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Legos and Logos - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Legos and Logos
Standing at the Department photocopier a little while ago, my thoughts drifted to my other book project, the first one that has now become my second.

Saying what it's about never seems to do justice to my approach, but for brevity's sake I tell people that it shows how to read a series of post-1945 American novels as if they were a kind of political theory.

The hard part is explaining that the project stands both nearer to the novels -- reading them closely -- and further away from them than that description implies. It is, in other words, in several places at once: reading, showing how to read, AND reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of trying to read for politics.

The foundation on which this delicate balancing act rests is the presumption that A) political change depends as much on breaking people out of destructive relationships as it does on encouraging them to forge new ones; and B) that identity is the primary impediment to the former process.

I suppose that makes it sound like some sort of self-help program. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

Anyway, I was musing, as is often the case, on the extent to which my project is itself the product -- some would say symptom -- of the problem that it examines. It is bound to the conviction that identity is the linchpin for politics, just as people are bound to -- or should I say "by" or "with"? -- the identities that pin them inside destructive political relationships.

Sometimes I dream of tackling my project from a completely different angle, one in which the concept of identity won't be so central.

However, since the novels I'm looking at are usually considered either apolitical or anti-political -- opposed to certain modes of politicization -- taking this new tack would necessitate starting from scratch. The only way I can make a case for reading these apolitical and anti-political novels as if they represented a kind of political theory is if identity really is as important as my project -- as it stands now -- indicates.

Basically, the idea is that the novels I'm examining in the project have the potential to do a better job of breaking their readers out of destructive political relationships than overtly political novels. To put this in sexier terms, I argue that we need novels that deconstruct identity as much as ones that seek to construct new identities. And, what is more, we need the deconstructive ones first.

The more I thought about these questions this morning, the more I realized that my desire to start over makes no sense.

When I first started to read philosophy, I was lost. But then, with the help of Julian Boyd, my own love for etymology, and the experience of reading difficult texts in German, I started to realize that the important questions in philosophy can almost always be reduced to something simple. Discerning the humble roots in philosophical terms made me comprehend the humble roots of philosophy. At bottom, philosophy is largely preoccupied with classification: what goes with what, what must be separated from what, what can belong to more than one category. Philosophers group together and push apart. They make one out of many and many out of one. They reorder the world, fitting its infinite complexity into the frame of their terminology.

To be blunt, here, I believe that philosophy is interested in identity above all else. I don't mean "identity" in the psychological sense -- who I believe myself to be, what social groups I feel I belong to -- so much as "identity" in its most basic sense: when two things are THE SAME AS each other, not necessarily in EVERY way, but in SOME way, in the way the philosopher's description indicates.

It's not hard to get from that basic, almost mathematical conception of identity and the more abstract, diffuse notion of identity that means, roughly, "sense of self."

What this means for my project is simply that I'm in good company in putting identity at the center. Mine may be a philosophical approach to politics, but when you consider that the first political theorists tended to double as philosophers, it's eminently defensible.

It would be hard to deny that real-world politics involves grouping people together into blocs that can be used for some end -- like, say, blue-collar union workers or Christians afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate -- while simultaneously trying to break apart or at least disable those blocs that benefit one's opponent.

To use the two examples I just cited, there are probably quite a few blue-collar union workers left in the States who are also Christians afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate. In this case, the political challenge would be to make those people who fall into both categories vote and act on the basis of one collective identity rather than the other.

Legos are a good metaphor to use in this sort of political thinking. Let's say the blue-collar union worker who is also a Christian afraid that gay marriage will become legitimate is a six-hole red lego brick. In order to build something politically useful with that lego, it will be necessary to connect it to lots of other legos that lock it in place, make it part of a structure. Once that happens, it will be a lot harder to extract the lego and use it for something else.

Unless, of course, a giant walks into the room and accidentally trips over the castle you've been painstakingly constructing.

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Muse: Sur un pont - Erik Satie - Complete Piano Works volume 5

3 comments or Leave a comment
tommix From: tommix Date: January 28th, 2004 06:52 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It's too bad the reading group never got its sea-legs. I was going to suggest Alain Badiou's "Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil" for the group (it's also very short, which would have been nice for the group). It sounds very interesting and seems connected, however indirectly, to your post. I believe he tries to reconfigure ethics, arguing that the bedrock of present-day ethics--the normative conception of human rights--is morally bankrupt. I assume that altering the notion of the ethical has implication for the political as well, in so far as Badiou's ethics would entail a rethinking of the notion of identity. Have you ever read Badiou, Charlie?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 28th, 2004 09:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


No, I haven't read him. But I edited a very long review of the book that was full of blockquotes, so I have a sense of what you mean.

Rights have to be assigned to something stable in order for them to have practical value.

That's why identity factors in, as you rightly indicate.

elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 29th, 2004 08:40 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
You really might want to take a look at Badiou’s take on the (specifically though not exclusively political) problem with identifications of self (I/we) based on differences. Or based on narcissisms—it’s really much the same thing after all.

Anyway, we read Badiou’s _Ethics_ for (you guessed it) ethics class last quarter. I hear it's shorter and more readable than his longer works on "the event" and such). I’m still thinking about this but Badiou critiques the whole set of so-called humanist (“multicultural,” “post-colonial”) positions that assume the ethical primacy of the Other over the Same. His critique of what pretty much amounts to “identity politics” is intriguing, and might prove worth looking at.

I'm trying to get myself to see the value and not cop-out of striving to retain 3-5 sentences about the works I read (knowing full well I'll read too much in the next few, many years to retain it all). Indulge me, if you will:

Part of the problem, Badiou says, is trying to root a workable ethics (extn politics/political action??) in prioritizing Otherness or constructions of identity—-which are always actually, troublingly, based on difference (separating whose rights deserve protection from whose don’t) and what’s more on the assumption of a radically prior difference (Evil) as the standard of measure. That sort of ethic doesn’t force us to deal with how we only come to understand identity by staking out fidelities, by finding ourselves again and again in situations and events whose circumstances confront us with the impossible necessity (or necessary impossibility) of having to choose, or having to own up to the way we’re always choosing. Its possibility that feels like impossibility, something like that. We find ourselves confronted with identifications and not identities, with callings into subjectivity and not stable subjects—-and we have to deal with the mess of that, with how Evil is only Evil when we organize that, before we can do anything at all.
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