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"The Universality of Non-Belonging" by Todd McGowan (Keywords: Inclusivity; Identity; Film Studies)

Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 4 ("What is We?"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

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In May and June of 2020, two radically different forms of protest stormed across the United States. In the first, people fed up with the restrictions on economic activity occasioned by the coronavirus outbreak marched with demands for reopening the economy. These protests all occurred under the banner of freedom. They portrayed the state governments that enacted the restrictions as authoritarian – indifferently associating them with famous right-wing and left-wing tyrants from history. Leaders who restricted our ability to work and earn money were either new versions of Hitler or Mao. The freedom that these movements championed was the freedom to produce and consume commodities. They were apostles of capitalism and protested for lifting restrictions on capital.

The Black Lives Matter protests that broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, invoked the absence of equality in American society. Through their focus on the unequal treatment of black lives, they condemned a socioeconomic system that operated through clear expressions of inequality. The slogans of this movement typically spoke directly to George Floyd’s murder – they claimed, “I can’t breathe” or “Black Lives Matter,” not equality or liberty for all – but these expressions always had a universal import not apparent in the protests for reopening the economy. This universality is the key to the radicality of these protests, in contrast to the conservative demonstrations for reopening the economy. This becomes evident when we look at the role of the police in both movements.

The salient difference between these two protest movements was the attitude that they took up relative to those who were policing them. The opponents of coronavirus restrictions viewed the police as the armed extension of the government curtailing their liberty. Hence, they met the police with arms of their own and treated them as their enemy. Despite the ostensible universality of their struggle that invoked liberty for all, they had a clear enemy that could not participate in the universality they championed – the police.

The behaviour of the Black Lives Matter protesters was remarkably different. Even though these protesters came together explicitly to challenge police violence, many of them asked the police to join the protests rather than combating them. While many police officers responded to peaceful protesters with violence, others took up the protesters’ offer and took a knee alongside them. We should not underestimate what this act reveals. It was the universality of the Black Lives Matter protest that made this gesture possible, a universality that was clearly missing in pro-capitalist rallies calling for opening up the economy. Capitalism isolates us in our own particularity. Protests arguing for more capitalism thus cannot be universal in their bearing. This is why the contrast with the protests against police violence stands out.

If we look at the structure of the Black Lives Matter protests, not only does their universality become clear, but they also have the virtue of instructing us about what constitutes the universal and how we approach it. They model for us a new understanding of universality and universal struggle, one that overturns previous conceptions that made universality into an oppressive force and an anathema for so many theorists.

The particular wrong that these protests targeted – police killings of black individuals – clearly violates universal equality. In the act of addressing this particular wrong, protesters necessarily invoked the spectre of universal equality. This was the primary value lurking in the background of the particular protest. But it was not universality as we have traditionally understood the concept.


According to Jacques Lacan, every signifying order has a master signifier. This signifier provides the foundation for the rest of the structure and acts as the ultimate recourse for all explanations. It is the leader’s “because I said so” that functions as the justification for how things work. Although this master signifier grounds the social order, it is not universal. The master signifier is not the site of universality. Its proclamations are necessarily exclusive, constituting a border between inside and outside, which testifies to its lack of universality. The master signifier offers identity to those who belong but withholds it from those who don’t.

If the master signifier is the nation, I gain national identity through my belonging to it. My adherence to the signifier America gives me an identity as an American, for instance. But this identity depends on many being excluded from this signifier and the identity that it confers. I am only an American insofar as many others are not. The master signifier cannot function universally if it is to perform its function of grounding a signifying order. Exclusivity is inherent to it. The master signifier divides between those who belong to the signifying structure and those who don’t. Those who belong must conform to its dictates and derive their signification from it. There is no room for difference.

The universal exists in a contemporary ignominy due to its association with the violence of the master signifier.

This explains the hostility that arises to universality among many theorists. The universal exists in a contemporary ignominy due to its association with the violence of the master signifier. Even for those who don’t explicitly link the universal to the master signifier, there exists a widespread sense that universality involves violence to particulars, which is why it arouses so much suspicion today. The great opponent of the universal in the twentieth century was Theodor Adorno. Because he understood universality as a master signifier that dominates particulars, Adorno vehemently attacked the violence of the universal, which he associated with Nazism, Stalinism, and capitalism. The universal’s bad rap has its origins in Adorno’s critique and that of his contemporaries, which makes no bones about its dangers. In Negative Dialectics, he writes, “the universal liquidates the particular from above, by identification”. It is clear from the way that Adorno articulates his critique that he sees the universal in the form of the master signifier. This signifier plays a determinative role relative to all other signifiers. It operates through dominance and is guilty of producing mass identification by forcing every particular individual into its universal form. But the attempt to conceive of universality in terms of the master signifier has misled us about the nature of universality.

If Adorno is an exemplary figure in this attack, so too is Michel Foucault. In his lecture series entitled The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault lays out his attack on the universal right from the beginning. He states, “I start from the theoretical and methodological decision that consists in saying: Let’s suppose that universals do not exist”. As with Adorno, Foucault sees resistance to the universal as the task of the theorist. The influence of both theorists remains strong even today, but their critique of the universal and their association of universality with authoritarian rule stems from a misunderstanding. Universality is not mastery and doesn’t come in the form of a master signifier. It exists instead at the point of mastery’s failure. The universal is the missing signifier, the signifier of the failure of signification, not the master signifier. When we conceive it in this way, its radicality becomes evident.

*** Contra Adorno and Foucault, what we have in common – the universal – is what we don’t have, not an identity that we do have. This reversal – conceiving universality as the missing signifier rather than the master signifier – has concrete political consequences. Every social order has a missing signifier that connects everything within the social order and the particular social order with every other. Universality exists because no mastery simply imposes itself without a gap: the popular group cannot force everyone to conform to their dictates. There is universality through the failure, not the success, of mastery. Every form of mastery runs into a point that it does not and cannot include under its control. This point is universal. It is not mastery but the failure of mastery that is universal. With this understanding of universality in mind, we need a universality politics which takes the point of failure, or non-belonging, as its starting point. This type of politics has certainly been going on already, even if it hasn’t been named as such.

Universalist politics doesn’t try to make this point of non-belonging belong – this is what the politics of inclusivity does – but rather insists that society must organize itself around the point of non-belonging, the point of mastery’s failure. This is what we see expressed in movements such as Black Lives Matter. The contrast between a genuine universalist politics and the politics of inclusivity is instructive. The universalist position argues for the inclusion of non-belonging as non-belonging, the inclusion of this absence within the whole. In this vision of things, non-belonging functions as a necessary hole that defines the whole. Genuine universalism does not try to make this absence into a presence, which is what the inclusivist position does. The politics of inclusivity includes non-belonging by transforming it into what can belong. It turns the proletariat into the bourgeoisie. By converting non-belonging to belonging, inclusivism attempts to eliminate non-belonging. It tries to create a whole without absence, a whole without a hole, a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. Universalism insists on the hole.

The paradigm for universalist politics is the ending of the 1988 teen classic Heathers, a film so radical it is hard to believe that the moguls in Hollywood permitted it to be made. Heathers shows the contrast between the domination of the particular and universal emancipation. It depicts the trajectory from one to the other. The Heathers are a clique of girls that ruthlessly dominates Westerburg High School, ostracizing anyone who fails to conform to the dictates of popularity that they lay down. Their reign represents brutal particularism and reveals how particularism always constructs a hierarchy.

At one point, the leader of the clique, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), announces her rule over the school by audaciously proclaiming, “They all want me as a friend or a fuck”. This boast goes unchallenged because no one doubts its truth. Her mastery of the school disdains universality and depends on a strict barrier between who belongs and who doesn’t, a barrier that Heather Chandler strictly enforces. If anyone steps out of line, they risk becoming a nobody at Westerberg. Heather Chandler has the power to dictate belonging and non-belonging, and she strictly polices the line between these two states. As the film opens, Veronica (Winona Ryder), despite the fact that her name isn’t Heather, is part of this clique. She belongs, despite her reservations about its exclusivity. But at the end of the film, Veronica breaks from the clique and announces the birth of a genuinely universalist regime at the school. Heathers concludes with Veronica taking a bright red ribbon from the hair of Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), the new Heather in charge, and telling her, “There’s a new sheriff in town”. It is significant that Veronica does not renounce power altogether or retreat into the position of an outsider as she breaks from the clique. Instead, she accomplishes a universalist revolution, moving from the particularist regime of the Heathers into a universalist one. Rather than exercising her newly asserted authority in a traditional way, Veronica befriends social outcast Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn), who was earlier the object of the derision of the Heathers (and Veronica herself).

In the concluding shot of the film, we see Veronica walking next to Martha, who is riding in a wheelchair, as she invites Martha over to her house to watch videos. This ending depicts a different type of relationship to non-belonging. In her first act as the new sheriff of Westerburg, Veronica embraces Martha, the figure of non-belonging that everyone disdains, as a figure of privilege. Unlike the rule of the Heathers or other cliques, Veronica’s rule eschews popularity for the sake of the one who doesn’t belong. Veronica doesn’t eliminate popularity or fitting in – it still exists at Westerberg, we assume – but recognizes that equality is possible and exists through the position of non-belonging, which is why she reaches out to the ostracized and makes the last first without eliminating the fact that she is last. Although this may seem like a form of inclusion, what differentiates it is the acceptance of Martha’s non-belonging. Veronica doesn’t try to make Martha popular but simply steps into her unpopularity. This is the key to the radicality of the gesture at the end of the film. *** The project of universal non-belonging that Heathers depicts contrasts with the liberal program of mutual recognition and total inclusion. This program wants to create a society in which everyone belongs and has a place. While the inclusivist project sounds much better on the surface than the universalist one (insofar as it gets rid of this bothersome absence and the trouble of non-belonging), it has the unfortunate effect of producing an unrelenting assault on any non-belonging that remains. Inclusivity sees non-belonging as the contingent product of an unjust order that it strives to eliminate. One must always keep going, including more and more, when embarked on the project of inclusion. The champions of inclusivity are progressives. According to this position, if we progress far enough, we will bring about a society where non-belonging no longer exists. It does not grant non-belonging any existential status.

Inclusivity sees non-belonging as the contingent product of an unjust order that it strives to eliminate.

The problem with total inclusivity, however, is that belonging always requires at least one who doesn’t belong. Non-belonging is a structural necessity. Those who don’t belong are the ones who make belonging count for something. This is why belonging inherently produces non-belonging no matter how strenuously it works to include everyone. Non-belonging provides the glue for belonging, which is why belonging is irreconcilable with universality. This is what Hegel is getting at when he writes in the Science of Logic that “the universal is … free power; it is itself while reaching out to its other and embracing it, but without doing violence to it”. Universality, as Hegel sees it, necessarily involves otherness – or what doesn’t fit. It does not remain within itself but constantly undermines any belonging. For Hegel, universality is the impossibility of belonging. In this way, Hegel points in the direction of the idea of universality that I am advocating.

Since no social order can ever reach the point of total belonging and completely eliminate non-belonging, the politics of total inclusivity necessarily fails. No matter how many identities inclusivity manages to recognize, more will inevitably crop up that will require additional acts of inclusion. While universality includes failure within the structure, inclusivity encounters the necessary failure of total belonging as an external barrier, the result of insufficient education or the reluctance to accept difference. At some point, inclusivity will run aground on its own internal limitation because non-belonging necessarily exists within every social structure. But since the politics of inclusivity doesn’t admit the necessity of non-belonging, it cannot interpret this internal limitation as internal.

The limits of a politics of inclusion become apparent if we think about the attempt to accommodate different identities made by the United States government. Official recognition of different identities attempts to include all, to create a situation in which every identity belongs. But if we glance at the categories created by US Census, the failure of inclusivity is evident. Although the Census Bureau tries to include everyone, we can see a conspicuous failure emerge through their categories. In the effort to be inclusive, they deploy a wide variety of racial identities that one filling out the form can choose. The form creates an initial division between “Hispanic or Latino” and “Not Hispanic or Latino”. Then, after opting for one of these categories, one must choose again between “White Alone”, “Black or African American Alone”, “American Indian and Alaska Native Alone”, “Asian Alone”, “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander Alone”, “Some Other Race Alone”, “Two or More Races Including Some Other Race”, and “Two or More Races Excluding Some Other Race, and Three or More Races”. The problem with these categories is clear. The attempt to cover every identity leaves a gap expressed by the designation “Some Other Race Alone”. This designation marks the failure of the attempt to add up particular identities in order to create an all-inclusive whole. The Census Bureau needs a category for everyone who doesn’t fit in the categories. There is always at least one exception.

We can see the same problem crop up with the attempt to use inclusive pronouns. Instead of assuming what pronoun a person uses, it has become protocol (at most universities and some progressive businesses) to ask people their chosen pronoun. Not only can the person choose between “he” and “she”, but in many places “they” is also an option. Although “they” marks a rejection of the binary and thereby suggests a position of non-belonging, it nonetheless functions as a symbolic identity, not the site of the missing signifier. For this reason, adding this pronoun represents another attempt at inclusion, an attempt to make sure that everyone belongs. But the effort at inclusion can never be complete. Including “they” leaves out “ze”, which is the choice of some today. Even if we added “ze”, this would still not provide complete belonging. Beginning with particulars always leaves a failure to include all. Total inclusion comes up against the barrier of a necessary non-belonging.

The persistence of non-belonging drives inclusivists in one of two directions. Either they succumb to cynicism and give up on the prospects for substantial political change, or they turn rightward and identify an enemy within the society that makes total inclusion impossible. According to the frustrated inclusivists, this enemy is the bloc that cannot get onboard with the project of total inclusion (what Hillary Clinton calls “a basket of deplorables”). Their failure to accept the politics of inclusion licenses the elimination of their symbolic status within the society. Resistance to inclusivity justifies stripping away platforms that allow anti-inclusivists to articulate their position publicly. When the position of inclusivity takes action against an enemy in this way, it begins to turn into the conservatism that it opposes.

In contrast, genuine universality cannot have an enemy, no matter how extreme its opponents are. At every step of the political struggle, it holds open the possibility for the opponent’s conversion rather than insisting on the opponent’s eradication. Of course, some would view their potential conversion as their annihilation. But conversion to the universality position is actually a path toward the preservation of one’s singularity rather than its elimination. In this sense, conversion to universality is actually the opposite of annihilation. Taking the side of the universal non-belonging means affirming what doesn’t fit – and what doesn’t fit is precisely the singular.

The lack of an enemy is what we see in the case of the Black Lives Matter activists. Even though their protests specifically target the police as their opponent, they never characterize the police as an enemy. Instead, they urge the police to take a knee with them, to show themselves on the side of the universal rather than the particular. Their call to “defund the police” is a call to bring the police over to the side of non-belonging, not an act of violence toward them.


Unlike the politics of inclusivity, the universalist position argues for the significance of what doesn’t belong. It takes what is missing as its point of departure. If society transforms and the content of what doesn’t belong changes, universalism will continue to insist on affirming non-belonging. No social change will ever eradicate non-belonging as a formal feature of society. But it is possible to envision a society that recognizes this formal feature as the source of all universality. What matters is the relationship that a society has to this point of non-belonging. In their everyday functioning, most societies simply repress the point of necessary non-belonging. They don’t grant it any existence at all.

When a society recognizes the failure to belong as universal, it undergoes a transformative change.

But when a society recognizes the failure to belong as universal, it undergoes a transformative change. This recognition doesn’t magically eliminate all oppression within the society, but it does strip away the accepted justifications for oppression. It demands that those invested in the prejudices and inequalities of the prevailing social order confront the structural necessity that produces them. Through this imperative, universalism would make business as usual for the ruling capitalist order impossible. It would interrupt capitalism’s steady advance by highlighting the internal limit that this advance cannot overcome. Through the change that it introduces in our relation to the position of non-belonging, the universalist project harkens toward a society in which those who don’t belong are not left out.

Todd McGowan is Professor of English at the University of Vermont, USA. He is the author of 15 books, including Universality and Identity Politics (2020), Emancipation After Hegel (2019), and Capitalism and Desire (2016). He is the series editor of Film Theory in Practice (Bloomsbury), and co-series editor (with Slavoj Žižek and Adrian Johnston) of Diaeresis (Northwestern University Press). He is also the host of the podcast Why Theory (with Ryan Engley).

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