I’m somewhat hesitant to write this. It might be my most controversial post thus far for the obvious reason: What does an old white dude (me, or Badiou, or both) have to say that could possibly be productive for identity politics — the discourse that tries to take some power back from the old white dudes (rightfully so).
Potential problem: only those who are in the same situation can speak about their experiences, and those who are not in a similar experience cannot and should not speak about those more oppressed them themselves. The result: “allies” cannot exist. For example, people of color cannot speak about Blackness in the United Sates because the experience of Blackness it is much worse to be Black in the states than it is to be a person of color.
This leads to all sorts of potential problems. But the main one is this: it opens up a distance between the people of power and the oppressed people, which cannot be traversed. Thus, they cannot work together and any sort of redemptive work that is done is achieved only by the oppressed working amongst themselves and forcefully seizing the power from the powerful.
I think it is productive for those with similar experiences to talk about these painful experiences with one another. But it cannot be the only project. That is, if the only project of the oppressed is to make sure that they are represented correctly (the oppressed deem how correct it is, presuming there is unified front), than this only project will forever be one of expressing oppression. And since no one can join, or help, then it is a project for only for the oppressed to remain oppressed.
I realize that this may be an extreme view. But it exists all the same.
Let’s turn to a rather recent movement: Idle No More. I have been under the impression that it has basically failed — conditions are basically the same. The engagement with the murdered and missing women of the indigenous community has still not had proper attention by the Government. This is undoubtedly unacceptable. And yet, despite all of the protests and campaigns, why can’t we get the government to do anything?
An Event, for Badiou, includes everyone. Universal Salvation (St. Paul) and The French Revolution are good examples: freedom for all, salvation for all. An Event births a procedure that infinitely investigates all of the terms of a situation by relating it to the positive name: Idle No More. In so doing, it overturns priorities and projects according to the new Event. The Event positively re-orients the conversation with a positive name and positive goals: we want this, this has to change, stop doing this, etc. In contrast to the politics of refusal — Occupy Wall Street (I prefer not to participate in Capitalism, but I have no alternative).
Idle No More definitely seems to include everyone in Canada: we all can understand the need for clean drinking water, decent living conditions, access to healthy food, education, and so on. If it includes everyone, why is it that the conditions remain the same. Sure, maybe the conversation has changed, but this happened with Occupy Wall street.
Badiou would probably say that though everyone is implicated and included, there isn’t much of a project for anyone except those that are suffering. Those that are not suffering can basically just say “yes, I also think this is shitty. But what is there for me to do?” There is nothing for them to gain except, perhaps, a cleaner conscience. An Event must demand something of everyone, and everyone must have something to gain from it. And since Idle No More lacked this essential element, it was doomed to fail from the outset. If there is to be a change in the abominable conditions in the reserves and the dishonoring of treaties, then there needs to be a project for everyone. At least, this is what Badiou might say. I’ll end with a quote of his from an essay on politics and philosophy.
“When I hear people say ‘we are oppressed as blacks, as women’, I have only one problem: what exactly is meant by ‘black’ or ‘women’? … Can this identity, in itself, function in a progressive fashion, that is, other than as a property invented by the oppressors themselves? … I understand very well what ‘black’ means for those who use that predicate in a logic of differenciation, oppression, and separation, just as I understand very well what ‘French’ means when Le Pen uses the word, when he champions national preference, France for the French, exclusion of Arabs, etc. … Negritude, for example, as incarnated by Césaire and Senghor, consisted essentially of reworking exactly those traditional predicates once used to designate black people: as intuitive, as natural, as primitive, as living by rhythm rather than by concepts, etc. … I understand why this kind of movement took place, why it was necessary. It was a very strong, very beautiful, and very necessary movement. But having said that, it is not something that can be inscribed as such in politics. I think it is a matter of poetics, of culture, of turning the subjective situation upside down. It doesn’t provide a possible framework for political initiative.
The progressive formulation of a cause which engages cultural or communal predicates, linked to incontestable situations of oppression and humiliation, presumes that we propose these predicates, these particularities, these singularities, these communal qualities, in such a way that they be situated in another space and become heterogeneous to their ordinary oppressive operation. I never know in advance what quality, what particularity, is capable of becoming political or not; I have no preconceptions on that score. What I do know is that there must be a progressive meaning to these particularities, a meaning that is intelligible to all. Otherwise, we have something which has its raison d’être, but which is necessarily of the order of a demand for integration, that is, of a demand that one’s particularity be valued in the existing state of things ….
That there is a remnant or a support of irreducible particularity, is something I would acknowledge for any kind of reality. . . But in the end, between this particularity present in the practical, concrete support of any political process, and the statements in the name of which the political process unfolds, I think there is only
a relation of support, but not a relation of transitivity. You can’t go from the one to the other, even if one seems to be ‘carried’ by the other. . . It is not because a term is a communal predicate, nor even because there is a victim in a particular situation, that it is automatically, or even easily, transformed into a political category (‘Politics and Philosophy’: 1998: 118-19).14“