…neither cessation nor origination
neither annihilation nor the eternal
neither singularity nor plurality
neither coming nor going…Nagarjuna
We’ve learned the basics of the value form and acquired some crucial distinctions – but I’m going to leave the rabbit hole of the intricacies of value theory and its history to you. Instead, we’re going to turn now to some more abstract conceptual dichotomies, all of which I’ve found to be structurally integral to commodified existence as such. While these ‘isms’ may seem to be abstract – if you’re a primate and you’re reading this you are already participating in cultural formations that are built out of these materials, and your thought processes will be shaped by your relationship, conscious or unconscious, to these abstractions.
First up, essentialism!
Essentialism is a metaphysical outlook that assumes all entities have an ‘essence’, a fixed, stable substantial ‘something’ that makes them what they are. Names for this substance include a spirit, a soul, a self, an atman, an identity. Essentialism has been around for as long as there have been humans. It’s baked into most traditionalist, premodern theo/spirit edifices.
It’s also integral to capitalist ideology – it’s built into the value form as a kind of necessary illusion. All commodities appear as if they have an ‘essence’, and so! – So do we!
If you’re a primate and you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly an essentialist of some kind. It’s really hard not to be – this shit is everywhere and we’re all socialized into essentialist symbolic edifices and practices.
Essentialism is root level value form conditioning.
If you’ve been using dereification and disidentification on your concepts, you’ve already begun a process that will inevitably take you to the other side of essentialism if you follow it far enough. It works like this: anytime you encounter a construct or a pattern or an object in your mind that seems like an essence, you apply the tools of disidentification and dereification to it. If you can disidentify and dereify it successfully, well then;
It wasn’t ‘you’, was it? It was just something you were identifying with and reifying, which – now you’re not. What you thought was your ‘essence’ turned out to be just a mental habit.
If you keep going with this, eventually you’re going to run out of constructs to disidentify with and dereify. You will be left with a not-you habitual construct on the one hand, and on the other hand, nothing the fuck at all.
The final step to escaping essentialism is precisely to identify with and reify this nothing. This will utterly transform your thought processes forever.
On the other side of essentialism, we can say this: We have no identity and we need none. What we are falls outside of symbolic coordinates, and can never be spoken, identified or reified without losing something absolutely crucial – the void of our freedom. (Oops! Lost it!)
Thus every identity is dependent on something that is non-identical. Every self includes its other, every soul is perched on the edge of an abyss dug by its own construction.
Anyone who attempts to tell you that you have a soul or an essence or a self or an identity – they are making a play to dominate your mind. As soon as you’ve reified and identified with such a figure, instead of connecting with something original and ‘authentic’, what you are actually doing is allowing somebody else to define who you are. You have accepted your social conditioning. You have been mapped, measured, quantified, accounted for.
Your ‘true self’ is a marketing construct.
Essentialism has always been a power play. It performs a necessary function in any society – it helps the elites to justify their privilege. It’s the easiest way for a member of any dominant group to explain to themselves why they’re at the top of the hierarchy – they deserve to be, because they are essentially better than you are.
Traditional gender roles are essentialist for exactly this reason too. Male essentialism is just a way to get women to accept patriarchal power relations and define themselves according to tradmasc coordinates. The feminist escape from this is, at least at first, always an anti-essentialist move – disidentifying with and dereifying male essentialism.
Racial essentialisms were also constructed by the conquerors. When Europeans invented ‘Whiteness’, they invented ‘Blackness’ and Brownness’ and ‘Yellowness’ along with it. ‘Jewishness’ did not become what it is now until there was a gentile to point to it and call it as such. How could any Jew know what they are now without the universalizing gaze of a gentile?
Fascism is a perfect example of a racial essentialism combined with a national essentialism being used as the basis for a political platform. It sucked and did a lot of shitty things, because essentialists are people that don’t really understand what they are. They don’t see that their reified essence requires its other in order to exist, and so – they live in permanent fear of their other.
More things we can say from the other side of essentialism: like all concepts, ‘essences’ aren’t static objects. They are contingent, relational socio-historical constructs. They are born, they grow, they learn and change, and they die. They are a process! Full identification with these symbolic constructs is always inherently a self-limitation – one that blocks your capacity to become other than yourself, your ability to grow and change in new, unexpected directions.
As an unconscious ontology, essentialism renders invisible all the relations and connections and processes between things, leaving one in a static flatland of separate objects. Essentialism makes it harder to notice that your mind is a relational, interactive process that includes its other. It also makes it harder to gain access to most forms of universality, and certainly precludes one from having a dynamic relationship with a univeralist dimension – which again stunts the growth of individuality.
Let me risk going all the way to the end here: any reification of any identity at all is inherently essentialist. Using capitalist conceptual structures and mental habits to understand ourselves is still playing their game. The ruling class of any society dictates the structure of the Symbolic Order – so we can only free our mind from the domination of the oligarchs by stepping ‘outside’ of language, and re-entering on our own terms.
You don’t have to play the game of essentialism and you have everything to gain by not playing it anymore. It’s a shitty game for shitty people – and the only winning move is not to play.
Would you like to know more?
- Sartre – Being and Nothingness
- Nagarjuna – The Middle Way
- Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
- Hofstader – Godel, Escher, Bach
- Hofstader – I am a Strange Loop
- Metzinger – The Ego Tunnel
- Hegel – Phenomenology of Spirit
- Anything by any psychoanalyst. This entire theory/practice school is fundamentally anti-essentialist.