacity for solidarity.
I’m sympathetic to this view, particularly in light of yesterday’s post on the necessity of extending sympathies beyond what we might otherwise feel are “natural” in-groups. But that is not to say that the negative appropriation of terms from certain struggles is not a problem. In fact, that black communities feel this especially is perfectly valid, given the extent to which the word “woke”, most famously — formerly an explicitly black rallying cry for consciousness raising that exploded into popular culture in the mid-2010s — has since become nothing more than a pejorative term, tainted by its now seemingly exclusive use by those on the right.
There are a number of contradictions at work here that must nonetheless be accounted for. Indeed, the fact that “woke” was precisely a tool for raising collective consciousness, which has since been used to dismiss an almost formless demographic of “progressives”, shows how intersectional struggles are often undermined by a vocal establishment. The fruitful coagulation of struggles is reduced to the amorphous blob put to work by moral panics, but the take away from such a tendency cannot be that we should defer from building bridges between movements altogether.
To turn again to my own bugbear — which remains a controversial topic that so many rightly baulk at — this is the same process that has made “accelerationism” a word no longer used by those on the left who coined and shaped it. But there are far more seemingly innocuous and more generic examples that we can also turn to.
I opened by recent post on accelerationism with a quotation from Alain Badiou’s 1998 book Ethics: “It is a difficult task, for the philosopher, to pull names away from a usage that prostitutes them.” Here Badiou is of course talking about ethics itself. As the book’s introduction begins:
Certain scholarly words, after long confinement in dictionaries and in academic prose, have the good fortune, or the misfortune … of sudden exposure to the bright light of day … The word ethics … has today taken centre stage.
Ethics concerns, in Greek, the search for a good ‘way of being’, for a wise course of action. On this account, ethics is part of philosophy, that part which organizes practical existence around representation of the Good.
The contemporary ‘return to ethics’ uses the word in an obviously fuzzy way… In fact, ethics designates today a principle that governs how we relate to ‘what is going on’, a vague way of regulating our commentary on historical situations (the ethics of human rights), ‘social’ situations (the ethics of being-together), media situations (the ethics of communication), and so on.
This norm of commentaries and opinions is backed up by official institutions, and carries its own authority: we now have ‘national ethical commissions’, nominated by the State. Every profession questions itself about its ‘ethics’. We even deploy military expeditions in the name of ‘the ethics of human rights’.
Suffice it to say that ethics, as the philosophical foundation for any theory of “good” action, has gradually been reduced to yet another liberal buzzword that limits action to a narrow ideological plane. But we can hardly eject ethics altogether from any sense of political action. And whilst Alain Badiou may feel like a philosopher at some remove from the direct political actions of today, this distance also illuminates how frequent and common the problem of poltiical misappropriation is.
When Sarkar renounces a narrow possession of a phrase like “Say Her Name”, she is surely arguing something similar, albeit from the other side. Though a controversial argument to make, it is worth noting how even the most well-meaning of critiques can simply exacerbate this problem of appropriation, in a way that similarly negates our linguistic capacity for solidarity and intersectionality. Indeed, the solution to the establishment’s tendency to make politicised words and slogans generic and impotent must not negate their initial function, which is bringing people together and rallying them around various struggles.
Somewhat ironically, the problem cascades within the argument that has engulfed Sarkar’s critique, due to the way she denounces this possessive tendency as an example of “identity politics”, which some argue is yet another term that has been made meaningless by an overly broad application. Consider the following exchange:
it really is of no benefit to liberation or anti-oppression politics overall to join in discourses against pejorative floating signifiers like “identity politics” or “wokeness”. There are ways to describe the phenomena you’re talking about without bolstering this discourse.
But this is about identity politics, which has become totally unmoored from its collective and anticapitalist origins and become individualised and anti-solidaristic. I’m not using it as a pejorative, it’s a descriptor of the politics.
identity politics has no settled meaning in the way you’re using it. it has origins, and it has decades of backlash that his evacuated the term of meaning. if you’re criticising representation politics or narrowed, liberal interpretations of past struggles then do that.
otherwise all you’re doing is adding to the constant chatter against something that doesn’t really exist. struggles have emerged from different identity positions for centuries before 1977, these dismissals or simplistic catchphrases can’t account for that
The suggestion here, then, seems to be that although “identity politics” has a radical origin, it is too far removed from it to be of use any longer, and so we should resist any (even well-meaning) appropriation that has the potential to further muddy other signifiers.
But to me, these arguments only end up mirroring each other. In the end, all that is solid melts into air, and it is true that we are left linguistically destitute as a result. Our capacity to articulate our unfreedom is attacked incessantly. But then what is the solution? Not to worry or hope for the best, but pick up new weapons, as Deleuze would argue. But this process of picking-up also necessitates a process of putting-down.
Identity politics is still relevant here. This confluence of arguments — some of which are clearly in favour of identity politics — nonetheless get to the heart of what is wrong with a reductive sense of “identity politics” in the first instance. Indeed, the tension here — of contending with infected signifiers — applies as much ontologically, in a broader sense, as it does to language in particular. It is all a question of the politics of recognition, and this is something that notably applies to both black victims of police violence and transgender people in equal measure, as people, as well as the language we use to describe ourselves or our politics.
Both groups long for a kind of authentic recognition in order to throw off stereotypes. I am not this, I am that. Such a movement is necessitated by the painful awareness that to be recognised as a member of a marginalised group can be as affirming as it can be fatal. Brianna Ghey remains a potent example. Following the horrifying news of her murder, a paradox is constructed through media outlets that refuse to recognise her as a transgender teenager, whilst at the same time it is being widely speculated that it was precisely being recognised as such that led to her being murdered in the first place.
With my biases perpetually on the table, I think this cleft is best described by Mark Fisher in an old k-punk post, where he argues against identity politics in favour of a “dis-identity politics” instead. Mark suggests that what this kind of paradox of recognition
brings out with real clarity is the opposition between liberal identity politics and proletarian dis-identity politics. Identity politics seeks respect and recognition from the master class; dis-identity politics seeks the dissolution of the [classificatory] apparatus itself.
Here again, we can dismiss Mark’s use of the phrase “identity politics”, if we so choose, since he seems to adhere to a reductive understanding rather than an original radical usage. But “dis-identity politics” then becomes a modified version of the same concept that arguably emphasises what exactly has been lost.
It remains necessary that we keep Brianna Ghey in mind here, as although the use of “Say Her Name” is seen as appropriative, in the unjust swing of attentions that defines cultural war narratives the current moral panic around trans rights nonetheless provides us with an opportunity to reassert problems that remain relevant to marginalised groups in general — the central contention here being that in-group solidarity opens itself up to misappropriation when it is couched in a static understanding of dissident modes of being.
As Fisher writes elsewhere: “Identity politics is not politics at all, since it precisely negates the political as such by re-construing political positions in ethnic terms, subsuming ‘ought’ under ‘is’.” The suggestion here seems to be that, as a black or trans person, to stick with present examples, I ought to be able to live my life beyond the limited bounds of identitarian stereotypes without being subjected to prejudicial treatment. But to define my sense of being through static identitarian categories — not the ought of action but the is of stasis — instead makes such categories susceptible to further appropriation down the line.
Such a process is visible in all marginalised communities. A particularly obvious example might be the appearance of police at Pride events. Fixed categories of identity are not fortified but made all the more impotent for their lack of movement. What is thus insisted upon, to resist any police presence at Pride, is a kind of fugitivity. To render LGBTQ+ identities as stable makes it easier to slot them into a broader sense of an established political order.
Fisher gets to the heart of things again when he adds:
The denial of the gap between identity and identification … is a presupposition of identity politics … The message of the Identity Police, after all, is that you should be who you are.
A sentiment that perhaps applies to trans individuals far more explicitly than any other marginalised group — which is not to say that other groups are not affected by this same message, but it is nonetheless the crux of a contemporary trans rights moral panic
But nothing is so simple, and we can easily counter this assertion with a more generous view of identity politics that does insist on this kind of fugitivity. As Fisher writes in another post, responding to critiques of his position, referring himself back to black struggles explicitly:
There is a sense in which certain types of identity politics are already dis-identifying in what you ‘are’ – or what you experience yourself as – [such that identity is framed as being] no longer a natural given. You re-encounter yourself now as a member of a group embedded in a contingent social antagonism … I can perfectly well see that the identitarian move is a step – perhaps an indispensable one in some cases – towards dis-identifying universalism (Malcolm X remains an exemplary case of someone for whom separatism functioned in this way).
Here we can return to the problem at hand. But notions of black separatism, on full display in the replies to Sarkar’s tweet, likewise seem to be somewhat removed from Malcolm X’s intentions. His form of separatism affirmed an ardent black nationalism, after all, through which African Americans were encouraged to return to Africa to create a new state. This suggestion is qualitatively different from the linguistic separatism of the arguments made on Twitter. Is this, then, not a further dilution of a political programme?
But such dilutions hardly matter in the broad scheme of things. To focus on the shifting nature of expression — to denounce it even — just becomes another way of making certain movements static. The key is in the name. Any movement worth its salt must always keep moving, adapting and responding to power relations in the present, and the sharing of slogans and a sense of solidarity founded through and against intersecting oppressions is a core part of this. We should criticise those in power who appropriate language in order to make it impotent, of course, but the building out of solidarity between marginalised groups is hardly an appropriation of the same order. In fact, this is precisely what appropriations by the powerful hope to undermine. We are failing ourselves and each other when we do this work for them.