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On universal and particular identities

In a lecture delivered at KW Institute for Contemporary art in Berlin, Slavoj Žižek problematizes the dialectical relationship between universal and particular. He points out the common way of thinking in which particular elements are struggling among each other, while universality would be the space of this struggle. For him, the first antagonism is not between particular moments within universality, but between universality and its particular forms. Thus, his question is: “What if universality is a name of a certain antagonism and particular forms are attempts to…deal with this antagonism?” In this way, the multiplicity of individual forms is conceived as a series of attempts to resolve tension which will, in turn, define the universal. Following his thoughts, universality can only be defined retroactively.[i]

Émilie Dionne in “The politics of becoming: breaking the identity ground of cyborgs/posthumans and humans” argues that individual identities, are “always dynamic and constructed both in the mingling of bodies and mind, the embodiment of context/environment, as well as through interactions with other actants and environments.” In this way, she points out the misleading direction of understanding identity as the synthesis of one’s past, rather than a trajectory.[ii] Adding Žižek’s lenses on Dionne’ text, there is no universal understanding of particular identities once it is constantly an attempt to resolve tension through interactions with others, the self, and the environment. Therefore, one might conclude that identity can only be defined retroactively.

In the same way as Žižek, Dionne seeks for a distance between the subject and the universal. She questions the totalized and essentialized understanding of identities when set as metaphors of nature myths, e.g., when the definition of woman is merging with the combination of nature as mother, goddess, or virgin, which for her, far from autonomizing the ‘subject’, confines it to a specific place, with specific functions.[iii] In this example, the universalized essence of a woman defines what every particular woman should be. She proposes to explore what exists outside of these systems; she is interested in what could emerge from different assemblages.

There is a fine line where the "universal" is washed out of subjectivity, standing instead for the absence of identities. So is the definition of a future that is pre-established for everyone in the same way (read, future and non-future). This path manifests itself ambiguously, according to a traditional understanding of time, space and matter as absolute states. This easily induces a political position of totality, where the distance between particular and universal is neutralized, erased, creating a mere illusion of equality between its particular forms.



[i] (Žižek, Lecture delivered at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (Germany) on December 16th 2011., 2011)


[ii] (Dionne, 2018, p. 7)


[iii] (Ibid., p. 9)

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