Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 9:

Identity Politics and the World Ordering

Another strategy for empowerment is to take the power into our own hands by defining our own identities without letting others do it for us. Or to fill the identity shoved unto our face with our own meaning.1

In order to fight power, to fight those who force an identity down your throat, you first have to acknowledge power. And power exists from being acknowledged, and therein lays an unresolved paradox.

Judith Butler: “Identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression.2 This is not to say that I will not appear at political occasions under the sign of lesbian, but that I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies.
[…] gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.3

Three shades of identity politics:
The struggle for equal rights for those dis-empowered by their identity. This is often associated with the political left.
The dismissal of identities as relevant, since it is only the individual that matters. This is associated with a liberal tradition, blind to power dynamics and social hierarchies.

“What are you complaining about? I have to run the same distance as you, so it’s equal!”

3. The reactive politics of the dominant identities being challenged (or rather it is the purities of the categories constituting aoften dominant world view which is challenged), mostly associated with conservative (or right) politics.It is the resistance of fish forced to see the water in which it swims.

Shades 1. and 2. describe an ideal which is meritocracy, 1. as aspirationally, 2. as achieved. A meritocracy is a society where rewards befall those who have merited it, regardless of perceived identities, such as gender, sexuality, religion, age, colour of skin, etc. However, in order to reward those merited (and not rewarding those who do not deserve it, in a meritocracy, it’s the poor’s fault they are poor), the culture needs to have a common idea about what a reward consists of, such as high salary, deciding power over others etc., as well as what is rewarded. Whatever the reward is, it divides the culture’s participants into those who have some of the reward, those who have loads of it, and those who do not get it. To get the reward then becomes an insecurity-driven cultural aspiration, an aspiration for the culture savvy. Identities are thus fomed anew, we become divided into rewarded, not rewarded, and somewhat rewarded, and the whole concept of meritocracy fails. For there is not only no such thing as a meritocracy in today’s world; there cannot be such a thing. Meritocracy is an oxymoron. Therefore, one cannot sincerely engage in identity politics of shades 1. or 2. without addressing the driving forces of enpowerments and disempowerments within the culture, since these make up the very foundation by which the identities form.

To claim an identity is not to become a free prisoner. To put oneself in a context where one’s identity becomes as invisible as the water is to the fish, that is to be a free prisoner. This freedom is achieved by community building and protected zones where people of a certain identity can come and not be that identity. Therein lies the urban promise4. For the aspiration to be a human being is to rid oneself from limiting and demarking identities, and if this cannot be achieved in the culture as a whole, at least it can be achieved in smaller contexts. That then becomes the goal of identity politics: To fight as one might for the right to at least in parts of one’s life not having to be that identity. To create subcultures of acceptance.

But alas, that is an idealised scenario. Groups of a certain identity do not necessarily strive for creating cultures of acceptance in general, but merely the creation of a norm which includes positive attitudes towards their identity. At a gaybar, being gay is the norm. That does not necessarily take awayfor exampleageism. A more ideal culture would instead be one of diversity, where identities can co-exist, recognised but unjudged, where the normless is the norm. That may not be the urban promise, but is to some degree the effect of urban life, where all sorts of people are forced to co-exist.

Here is the inherent contradiction called intersectionality. In, for example,female feminist sub-culture, being woman is the norm, and therefore irrelevant. Black woman, gay woman, old women, lower class women are all then reduced to black, gay, old, or lower class. Therefore, being in an environment free from sexism and misogyny, is not necessarily the same as being in an environment free from racism, homophobia, and ageism. The freedom not to be one identity is not to be free of all identities.5

Judith Butler: “There is no necessarily common element among lesbians, except perhaps that we all know something about how homophobia works against women–although, even then, the language and the analysis we use will differ.”

Identity is just another lie, another filter we put between us and reality. It is a way to sort people, to explain and understand people. It is a way to dehumanise people, to objectify and thingify people. And to strive for a fixed identity, to conform, is a way to dehumanise and thingify oneself, thereby imbuing a feeling of the world making a little bit more sense. Identities as a sorting for human beings will always fail, this taxonomy has as a prerequisite that all adults are savvy in their culture. To aspire for personhood then risks destroying the purity of the world ordering and is sternly resisted.

And whether you want to or not, you will be given an identity, and it will define you. Because much like ainfectious disease, you don’t choose insecurity, and insecurity spreads from person to person6.

Next page: Contagion

Page 1: “People Taxonomy”, “A Person’s Evolution”, “Just a Normal Culture”, “The Insecurity of being Normal”
Page 2: “The Free Prisoner”, “On Violence”, “Non-violence is also violent”
Page 3: “Identity Politics and the World Ordering”
Page 4: “Contagion”, “Some Final Points”

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  • mcarefully

    There is so much in this entry!, I’m sorry I missed its publication earlier.

    In the early sections, in several of the places where you mention ascribing value (/meaning), you modify it with the attribute, ’emotional’ (as distinct from intellectual, spiritual, social, material, etc). Is that because you see most/all value attribution that humans do as a process as at base emotional in nature, even if there may be other layers on top?

    I like very much your comments about violence as well as your acknowledgment of the liberation of the guard. One concrete example of this struck me very strongly in the ‘extras’ material on a dvd release of the film Favela Rising, where it presented a teach-back aspect of the cultural program in which the youth of the favela, having learned musical instrumentation and dance, etc, would then have opportunities to teach/mentor the local police who patrolled the favelas in learning those skills/arts. To me, this was immensely powerful, perhaps the most revolutionarily powerful aspect of the whole story/program, even though it was somewhat of a footnote due to presentational format.

    “…to be a free prisoner” (around footnote 21). — but this is not _really_ the goal, right? Are you presenting ‘free prisoner’ as distinct from liberated (/no-longer) prisoner here? Is the freedom in ‘free prisoner’ the posing sort or the true sort? If it is the posing sort, then does that undermine what follows about the pursuit/construction of indentity-free spaces(/subcultures)?
    >2>OK, you come back to this too,,, in your preview to Next Episode.. 🙂

    What about other aspects of identity that we carry around with us as internalized (expressed or un) projections? eg, ‘I am a person invested in social justice’ as a defining aspect of identity. Might these also be sand-trappy? In recent years I have come to believe that they are, that they are very hard to eliminate as one attempts to know oneself, reconcile self-world relationships, and/or ‘just live’.
    >1>Ah, OK, I see you come back to this ~footnote 31..

    re: foonote 24 and stereotype threat, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi is a good book on this subject (and accessible, in terms of not being overly academic or dense, for sharing widely).

    As a lesser note, interesting how funny words are. Your very legitimate use of the term ‘insecurity’ throughout this writing communicates well and accessibly, and yet has a sort of inverse relationship to the call for an embracing of insecurity (of a different, virtually opposite character) in eg Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity. insecurity as manifestation of fear and diminished/ing self-projected/internalized social value VS insecurity as manifestation of openness to (or recognition of) unknowability.

    • ToT

      McCarefully, wow, you are a good reader, I’m happy to have you come here! 🙂 And your comment contains a lot!

      On whether ascribing meaning to something is emotional foremost, as distinct to other attributes:
      Yes, I do think that the when a lump of non-descript stuff becomes a category in our mind, the process is not intellectual; it is when the stuff gains an emotional connection that a category can be formed. This is seen already in children who are very upset if they learn that a category they know is also something else.

      It is a very interesting and apt example from Favela Rising, thank you!

      On the free prisoner: yes, maybe that could have been made clearer before the preview of the next episode. I don’t think the free prisoner as being free, merely as someone who has made herself content in her own prison. The ‘free prisoner’ and the ‘culture savvy adult’ are very similar concepts in this respect…

      On Self-identity: I agree, they are a bit sand-trappy. With a self-identity with tend to reduce some aspects of ourselves into some kind of perceived “truth”. But as with all identities, with an openess that there not being a truth when it comes to these matters, they can still find their use. E.g. it could be a way to focus and transform different parts of yourself, by solidifying some aspects into an identity for a while, this opens up space and energy for transforming other aspects.

      Whistling Vivaldi: I’ll look for it!

      On the word insecurity: Hmmm… I haven’t read Watt’s book… I guess that I also promote an embrace of insecurity, since I think we need to acknowledge and become aware of our insecurities in order to take responsibility for our personhood. I suggest analysing daydreams as a method towards the end of the last post. It has proved useful for me, I don’t know how universal it could be. Is Watt’s view similar? From the blurb of the book it seems that it may be, but it is not quite clear.

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  • Axel Cholewa


    I know I’m late for this discussion, but man, this is a difficult article. I’m working o a summary in my own words, but by now I have only summarized everything up to “The free prisoner”.

    You find the summary here:

    I’m open for comments or corrections by everyone 🙂


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  • ToT

    Social contagion measured:
    The article says peculiarly little about how positive behaviour is spread, but seems to imply that the same applies for positive and negative social conduct.