This year has seen the mass formation of stories of belonging in defiance to an imagined social order of cultural dominance: #metoo, people of color, it’s OK to be white, neurodiversity, gender diversity, identity politics, alt-right, intellectual dark web. majority-minority. These new claims of belonging, of strength through identity, oppose the powers that be, and dictate a militant speech of cultural war. They propose a claim of displacement and vengeful dispossession of belonging: those who are not like us have been dominant for too long, and have enjoyed possession of the terms of belonging too easily. It is time to shout them down, one way or another; to denounce their exclusions, to tear down their fences and to expose the lies that are spoken in their clubs; and to march into their places and to burn down their homes.
The culture wars lay claim to belonging itself. They weaponise belonging. Terms such as “people of colour” recycle the epithets of high nineteenth century racism – “colored people” – as a battle-standard that obliterates all cultural subtlety and all weak ties between people other than the index of domination by biological markers. This reversed intimidation demands a new kind of Maoist self-criticism from those who cannot belong; or else
it demands a confused self-identification as someone you are not by those who know they are but wish they were not part of the historical oppressors. So we see phenomenon such as Rachel Anne Doležal, of white ancestry yet identifying as black, of moderate wealth yet claiming to be poor and reliant on welfare. Or the new spiritualism of gender fluidity, and its belief in the wholly cultural nature of the self-assignment of gender (that justifies rather biological treatments of surgery and hormonal medication). Or the use by some alt-right heroes, such as Ben Shapiro, of bullying polemic against bullying ideological zealots in a downward spiral of violent belonging that ends in a degraded public square.
And yet with all these armies of belonging and identity on the march, I feel I belong nowhere. The world of politics is in disarray with the collapse of liberal delusions, the breakdown of the American empire, and democracies in decay. The world of civil speech has become a vicious guerilla war of competing identities, with which I doo not identify. The world of bureaucracy, in which I have so long dwelled, has become the field of patronage and a stage to display the new politics of belonging, and I am excluded or exclude myself from both. Every stage of literary culture is wracked by professions of belonging, and a fascination with ideas that are not likely persist. Only in the quiet possession of the infinite conversation do I find a safe space to share my terrible sonnets and black paintings of the vision of our cultural collapse.
Image Credit Francisco Goya, Visión fantástica o Asmodea. Óleo sobre muro trasladado a lienzo. 123 x 265 cm. Museo del Prado (Madrid).