The Paradoxes of Identity Politics
A critique of recognition
In 1975, Roy Wagner wrote a groundbreaking book called The Invention of Culture arguing, essentially, that the only cross-cultural universal was invention itself: creativity. Wagner’s book initiated a crucial sublation in anthropology — arguably waiting to happen — from cultural relativity to the relativity of Culture itself. “Culture,” and all those related notions of social constructivism and relativism, points to a particularly Western mode of creation, which focuses on the collective and conventional as the “artificial” and “constructed” in contrast to an “innate” and “given” Nature. Indigenous ontologies, on the other hand, tend to move in a reverse direction: they foreground differences, and it is only in the background that “cultural norms” emerge as a byproduct.
Where does the politics of recognition in its popularly repeated forms, which so often claims to defend indigenous cultures from “cultural appropriation,” then fall within this schema? The discourse of “identity politics” holds that the patriarchal norms of society threaten resistant, marginalized cultural and individual particularities (LGBT people, POC, transgender people, indigenous people, etc.). The social image of an identity must be recognized and exposed as resistant to the “imposing” force of a “normative” Eurocentric, white-male centered culture. Importantly, this discourse flourishes in social media spaces, spaces in which the dissemination of image, text, etc. threatens to in reality destabilize the possibility of such clearly recognizable identities.
While it is the discourses of social constructivism and a certain kind of cultural relativism — floating in as so often from academia — that have seemed to buttress many ideas that circulate in the politics of recognition, it seems to me that recognition puts identities exactly in the position of givens that “resist” or block totalizing “norms.” In this discourse, recognizable and recognized identities situate themselves paradoxically as sorts of innate natures. Of course, even if we acknowledge that identities are performed, that cultural gender is not biological sex, etc. identity politics seems to each time retroactively posit such identities in the position of the already–there, as re-cognizable. Such an orientation cannot help but resonate with the sorts of essentialism that underlie ideas of cultural appropriation, as if a particularized culture were in fact an inviolable essence not to be “touched,” notions that, building off the work of anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, have been shown to be crucial to various state-building projects — ideological mechanisms of settler-colonialism-with-a-human-face. In its liberal orientation to recognition, identity politics maintains the paradigmatically Western schema of social constructivism and innate naturalism.
By unleashing and foregrounding invention as opposed to recognition, we might also lean to celebrate singularity and oppose it to banal notions of individuality. Such is related to that almost primal, but variable, cross-cultural openness of the child. This then is a plea for a childlike creativity, a sense of play and “innocence” that would be refractory to the standard western subjectivity of the recognizable ego, the “face” or “identity” claiming to stand behind each marketable media-image. The singular is not a bounded self or cultural particularity, never completely a recognizable ego, but an assemblage and a history, a poetic and inventive life.
See the stunning article by Lucien Sebag, “Analysis of the Dreams of a Guayaki Woman” in which Sebag analyzes twenty-nine dreams of a young, hunter-gatherer woman living deep in the Amazon, called Baipurangi. What does Sebag discover about young Baipurangi’s singular truth? Baipurangi codes her desires in the language of her culture, in the language of the specific field of meanings and practices that define Guayaki life. In some sense, there is of course “cultural difference.” But importantly, Baipurangi’s desires build out of such codes a unique idiom, a way of deforming those codes to express a desire that is not controllable by what those codes recognize. Just as the openness of the child can never be enclosed by the specific codes of a culture, so the child in us only ever constructs a unique idiom in the pulsating of unforgotten and uncompromised desires. In breaking with any recognizable identity, the singularity and immanence of desire belies a persistent openness in which, nevertheless, the virtual totality of all cultures continues to exist, opening towards a kind of universality:
“For while the adult has become an adult through being marked by a particular culture, the child still carries the possibility of being equally open to all conceivable norms. The dream — partly because of its normal abolition of the conditions of communication (there are also other reasons) — initiates a return to the freedom of childhood; it introduces other thoughts than those from which the culture of the dreamer draws inspiration; it uses whatever is immediately available to construct figures other than those that dominate waking life. Thus, the dreams of a hysteric or an obsessional neurotic might well rediscover — recreate — an organization of the world once developed by some vanished culture.”
— Lucien Sebag, “Analysis of The Dreams of a Guayaki Woman”
What we see emerging in the analysis of the most intimate contents of a woman living in a society which — we should not simply trip over it — is totally alien to our own, is a combination of singularity and universality that seems unthinkable to “recognition.” This is the point where the unique specificity of a subject’s desire spills over the particularity of a cultural or moral code. Baipurangi is not recognizable, for what she tries to say in her dreams in fact does not fit the categories of a culture or that of her cultural particularity. Rather, it is an invention, and this is not the same as a “resistant” natural given. Again, it is not the recognition of the particularity of Guayaki culture that makes sense of Baipurangi’s desire: it is the creative distortion of that particularity that in the last instance gives it sense. In retaining her childhood openness, transcendent to any recognizable code, Baipurangi maintains possibilities within herself that even gesture to other cultural forms and variants. Her singularity reactivates the universality of the child, who “carries the possibility of being equally open to all conceivable norms.” In the deepest recesses of idiomatic construction, a possible cross-cultural and transversal openness begins to show itself.
It is this idiomatic and singular deformation of cultural specificity that I believe identity politics would like to constrain with its classificatory desire for the recognizable. Such creative deformation points to a space of poetic openness that is liberated once we leave behind the idea that, behind the flurry of images, media, and text, there must be recognizable “voices,” particularities, identities, and egos that stabilize our point of reference. There is no self, no identity, perhaps no “culture,” except that which we choose to invent. Far from being cultural relativism, such a position is — as Roy Wagner helped to showed us — the point in which a space of communicability opens between Western and non-Western societies: a radical critique of Eurocentrism, and a plea for the imagination.
3. Stabilizing Dissemination
I believe that the alterity of the other is both much more threatening and much more liberating than recognition would like to admit, and that we should locate identity politics’ classificatory orientation to the recognizable within the contemporary space of media capitalism and its accompanying modes of subjectivity. Capitalism functions today by a new attempt to control and constitute selves by constructing them in hyper-visible spaces, while at the same time, it is not construction which controls (this is but invention), but rather the disavowal of the fact that no secure and stable self-or-identity exists behind such construction . As late-capitalist life becomes more precarious, traditional sites of meaning continue to dissolve in a movement of deterritorialization and textual dissemination. Identity politics and the politics of recognition are mechanisms of reterritorialization and stabilization: they attempt to allow capitalism to reproduce itself, as well as provide (what I believe are ineffective) solutions for increasingly anxious and precarious subjects to stay afloat. These mechanisms of control are channeled through and by both people who claim to defend the oppressed and sometimes by oppressed people themselves, a situation which is, of course, in no way impossible.
Unleashing the parasite of invention is unleashing all the creative possibilities that the current discourse of marketable spaces would like to bar us from. Not appropriation or identity, but idiom and metamorphosis. Not the name of the ego, but all the names in history.
Adam Louis Klein is an M.A Student in Philosophy at the New School For Social Research. He studies the intersections between anthropology, epistemology, and the philosophy of science.