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Identity and The Coming Insurrection

Paper Mother and Child with Clothes for Each

Recently I have started to read The Coming Insurrection (TCI), a revolutionary manifesto written by a french group named “the invisible committee.” I’ve been compelled by what TCI has to say about identity.  But first, a little context: TCI has been labeled a terrorist document by French authorities.  Recently they have arrested nine individuals on charges of terrorist acts, also claiming that this group authored TCI (check out the story at adbusters).  MIT press gives the following description of the work:

The Coming Insurrection articulates a rejection of the official Left and its reformist agenda, aligning itself instead with the younger, wilder forms of resistance that have emerged in Europe around recent struggles against immigration control and the “war on terror.”

I am currently working my way through the French version.  So far the committee gives some compelling diagnoses of some of the ills that plague capitalist society.  However, I find their call to a violent uprising simplistic and unimaginative.  When you start a creative nonviolent revolution, then you can count on me to throw my hat in the ring.  Back to identity.  One of the first worthwhile sections in TCI describes how capitalist society programs individuals to spend great quantities of energy maintaining their identities.  Here’s a taste (my translation):

If ‘society’ had not become this final abstraction, it would designate the ensemble of existential crutches that are offered to me for the price of my identity.  The handicap has become the model of the coming citizen . . . the pervasive injunction, “to be someone,” maintains this pathological state that makes this society necessary  (14).

Against this model of identity, where the self is the black hole that swallows one’s attention and keeps one reaching for new products, TCI proposes a net-worked view of identity, a worldly view:

The ‘me’ is not that which is in crisis within us, but the form that they seek to stamp on us.  They want to make us into “Me’s,” delineated, separated, classifiable and assessable by our qualities, in a word: controllable, when we are creatures among creatures, singularities among likenesses, living flesh weaving the flesh of the world.  Contrary to what we learn from childhood, intelligence, is not knowing how to adapt–or if this is an intelligence, it is a slave intelligence.  Our in-adaptation, our fatigue, are problems from the point of view of those who want to oppress us (17, 18).

I have become increasingly convinced that this is correct. Identity is something weaving and woven. We can only understand it in terms of systems.  The “I” is not autonomous or static, and it is not something that we accessorize.  The I is a fluctuating nodal point in a sea of overlapping systems.  I don’t think that this should lead us to attempt the “loss of self.”  But I do think it should push us to think of ourselves as more than just our favorite color, more than our actions, and more than our bodies (and less than the world).

[To check out TCI, you can download a French translation or a rough English translation here.  Or you can buy an english translation from Semiotext(e) here.]

5 Comments

  1. Nice post! I definitely agree with you. I also wonder what affect this way of identifying (or misidentifying) self has on gender identity.

  2. Gender is just one facet, or platform, for identity. So, I think that the above is certainly pertinent. Traditional notions of gender seek to segregate the two sexes. More liberal notions fall into the “me” trap described above. It would be really interesting to work out a net-worked theory of gender.

  3. Good post Will. Keep em coming. I like your idea of identity being defined as a fluctuating nodal point in a sea of overlapping systems. I may want to add a nodal point that is itself a system, when considering the self as an emergent system within a series of interwoven, ascending systems of complexity, ie cultural, social, political, economic, religious etc.

    As for a rejection of the Left’s reformist strategy I totally agree that this is needed. This is seen in Obama’s pragmatic approach, which, as is becoming clearer and clearer with the whole health care debate, is not leading anywhere. The problem with pragmatism is that it only seeks the possible, or that which will “work”. The possible is only viewable within the field of the present, and the options available within, and thus limits the future to present possibilities. Thus pragmatism undercuts the possibility of any real change.

    In order for change to happen a new horizon has to be conjured up and this new horizon will seem “impossible” from the current field of the present. Thus change proceeds from the future possibility of the impossible and is located in the prophetic imaginary verses a pragmatic administration. However, I agree that this must happen without violence if it is going to challenge and bring to light the violence of the system in place.

  4. Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I like your addition of the self as, itself, a system. What always strikes me in these sorts of discussions is how people get extremely concerned with boundaries. If I exist in a series of systems, and am myself an emergent system, where do I begin and end? What is to become of the “me,” If I cannot define its boundaries? TCI tries to show the weakness of this preoccupation. It is precisely the preoccupation with the maintenance of “me” that lends itself to an enslavement to consumerism. Where I begin and end may be an important philosophical question, but there is a sense in which losing preoccupation with self is an important existential step.

    Couldn’t agree more about the critical role of imagination in effecting change. It’s always the mediation between the event [and the imaginative postures which receive it/make it possible] and the old situation that is tricky. I actually think Badiou is weak on this point. He makes the event extra-historical, and in doing so, denies the emergent nature of change. Change occurs from within a situation as well as from without. In fact, we remix more often than we hear melodies ex nihilo. Hence, the crucial function of the imagination. It is “seeing” the to-come in the already-there.

  5. First of all, nice post. I wish you’d written the TCI document as it would have been a little more pertinent. This raises many questions for me, but I’ll start with a point you raised, and I quote:”However, I find their call to a violent uprising simplistic and unimaginative.” After our chat the other night it seems clear that voting rights in a representative democracy function like placebo. Funny thing is, placebo trots itself out as the real, it represents itself as the drug in question. For this reason its function is bound to the pre-existing cure even if nature is different. That means that if we want something other than the ‘represented’ cure (or the two entrenched parties that appear available to us), we may need to use something other than votes to get there.

    Now, I don’t want to appear to be condoning violent uprising. In fact, just the opposite. I’d rather us grow out of the rank adolescence of a black and white (capitalism vs socialism, democracy vs communism, republican vs democrat) dialectics.

    One final thought, what possessed these yahoos to write a complicated philosophical and cultural critique if they wanted to generate a populist movement? Marx got off on Capital for sure, but it was the Manifesto that sparked a revolution.

    Keep the posts coming.