Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Use of Analogy Amongst Activists (Some Thoughts)

      It's been a little while since I last posted anything because of some important academic work that I needed to get done, but I'm hoping to have more time to write for the next few weeks or so.  A recent retreat with the Students for Justice in Palestine made me return to a question that has been on my mind for the past few years, that is, the use of analogies within activist circles.  This topic has been often been a source of a great deal of controversy, particularly in relationship to struggles based on identity, but the question has also been brought up in relationship to anti-imperialist struggles.  Those conflicts have often been quite heated, and have lead to internal splits in groups as well as the break up of coalitions.  I plan on arguing that the theoretical problem with these conflicts can be found in the implicit agreement amongst the interlocutors in the dispute, rather than their disagreement.

     To understand that problem, I will work through each of the positions.  The pro analogy position is fairly simple, and is best understood as a set of unthought assumptions, rather than a consciously developed approach to the use of analogy.  The analogies that are used within this formation are really best understood as homologies.  Structurally, the operate under the logic of X=Y.  For instance, the feminist movement commonly compared the experience of women with the experience of African-Americans under segregation.  This analogy had a habit of slipping into a logic that might be expressed in the following terms: the experience of African-American [men]=the experience of [white] women.  This structure of analogy is frequently used to justify a particular cause by linking it to an older struggle, drawing an aura of legitimacy through the connection.

       I think it should be clear at this point that I don't think this is a particularly appealing form of political reasoning.  The opponents of the use of analogy have come to the same conclusion, arguing that this form of reasoning becomes a form of appropriation.  Organizations that use this sort of logic put themselves into a parasitical relationship with other struggles, feeding off their energy, rather than acting in solidarity with those movements.  And it needs to be recognized that this form of organizing produces legitimate resentments from the struggles that have been used in such a manner.  For instance, the white gay establishment has done a great deal of harm through the indiscriminate use of analogies to the civil rights movement.  As a whole, this position is a far more thought through position, focusing on the differences of struggles, and demanding an ethical accountability to the actions of activists and organizers.  Folks within this position by in large argue against the use of analogy, critiquing its use in the vast majority of situations.

        So, one may wonder at this point why I have claimed that I am producing a critique of both sides of the debate.  After all, I clearly see that one side's position is more clearly thought through and ethical than the other.  But, the problem is that both views operate under a common misunderstanding of the role of analogy in argument.  Both positions operate on the assumption that analogy is homology, that is that a similarity based on a common origin.  This is a form of analogy, but it isn't the only approach.  It also can be a productive epistemological device, allowing for a better understanding of a situation through an act of comparison.  It allows for the thinker to break out of old patterns of thinking to produce a different way of looking at a situation.  As Ta-Nehisi notes, "The test of an analogy isn't "Are these two thing, in any conceivable way, alike?" It's "Is the likeness clarifying?" A thought-experiment must be about something more than constructing a way--no matter how elaborate-- to make oneself right."  A good analogy can be used to draw on other experiences to develop forms of organization, to draw on successful forms resistance, etc.  Perhaps more significantly, it links concepts together into productive assemblages, rather collapsing them together into a homogeneous whole.  At their best, analogy provides an extraordinary vehicle for creating the forms of solidarity that we are after--we just have to use the literary form correctly.

     I'll give you a brief example of this, the analogy between the occupation of Palestine and apartheid South Africa.  This analogy has gotten quite a bit mileage recently as a way of reframing the debate about the occupation.  The common logic can be framed in the following manner.  The Israeli government has deployed the same tactics as the apartheid South Africa in the occupation.  The tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions led to the end of that regime, and the same tactics can lead to the self-determination of the Palestinian people.  There are several problems with this analogy.  The most significant of them is the fact that the formal end of apartheid did nothing to change the profound structural inequality in South Africa.  The ANC has not lived up to its promise of land reform and redistribution.  But I don't think that negates the analogy.  Instead, the experience of South Africa makes us recognize 1.  The tactic of BDS can have an impact on the struggle.  2.  However, the lifting of formal discriminatory structures does not translate automatically translate into structural transformations.  3.  Solidarity movements ability to contribute to those transformations is limited.  4.  The destruction of neo-colonialism necessitates a radical transformation of the world system.  The analogy is not so neat and heartwarming as the first one, but it does allow us to critically think about what it means to be in solidarity with the fight against the occupation.


  1. kaja silverman has apparently gotten a lot of mileage recently out of "analogy"- i saw her give a wacky talk based on her recent book, arguing for analogy as an ethical operation (i was not buying it). it would be interesting to see you expose the difference between what you're talking about (which is to my mind wholly persuasive) and what's she's up to...but maybe not worth your time!

  2. I'll look into it. I think that a lot of my thought on this has an influence from the work of Shklovsky, strangely enough, along with that comment from the person I quoted above.