Once a valued tool for critiquing the structures of exclusion, “identity politics” has become, a completely beleaguered term. While the problematics of identity have been addressed in this journal since its founding in 1990, the debate around it has only intensified and even established new front lines (not least in the US, with the election of Trump). Among the primary changes we diagnose in this issue is how “identity politics” is now deployed. Whereas it had been about connecting with one’s community in an effort to become visible en masse (whether, say, black American writers or queer performance artists), the tendency now is to use one’s membership in various non-dominant groups to more visibly, individually stand out from the crowd (political commentator Milo Yiannopoulous using his identity as gay and the victim of abuse to distinguish and also legitimate his brand being a case in point). In this issue, we examine why this shift happened, citing the commodification of identity in mass culture (as in the art market) as a leading cause.
Lending insight to this history, Coco Fusco recalls her personal involvement since the 1980s with the evolution of how the notion of identity politics came to be and what it means now, differentiating today’s identity claims from those of past decades by the way in which they now seem to only stabilize the existing structures of capital and power, which reward self-singularization, rather than breaking them down. Fusco further identifies a shift in our understanding of “identity politics” wherein it is now the individual instead of communities or the systems by which individuals and communities are defined, that has become the locus of blame or success.
This issue proposes that much can be explained about identity politics now, and the baggage that term carries, through an analysis of singularization, which cultural sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, author of “The Society of the Singularity: On the Structural Change of the Modern,” characterizes as a paradoxical state of as performative authenticity, the presentation of oneself as genuinely singular. If subjects once strove to be exceptional in their achievement of uniform standards, he explains, they are now expected to be exceptional in their departure from the norm. Individuated as such, the successful subject today shares many properties with the classic artist figure, whose value is inseparably linked to her personal profile. And indeed when evaluating a work of art, critics and art historians do routinely draw inferences from the artist’s identity. Conversely, an artist’s creative output is often scanned for clues regarding her specific experience of given events or conditions. There are, however, other ways of correlating an artist subject and the various readings of their production. American scholar Monique Roelofs, fresh from her tour of Documenta 14, argues that what we need is a more nuanced and structurally intersectional approach – wherein art is understood as reflecting not only various identity positions and attributions, but also the efficacy those positions and attributions demonstrate in their given context.
But if intersectionality – a critical strategy that understands categories of difference and identity as dynamic and interrelated; that the factors of oppression (e.g., racism, gender discrimination, class) are interlocking and therefore cannot be effectively addressed as separate issues – is a useful strategy for thinking through complex identities, we must also consider the systemic social forces through which identity is formed. As Sarah Schulman explains, a conflation of identities and the structural forces that produce them is at the root of much social disparity. In conversation with Texte zur Kunst editors Caroline Busta and Anke Dyes, Schulman, who is the author, most recently, of “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair,” speaks of the now engrained belief that it is always individuals rather than systems (patriarchy, poverty, racism) that are to blame for social ills. Within this dynamic, we are trained to identify perpetrators rather than structural causes and, at all costs, to seek freedom from blame. Schulman notes that while structural causes can be collectively solved by communities, this perpetrator-victim dynamic, gives power of arbitration to the state.
In this frame, identity becomes an alibi, legitimating one’s right to a given action (I do not have to follow x rule because I am x) or to censor the actions of another (you are not x-bodied/race/class, so you cannot say x). Exemplary of this condition is the controversy that fired up this summer around “Beißereflexe” (Bite Reflexes) a book of polemical essays arguing that the once-disruptive quality of the queer position, particularly in the context of queer and gender studies, has become self-serving. While many feel that some form of inner-left critique is warranted, this book proves to be so full of reactionary resentment that it undermines its own efforts – or, as political scientist Floris Biskamp writes, “Beißereflexe” arrived this year as “the wrong book at the right time.”
But what would a mode of productive inner-left critique look like? Or moreover, what would it look like for the left, more broadly speaking, to “succeed.” Speaking with Texte zur Kunst, Bini Adamczak, author of “Communism for Kids,” (MIT, 2017) notes the Left has long had difficulty conceptualizing success, seeing as it is always striving for mass influence despite its social power being tied to notions of alternative thinking and not selling out. An intersectional approach could be useful here, too, she explains: Just as constructions of gender, class, and family are interrelated and ever shifting, so too are ideations of Leftism and success. What would winning look like for the Left? An inter-party embrace of conflicting narratives that separates critique from any fixed notions of identity, could be a good place to start.