Thursday 25 December 2014

The new normal in identity politics

One of the main criticisms of mainstream media is the lack of representation of those who think (and sound) differently. As thousands of people take to the streets in Germany under the banner of PEGIDA (something akin to 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of Europe') and UKIP steamroll from one by-election victory to another in England, there is much navel gazing amongst the chattering classes about the meaning of all this. Few commentators however note how exclusive their club of gazers had become, and even fewer mention the fact that the media circus has long been populated by the circle of the usual suspects, drawing on the same old interpretative formulas as they tried to make sense of the new.

In common perception, and in the US in particular, this is often called the dominance of the liberal elite, a theme that is supposed to draw gasps of contempt and connote pre-democratic attitudes: people just don't know what is good for them. I myself never thought that the media debate is sterile, although subversive voices are sometimes rare indeed. Yet, what PEGIDA, UKIP and tea party sentiments clearly indicate is that spaces of articulating divergence from the public mean are developing, and developing fast, just not within the usual spectator theatres. At the risk of calling a spade a spade, here is what I think is happening in the field of identity politics.

The common interpretation of (and anxiety about) identity politics is the ascendancy of particularistic identities at the expense of broader collective, unifying ones. As nation-states struggle to come to terms with migration and assertion of group identities, democratic politics becomes fragmented and the common good lost in a cacophony of voices. Yet, this is the interpretative frame of the 1970s and it owes much of its persuasive power to the strength of the social movements springing up around the issues of civil rights in the US. The new identities are less firm, faster to discard and more chameleon like than those formed in the furnace of the civil rights struggle. Plus, they are shaped and re-shaped in the scatter shot arena of new social media, where loyalties are shifting and belonging is defined by 'likes' of strangers. The most fundamental underlying difference to the identity politics of the 1970s is another phenomenon however. It is the refusal of the individual itself to adopt identity as a criterion of membership to a group. In essence, it is the person outgrowing the neat shapes and boxes we have conveniently produced in order to make sense of the world.

Identity is essentially a two way process, comprising of a passive and active strategy of connotation. The first is being described by others ('Fremdbestimmung', as the Germans call it) whilst the second is self-description. The two intersect and fight for dominance in identity politics. Wherever racial coding is particularly strong, strategies of self-description have long tried to mitigate the harm fremdbestimmung does by (partially) adopting and converting the meanings of racial language. The abundant use of the N-word in rap is an example of this. The boundaries of self-description and harmful description by others remain in tact however, as the hapless protestations to the contrary by white sport commentators using the N-word demonstrate. This is the core of the old identity politics where groups can develop collective power, and may collectively defuse the invidious effects of racial language within their own peer group. The main condition for this strategy to work however is a society that is clearly divided along identity lines, reinforced by daily and routinised discriminatory practices.

Who am I? KingBach's piece on J's and swimming skills of black people

The situation is not as clear in Europe or in other parts of the world. Again, social media is a catalyst and a reflection of the new realities at the same time. Vine's six second shots are full of racial coding bordering on the offensive, yet, fascinatingly, the identities of self-description fail to congeal into group politics. On one hand, this is probably due to the irrepressible yet vacuous nature of the internet 'like', a commitment that costs little and means little. Yet, below the surface something else is happening. The authors of vlogging (video blogging) appear to refuse to adopt identities for any significant time in the first place. Their dominant attitude is one of constant re-definition, rather than affirmation. Identity itself is becoming an ongoing project. The consequences are stunning. It is the demise of the old social movements based on group identities, and the emergence and (often contemporaneous) decline of a myriad of constantly shifting identities, including the subversive merging of self-description with fremdbestimmung. The semantic mode of these new shape shifting 'collectives' is playful, and non-commital.

So, what does that have to do with PEGIDA, UKIP and the tea party? As the main strategy of rebuttal to fremdbestimmung morphes from mitigation through appropriation of demeaning language into a void of core identities, interpretative frames built on we-them and same-different dissolve. And so do the chances of creating collectives around strongly felt values informed by group identities. The 'Islamisation of Europe' and the 'Europeanisation' of Britain is the last firm signpost in a landscape perceived to be of shifting sand. It's the associated uncertainty and the fear it evokes in most people that the liberal media is guilty of neglecting.

If this analysis captures something approximating what is going on, then perhaps we should be in a celebratory mood rather than despondent. As strong group identities thrive in cultures of routenised discrimination, their passing can only reflect progress in the fight for equality. Maybe PEGIDA and UKIP articulate problems of luxury, rather than desperate situations. Lest we forget however, they old ways are not gone completely yet. Fergusons still happen and it is the irony of the US as a simultaneous beacon of hope and despair that the old and the new exist side by side, probably for a long time to come.

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