TO MAP THE SHIFTING COORDINATES OF IDENTITY—and difference—in culture today, critic and art historian HUEY COPELAND moderates a roundtable with artist EMILY ROYSDON; film theorist KARA KEELING; Artforum’s editor, MICHELLE KUO; and some of the foremost thinkers on globalism, postcolonialism, and art: scholars DIPESH CHAKRABARTY, DAVID JOSELIT, and KOBENA MERCER.

Still from Andrea Geyer’s Comrades of Time (Elsa), 2010–11, HD video, color, sound, 8 minutes 39 seconds. One of seven HD videos from the installation Comrades of Time, 2010–11.

HUEY COPELAND: Is identity politics back? Did it ever truly go away? In either case, what does the term mean now and how do we think about the ways in which new understandings of identity are arising?

One thing that characterizes this particular moment, I think, is the critical mass of artists and writers and critics and curators and viewers in and beyond the art world who are coming from positions that had previously been excluded, oppressed, or unacknowledged. But there is also, more broadly, a much greater awareness that’s been brought about by multiculturalism and identity politics, in all their history and longue durée.

MICHELLE KUO: And by the concept of intersectionality, which addresses the ways in which different kinds of discrimination overlap—how we never experience racism or gender bias in isolation—and treats identities as inseparable from institutional power.

HUEY COPELAND: The conversation has changed, but that discursive shift doesn’t always correspond to a real shift. Homophobia, antiblackness, sexism, misogyny—all these forms of violence continue apace and are even more spectacularly displayed for us today, whether in the streets or on our phones.

How do we begin to reckon with this seeming contradiction in terms of what’s been gained pedagogically, institutionally, and discursively through the politics of identity—and how that’s failed to gain traction in terms of a politics on the ground, or structural transformations that actually impact people’s lives?

MICHELLE KUO: Just because we’re talking more about it, does that change anything? And what can art do? How do visibility, legibility, materiality—the very stuff of art or mediums of art—affect manifestations of identity?

KOBENA MERCER: When we think of identity politics, we think of the 1980s and ’90s, the culture wars. But I would be hesitant about accelerating too fast to say that we’re “post-.”

KARA KEELING: Yes—identity politics was never static. It was always about the interplay between identity and identification: between a host of aesthetic, political, rhetorical, and discursive practices that would allow people to identify with certain things or that were brought to bear on specific bodies or groups of people.

Identity is always relational and situated. So maybe the identities forged in the culture wars are no longer recognizable, or they have reached the limit of what they can do politically.

KOBENA MERCER: And how did that crisis, as it were, become settled; how was it resolved? One might say that increasing inclusion, over the past few decades, has actually gone hand in hand with the rise of a global neoliberal outlook that produces more and more inequalities.

KARA KEELING: The critiques of identity politics at the time foreshadowed exactly that: that the categories of identity being asserted, even if in the name of recognition and liberation, were too homogeneous, too easily subsumed into marketing categories. In fact, those old critiques of identity are even more important today, precisely because the aims of the ’80s have been recuperated into neoliberal multiculturalism, as you say, Kobena. Or into a politics of representation that’s not actually affecting the material conditions of the people who are supposedly represented. So I’m still down with the critiques.

KOBENA MERCER: Whether we are really post-identity or whether we’re actually being administered by inclusion is, I think, one issue. On another level, is it identity at all? Can that be a potentially misleading noun—aren’t we really dealing with difference?

Difference always implies a relational outlook, because nothing can be different in itself. But the problem of naming the issue as identity or identity politics is that we tend to think of identities, however they’re categorized, as being self-sufficient. And that, for me, is the key fault line. A relational understanding of identity that arises from difference, how difference is articulated, has undergone a demise, and there has been, I think, a reinscription of a much more conventional, liberal, individualistic understanding of identity that conflates difference with pluralism.

DAVID JOSELIT: Already in the ’80s, identity was much more of a struggle over the coding and recoding of stereotypes than is often admitted or fully acknowledged, and what was then a multicultural debate, at least within the Anglo-American axis, has become the global debate we have today.

I believe that one of the responses to the “flattening of the world” through the global spread of art infrastructures is that local, ostensibly “authentic” identities function as accelerants for the circulation and consumption of global contemporary art, both in the market and in museums. So this question of identity gains and loses certain valences when it goes from a kind of Anglo-American or North Atlantic debate around multiculturalism to one that has to do with a global context.

I do think that the struggle over stereotypes, or what I have been trying to think of in my recent work as profiles, riffing on a typical expression of identity in social media, has more or less stayed structurally similar, if not the same. Difference is still largely negotiated through existing types.

KARA KEELING: Yet something new seems to be emerging in the practices of artists who are concerned with addressing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and capitalist exploitation in the present.

HUEY COPELAND: We’re seeing artists continuing to develop a diversity of means that speak to the ways in which subjects are produced—but without necessarily giving us bodies in representation, without capitulating to the demand to figure identity in a way that assumes difference is visible only through rendering a particular kind of body, a certain kind of subject. Instead, these artists—say, Park McArthur or Cameron Rowland—are trying to index the broader regimes, the modes of making and practice, that are producing both subjects and differences within a system predicated on large inequities of power. So often the clichéd dismissal of identity politics limits its reach to a kind of victimology that speaks only to the problems of certain groups—the “Negro problem” or the “woman problem”—as opposed to seeing that those “problems” are actually structural asymmetries in which we’re all enmeshed and all constantly implicated.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: And it’s not like the oppressor groups ever gave up on their own identities. It’s not like they didn’t heavily invest in their identities throughout history. So the lack of understanding of why people invest in identities, particularly oppressed people or marginalized people—that lack is doubly shocking, because people in power who don’t understand why people invest in identities are also people who are already invested themselves.

Look at the way European cultures have always reproduced European cultures wherever they’ve gone. In Australia, the white mythology was that Australia was only 250 years old—it only started with the inception of white Australia! They had deep historical investments in their identities.

HUEY COPELAND: Absolutely. When we talk about identity or identity politics, that labor and that discourse are usually placed at the feet of those marked as “other,” when, of course, the same mechanisms and questions of identity are very much in play for those in power.

What we saw with the emergence of whiteness and masculinity studies in the ’90s, for instance, were further attempts to examine those unmarked positions and how they’re produced and reproduced. Is that approach still something that has traction? Particularly in the art world—in which, so often, it’s artists marked as “different” who become the vehicles through which to talk about these issues, as opposed to artists who seem to have a neutral identity, when, in fact, those identities—

MICHELLE KUO: Are never neutral.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Look, identity politics is as old as modernity. Throughout the history of colonialism, countless groups have been told that they owe their present miseries to their histories and identities, that there was something about who they were that made them disadvantaged in the world.

Everywhere in democracies, people are legitimately saying, “I need an identity that makes me feel good about who I am.” I saw this happen on a large scale in Australia; I was there from the late ’70s to the early ’90s with the Aboriginal population, where there was a huge discrepancy between how their situation was portrayed by the white liberal media and their reality. If you looked only at the media, Australia would look like a wonderful society. But if you looked at the statistics, you would see rampant discrimination. The longevity of the Aboriginal people in Australia is simply statistically lower than that of the white population or the non-Aboriginal population, for example. But one of the first things that happened as the Aboriginals began to take ownership of their own politics post-’60s was that many of them wrote autobiographies. And those autobiographies were actually quests for identity. What clan did I come from? What was the language my group lost? What is the history of my family?

People saw the past itself as a resource in the struggle. I have seen the same thing happen with the Dalits, the ex-untouchables in India: The upper castes told them that they were suffering because of their pasts, because they had done some horrible thing in a past life or mythological time and had therefore been untouchable.

So the need for identities that one can feel good about is probably at least as old as these structures of modernity. The Europeans ruled us via claims of having a superior identity, that they were more civilized than we were.

HUEY COPELAND: I wonder, Emily, how you approach the autobiographical in your practice.

EMILY ROYSDON: It’s a fascinating question for me because it’s always the last thing I do. The way that I think is much more abstract, and only at the last minute do I pull it down and connect it to my own narrative or experience.

HUEY COPELAND: In a sense, you’re first dealing with collective memory versus individual memory or split memory.

EMILY ROYSDON: I think a lot about collectivity and collaboration, generational thinking. When I moved to New York in 1999, a few years after I finished high school, and encountered the city and a generation lost to AIDS, that’s the first collective history I identified with in such a productive way, but it was totally secondhand.

DAVID JOSELIT: I am of the generation that became adults just before and during the AIDS crisis, and what changed so dramatically were the relations between gay men and lesbians. That was one of the great by-products of AIDS activism—a sense of identification that was supra-identity-based.

The ’80s and ’90s emphasis on identity politics was, in some ways, about creating alliances. I think that this was always part of identity politics, obviously—having to create a visible platform for individual identities but also making coalitions between them.

Arthur Jafa, Dreams Are Colder Than Death, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 52 minutes.

EMILY ROYSDON: If we’re talking about the history of Identity Politics, with a capital I and P, in an American context, I’m living in Sweden now, where they didn’t have a conversation about identity politics in the same era that we did; the question of difference and being marked and being racialized, these things are current hot topics.

How can we compare the very specific kind of American identity politics with questions of globalization and internationalism that have come up since then?

MICHELLE KUO: Europe is a special case, but it seems that many of the debates they’re having are, in fact, a weird rehash of the debates about multiculturalism and diversity in the ’80s and ’90s in America.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: The European migration crisis lays that bare now.

EMILY ROYSDON: Whiteness in Sweden is so profoundly unmarked that their term for “immigrant” just means “dark hair.”

HUEY COPELAND: Wow. Well, perhaps now American cultural discourse is providing a language with which to think about these questions and to connect them in a way that seems to have a global resonance, even if the American categories and formations don’t actually fit the particularities of how identities and markings are unfolding in a different context.

EMILY ROYSDON: Absolutely. I’m interested in how the American formations are imported and consumed, and how they don’t fit. Difference, and especially cultural blackness, is often American here. But now, while Europeans are experimenting with strategic separatism and developing an identity politics, this generation has also grown up online, which has created the space for all these other kinds of performative and fictional identities and connections, really different from the situation of the ’80s and ’90s.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: One big difference is between the neoliberal ideology and its strength in the US, and the welfare-state ideology in many European countries.

In a neoliberal ideology, difference is really about preference. Identities are like brands, so many consumer choices—but not every identity can be equally marketed. There are many identities that are failed by the logic of the market, and that’s what is ignored in the US context.

Whereas in the European context, the refugee crisis is perceived as a threat to the benefits of the welfare society, and Europeans are basically developing strategies for living with what they regard now and will increasingly regard as a permanent underclass in their society. We have an underclass in the US as well, of course, but the ideology of American capitalism—the idea of social mobility—frames that situation in another way.

Suddenly, in Europe, a society that prided itself on its non-American, welfare-based model of credit capitalism is threatened by the perception that there are these massive human waves coming over, which will undermine the very foundations of the society they have built since the war. Those two discussions pose the question of race very differently.

DAVID JOSELIT: When we talk about neoliberal culture, the whole notion of the entrepreneurship of the self, which we might understand now as a “curatorship” of oneself, becomes extremely important. This “curatorial turn” corresponds to a display of difference, in which one stages one’s self in order to increase its value. Since the cultivated or educated self has become such a fundamental unit of value and target of power under neoliberal conditions, this particular dimension of identity is even more powerful than before.

So instead of the paradigm of identity politics being one of inclusion, identity risks collapsing into a capitalization of qualities, which is really dangerous.

MICHELLE KUO: At least in certain parts of the world, there is an increased fungibility of identity or identification, but that fungibility is then often channeled into a style or a marketing niche.

DAVID JOSELIT: I’m actually quite interested in how, within gender politics, the trans movement has become so prominent. It exemplifies a certain fungibility, or a kind of identity that’s based on a social life of circulation.

I can’t comment on this from a position of direct knowledge or participation, but I do feel like trans is a paradigm that’s about the possibility of lying in between or making a path between things, as opposed to identifying with something fixed.

If there is a kind of paradigm of mobility in identity, how can one mark that aesthetically or visually?

KARA KEELING: For many artists, the intervention might be a local one, but their own artistic practice and references are coming out of different, broader contexts.

EMILY ROYSDON: Or, for example, what is the image of transness now? Especially when it is becoming recognizable in popular culture at this very moment, or it’s arrived.

MICHELLE KUO: It has its own television shows.

EMILY ROYSDON: Of course, anyone’s critique of this moment is that it peaks with Caitlyn Jenner, this rich white conservative Republican. The politics of visibility are so spectacularly displayed in this case—“passing” happens in wealth and whiteness. It’s not that America values precarious lives all of a sudden or is open to a more diverse gender spectrum. The queerness and resistance aren’t in the frame.

DAVID JOSELIT: Jenner actually demonstrates one sort of problem with the neoliberal focus on the self as an infinitely malleable and improvable object. It’s like the Tootsie effect of days gone by: She wants to embody a virtually unattainable model of gender normativity, as opposed to relaxing those norms. As you point out, it’s a kind of “perfection” that can only be accessible to someone of significant means—it’s a class issue.

KOBENA MERCER: But a celebrity like that exemplifies the way in which this entrepreneurial self has to be made over in the image of neoliberal individualism. It encapsulates the demise of a collectivism that, in previous historical moments, you could call either a movement or a community, which is what an older model of identity politics stood for.

What’s happened, in a strange way, is that without any collective behind you, there is a kind of borderlessness or abstraction. We’ve been talking about structural and systemic disparities, but they now seem to be ungraspable. It is difficult to find a representational form for what’s wrong with neoliberal capitalism. So we’re left with the spectacle. We’re left with entrepreneurial celebrities.

EMILY ROYSDON: Because instead of having a social movement, you have a budget for a television show. [Laughter.] Or that’s what it looks like to the uninitiated; decades of struggle become mere footnotes. It’s still TV and it’s your own computer you’re watching it on, by yourself.

DAVID JOSELIT: Which goes back to the distinction between audience and public that Martha Rosler made long ago, with regard to the collective: A public is united in a shared purpose while an audience is atomized and passive.

Still from John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes. © Smoking Dogs Films.

EMILY ROYSDON: I wonder if at some point in the conversation we will use a different word. I wonder if identity is always a relationship to the state, to power, and to rights.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Surely not always.

HUEY COPELAND: Emily, it’s interesting that you ask this because I was thinking about whether we might also move away from the politics in identity politics and instead think about tactics—operations that are labile, that shift and are deeply contingent. Tactics are about working against the larger, strategic impositions that attempt to define what an identity can be and the kinds of controls that go along with them. Tactics are about always having to be on the move and to move more quickly than the forces that would capture you.

KARA KEELING: Take Wangechi Mutu’s work. Her “Family Tree” series asks us to think differently about kinship and what might constitute the elements in relationality or genealogy, so that you can think of a different relationship to the natural or even the technological environment that’s feeding into what she would talk about in terms of being anchored in a past or a genealogy.

What I like in her work is that it’s not simply a way of helping Kenyan women or black women or black people feel better about themselves.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: No, I’m not saying that always has to happen.

KARA KEELING: Well, that kind of affirmation was important in terms of coming into some sense of consciousness as a group. What’s really exciting now is the way that’s shifting, and I think we have tried to wrestle with that shift by calling it “post-” something. I would say that it’s more of a will to transform the relations between organic beings, whom we still call human, and the environment.

I think that there is an extension of identity politics that’s starting to open up a divergent way—we might even begin to imagine how the world might be organized and who or what would be included in that.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Surely I agree with that, but then I would add that if you look at the world today, we are living with very different senses of risks and uncertainties from the past century. Today some of the risks are heightened, leading to more mobility. And more mobility is going to have an impact on how I see myself.

Identity is motile. It moves. And it probably had a different function in a different time. I’m not denying that. All I was saying was that when you look at things contextually, then the nature of oppression, the degree of oppression, the kind of oppression, and the kind of subjection one undergoes, these things vary from one context to another. For instance, the language of neoliberal multiculturalism is there in one part of the Australian discourse, even in a part of Indian discourse. But it doesn’t result in different situations. It doesn’t travel as quickly or as universally as we might imagine.

MICHELLE KUO: Yet there’s a certain idiom of contemporary art that implicitly appeals to universalism, or at least to a kind of universal legibility. When I go to international art fairs, I still see vestiges of art practices that are based on somehow communicating a legible identity or autobiography to a global market. In other words, there is so much work by artists, many of whom are highly respected, that still depends on the promotion of some kind of identitarian mythology or biography, whether it’s a critical one, a deeply searing one, or a complicated one. I’m not saying that these things are not constructive or interesting. It’s just that I do see them as a manifestation of how the art world is bringing together diverse and potentially incommensurable practices or artworks as though they’re all of a piece.

DAVID JOSELIT: David Harvey argues that culture becomes more and more unique as everything else becomes less and less grounded geographically. And I do really think that art plays a role that’s specific under globalization in the sense of what he calls exclusive rents: You can claim exclusivity over a certain value. The Great Wall of China can’t be exported. Champagne is only from France. So in encountering art that is unfamiliar in the West, we are looking for what is quintessentially Chinese or Indian or Nigerian about it in order to consume it. The problem is that artists are consequently expected to perform authenticity. But I think there is a way in which the same dynamic operates in Euro-American art centers: Certain forms of appropriation of modernism, for instance, may be responding to the same impulse to reflect on and repurpose heritage.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: But then does the art market work by valuing incommensurability?

MICHELLE KUO: In some ways it actually tries to do the opposite, which is to find points of commonality.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: A common measure.

MICHELLE KUO: Ironically, those points of commonality are achieved when some kind of difference is packaged in a way that is legible to another reader.

DAVID JOSELIT: That is also a globalization story. You know, something that is “too indigenous” is harder to circulate. Something whose difference is just right—not too much and not too little—that’s the golden ticket.

HUEY COPELAND: And we see a demand for these forms that are easily packaged and consumed as kinds of difference for the market.

DAVID JOSELIT: I have been reading Jane DeBevoise’s book Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era [2014], which is a really interesting study of the Chinese art market. She shows how in the ’80s and ’90s, when all the progressive American critics whom I know of were justly criticizing the rampant commodification of contemporary art, a developing market became a space of possibility for Chinese artists whose opportunities to exhibit had been controlled by a centralized state system.

So one of the difficult things about thinking about histories of global contemporary art is that what seems like the “same” thing—the art market—may function in opposite ways in different places. The critique of spectacle in the United States has a very different valence from, let’s say, the situation in China.

MICHELLE KUO: Even “the Left,” leftism, the avant-garde, has a completely reversed meaning—it literally is the opposite.

DAVID JOSELIT: Which is the Right.

KOBENA MERCER: This goes back to the question of representation: We have representational forms of the global that cover over the fact that we still don’t have nuanced tools for thinking about how modernity is mapped in the Caribbean and Cuba, in South Africa, in China, in India. We are still beholden to simplifying representations in which we think we know what globalization is because we’ve been conditioned by a certain kind of multicultural planetary image, but we don’t have the maps, even the scholarship, of a nuanced conjunctural account of how different processes, whether it’s the market, collecting, museums, and so on, operate under different conditions.

We still tend to think in these system-wide terms that have a homogenizing effect.

MICHELLE KUO: This is the great caricature of global-art-fair art I mentioned earlier: that it’s either a kind of beautified abstraction that translates across disparate markets or it’s a literal representation of local history or documentary or autobiographical type.

HUEY COPELAND: What is the relationship between the consumption of those identities and their institutionalization and historicization? Which is to say, a particular practice might be taken up as the flavor of the month, but does the critical engagement with that practice, in fact, ever come to shift what gets collected, what gets seen—and begin to change and rescript the larger historical narrative?

Because the works are doing that and so should the conversations they enable. They should be moments to say, “Look, actually this work is opening up a whole different kind of episteme, a whole ’nother way of charting history,” and identity politics or tactics make an opening for these possibilities to emerge.

But the question is, What is the longevity and the traction of artworks that seek to tell these stories differently? And how might that start to affect structural shifts, not only in how we understand dominant histories but also in how we understand what the aesthetic is, where its limits are, and what it touches on?

EMILY ROYSDON: That’s why I asked if we will experiment with using another word in this conversation, because perhaps there is a way we could agree that identity can be strategic and certainly help explain a relationship to power, but it’s not always the most productive term, and it’s sometimes very conservative.

If we’re talking about artmaking, and we’re talking about changing art institutions, then I think that there are other kinds of language, literally. If we’re talking about identity and the institution, that’s about the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, where you have this question of people in specific identity positions fighting to become visible to institutions. But if what we want is to change institutions, then it’s not really identity that we’re talking about.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: So what’s the word? Do you have some word in mind, Emily? [Laughter.]

HUEY COPELAND: That’s the $64,000 question.

Black Lives Matter protest, New York, December 13, 2014. Photo: Nicolas Enriquez/Redux.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: You know, I’ve been working on climate change and culture. One of the differences between the earlier iteration of identity politics and today, it seems to me, is that we are all much more aware of the planetary scale of many of the problems.

Now, one would think that the planetary is precisely an invitation to move away from the ’80s sense of identity. And I’m just wondering whether the word that you’re groping for, Emily, gives us an opening in that direction.

Do you see this field that you’re trying to describe, with these words that you’re looking for, shifting under the pressure of a generally increasing awareness that not only are we all connected but some of the things we do actually impact the whole planet in many ways?

EMILY ROYSDON: Absolutely. It’s much more a question of finding something that takes on the complexities and the performativity, instead of the stability, of an identity.

Kara began by saying that those of us who did identify with identity politics, we wanted them to be unstable and intersectional categories. But they’re not used that way against us. That’s why, when Huey starts talking about institutions, that’s when I say, “Can we have another vocabulary instead of identities and institutions?”

MICHELLE KUO: Part of it is that institutions themselves have changed. Even since the ’80s and ’90s. They’re no longer the top-down edifices of an older regime of power, or at least they’re not only that.

That’s precisely what biopower is, right? It’s the shift from older forms of discipline into new forms of control, and that plays precisely into the question of ecology and other scales and structures through which to think about social relations.

KARA KEELING: I have been thinking a lot about a film that addresses these questions aesthetically—Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death, from 2014. The film relies on a reorganization, or recalibration, of value and hierarchy. He’ll take close-up shots of the people he’s interviewing, and then he’ll also take shots of the sun or the cosmos. You get this shifting between—

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Different scales.

KARA KEELING: Yes. And I think that’s showing up in artistic practice more generally.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: But what you said just made me think that the whole question of scale was much less present in the discussion in the ’80s and ’90s.


DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Whereas now we’re much more aware of scale, and of the relationship between scale and identity; identities, one could say, are scale-dependent.

MICHELLE KUO: That links back to atomization—that microcommunities are, in fact, now scaling up to potentially become macrocommunities in their own right. It’s just that we have more of them and that those numbers do actually make a difference in how we understand difference itself.

KARA KEELING: And this notion of commensurating the incommensurable.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: But it’s not so much a question of commensurating the incommensurable, but of juxtaposing them in such a way that the possibility of commensuration is actually resistant. Because that’s what the logic of capital does: It finds what’s common between the two and makes that a measure, and therefore commensurates the incommensurable, whereas what you’re talking about, it seems to me, is really a subversion of that logic.

KOBENA MERCER: The question of scale puts me in mind of Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah [2015]. I think the way that he approaches the oceanic, as something that’s nonhuman but that connects identities, is different from the artists whom we’ve mentioned in our discussion so far.

Akomfrah is not offering an idea of what an Atlantic commons might look like. There isn’t anything as ready-made as that. But he’s addressing this space of immense beauty, as well as terror and death, and ecology and experience, where the oceanic is not the sublime so much as a worldly space of crossing and becoming, where the human is only one kind of being among many.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: I am coming at this question partly from my interest in the Anthropocene and what’s now being called Anthropocene art. There is an Alaskan musicologist, Matthew Burtner, at the University of Virginia who is trying to produce Anthropocene music. He records natural sounds of, let’s say, ice melting in a box. When the heat goes up, the ice melts and produces a certain kind of sound that you can amplify, which will make you think not just of water flowing but actually of a glacier melting, and he incorporates that into the music.

So in a way, what he is trying to do is to make the incommensurable commensurate. It’s something that is happening on a much larger scale, but he is bringing it within the realm of the experiential. And that kind of transposition is happening in visual art, too.

DAVID JOSELIT: I’ve also been seeing an emphasis on the agency of materials, which addresses what we might call a register “beneath” identity, or subjectivity, in projects by artists such as Anicka Yi, who, for a recent work, swabbed bacteria from a hundred different women in the art world and then created a scent from it.

There is a way in which looking to this level beneath or beyond subjectivity is a particular response to the question of identity. Whether it’s a productive one or not is debatable. But to me it seems like a strategy to work against the kind of neoliberal profiling we’ve been discussing.

EMILY ROYSDON: Distributing across matter also makes me think of the use of abstraction. Or I think about Adam Pendleton’s concept of Black Dada, or artists who engage a previous generation’s identity politics but use totally different strategies, like you’re saying with Anicka; or in the realm of performance, the opening into questions of the choreography of “social movement” in every sense.

DAVID JOSELIT: It really does feel like there is another paradigm, a post-relational-aesthetics type of action or performance where questions of “participation” are less innocently posed.

MICHELLE KUO: Is it also a shift from the question of the sheer visibility of a group or collective saying, “We exist,” and, “We are here,” versus this strategy of atomization or distribution? It’s interesting that you’re bringing up the biological, because whereas the biological was once a substrate for essentialism, now it might be the field of something else, or of a new distribution of the self.

KOBENA MERCER: I’m wondering whether there is a connection between the oceanic and the bacterial.

DAVID JOSELIT: Well, there is. [Laughter.]

MICHELLE KUO: A literal one.

KOBENA MERCER: But in the broad sense, this is nonhuman matter that has agency, and these are artists who are thinking about agency that’s not centered in consciousness. It does continue a relational model in terms of the otherness of the E. coli that I am dependent on in order to have a healthy intestine, and the otherness on which we’ve depended in terms of the ocean being this medium through which peoples, goods, identities have migrated, not just in the past thirty years but the past couple thousand.

Thinking about the nonhuman and our dependence on it might be a way forward. I wonder whether that older relational model, of alterity and otherness, is completely exhausted, or whether, in Sylvia Wynter’s terms—when her account of the coloniality of power talks about life after man—the after-human can yield a new set of relational models.

EMILY ROYSDON: Scaling up from the human toward the global, the planetary, and the environment or Anthropocene. You’re calling it the oceanic, which is very much a question of scale, too.

DAVID JOSELIT: I feel that there is a focus on the very small and the very large scale at the moment and that the medium scale, which is, after all, the place of the human, is somehow less present—your riff on the ocean versus bacteria exemplifies this. Maybe the renewed interest in the posthuman may be framed in terms of this split in scale between the micro and the macro, the local and the global.

KARA KEELING: But most language operates at human scale. Allan deSouza’s Ark of Martyrs [2014] takes part of the text from Heart of Darkness and messes up its phonetics. With a narrator reading Heart of Darkness and phonetically similar words scrolling on the screen, there is a disjunction between what is actually being said and what is going on in the film, even though there is phonetic similarity. So it is layered, in some ways incommensurate, but there are points of sonic and visual juxtaposition or connection.

I’m struck by how much of what I think of in relationship to these questions today gets routed through sound or through the audiovisual in some way, like the work of Andrea Geyer, who takes text from Weimar Germany and has actors read it in English, and stages it in such a way that the ideas of another time and place call into question present futures [Comrades of Time, 2010–11].

DAVID JOSELIT: That is what Sharon Hayes does, I think, by introducing a certain affect into protest positions that are already historical by the time of her enunciation of them. So it’s a reactivation of a voice with a super-added affect, across a historical divide.

KARA KEELING: To go back to trans work, that plays with the coherence of gender in ways I think bring together these questions around scale and perceptibility and the coherence of identity.

EMILY ROYSDON: Queerness always worked to destabilize these positions, and if we are talking about identity politics or the politics of identity, queerness is also now a method. I see this particularly in Europe. People are talking about the “queer-curated.” [Laughter.] I love the idea that queerness isn’t an identity.

HUEY COPELAND: It’s a verb.

EMILY ROYSDON: It’s always been a question and it’s always been a practice. And Michelle, you asked, “Have we moved beyond a kind of ‘I am here’ representational politics?”—where minority groups were fighting for the right to be seen and heard.

Yes and no and both. But also, who has been able to move on? Identitarian activist groups like Black Lives Matter are crucial in America right now. This moment is newly complex and yet still struggling with the same structural oppositions. But people were always fighting for complexity. Especially the people who are willing to take up identity-based activist claims publicly—the relationship with your peers and with yourself, it’s not exactly identity-based. It’s not strictly representational.

John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 53 minutes. © Smoking Dogs Films.

DAVID JOSELIT: The North/South divide is another scalar relation. Taking Australian multiculturalism and the role of Aboriginal people within it as her archive, Elizabeth Povinelli writes about identity under these global conditions, defining what she calls “the cunning of recognition,” where there is an imperative to occupy an “authentic” position that anyone who investigates the historical context knows is in fact manufactured, false. So there is a call to be Chinese or Korean or Emirati, and yet it’s impossible to occupy those identities in any way that has an organic link to tradition, because many of what we understand as traditions are, to use Eric Hobsbawm’s term, invented.

These conditions may be understood as an expansion of the ’80s/’90s multicultural debates, which presumed—at least in the Euro-American world—that everyone already had an identity, but it just had to be included rather than marginalized or suppressed. Of course, poststructuralist or cultural-studies models of identity at that time instead emphasized a differential, constructivist model of subjectivity.

The struggle today is still about inclusion, but it’s also about articulating a ground from which to build an identity that is intelligible on a global circuit. And I think that this kind of compulsory authenticity or cunning of recognition, as Povinelli puts it, is at the core of that question.

The powerful paradigms of the diaspora, or the cosmopolitan, somehow feel less relevant now as a framing device for thinking about identity. Kobena, in many ways you shaped and initiated those debates in art history and criticism.

KOBENA MERCER: Cosmopolitanism had slightly dubious connotations for the longest time in the West, as it meant the rootless elite. It got turned around by postcolonial thinking, which argued that to be cosmopolitan is to be at home with strangeness, to cultivate a relationship with what is foreign. But with a global art market able to digest difference for instant consumption, as we’ve been saying, perhaps that critical inflection has now gone. Has it been overtaken by spectacle, so that all you’re left with is an image of difference?

DAVID JOSELIT: Especially recently, with forced migration, the refugee crisis, migrant labor—that’s the other side of cosmopolitanism.

KOBENA MERCER: But with the crisis in Syria, are we not, in fact, watching a new diaspora in the making? When people are forced to migrate, we can see the destabilizing effect on national identities, not just in the embattled reaction in Western Europe but with the turmoil in Hungary, Turkey, and Greece, which are real borderline places that define where the European Union begins and ends.

Also, if one thinks of other kinds of responses, the small-scale conviviality of sharing meals with refugees, for instance, aren’t we looking at something that resonates with the whole ethos of participatory practice?

On this side of the Atlantic, the way the Syrian crisis has been narrated—with full-scale amnesia about its colonial history—has created a distancing effect, but I would say the mininarratives uploaded weekly by the Abounaddara film collective, for example, show there’s still a role for countermedia as well.

So, yes: On the face of it, the black Atlantic model of diaspora may seem less pressing, but over the past fifteen years I’ve noticed two intertwined developments in the US context that relate to this in another way. You have, on the one hand, Afrofuturism, which is planetary and thinks of blackness on the scale of galaxies—the [2013–14] Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition “The Shadows Took Shape” spoke to this—but on the other hand, in theoretical circles, you’ve had the emergence of Afro-pessimism, which thinks about blackness in ontological terms and starts from the premise that the slave relation persists, that it was never modified by abolition or civil rights, let alone by multiculturalism. I’d say the dispersal of black identities into outer space looks pretty diasporic to me, especially when you also have a stance that sets out to theorize antiblack violence as foundational to modern history. So there are multiple scales at play here, too.

KARA KEELING: Scale is also always wrapped in the temporal. Of what can become perceptible, and how that happens over time.

DAVID JOSELIT: These temporal distortions, and the notion of Afrofuturism, also make me think about the argument made by Jean and John Comaroff that the Global South indicates our future in the West, because it was in the postcolony that the values we associate with neoliberalism took root very early through colonialism. So, in fact, the South is our future. But in ways that are probably both pessimistic and optimistic. If you think about neoliberalism as a global mechanism that was actually accelerated outside the West in deleterious ways, it creates responses and solutions in the South that can be in advance of ours in the North.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: In terms of temporal scale, one problem we’re encountering today through all these planetary crises is that as we become aware of geologic time in the discussion of Anthropocene, or biological time, we also become aware of certain scales on which we can’t think politically, because politically, we can only think on human timescales. On those larger scales we can probably only think philosophically and poetically.

Which doesn’t mean that we can’t think critically. We can still think critically and ethically. But maybe we can’t think politically, because of the huge nature of the scale involved. Humans will think about winning or losing only over human timescales.

KARA KEELING: And yet poetics can open on to a kind of politics, one that is not easy because it’s also invested in producing different ways of knowing, forms of knowledge.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: Right. That’s what I was calling philosophy. But yeah, it is politics.

KARA KEELING: People get upset with movements that refuse to be properly political. The most recent one is probably Black Lives Matter. But there are other movements all over the world that are thwarting the categories of the properly political. I feel like they have the capacity to actually make a difference.

MICHELLE KUO: Take China or Russia, where literally no kind of protest or even dissidence can be part of the mainstream political system. So you are forced to find these other channels, whether they’re via social media or alternative ways of gathering. You’re forced to find other routes by which you can enact speech at all.

HUEY COPELAND: This relates back to the mutability of the tactical, and what Michel de Certeau describes in The Practice of Everyday Life [1980] as “politics without a proper locus.” Now, it’s about a desire not to even entertain a proper locus. It’s this versatility that art needs, so it doesn’t end up being completely reified—and so it’s not driven by some telos of what should be on the other side of an imagined transformation. It’s about continual engagement and searching, as it’s unfolding.

KARA KEELING: Like the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong.

MICHELLE KUO: Again, these are conditions where the hegemony is so strong that even extremely modest forms of gathering or of bodies in a place together make a certain gesture. We’re seeing new forms of protest now that by necessity or by choice are not part of the main systems of politics.

KOBENA MERCER: That’s why the Black Lives Matter campaign has been so significant. What stands behind it is an awareness that antiblack violence is deeply entrenched in American history—and it is precisely this feeling that there’s been no real historical progress that is, I think, profoundly unsettling to a liberal democratic system that wants Obama to represent a happy ending that gets us to “postracial.” So this is where the Afro-pessimist view kicks in, as an opportunity to think about blackness as something that’s detached or detachable from black people.

DAVID JOSELIT: It is analyzing a systemic situation, as opposed to one emerging only from the individual.

KOBENA MERCER: Blackness has become a kind of super-noun. It’s elusive and slippery because it can refer to many things, but in the sense that it’s detached from having only a racial referent, it’s something that everybody can talk about and has to talk about, whether you’re addressing the thinghood of the slave relation or blackness as a signifier of multiplicity.

There is a fantastic article by Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness” [2008], in which he is reviewing a kind of nonexchange between Cecil Taylor and Ad Reinhardt from 1967 that revolves precisely around the seemingly incommensurable questions they ask: Is black a color? Is it a noncolor? Is it a signifier for absence, negation, or endless possibility? Which suggests that blackness can be all of the above.

DAVID JOSELIT: Just to bring that down to a recent practice, I think one of the reasons that Cameron Rowland’s exhibition at Artists Space [2015] was so successful is that it did some of what you just described. It demonstrated the continuity between slavery and the prison-industrial complex in the United States, but it also detached both labor and objects from their immediate context in an almost violent way. Rowland established a different relation, it seems to me, between an object and its normative qualities than the usual kind of readymade or appropriation model because it allowed for an even more complete extraction or separation—you used the term super-noun—from history. The objects are both evidence and not evidence of the objectification of human labor.

That captured the strange, contradictory situation you described.

KOBENA MERCER: I couldn’t agree more. For instance, there is Rowland’s transparent acrylic pass-through box, which you might see in a liquor store in a working-class neighborhood. In the gallery, it’s a readymade, but its thinghood, its object status, is what makes it so compelling as something that links the systems of the art economy (even though you can’t buy the work, you can only rent it) and the inner-city economy. The work intervenes in that precise gap, in that middle ground, I think, between the super-noun—blackness as available to everyone—and blackness as a racialized identity. But it has moved on from the representational to something that can draw attention to the disconnects between various economies where “race” is necessary for their functioning but always gets disavowed. Although maybe, in the representational space of liberal democracy, disavowal is something that’s hardwired into our cortex.

The politics of representation that has flared up on college campuses, at Yale, for example, shows that addressing identity is just the hardest thing to change. Representational forms can perform acknowledgment, but changing the name of a college building, as if that alone were an answer, can actually cover over history.

DAVID JOSELIT: Because it’s another kind of systemic structure that cannot be undermined through a single gesture or through a single representation.

MICHELLE KUO: When does disavowal become historical amnesia or cultivate forgetting? Is this suprasensibility or effect of something like blackness also potentially linked to the kind of commodifiable affect we’ve been talking about? Is that the danger, in this extraction of a sensibility from the body?

DAVID JOSELIT: I see them as complementary. In his project, Rowland has worked to foreclose the possibility that his art will be consumed as affect. But I personally don’t think that mobilizing spectacle must necessarily be considered a politically regressive strategy. There is a possibility that affect can be used in a progressive way. In fact, I think there’s a danger—the precise danger that you just articulated in terms of erasing history—in not directly confronting the conditions of spectacle.

It’s important to understand how affect works—to move through it and not just withdraw from it. I admire Rowland’s systematic effort to withdraw from that kind of experience, but I don’t think that’s the only valid or valuable approach.

KOBENA MERCER: I would agree. I hear an element of a cultural-studies position there in terms of thinking of spectacle as a site of struggle. It’s not sewn up. It’s not accomplished. There are still opportunities to antagonize. And here I would think of someone like Martine Syms, who made a recent work in which she’s addressing commodified images of blackness, in which everybody wants to be a black woman and yet nobody wants to be a black woman. The structure she’s identified is not really an antagonism or a contradiction. It’s more like an antinomy.

You have these mutually exclusive propositions, but we instantly recognize the truth, the validity, of what she said in that utterance. This is an artist who is finding the cracks in the spectacle.

Martine Syms, Black Panthers (detail), 2015, two flocking-coated resin sculptures. Installation view, Bridget Donahue, New York, 2015. Photo: Marc Brems Tatti.

MICHELLE KUO: Technology is another way in which affect and identity are being splintered. A lot of new work that engages social media or new technological platforms is often seen as literally posthuman, posing a world in which identity is so flexible as to be essentially obsolete. Identity becomes an effect. And yet we obviously know that’s not the case.

KOBENA MERCER: Presenting yourself online seems to involve an atrophy of self, so that identity is an advertisement, a performance of one’s life, one’s story.

KARA KEELING: But social media is also opening up—not necessarily the production of a commons, but something more collaborative and iterative.

DAVID JOSELIT: This is where the term profile becomes important for me as a way of thinking about identity: There is a discursive economy of the profile that is and isn’t quite mappable onto identity, and this goes back to the question of the neoliberal entrepreneur of the self. Social media is part of that entrepreneurship, obviously.

EMILY ROYSDON: Perhaps the way I engage the autobiographical is through the network. I am always trying to include other people in my work, and I always talk about the network of artists I’m interested in and that I locate myself in. In recent projects, I have written about this idea of “how not to be the thing itself.” So I’ll make a publication in which I invite other artists—Martine, for example—to contribute to the text through a call-and-response structure, opening up the frame of references. Autobiography becomes a way of connecting to another language around the profile, which would be the network.

KOBENA MERCER: Is a profile in that sense not unlike an identity in that it’s not trying to be an authentic, enduring self, but a set of markers that establish a point of sale?

DAVID JOSELIT: Yes, but it has to produce an image at a different scale, the scale of the Internet, which is almost impossible to grasp. What is one’s relation to one’s image when it begins to circulate more broadly—is it private property or is it public? Is it part of a commons, as opposed to a collective? There have been high-profile cases where these issues are in play—like Richard Prince’s appropriation of Instagram portraits, where he has taken what people think of as their private images and capitalized on them. Some of those people whose images he appropriated were OK with it, some not.

EMILY ROYSDON: But a lot of identity has to do with how you get read. It seems that with the profile, it’s about what you’re creating to be seen.

DAVID JOSELIT: But then there is profiling by Google and advertisers. The profile is bilateral, because we don’t only make profiles, we are profiled by others—think of ethnic profiling by the police. It’s an interesting convergence of a voluntary self-presentation and being involuntarily tracked or surveilled by external agents.

EMILY ROYSDON: So to make myself visible in certain ways, they’re responding to my choices.

DAVID JOSELIT: Exactly. All of the things we think of as our tools for private expression are also transformed into new kinds of corporate capital—where information is being saved, analyzed, and sold.

KOBENA MERCER: That’s a good point. Insofar as I’m being profiled by algorithms that follow my data trails, I’m being acted on by corporations and so on, even though possessive individualism encourages me to think of my image as something that belongs to me.

But another thing that relates to your point, Emily, about the ’80s, is that the act of identification is an acknowledgment of interdependence. I wouldn’t need to identify with anyone or anything if my identity were as whole, as complete, as finished as possessive individualism would like me to believe.

It’s a point that Ernesto Laclau made many years ago—that you wouldn’t need to identify with anything if there weren’t something missing, if there weren’t something lacking or incomplete in your identity in the first place.

MICHELLE KUO: And then that lack is constantly being pointed out today, your never being able to fulfill that image you have constructed for yourself or advertised for yourself in some way. On the other hand, the data—what these algorithms or surveillance mechanisms are trying to extract from you—is always necessarily incomplete. There is a trail of bread crumbs in between. This plays into the spectacularization of the self at a very small scale.

DAVID JOSELIT: Yes. And then these high-profile stories of trolling show that situations can escalate really quickly. Obviously most people don’t have that experience, thank God. But you’re always vulnerable to it. Someone like Jerry Saltz dines out on this perpetually, creating controversies in that way.

MICHELLE KUO: Before, in the era of collectivity, spectacle was a mass experience. Now, even if it is happening at a large scale, it is particularized.

KOBENA MERCER: It’s intensified. I wonder whether the alienating experience of producing an identity as an image that is never completely within your own control results in some of the ways in which we use technology as a defense, so that our devices act like screens and give us a way to not interact with people in the city or on the street. I’ve noticed these performance styles that digital technology encourages, where you see enactments of antisocial individualism.

Interior of the Archive House at Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects, 2009–, Chicago, 2012. Photo: Sara Pooley.

HUEY COPELAND: One thing that we’ve seen emerging is the notion of art as social practice, and that really is a way of trying to work through these questions of identity and process and scale. The possibilities for relations within the framework of an aesthetic practice might become models for broader understandings of ethical relations with others. In so many practices, it’s no longer a single artist engaging representations of themselves, or their history, or the codes or imagery of a historical or political event, but artists creating social worlds that are microcosms of what could be on a larger scale.

Social practice is just one of many arenas in which we see an interest in art as a kind of laboratory or mode that wants to have a relationship to the larger public sphere of which it’s always already a part, and becoming a way to try to think, “What do these kinds of incommensurabilities look like in relationship to a particular site or locale or instance?”—to actually act it out as a kind of method.

MICHELLE KUO: Or test. And Huey, you’ve written and thought a lot about, for instance, Theaster Gates’s work in Chicago, which points to the tension between action and spectacle.

HUEY COPELAND: That goes back to the gap between what’s happening discursively and what’s actually unfolding in practice. The practice is pointing toward a horizon or way of being together that it can’t, in fact, actually ever attain.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: How does art—and Gates is interesting in this regard—how does art get out of institutions and actually impact our everyday lives?

EMILY ROYSDON: Well, in the past few years there have been all these conversations about performance in museums, and I started doing some writing around that. I ended up thinking about this question: “How to build a structure to be alive inside?”

I use the writing as a collaborative way of making performances—creating poetic phrases like “What’s a transition that’s not a solution?”

HUEY COPELAND: Yes! Something that’s never finalized, always in motion.

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: That’s a lovely way of putting it. Thank you for giving me the phrase.

EMILY ROYSDON: Conversation over. [Laughter.]

DIPESH CHAKRABARTY: You’re going to find the transitions that are not solutions.

Huey Copeland is an Associate Professor of art history at Northwestern University; Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of history, South Asian languages, and civilizations at the University of Chicago; David Joselit is Distinguished Professor of art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY; Kara Keeling is an Associate Professor in the critical studies of cinematic arts and in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California; Kobena Mercer is a Professor of the history of art and African American studies at Yale University; Emily Roysdon is an artist and Professor of art at Konstfack in Stockholm.