Deleuze and Identity Politics

Deleuze has been used before to critique identity politics, sometimes this has been done with the subtlety and nuance such questions deserve while at others it has been done clumsily without  acknowledgment to the multitude of shared concepts and ideas in the two areas. For my part, I will attempt to align closer to the former than the latter and any failure in this regard is to be seen entirely as my own faulty understanding the mass complexity that surrounds the realm of Identity Politics.

The use of the thought of Gilles Deleuze has also faced criticisms of privileging the position of whiteness, eurocentrism and heteronormativity by disparaging the advances made in Identity Politics by marginalized peoples. It is true that the author, being of a white, eurocentric and heteronormative identity has not met the challenges faced in questions of identity that so many others have experienced in their personal lives and thus does come from a place of privilege with regards to questions of identity. For however limited my experience may be and however inadequate my understanding is, I do feel that the simple question that haunted Deleuze since his youth remains a potent one for anyone looking into their own identity, how we as a social body perceive identity and more importantly what purpose does identity serve in the political sphere – “Why do we prefer identity to difference?”

In a piece with the expressed intention of being yet another Deleuzian take on Identity Politics, we could do worse than to start with what Deleuze himself articulated as his thesis for his “Philosophy of Difference” –

“That Identity not be first, that it exists as a principle but as a second principle, as a principle become; that it revolve around the Different: such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.”

The first thing to note is that here, the ever political Deleuze, frames his critique of identity as that of a metaphysical and an epistemological question and in so doing demonstrates the true politically revolutionary nature of his critique of identity.

Identity Politics has, with breathtaking insight and comprehension, demonstrated the perception of Otherness as deviation from the expected norm. In the case of global history and power struggles the accepted norm is white, eurocentric, heteronormative patriarchal and all other identities are measures of degrees away from this “universal” standard. Woman does not have an identity, woman is a deviation of man. The same holds true for race being a deviation from whiteness, cultural identity being a deviation away from European and Western sensibilities and sexuality being measured in degrees of deviation from heteronormativity. Much of the project of Identity Politics has in this sense been to establish an identity in itself for these deviations. Woman is not a deviation from man, but a separate identity and condition altogether and in this sense the Identity Politics has been one of the greatest conceptual instruments at the disposal of marginalized groups to break the universality of the “universal” standard.

Thus, when Deleuze engaged in his radical critique of the primacy of identity he was met with objections from the realm of Identity Politics best summarized in the objections of the Feminist thinker Alice Jardine that such a programmatic devalued the hard fought and hard won struggles of Feminism to claim a subjectivity for women in the first place.

At first glance this critique seems perfectly valid. Any group that has for so long been pinned to deviance from the hegemonic ideology that has managed to secure an identity for itself independent of that ideology would not do well if the primacy of identity was done away with. This however only shows a misinterpretation of the nature of the project of the critique of identity and more the revolutionary potential that such a critique holds.

The problem that Deleuze seeks to address is not one of identity hierarchies and deviations used for domination, exploitation and control but it is the fundamental conceptual building block of such hierarchies the assumed primacy of identity that is the real perpetrator of this domination, exploitation and control.

Earlier this year Slavoj Zizek held a talk at the London School of Economics where he referenced an interesting facet of postcolonial identity in India where the old caste system is seen as a way of reclaiming the precolonial Indian identity. Zizek noticed two patterns in this line of reasoning, the first being that the groups that most often claimed this as an avenue to an identity not predicated on deviation from the European norm were from the Brahmin class the historical highest rank of the old caste system. Meanwhile those at the lowest ends the untouchables, the dalits tend to be in much broader support of egalitarianism. Zizek even referenced statements made by Gandhi arguing that each caste was divine and had it’s own sacred order to play in the cosmos to examine this hunt for non-European, non-Western identity in India.

The moral that we can take from this in our own examination of caste revival in the postcolonial India is relatively simple – it doesn’t matter how sacred your identity is in its own right if you still have to clean your superior’s shit.

This is the problem Deleuze’s critique of identity seeks to confront. The problem is that radical acceptance of divergent identities means nothing if the individuals with those identities are still dominated and exploited.

Here we have uncovered a hidden parallel between the conservative reaction towards Identity Politics being the proposal of racial or differential “color-blindness” the old refrain “can’t we just all see we’re human anyway” and the elimination of the hierarchy of identity at the heart of the movement itself. Both presuppose that the revolutionary potential lies in transforming the social perceptions of identity either towards an identity null-point which rejects any social differences that do exist in the world of material reality while the other proposes a universal equity of identity.

The problem that Deleuze saw inside of this is that at the end of it there is no practical material difference between these two alternatives. Whether we say “we’re all just human anyway” or “all identities are welcomed and respected” we have failed to address the way the hierarchy manifests itself material reality.

Deleuze in conjunction with Guattari provided an expert analysis of the use of speculative thought in political movements through his oft quoted line, “A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.”

Identity Politics through its use of historical and social contextualization threw a brick through the courthouse of the universal European standard with one hand and with the other built a courthouse with the brick of identity as such.

Dolezal and Deleuze: Difference as a Positive Force?

Now, we finally have the underpinnings worked out in such a way so as to move on to the question at hand, what line did Dolezal cross when she portrayed herself as black? Is her true offense not that she violated the sanctity of the courthouse of identity? My contention is that this is precisely what she did and it is this violation of the sanctity of identity that draws the ensuing social condemnation.

Even then, we have a continued peculiarity in terms of what identities are sacrosanct and which identities are free for the individual to choose. Where is the line of identification drawn? Is it drawn at ethnicity? Is it drawn at gender? Is it drawn at political alignment? Sexual orientation? Spiritual inclination? Psychology and personality?

What is particularly interesting is how quickly comparisons were made between Dolezal’s actions and the recent media stories to Caitlyn Jenner. What is even more interesting is how so many on the left were so quick to shut down that comparison.

I drew a small parallel in my initial thinking on the topic, but it related to the topic of hate crimes. Essentially I had seen someone saying it was wrong of Dolezal to claim hate crimes committed against her and I wondered if the same thing could be said of hate crimes made against Jenner not as a trans individual, but as a woman. This was frequently misinterpreted as me equating so called “transracial” identity and transgender identity, which I will emphasize it was not. It was merely wondering if hate crimes conducted against Dolezal with the perception of her as black still can be counted as hate crimes (hint: they can, and they should). /End aside

Now when people were shutting down this comparison many arguments were made, some little more than emotionally and politically charged soundbites like that from the washington post –

“Transracial identity is a concept that allows white people to indulge in blackness as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being black entails — discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on. It plays into racial stereotypes, and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to ‘feel’ a race.”

This statement completely overlooks the fact that as the local leader of the NAACP Dolezal did experience discrimination, marginalization and oppression and frequent harassment. Individuals who “bought in” to her masquerade and perceived her as black, operating under this presumption harassed her in a manner consistent with hate crimes. This is a highlight of a profoundly un-nuanced criticisms of her actions.

There are far more cutting analyses on the topic that bring much more insight into the topic –

“One last strike against anyone claiming to be transracial:  It only works one way.  Only white people can claim to be another race on the inside and then ‘perform’ that race because race operates with white as the default.  Racial classifications are based on deviations FROM whiteness.  Rachel could pay a Black woman to do her hair and then pick up some NARS bronzer and say ‘Look!  I’m not white!’  I can’t straighten my hair and put chalk on my face while saying ‘Look!  I’m not Black!’  Transracial as a concept is another extension of white privilege, with those people – firmly situated at the top of society – experiencing an overwhelming need to identify with some other culture to validate their misplaced feelings of oppression because of their affinity for said culture.”

Continued later –

“Those of us who are upset with her aren’t mad because she’s white.  White allies are great.  White people have always been involved with the NAACP.  They were there when the organization was founded.  We’re upset because she put on a caricature of the people she supposedly supports because it was easier to do that than to be a much-needed white voice in support of our community.”

Two points on this much more thorough, understanding and fair explanation –

1) It neglects that all marginalized identities are deviations from the hegemonic norm (white, patriarchal, heteronormative, European).

2) However distasteful, disrespectful and repulsive it may be, it would seem abundantly clear that transracial is an identity, whether we like it or not.

The essential piece here is not the argument that transracial is an offensive identity, that it is an identity which promotes racial discrimination. The argument is that a clearly observed phenomena isn’t actually happening and is in fact something else. This is because accepting transracial identity would be violating the dogma of the church of identity which the left has long held as the key to liberation of marginalized groups.

Now let’s clarify a few things. Transracial and transgender are in no size, way, shape, and/or form “the same thing” or equatable. Secondly, Dolezal’s actions are unethical in the supreme but not in the way many of the critics and ideological first responders are assuming and the second statement from the above source proves this. The mentality that Dolezal perpetuates in this obscene performance is destructive because it reifies the social construct of black identity as such. It is the same underlying logic present in the calls for the restoration of the Indian caste system – “Yes, black identity is sacred and beautiful and should be celebrated, but they still have to clean the shit.”

It is this point, that Dolezal, in performing an identity, the action sacred to Identity Politics, undermined the very objective of Identity Politics and this undermining demonstrates that Identity Politics is built using the same conceptual brick, the metaphysical and epistemological primacy of identity that founded the racial identities as deviant from the European universal standard. As the second author says, the problem is not that Dolezal is white, the issue is that she took Identity Politics to its perverse extreme and in doing so proved its inadequacy as a politics of liberation.

What if, instead of regarding this as an aberration of Identity Politics, we instead looked upon it as the necessary impetus to finally look at the foundation of those politics? What if now we have the real world cause that gives us the opportunity to build an authentic Politics of Difference where identity is no longer primary and identities are no longer regarded in the negative as degrees of deviation from the accepted posited universal identity?

Rather than “black is black because it is not white,” or “woman is woman because she is not man,” are we seeing that identity rather than difference is the second order term? Could it be that the dream of Identity Politics can only be achieved by removing the social and political power of identity and subordinating it to difference? Perhaps.

Deleuze himself recognized the inherent danger in this line of thinking, yet retained a stark optimism in the potential –

“There are certainly many dangers in invoking pure differences which have become independent of the negative and liberated from the identical. The greatest danger is that of lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul: there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggles. The beautiful soul says: we are different, but not opposed… . The notion of a problem, which we see linked to that of difference, also seems to nurture the sentiments of the beautiful soul: only problems and questions matter … . Nevertheless, we believe that when these problems attain their proper degree of positivity, and when difference becomes the object of a corresponding affirmation, they release a power of aggression and selection which destroys the beautiful soul by depriving it of its very identity and breaking its good will. The problematic and the differential determine struggles or destructions in relation to which those of the negative are only appearances, and the wishes of the beautiful soul are so many mystifications trapped in appearances. The simulacrum is not just a copy, but that which overturns all copies by also overturning the models:every thought becomes an aggression.”

Has Identity Politics reached its apex, its zenith with the formulations of identity as negative deviations from the prescribed normative modes? Can we now begin to invoke a pure difference a difference in itself without running ourselves into the conservative backlash of the beautiful soul? Can difference become a positive force rather than a negative relationship to identity as such? Or are these the naive hopes of a 20th century white European thinker whose ignorance of the complexities of the reality of Identity Politics betrays him?

There are no concrete answers to these questions and if there are I do not know them. What I do know is that this incident has unintentionally shaken the foundation of Identity Politics while opening a new potential avenue of thought and eventually, hopefully real world action.

2 thoughts on “Deleuze V. Dolezal – Yeah, We’re Actually Doing This

  1. Caleb, so good to hear your take on this issue so pertinent to your natal city. As is typical for you, you presented food for thought rather than the outright judgement many of us feel toward the antics of Ms. Dolezal. If you will keep writing, I promise to keep reading and thinking. Once again, thank-you for your perspective.


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