Trauma and identity politics

There are two ways to think about trauma.  The first, and the one that I’ve consistently emphasised in the writings on this blog, is as a manifestation of the Real, as an encounter with the Real.  In fact, to be traumatised is essentially to touch the Real (or perhaps it might be better to say, to be touched by the Real).  The second way to think about trauma is to see it in terms of a narrative, a story.  There is, of course, a paradox here because by its very nature trauma escapes narrativisation, in the sense that it is beyond meaning, beyond sense.  Be that as it may, there are plenty of trauma narratives to choose from, and in many ways these narrative serve an important therapeutic function – and, I would argue, an important political one as well.

The idea of trauma as narrative is closely linked to Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit , which as I’ve explained a number of times, is the idea that trauma is retroactively constructed.  This is does not mean, and it’s essential to keep on emphasising this, that there was no ‘original’ event, for example, an experience of childhood sexual abuse; rather, it means that at the time of the original experience, the subject was not able to conceptualise, to register, the experience as traumatic. It is only later, post-puberty, when another event occurs that ‘reminds’ the subject of the original event, that they become traumatised.  However, this is not a case of the later event ‘triggering’ the memory of the first one; rather, there is a temporal ‘looping back’ from the second to the first event which constructs the trauma.

However, this retroactive construction of trauma should not be equated with the construction of a trauma narrative, although of course the two are closely related to one another.  The point about Nachträglichkeit is that the subject is actually traumatised; in other words they exhibit all the symptoms of being traumatised, for example flashbacks, nightmares, somatisation, etc.  This is probably the most difficult aspect of Nachträglichkeit to get one’s head around, because it implies that something rather peculiar is happening regarding temporality itself.  In other words, it is as if an event in the present is ‘causing’ an event in the past.  However, it is important to remember that here we are talking about psychical  rather than physical causality and temporality.

Once this retroactive traumatisation has occurred, then its narrativisation can take place; in other words, a story of the trauma can be constructed.  Of course, this is not without its own difficulties, as any therapist or analyst will tell you.  By their very nature, such stories, such narratives are retroactive constructions themselves, and subject to all the vicissitudes of memory, contextualisation and so on.  However, as I pointed out earlier, the construction of such narratives can have significant therapeutic effects, because they give meaning to what was previously a meaningless experience, and give the subject a sense of identity, of placement in the world.

However, there are also a number of political problems with this narrativisation of trauma, and these are, somewhat ironically perhaps, precisely those aspects of narrativisation that are seen as being clinically efficacious.  In other words, the imparting of meaning and a sense of identity to the subject.   Take, for example, someone who was sexually abused as a young child.  At the time this left them with a sense of bewilderment and confusion, but not, in the strict clinical sense, traumatised.  Many years later, in their forties, they watch a TV programme about historical child abuse, and suddenly they start to develop all kinds of traumatic symptoms, including recurring thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks.

In therapy the individual is able to start telling their story and in the process to recount their experiences of being abused as a child.  In other words, out of their trauma they can construct a trauma narrative, or to be more precise in this case, an abuse narrative.  From a clinical point of view this not only gives their life meaning, but also gives them a sense of identity; or rather, a new sense of identity.  And this new sense of identity is that of abuse victim/ survivor.  Their whole life becomes redefined in terms of this new identity, and they may then decide to seek out other people who have undergone similar experiences, and perhaps even to form a group of survivors who meet on a regular basis.  They may then even take things a step further and start to actively campaign for better rights for victims/ survivors of abuse, and for better management of historical abuse cases.  At this point they have gone from being a victim/ survivor of abuse to political agent.

And, of course, this is precisely the ‘model’ for all forms of identity politics: an individual experience becomes socialised and politicised.  But why is this a problem?  The standard (leftist) critique of identity politics is that it is essentially a ‘distraction’ from more fundamental, structural problems, for example, the nature of global capitalism (for a good summary of the arguments against identity politics see Salar Mohandesi’s article).  In fact, identity politics can easily be assimilated by global capitalism because it creates new, niche markets that cater for particular identities, just as the ‘counter-culture’ of the 1960s became just another commodity to be bought and sold on the global market.  The standard (rightist) critique is perhaps more simplistic: identity politics simply creates different groups of whinging narcissists who are all clambering to have their particular causes championed, often courtesy of the tax payer (see for example Brendan O’Neil’s Spectator piece on this very subject).

What’s interesting (and somewhat ironic) about the leftist critique of identity politics is that is precisely those ‘on the left’, or with leftist sympathies, who seem to have embraced it most whole heartedly.  And as Linda Martín Alcoff points out in her article on identity politics, it is naïve to argue that a focus on identity is a ‘distraction’ from more ‘important’ and ‘fundamental’ considerations such as class and the economy.  In fact, it is often the experience and debates that emerge from being members of a particular group that give rise to an awareness of other issues, including those of class and the economy.  This was certainly the experience of many feminist groups in the 1970s onwards, where it became clear that questions of sexual inequality were linked closely with those of economic inequality.  In other words, just because you identity yourselves as, say, gay, Black, and so on, this does not mean that you are not acutely aware of  ‘wider’ political questions and realities.  In fact, the chances are you are far more aware of such realities than those who do not (consciously) identify themselves in any particular way.

However, there is still a more fundamental problem here, which is based on a what at first sight appears to be a rather abstract philosophical problem: that of the ‘universal’ and its exception.  However, in political terms, this question has very practical and far reaching consequences, because one of the key aims of any particular group that defines itself in terms of a particular identity, be it ‘gay’, ‘Black’, ‘disabled’, ‘abuse survivor’, and so on, is to enjoy the same recognition and rights as everyone else in society, which are perceived as being ‘universal’.  The problem here is that such ‘universals’ can only function as such by virtue of their exceptions, by what is excluded from them.  Žižek argues that such ‘exceptions’ can be thought of in terms of ‘symptoms’, which are effectively the negation of the particular ‘universal’ in question:

When one is dealing with a universal structuring principle, one always automatically assumes that—in principle, precisely—it is possible to apply this principle to all its potential elements, and that the empirical non-realization of the principle is merely a matter of contingent circumstances. A symptom, however, is an element which—although the non-realization of the universal principle in it appears to hinge on contingent circumstances—has to remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system itself would disintegrate. (Žižek, 1997, p.46)

In other words, and applying this concept to identity politics, there have to be one or more identities that are excluded from the ‘universe’ in question, which nowadays usually refers to Western liberal democratic society.  This is because any ‘universe’, which can also be thought of in terms of being a ‘set’ or ‘class’, is defined by a point external to it.   In political terms, what Žižek is getting at here is that it is no accident that some groups (identities) are excluded from ‘society’, be they the homeless, the ‘precariat’, Islamic jihadists, neo-Nazis, and so on.

The last two groups/identities are especially interesting because they effectively define the limits of tolerance in liberal democratic societies.  In other words, you can be who you like, have whatever identity you like – as long  as you do not pose a real threat to the status quo.  And yet, without such exceptions, such limits, the ‘universe’ of liberal democratic society would collapse.  At the same time, the extent to which other identities can be assimilated into the liberal democratic/global capitalist order then they effectively become eradicated as any kind of meaningful political force.  Instead they become just more ‘lifestyle’ niche markets which provide more ‘fuel’ for the global capitalist ‘machine’.

Going back to the question of the ‘exceptions’, as I argued just now these are not ‘accidents’ or unfortunate ‘side-effects’ of an otherwise smoothly functioning political, economic and cultural system.  Rather, they are what make such a system possible in the first place.   Furthermore, because such ‘exceptions’ are outside of the domain of the universal, they are effectively beyond signification, beyond meaning.  In this sense perhaps we could describe such ‘exceptions’ as traumatic, as Real.

This now makes the attraction of identity politics clearer: it is a way to ‘de-traumatise’ one’s subjective position, to give one a place, a meaning, an identity in the world.  Because being an ‘exception’ is effectively to be an outcast, to be a nobody.  And the reason I focused on the example of an abuse survivor earlier was because it brings this connection between trauma and identity into stark contrast.  The trauma of abuse leaves the subject in a void of non-meaning, of non-identity, of not having a place in the world.  Ironically, being able to construct an ‘abuse narrative’, to give a history to what happened, gives the subject a meaning, an identity, even if it is a very painful one.  But the point I’m getting at here is that such an experience of trauma, of non-meaning, non-identity can affect anyone who is finds themselves in the place of the ‘exception’, who is outside of a particular universe of meaning and identity.

And, of course, the way to resolve this is to create one’s own ‘universe’ of meaning and identity, or, even better, to become part of an already existing ‘universe’, for example ‘gay’, ‘Black’, ‘socialist’, ‘fascist’, ‘abuse survivor’ and so on.  Each separate ‘universe’ equates to a particular identity, with its own discourse, and, just as important, its own boundaries.  But at this point a problem arises: all this different identities are faced with the political reality of their own limitations.  In other words, they recognise that there is only so much they can do as a particular group, as a particular identity.  Therefore they have to try and extend their sphere of influence into a wider ‘universe’, a wider discourse, a wider political process.  And, of course, this is precisely the function of the ‘mainstream’ political parties: to try and accommodate all these different and often competing interests and identities.  Up until recently, at any rate, this type of ‘accommodation’ was one of the defining characteristics of liberal democratic societies, with liberal democracy itself being the ‘ideal’ political framework for global capitalism.  In this sense, identity politics can be seen as an important part of the cultural expression of global capital.

It is perhaps no surprise then that, as Žižek argues, multiculturalism, and by extension, identity politics, is ‘the ideal form of ideology’ for global capitalism, because it is ‘doing the ultimate service to the unrestrained development of capitalism by actively participating in the ideological effect to render its massive presence invisible’.   And this is not simply another way of saying that multiculturalism and identity politics are a ‘distraction’ from the ‘real’ fight against global capitalism (the standard [hard] leftist argument).  Rather, multiculturalism and identity politics are the cultural counterpart of global capitalism itself, its ideological manifestation.  This is because, argues Žižek, in the same way that global capitalism is ‘self-colonising’, so are multiculturalism and identity politics.  By this he means that, in contrast to the idea of Western metropoles colonising the developing world, as in the heyday of British and American imperialism, nowadays capitalism simple colonises the whole world, including its former metropoles.  In other words, there are no longer any colonisers, only the colonised, and global capitalism occupies the position of an ‘empty point of universality’.

And in exactly the same way, multiculturalism, and by extension identity politics, represent cultural colonisation without a coloniser.  Each culture, each identity, is treated as a ‘native’ population, whose particular characteristics are to be carefully studied and ‘respected’.  But studied and respected by whom?  From the position of an empty point of universality, which in earlier times would have been occupied by the Western colonial powers as they tried to ‘understand’ (whilst subduing) the ‘natives’.  But now, of course, we are all ‘natives’, all colonised peoples, all in the gaze of the multiculturalist/champion of identity politics as the privileged empty point of universality.  In this sense multiculturalism and identity politics become, in Žižek’s words, ‘a disavowed, inverted, self-referential form of racism’ in which the champions of multiculturalism and identity politics maintain a distance from the Other by virtue of their privileged universal position.

But there are limits to such an ‘accommodation’  and acceptance of different cultures and identities, even within liberal democracy and global capitalism.  I mentioned two earlier: Islamic jihadism and neo-Nazism.  And the key point here is not only do both these ideologies and practices represent an affront to the values of liberal democracy; they are also the complete negation of such values and way of life.  They are the true ‘exceptions’ to liberal democracy and give lie to the fiction of universal ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’.   The point about Islamic jihadism and neo-Nazism is that they are both based on ideologies of violence and of life as a perpetual state of emergency.

The irony here, of course, is that these are precisely the characteristics of global capitalism, in the sense that global capitalism survives through constant mutation and transgression of social, political and cultural norms, which can be thought of as a form of perpetual violence and violation.  Identity politics and multiculturalism effectively ‘cover over’ the Real (violence) of global capitalism, but are themselves called into question by their own ‘exceptions’, their own limits, their own ‘symptoms’, which manifest themselves in the form of extremist ideologies such as jihadism and (neo) Nazism.