Society doesn’t have a voice, but people do. And when a system designed to represent a society ends up excluding large swathes of it, people organise. In the late-1960s, “identity politics” arose in response to the failure of existing political structures to represent the needs of ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and the LGBT community.
Since then, among some, identity politics has become a byword for putting the interests of a particular group over those of the wider community. What’s implied is that political decisions shouldn’t be based on accommodating the needs of vying groups, but should be taken from an impartial, objective vantage point—the so-called “view from nowhere.” Power should operate invisibly.
There’s a corollary in literature. Some people believe that the best writing—the best poetry, novels and criticism—should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns.
Take the case of Peter Riley. In a long career spent sucking at the teat of modernism, he’s studiously sought to avoid using personal pronouns in his poetry—especially the dreaded first-person!—and, in his criticism, berated writers for not trying hard enough to escape their personalities.
In a recent review of Vahni Capildeo’s collection Measures of Expatriation, he makes identity politics a shorthand for everything he aesthetically (and, no doubt, politically) sets himself against:
In practice “identity politics” seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there. But its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict… The self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc. He/she acts, speaks and breathes as that member. The only voice is the authentic voice of the author or reporter of factual detail.
I’d feel some sympathy for Riley if he paid any attention to the marketing and reception of texts by non-white authors—which very often does make a fetish of alterity, so keeping even successful authors on the margins—but he targets poets themselves. And his argument is so simple-minded it feels almost degrading—worse, boring—to respond to. But, being symptomatic of wider mis-thinking, it demands a response.
The phrase “existential realities” should have anyone’s bullshit alarm going “dilly ding, dilly dong.” Apparently, a poem dictated by the unspoken (but, we can only assume, universally agreed-on) rules of identity politics, rejects “existential realities” in favour of “personal experience”. This is what’s called a dichotomy: a favourite rhetorical device of the disingenuous. Most are false and, in this case—one of the terms being made-up and vague and the other an unspecific caricature of “modern poetry”—of absolutely no use.
Before you try and get your head around it, anyway, Riley immediately contradicts himself. Though the identity politics-poem is based on personal experience its “admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group”. It both is and isn’t based on experience then? So if you’re a part of the “group,” then, you could get away with writing a collage poem about the excavation of Sutton Hoo and it would still be personal and, indeed, admissible—though Riley doesn’t say where…
(It’s easy to take the rantings of an old white men like Riley on good faith—to assume that because they toss out phrases like “existential realities” they know what they’re talking about—when, really, we should be asking what this guy’s been smoking.)
In the second half of the paragraph, Riley says that the “self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc.” As one who scorns the first-person and writes from the (invisible, incontestable) perspective of nowhere, he can’t stand the fact that some people choose to write from positions that might be called queer, feminist or mixed-race.
That dismissive “etc. etc.” speaks volumes. “[S]exual orientation, gender, ethnicity” represent three co-ordinates in the endlessly intersecting matrix of identity. But Riley can’t admit the self to be as complicated as all that, for that would suggest even a “gay” or a “black” writer might still be capable of adopting—or performing—several perspectives at once.
This is characteristic, as Edward Said points out, of imperial thinking. At the end of Culture and Imperialism, Said says, “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.” But Riley can’t leave them behind. And he contemptuously restricts identity to “one thing” when he claims that the self which forms part of a (non-white, non-cishetero) group “acts, speaks and breathes as that member.”
If he were to read—actually read—the kind of poetry he attacks (which he cites no examples of), he’d see how many poets, by delving into actual “personal experience,” don’t just assert their membership of a group but complicate the boundaries between a whole variety of different, sometimes conflicting groups. They reject invisibility, but not so as to become authentic “reporter[s] of factual detail”. Their aim is to attain—and often create for the first time—a more complex (existential) reality.
It should go without saying that no artist wants to be known solely as a member of a particular ethnic group or for having a certain skin tone or disability. And obviously no one would want to think that any success they achieve—very much against the odds—might be put down to that (especially given such group-membership isn’t chosen).
When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria”. The alterity of the non-white artist is made both cause and effect of any success achieved. Success is pre-emptively debased.
Kayo Chingonyi writes of the “double bind” writers of colour are in: “either they imitate the—predominantly white—canonical writers of the literary establishment, doing a violence to a part of themselves, or they write into or through their heritage and encourage a critical reading that privileges their identity.” Hounded by sneering journalists and dim-witted critics, the third way—as impersonally scouted by Riley—comes to seem the only option: become invisible.
As a teenager, I remember reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and being obsessed, in particular, with Stephen Dedalus’s speech to Lynch about aesthetics. In it, he describes the progress of literature as following three main stages: first, there’s the lyrical—the “simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion”—then there’s the epical, where the narrative is “no longer purely personal,” and finally the dramatic, at which point the artist fills every character “with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life.” The higher the art, the more impersonal the artist:
The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
This, I imagine, is how Riley likes to think of himself: “refined out of existence”. But, ultimately, Stephen’s words are those of a young man barely out of adolescence, and laced with parody. The effeminate image of God “paring his fingernails,” for example, recalls a schoolmate of Stephen’s called Boyle who earns the nickname “Lady Boyle” because he’s always paring his nails. It also puts the onus on the artist-God’s indifference rather than invisibility (if you were truly invisible you wouldn’t need to pare your nails).
As it begins to rain, Lynch undercuts Stephen by suggesting that in Ireland, this “Godforsaken island,” it makes sense for the artist to want to retire “within or behind his handiwork”. Even the desire to impersonalise oneself is framed by a specific local context. As Raymond Williams says, after describing the period during which William Blake lived as one of “hunger, suffering, conflict, dislocation”: this stuff wasn’t “background… it was, rather, the mould in which general experience was cast.” There is no such thing as pure background. Even the desire to escape from one’s experience has to be put in context.
Stephen wants to “fly by the nets of nationality, language, religion” but that won’t change his background, the fact his experience has been cast in an English-speaking, Irish Catholic mould (does “fly by” mean he’s flying past or with the help of those nets?). Like his namesake, he knows that a straightforward bid for freedom risks disaster, is hubristic even. The only way out is through. He discovers his identity as a writer by delving further into his nationality and language and religion, by struggling with those things. Which means not being cowed by those who seek to class him as “one thing,” or who would dismiss any such discussion outright as identity politics.