Identity politics and Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Žižek: I should imagine that anybody watching him give his opinions on Robespierre the other week on a production made for BBC2 will be rather scared by him and his theories on violence (a kind of do evil that good may result for French Republicanism), but actually he talks a lot of sense, and isn’t scared of touching upon certain issues that may offend (may even raise eyebrows from those on the left, to which he identifies himself).

Even if you don’t share in his praise for Lenin or think that European toilets spell out the symptoms of ideology, he should be taken very seriously with the challenges left-wingers face in the future.

There are many essays, book chapters and entire books focusing on how Zizek might offer the world something more than simple philosophical speculation (I’ve written my own here). But in this short vino-induced, Saturday night blog entry I will briefly outline how Zizek might be utilised to iron out the problems of identity politics.

I won’t lie, some of what will be printed here has already featured on the comments thread of a very interesting debate emerging out of an article by the fabulous Sunny Hundal, who argues for identity politics. But if you’re familiar with Zizek’s own writing, you will notice that he has himself shaken the cut-and-paste stick, with full force, so if he can do it, why can’t I?

Sunny’s main reasoning for liking identity politics is because everyone wants to belong to a group, but he finds it dangerous that it has become more about defending ones own group, rather than dignifying the sense of community that each group can hold in harmony with others’.

The road to cohesion and harmony, as history has told, normally entails a minimum of identity politics in order to situate what it is about oneself that one should display as identity. That commonality has normally been based upon sexuality, race, gender or even age. But is there the possibility that this is a problem designated to a particular epoch?

Zizek seems to think so. He sees identity politics as an historical phenomenon, one “which ignores its own conditions of possibility“. These conditions for Zizek are the need to overthrow elements of social exclusion, but, for him, the expression with which this action has usually taken has done more to trivialise the situation than to prevent it. The idea that seeking group commonalities to solve a social cohesion seems very vague, a problem that might highlight difference rather than attempt to seek solutions.

Identity politics, it seems to me, is a product of vulnerability and alienation – so in that respect it is a good indicator that societal equality has not been met. But it is possible that that identity signifier will remain even after the shackles of alienation have been shaken off – and to want to protect an identity that has been created out of harsher times will only crown those who encouraged the vulnerability of that group to begin with.

Identity politics weren’t supposed to be here forever, they were supposed to define an era, and when that era had passed (or when it does pass) then it should be put to sleep.

Sunny, in reply to the view that identity politics is only about alienation, said “An upper class aristocrat – by virtue of choosing certain friends is also playing identity politics. His or her identity is royalty and his friends will come from that set.” But surely this is less about identity politics – a product of the politics of resistance, fully compatible within the parameters of real economic inequality – and more a case of how society bounds people – consider in this equation the master/slave dialectic (with full weight explored on the notion that the only reason a master is a master is because the slave instills this within him, and vica versa).

For this years gay pride, Peter Tatchel criticised the organisers for ‘depoliticising‘ the event (I wrote about it here). But this meant that the event was more about having fun. What, for Tatchel, is clearly hard to swallow is that there comes a time when the epochal movements of identity win their battle and fully emerse themselves with politics proper.

The objectives, in the view of Zizek – as in my view also – of identity politics, as good as their intentions are, obfuscate the real issues at hand in the need for equality in total. Sometimes, the plights of identity politics acheive their aims, but in a double-bind scenerio, this is the cause of their inertia, and there are some who cannot handle the kernel of their success.

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