Derrida once wrote of the sun, of heliopolitics. He mentions in Of Grammatology that this politics is one of recognition. It is a violent process. But, in my reading, a necessary one. “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.” I want to talk about fear and fragility in the art of self-creation and public recognition in what I would call democratic projects.
I’ll admit that I’ve been reading a lot of Connolly lately. I’ve been developing ideas that impress upon our notions of social movements, and the relationality of identity. But what struck me most, the other day, was a concept that I believe him to be advancing — that our identities are fragile. I found myself reiterating this claim in my queer politics class. I suggested that when we work from the standpoint that our identities are fixed within an uncontestable constellation of plain truths and social facts, we risk fundamentalism. And in that fundamentalism, we risk placing democratic (and indeed queer) projects in peril.
I’m not certain how well articulated this claim was at that time – mostly because they happened as we were discussing a completely separate article, one about queer nomadology. (That term – and maybe the entirety of Deleuze – still leaves me in a quandary.) What we read posited that our selves are situated not only through language and various contestable social foundations as a result, but also geographically. This geography of selfhood can be broken, split, destroyed, betrayed, territorialized, and re-territorialized. This didn’t amount to an abstract claim. The author was conducting an ethnography of homeless queer kids in NYC. And then it struck me. How fragile these kids were, yet how strong their democratic projects became (FIERCE being one product).
This led to various screeds from my students. From the perils of gentrification to the evils of neoliberalism, to the otherness created within colonialism – I still found them all within the orbit of fragility, vulnerability, insecurity. I inquired whether they believed that identities should be posited as secure, uncontestable, and fixed – biologically distinct aspects. Or should they remain open, as some in queer theory have maintained, to contest and situatedness (not to mention constructedness). The answers were mixed. Because what I began to see unfold was a weird dialectic. Students found themselves at a loss of how to construct their public selves for democratic projects when their private selves seemed so well-settled. Of course ‘democratic projects’ needed unpacking, and we did our fair share (from workers’ cooperatives, to relational self-care phone trees, to community food and home sharing). But when they began to speak about how to open up the political moment, most flinched.
The inescapable climate, the ineluctable drive, toward the notion of a fixed self owes a great deal to liberal perceptions of rights, and perhaps a tad bit to the scientism (and I use that word deliberately) we are seeing surround contemporary non/political discussions. For the latter, take biology, and its use to the service of an argument that our uncontestable selves as gays and lesbians and people of color and trans people deserve the equal protection of the law – as if the law, and its grand equality, were some transcendent terrain based upon the moral desert authorized by the non-arbitrariness biology. Yet the former, liberalism, is implicated in the latter. The agonism that must ensue, because the selves constructed within liberalism are so vast, and so non-common, creates the following condition: contesting rights must necessarily be settled on some transcendental terrain. That terrain is the law. No doubt capitalism and its obdurate cousin, neoliberalism, play their role in how we are constructing the legal terrain or responsibility, self-hood, and identity.
So we fear the political, for it opens the closure we assumed existed to protect our selves from contestation. But that fear only rests on a hopelessly tired formulation that we are NOT products of public and social processes. For if we were, our very selves are immanently political. It would mean that there is no truly private self (no matter how hard Simmel tried to make this point, no matter how meticulous Weber’s arguments were about individuality in a new age of social relations). How frightening. But this imposed dichotomy — where the one (the public self) is accepted as political and the other (the private self) is a stable fixity – creates the conditions for neglecting our own fragility. It reproduces a masculinist drive toward fragility’s other: durability, strength, continuity. The fear of fragility encloses the varied spaces where political contest ought to happen most – in our families, our communities, our ‘public’ spaces, our streets, our homes. And thus the reproduction of durability emerges: violence, exclusion, death. And perhaps what is most needed from those self-ironic post-modernists like Derrida or Foucault or Puar, with their new metaphors and (in)consistent interrogations of the order of things, is the ethical obligation to hold each others’ fragility as a source of collective empowerment. To identify how we might call in instead of call out. To see how our democratic projects are always informed by fragile beings in search of recognition.