the Disillusioned kid: Me, Myself and Identities
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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Me, Myself and Identities

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago I was involved in a debate with Alex Gregory (formerly of Sleep of Reason, now the purveyor of about the relevance of class analysis in the modern, post-industrial world. This got me thinking about questions of identity and its role in radical theory and praxis (broadly, the translation of theory into practice). Now that I've got some more time I thought I would set out some of my conclusions here and see what responses it generated. This is a theory in development and I'd welcome and and all helpful comments.

My thoughts on this matter are greatly indebted to an article by Simon Tormey comparing the politcal-philosophy of French "postanarchist" Gilles Deleuze with the practice of the Zapatistas (available as a pdf here), although any incorrect assumptions or conclusions are entirely my own. Tormey analyses Deleuze's critique of representation which he argues "hinges on the availability of a means of conceptualising similarity or Sameness in the midst of what he sees as constitutive ontological difference." This is clearly heady stuff and not exactly easy-going (although it's nothing compared to the material by Deleuze which I've tried to read which, despite containing many interesting ideas, borders on the unreadable), but fortunately he explains the problem in terms even I can understand.

Consider three apples. What is it which makes them all the 'same'? It is there approximation of an ideal apple which does not exist beyond the conception we have in our mind. We cannot understand things for what they are, but only through the mediation of a system of thought which allows us to distinguish apples from pears or oranges. In short, 'appleness' is not something inherent to the things to which it is applied, but a human construct. It is at this point which I diverge from Deleuze who believes that categorisation of things does violence to their "univocity of being" (their uniqueness) and as such bases his political strategy (insofar as he can be said to have such a thing) on a continual, ongoing assertion of difference (described as "becoming minoritarian" in A Thousand Plateau written with psycho-analyst Felix Guattari).

I would argue that while Deleuze (and Hume who he is following) is right to see that sameness and therefore identities are human constructs I question whether they are neccesarily bad things. Of course they can be damaging insofar as they force people to conform to a certain way of living or acting (recall here David Blunkett's talk about the need to instill 'Britishness' in immigrants), but can we really exist without such a system? If we did not have categories like apple or tree or dog and cat, could we hope to communicate in any meaningful, useful sense? I think not and I think that identities can also, at least potentially, play a useful role.

In light of the foregoing I think that the best way to view identities, particularly for anyone seeking to challenge the status quoe, is as a tool. Like any tool they can be used constructively and destructively. (I can use a hammer to construct a spice-rack, I can also use it to smash someone's skull in.) Those living in countries occupied by foreign military forces often turn to nationalism as a way of strengthening coherence amongst the native population in order to challenge their occupiers more effectively. Similarly the propagation of "class conciousness" has long been central to socialist strategy in order to make the working-class an effective challenger to the bourgoisie. The feminist conception of "sisterhood", the assertion of "gay pride" and the assertion of racial identity amongst ethnic minorities as a counterpoint to majoritarian racism all point to similar concerns. On the other hand, there is a long history of bigotry, oppression and chauvinism associated with nationalism. A history which reached its apotheosis with the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1920s-1940s. Similarly Andrew Anthony points to the more negative aspects of a strong racial identity amongst ethnic minorities in 21st Century Britian.

The question then is whether we can make use of a multiplicity of identities (class, race, nation, gender, sexuality etc.) as a useful tool for challenging oppression, while ensuring that we do not lose sight of the fact that they do not have an existence independent of the systems of thought which created them and that they do not actually become a problem which we must turn our attention to once the original source of oppression is gone (or greatly weakened). Is this possible? Is it even sensible to try? I think the answers to those questions are maybe and yes, but I'd be interested to see what anybody else thinks.

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