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Fr. 524

June 13, 2014

As with any approach to politics, one centering on the question of individual and identity carries with it considerable risks, some of which we have outlined elsewhere. Another has recently come to our attention via an article at Jacobin Magazine. Therein, the author, Sam Gindin, surveys some difficulties facing the contemporary socialist organizer and lays out several ways of confronting these difficulties. No. 7 concerns the way in which the question of identity has displaced that of class in the struggle against oppression.

“The making of the working class is inseparable from the historical interaction of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. The working class in the concrete always includes multiple differences and identities. But left politics has, unfortunately, often been destructively polarized in terms of identity versus class. Identity politics emerged in the 1970s, in part out of the failures of the Left to speak to and integrate specific oppressions into class politics (those of women and African Americans in particular). That this paralleled the rise of neoliberalism was no coincidence in that neoliberalism was made possible by the more general weakness of unions and the left. But while identity politics often added to and strengthened working-class politics, it also included a dangerous tendency to push the salience of class aside.”

The prevalence of identity over class has reduced the organizers’ efficacy in terms of broader progressive reforms. More specifically, this owes to the way in which identity distinguishes or particularizes citizens as opposed to bringing them together in virtue (or in spite) of their diverse backgrounds and upbringings. The result of cataloguing species of identity with an eye to organizing proves the splintering of society (or at least the working class) into isolated interest groups. Moreover, their isolated nature precludes their coming together into a broader movement.

“It was bitterly ironic that at the very moment the state mounted a comprehensive attack on working-class power, identity politics was parsing the working class into ever more fragmented subgroups. Though identities obviously matter very much, they cannot combine into a new politics because their essence is their separateness. Something else is needed to bring them together in a broader, more integrated, and more coherent politics, something beyond the particularistic concerns of both identities and unions. That ‘something’ is class.”

In a way, the approach that we have expounded up to this point would seem to exacerbate precisely this tendency within the public sphere and political society insofar as it calls for an articulation of identity prior and pursuant to the resolution of a matter of political debate or controversy. Pursued to the exclusion of other strategies, an identity-centered approach risks the dissolution of a wider political bond between citizens who would seek sweeping changes and reforms. This dissolution is all the more risky in view of the fact that this bond, in the form of solidarity, civility or civic friendship, cannot be enforced by codified policies or law. In short, an exclusively identity-based perspective runs the distinct risk of undermining itself by eliminating its own conditions of possibility in the form of a civility between citizens that allows them to broach issues candidly.

Gindin’s solution consists in subordinating the issue of identity to that of class. Yet it should be remarked that this subordination does not aim to eclipse or occlude the issue of identity. Rather it seeks to bring the various interests which underlie and prompt organization on the basis of identity in line with the more general interests for which organizers of all stripes agitate. More precisely, to effect meaningful change it is perhaps more effective to single out the objective economic conditions at the root of oppression, and organizers might more naturally approach this under the lens of “class”. The author gives an concrete example from the work of Walter Benn Michaels:

As a factual matter, the insecurity that, say, African-Americans confront is much higher than that of whites whether the measure is income, wealth, education, or access to health care. This fact can be used to mobilize African-Americans as a particularly oppressed group, but that tactic also risks limiting the problem politically to the roughly 10 percent of the US population that is African-American. Such a tactical focus is, at best, likely to create only limited reform or lead to affirmative action gains that benefit only the subset of the black population best prepared to ‘win’ in the marketplace. The alternative is to define racially coded inequality as part of a more general class inequality and mobilize the class as a whole around universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions. Only the latter approach would seem to hold out the potential to build political capacity for substantive reform and such reforms would, given the nature of existing inequalities, disproportionately support the African-American working class.

By addressing far-reaching, objective economic conditions, the socialist organizing along the lines of class might attain a wider coalition or consensus, which in turn allows for more thoroughgoing reforms. Certainly, there are situations in which this coalition-based approach is to be greatly preferred to the piecemeal method at work in the articulation and transformation of identity, given its limitation to the interpersonal and local. Such a coalition would prove more workable and less unwieldy as we are concerned with more and more far-reaching consequences and swathes of society.

This concern lies at the heart of Gindin’s subordination of identity to class to which he lends more visible shape in the last paragraph of no. 7.

The challenge of class politics is how to bring differences together in ways that generate full respect and equality within the class — from pay equity and fighting workplace discrimination to reproductive rights, socializing family burdens like childcare, and establishing equal status for immigrants — so as to address the larger questions of full equality within society. It is in that sense that class trumps, without underplaying, issues of identity.

Clearly, for Gindin, the challenge is first to establish a working relationship and solidarity between the differences at the heart of identity-based approach with the aim of securing the conditions for more basic forms of equality within that class. Only then can wider questions of quality in society at large be brought to the fore. What is striking in this perspective is the extent to which it confirms conclusions that we have drawn elsewhere. An approach to self and society solely on the basis of identity or individual is flawed one. Although identity offers a certain measure of adjustment or rectification in case of dispute, it can also undermine the social bonds grounding the public sphere when taken to an extreme.

Hence the need for what we have elsewhere identified as “subject” as opposed to “individual”. Whereas individual hews more closely to what Gindin has above presented as identity, the juridical or legal relations implicit in the subject call for a broader consensus and solidarity amongst the different parties comprising society. If we have not previously elaborated this on the basis of “class”, it remains nonetheless possible to see certain common threads between class and subject, particularly in the securing of basic conditions for fulfilled life.

In the end, Gindin confirms what we have upheld in other places: that both class (“subject”) and identity (“individual”) are necessary when organizing a broader coalition on basic human fulfilments. If we perhaps disagree in the details as regards terminology (notably, class) and priority (for Gindin, class trumps identity; for us, these two seem reciprocal), the areas of agreement are enough to show that one path cannot be pursued to the exclusion of the other.

Fr. 523

June 12, 2014

On the likeness between the individual distortion of worldviews indexed to personal points of view and that of old panes of glass.

Another approach to Taylor’s indexed personal vision might be found in the placing of individual in conjunction with an image. If selves have, for Taylor, sides and sides, are, for Habermas, a reflection of the objective social world in the coming together of diverse fibers, and are, for Stout, a principle or “prius” (in the sense of that which comes before), these are all interpretations which must be justified as such. Habermas’ does have a certain appeal when refined or coarsened as the case may be. Reflection implies a reflective surface of which the most common is a mirror. Though most mass-produced mirrors are flawless in their fidelity of reflection, older mirrors of glass or polished metals bore within themselves distortions (pops, cracks, dark spots, scuffing, etc.), such that the reflection was only more or less faithful. It is perhaps tempting to consider individuals as distortions of this kind, owing to the contingent factors of identity formation.

Were we to lend further substance to this image, we might instead compare the individual to old, hand-blown or -crafted panes of glass, which carried similar flaws or distortions in function of materials (notably, the quality of the sand), temperature, tolls, method, time, and so forth. Hence, when assembled into a single casement, the sunlight filters through each pane somewhat differently. Indeed, each pane, in virtue of its particular and contingent constitution, throws the streaming light onto the nearby surface in a different way than that of any other. This constitutes a sort of individual filter, which, on occasion and with the right conditions, we can pick out with the naked eye: scaling, marbling, squaring, threading, whorling, bubbling, etc.

Although the light filtered is the same for all, each individual pattern renders this same light onto the relevant surface in different fashion. There is no way to get beyond or behind the pane or to do without because the light has neither substance nor significance in its absence. It ceases to be an instance of a window when the individual panes are removed, for there is nothing more of which we can speak.


June 11, 2014

dark to darker
lighter to light
the afterimage of an eye
comes and goes
and comes
as we open and shut

Fr. 522

June 10, 2014

Taylor maintains that, for the so-called moderns, all worldviews are without exception indexed to some personal point of view; there can be no unspoken common ground or encompassing ethico-epistemological background as for earlier ages. Accordingly, the nature of worldview consists precisely in its being spoken or expressed as it can no longer be detached from the particular expression that the adherent gives it. This expression suggests perhaps another schema under which to approach this dilemma: expresser (the one who expresses), expressed (that which is expressed), expression (the fact of being expressed).

If, for the Romantics, the terms whose separation is to be avoided at all cost are those of expressed and expression (in the coming together of the symbol, for Taylor’s moderns the ethico-epistemological landscape has shifted to some extent. Indeed, for the latter, the matter is rather that of the inseparability of, first, expresser and expressed and, secondly, expresser and expression. The first bond concerns precisely the point made above by Taylor. The modern cannot express a worldview without making apparent for his or her interlocutors the individual particularities informing that same worldview, for the worldview’s expression is conditioned or framed, at least in part, by those same particularities.

The second bond underscores a parallel necessity. Earlier times emphasized expression over expresser in that the expression itself confirmed the expressed in lieu of any qualities that the expresser might bring to that expression. Modern times have, however, turned this necessity on its head. For the moderns are keen to point out the extent to which phenomenon of expression is dependent on the intervention of an expresser. Therefore, we cannot simply parse out expresser from expression because, without that which the expresser brings to the expression, there can be no expression whatsoever.

Certainly, there are those who seek a return to a confirmed background belief or common ground which serves as an objective framework to which all can appeal. Be this religious or scientistic in nature, the draw is the same: to remove the expresser’s prominence in the modern formula for expression. Yet a fallacy lies at the root of the desire to set aside and step out of the personal point of view to which any and all expression is necessarily linked. In truth, there is no way to step back and present things simply as they are. An interesting example of this can perhaps be found in Thomas Hirschhorn’s “mindmaps”.



Therein can be found two layers, a foundation and an overlay, as it were. The former consists in a number of texts, documents and images constituting the fact of the thinker and his or her work. The latter seeks to draw out the connections and themes shared between these texts, documents and images through the use of arrows, highlighting, and notes. The initial temptation here is the following: to approach the foundation as a brute, objective fact, the author’s corpus, yet approach the overlay as an interpretive, less objective instance (no matter how true or insightful the reading). In keeping with the objectivist goal outlined above, the subsequent temptation would be to set aside the overlay with the aim of presenting the foundation as it is, for there is certainly some way that it is in itself.

The reality of the matter is quite the contrary. Specifically, the objectivist commits a fatal mistake when he or she forgets that this foundation requires presentation. To continue our parallel, if these facts exist in the world, they do not exist under the form in which they are here presented in that the artist has performed an initial sorting of documents and then subsequently arranged them in an order. This order is perhaps no less interpretative than that captured in the overlay. In other words, where the objectivist sees presentation in the foundation and representation in the overlay, the enlightened modern recalls that presentation is (re)presentation and sees its work in both instances. No matter the object, the person must make it available to his or her interlocutor in some way, and this making availability entails without fail sorting, arrangement and framing, even in the gesturing towards a natural phenomenon.

In such a way, we both drive Taylor’s point home more forcefully and extend the argument itself with the aid of distinct conceptual resources.


Fr. 521

June 9, 2014

Additional textual considerations from Sources of the Self further underline the ethical faultline inherent to the notion of proposing the resources necessary for the modification of elements of our identity. Taylor is keen to highlight a certain impossibility of dividing person from identity with which the person or interlocutor must reckon. He begins with the more general claim that the human being cannot do without some form of moral framework:

“Rather the claim is that living within such strongly qualified horizons is constitutive of human agency, that stepping outside these limits would be tantamount to stepping outside what we would recognize as integral, that is, undamaged human personhood” (p. 27).

Yet this way of reckoning with this imperative remains in the abstract, and so Taylor ties moral framework and undamaged personhood to the question of identity in order to lend the imperative a somewhat more familiar wording:


“Perhaps the best way to see this is to focus on the issue that we usually describe today as the question of identity. We speak of it in these terms because the question is often spontaneously phrased by people in the form: Who am I? But this can’t necessarily be answered by giving name and genealogy. What does answer this question for us is an understanding of what is of crucial importance to us. To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (p. 27).

This passage does more than simply reinforce the moral framework-identity equivalence on which we have drawn and which permitted us to draw the link between Taylor’s moral framework and Stout’s individual. More importantly, it sets the stage for Taylor to show just how tight are the bonds between our identity and our personhood. Without identity, there is no personhood.

Having established this link, Taylor returns to the concrete examples that he has set out elsewhere in order to suggest, if not spell out, an essential moral consideration:

“People may see their identity as defined partly by some moral or spiritual commitment, say as a Catholic or an anarchist. Or they may define it in part by the nation or tradition they belong to, as an Armenian, say, or a Québecois. What they are saying by this is not just that they are strongly attached to this spiritual view or background; rather it is that this provides the frame within which they can determine where they stand on questions of what is good, or worthwhile, or admirable, or of value. Put counterfactually, they are saying that were they to lose this commitment or identification, they would be at sea, as it were; they wouldn’t know anymore, for an important range of questions, what the significance of things was for them” (p. 27).

When we challenge ourselves or another person to modify some element of identity, we also thereby challenge indirectly their personhood, and this is how the challenge is often experienced. We should therefore not be surprised when this challenge meets with some resistance. For, for ourselves or others, we seek to provoke an epistemological crisis. Taylor lends this phenomenon a slightly different cast:

“And this situation does, of course, arise for some people. It’s what we call an ‘identity crisis’, an acute form of disorientation, which people often express in terms of not knowing who they are, but which can also be seen as a radical uncertainty of where they stand. They lack a frame or horizon within which things can take on a stable significance, within which some life possibilities can be seen as good or meaningful, others as bad or trivial. The meaning of all these possibilities is unfixed, labile, or underdetermined. This is a painful and frightening experience. What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space [...]” (pp. 27-28)

It should perhaps be noted at this time that Taylor’s goal in elaborating this line of thought diverges somewhat from our own. Taylor’s primary goal in these early chapters is to show, to the humanist-scientistic-utilitarian perspective, that it is impossible to divorce human beings from identities with which strong forms of evaluation are bound up. This is, after all, an integral part of their personhood. Yet this point carries with it a secondary point, in line with that which we are highlighting here. Although identities are contingent formations, identity itself is not. Accordingly, it is important to know the ways in which particular instantiations of identity come apart from the formal(-pragmatic) elements proper to identity in general so that we might be able to approach more reasonably the prospect of identity modification or transformation. Such transformation is likely to be small scale rather than wholesale.

Here, our point rejoins Taylor’s to an extent. For those holding dogmatically to a humanist-scientistic-utilitarian approach, it is not a simple matter to ask a person to abandon religious views or identity. Indeed, it suffices to consider what it would take to cast off this background completely and to adopt an entirely new way of thinking. While not impossible, it would certainly involve a moment at which the religious person no longer feels him or herself to be a person in any meaningful sense of the word.  For this identity is not simply how they think but, in some sense, what they are. As per Taylor’s argument, to lose that part of themselves (at least entirely) would prove equivalent to a stripping away of their humanity. For this reason, as concerns modifications of identity, we should be careful, in addition to avoiding hidden normative charges, to prompt ourselves and others to nuance, broaden, expand, etc. rather than give up entirely. In sum, the work is one of local transformations, but this all hinges on knowing how beliefs hang together in the first place, for which an endeavor like ours seems an important groundwork.

Fr. 520

June 6, 2014

It should perhaps be noted at this time that the fact of providing people with tools to further their self-articulation of identity may encounter certain shortcomings. Prominent among these is the worry that the descriptive task of cataloguing general trends and faultlines in the formation and  formulation of identity carries within it a normative charge. Specifically, when we outline generalities in the formation and formulation of identity, the term “normal” attaches itself almost of its own accord to these generalities and lends them a regulative air. More simply, insofar as these generalities are common, their perceived normality could make divergent kinds of formation and formulation appear deviant in regards to a “standard”.

For this reason, a potent and searching self-critique must accompany any attempt by researchers to furnish tools for self-articulation. Such tools must aspire to be as devoid of normative charge as possible, as can perhaps be seen in the cataloguing of animal, plants and minerals. The inherent difficulty in the present case owes to the object under study: the human species as opposed to animal, vegetal or mineral. Although the mere fact of pronouncing regularities as concerns the human case seems to carry with it the additional weight of a prescription, it is essential to bear in mind that regularities are not in and of themselves rules.

We say “in and of themselves” insofar as there is perhaps a prescriptive component to be extracted from the tools and resources based on regularities if (and only if) the person decides to make use of such tools and resources to effect meaningful change on an element of his or her identity. For, if we hope to provide tools for the self-articulation of identity, it is just as important to remember, on one hand, that self-articulation is equal parts discovery and invention and, on the other, that the person may wish to modify some identity-element or other so as to bring that identity (more) in line with some priority, goal or commitment to which he or she holds. In other words, the tools and resources of which the person may avail himself serve to aid in the manipulation of those elements as well as their identification, the latter being a preparatory step towards the former.

When we use the term “manipulation”, this should be understood in some sense other than “coercion”. Indeed, in a provisional manner, we could maintain that the conditions under which a person may effect meaningful transformation on his or her identity are subject to the same restrictions as those conditions under which a person qua citizen may give meaningful expression to reasons and convictions in the political sphere. These may include both negative conditions (freedom from coercion, freedom of speech) as well as positive duties (responsibly holding a position in regards to critique, earnestly considering the position of others). If such a list of conditions and duties requires considerable fleshing out for the task of self-articulation, we can hastily sketch out a situation in which a person considers several small-scale transformations to be carried out at the level of identity.

Consider a case, admittedly idealized, in which a person is a firm believer in the authority of Scripture and a supporter of social justice. When confronted with some discrepancy between these two, say by an interlocutor pointing out some inconsistency in a position and thus provoking an epistemological crisis, this person might be motivated to carry out a genealogical inquiry in order to determine to what this conflict owes. If the person is unaware of the extent to which these commitments are important identity-elements, it may first be necessary to map these out more thoroughly. Once this preliminary mapping carried out (perhaps on the basis of the universal-particular continuum outlined above), it would then be a matter of determining the precise point of tension. If, for instance, the issue is one of same-sex marriage, then the exact principles promoting and forbidding that practice must be determined. Identification made, it would at last be a question of resolving the conflict, which could be carried out through several, perhaps complementary means: analyzing the push-and-pull between universal and particular-universal commitments; juxtaposing the background of belief by which those principles are framed; hermeneutic examination of the texts in which these are embedded; etc.

What proves common to these enterprises is the preliminary groundwork that must be laid in the way of identification and that tools and resources for identification can themselves have a role to play in the modification of identity, prompted either by the person’s will or an interlocutor’s challenge. Whatever the limits and dangers that modification must confront, it seems that, with proper care, these can be integrated into a successful process of local transformation.

Fr. 519

June 5, 2014

The second part of our argumentative strategy involves a bottom-up and empirical approach. Given the realities of contemporary society, certain individual needs make themselves felt when it is a question of self-articulation and recognition of identity and other. More precisely, we find that it is necessary to understand better the diverse elements and influences informing the background beliefs of an individual so as to find either the accord or sticking point between two identities. Following the repetition of such investigations, certain patterns begin to stand out from the mass of data, and it becomes clear that there exists certain empirical bases for a more elaborated version of identity and individual (for example, on the basis of some universal/particular categories to which we have gestured above).

If the need for thorough investigation brings out certain trends capable of forming the backbone of a grammar of identity, then those positions emphasizing the indispensability of such investigation gesture indirectly or otherwise to the empirical possibility of a grammar of identity. In other words, in order to facilitate investigation of this kind, we have need of some tools with which to approach and process the data. Despite his reluctance to elaborate a grammar or theory of this kind, Taylor could be seen as indirectly confirming this same possibility in several passages.

In the following passage, Taylor both notes the ways in which individuals combine and fill out different traditions and that understanding these processes of combination and filling out are essential to understanding the meaning of a person’s thought, speech or action:

“With these seekers, of course, we are taken beyond the gamut of traditionally available framework. Not only do they embrace these traditions tentatively, but they also often develop their own versions of them, or idiosyncratic combinations of or borrowings from or semi-inventions within them. And this provides the context within which the question of meaning has its place” (p. 17).

From the preceding, there seems no reason to conclude the impossibility of assembling some model or schema for understanding the different patterns of combination and filling out. Likewise, Taylor gestures to the central role that self-articulation holds for “moderns”:

“But this invocation of meaning also comes from our awareness of how much the search involves articulation. We find the sense of life through articulating it. And moderns have become acutely aware of how much sense being there for us depends on our own powers of expression. Discovering here depends on, is interwoven with, inventing. Finding a sense to life depends on framing meaningful expressions which are adequate” (p. 18).

Leaving aside the question of invention in relation to discovery, we can affirm that, insofar as the “moderns” need make sense of their selves through self-articulation, any tools that further this end should not be immediately cast aside either out of epistemological reservations and skepticism nor out of a desire to keep things simple. (This passage is not without importance for our own elaboration of self and a grammar of identity for which a certain amount of invention must be wedded to the process of articulating already existing trends in contemporary society and identity formation.) We find an echo of the passage above in that below (which itself has much in common with Stout’s presentation of reason-giving and individual):

“Thus the fact that we now place such importance on expressive power means that our contemporary notions of what it is to respect people’s integrity includes that of protecting their expressive freedom to express and develop their own opinions, to define their own life conceptions, to draw up their own life-plans.” (p. 25)

Again, the key element here is that of promoting freedom and opportunities for self-articulation such that the person can bring together and make sense of the various elements and influences comprising their background beliefs, moral framework and identity. That said, it is not enough, on our view, simply to secure the instances and routes by which the person can attain to greater self-articulation. It is likewise imperative on contemporary society to furnish the tools and materials by which the person reaches that state. In short, there is no a priori reason to stop at merely guaranteeing a time and space for such expression when further assistance could be granted at the level of conceptual or empirical tools.

In sum, given the necessity of this articulation for meaning, we cannot consider the elaboration of a predictive grammar of identity simply a futile exercise which it is easier to do without. From both a top-down / conceptual and bottom-up / empirical perspective, we are in great need of certain generalities by which to process the endless data and forms of individuality with which the policymaker or researcher is confronted. It is only with the identification of such generalities and their subsequent application to the particular instantiations of identity and individual that we can then pass to the all important question for policymakers of how to manipulate these elements so as to produce some kind of consensus at the level of sub-community, community or society on any given issue.


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