QA 49. A motley cruise? (JWTC 2014: Archives of the non-racial)

A motley crew is a cliché for a roughly organized assembly of characters. Typical examples of motley crews are pirates, Western posses, rag-tag mercenary bands, and freedom fighters… characters of conflicting personality, varied backgrounds and, usually to the benefit of the group, a wide array of methods for overcoming adversity. Traditionally, a motley crew [that]… comes into conflict with an organized, uniform group of characters, will prevail. (Wikipedia)

This weekend I’m hooking up with the good folks of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC). They who definitely dare to go: a two-week mobile workshop on the theme Archives of the Non-Racial, using South African histories to “assess the possibilities and limits of the ‘nonracial’ in terms of the politics of the modern world and its core values: democracy, freedom, dignity, equality, the human, universality, justice”.

There will be fifty-odd participants from everywhere, including academics, journalists and public intellectuals working across the humanities, social sciences, arts and medical sciences. We’ll travel by bus from Johannesburg to Swaziland, Durban, King Williams Town, Knysna and Cape Town, on a blazing trail of talks and tours and cultural events. The talks are open to the public: if we’re coming to your town, do check out the programme. You can (of course) follow us on social media.  I’ll be blogging here and posting on Facebook too.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking about what I think about race and identity and the politics thereof. Here are a couple of strands of that.


First of all, I’m sceptical about identity. Apparently, I am a white woman, right of hand, left of wing, middle of age and class, Anglophone, Scots-Canadian-South African, more-or-less this, more-or-less that. All of which fails to nail down this astonishing fact of presence that I am. And even more so, for you! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For every x that completes the sentence “I am x”, x is a fairy tale. It’s all performative, Judith.

In this view, identity is not a natural fact. It’s a contingent mix of choice and happenstance, but it’s also relational, historical, expressive, meaningful and significant. To identify-as or identify-with is thus an ethical act, one I find myself responsible for. In other words: from an unquantifiable present “I”,  I now appear as somebody, a reduction in which I am not alienated, in which indeed I find myself. A woman with qualities.

Or it could be alienating. One gets identified by others, in society, in community, on parade. Identity, by definition, functions in terms of categories; it is to be one of a kind, one of us or one of them. As an x one becomes an object to others – whether of affection, abuse, esteem or contempt. It gets political. This is where all the varieties of xenophobia and chauvinism come in, as do group pride and some forms of solidarity.

Identity can be normative and epistemic, bound up in the way a group knows itself, its practices and its idea of the Good. It can be a source of shame, if it marks one out for oppression, exclusion or hatred. Certainly, humiliated identities must be reclaimed, revalued and the truth be told, as in pride and consciousness-raising movements. The same goes for false identities of superiority. But does that go far enough, if one thereby stays rooted in x-ness like a pea in its pod?

When one can liberate one’s subjectivity – the who-ness prior to the what-ness – all these reins and chains of identity become resources: what you and I bring to the table, the particular cards we get to play. The particular tools we can use to dismantle the master’s house, yes.



Neoliberal capitalism must be one of the greatest achievements in human history. A consumption machine rolling mindlessly across the planet, tearing through social and ecological systems, it turns everything it touches into commodity, more of the same, justified by the irresistibility of its own logic and its accumulation of wealth. As hegemonies go, it’s a stunner. Let’s call it “the master’s house”.

How do we bring it down? Not by force, not by terror, not by appeasement. Not, in short, on its own terms. It seems to me that we need to put on some martial arts moves. “Be like water, my friend!” And I think we should not be too frightened. Behind every Great and Powerful Wizard, there’s just a man behind a curtain running the show. To have a laugh at his expense always does a world of good.

But to really undo neoliberalism, we will need to think  and to value differently. That’s a lot to ask, for sure, but I don’t believe any less is asked of us. (And to have so much asked is itself an honour, although much too much to go swelling one’s head with.) I think the answer must be already with us, within our humanity and the “minute particulars” of our subjectivity. I like Marx’s comment that the task of critical philosophy is to understand the meaning of our struggles and desire. I also think there  might be an answer in taking up what neoliberalism has cast out and despised – in the “feminine”, the “primitive” and the “native”, just for instance. Above all, I’m very sure that we need to do it together, in various kinds of conversation, with all of who we are.

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