On Žižek and Identity Politics

This is by Amaryah Shaye and was originally posted at Women In Theology. Amaryah will be contributing to our upcoming book event on Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity.

In a recent Facebook discussion I got drawn into regarding Zizek and identity politics, I started by arguing for an understanding of identity politics that is not synonymous with the politics of representation and recognition that desire more POC or queer people or women on television or as CEOs or politicians and presidents. That is, since it started, identity politics has had a radical critique of capitalism, a notion of building wide coalitions among various marginalized groups, and a desire for intersectional analysis that troubled the ideas that there was one source of oppression (class or sex or race, etc). I noted that I was not trying to position identity politics as a field of thought that is uncritiquable, but defend it as an important critical intervention in thought that gave an imaginative space for folks to decenter white men’s work as hallowed and sacred while also allowing people to develop critiques of identity politics. That is, identity politics, by and large, has been far more self-reflexive than the philosophical and theological projects of white men and can’t just be dismissed as a ridiculous project even if it gets things wrong.

Another commentor who self-identified as a reader of Zizek and agreed with Z’s critiques of identity politics responded that they DID want to argue that identity politics is a ridiculous project which “doesn’t mean it’s not important, or even emancipatory.” This stuck with me because it clarified for me why I did want to defend identity politics.

Dismissals of identity politics as ridiculous even as they are “important” or “emancipatory” strikes me as a kind of intellectual doublespeak that highlights the misunderstanding that grounds the dismissal in the first place. That these dismissals often come from persons who have probably read a handful of books by marginalized persons vs. hundreds of books by white men (insert “not ALL people who make these dismissals…”) is telling. The dismissals again position marginalized thinkers as those upon whom the burden of proof (that IP isn’t a ridiculous project) rests. While, of course, the folks dismissing identity politics are certain their ideas and philosophies and theologies are more convincing because they are more rigorous, it never seems to cross their minds that perhaps they find those fields more rigorous that they have rigorously been educated within? That is, the tokenization of marginalized thinkers on class syllabi, their introduction only as persons to be placed in comparison to white thinkers or male thinkers, is one of the best ways to fail at exploring the thought of marginalized intellectuals rigorously and is also the primary ways they are taught.

This logic of dismissal, where marginzalized persons are responsible for proving the necessity and validity of their fields of study, their lines of thought, their intellectual pursuits, reminded me of my time as an undergraduate at a predominately white institution that had one tenured black faculty when I arrived, and two when I graduated four years later. In my classes, the obvious gaps of thought when it came to race were places where I made very quick connections, pointing out the absence of thought on race, which impressed a lot of the white folks around me but didn’t solve my main problem which was, why do I have to teach this to myself in the first place? The answer to this was very clear from faculty and fellow students’ responses to my work, which is that it was interesting, but not central to the discussions at hand. Or, that I needed to engage with the primary white sources more, or that my work was ridiculous because the primacy of these white guys’ thought is just so obvious, why would I even bother making the critiques I was trying to make? Or that I was to blame for not bringing up race more and so, would have to suffer lowered marks on my grade because I didn’t bring myself into class sufficiently enough.

Having been in predominately white academic institutions since 2006, I understand why one would be able to dismiss identity politics as a ridiculous project. When one hasn’t lived through a college experience that is intellectually hostile to explorations of race and gender, when one is able to find one’s history and philosophies and theologies throughout the course catalog instead of hoping each semester that one of the maybe 5 classes on black people or race would be taught, it is quite easy to understand ones normative interests as being In a position to dismiss identity politics as ridiculous. Easily dismissing these ideas are not a surprise when one is not having to spend time hoping that the only class on a black novelist, Toni Morrison, wouldn’t just be an online summer class that you couldn’t afford to take because you didn’t have money for summer classes; or that the 3 paragraphs on black liberation theology in your Christian doctrine book might be expanded on in class, but never are. Or that the library would have the books by some black thinker that is a seminal work in critical race theory, but not important enough to garner space on the college’s bookshelves; or that you could find enough time between classes where you were always responsible for bringing race into the discussions and final papers where you always ended up doing a lot of research that wasn’t contained in the class—because your interests in race meant you had to make all the connections between primary white scholars and yourself (and probably not very well)—to finish the black feminist literary criticism collection or collection of poetry by Toi Dericotte or Cornelious Eady because that was a small piece of intellectual and literary solace you could find that made your days of racial microaggressions and obvious white supremacy a little more bearable.

The ease with which these dismissals come suggest a lack of understanding of what precisely is at stake for people who might gravitate to identity politics, which is trying not to let the waves of violence overtake one’s ability to imagine another way of being in the world. That it is Zizek’s work, dealing so heavily in Hegel and Lacan, that is utilized to repeat the same kind of dismissal of black people and women and queer folks from histories of thought that his predecessors have also attempted is somewhat telling of the lack of reflexivity that occurs even in a world where critical theoretical interventions into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy have been made.

There are many critiques of identity politics to be had, many that I share and hope are heard. But there is a difference in critiquing because one wants to think more clearly about the political situation we find ourselves in—how holding onto identity can delimit our ability to imagine critical interventions that are necessary to dismantling oppressive structures—and dismissing because one never understood in the first place what people were trying to do with identity politics. That is, stay alive.

But perhaps survival is a ridiculous project.


5 thoughts on “On Žižek and Identity Politics

  1. Even when people dismiss the methods of identity politics, it is often in the form of dismissing the issues themselves (racism, sexism, etc.). This is what’s most troubling about such dismissals to me. I think there are problems with privilege discourse, but that’s not because privilege doesn’t exist, but because I don’t think it is addressed in the most direct manner. I feel like Zizek critiques the ineffectualness of identity politics (to him), but that doesn’t mean he acts like racism and such don’t exist. It sounds like this is being lost on people.

  2. Isn’t the point of the post in part that dismissing identity politics while accepting that it addresses important issues is a form of double-speak? “I’m all for your cause, except for any concrete way you’ve gone about addressing it. Plus I have no constructive proposals at all, other than to focus on different issues.”

  3. One need not dive too deeply into deep philosophical discussion to recognize the dangers of identity politics. As a public school teacher I have experienced an indoctranaire program called Courageous Conversations (CC) that I have referred to as “critical race theory (CRT) made palatable for upper middle class audiences.” In a short time, I have noted that identity politics, the CRT branch, has evolved into more direct forms as in “Whiteness Theory” and “Privilege Theory.” These programs are promoted as a remedy for minority underachievement in school. I do not dismiss racism, sexism, privilege, discrimination, or identity and group solidarity as a survival tool historically. I reject wholeheartedly some the premises from where CRTheorists launch their arguments: first, that racism is a natural human construct and therefore normal; second, only Whites (the dominant group) can be racist based on a blurry concept of sharing power; three, the notion that racialism (CC distinguishes between racial and racist.) is a uniquely American experience; and hence four, cannot be applied universally; five, CRT’s reliance on the anecdotal and dismissal of the empirical; and last, the notion that teachers must take the race of their students into consideration when teaching which translates into different standards for different races. Note here that race does not mean socio-economic background and other important issues; it literally means race. I shall not comment on the consequences that these premises forebode if put into practice.

  4. My favorite part, Richard, is when you don’t name any actual critical race theorists who think racism is natural. Literally no critical race theorists thinks that.

    Second I don’t really care about the rest of what you have to say because it is pretty clear you just want to cry about having to go through some diversity trainings you didn’t like cause you think class is more important than race.

    To which I say: girl, bye.

  5. Richard, I was too busy to follow your previous conversation on this issue closely, but now I wish I had intervened sooner. Long story short: this is a hobby-horse you’re going to need to give up on if you want to continue commenting on the blog. Further comments on this topic will be deleted and will result in you being blocked.

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