The following is the second installment of Dr. Tutt’s St. Thomas More Lecture delivered on March 18, 2018 at St. John Fisher University. The first installment can be found here.
Identity and Power
Now that we have some conceptual resources to better understand the dialectic of immunitas and communitas, I want to make some reflections on community in our present world. Where do we find communitas in our age? Or, put differently, what are the challenges to community today? I want to focus on two key problems: that of collective or political identity and love.
If Sartre’s idea is correct, that the realization of a space of freedom is found in the fused group in revolt – identity becomes a major problem of community precisely in that the very idea of community from Rousseau onward is based in a sacrifice of one’s particular identity as the means of participation in a new community. In many ways, St. Paul is the prior founder of this form of communal bond based on the sacrifice of particular identities, a theme that many political philosophers have considered in recent years.
Today, social identity is a problem to community formation in a way similar to how biological identities and Social Darwinist theories of identity plagued late nineteenth century and early 20th century European and Anglo-American intellectuals. The way that we think of identity today leads to forms of violence and it prevents us from forming adequate bonds of solidarity across different identity groups, whether they be religious, political or class-based. Identity is often believed to emanate from within and across identity groups.
We know this form of thinking political conflict by the name of identity politics. Identity politics, because it understands power and oppression to arise from the source of one’s ontological position vis a vis their own identity. This is not to say that identity is the source of power and conflict; it is. It is rather to say that our understanding of power as one that emanates from within identities refuses the critical work of self-cancellation or self-dissolution that is so fundamental to forming community. One cannot enter into the obligation of community with a sense of one’s own identity as not lacking, entering into community destabilizes one’s social identity.
While not every identity is socially constructed, identity is something that too often particular identity groups, it associates community with the ego ideal of that particular community and members of an identity group adopt a persecutory, victim status which closes the space of sacrifice and self-loss that makes community possible. The challenge of community, as I have attempted to show in this history of philosophy is that to enter community one sacrifices their prior subjective identity to enter into an exchange of an emptiness that is constitutive of the social relation itself.
Identity politics, at its worst, hardens this space of the gift or munus and it forecloses the possibility of fused groups to form. Let me say that my critique of identity politics does not exempt things like white supremacist ideology as a potent form of social and political oppression that stems from a shared white identity. Identity politics has now reached a point where it is seen as a source of liberation unto itself. Notice for example that calls for exclusive community formation, especially in the form of the alt-Right are not only using identity politics for white people, they are attracting people on the basis of a non-solidarity form of community, one that closes off the space of the self-cancellation that is necessary for forming community.
Identity based forms of community form the desire for community today instead of a desire for liberation that is understood in the more universal sense as I have outlined in the idea of communitas. Our age is what the philosopher Judith Butler names “post-liberatory” — that is, we increasingly think that our actions are destined to be domesticated or immunized in advance of even making them. As a consequence, forms of resistance to power are no longer concerned with gestures that seek to re-invent the self in a new relation to community.
The project of this more universal formation of community could be found in Black Power movements as well as black universal collectives throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. This liberatory spirit was also found in American organizations such as Rising Up Angry, radical youth organization based in Chicago that brought together poor black youth, Hillbillies, Greasers and assortments of Latino immigrants. The mission of Rising Up Angry was explicitly set on the building a new man, a new woman, and a new world,” with the masthead motto “To love we must fight.”
We should not succumb to a sense of fatalism in spite of these challenges. There is an ever-growing sense, as The Edelman Trust Barometer Globral Report notes, in which people across the world feel dejected from institutions and there are record low levels of distrust in political, business and civic institutions. Perhaps not surprisingly, this profound lack of trust in institutions accelerated with the 2008 economic downturn and led to a number of unexpected political developments from the Movement of the Squares to the counter-reactionary ascendance of far right populist parties throughout Europe and in America under the Donald Trump campaign.
Perhaps the best recent examples of experimentations in community-formation occurred in the movements, uprisings and protests known as the “Movement of the Squares” which included Occupy Wall Street in America but which kicked off in London in 2011 and moved to Tahrir Square in Egypt, Gezi Park in Turkey and throughout Europe. These heterogeneous occupations of public space from 2011 – 2014 were attempts to carve out a space where community can be enacted and an alternative future is opened. Part of the challenge was face today is a challenge to form a proper solidarity across identities.
A major challenge to forming the type of community I am talking about is the necessity to form solidarity across different racial, political and religious identities. Today, the persistence of identity politics often means that a fused group is driven to action on the basis of an identitarian tragedy or issue. In their resistance or revolt they then form a fusion of their community with a wider set of problems in their city or region. This was a recurring theme in places such as Gezi Park in Turkey, and in the Black Lives Matter movement that has grown to address specific incidents of police murders of black men, to take on a much wider structure of racism.
We should remember that one of the things the philosophy of community in our present world is that community must subtract itself from the world as it is, it must form a new space for thought and action; it must form in an outside space where new truths, myths and aesthetics are invented. Part of what I am thinking here comes in the form of community development in the form of a counterpublic, or a space of artistic and cultural production that is formed in conflict and distinction with the norms and contexts of the more dominant cultural environment. Counterpublics understand their own revolutionary potential to be directed towards a future public, one whose language will be enacted in the idiom of its present obscurity in a future time.
But we have to provide an account of the way in which identity forms in groups before we can understand the potential for communitas. To do this, I want to look at the formidable theory of psychoanalysis to provide an account of identity as well as the theme of love and community. For our purposes tonight, we will focus on the insight that Freud makes about the constitution of the ego; he claims the ego is always already a social phenomenon.
In his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud seeks to “work back to what social relations presuppose,” and he argues that no social relation can come about without understanding who holds the key to the “before” and who holds the key to the “after.” Freud defines the communal/social bond as follows: “a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego.” (116)
Freud thus argues that every communal bond must be preceded by the cultivation of a self-love prior to the social love that is formed in the identification with an object love of the community, which most often takes the form of the leader. There are two forms of identification that binds the group together and forms the social bond: love for the leader and identification with an ego ideal.(155-6)
Freud describes the phenomenon of identification as a process by which a subject assimilates an aspect or a trait of another subject. In the process, the subject becomes transformed in the likeness of the other. The subject also becomes differentiated from the other they identify with by the partial nature of every mode of identification. Freud would argue that every community is formed around the symbolic identification of love of the leader figure. It is love for the leader that creates the identificatory glue that promotes a peaceful communal bond.
This jealous contract, this egalitarianism rooted in envy (as Freud points out in Group Psychology), gives rise to fraternity, the sense of justice, social conscience, and the sense of duty – in short “Civilization and its Discontents” says, to law in general:
Instead of pulling out one another’s hair, they acted as a united group… originally rivals, they have succeeded in identifying themselves with one another by means of a similar love for the same object.(120)
So there are two forms of identification in Freud’s theory of identification: identification with a social master or leader (ideal ego) and identification with an ideal. The latter form of identification is what opens up the possibility of community, as it remains empty.
This point opens a deeper philosophical question of the formation of the self. It is similar to Rousseau’s statement that “I never meditate, I never dream better than when I forget myself” psychoanalysis shows us that the individual is most him or herself in the wondrous emptiness of being, rather than the personal Ego, the Other or the totality.(157)
Just as the munus is formed around the shared loss of the social itself, entering community requires the cultivation of a form of nonidentification in order to maintain peaceful relations across communities and within communities. Nonidentificaiton is a form of identification that subjects exchange in the process of self-loss or in the process of the negative moment of questioning their social identity.
Nonidentification is a name for a type of identification with an emptiness, an identification with space for civility. It opens the space for public speech to take place in a civil fashion. This nonidentification does not completely erase the prior identity, but it does suspend it. Nonidentificaiton is a form of identification that brings about the munus, signaling the presence and actuality of social institution as such, in opposition to its absence, to pre-social chaos.
Thus, a sign of nonidentification is when a fused group forms an identification around something that transcends the particularities of their identity interests or concerns: the Christians and Muslims in Tahrir Square protecting one another in prayer, or the alternative public sphere opened by different identity groups in an occupation of public space. But nonidentification is not enough to sustain a fused group.
Bernard Stiegler, a contemporary French philosopher, develops an argument in a series of books called Symbolic Misery that today, the “we” suffers insofar as it fails to form an interior “we” within the self. Forming a self-love is a necessary movement prior to the self-forming community with others. This interior movement of self-love has become stunted in our time, Stiegler claims, due to a wider shift in man’s relation to technological objects.
Stiegler argues that a condition of “symbolic misery” derives from an inability to form aesthetic attachments to singular objects; the sights, sounds and symbols that we consume are dominated by marketing mechanisms. Once the self loses its singularity it can no longer love itself. This condition of symbolic misery has given rise to a segment of our population that experiences this misery with particular acuity.
These “New Barbarians” as Stiegler calls them are those affected by this form of misery as well as various forms of economic deprivation, the decline in real wages, the precarity of neoliberal life lead to unstable emotional states. The conflict that this misery causes in places like America, France and Britain is that it intensifies “resentment politics.”
This is a form of politics that is desperately searching for a cause to this misery and is eager to find the object of this cause in the immigrant, the Muslim, or the social Other, however defined. This resentment politics causes a pervasive stasis of our social relations, animating our social relations with tension and conflict. How does one begin to form a dialogue with these segments of the population that have closed down their own capacity for self-love? This is the work of love.
Whither Asymmetrical Love?
We face a future civil and political situation of ‘all against all’, a diagnosis that Hobbes sought to manage in the Leviathan by pushing community to the periphery of the state, by making community an outlaw formation within the state. What is needed in such a situation is a reevaluation of the role of love. What is love in a civic and political sense?
I will define love as opening oneself up to an unequal relationship, which is to say that love is not about a subject-to-subject equality. There is always a subject and an object in love – all love is therefore asymmetrical. In Hegel’s conception of the state of nature or war of all against all you have the famous idea of the master slave dialectic. In Hegel’s theory, what occurs is a battle to the death; you thus have the emergence of death as that which haunts the relations. Love is a tool that is used by the slave who has been converted into an object by the master in order to transform the hostile relation into something more benevolent and good. The important point is that love acknowledges the asymmetry and injustice and works towards something more positive in spite of it.
Lacan invented a myth of love in his seminar on Plato’s Symposium and I want to describe this myth as it gives us a better idea of the asymmetry involved in love. In this myth, Lacan seeks to distinguish love from desire. He says, imagine a hand reaching out to clutch a beautiful rose. The intended outcome of doing this is to attain the object of desire, to clutch this beautiful rose.
But imagine that instead of the clutch of the rose taking place, what actually takes place is that the rose reaches back to the hand that reached for it and embraces the hand. It is this alternative embrace that produces love. The lesson is clear: love is not achieved when the hand that reaches for the beautiful rose meets the rose itself, for this would be desire.
Love is when the hand that reaches for the beautiful rose experiences a second hand –from the rose itself – that reaches back to it and grasps it. In this myth, love does not elevate the desire that you were looking to satisfy as an end in itself, love turns on the one who was desiring the object of beauty and receives an embrace from that object in return.
The point I want to draw from this myth is twofold: one, love is different than desire in that desire finds its object and then moves on to the next object. With love, there is a mutuality that takes place, but not equality. Love is always asymmetrical. How does this relate to civic and political love? There is a rich tradition in the black radical tradition from James Baldwin to Martin Luther King Jr. of bold and courageous forms of asymmetrical love.
James Baldwin wrote, “the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being.” (92) Love only comes about when the self’s commitment to the other exceeds the other’s commitment to their own self. Asymmetrical love therefore, like the gift of community, holds no expectation for reciprocation. Asymmetrical love is thus unconditional despite the fact that the one for whom you are loving has turned you into an object of transgression—this is why for Baldwin, love is a battle and a war.
The Christian church held a view of love that was mimetic; to love those that reciprocate, but as Grant Fareed has noted, Baldwin saw this mimetic or imitative form of love to be inadequate. Asymmetrical love imposed a duty that was absolute, pitched beyond the confines of what the institution of the church would prescribe—Baldwin would exert this love regardless of whether white people reciprocated or not. This is the gift of asymmetrical love and why I consider it at the very heart of communitas because it is premised on the impossible exchange of the gift to the other at heart of coming into community.
We need to develop strategies that open the potential for civic and political love in today’s world. Asymmetrical love is in decline today. We need to encourage forms of what I name “unplugging” or the love that comes in the wake of cutting the knot of identity conflict and identity power. Love is needed in the wake of unplugging because the former stability that the identity provided is now in free-fall. Unplugging holds aims to open the other an acknowledgement of the need to engage the Other qua stranger.
Unplugging opens a space for love where it formerly had no existence. Because love is fundamentally asymmetrical, there must be some shock, event, surprise or touch with the Other that opens up this asymmetry, and encourages a new the desire for love. Unplugging opens new possibilities of being-together, of responsiveness to the Other, and it brings the subject towards non-identification, and away from a form of identity power.
Examples of unplugging happen when the Evangelical sees in the Muslim an avenue to his or her own ethical tradition of love for the neighbor from Christ’s teaching on the Sermon on the Mount. Unplugging might come about when the immigrant is seen as a source for a re-thinking of one’s own conception of hospitality. Unplugging is often an accidental event that shakes up the status quo relations and charts a different path. One of the biggest challenges to unplugging today revolves around the exhaustion that identity groups have in sacrificing their claims on power for the sake of the Other’s emancipation. What are we prepared to advocate for the Other in a society in which we are trained to see our identity as radically individual?
Towards this end, we can note one of the challenges the Black Lives Matter movement faces is the very way in which whiteness is a type of identity that holds the power to opt out of having their identity politicized. The work that is thus necessary for supporters of Black Lives Matter is to drive white people in America to a new way of relating to their own ability to not be politicized qua their identity in the same way that black people and other people of color in America are.
Perhaps the asymmetry that Baldwin and King promoted cannot come about until we have different forms of unplugging—i.e. we have to begin by cutting the Gordian knots on the fantasy of identity power and the alienating solipsism it breeds. Lacan put it nicely when he stated, “psychoanalysis alone recognizes the knot of imaginary servitude that love must always untie anew or sever.”(81)
Daniel Tutt is a philosopher, interfaith activist and documentary film producer. Daniel is a Lecturer in philosophy at George Washington University and Marymount University, and he received a Ph.D. from the European Graduate School, where he studied under the supervision of the French philosopher Alain Badiou; one of today’s most important living philosophers. He is the co-editor of a new book, Theologies and Ethics of Justice: New Directions in 21st Century Islamic Thought, and his writing has been published in Philosophy Now, The Islamic Monthly, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and he has essays in three different books of philosophy.