- Oscar "Zeta" Acosta and Generic PoliticsAt the Margins of Identity and Law
An enigmatic and controversial figure during his lifetime, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta has continued to intrigue generations of literary critics, artists, and activists after his mysterious disappearance in Mexico in 1974. Though often remembered primarily for his two semi-autobiographical novels, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo ( 1989a) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People ( 1989b), Acosta was also active as a militant lawyer during a pivotal moment in the development of the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s. By focusing on his legal, political, and literary work, the present essay contributes to a rereading of Revolt in light of Acosta's experiences as a political militant and radical lawyer. While his multifaceted engagement with the Chicano Movement complicates any attempt at a conclusive assessment of his political thought, we can nevertheless [End Page 173] identify in Revolt several thematic threads that give us insight into his thinking of revolutionary politics. In this later work, I contend, we can find an implicit theory of politics conceived of as a "post-evental" (Badiou 2006a) process initiated with the 1968 East L.A. high school walkouts; one that displaces identity as a basis for the unity of a political collective and reassesses the relationship between law, politics, and representation.
The Chicano Movement, as is often noted, was in large part characterized by a "quest for identity" (Muñoz 2007, 76).1 Beyond the social implications of valorizing Mexican American culture against its denigration by Anglo society, ethnic pride was frequently seen as the necessary "common denominator for uniting all Mexican Americans and making possible effective political mobilization" (Muñoz 2007, 93). The development of a strong ethnic identity was thus considered politically imperative as a way to provide the movement with the common ground required for unified action. The problem, however, is that in taking identity as the basis for political action, such a politics produced a set of exclusions in the very process of identitarian definition on which it depended. These exclusions, often based on gendered and heteronormative conceptions of difference integral to the existing organization of the social, reproduced some of the discriminatory logics that sustained (and continue to sustain) the status quo (Chabram Dernersesian 1994; Moraga 2000; Saldívar-Hull 2000; Rodríguez 2011). Given this, we can thus see that "a set of exclusions confronts identity politics and prevents it from doing justice to the concerns of the excluded and marginalized" from the very outset (Dean 1996, 8). To the extent that politics as a collective endeavor cannot rid itself of a notion of the common, and yet the representation of commonality relies on the identification of constitutive limits as a condition for its intelligibility, the question turns on how we can think commonality in a manner not determined by identitarian definition. Such a notion, I argue, requires that commonality be thought negatively, beyond the realm of positive representation. I propose that Acosta points the way to such a conception in Revolt, and that a Badiouian framework enables us to trace this thought.
Without denying the evident existence of heteronormative and sexist discourse in Revolt, and despite a frequent tendency among critics to analyze Acosta's work in line with the identity politics of Chicano nationalism, I [End Page 174] nevertheless propose that we can also find in Acosta's writing a thinking of politics unsutured from both identitarian and legalistic limitations. More specifically, I argue that Revolt can be read as a reflection on politics as a postevental and generic procedure founded on the trace of the interruption into an existing situation of the latter's constitutive void. Carlos Gallego (2011) has also drawn on Badiou to read Revolt as figuring a nonidentitarian and universalist politics of the void. With Gallego, I see as a benefit of Badiou's philosophy its enabling a critique of identity politics that neither jettisons the category of the subject, nor reduces it to an effect of structure—be it as a remainder that resists structural capture or as a product of interpellation (Gallego...