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In this chapter from Other People’s Struggles, I look at contemporary problems concerning adherence: that is, participation in a social movement by those who are not motivated to participate by standing to benefit from the movement’s success. Elsewhere I have looked at how such problems have presented themselves historically. In Other People’s Struggles itself, I look at the classical dilemmas that have arisen from a more theoretical perspective.  But in this chapter I examine the adherent today.

The contemporary dilemma, I suggest, can be summed up in the following paradox:

“The contemporary adherent must be what she cannot be.”

The paradox is the consequence of three commitments – or ‘threads’ – which pull in different directions.

The first thread is that of altruistic self-motivation. In an earlier chapter of Other People’s Struggles, I argue that we can only understand what the adherent does if we allow that she is motivated by concern for others, and not for herself. But this concern is nonetheless her concern. It belongs to her. Unless she is a saint, the altruistic adherent cannot deny herself completely. She needs to preserve the essence of her self so that she can give of herself. She has beliefs that matter to her, a history that has shaped her and made her who she is, and obligations and duties that, for all that they benefit others, are hers. This is, moreover, all the more important today, in the era of the self-actualising self. The self is now more than ever a self that we make for ourselves, rather than a selfhood into which we are born.

“The contemporary adherent responds as an individual (she must decide for herself), without being an individualist (only she matters). She is concerned with her self, not selfish.”

The second thread is the obligation to be attentive to the needs of others. Self-actualisation is not to be confused with selfishness. Indeed, self-actualisation might easily involve defining oneself as someone who helps others. As Charles Taylor suggests, we still largely operate with the same moral concerns as we have throughout the modern period: the reduction of unnecessary suffering and universal benevolence. We still have notions of progress, of ‘going beyond our ancestors’, and of moral improvement. If anything, our moral commitments have widened and grown. There is still an undiminished expectation that historically privileged adherents will support other people’s struggles, not out of advantage but principle. The adherent is privileged, therefore more must be expected of him. He expects more of himself too. He cannot let himself go, because his motivating values and his self-actualisation depend on a helping orientation to others.

“In the past moral commitments followed from a certain inherited or newly chosen position, they now imply an actualisation of self.

“The difficulty that the adherent presents is not that the she sacrifices herself for others, but that she realizes herself through others.”

The third thread is the necessity for the adherent to change himself according to others’ prescriptions in order to participate fully. The adherent must not only attend to the needs of others, but also examine and change himself along lines that others determine. The adherent has to change because his unacknowledged historical privilege has collapsed. It has been undermined by exterior challenges to his authority, which has been accompanied by, and helped to cause, an interior collapse, not of confidence – the adherent still possesses a strongly self-realizing self – but of **. The adherent’s claims to authority, experience and knowledge have become disputed. He has to change, as he knows; and he cannot participate, as he must; unless he does so.

“If, in the modern period, the self became autonomous; in the late modern period, it becomes insecure.”

As a consequence, unless something gives, the adherent must be something he cannot be. He can neither be released to himself and his own concerns, nor can he be allowed to efface himself, nor can he act for others as he once did.

Identity politics, in the classic form in which I examined it elsewhere, is characterised by this knot at its tightest. Whether out of a residual sense of entitlement on the part of the adherent, or residual expectations on the part of the constituents, the adherent is caught between obligation and impossibility. Identity politics can relax its grip on neither the second thread, which would release the adherent from obligation; nor the third thread, which would admit him to the movement as he is. Thus, the first thread is the one to ‘give’: the adherent can no longer self-actualise through other people’s struggles, and becomes demotivated.

“Attention is now demanded for an adherent self which can neither be accepted as it is, nor ignored, nor changed at the behest of others.”

In this respect, constituents – those motivated as beneficiaries of the movement’s goals – are differently placed. Fighting their own struggles, they find it easier to reconcile autonomy, self-actualisation and the pursuit of improvement. The values that support their conjoint activities, I conjecture, remain robust and interact positively. All three sustain the rising tendency and capability of people hitherto spoken for by others to speak for themselves. The congruence of the three impulses has sustained conjoint work to create new associations, representing and speaking for new interests and identities.

The problem for adherents is that the values pull in different directions. If self-actualisation is what matters most to them, their concern for others will be most readily activated when it allows them to maintain a strong sense of self and freedom in what they do. They will find it harder to participate in other people’s struggles if they are expected to be other than they are, or place themselves in relationships of dependency. Contemporary adherents may therefore have to separate their lives in ways that constituents do not. This is another way of saying that contemporary adherents, if these values are important to them, cannot give themselves wholly to other people’s struggles.

Political consciousness – an awareness of what people need and how it might be supplied by them and others – has been awkwardly supplemented by self–consciousness on the part of the adherent.”

Can the knot be untied and conjointness restored? In contemporary theory, I discern five distinct approaches to this question. Two approaches try to loosen our grip on one of the threads – first, the obligation; or, second, the impossibility – so as to untie the knot. Three further approaches accept that the knot cannot be untied. The third recommends that we slice it through and live unabashed by disjointness. The fourth and fifth propose that disjointness itself – acceptance of the knot’s knottiness – can paradoxically form a basis for conjointness.


The first set of approaches relax the obligation that ‘we must be’ what we cannot be. It allows that the adherent need not seek to be what he cannot be. He is different. He lacks the credentials to speak for anyone else, and he should not try to do so. In their strongest form, such approaches may exclude the adherent altogether. But other approaches, which I discuss in the chapter, attempt to work across differences. Conjointness is sought by deliberating with others at a suitably respectful distance. Activists remain distinct in themselves, but seek solidarity by making a common commitment to procedures that enable everyone to be heard speaking uninterruptedly and only for themselves. old_style_loosen_cropI have in mind approaches such as the politics of ‘recognition’, of ‘translation’, of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘equivalence’. Such approaches vary in the closeness they envisage between activists. But they all try to lighten the expectation that solidarity requires sameness, while preserving the idea that struggles are distinct entities which might co-operate without losing their distinctness.

I argue that these approaches seem likely to produce mutual respectfulness, but may find it harder to produce the closer, deeper relationships – the deep affections, the emotional passion, and warmth – that some movements (especially those oriented inwardly) want to generate among activists. Cautious respect can acknowledge an antagonism which can in principle be lessened through encounters. But there can be no guarantee that a deeper understanding will be achieved. Adherents are not exactly denied entry. But since no one can speak for anyone else, adherents can only speak as adherents.


A second approach proposes relaxing ‘impossibility’ (the third thread), so as to enable obligation (the first thread) to be unknotted. It challenges the idea that ‘we cannot be’ what we must be. The tension between the two threads only arises, it argues, because the self is conceived as insufficiently changeable to be capable of belonging to something other than itself. But perhaps late modern selves are no longer like this. Our identities are not expression of a true essence (what we really are), but the political production of an effect of essence and naturalness through performance. If all there is to our identities is repeated performance, and each repetition is different, it is perhaps open to us to twist, subvert, or pervert what we seem to be. Perhaps conjointness can be produced performatively, in a shared, subversive undoing of identities alongside others.

This seems attractive, but some movements may think it over-optimistic. The possibility that we can become what we want through performative choices may over-estimate the ease with which identities can be chosen or reconfigured. Identities may be produced through performance but that does not mean that we choose our performances and hence our identities as freely as costumes. Identities may not be natural or essential, but there are nonetheless already-existing constraining structures of identification which fix identities, at least for a certain time, often in antagonistic relationships with each other, and make us performers of performances we do not altogether choose, or the tellers of stories that are already written for us by culture and discourse. Identities may well be ‘just’ socially constructed, but it is an elementary error to think that this implies that they are easily changed. This applies to everyone, constituent and adherent alike, but especially so for adherents because the structures have tended to fix them in the wrong place to help.


A third ‘unabashed’ response refuses to be tied down by the knot, and deals with it as Alexander did the Gordian knot. To the claim that the adherent ‘must be what he cannot be’ before he can act, it retorts, ‘Then be!’, or perhaps ‘Then do!’. The trouble with other approaches, it might be suggested, is that they are overly respectful of the value of fighting one’s own battles. They romanticise the position of the constituents, who are actually engaged desperate struggles against the odds. They often need the help of outsiders to win. Perhaps, though it is hardly fashionable to suggest it, they need the perspectives, the politicization and discipline that only engaged outsiders can bring. The excessive scruples that some adherents display – their fastidious concern not to speak in the name of others – amount to an excuse for inaction, and a way of avoiding taking sides. Such an adherent insists that the problem is solved for them already before they will deign to help solve it. Rather than wait for permission before acting in solidarity with constituents, adherents should simply take sides and act. If they do so, they will be justified not by permission obtained in advance, but retroactively by their success. So, act!

It is easy to see the advantages of this approach when constituents are relatively weak, and also when they are relatively indifferent to the means by which their goal is reached. There are also clear attractions for adherents. In taking sides, or even command, they will at least be judged by what they do, rather than what they are presumed to be. The obvious contrast, however, is with the prefigurative approaches I explore elsewhere in the book, such as those of the utopian socialists, in which participants wish to begin with the equality that elsewhere is sought as the end. For these movements, unabashed adherents may seem impatient, hasty, keen on revolutionary heroics whose price others will end up paying. And constituents undertaking this sort of work will naturally worry that the adherents, with their historic grasp, may appropriate or impede the directions that the movement might otherwise take.


The fourth approach does not try to loosen the knot, or slice it through. Instead, it accepts the knotty combination of impossibility and obligation, but refuses to regard it as grounds for despair or inaction. We – adherents and constituents – differ too much for there to constitute ourselves as a single community. We can have no project, or direction, in common. But perhaps this lack is what we share. Conjointnesss between constituents and adherents might be achievable precisely through its own incompleteness or its own failure. What we might share is not sameness, but disjointness itself: the impossibility of being the same. Disjointness is not an obstacle to conjointness, but the condition of conjointness to come, if there is any. Perhaps, indeed, this is the most that conjointness can logically be. At the limit, a deeper conjointness – a total ‘communion’ – would abolish solidarity between distinct elements. Any relationship between the self and the another – whether between constituents or between an adherent and a constituent – involves separation. Without separation one cannot speak of a relationship at all. Pure conjointness – the notion that a social movement can be an undifferentiated unity, a perfect ‘oneness’ – is thus impossible. It could only do so by ceasing to be comprised of relationships between participants. Solidarity is only meaningful between elements which are neither already complete-in-themselves, nor made complete-in-themselves by their relationship with others. So it may be that the most we can have in common is the absence or lack of things-in-common.

Such foundations, clearly, cannot be deep or secure. The question is what can be built on top of them, and whether what is built can be shared. Everything turns on what precisely we lack and whether we lack the same things. We are told, as it might be, that we are all displaced, or unmoored, or ultimately vulnerable to each other, or insufficient, or incomplete. But either this is true but shallow – like sharing human DNA – and therefore too feeble to form the basis for common action. Or it is deep but false: we don’t all share the same position. The precariousness of the adherent’s selfhood – the lack of secure metaphysical foundations – is not the same as, and less pressing than, the precariousness of everyday life for the constituent. Indeed, life can be quite agreeable without metaphysical foundations if everything else is place. The postmodern adherent can, perhaps, be confident in his capacity to stay on his feet. He does well on shifting sands, helping others in their struggles to keep their footing. But that, though it may be valuable, is a disjoint form of work. The precariousness that provides flexibility, daring and freedom for some is a source of grief and anxiety to others. Similar arguments, I suspect, apply to other ‘lacks’: common ungroundedness, or inauthenticity, or a shared vulnerability, or precariousness, or dislocation, or dependency.


The fifth approach, which I take from Jacques Rancière, proposes another way for the adherent to act ‘as if’ she were something other than she is, and yet in solidarity with others. Conjointness can be achieved through the adherent making an ‘impossible identification’ with ‘those who have no part’. The adherent does not change herself, performatively or otherwise, to become the constituent. But she still makes an identification, helping to create a new political subject, speaking both in the name of the despised group, and also, crucially for solidarity, in the name of anyone and everyone. The supplementation is not the acceptance of impossibility as the logical condition of possibility, but a supplementary act of identification which is a founding presumption of the equality of everyone with everyone else. The wrong was done to a particular group, but in denying the classification that defines that group, the adherent asserts that it could have been done to anyone. The unified subject does not form before acting and it is not the result of acting. It emerges in the acting. It forms neither in the name of an abstract universal ideal of equality, nor simply in the name of a specific local struggle against a limited wrong, but by linking the two. The adherent cannot be what she must be, but she can still act in solidarity with others through making impossible identifications with those who have no part.

This has certain advantages for the problems we have been considering. Within the movement, no use can be made of the usual claims to rule on the basis of superior knowledge, insight or experience. Nor can anyone impose a hierarchy of belonging. This must also mean that the constituents have to forego the claim that the adherents are not their equals in understanding. The unified subject they create together has no identity other than that of the equality of all speaking persons. Constituents do not have to abandon their difference, but they cannot simply enact it. They cannot deny the adherents the possibility that they might understand enough about the situation to act as their equals.

Like the other proposals, this is therefore not a general solution to the problems of adherence. Some constituents, after all, seek admission to an existing classification. Others wish to add their own category to the police order, or secure an advantageous reclassification. For Rancière, such re-classifying does not even amount to politics at all. For him politics is by definition declassifying. But such movements do exist, and we should note that they may not want the adherent to make an impossible identification with them. On the other hand, some movements do wish to declassify themselves, and to assert an equality that belongs to everyone. In these cases (struggles for everyone), the possibilities for conjoint work with adherents (struggles with everyone) are more promising.


None of these five approaches offers a general solution to the knot I have described. The disjoint relationships of the past, it seems, have not been replaced by conjoint ones, but rather by missing or absent relationships. More precisely, social movements engaged in disjoint work remain haunted by the two figures who can be neither admitted nor dismissed: the constituent who can’t quite be included, and the adherent who can’t quite be excluded. The adherent, where she can still be found, employs various forms of pretence and disguise, whether accepting ironic, tragi-comic failure, making outrageous identifications or acting unabashed, or staging ‘impossible’ forms of participatory act and performance.

Whether or not these can successfully achieve conjointness remains an unresolved and complex question. But we can, perhaps, conclude that these stances differ quite markedly from the less questioned confidence of past relationships.

In the next chapter of Other People’s Struggles, I consider a final approach: that of ‘becoming—‘. ‘Final’ is probably the wrong word, because the approach is, so much as it can be, an entirely open-ended one. The dilemma of the contemporary adherent is that ‘she must be what she cannot be’. Against the five approaches I have described here – “Loosen the obligation”, “Deny the impossibility”, “Act anyway”, “Share the incompleteness”, and “Begin with equality”, this approach enjoins us to “Become what we cannot be”.