The following is a full recording of and written extracts from my book chapter, “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation”, in Nocella and Juergensmeyer (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education (Peter Lang Publishing).
My chapter and its podcast examine a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. I argue that it is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, which has played out on social media and across university campuses.
Freedom has become dangerously lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:
“politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.”
Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment to explain how the desired impulse of politicized identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:
“Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt).” (Brown, 1995: 68)
We are left with an effort to anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable.
The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment.
The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics considered and critiqued in my chapter and its podcast.
Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this happen, we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction,” thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).
(See also my earlier blog post, The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’)