Identification and Unification ~

11 07 2008

There’s a quote that has been haunting me the past few weeks. I received it in a late-night text message from a friend of mine in Brooklyn, a few hours after a conversation we had about the weaknesses of various activist projects. It’s a Brian Eno quote; he produced several Talking Heads albums and is therefore very, very cool. Anyway, here’s what he said:

There are many possible futures and only one status-quo; that’s why conservatives appear as if they all agree and the radicals will always argue.’

So often I see right-wing pundits point to the fissures and altercations between reformist collectives as a reason why they’re weak or simply wrong (just flip on any episode of Tucker Carlson to see this tiresome argument played out relentlessly). “Unity = Strength” is no doubt the underlying assumption being spoken here.

This same argument is also pitched frequently by activists — something like, “If only we could all get on the same page we could make some real headway.” Take for instance the otherwise excellent article by Marilyn Cooper on environmentalism in an age of hegemonic politics, where she essentially argues that if groups like Earth First! and The Nature Conservatory could find more middle ground, the consequences could really move environmentalism along in the right direction (this is reductive of her argument, but not by much).

Of course I would agree that there is a certain strength in unity, whether it’s a physical group of people or a particular attitude of mind. What I’m interested in is how it’s used as an argument either for or against activist collectives. Especially, given my reading today, how this argument and its attendant assumptions plays out among individual identity formation.

Here’s the quote that spurred this post:

Opening discourse to the theoretical critique rejected by Foucault and, to an extent, Althusser, [Laclau] maintains that, while the black, feminist, gay, and ethnic social movements properly defend their separate interests or their political independence, each movement must construct equivalent ideals establishing a new hegemonic bloc because what establishes identity is contextual oppostitions, antagonisms, or exclusions, not essences or transcendent selves.

I gather from this quote that Laclau and Mouffe, coming out the Gramscian line, see the New Social Movements (NSM) as a productive step in fighting oppressive living conditions, but they must unify into a “hegemonic bloc” in order to be effective. In other words, all the marginalized groups must come together as one large marginalized unit. (I mention Gramsci because Laclau and Mouffe agree that hegemony is not something that can be destroyed and simply done away with — rather, it’s just a matter of which hegemony is ruling.)

But what might this mean for the various idenitification processes of individual activists? While the suggestions almost always seem to refer strictly to the collective conscious (Greenpeace as an organization must show solidarity with Earth First! as another environmental collective, even if they differ sharply in their philosophies and tactics), is it implied that the same indentification must take place on an individual level? Is Laclau (and all others that use this argument, whether Post-Marxist or not) suggesting that the marginalized pro-queer activist must build “equivalent ideals” with individuals of the Black Nationalist Movement? What do these equivalent ideals look like? What type of discourses might sustain the connections that Laclau & Mouffe want to see borne out?

And now I’m wondering if our modern digital communication structures open new doors for this possibility (at the same time, I’m not necessarily endorsing this as the best route to take). The NSM took root just slightly before text-messaging, instant-messaging, and e-mail became pervasive and fundamentally changed the way activist networks function.

Hmmm . . . more on this later . . .


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