Postscript on identity, intersectionality

Over the last week the whole internet’s been aflutter with righteous rage and condemnation, all stemming from the publication of a couple articles critiquing identity politics and intersectionality on the Left. “Exiting the vampire castle,” a piece addressing the former of these topics, appeared on The North Star five days ago. Its author, Mark Fisher, known for his widely-acclaimed monograph Capitalist Realism from 2009, sought to isolate and describe a rather corrosive tendency within contemporary leftist discourse. He christened this tendency “the Vampire’s Castle”:


The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities” recognised by a bourgeois big Other.


Several weeks ago I posted an exchange between Michael Rectenwald and me about “identity” as “the bane of the contemporary Left,” along with a follow-up on the shifting significance of the term “identitarian” within critical theory. These are somewhat relevant to the topic at hand. Anyway, Fisher’s article almost immediately unleashed an unholy shitstorm (stricto sensu) of leftish snark and indignation across the web. Both in the comment thread and beyond, throughout the Twitterverse and numerous repostings on Facebook walls, supporters and detractors alike hashed it out in an orgy of opprobrium and vicious accusations. Lost amidst all this pseudo-controversy and scandal-mongering was any sense of scale or circumspection. These are usually the first casualties of such disputes, of course.


When the dust finally settled (has it settled?), not a few articles had been written. Some were rejoinders to Fisher’s original posting. A few figures also rose to his defense. It’d be pointless to try to reconstruct all these interventions, however, so for now a list will have to suffice.


First, we have his opponents:



Next up, Fisher’s allies:



Heartfield’s piece, incidentally, is the other article I alluded to at the outset. Though it must’ve seemed like a pre-planned, two-pronged assault in conjunction with Fisher’s critique of the Vampire Castle, both were written and accepted for publication without prior knowledge of each other. Strangely enough, they just happened to be released around the same time, Heartfield’s a couple days later. Which is why I include it here.


Regardless, there were a couple other responses that took a more ambivalent stance toward the whole affair. Two articles belonged to this “third camp”:



Krul’s article was probably the best of the bunch so far, in any of these “camps” — though that isn’t saying very much. In addition to this, there was also apparently some sniping from the leftist blogger Richard Seymour (who goes by the quaint handle “Lenin”). Seymour also took to Twitter to register his opinion of Heartfield’s criticisms of intersectionality. According to Seymour, “Heartfield’s article is classic male backlash/ ex-RCP contrarianism.” He kept his remarks about Fisher a bit more private, posting them on his Facebook wall. When one of Fisher’s associates alerted him to these comments, he had only this to say:


The Reverend Seymour is moraliser-in-chief, who’s built his whole career on condemning and excommunicating. But nobody cares about these people beyond a very narrow, self-defined online “Left” — they are emperors in Liliput…


A fairly accurate portrayal, at least in my experience. Part of the latter-day Left’s modus operandi is to shamelessly shun or “no platform” its opponents, thereby skirting any substantial disagreement in favor a narrow ideological line of acceptable deviations. Everything else is considered abhorrent and must be ignored unto oblivion. Surprising stuff, considering the stakes are so low. The real, i.e. historical, Lenin gladly met and talked politics with imperialist boosters like the Fabian H.G. Wells and the pro-war anarchist Petr Kropotkin after 1914. What an age we live in.


The vampire's castle, as I imagine it

The vampire’s castle, as I imagine it to look


Either way, I must say I’m surprised by the backlash to Fisher’s article. Here I’d been thinking that these sad postmodernist and post-structuralist tropes were on their way out, deservedly consigned to the dustbin of outmoded thought. It turns out this judgment was far too optimistic. My hope had been that these sub-political fixations were passing phases symptomatic of the broader “end of history,” and that with the subprime mortgage crisis and global unrest of 2011 they’d fall by the wayside once again. History had been restarted, right? Gloriously reborn, according to Badiou.


But alas, no, and despite some twenty to thirty years of invective and mutual antagonism between these competing Weltanschauungen, with a few post-Marxist (Laclau, Mouffe) and “postmodern Marxist” (Resnick, Wolff) exceptions along the way, the postmodernists/post-structuralists finally seem to have gone quietly into the night. Yet Marxism’s response to this welcome development, bafflingly, is: they were right all along! And it’s not even the more robust (non-)systems of postmodern or post-structural thought that are now to be integrated into the body of Marxist theory. Indeed, postmodernism and post-structuralism represented real efforts to test the limits of theory and language. What Marxists today seem bent on appropriating is rather their pale vulgarizations in “intersectionality” and identity politics. This comes through in Seymour’s handwringing displays, which attempt to reconcile Marxism with identity politics and intersectionality. All this while continuing to chastise Marx for his supposed “Orientalist accretions.”


Without wanting to venture too far into the swamp of this wretched debate, I’d like to close with a couple scattered impressions followed by a few quotes from acquaintances who probably know more about this subject than I do and whose opinion I hold in high regard. Generally, my attitude toward most of this identity and intersectionality stuff is negative. I’m profoundly skeptical of its radicalism, and even its effectiveness in resolving the problems it claims to address.


That said, the abstract appeals to communism as expressing some kind of primordial Idea or libidinal “desire” strike me as fairly weak-tea when it comes to providing an alternative to the slapstick and buffooneries of identity politicians. Rather than conjure up the image of the good old days, when the proletariat was actually a world-historical force to be reckoned with, striking fear into the hearts of capitalists and statesmen around the globe, there must at least be some recognition that our present position is the outcome of over a century of crushing defeats. The proletariat will not suddenly reappear just because they’ve been summoned back into existence. Nor can its revolutionary subjectivity be replaced by recourse to some sort of aggregatory lumpenism — a process of indiscriminate addition whereby the fringes of society are retheorized into one giant, raggedy mass. Someday they’ll all magically amalgamate to overthrow Capital, Patriarchy, the State, and assorted other metaphysical entities. Or something.


Anyway, that’s all I have to say on the matter. Now I’ll abruptly hand it over to those more qualified than myself. Jasmine Curcio, a radical feminist from Australia, on “intersectionality”:


“Intersectionality” as politics is just some neoliberal incarnation. It began as legal theory and ends as a framework whereby identities collide in a zero-sum game. The concept survives only by strawmanning its predecessors, and locks many present self-declared identity groupings — like “sex workers” — into some anti-materialist, end-of-history stasis.


Michael Rectenwald, a professor at NYU and an occasional contributor to Insurgent Notes, on “identity politics”:


Identity politics is circular. As soon as one makes a critique of identity politics, one’s identity is deemed the cause of said critique — as if identity explains the argument itself, and causes it. Once identity is deemed the actual causal factor of a statement, nothing that is said means what it says. Everything is explicable only in terms of identity, and the content of the statement becomes identity itself. Identity is a trap. [E]veryone is in their own impenetrable identity chrysalis. What’s the point in saying anything? Or even listening to anyone else?


On “intersectionality”:


Intersectionality isolates different standpoints based on how “power” intersects differently with particular identities, and crosses various peoples in several ways. The upshot is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for “most oppressed” via a “one-downsmanship,” more-subaltern-than-thou ethos of complaint. It’s useless politically, except as has been suggested for the neoliberal capitals who benefit from it.


Someone once said: Identity is the identity of identity and non-identity. That will have to serve as a conclusion.




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