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Nihilists with Good Imaginations

In what may be her most ambitious piece yet, Chiara Bottici recently published a call for a continuation of debates around intersectional oppression along the lines traced out by anarchist thought. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Bottici avoided making explicit reference to some of her previous work, which, though it may be thematically removed, is crucial to understanding the approach taken in “Bodies in Plural.” In the following, I call attention to this connection so as to shed light on some vital difficulties implicit in the manifesto’s appeal as well as make sense of what, if anything, is new.

In “Bodies in Plural,” Bottici suggests that emancipation should counter oppression as it really works. Given that oppression unfolds along a variety of different and intersecting vectors, political projects ought to envision the end of oppression as the end of all oppressions in their aggregate. As she asserts in Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond the Imagination and the Imaginary (2014) “you cannot be free alone.” Or, better, I cannot be free unless everyone else is also free with me. This is what real liberation means. To Bottici’s mind, an appeal to the anarchist tradition supplies just such a notion of liberation. This is the work she takes on in her manifesto, to recast the goals of historical feminism as implied in the idea of anarchism: liberation fully realized.

This task is ambitions for a couple of reasons, one of which I think Bottici’s framework is more equipped to face than the other. First, it requires a much more profound reflection on what the reality of oppression is in our society and why it works thusly (this part is missing in “Bodies in Plural”). Second, it requires an expanded strategy of solidarity between oppressions otherwise perceived as distinct (though related) in cause and solution. Dismantling the kind of oppression underscored by anarchists calls for a much broader coalition of dismantlers.

Coalitions are precipitated by a shared sense of struggle across differing demands and identities — or, as Kwame Turé said, shared interests. We need political identities to articulate demands and shared interests and sustain struggle. Sustained struggle, moreover, is lubricated by an overarching political narrative, one that must be sufficiently abstract to unify its diverse constituents. What Bottici has previously called political “myths” are powerful motivators of such sustained struggle because they broadcast a vision in which subjects can take a stake. Myth does not mean a naive or false representation of something, but rather a broad orienting narrative.

Such a process would be crucial in a project as radical as Bottici’s and certainly has been for previous anarchist thinkers. But something is different here. For Bottici, the very categories we use to understand ourselves are the ones that sustain our subjugation. Indeed, on the basis of “Bodies in Plural,” these identities are eo ipso charged with hierarchy; they are implements of domination. And here lies the rub: Bottici is setting out a nonessentialist, nonfoundationalist conception of political identities all the while seeking to invoke a “myth” that will, by definition, appeal to those identities, but at the same time lead to their eradication. We are caught in a circle: we desire to contest oppression in all its guises. To do so, we require solidarity politics, but this in turn relies on political myths, which in turn rely on our sense of identity. We need to appeal to identity to mobilize politically against domination, but the appeal to political mobilization is based on and mobilizes categories that are in themselves oppressive. None of this negates the importance of political myth as a necessary component of political struggle, but it does constrain what sorts of myth can be deployed without reinforcing instilled veins of domination.

Around which aspirational object can this emancipatory troop group? Justice? Freedom? Autonomy? And furthermore, whose? Could we construct an emancipatory ideology purely around universal notions with no appeal to a particular identity? Maybe — but there is a flaw to this approach.

These constructions, especially at their purest, are so abstract that they lack all determination, all efficacy. An anarchism centered on those notions would lack force and become an abstraction (much like the real post-Westphalian liberal order). Even worse, this suggestion assumes either that notions such as justice, freedom, or autonomy can exist without further content or that subjects can think of themselves outside of social categories. As Bottici insists, there is no subject outside of the social narratives that shape identity — our sense of self is constituted in and through discursive practice. In other words, social categories are inherent to subjectivity and must precede action. Furthermore, universal concepts are always-already substantiated according to the identities of the subjects to whom they appeal.

We’re back at the start, then, because myths are necessary to motivate political mobilization; yet we might wonder if there is some way to supplant old myths with new ones, old ways of knowing ourselves as political actors that are not so heavily ballasted with the weight of inherited authority. How can we conceive the possibility of deploying a myth well rooted enough to prove efficaciousness without reproducing the foundations of existing, polluted categories?

For Bottici, this is the task of the political imagination, that through which we reconstruct, redirect, and reinvent our conceptions of self. This is not an “abstract” invention; it is a re-working that is couched in the realities of social life. But the claim is there is something in us that is irreducible to our social life and identity, a creative core that is un-colonizable and — at least potentially — revolutionary. From this standpoint, we can conceive a radical re-framing of what we are and act accordingly. This imagination is not some flight of fancy, but a deeply subversive tool that can illuminate the concrete reality of oppression just as it imagines a world otherwise.

By making recourse to this way of imagining, we can take an important first step toward dismantling existing oppressions: bringing them into relief and recreating a new world within all pre-existing structures. For this reason, Bottici reaches for an odd neo-Spinozist metaphysics: transindividuality can fulfill the role that appears necessary for serious political mobilization while avoiding all the pernicious strictures of our inherited political myths. The political imagination can construct a new myth that can move us toward a new world, all the while basing itself not on reified and oppressive structures, but on subjects mutually implicated in a shared struggle to reshape what is.

The articulation of a new myth of womanhood, one that seeks to effectively contravene gender oppression while problematizing the content of gender categories, is not novel. Queer activism fits that bill. What is interesting about Bottici’s piece is her theoretical articulation of this phenomenon — a philosophical assessment of its logic and dynamic. From this viewpoint, the connection to anarchism is made. Bottici sketches a homology between current feminist struggles and a political idea that can be appropriated to advance that struggle but is largely absent from current academic debates: the unspoken connection between intersectional feminism and anarchism. The work of current feminist struggles aims at disclosing and dismantling a network of interdependent forms of domination. It stands to gain enormously from a closer familiarity with the history of anarchist struggle, if it aims to win that fight.

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Lucas Ballestín

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