Taking Offense

by Katrin Trüstedt

IMG_5916Much has been written by now in attempt to explain the outcome of the recent US presidential election. Some recent interventions pitted the Democrats' “identity politics” against economic issues and have charged the Left with neglecting hard economic realities by focusing on supposedly marginal or imaginary problems. Such an opposition misses the point, however, that the relevant economic questions are inherently connected to problems of identity. Didier Eribon, collaborator of the late Michel Foucault (one of the presumed champions of identity politics), gives a compelling account of this connection between identity politics and economics in his 2009 book Retour à Reims. Revisiting the social and political situation of his upbringing in Reims, Eribon describes how processes of economic downgrade are intertwined with complex processes of re-identification. When he returns to the working class upbringing that he had escaped to become the Parisian gay intellectual he is now, he finds that his relatives and their peers – who had always been voting for the Communist Party and who had built their social and political identities around it – have shifted towards voting for the Front National.

The decision to vote a certain way and the entire social and political subjectivation underlying this decision cannot be traced back to a given political stance or factual economic interests, but is instead indebted to a complex dynamic of identification and demarcation. In order to explain the striking shift in the milieu of his upbringing, Eribon foregrounds not “just” the considerable economic hardship the working class has endured in France, but more importantly, the fact that this economic hardship has been ignored in the past decades by the left party under François Mitterrand (with many parallels to the Democrats in the US, the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the UK and the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder in Germany). The way that his relatives, like so many others, have turned away from a strong allegiance with the Left is connected to a feeling of being “hurt” in a particular way. Not only has their economic status deteriorated, but the degradation also has remained unacknowledged.

This leads to what might best be described with a German term that is especially hard to translate: “Kränkung,” a state of being offended, hurt, or indignant that is marked by a certain subtlety. It is the reaction to a perceived neglect, insult, or degradation that goes, however, more or less unnoticed. “Kränkung” is not an insult that is “retaliated,” even if only in words, but is rather a silenced and “silently endured suffering” as Freud has defined it. The blow to one's self-esteem is unaccounted for, there is no open conflict or even recognition of this silent wound, so that it grows in the dark. That's what gives this momentous affect its long-lasting impact and dangerous dynamic.

As a result, Eribon describes how his mother, like her peers, then attempts to set herself apart from people who can be depicted as having an “even lower” status, mostly immigrants from North Africa, following the front lines offered by the Front National. The attempt at using demarcations to assure one's own status is, of course, not specific to any “group.” As Eribon describes, part of becoming an intellectual, displaying interest in art, and even – ironically – reading Marx can also implicitly be an act of distinguishing oneself from those of the “ignorant working class.” Such signals of setting oneself apart, of course, do not go unnoticed, but rather in turn fuel the dynamic of offense.

Now it seems like many on the Left are in some way filled with indignation by the results of the recent election. The ideas and programs offered by the Democrats did not prevail, but instead have evoked a hostile reaction. The new political “expertise” of polling, claiming to find out how a certain group votes, is, as it turned out, not neutral. Not only were many of the predictions plainly wrong, but they also seem to have missed the complex dynamic of political subjectivation and thereby many voters who don't see pollsters as neutral. As an effect, the political consultants may have failed to notice large groups of people who were potentially voting for a certain candidate without saying so to the pollsters, which thus directed attention away from those groups and thereby in turn increased the gap between segments of society. The ever-growing political technique surrounding the polling process is not one that externally observes a fixed system, but actually influences the facts that it is supposed to convey. Now people ask questions like “How could a candidate who was so poll-driven ever hope to look like a leader?” Not only did all this professional polling machinery not succeed, but it ironically seems to have been one of the main factors in achieving a result opposite to the anticipated one by deepening the sense of disconnected worlds.

The “age of post-truth politics” seems in some way to be a reaction to technologies of truth production and the complexity of a world that are perceived as offensive. Freud described – however contested in the details – that the general narcissism of man underwent three major blows at the hands of science: “The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable […] The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created […] But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from psychoanalytic research, which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house.”

In a complex globalized world, the potential blow comes less from scientific research telling us about the world and more from the world views that are already reactions to the offenses of a complex and contingent world – reactions that aim to reduce complexity and offer “simple solutions.” An uncanny feeling persists that not only the technology you think you command may very well be commanding you and your “very own thoughts;” but that what you think you know may be completely irrelevant or even rejected with hostility outside of your particular circle; and that the other side of the conflict you are struggling with may not be what you understand it to be or subscribe to remotely the same conflict lines or even use the same language as you do. The “post-truth” phenomena thus seems to be an effect of a retraction from a reality that – in its neglect of the offense it poses – seems especially offensive. As such, this situation offers endless new potentials to offend and to being offended. The complex dynamics that Eribon describes – the subtle but long-lasting lines of dealing and taking offense, involving economic and class distinction just as well as issues of cultural and sexual identity – show that we cannot afford to play one off against the other if we want to exit the spirals of offense.