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Saturday, October 03, 2020

Dis-identification politics


To judge that a thing is bad is a philosophical task, but in the novel of real life, we more often judge that a person is bad. We more often think, that is, about how we don’t want to be or function like X, and create a negative figure out of that moment of negative choice. Those are the figures, in essence, that we compete with. And often, the badness of the figure becomes stronger than the reasons we hold an act or a function to be bad. Out of this comes snobbery and wounded dignity. The latter emerges from the moment in which we are squeezed between the figure that represents ‘how we don’t want to be’ and something that upsets our judgment about how we don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a liberal academic, or a poser, or a fan of country music, or a supporter of Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, etc., etc. translates into a satisfying comparison that emphasizes why I am not like liberal academics, posers, fans of country music, supporters of Trump or Sanders or whoever. At least I am not like X: This is the moral stance of the contemporary hero.

Sketching out this aspect of moral life, it points to a problem in the way sociologists mapping out our positive identifications as primary. That’s an idealistic stance. Dis-identification is just as important.

It might seem like the logical endpoint of “how we don’t want to be” is enmity. But the fundamental situation of the self versus the enemy is in combat, and there is always something mortal about enemies. You wish your enemies dead. Your enemies wish you dead. Whereas dis-identification is more about edging away from people, and there’s a different fundamental situation that models it:  being surrounded by. Being surrounded by Republicans. Being surrounded by woke types. Being surrounded by lefties, righties, pinkos, rednecks, yahoos, jerkoffs, feminazis, dittoheads. Whatever. To be surrounded by cuts off the ability to edge away. Terrifyingly, to an outsider, one can be identified with the crowd of ‘how we don’t want to be.’

This is the great insight of the classical English comic writers. In French literature, the thousand meannesses of everyday life are treated as though they have a certain grandeur – think of Lisbeth’s revenge in Cousine Bette – since the French have a genius for enmity.  In English and to a certain extent the anglophone culture,   those meannesses are filtered through the comedy of wounded dignity or snobbery, since the English genius is for edging away. Dickens had a gift for showing the dis-identifying gesture, and his most famous autobiographical image, of David Copperfield in the blacking factory, combines the sense of being surrounded, the sense of being in the wrong crowd, and the crisis of identification with the intensity of some Anglo myth of origins.


Canetti, in Crowds and Power, investigates the powerful theme of the sudden, unwanted contact – in relation to the morphology of the crowd. Dis-indentification is related to the most primal form of politics, that which comes out of a stick or a club.


A branch which broke off in the hand was the origin of the stick. Enemies could be feded off with a stick and space made for the primitive creature who perhaps no more than resembled man. Seen from a tree, the stick was the weapon which lay nearest to hand. Man put his trust in it and has never abandoned it. It was a cudgel; sharpened it became a spear; bend and the ends tied together, a bow; skillfully cut, it made arrows. But through all these transformations it remained what it had been originally: an instrument to create distance, something which kept away from the touch and the grasp that they feared. In the same way that the upright human stance still retains a measure of grandeur, so, through all its transformations the stick has never wholly lost its magical quality; as scepter and sorcerer’s wand it has remained the attribute of two important forms of power.




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