The great political ideas and movements of the modern world were founded on a promise of universal emancipation. But in recent decades, much of the Left has grown suspicious of such aspirations. Critics see the invocation of universality as a form of domination or a way of speaking for others, and have come to favor a politics of particularism—often derided as “identity politics.” Others, both centrists and conservatives, associate universalism with twentieth-century totalitarianism and hold that it is bound to lead to catastrophe.
This book develops a new conception of universality that helps us rethink political thought and action. Todd McGowan argues that universals such as equality and freedom are not imposed on us. They emerge from our shared experience of their absence and our struggle to attain them. McGowan reconsiders the history of Nazism and Stalinism and reclaims the universalism of movements fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia. He demonstrates that the divide between Right and Left comes down to particularity versus universality. Despite the accusation of identity politics directed against leftists, every emancipatory political project is fundamentally a universal one—and the real proponents of identity politics are the right wing. Through a wide range of examples in contemporary politics, film, and history, Universality and Identity Politics (Columbia UP, 2020) offers an antidote to the impasses of identity and an inspiring vision of twenty-first-century collective struggle.
Todd McGowan is professor of film studies at the University of Vermont. His previous Columbia University Press books are The Impossible David Lynch (2007), Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (2016), and Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution (2019). He is the coeditor of the Diaeresis series at Northwestern University Press with Slavoj Žižek and Adrian Johnston. He is also cohost of the Why Theory podcast, which brings continental philosophy and psychoanalytic theory together to examine cultural phenomena.
Reuben Niewenhuis is interested in philosophy, theory, technology, and interdisciplinary topics.