I was recently reflecting on the relationship between the idea that we are a product of our conditions and personal experience.
I came to this when I was watching the newest season of House of Cards with a friend and [spoilers] we were watching the break down of Will Conway, the opponent of Kevin Spacey’s character in the U.S. presidential election. In the show, knowing that he can’t win a straight election, Spacey’s character manipulates the situation to stay in office and drag out the election for months, and this eventually leads to the psychological breakdown of his opponent. I expressed some sympathy for Conway and my friend said, “Who cares? He’s still a rich, white guy.” And that got me thinking: who does care about the significance of experience outside of the context of identity politics? Who recognizes it? If nobody does, does it exist? Outside of the political categories to which I belong, do I exist? (At this point my thoughts veer away from the specific conversation about House of Cards; please do not read the rest of this essay as a commentary on my friend)
In this new context of thinking about what is and is not real, I suddenly realized there’s a through line here: erasure of actual experience in favor of representational meaning is a bipartisan effort, recently made famous by Trump. If it doesn’t matter what you experience unless it can be categorized politically, then there’s no you anymore, you have been abstracted into broader categories of identity over which you have little to no control, and absolutely no authority. Nobody can speak to your experience, so the saying goes, but it seems to have an unspoken second half: and therefore, nobody acknowledges it. Cuz if a white guy’s whiteness and guyness erase his experience — that is, if categories of political identity are the only way to measure what is happening in the world — then it doesn’t matter what happens, it only matters how we label what happens. And that way of measuring the real is actually the baby of the Left, although it is currently being fostered by the Right. Mommy and daddy don’t get along, but they’re both parents of this thing, now.
The Left, within its own, has tolerated for far too long this stubborn refusal to acknowledge and uplift the role that experience plays in Being, and consequently, the role that Being plays in creating the conditions in which we live together. The pinnacle of this moment is the President himself, who does not acknowledge experience, meeting the Left on its own chosen battleground: naming what we see. It was, I am beginning to see, only a matter of time before the Right figured this out; if the only thing the Left measures meaning with is labels, the only thing they have to challenge are the labels. They don’t have to get into the experience of being sexually harassed, they just have to claim that the name for it is something besides sexual harassment. And so on, and so forth.
All of this is very interesting but it actually isn’t even the crux of the point. The take home message here is not actually political, it’s deeply personal. Jean Baudrillard, in his famous work, Simulacra and Simulation, argues that when we replace meaning with symbols that point to meaning, e.g. when we use a label like “man” to define the experience of a man, we cease to be, and instead, become a mere simulation of being. (For him, we already had by 1981 when this was published.) I want to suggest that this critique carries far more weight for each of us personally than it does for all of us communally, because the consequence is that while we only exist as a function, you don’t exist at all. There is no part of you anymore that’s you, it’s all some subset of we.
I try to avoid prescription, but I think there’s something to be said for taking some time to pay attention to the parts of your conception of yourself that are not direct products of your political identity, and then to extend that lens to the world. What would a dead, rich white guy in North Korea look like that through that lens? What would your best friend look like? Your worst enemy? Your family? You? Do you exist?