History from Within

Identity and Interiority
Hannah Proctor


Identity’s insides

The hope for and history of resistance demands that we consider the question concerning the interiority of the deviant.[1]

                  Fred Moten

Debates about ‘identity politics’ are not new; structural inequalities and struggles against them are much older. Marxist critiques of identity politics tend to emphasize the importance of unity in political movements, to bewail the disappearance of ‘great, universal causes’, and to highlight the limitations of prioritizing one form of oppression over others (or, more precisely, to highlight the limitations of prioritizing any form of oppression over class).[2] Sometimes critiques of identity politics are made in good faith, pointing to the liberal tendencies of analyses that fail to situate particular forms of oppression within a social totality or for acting so as to affirm rather than overturn existing social hierarchies. Such arguments would, for example, distinguish ‘lean in’-style feminism concerned with the number of women on corporate boards or £10 notes from struggles for reproductive justice (and here only the first would be classified as ‘identity politics’). Wendy Brown, to cite one example, has identified a danger in orienting political movements around identities ‘rooted in social injury’ arguing that such movements come to rely on the continued existence of extant power relations. [3] Brown argues that identity politics can entrench rather than challenge forms of social subordination, essentializing identities and naturalizing existing structural inequalities in the process. She declares that identitarian positions make ‘a cultural or political fetish out of subordinated identities, out of the effects of subordination’ and contends that by leaving the causes of subordination undisturbed they include no vision of a transformed world. [4]

However, the valid political concerns articulated in such critiques are often drowned out by the stentorian voices of those on the Left for whom any discussion of race, gender, sexuality, disability etc. is automatically dismissed as ‘mere identity politics’. This use of the term as a casual and ill-defined pejorative to dismiss, devalue and disparage a wide range of struggles and political positions (which in practice often involves attacking marginalized people) renders the term itself hermeneutically blunt and perhaps even redundant, but the distinction undergirding some good faith critiques – between a politics that seeks to understand forms of oppression systemically, structurally, historically and interconnectedly, on the one hand, and a politics that upholds reified subject positions and hence existing social relations, on the other – is nonetheless worth defending.

In ‘Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics’ (1996) Nancy Fraser outlines two key categories of social justice claim, conventionally treated as distinct or even oppositional: redistributive claims and claims for recognition. She conceptualizes this opposition as one between ‘economism’ and ‘culturalism’, with the former being paradigmatically associated with traditional Marxist class analyses and the latter with political struggles organized around shared identities, such as race, gender or sexuality. She rejects the assumed antithesis between these models, however, and resists the hostility displayed by many proponents of redistribution towards struggles for recognition. She instead outlines the ‘bivalent’ qualities of collectives and argues that ‘injustice can only be remedied… by a practical orientation that encompasses both a politics of redistribution and a politics of recognition.’[5] This essay considers an aspect of identity that Fraser dispenses with: psychology.

According to Fraser the ‘locus [of misrecognition] is social relations, not individual psychology… misrecognition is a matter of externally manifest and publicly verifiable impediments to some people’s standing as full members of society.’[6] But the external (social) and internal (psychological) are not so easily disentangled. Both interpreting and changing the world necessitate engaging with how people think, feel and relate to others. While Fraser does not directly contradict this statement, she side-steps it by claiming that it is possible to fight injustice without recourse to psychological theories, which shift and are not coterminous with or adequate to the subjectivities they claim to describe: ‘One can show that a society whose institutionalized norms impede parity of participation is morally indefensible whether or not it distorts the subjectivity of the oppressed’. [7] Fraser is not wrong to suggest that analyzing psychological phenomena necessitates describing internal, latent, sometimes private and often unverifiable phenomena, nor is she mistaken to point out that paradigms and vocabularies for understanding subjective experience are historically and culturally contingent. But although interiorities may be obscure, difficult to analyze and inconsistently defined, this essay insists that subjectivity should not be subtracted from analyses of social injustice. And this is not only a moral question, but also a practical one because sidelining psychological questions can also be detrimental for social movements.

In debates about identity politics an overemphasis on the psychological often figures as one of its defining (and usually negative) features. Common to both good and bad faith variants of critiques of identity politics is a suspicion of the individual. In the essay ‘The Anti-Politics of Identity’ L.A. Kauffmann characterizes political movements originating in the nineteenth century as having universalist aspirations, which were founded in debates concerning the transformation of the public sphere. She argues that early social movements organized around identity – such as the civil rights movement and Women’s Liberation Movement – introduced experiential questions to politics and insisted on the political aspects of everyday life. But she argues these movements retained a public orientation, developed systemic accounts of subject formation and actively sought to transform institutionalized power structures. Although personal experiences of oppression were initially theoretically grounded in systemic structures like white supremacy or patriarchy such discussions, she claims, gradually took a ‘more introspective cast’, which she frames as a process of depoliticization.[8] According to Kauffmann, once active political movements began to mistake self-transformation for social transformation, which led ‘not only to a tendency to view self-exploration as a political process in itself, but also to a balkanization and fragmentation of the Left.’[9] Kauffmann, however, is quick to equate an emphasis on self-transformation and introspection with what she calls the ‘anti-politics of lifestyle’.[10] She criticizes politics for turning inwards, for focusing too much on psychological questions, but then paradoxically argues that the upshot of this was a reduction of politics to superficial outward displays of subcultural transgression: ‘Young radicals came to attribute politically subversive effects to everything from rock music to long hair to the use of marijuana’.[11] This essay refuses to equate attentiveness to psychological experience with apolitical individualism. The personal is political; the personal is also interpersonal.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s canonical interventions into debates around identity politics insisted on acknowledging intra-group differences and the intersection, ‘convergence’ or ‘confluence’ of different systems of oppression (pointing to the proscriptiveness of legal frameworks and with an emphasis on the marginalization of black women within both feminist and the civil rights movements). Crenshaw insists on the ‘multiple grounds of identity.’[12] Critics of intersectionality obsess over the flatness of Crenshaw’s intersection metaphor, and the distinct ‘roads’ it implies, a slightly ungenerous obsession given Crenshaw’s own statements regarding the provisional and preliminary qualities of her original formulation. For some, Crenshaw’s insistence on identity’s multiplicity does not fundamentally differentiate it from ‘identity politics’ insofar as they claim intersectional analyses also have a tendency to identify structures of oppression without adequately contextualizing or historicizing them. Salar Mohendesi notes that intersectional texts have a tendency to feature ‘breathless catalogues of injustice’ in the form of lists or litanies, making identities appear as fixed and a priori rather than historically produced (and hence reconfigurable or abolishable). [13] The implication in such critiques is that intersectionality risks emphasizing surfaces over depths, reducing people to cardboard cut-outs with long labels of attributes affixed to their torsos. In a detailed and generous discussion of intersectionality Jennifer C. Nash observes that intersectional analyses can sometimes muffle discussions of emotional experience such as ‘love, desire, eroticism, pleasure, mourning, grief.’[14] Yet such a criticism could equally be levelled at left-wing theorists who sacrifice an attentiveness to specific subjective experiences on the altar of grand narratives emphasizing continent and century spanning structures and systems of oppression. Of course, such structures and systems exist and must be analyzed in order to be overthrown – their vastness, longevity and complexity should not be mistaken for distance, irreality or abstraction – but ironically the very oppressed people such theories proclaim solidarity with can sometimes seem disappear from view in the process.[15]

Hannah Black notes that for bad faith ‘identity critics’ ‘it is impossible for race/gender to be directly political, because both belong to a private sphere of bodies, which lies either outside the public sphere of capital or within a sticky interior.’[16] But while many good faith critics of identity politics locate race and gender within the sphere of capital, they often still balk at the stickiness of interiority. In this essay my intention is not to divest the psyche of its stickiness, but to insist that even the weirdest and most sticky aspects of subjective human experience have a place in left-wing thought and struggles. My argument agrees with good faith critiques of identity politics insofar as it argues that although subjectivities are shaped by history, and hence by multiple structures of oppression and domination, interiorities (precisely because of their historicity) are not reducible to identity categories. However, I intend to depart from leftist identity critics by proposing that simply equating interiority with bourgeois individualism risks overlooking the generative ways in which an attentiveness to interiority might challenge a tendency to fetishize abstraction and generalization. Far from being an anathema to collectivity analyses of subjectivity could contribute to urgent materialist analyses of oppression.       


Accessing the Inaccessible

            Why didn’t I say emotion?

            Why did I say documents?[17]

            - Lisa Robertson

To live does not always mean to leave traces.[18] All histories of emotional experience are difficult to access but some are more inaccessible than others. A central figure in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra is a woman called Francis, a ‘Blackymore maide’ who was an active member of a radical congregation in Bristol in the 1640s. Linebaugh and Rediker know of Francis’s existence due to a small fragment of text written by Edward Terrill, a church elder. The structural inequalities of the past structured what was and was not deposited in the archives and Francis is remarkable for appearing in them at all: ‘She was black; he was white. She was a woman; he was a man. She was a sister in the congregation; he was an elder of the church. She was a servant; he was a master’.[19] The paucity of information about Francis and the second-hand quality of Terrill’s account prevents the authors from giving a ‘conventionally biographical’[20] account of her life but they perceive that mimicking the silences and gaps in the extant material risks reproducing the power relations that created those silences and gaps in the first place. Rather than abandoning Francis to oblivion they work outwards from that tiny trace to reinstate her in history. Yet although they argue that Terrill’s text betrays nervousness and anxiety on the part of its author, their analysis of Francis remains, to repeat Fraser’s phrase, ‘externally manifest'. They approach her as an ‘ensemble of social relations’[21] (the phrase is borrowed from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach): as a servant, a black person, a woman, and a Baptist. Would it have been possible to have written about her in any other way?

In a searing review from 1986 Linebaugh criticized Perry Anderson for the grandiosity and abstraction of his prose, for his detachment from people who experience exploitation and immiseration under capitalism and from the quotidian spaces in which they spend their days and nights.[22] The Many Headed Hydra could be seen to redress this tendency:

Our book looks from below. We have attempted to recover some of the lost history of the multiethnic class that was essential to the rise of capitalism and the modern, global economy. The historic invisibility of many of the book’s subjects owes much to the repression originally visited upon them: the violence of the stake, the chopping block, the gallows, and the shackles of a ship’s dark hold. It also owes much to the violence of abstraction in the writing of history.[23]

Linebaugh and Rediker are not entirely able to dispense with abstraction, however. Linebaugh’s review notes Anderson’s proclivity for bombastic adverbs; The Many Headed Hydra, by contrast, favours nouns. For all its passionately articulated paeans to the dispossessed, the groups of people Linebaugh and Rediker describe are frequently reduced to lists of occupations, ethnicities, religious affiliations or political groups. ‘Disspossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers, soldiers, sailors, African slaves’[24] – the litanies of collectivities that pepper the pages of The Many Headed Hydra necessarily remain as surfaces rather than depths. What was happening inside the many heads of the hydra? The historical record does not allow for an insight into what motivated, delighted, horrified, aroused, frightened or amused this vast ‘motley crew’ of individuals.[25] What would it mean to attempt to write a history from below that was also a history from within?

In ‘Lives of Infamous Men’ Michel Foucault discusses the ‘brief’, ‘compressed’ yet vivid lives sometimes glimpsed in archival documents. Foucault writes in an emotive register of his encounters with ‘lowly’ figures from the past who appear momentarily in official state records, ‘lives whose disarray and relentless energy one senses beneath the stone-smooth words’.[26] His intention was to assemble a collection of moments when obscure people suddenly seemed to leap out from the dry documents whose historical function was to control them, to register moments of textual dissonance where the official language was disturbed, ruffled or interrupted by ‘wild intensities’ that provide peaks into the ordinarily unrecorded ‘quotidian elements of existence.’[27] He hoped to demonstrate that ‘behind these quick words which may well have been false, mendacious, unjust, exaggerated, there were men [and presumably also women] who lived and died, with sufferings, meanness, jealousies, vociferations’.[28] Foucault acknowledges that these flashes of life were only carried into the present because of their encounters with power. He knows too that despite the ‘energy’ he perceives in short snatches of text, those lives can never be wrested from that power, which also partially determined them:

it is doubtless impossible to ever grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been “in a free state”; they can no longer be separated out from the declamations, the tactical biases, the obligatory lies that power games and power relations presuppose.[29]

Yet although Foucault asserts the impossibility of pulling lives whole from the rubble of the past, this does not undermine the intensity or immediacy of the brief encounter. Though ephemeral, fleeting and ‘mood-based’[30] the experience he describes is not unreal, but strangely poignant producing ‘a certain effect of beauty mixed with dread’[31], like a tiny crackle of intimacy shared between two strangers passing on a stairway.

Foucault’s phrase regarding the impossibility of grasping lives ‘as they might have been “in a free state”’ recurs like a haunting refrain throughout Saidiya Hartman’s ‘Venus in Two Acts’.[32] Her essay asks what can be said about the experiences of enslaved women in the Atlantic world when the only traces of their existences can be found in archival documents – ledgers, medical records, insurance papers, captain’s log-books, slave-trader’s correspondences etc – that ‘seized hold of their lives, transformed them into commodities and corpses’.[33] Initially she cites Foucault’s line as if in resigned agreement with his conclusions but goes on to push against the impossibility he proscribes, asking: ‘What is required to imagine a free state or to tell an impossible story?’[34] Hartman does not deny the impossibility of such a task but argues that performing the failure, crashing up against the limits, dwelling in the gaps or reading texts against the intentions of their authors creates ‘a productive tension and one unavoidable in narrating the lives of the subaltern, the dispossessed and the enslaved.’[35] Confronting the impossibility is a productive act, which refuses to accept the violence of the past and in so doing seeks to challenge the on-going violence of the present:

The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future.[36]

In contrast to Fraser’s assertion that social justice must focus on ‘publicly verifiable’ phenomena, Hartman insists on the necessity of imagining ‘what cannot be verified’, of writing what cannot be known about the subjective experiences of the dead.[37]  Fictionalization paradoxically becomes the only vehicle for accessing the realities of past interiorities, the only means of redressing the structures of power that determined what version of history would be bequeathed to the future.[38] Hartman dares to imagine unconventional biographies, turning the phrase used by Linebaugh and Rediker on its head. The violence and injustice of the past is irreparable but it must be recounted and challenged if violence and injustice in the future is ever to be stopped because violence and injustice is part of the bequeathal.

Rather than pursuing the kind of fictionalization proposed by Hartman, however, I will turn to consider accounts of subjective experience produced within the ‘psy’ disciplines. Expert forms of psychiatric knowledge have normative tendencies and participate in forms of classification and containment, diagnosis and division, but, despite being mediated and framed in particular ways, texts produced within the ‘psy’ disciplines nonetheless document subjective experiences in more explicit ways than the kinds of archival documents considered by Foucault and Hartman. The kind of ‘discrepancy between the things recounted and the manner of telling them’ identified by Foucault can be discerned in documents produced by psychiatrists, psychologists and psychoanalysts, which might provide bases for writing counter-histories or unconventional biographies.[39] These examples attest to the ‘multiple grounds of identity’ discussed by Crenshaw but also demonstrate that subjectivities are never reducible to those identities.


Suffering and Reminiscences

                                                                                    Dreaming has a share in history.[40]

                                                                                                                        Walter Benjamin

In 1889 a 40-year-old Swiss woman named Fanny Moser took a cool bath on the advice of her doctor. We know a lot about Fanny Moser. We know that she was one of the wealthiest women in Central Europe, the daughter of aristocrats and inheritor of the fortunes of her husband who made millions selling watches in Russia and China. We know that she lived in a castle near a lake where she received many lovers. We know she had a daughter who eschewed her wealth, became a communist and moved the Soviet Union to work with orphaned children. We know that she liked spas and hated toads.[41] We also know details of her anxieties, hallucinations and dreams, some of which are recorded in Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud’s Studies in Hysteria (1893-95). Much has been made of the omissions and limits of Freud and Breuer’s analyses of their wealthy female patients, of the distortions implicit in their masculine interpretations. Despite these limits, however, it was possible for historians to supplement those accounts with detailed biographies of the elite women Freud and Breuer treated, in an attempt to redress the uneven power relations they perceived between writing men and speaking women.[42]

Some histories are more difficult to access. Moser, whom Freud named ‘Emmy von N.’, took a cool bath on his advice and declared that it provoked a feeling of depression. Freud, however, intuited that this feeling was caused by something else. In a footnote discussing ‘false connections’ Freud reports that he hypnotized his patient to ascertain the hidden cause of the emotions the bath water called forth:

“Was it really the cool bath that depressed you so much?” “Oh,” was her answer, “the cool bath had nothing to do with it. But I read in the paper this morning that a revolution had broken out in San Domingo. Whenever there is any unrest there the whites are always the sufferers; and I have a brother in San Domingo who has already caused us a lot of concern, and I am worried now in case something happens to him.” This brought to a close the issue between us. Next morning she took her cool hip-bath as though it were a matter of course and continued doing so for several weeks without ever attributing any depression to that source.[43]

One of the most famous insights of the Studies in Hysteria is the assertion that ‘hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences’[44] but what of all the suffering that is forgotten? Of course, it is not difficult to find out what historical event Fanny Moser was reading about in the newspaper: San Domingo here is a reference to Haiti where in 1888, almost a century after slaves had risen up and overthrown their masters, civil war had broken out.[45] Although no longer a colony, France, Britain, Germany and America all profited from and exploited Haiti following the Haitian Revolution of 1804; the country was made to pay a heavy price for its freedom. Reading the history of Haiti it is possible to dispute Moser’s statement that ‘the whites are always the sufferers’,[46] what is harder to talk about, however, is the content of that suffering ­– for the anxieties, dreams and experiences of the people who lived through and died as a result of that history were rarely as assiduously recorded as Fanny Moser’s neuroses.

Indeed, the canonical publications of psychoanalysis say more about white supremacy and whiteness as (disavowed) identity than they do about experiences of racial oppression. In ‘Womanliness of Masquerade’ (1929) Joan Riviere includes a discussion of a white female patient from the American South. A middle class professionally successful woman accustomed to public speaking, Riviere describes how this patient though ‘masculine’ in her professional life was still capable of successfully performing her ‘feminine’ roles: she prided herself on her domestic skills, her fulfilling sex life with her husband and her impeccably beautiful appearance. ‘She had a high degree of adaptation to reality’, declares Riviere approvingly.[47] Riviere goes on to illustrate her point about the woman’s deployment of a mask of femininity through a discussion of the patient’s childhood fantasies and adult dreams. As a child in the American South Riviere’s analysand confesses that she always imagined that ‘if a negro came to attack her, she planned to defend herself by making him kiss her and make love to her (ultimately so that she could then deliver him over to justice).’[48] The patient also recounted the following dream:

She was in terror alone in the house; then a negro came in and found her washing clothes, with her sleeves rolled up and arms exposed. She resisted him, with the secret intention of attracting him sexually, and he began to admire her arms and to caress them and her breasts.[49]

Riviere reads this as a ‘compulsive reversal of [the patient’s] intellectual [‘masculine’] performance’[50] - the woman, she claims, dreamed of taking on a domestic role as a mask of womanliness which evoked ‘friendly feelings in the man,’[51] protecting both herself and her private property. Riviere claims the water in the dream represents the woman ‘washing off dirt and sweat, guilt and blood’ allowing her to masquerade as ‘guiltless and innocent’ (i.e. as a woman):

Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it—much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not [taken] the stolen goods.[52]

Riviere says nothing about race in her interpretation of the dream. She says nothing about the imagined black man in this scenario nor about the racial hierarchy her white patient is deploying in her fantasy life. But the recounted fragments of her patient’s analysis – though mediated, incomplete, second-hand – allow for alternative readings to be proposed.

Perhaps this patient was not so much hiding her masculinity as asserting her white supremacy (which is never in question)? In both the childhood fantasy and the dream the attack she fears is not sexual ­– instead she imagines that she can use her seductive ‘womanliness’ to fend off an attack on herself and the house. By repressing her vulnerability to sexual violence she retains her status as a white man. The violence comes later and she is the perpetrator: she calls the police. Riviere does not question the patient’s assertion that her motivation for seducing the man was to protect herself and her private property to get what she supposedly wanted all along: ‘justice’. The conclusion is that the white woman who both desires and despises black men colludes with the white patriarchal system that she is also oppressed by (the woman dreams of framing a black man for a rape he did not commit but had the same woman reported being actually raped by her real white husband would the police have responded?) Hartman speaks of the ‘afterlife of property’ and the dream in Riviere’s essay chillingly attests to the psychic afterlife of slave ownership.

The veracity of this brief and admittedly sketchy counter-interpretation is impossible to verify and, assuming dreams’ meanings are overdetermined, could coexist with other interpretations but Freud’s patient’s fear of the bath and Riviere’s patient’s racist dream both register fleeting internal experiences that Fraser’s analysis would consider irrelevant to discussions of social justice. They show that even fleeting aspects of fantasy or dream-life are not unrelated to histories of colonialism, enslavement and capitalist accumulation. It may be impossible to conclusively or exhaustively interpret these fragments of recounted experience, and their ephemerality might displease those enamored with more systemic analyses but they nonetheless demonstrate that psychic life is traversed by (and thus is a site of the reproduction of) power. Although questions of race, gender, sexuality and class are all at play in these examples, however, these can only provide a starting point for analysis, just as for Freud the manifest content of a dream is only the starting point from which to access its latent meaning. How would it be possible to move from diagnosis to cure?

In my consideration of these dreams and fantasies I have been willfully naïve, plucking fragments of recounted dreams out of the case histories in which they appeared and treating them as autonomous scraps of subjective material. In ‘Lives of Infamous Men’, by contrast, Foucault is much more interested in discerning dissonances within texts. Rather than attempting to extract some pure form of life from deathly documents he identifies moments of dissonance or tension within them, where ‘the rules of… stilted discourse were thus upset by a vibration, by wild intensities muscling in with their own ways of saying things.’[53] In an essay interrogating what it means to define oneself (or specifically herself) in terms of existing categories of identity, Nawal El Saadawi notes that  it is ‘those who possess military and nuclear and economic power, those who invade us and take away out material and cultural sustenance, those who rob us of our riches and our labour and our history, who tell us what our identity is.’[54] She recognises that having an identity rooted in history involves reckoning with social relations, discerning a kind of vibration between the containing structures of power and the oppressed people they contain analogous to that outlined by Foucault. Similarly, ‘In the Case of Blackness’, Fred Moten dwells on a mistranslation that transformed the title of the fifth chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks from ‘The lived experience of the black’ to ‘The fact of blackness.’ His essay, which considers Fanon’s ambivalent status as a militant pathologist, lingers in the space between lived experience and fact, wild intensity and rule:

The object vibrates against its frame like a resonator, and troubled air gets out. The air of the thing that escapes enframing is what I'm interested in—an often unattended movement that accompanies largely unthought positions and appositions.[55]

This troubled air wafts through psychiatric documents; interiorities vibrate against hermeneutic frames that seek to describe and contain them.


Society ‘from inside’

How did researchers suppose they could render the elusiveness of dreams and the richness of inner psychological states as a string of micropublished numbers, images, lists, records, narratives, and charts—in short, as data? Was there nothing so remote or odd that it could not be transformed in this way? What is and what is not, what should and should not be, database-able?[56]  - Rebecca Lemov

In 1950 a team of social scientists from Harvard University arrived in West Germany to begin a nine-month period of intense interviews with displaced persons from the Soviet Union, based at the CIA-funded Munich Institute for the Study of the USSR.[57] The US air force commissioned the academics to undertake a detailed study of Soviet society, which became the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (HPSSS).[58] Sociologist Alex Inkeles and psychologist Raymond Bauer who led the project conceptualized their approach as an attempt to build a ‘working model’ of the Soviet system, analyzing ‘how Soviet society impinges on the individual and how he [sic] fits into the functioning pattern of Soviet life.’[59] To this end, they collaborated with their team and consultants from the Bureau of Applied Research at Columbia University to devise detailed sets of interview questions that sought to uncover the minutiae of Soviet social structures, practices and outlooks, covering everything from labour practices to clothing, news sources to leisure activities, military strategy to artistic taste, living arrangements to views on historical events and political figures. The goals of the project were not only ambitious but unprecedented (at least in Bauer, Inkeles and their co-author Clyde Kluckhorn’s own immodest estimations): to produce the ‘first systemic and comprehensive picture’ of an industrialised society ‘from inside’.5

Rebecca Lemov characterises the contemporaneous Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology (CIMA) as one of many ‘massive, flotilla-style interdisciplinary’ social scientific projects conducted in the immediate post-Second World War period animated by what she describes as a shared ‘urge towards totality’.[60] According to Lemov, such projects demonstrated a desire to gather and quantify almost every aspect of human experience, including seemingly uncountable qualitative phenomena:

More and more the reach of empiricism extended from the ‘solid’ observables of cultural materials to the less solid artefacts of mental attitudes… to collect traces of subjectivity itself, to make an archive of the inner contents of the mind.[61]

In the years following the Second World War, large numbers of psychologists and psychoanalysts set out to conduct research with people far from the couches of bourgeois Vienna.[62] Through analyses of technologies developed to render as data elusive and ephemeral experiences like dreams, fantasies and fears, Lemov explores how a broad project to gather information pertaining to the ‘material elements of different cultural groups’ extended to include the most subjective aspects of human life; ‘that which sits at the far edge of materiality’.[63] Bauer and Inkeles would have been unlikely to draw comparisons between ‘primitive’ Micronesia and the ‘modern’ Soviet Union, but the research methods they employed overlapped with the experiments described by Lemov, and the project’s grandiose goals corresponded with the totalizing impulse she identifies. The tension between objective and subjective data she discusses was also at play in the HPSSS which similarly attempted to collate data pertaining to both social and psychic experience.Bauer and Inkeles claimed that the project ‘sought to explore not only [the interviewees’] experiences but also their values and beliefs, their desires and frustrations.’[64] The personal ‘life history’ format the interviews took was loose and informal, allowing interviewees to provide long, esoteric and often introspective responses to questions. Although the clinical interviews conducted by psychologists began by asking factual questions pertaining to social experience — ‘What kind of education did you get?’ or ‘How was life around 1940 in Leningrad?’ — interviewees’ responses also included strange subjective details drawn from their dreams or fantasies: we hear, for example, of a political commissar [politruk] who was haunted by dreams of black crows and a young woman who believed that dreams of fish in clear water signify pregnancy. As Lemov argues the external and the internal (the concrete and the abstract, the material and the immaterial, the social and the psychic, the very large and the very small) are not always easily disentangled, but was one man’s dream of a black crow significant for analyzing the experience of Stalinism? How could these idiosyncratic individual experiences be drawn upon to create a ‘working model’ of a whole society in order to make predictions about its future?

Lemov focuses on a tension between the material and the immaterial in the social scientific projects she discusses but the division might instead be thought of as one between the particular and the general. The urge to accumulate vast quantities of data discussed by Lemov should not be understood as a project to capture infinite plurality and particularity; it was conversely concerned with generalization, coding and synthesis. As Rebecca Comay argues in a very different context, all collections and archives are animated by this seemingly paradoxical lung-like ‘double movement of expansion and compression, of inflation and deflation’; any totalizing project ‘simultaneously dilates and constricts with a severity as crushing as its will to accumulation is capacious.’[65] This relation between vast, heterogeneous specificities and neatly delineated homogenous generalities is analogous to the distinction between overdetermined interiorities and ‘externally manifest’ identities I’ve been attempting to explore in this essay.

The HPSSS team sought to interview people from a broad range of backgrounds, but this was complicated by their interest in finding people deemed ‘average’. [66] The identity categories used to choose interviewees and organize the material were defined by the psychologists not the participants. Bauer’s Nine Soviet Portraits portrays a series of individual people deemed representative of particular social types; fictionalized accounts which merge details from various interviews with material drawn from secondary sources. His ‘prototypical’ figures are the student, the woman collective farm worker, the woman doctor, the party secretary, the housewife, the writer, the factory director, the tractor driver and the secret police agent. Bauer claims that these amalgamated and partly fabricated life stories were capable of attaining a degree of authenticity and concreteness of which more traditional forms of social scientific writing are incapable. The vivid and self-consciously literary vignettes that comprise the book are structured like short stories with narrative arcs and stylistic flourishes that set them apart from his and Inkeles’ co-authored publications. This style does allow Bauer to retain an attention to granular detail that their more general and traditionally ‘scientific’ accounts lack. Although factual information is often shoe-horned into the narratives — ‘The pay of a doctor was scarcely more than that of a common worker’[67] — assuming the position of an omniscient narrator also allows Bauer to include passages of psychological commentary. Writing of the female collective farm worker he notes: ‘she directed her feelings of fear, guilt, sorrow into her work.’[68] His chapter on the secret police officer is the most laden with psychological analysis and description. But this chapter, Bauer confesses, was almost entirely the product of his own imagination as NKVD personnel were (unsurprisingly) not interviewed as part of the HPSSS. Bauer draws a deeply sympathetic portrait of a tortured individual lured into working for an organization out of fear and through the seduction of material things but who is ultimately destroyed by paranoia. In order to perform his brutal duties Bauer describes a process of ‘internal erosion’; the officer ‘must deny all internal existence, and live in expectation of what his superiors demanded.’[69] Bauer then goes on to describe the erratic behaviour produced by this occupation:

The internal feelings of guilt and violence - all these began to gnaw away at the facade of confidence and self-control that he had derived from the power of his uniform. Sergei found it difficult to remain still for even short periods of time. He paced about constantly and waved his arms. It was particularly disturbing when he tried to control his behaviour and appear calm before prospective agents. He realised that he cut a queer figure - smiling too broadly, fumbling when opening a packet of cigarettes, walking excitedly about the room, raising his voice. Off duty he drank more and more, gulping down half tumblerfuls of vodka at a time.[70]

Bauer seems motivated to humanize the figure of the secret police interrogator and to thus render the phenomenon of the Terror comprehensible but in inventing this character he risks attributing to his imagined Soviet protagonist traits that correspond to his own culturally specific understandings of human nature.

In the process of fictionalization the details Bauer selects all serve the overarching plot or character-type. What are lost are incidental details of daily life that might complicate his overarching master narrative. His fiction therefore comes paradoxically closer to fact than lived experience, closer to rule than wild intensity. This is what distinguishes his approach from the fictionalization proposed by Hartman: it upholds rather than corrodes a version of history told from the perspective of the powerful. Indeed, the life stories of figures deemed marginal or less typical of the Soviet experience are omitted from his book, some of whose stories do appear in the collection of interview transcripts. Bauer chose to write about an imagined police interrogator rather than drawing portraits based on a real Chechen freedom fighter, bourgeois puppeteer or disaffected Ukrainian opera singer. Although the interview transcripts were already heavily mediated and selective, they nonetheless provide a more nuanced portrait of Soviet society than Bauer’s floridly written portraits. It is from these documents that an analysis ‘from inside’ might begin. Vibrations might then be given precedence over frames.



Peter Linebaugh’s critique of Perry Anderson begins in a plane: ‘We're 30,000 feet above the ground. Delta flight #697, Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. The pilot tells us to look over the left wing of the Boeing and we'll be able to see Atlanta, Georgia.’[71] Linebaugh pictures Anderson soaring above the earth surveying it from a great height, making erudite jargon-laden pronouncements laced with bombastic adverbs: 'massively,' 'pre-eminently,' 'indivisibly,' 'unremittingly.'[72]  Linebaugh says of Anderson that

His is the language of refined, abstract texts: it is not language to be heard, or listened to, not the talk of kitchen, cafeteria, laundromat, bowling alley, or office… Were Anderson to listen to the world around him he would have found that 'Marxist discourse' was present in plenty of places... It will be found in Brixton, in the prisons and plants of Brazil, in the mountains of Nicaragua, on the quays of Singapore, in the Philippine crews of oil tankers, in the ladies' rooms of corporate headquarters.[73]

Linebaugh is keen to describe all that is lost from the texture and experience of life when the theorist attempts to rise high above the earth to survey it detachedly and scientifically. This essay has sought to examine things at even closer range, advocating a kind of history from within. Rather than retreading the by-now well-worn paths of debates around ‘identity politics’ I have attempted to consider the ways in which interiorities vibrate within society’s frames. People are not only different from one another but also internally disunited, but the complex and specific material histories that participate in determining distinctions and divisions between and within people could be the starting point for a revolutionary politics rather than its obstacle.



Appignanesi, Lisa, and John Forrester 1992, Freud's Women New York: Basic Books.

Bauer, Raymond A. 1955, Nine Soviet Portraits, New York, NY: MIT and John Wiley.

Bauer, Raymond A., Alex Inkeles and Clyde Kluckhohn 1956, How the Soviet System Works: Cultural, Psychological and Social Themes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bauer, Raymond A., Alex Inkeles (with the assistance of David Gleichner and Irving Rosow) 1959, The Soviet Citizen: Daily Life in a Totalitarian Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benjamin, Walter 1999, ‘Dream Kitsch: Gloss on Surrealism’, Selected Writings, vol. 2, 1927-1934, Michael William Jennings (trans. & ed.), Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp.3-5.

Bernheimer, Charles, and Claire Kahane 1985, In Dora's Case: Freud--Hysteria—Feminism, New York: Columbia University Press.

Black, Hannah 2016, ‘The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic’, Art Forum.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel 1996, Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification, New York: Routledge.

Brown, Wendy 2001, Politics Out of History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Comay, Rebecca 2013, ‘Proust’s Remains’, October, 144: 3–24.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review43, 6, 1241-1299.

Dash, Michael J. 2008, ‘The (Un)kindness of Strangers: Writing Haiti in the 21st Century’, Caribbean Studies, 36, 2: 171-178.

Dubois, Laurent 2012, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, New York: Metropolitan Books.

El Saadawi, Nawal 1997, ‘Why keep asking me about identity?’ in The Nawal El Saadawi Reader, London: Zed Books, pp. 117-133.

Fanon, Frantz 2001, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by Constance Farrington, London: Penguin.

Fraser, Nancy 1996, ‘Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, Participation’, Tanner Lecture, Stanford University.

Freud, Sigmund and Josef Breuer 2001, Studies on Hysteria, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 2, trans. by James Strachey, London: Vintage

Fuss, Diana 1994, ‘Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification, Diacritics, 24, 2/3: 19-42.

Garrigus, John D. 2006, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Hartman, Saidiya 2008, ‘Venus in Two Acts,’ Small Axe, 26, 12, 2: 1-14

Hobsbawm, Eric 1996, ‘Identity Politics and the Left’, New Left Review, 217: 38-47.

James, CLR 1963, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, New York: Vintage Books.

Lemov, Rebecca 2009, ‘Towards a Data Base of Dreams: Assembling an Archive of Elusive Materials, c. 1947-61’, History Workshop Journal, 67: 44-68.

Lemov, Rebecca 2015, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalogue Humanity, New Haven; CT, Yale University Press.

Lewin, Moshe 1985, The Making of the Soviet System: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia, London: Methuen.

Linebaugh, Peter 1986, ‘In the Flight Path of Perry Anderson’, History Workshop Journal, 21, 1, 141-146.

Linebaugh, Peter, and Markus Rediker 2000, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Boston: Beacon Press.

Linstrum, Erik 2016, Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univerisity Press.

McLintock, Anne 1995, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context, London: Routledge.

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Moten, Fred 2007, ‘Uplift and Criminality’ in Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality and WEB Du Bois, Susan Gillman and Alys Eve Weinbaum ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 317-349.

Moten, Fred, ‘The Case of Blackness’, Criticism, 50, 2 (2008), 177-218.

Nash, Jennifer C. 2017, ‘Intersectionality and its Discontents’, American Quarterly, 69, 1, 117-129.

Riviere, Joan 1991, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’, The Inner World and Joan Riviere : Collected Papers, 1920-1958, Athol Hughes (ed.) New York, NY: Karnac Books, pp. 90-101.

Robertson, Lisa 2016, 3 Summers, Toronto: Coach House Books.

[1] Moten 2007, p. 328.

[2] Hobsbawm 1996, p. 42.

[3] Brown 2001, p. 15.

[4] Brown 2001, p. 26.

[5] Fraser 1996, p. 18. In the 2000 Preface to the Second Edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (first published in 1986), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe claim that their thesis broadly agrees with the argument Fraser went on to make a decade later insofar as they sought to defend the compatibility of ‘struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination’ with left-wing workers’ movements. Laclau and Mouffe 2000, p. xviii.

[6] Fraser 1996, pp. 25-26.

[7] Fraser 1996, p. 26.

[8] Kauffmann 2001, p. 29.

[9] Kauffmann 2001, pp. 29-30.

[10] Kauffmann 2001, p. 32.

[11] Kauffmann 2001, p. 32. An association between identity politics and lifestylism is also made by Hobsbawm in ‘Identity Politics and the Left’ where he likens identity categories to shirts that can be put on or taken off at will. Presumably he hadn’t bothered to read any Judith Butler. Hobsbawm 1996, p. 41.

[12] Crenshaw 1991, p. 1245.

[13] Mohandesi, 2017. Again, this characterization seems a little churlish: the tendency to list forms of oppression is as much a problem with the linearity of language in general as it is with intersectional analyses specifically.

[14] Nash 2017, p. 126.

[15] I found this Twitter thread by Andrea Long Chu helpful in articulating problems with over-investing in accounts of ‘systems’ and ‘structures’: it is precisely because oppression is real that it is resistant to neat systematization: https://twitter.com/theorygurl/status/950141697744424965 (accessed 16 January 2018).


[16] Black 2016.

[17] Robertson 2016, p. 26.

[18] This is intended as a reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous statement ‘to live is to leave traces.’

[19] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, p. 74.

[20] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, p. 74.

[21] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, p. 74.

[22] Linebaugh, 1986.

[23] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, pp. 6-7.

[24] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, p. 4. For further examples of such catalogues of the oppressed, see: p. 19, p. 27, p. 50, p. 60, p. 63, p. 69, p. 97, p. 104, p. 112, p. 138, p. 141, p. 158, p. 214, p. 280, p. 321, p. 329.

[25] Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, p. 331.

[26] Foucault 2001, p.158. Thanks to my colleagues at the ICI Berlin for illuminating discussions of Foucault’s and Hartman’s essays.

[27] Foucault 2001, p. 170, p. 175.

[28] Foucault 2001, p. 160.

[29] Foucault 2001, p. 161.

[30] Foucault 2001, p. 159.

[31] Foucault 2001, p. 159.

[32] Hartman 2008, p. 2, p. 4, p. 7, p. 8, p. 10.

[33] Hartman 2008, p. 2.

[34] Hartman 2008, 10.

[35] Hartman 2008, 12.

[36] Hartman 2008, 13.

[37] Hartman 2008, 12.

[38] Hartman’s essay ends by suggesting that Octavia Butler’s time-travel novel Kindred as a ‘model for practice’ and she also discusses work by M. NourbeSe Philip. Hartman 2008, p. 14.

[39] Foucault 2001, p. 171.

[40] Benjamin 1999, p. 3.

[41] Appignanesi and Forrester 1992, pp. 91-103.

[42] See Bernheimer and Kahane 1985 and Borch-Jacobsen 1996.

[43] Freud and Breuer 2001, p. 68. Thanks to Christina Chalmers for pointing out this passage following a reading group discussion.

[44] Freud and Breuer 2001, p. 7.

[45] Dubois 2012, pp. 184-188.

[46] Although major works on the history of Haiti also often participate in imperialist apologism. For a critical review essay on historiography of Haiti, see Dash 2008. The history of racial antagonisms and hierarchies in Haiti is, of course, more complicated than a distinction between black and white. See, for example, Garrigus, 2006.

[47] Riviere 1991, p. 91.

[48] Riviere 1991, p. 93.

[49] Riviere 1991, p. 93.

[50] Riviere 1991, p. 94.

[51] Riviere 1991, p. 94.

[52] Riviere 1991, p. 94.

[53] Foucault 2001, p. 170.

[54] El Saadawi 1997, p. 128.

[55] Moten 2008, p. 182.

[56] Lemov 2015, p. 10.

[57] The 1950 interviews were preceded by a pilot project conducted in 1949 by Merle Fainsod, initiated by the Russian Research Centre at Harvard University and completed without government funding.

[58] The bulk of the interview materials were digitised by Harvard University between 2005 and 2007 and be explored online here:  http://hcl.harvard.edu/collections/hpsss/index.html

[59] Bauer and Inkeles 1959, p. 3.

[60] Lemov 2009, p. 53.

[61] Lemov 2009, p. 46

[62] Linstrum 2016.

[63] Lemov 2009, p. 47.

[64] Bauer and Inkeles 1959, pp. 3-4.

[65] Comay 2013, p. 4.

[66] People interviewed were either those displaced by the Second World War (including former POWs and labourers) or members of Soviet occupying forces who had fled from Soviet controlled sectors of Germany and Austria and avoided repatriation (with some additional interviews conducted with emigres in the USA). Men far outnumbered women among interviewees, members of the intelligentsia were disproportionately represented compared to workers or peasants, city dwellers outnumbered people from rural areas, and people from the western republics of the USSR outnumbered those from the East.

[67] Bauer 1955, p. 50.

[68] Bauer 1955, p. 59.

[69] Bauer 1955, p. 158, p. 157.

[70] Bauer 1955, p. 161.

[71] Linebaugh 1986, p. 141.

[72] Linebaugh 1986, p. 141.

[73] Linebaugh 1986, pp. 142-143.