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Fr. 728

July 19, 2016

At last, we can turn our attention to a pressing question, namely, whether the charge (that identity politics is complicit with and reinforces neoliberalism) concerns a grammar of identity. In other words, does a grammar of identity turn our attention to the material and economic conditions which enable the naturalistic categories of ascriptive identity or does it remain at their level? And does there not exist an alternative field, independent of this dichotomy, but nonetheless politics?

Although identity politics and a grammar of identity share a common term, “identity”, and put the naturalistic categories of ascriptive identity as objects of public attention, their similarities would seem to end there. Whereas identity politics, as defined by Reed and Norton, seeks to bring greater attention to the person’s use of naturalistic categories of ascriptive identity as means to self-understanding, public recognition and fairer social relations, a grammar of identity concerns itself with the ways in which such categories structure the person’s attempts at justification in the public sphere. More simply, a grammar of identity suggests how naturalistic categories may be of use in understanding the person’s justification of a political position, as well as the justification’s shortcomings. Indeed, a grammar of identity may find the person’s use of naturalistic categories to be out of keeping with her history as a concrete individual. Accordingly, a grammar of identity manages, at least in this first step, to sidestep the charge of complicity both by its concern with a different problem (i.e. justification in public discourse rather than the justice of social relations) and by its ability to act as a corrective to the employment of the naturalistic categories of ascriptive identity central to identity politics.

Nonetheless, this leaves a grammar of identity in an ambiguous position with regards to Reed’s critique. If a grammar of identity is not complicit with neoliberalism in the same manner as identity politics, it could prove so in other ways. Additionally, even were we to show that this grammar is not, in the end, complicit but that it otherwise fails, at least, to bring out the underlying material conditions in society, Reed (and Norton) could still take it to task for being “apolitical” i.e., unconcerned with justice. So long as we allow that justice and, in a surprisingly Rawlsian turn, the basic structure are eminent, if not the predominant, subjects of political, it is difficult to see how a grammar of identity can avoid being complicit without thereby proving apolitical.

At this point, it is again useful to remember that these approaches to identity set out from different problems. Whereas the critique of identity politics, i.e. identity politics exacerbates its own conditions of possibility, operates from a notion of just social relations, the critique of justification from a grammar of identity, i.e. categories of ascriptive identity (and their historical or biological correlates) play a necessary, though defeasible, role in justification, unfolds from a question of political justification. As a result, it must, from the perspective of its grounding problem, be a political or “ajust”, for, by definitition, it can only be concerned with justice, at best, indirectly. It is only once a grammar of identity has taken stock of justifications advanced for certain political claims and positions, and the operative categories of ascriptive identity therein, that the question of justice again comes to the fore. In the end, we should not see a grammar of identity as falling afoul of Reed’s (and Norton’s) critique in that it provides a complementary, propaedeutic or corrective measure to the use of naturalistic categories of ascriptive identity. In sum, their problems, though linked, are other.

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