Overhauling Identity (part 0)

I’ve been going back and forth to this problem of identity. At first, there seem to be a real issue concerning this problem: that indeed, there are unrests seemingly caused by conflicts brought about by differences on this category of identity. Francis Fukuyama himself, on his latest book, framed contemporary political and economic problems in light of identity politics, as if playing with it several years belated than his liberal colleagues. This isn’t to say that Fukuyama has forgotten class conflict, although he still abide by his belief that these conflicts are caused by certain search of an inner entity, an “inner sense of dignity [which] seeks recognition,” which makes his claims less intelligible than it is readable.

In recent times, some people from the left are taking into consideration whether to abandon identity politics as it has become a means for liberal opportunism. Identity politics, it is said in an article from In the Defense of Marxism, has “allowed a convenient way to deserting the class struggle and abandoning socialism, whilst continuing to pay lip service to “progressive causes”. “ Fukuyama has noted this shift from the left around the 70s to identity politics, but never really noted about this destructive implication within the left itself (of course, he’s never really concerned about it).

The case between American/Liberal-“left” discourse of intersectional identity politics and Fukuyama’s view of inner sense of dignity are two sides of the same coin: that is, both of a view of a certain fixity in the category of identity. A lot is at stake here: there are legitimate concerns of marginalized sectors and ethnic communities of socio-economic neglect from the state, ongoing repression of othered genders, disputes over national territories. But, if one is to inquire into the matter, it seems to be unreasonable that neglect, repression and disputes are caused by this sense of othering. Some would probably see it that way: that it is indeed unreasonable.

But no one seems to interrogate to the essence of this unreasonability itself. Critique of discrimination based on identity tend to become weak precisely because of this dismissal of discriminatory attitude as merely unreasonable or “incompatible” with the times (“it’s already 2019 and you’re still thinking that way”) become itself a mere reflection of the same dismissive attitude of conservatives. These critique most of the time come from affective response and emotional reactions, which, by themselves, left unchecked self-consciously, tend to become unreasonable too. No one seem to look into the very essence of this perceived unreasonability which stem from either a defense or dismissal of identity politics.

Postcolonial and cultural theory, extending their object of studies to gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, has been tools used throughout the years to try to make sense of these phenomena. Their general thesis is that these came mostly as a result of power relations generated by the history of colonization and patriarchal rule. While this may prove to shed some light over the matter of identity problem, contemporary appropriators of postcolonial and cultural theory tend to mythicize this notion of power relations only to generate an unreasonable discriminatory attitude towards anyone who can be associated with their “reactionary enemies.” Which, again, fall victim to the same kind of attitude and method as their supposed enemies.

This recoil towards the flip side of conservativism, the reactionary and irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance, creates a feedback loop to the same process. Liberal intersectionalism — this unproblematic embracing of identity as a fixed category and hence, requiring tolerance – recently being catered too by a lot of young leftists from the urban centers, also opens itself to the tolerance of neoliberal capitalist logic: they too, are a target market. As these theories and methods do not by itself think of a way out due to their fixation to the fixity identity, it also fail to provide an actual alternative to the situation which drive them to critique in the first place.

To follow through the outline of the problem, this series of essays will try to find a way to overhaul this general notion of identity. I argue in this essay, and for the essays to come, not a dismissal of identity or identity politics, but a reconfiguration of identity and identity politics towards a more reasonable understanding of itself. This set of essays will quite obviously borrow from the functionalist method used by Reza Negarestani in his book, Intelligence and Spirit, wherein he referred to the “essence” or “spirit” of things (geist) and concepts not as a metaphysical entity, but the way things work. We’re looking at identity and identity politics on their supposed and ideal function for us to get a general understanding of how it should be, and for us to recognize what it ought to be, and what can we do to reconfigure it. The search for the geist will then be recaptured back to Mao Tse-tung thought, where we’re making sense of these functions in the light of social practices, and that the development and progress of these functions can only happen through active struggle. And these practices, for Mao, do not just involve participation in economic production, but everything which can be deemed as sensibly productive activities and struggles, which, for Negarestani, are necessarily public or deprivatized for them to be considered as part of general intelligence and intelligibilities.

For this goal of understanding identity, on the next iteration of this series, we’re starting with what’s been assumed already by some skeptics of thinking: that identity is a construct, but were looking at it in a materialist way. Identity, being a construction, is necessarily a product of history, and by being a product of history, is also a subject of either retention or revision. As a category, identity has its own set of criterion of which it identifies itself. These set of criterion changes as the condition which enabled the production those set of criterion change. The criteria and changes of identity can be traced through the changes also of the social practices which in the first place contain the site, materials and methods to which identities are constructed.

Once we have established the materials necessary to produce an identity, the next set of essays will focus on the problems generated by the construction of identities. It is on these parts that we’re going to engage with the perceived “unreasonability” of discrimination, to make sense of these unreasonabilities, and to provide a more rational insight on the real implications and violence resulting from these unreasonabilities. In a way, the critique of discrimination will undergo a process of negation via criticism-self-criticism, which will force it to face these so-called unreasonabilities to make them reasonable. The reason for this is to provide this critique its correct weapon to address identity discrimination without falling into the same rules of what it tries to critique.

The last part will look into the liberal solution for identity discrimination: the irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance. This critique aims to expose how liberal intersectionality and tolerance do not lead toward any actual unity, but rather, it settles for tolerating unrest also without any suggestion of struggle. This irresponsibility stem from its own aim for stasis: that tolerance makes way for a smooth flow of capitalist desires. As liberal openness and tolerance forgoes the value of struggle, it also hampers the capability of man to reconfigure himself and his history, as what is actually being promoted with openness and tolerance is also an openness and tolerance to the current, that any sort of futuristic imagination – of leaving out dominating and marginalized identities of the current into the dustbin of history for actual progress of humanity; any sort of progressive and constructive activity outside the framework of the present – has become a threat.

To overhaul identity is to reconfigure the understanding of ourselves from the multiple facet of stasis to a unifying march towards history. It is only through this overhaul that actual diversity – the autonomous uprising of polyphony – can happen. That it is possible, because we’re beginning to acknowledge the non-fixity of this category: the acknowledgement of identity as synthetic. And with this acknowledgement, we were now able to control it, and change it in any way we see fit for our benefit.

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Dialectical Materialist Responses to Liberal Wokeness (No. 1)

Today, I’m trying to start a serial again, hopefully something which I can sustain. Still, something non-cinematic in focus. I’m trying to address in this series what the title says: responding to liberal “hot takes” through abstracting them with dialectical materialism.

The method takes from the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line which abstracts phenomena in social practice. Mao distinguished social practice from simply doing: that social practice can only be found if one is to contact doing within the living environment of the act. That social practice do not just involve production, but the whole sphere in which man lives and comes into contact with every relation (political, artistic, class, etc). But as a dialectical process, this do not mean that every aspect of social relations live harmonically, but, in essence, they exist independently from each other. Contradictions exist because we do not really exist for other beings or objects. Nature has always been in contradiction with other living beings. The tiger do not particularly care of our existence, but since it has its own needs and presets, it tries to devours things and beings which contradicts its own existence: you pass through its territory, it will attack you; it gets hungry, it will eat the first living thing it would smell. The same thing goes with human beings. Mao noted that the primary contradiction in the capitalist society is class interest. Which is why capitalism acts also as a devourment of energy since the owners of capital really is in contradictory existence with the labor force.

To situate specifically in the context of Philippine realities, dialectical materialism looks at the semi-feudal semicolonial configuration of capitalist ownership as base and its effect in social reality. It is within this context that the more specified configuration of Imperialism, Bureaucrat Capitalism and Feudalism are being addressed as drivers of capital.

For this first edition, I’m addressing the statement common among urban woke liberals and new age maoists alike:

The artist has a social responsibility for truth and justice

We need to place the concept of the artist in the backdrop of economic base to see whether this responsibility actually exist. In this sense, we need to distinguish the act of artistic production, or labor for that matter, from any other activities like, say, political, social, etc. As such, labor is private, at least under capitalist circumstances. In this situation, it must be assumed what artists and other working people are actually assuming in the first place: that labor and politics are autonomous from each other.

Since the act of production — most specially of anything artistic — is private, we can never really ask on any form of social responsibility on the onset, even though artists themselves gain their insights from exploiting the social realm of life. Seeking social responsibility from artists is the same as capitalist green politics seeking environmental responsibility from industrial companies: they do so not for the rehabilitation of nature, but for the assurance of the reproduction of the value-extraction process. That in the future, we can still exploit nature. In seeking social responsibility as an act of guilt-tripping, we reproduce capitalism through the reproduction of the socially responsible artist and socially conscious art, in the same manner that green politics assures further exploitation of nature (not to mention, of workers) by environmentally friendly companies.

But under capitalism, autonomy is not assured. Although, mere act of artistic production itself is not yet the site of capitalism, it gets crystallized in the act of its exchange. In the age of bureaucratic capitalism, a lot of cases in artistic production involve the artistic commodity being exchanged even before it was produced, through grants and other acts of patronship politics. It is in this sense that capital and its supporting political superstructure gets in the way of artistic autonomy. Capitalist extraction of value has always been in the form of blackmail: you don’t eat if you don’t work. Which is why, under capitalism, value is not intrinsic to an artwork. For any labor to be of value, Marx noted there should at least be a social necessity for a commodity before it can be said that the labor expended is of value. There is such a thing as useless labor: a labor expended on a thing which has no social necessity. Generically, there is a social need for art. Atomically, nobody asks for a specific artwork, of say, your feelings, your lovelife, or your sexual kinks, or even your political views. It is in this sense that art as a self-expression is valueless: no one asks for you to express yourself through your artwork, therefore, it’s useless.

But in the present context, art gains its value not on any form of actual material extraction, but through speculative means. This is where curators come in, and also publishers, critics, “influencers”, bureaucrats, museums, art markets, auction houses, workshops, artist talks, etc. But as much as the relationship is social, under bureaucrat capitalism, transactions remain private. You just can’t be a young, rising, breakthrough artist without, say, rubbing elbows with one who’s who, or at least, you can’t get the grant without tickling the interest of one possible member of the selection committee. Art in the 21st century is produced not as an expression, but as an algorithm. The value of any artwork stem from contradictory interests of multiple speculators, artists included. There are sellable artworks, and there’s a pattern for to attain sellability. Or at least, the algorithm is based on who do you want to sell your shit.

Looking at these instances of algorithmic social relations, any form of class-conscious ethics will only pass through the void of self-expression. There is a non-unitary relation between art as self-expression and political participation. Although, it is not yet antagonistic, since we’re failing to address each on their own terms. It is also through this non-antagonistic “resolution” of self-expression and political participation that political art meets its doom. Most political art succeeds artistically, that is, it is generating the value that it speculates, no matter how limited it is. We’ve never learned from the early 1900s modernists. The fact that Duchamp’s The Fountain is still valued may resonate still its poetic project (of exposing the non-sense of art’s speculative market), but like most subversions, Duchamp’s projects are political failures.

On a recent episode of Hermitix podcast, Nick Land noted on how on every attempt to construct a post-capitalist project, capital revives through every intelligent successes that these constructions are doing. He clarified that success here is still in the capitalist framework, that is, success is when value can possibly extracted from the thing being produced. The same regression can be seen on every attempt to salvage art and trying to make it work with a political content. As such, none of the agenda flows through the art-object produced. To make politics succeed artistically is a site of positive feedback which reinforces self-regenerating circuitry of capitalist production-for-profit. Land noted on how Mao’s attempt to actively suppress capitalist tendencies as one of the more viable attempts to escape this positive feedback loops.

To go further with Mao, it is also him who suggested to let go of the bourgeois “artistic moods”, which cybernetically feeds capital circuitry. On the onset, this is a war-tactical suggestion for art to be used and be made to work for struggle against imperialism. The ethics of this do not fall on any assumption of inherent function of art and artists in general, but its usability for the struggle by answering the question: for whom does one make art? This question is not used to impose guilt but as a starting point of critique. It exposes the position of the object produced and who produced it. It necessitates an escalation of non-unitary contradiction of art and politics to an antagonism. It is only in this site of antagonistic, partisan deployment that we can pose ethical questions. But not in asking for a responsible way of doing things, but for seeking accountability after the crime.

New Age Maoist Aesthetics

A trend seems to be happening among young, urban activists and allies: they get easily fascinated and responsive of positive representation of politics, rebels and activists on any platform, especially on popular capitalist art. Cultural representation seems to be the name of the game. What is formerly subversive has now become a default setting. Cultural representation is easy and, in the era of neoliberal multiplicity, profitable. In fact, contemporary cultural products tend to capitalize into notions of diversity and multiplicity (rhizomes, anyone?), only to the point that what is represented is not the marginalized being presented in contrast and as alternative against the status quo, but the marginalized performing (for) the status quo. A kind of trickle-up effect: productions representing the oppressed are revaluated and appreciated with ruling class criterion and are being produced for the expropriation of value by the ruling class.

Representation is comfort food. Representation made the privileged from marginalized origins feel empowered. As for people from privileged origins being newly organized on political movements, positive representation of protesters, activists and rebels is hoped to bring about a reinforcing effect. But the effect is floating, since the source of reinforcement is merely imaginary. Of course, I’m not saying that efforts for organizing the petit bourgeois and the middle class stops with this, other organizational activities are being done, of course. I’m not addressing organizing here. I’m addressing the aesthetic appreciation caused by these practices.

It seems like the form of appreciation of what I call as New Age Maoism only get from Mao’s assessment of art his response to the 2nd problem, extol or expose, but without its element in class analysis. What makes it “New Age” came from a certain mystical disappearance of the other aspects of Mao’s problematics in art. Most specially disappeared are the more important problems: the problem of class-stand and the problem of Marxist scholarship. New Age Maoism happens when organized petty bourgeois tend to extract a comfortable portion of Maoist thought compatible or tolerable for their class origins. A complete reversal of the requirement of transformation in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism which seeks for the person to delve into the difficult task of criticism and self-criticism: of self-consciousness of one’s own class origins and of contradictions and antagonisms.

New Age Maoism is a Maoism devoid of any antagonism. It’s an impotent version of Maoism. It does not enable weaponization, that is, as a mode of aesthetics, New Age Maoism do not fulfill the task of art and literature to “fit well into the whole revolutionary machine” since such mode of appreciation do not abstract the work to contribute to the struggle. If it does so, only for aesthetic appreciation.

New Ageism abhors contradictions. New Age encorporated to Maoism demolishes the most significant aspect of its theoretical line, which is the acknowledgement of contradictions and intensifying them to the level of struggle. It exchanges acknowledging and dismantling antagonisms for “conflict resolution” and harmonious existence between antagonistic class interests (most of the time, benefiting the exploiting classes).

As aesthetics, New Age Maoists are overwhelmed with representations of many kinds. Influence of liberal intersectional politics makes a good trap for New Age Maoists. With the overabundance of representation in popular cultural products, the attention given by New Age Maoists contribute not with the cause of the struggle, but to the validation of the products and its audience. Jonathan Beller noted on how before the turn of the 21st century, paying attention became a source of capital’s extraction of surplus value. In the age of communicative capitalism, paying attention and giving reactions to images contribute to the capitalist expropriation of value.

New Age Maoists celebrates the image. But in the overabundance of representation, these images of representation floats around with other images of funny cats, Wojack Memes, feel good quotations and other poor images widely exchanged and further compressed for faster transmission and value extraction. The celebration of the image denies class struggle. It exchanges the actual participation to political struggle for the representation of activism or politics; actual revolutionary thinking for a revolution in thought.

Not that New Age Maoism doesn’t have a problem. In itself, it depends on the unity of petty bourgeois class standing and revolutionary aesthetics. This is resolved through the dismissal or unthinking of the revolutionary in the revolutionary aesthetics, and only consider its aesthetic side. Or worse, a consideration of revolution but only in aesthetics. It seeks to salvage cultural products, especially what we call political art – regardless of the political economic rubric of its production – solely based on its representation of politics. It is not that salvaging and extolling revolutionary elements in a work is not important, the problem is that, to salvage is the first impulse of a New Age Maoist. More importantly, and more dangerously, New Age Maoism forgets the conditions on how art, literature and newer forms of representation like film are produced under capitalism.

The danger of forgetting the conditions of production in exchange of extolling representation is in the blindness of the forces of exploitation which lies on the production of the images being celebrated. Greatest recent case is the extolling of the film Heneral Luna (2015) produced by corporate-bourgeois comprador studio, TBA, owned by Fernando Ortigas and Eduardo Rocha. The titular general, extravagantly performed, is seemingly anti-American. But the film isn’t just about him. It does not really uphold an anti-imperialist stance. But the images of extravagant and violent hero sold better, and as intended. New Age Maoism do not contradict marketing: it effectively affirms it and re-interpellates the activist to being a consumer.

This “forgetting” seems to be an unconscious act. And the fact that it is unconscious bears more danger. It reflects a lack in theoretical and practical understanding of modes of production, most probably due to a lack also of a practical application in the understanding of things. Marxist-Leninist-Maoist analysis is admittedly an uncomfortable thing to do as it involves actual intellectual – and to some extent, manual – labor contrary to the comforting thoughts given by petit bourgeois essentialism. For the analysis of mode of production be not-prioritized and be shelved into forgetting even in the analysis of seemingly trivial objects (like art, literature and film) poses a danger of repeating the ruling class discourse. People from the urban movement defending Quark Henares’ statement on “film and music as modes of self-expression” – assuming a political autonomy in the production of cultural products under capitalism – missed the point of a Maoist critique of art. Universalizing statements from the ruling class and their stalwarts like Henares bears no universal position on truth just yet on the function of things: what art, literary and film production mean now are still to be determined by the outcome of the protracted people’s war.

Symptoms point to possible remedies. Since the dismissal is unconscious, a conscious – if not, self-conscious – attempt towards further abstraction and theorization of the analysis cultural products in the theoretical line of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism needs to be revitalized. An insistence of a theoretical practice (praxeology) is needed. Admittedly, with the demands of the time piling up among organizers and activists – with the deepening crises of accelerated global capitalism, intensified anti-people campaigns of the reactionary government – a day’s work seem to be lacking to address another point of a problem. But in this mess of chaos that a correction and realignment in thought of the theoretical line is needed. Positive activities are happening though, in the recent educational discussion festivals organized by different sectors: seems like the necessity for addressing the problems in the theoretical line are being resolved. What needs to be done is to resolve – again, addressing Mao’s 4th problem in the Talks at the Yenan Forum – the study of theories of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism for more effective and intensified aesthetic-critical interventions.

This remedy being suggested is also a prevention for further aesthetic opportunistic use of the revolution and revolutionary aspects of the people’s culture for the benefit of one’s petty bourgeois desire and art. Mao’s intervention on art and literature seeks the reverse, and rightly so: for art to be of use for the people and the people’s struggle. And for that to happen, it necessarily places art not in the final instance, but art is reduced into a tool as it bears almost the same liberalistic potential as the violence of a gun. Not in the expense of choosing between the two, but using both cultural and political struggles as means to further the agenda of the people.

Much as the cultural and political struggles are both of equal significance, so is the determination and analysis not just of form and content in art and literature, but also what enables their production. Such a task tend to convert an analysis to criticism. Mere aesthetic appreciation is impotent and useless, criticism sets analysis in motion. But it is a criticism not to further liberal agenda for art. It is a criticism which carries a “struggle on two fronts”: it demands a resolution between politics and art, not in the sense of representation or a “mixing” of it. Dialectical resolution demands a struggle in-process and not just mere unification. Dialectical resolution demands for art and politics to be raised antagonistically within the form and content of both art production and criticism. And these cannot be done through a simple salvaging of “progressive” content from reactionary sources. The task is to break form, content and political economy: the practices of producing the form, the practices of producing what is being said in the form, and what enable the production of these. As Mao places it: “The criterion for judging subjective intention or motive is social practice and its effect.”