Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?

This volume is an act of talking back, of talking heresy. To reclaim the term “realism,” to maintain the epistemic significance of identity, to defend any version of identity politics today is to swim upstream of strong academic currents in feminist theory, literary theory, and cultural studies. It is to risk, even to invite, a dismissal as naive, uninformed, theoretically unsophisticated. And it is a risk taken here by people already at risk in the academy, already assumed more often than not to be uninformed and undereducated precisely because of their real identities.

Of course, identity is today a growth industry in the academy, across the humanities and social sciences, influencing even law and communication studies. The constitutive power of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and other forms of identity has, finally, suddenly, been recognized as a relevant aspect of almost all projects of inquiry. However, as I shall discuss in this essay, simultaneous to this academic commodification of identity is an increasing tendency to view identity as politically and metaphysically problematic, some have even said pathological. So on the one hand the theoretical relevance of identities has become visible, while on the other hand many theorists are troubled by the implications of the claim that identity makes a difference. Increasingly, then, the attachment to identity has become suspect.

If identity has become suspect, identity politics has been prosecuted, tried, and sentenced to death. To espouse identity politics in the academy today risks being viewed as a member of the Flat-Earth Society. Like “essentialism,” identity politics has become the shibboleth of cultural studies and social theory, and denouncing it has become the litmus test of academic respectability, political acceptability, and even a necessity for the very right to be heard.

In contrast, there has been a noticeable thaw regarding the term essentialism. What was once perfunctorily denounced at the start of every paper in feminist theory has recently been tentatively examined by a few theorists for possible signs of validity. Christine Battersby, Elizabeth Grosz and Teresa de Lauretis have pointed out that it is only the Aristotelian concept of essence that has been used in the feminist debates, that is, the idea of a fixed and stable feature common to all members of a natural kind.1 On such an account, an essence is something “real” in a prelinguistic sense. But modern philosophers criticized Aristotle’s concept precisely because it would seem to require us to be able to know something that by definition we cannot know: the “real” as it exists hidden from perception and thus description (notice, thus, that this is hardly a contemporary critique). Hobbes and Locke then proposed a concept of “nominal essences” wherein “the essence of a thing is its verbal definition: it is no more than ‘an accident for which we give a certain name to any body, or the accident which denominates its subject.’”2 In this way, as Battersby argues, “a feminist advocacy of ‘nominal essences’ could deal comfortably with linguistic, historical, and cultural variations in the way that the female is defined.”3

Susan Babbitt has gone even farther to defend a version of essentialism that is not nominalist about the essences it purports to exist.4 She suggests that what motivates the concern with essentialism is it’s apparent reliance on naturalism---or on a naturalistic account of gendered identity---an account considered incompatible with feminism. Babbitt points out that this, too, is a mistake: naturalism is not necessarily a commitment to ahistorical, prelinguistic, transcendent facts, but a causal account that has explanatory power in connecting up phenomena in the world with human practice. In fact, within analytic philosophy, naturalism can usefully reveal just how important practices are in the formulation of knowledge on any subject, feminist or otherwise. Babbitt’s arguments suggest that the real problem is determinism, and neither essentialism nor naturalism commit us to a hard determinism about gender identity.

These reassessments show that the denunciations of essentialism were premature: they were based on an inadequate exploration of the concept, its history, and its possible meanings. I believe it is time we reassess identity politics in the same light.

One of the problems is that identity politics is nowhere defined---nor is its historical genesis elaborated---by its detractors. So the very thing we are discussing is surprisingly vague. Identity politics is blamed for a host of political ills and theoretical mistakes, from overly homogenized conceptions of groups to radical separatism to essentialist assumptions (n.b. above). But what are its own claims? In what is probably its locus classicus, the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” of 1977, identity politics emerges as a belief in the relevance of identity to politics, such that, for example, one might justifiably assume that those who share one’s identity will be one’s most consistent allies.5 Such a claim does not assume that identities are always perfectly homogeneous or that identity groups are unproblematic: the very formation of the Combahee River Collective was motivated by the founders’ concerns with the racism in the white-dominated wing of the women’s movement, the sexism in the male- dominated wing of the Black Liberation movement, and heterosexism that was virulent everywhere. But they did assume that identities mattered, and that they were in some sense real.

In this volume, Mohanty and Moya have carefully unpacked and analyzed the philosophical assumptions behind claims of identity and of its political and epistemological importance. For many theorists in the humanities today, the key issue boils down to one: are identities in any sense real? If identities are simply products of ideology, false consciousness, Power, or the Law of the Father, one might well wonder why a politics of liberation would want to defend identities rather than deconstruct them. And moreover, many wonder what it can mean to call anything real in this post-Foucauldian moment, identities or anything else. What can it mean to make truth claims about the political realities of experience, of history, and of the liberatory aspirations of oppressed peoples? Epistemic skepticism can weaken political determination and gives comfort to political cynicism, and to overcome this the question of realism must be broached directly.

Hames-Garcia and others here argue convincingly that the wholesale critique of identity and the repudiation of all forms of realism are based on a mistake; legitimate causes of concern have been mistakenly attributed to realist views of identity, such that, now, all claims of identity have become suspect, no matter how they are formulated or what their political implications are purported to be. Acknowledging multiplicity and the mediated character of experience entails only that some accounts of identity are mistaken. But somehow a concern with overly-homogenizing, radically separatist, deterministic approaches to the politics of identity has led to a situation in which all identity claims have become suspect, and the links between identity, politics, and knowledge have become so nebulous that it looks as if none exist at all. This position, when examined carefully, is in fact specious. Wilkerson’s paper in particular shows that one can repudiate the absolute authority of one’s claims about the meaning of one’s own experience without forsaking the ability to draw knowledge from experience, and it is precisely the epistemic distinctions engendered by a post-positivist realism that make such discriminating judgements possible.

In this paper my aim is to provide further defense for the realist account of identity and for its corresponding claims about identity politics. First, I will consider how advisable it is to use of the word “realist.” Next, I will consider the current philosophical attacks on identity and present a counter-diagnosis that would situate the true “problem of identity” elsewhere than it is generally situated today. And finally, I will turn to the question of identity’s epistemic and political relevance.



No one here disputes the fact that identity categories are cultural negotiations nor is anyone unaware that group identities obscure internal heterogeneity (and thus it is not the case, as Hames-Garcia explains, that as soon as I declare I am gay I have no more need to define my politics). None of us believe that the meaning of an experience is transparent, theory-neutral, or uninterpreted or that political commitments follow immediately from social location. In fact, Hau provides a defense of political intellectuals on the basis of their ability to develop an accurate account of the world and not on the basis of their social identity, suggesting that the postmodernist repudiation of the intellectual engagé assumes precisely the unmediated character of social location that they would purportedly oppose.

Thus, the authors here can hardly be said to deny the constitutive impact of theory and social context on truth. Yet we also want to claim that identities refer outward to objective and causally significant features of the world, that they are thus non-arbitrary, and that experience provides both an epistemic and political basis for understanding. But do we really need the word realism? Isn’t this being intentionally provocative as well as inviting misinterpretation?

In contrast to literary circles, any participant to the conversations within analytic epistemology and metaphysics will know that, today, the term “realism” admits of multiple meanings. There is classical realism, common sense realism, naive realism, scientific realism, internal realism, pragmatic realism, critical realism, contextual realism, moral realism, and alethic realism, and each of these terms will itself admit of multiple philosophical interpretations!6 The core idea of realism is often thought to be that it is possible for human beings to have knowledge that is about the world as it is, that we are not caught in the “prison house of language” to such an extent that we can know nothing about the world at all. But once one thinks about it, this core idea is compatible with some very different metaphysical accounts of the world and of the character of human knowledge.

For example, though realism is compatible with positivism, or the belief that we can completely step outside of language and present facts in pure form, as in “red patch here now,” it does not entail positivism. Very few philosophers continue to hold such a view; indeed, the logical positivists themselves abandoned this view by the 1930's and went on to develop coherentist accounts of knowledge, as well as radical forms of empiricism, and to inspire critical realism. Nor does the core idea behind realism even entail that one must be an ontological absolutist, or to hold, in other words, that there is only one true story of the world. Even such diverse epistemologists as the pragmatist Hilary Putnam and the foundationalist William P. Alston agree that ontological pluralism turns out to be compatible with realism. Ontologies can be thought of as models of reality useful in science (or in social theory) that approximate the world as it is, thus capturing some truth about it, without enjoying a one-to-one correspondence with categories of entities as they exist completely independently of human languages or human practices. On this view, ontologies might be understood as justified on the grounds of some sort of utility function, but different ontologies can co-exist that have different uses, such as folk psychology (which presumes that such things as “minds” exist) and physicalism (which denies the existence of any non-material entity).7

Ironically, as Mohanty points out, it is a positivist error to assume that this more complicated picture of human knowledge leads us to skepticism, or that to allow multiple ontologies is to say that ontologies have nothing to do with the way the world is. That is, because positivism holds out for pure, “uncontaminated” knowledge, because it raises the bar so ridiculously and unnecessarily high for what can count as knowledge, unless we can base all of science on statements like “red patch here now,” and unless we can fool ourselves into believing that such statements are uncontaminated, the positivist says we must opt for skepticism. But to believe that some of our knowledge captures the way the world really is does not require us to hold that history, language, or even social stratification are irrelevant to epistemology. This is because knowledge is contingent upon a historical development of theoretical commitments that itself could have been otherwise. Susan Babbitt brings in Stephen Jay Gould’s account of evolutionary theory here to conceptualize what such an account of knowledge as contingent can mean:

[Gould] points out that people repeatedly misinterpret evolution...as movement in a certain, predictable direction---as a ‘ladder of progress.’ Instead he suggests that if we were able to rewind life’s tape---thoroughly erasing everything that has actually happened---to some time in the past, there is no reason at all to think the replay would be anything like the actual history of life. Each replay would demonstrate radically different evolutionary directions. This does not mean, though, that evolution is senseless and without meaningful pattern.... ‘Each step proceeds for cause, but no finale can be specified from the start, and none would ever occur a second time in the same way...’8

Babbitt appropriates this account of evolution for thinking about knowledge as a whole, and specifically how one can juxtapose the historical contingency of knowledge with its ability to correspond to the real world. The contingent development of theories about the world means that we cannot claim an absolute progression of correspondence, precisely because there are no such things as “out of theory” experiences.9 Knowledge claims are contingent on theories which are themselves contingent in the sense that they might have developed otherwise. But to say that they might have developed otherwise is not to say that they convey nothing about reality, no more than saying that our biological history could have developed otherwise is to say that evolutionary theory is disproved.

The sort of post-positivist realism invoked in this volume will thus be more familiar in analytic philosophy circles than in literary theory circles. It is not the case that such a form of realism is currently dominant in analytic philosophy, or even that all philosophers will want to grant the honorific title ‘realism’ on the actual views defended here.10 I wish that were the case, but it is not. However, it is the case, within the context of philosophy, that the word ‘realism’ is known to admit of many different formulations and that foundationalists and positivists have no copyright on it.

Aside from the question of how the word signifies in various disciplinary discourses, the critical issue here is that a claim of realism in no way presupposes that the real can be drained of its human contributions. This makes even less sense in regard to claims within social theory than to claims within science: even in the natural sciences, work must necessarily proceed through linguistic formulations of historically embedded theoretical traditions. Unless one thinks that language is a transparent medium, or that the “facts” discerned through elaborately staged experiments are theory-neutral, the reality that science pictures is most properly understood to be a composite. As Putnam, with some exasperation, puts it, “If one must use metaphorical language, then let the metaphor be this: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world.”11 The ability to neatly distinguish the “human” part and the “world” part is not required before one can assert that the knowledge we have is really about the world: we know that we cannot find evidential support for any theory whatever, and that well-supported theories yield predictions and enhance practical success, and thus we know that the knowledge we have is not merely, or exclusively, self-reflection.

But in regard to the objects of social theory there is a double hermeneutic, for here one is engaged in the linguistic analysis of linguistic beings and linguistic behavior. Social identities are real (or not) within the social world, but this is not to say that social identity is infinitely plastic, malleable to opportunistic specifications, or merely linguistic. As Zammito says, “we accept that language helps to constitute its object, rejecting only the view that it is solely constitutive of such objects.” Just as we can understand the object of scientific knowledge to be, in some sense, “human and world,” and thus acknowledge the human element in science, so too should we recognize the “world” aspect of the objects of social theory. Social identities are often carried on the body, materially inscribed, perceived at a glance by well-disciplined perceptual practices, and thus hardly the mere epiphenomena of discourse. This, some poststructuralists will argue, is not their claim. Of course identities are real in the sense of being lived, of having real effects, and of constituting key features of our shared reality, they say. However, identities are produced through domination itself, and as such should be transgressed against and subverted. In the next section I turn to these arguments.


Problems with Identity

Many theorists express a worry that the very concept of identity contains domination because it presumes sameness and thus excludes difference, and because it presumes some haecceity or essential core. In philosophy, to share an identity is to be indiscernible or to share every property. This is not the ordinary language understanding of identity, of course, in which it is common to talk about national identity or ethnic identity even while one assumes that there are differences between the individuals who might share such an identity as well as similarities that such individuals may share with those in another identity group. Identity is conceived as something common to a group, but what this something is can be variously spelled out: for example, it might be something that is socially based and historical rather than stable and inherent. The concept of “linked fate,” used by social scientists to signify a felt connection to others of one’s identity group based on the belief that their fate will impinge on one’s own, operates to tie individuals together on the basis of being subject to a certain kind of treatment, which of course does not entail any concept of an essential core. The worry that identity entails an ahistorical essentialism or that it posits an absolute sameness seems to me to be the sort of worry Wittgenstein said philosophers develop when we let language go on holiday. It is based on a conflation of contextually based meanings and standards.

But there is a more legitimate question, in my view, about the individual’s relationship to group categories of identity. If identity is the product of being treated in a racist manner, for example, its genealogy would seem to be entirely outside the individual. And if so, then identity is something created by oppression and our goal should be to dismantle it and certainly not to celebrate it.

This is the sort of worry that has motivated an interest in poststructuralist and psychoanalytic accounts of identity. Famously for Foucault, the moment of subjectification---the moment at which we attain the status of subject---is simultaneously the moment of subjection. Only as subjects can we be made subject to the Law and subject to disciplinary strategies that produce docile bodies. Only when we conceive of ourselves as possessing a “self” can this self become the focal point of the self monitoring practices embedded in the Panopticon. Foucault was particularly concerned with group categories of identity that work to integrate individuals “by a conscience or self-knowledge” under a unified condition with “a set of very specific patterns.”12 Despite Foucault’s late attempts to develop an account of an ethical relation to one’s self, he never considered the possibility of refashioning an ethical relation with a collectivity of others, presumably because he viewed such formations as the inevitable a product of discipline.13

Derrida has argued that making demands in the name of a subject (i.e. woman) will replicate structures of domination by stipulatively unifying that which in reality cannot be unified.14 This does not preclude the justifiable use of identity claims in all cases for Derrida, but he does suggest that at best we should approach identity as a strategy, through a strategic essentialism, a temporary utilization rather than deep commitment, and/or with an ironic attitude. We should use identity categories only in ways that will work ultimately to subvert them.

And, of course, in a Freudian model, identity attachments are the symptom of a certain ego-dysfunction. As Ernesto Laclau puts it, “...the psychoanalytic category of identification” explicitly asserts that there is “a lack at the root of any identity; one needs to identify with someone because there is an originary and insurmountable lack of identity.”15 The more one expresses an insistence on identity, then, the more one is evidently suffering from this lack. Freud argued that the effort to overcome the unavoidable disunity of the self through a collective identification or group solidarity may itself be the sign of a pathological condition caused by “the inability of the ego to regain autonomy following the loss of an object of desire.”16

In her recent book, The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler, building on Althusser as well as Freud and Foucault, argues that interpellation never identifies that which existed before, but calls into existence a subject who becomes subject only through its response to the call.17 Moreover, like Jean-Paul Sartre Butler holds that there always remains a psychic excess beyond that which is named and out of which agency becomes possible. This is not to say that agency would preexist the process of subjectivation; the appearance of an excess itself is only made possible by the process of naming which tries to accurately and fully identify the self. In other words, interpellation, or naming, creates an identity the inadequacy of which produces the excess, where agency is possible; it is on the basis of the excess that one resists the imposition of the identity, but it is only because one has an identity that one can act. Subjectivation is necessary for agency because it creates the subject who then can act, but at the same time it misnames that subject and inscribes it into Power.

Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain narcissism that takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially. The self-colonizing trajectory of certain forms of identity politics are symptomatic of this paradoxical embrace of the injurious term. As a further paradox, then, only by occupying---being occupied by---that injurious term can I resist and oppose it, recasting the power that constitutes me as the power I oppose.18

For Butler, social categories of identity make resistance possible but always fail to identify accurately, and thus by this very fact create the need for resistance. Accepting identities is tantamount to accepting dominant scripts and performing the identities Power has invented. Identities are not and can never be accurate representations of the real self, and thus interpellation always in a strict sense fails in its representational claim even while it succeeds in inciting and disciplining one’s practice. The question Butler then poses for herself in this book is, when we are interpellated in this way by Power, why do we respond? Why do we turn toward the identifying, subjectivating source, rather than away from it? This question is especially troubling to Butler in regard to oppressed identities, e.g. racial and sexual, in which case the turn toward them is even more pathological. Yet interpellation is the price for recognition. “The desire to persist in one’s own being requires submitting to a world of others that is fundamentally not one’s own (a submission that does not take place at a later date, but which frames and makes possible the desire to be). Only by persisting in alterity does one persist in one’s ‘own’ being. Vulnerable to terms that one never made, one persists [i.e. continues as a subject] always, to some degree, through categories, names, terms, and classifications that mark a primary alienation in sociality.”19 The fundamental idea in Butler’s work, as in Derrida’s, Freud’s and Foucault’s, is that social naming is alienating and that its source is some form of pernicious Power.

I find Butler’s analysis strikingly consistent with Sartre’s distinction between the for-itself and its ego, though in some cases she gives different reasons for the separation than does Sartre. For the Sartre of Being and Nothingness, when we are identified e.g. as “the homosexual” or “the heterosexual” we are recognized by our past choices, choices which can be transcended in the future. Thus, identifications in a sense never hit their mark, they never identify the real self but only its historic trail.

When we organize on the basis of these identities we are unwittingly, naively, remaining caught in power’s clutches. Wendy Brown argues in her recent book, States of Injury, that when we organize around identity, or what she names our “wounded attachments,” we are compulsively repeating a painful reminder of our subjugation, and maintaining a cycle of blaming which continues the focus on oppression rather than transcending it.20 Freud suggested that a compulsion to repeat traumatic events from the past was motivated by our desire to gain control over and thus master the event. But he knew that this repetition-compulsion maintains the power of the event over us by making it the organizing focus of our actions and choices. Parallel to Nietzsche’s claim that “man” would rather will nothingness (or nihilism) than to will nothing at all, Butler and Brown hold that those who embrace their identity-categories are saying in effect “I would rather exist in subordination than not exist.”21 Butler concludes from this that subjectivity itself is thus irretrievably bound up with melancholia.


Strategic Essentialism

Although identities are, then, according to these theorists, both pernicious and metaphysically inaccurate, in another sense they are, or seem to be, unavoidable. Certainly identities are needed in the political arena so that movements can make demands “in the name of” and “on behalf of” women, Latinos, gays, etc. The political solution to this paradox widely accepted among feminist theorists and many others today is strategic essentialism, first formulated by Gayatri Spivak, which pairs an anti-realist account of identity with a pragmatic acceptance of the necessity of using identity categories to advance political claims in the public domain.22 Thus, although one “knows” that identity is not real, that its purported homogeneity is an illusion, one can still deploy identity in the public domain as a way to displace hegemonic knowledges and structures of oppression.

But “strategic essentialism” produces a politically pernicious elitism and even vanguardism when it operates to divide the “knowing” theorists who deploy identity strategically and the “unknowing” activists who continue to believe in identity. It also accepts a certain theoretical incoherence between one’s political practice and one’s theoretical commitments. Like Nietzsche, I believe that any such strategic account is ultimately unworkable: a claim can only be taken seriously---and thus have its strategic effects---when it is taken as truth in a real and not merely strategic sense. Despite these problems, strategic essentialism is considered by many to be the best possible position given the specious character of identity claims.

The acceptability of strategic essentialism rests heavily on the acceptance of the account of identity I summarized above. But is this description of identity formation and its necessary link to Power truly convincing? Of course, if we try to resist it some would have a ready diagnosis of our resistance: we are pining for a lost fixity and compulsively focused on the source of our own victimization.23

But the arguments themselves strain our credibility. One can be an anti-essentialist about identity without forced into an anti-realism about identity, as I have already suggested. If we move away from Leibniz, there are concepts of identity that can handle internal heterogeneity in the way the identity is made manifest in various individuals, and that avoid presuming to capture the whole person in any given category or set of categories. Such concepts can be developed from the ordinary usage of the term.

Moreover, it seems obvious that one would need to make distinctions between kinds of processes in which identities are formed, all of which may not be coercive impositions. Although Foucault, Butler, and Brown are right about some aspects of some identities or subjectification processes, they are not surely right about all such aspects of all such processes. In contrast to their analysis, for example, the social theorist Manuel Castells’ explains identity as a generative source of meaning, necessarily collective rather than wholly individual, and useful not only as a source of agency but also as a meaningful narrative.24 Similarly, Satya Mohanty argues that identity constructions provide narratives that explain the links between group historical memory and individual contemporary experience, that they create unifying frames for rendering experience intelligible, and thus they help to map the social world.

In contrast to the work by philosophers that tends to homogenize the variety of processes in which identities are constructed, recent work by sociologists and historians on identity seem generally better at noting the differences. Good work is emerging that looks very specifically at the development of a white identity, a pan-Latino identity, black identity, and others. Castells, for example, distinguishes nationalist narratives that aim toward legitimizing identity, from resistance movements which affirm the oppressed by reinforcing their boundaries so as to exclude the oppressors, and both of these from projects that seek to reconstruct existing identity categories toward a transformation of overall social structures. Because Butler and others collapse these processes into a single account, it is easier for them to conclude that we must be “weaned” from all forms of identity.25

It is also the case that theories of identity can take into account psychoanalytic insights without Butler’s pessimistic conclusions. The Mexican philosophers Samuel Ramos and Leopoldo Zea both invoke existentialist and psychoanalytic accounts in order to explore identity as a form of mediation between self-knowledge on the one hand and national and cultural realities on the other.26 For them, identity has no purchase on individual life unless it is taken up and given material interpretation, and this process necessarily involves a creative appropriation by the individual. What Butler sees as our being “forced” to adhere to this subjectivating process, Zea and Ramos envision as a process by which the individual develops a meaningful self. To the extent there is oppression in this process, it is because the social context disallows or severely curtails the possibilities of meaning-making, and not because the individual is forced to make meaning in the first place.

Thus I think a prima facie case can be made that the critiques of identity are based on overgeneralizations and in fact their plausibility is quite limited in scope. Certainly, its universal application has not been demonstrated. And the negative valence given to identity, as rooted in domination and always alien to the self, is challenged by accounts that understand identity as a process of meaning-making. These alternative accounts get no consideration in Butler’s work, nor in Brown’s, Derrida’s, or others. Which makes one wonder why the critique has become so influential, why there is so much worry and consternation---both political and philosophical---about claims of identity, and why the consensus seems to be that identity must be overcome. In my view, a counter-diagnosis is in order, and I offer one in the following section.


A Counter-Diagnosis

In order to understand the current aversion to identity, we need to retrace the development of its philosophical treatment. Identity is without a doubt, if not a modernist experience, at least a modernist concept: history, reason, moral action, and political autonomy are each grounded in the belief in the purposeful action of an individual agent or of a people. The concepts of nation, race, and sexual identity are apparently also modern, given recent scholarship.27 The notion also of a “deep self,” that is, a rich and complex interior life whose features can explain behavior, is also relatively new. The story of the links between modernism and identity does not need to be retold.

Where the story becomes interesting and relevant for our purposes is in the turn inaugurated by Hegel from a self-enclosed conception of identity---of an identity that is fundamentally the product of an autogenous process---to a conception of identity as dependent on recognition. This transformation inaugurated a new problematic of identity that can be seen throughout much of western philosophy but especially clearly in the work of Hegel, Freud, Sartre and Foucault, figures that have each influenced all parties to the identity politics debate. Retracing the steps of this developing conversation will shed light on how identity has become relegated to the sphere of the pathological and chimerical.

Hegel’s writings inaugurated two critical shifts in thinking about the self. The first involved a shift toward becoming over being, toward understanding the self as a kind of process rather than objectively describable or static. In The Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel attempts to describe the moments of the shifting, evolutionary trajectory of the self as it is manifest simultaneously in Spirit and in the sense of the historical human self. Though Hegel imagines this process as exemplifying a discernable, developmental teleology, he makes an important departure from the previous pursuit of timeless substances. For Hegel, the appearance of discrete stable objects is epiphenomenal on a more fundamental metaphysical state of incessant change which inheres in all that is real. Geist itself is a process of self-knowing and self-realization whose essential nature is not to be found in an originary moment or final end state but in the very movement itself.

...perfectibility [the key feature of Absolute Spirit] is something almost as undetermined as mutability in general; it is without aim and purpose and without a standard of change. The better, the more perfect toward which it is supposed to

attain, is entirely undetermined.28

And in the Phenomenology Hegel famously offers a brief but enticing account of the developmental trajectory of “man’s” own subjectivity, describing stages of consciousness in which the core is fundamentally altered through its negotiations and struggles with an external environment. Thus the human self has the potential to participate in this open-ended, undetermined formative process.

The second shift Hegel makes involves an attentiveness to the social dependence of the self. An individual can only become a subject and a moral agent after social absorption and recognition from the other. “Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized’.”29 The classical liberal core/periphery model of the self is displaced by a fundamentally holistic model in which the self can only come into being---can only achieve the capacity for self-reflection and agency---given certain external relations. Consciousness itself becomes an emergent entity of a social and historical process rather than a kind of pre-social thinking substance that could conceivably exist entirely on its own. The locus of agency, in particular, is not simply internal to the self. Moreover, one’s social identity as slave or as Master is the product of social interaction and social institutions rather than determined by intrinsic features, and is subject to the possibility of radical transformation.

Hegel has thus greatly influenced current discourses on identity, relocating the source of identity outside the “core” or internal self and making it dependent for its substantive features and capacities on culturally and historically variable external elements. Freud offers what is in some respects an expansion of this notion, without the liability of Hegel’s metaphysical commitment to an Absolute Spirit inhabiting the process of development. Freud’s account emphasizes the individual or microlevel process and avoids presuming the inevitability of a higher synthesis as the outcome. The ego develops through negotiations between multiple, conflicting, inner drives on the one hand and the outpouring of stimuli from the external world on the other. The self or subsequent identity which is created through this process contains sedimented features that are in some sense internal, but Freud’s hallmark was to understand these features not as intrinsic, pre-social, or ontologically self-sufficient but as fundamentally generated through interpersonal interaction, especially, of course, during infancy.

Lacan’s linguistic interpretation of Freud’s characterization of the genealogy of the self had the effect of integrating wider cultural and historical forces into the process, as did also the theorists organized around the Frankfurt School who extended the Freudian account of the unconscious and of the subject-in-process in order to describe and explain collective, cultural phenomena. Freud himself had used the unconscious to explain larger social tendencies, as in Totem and Taboo, but had not explored language to the same extent as Lacan nor the idea of a collective social self as did Erich Fromm.

Given the influence of these later accounts, an analysis of the self could no longer be restricted to early family dynamics for a given individual. This effected a move outward from the “internal” self and exacerbated the tendency toward determinism that had already reached a troubling dimension in Freud. What sense of individual agency could possibly be efficacious in a subjectivation process involving such large social structures? The problem of determinism thus came to dominate theoretical debates over the self in the twentieth century, creating various positions both within and between structuralism, Marxism, and existentialism, and inspiring new free will debates in Anglo-American philosophy. The traditional philosophical problem of “free will” had been originated as a theological concern, but in the twentieth century it became reformulated within the domain of the social and psychological sciences.

Sartre’s account of the self, though enormously at odds in different respects with both Hegel’s and Freud’s, was also vitally affected by the tradition that Hegel inaugurated. Sartre acknowledges the Other’s power to give or withhold recognition, and the potential painfulness of this interrelationship. Even in his early work, Sartre recognizes that the self must operate within a situation that constrains the scope of its possible choices, and one of the most important of these constraints involves the look of the Other and the subsequent felt alienation of the self. He even allows that our being-for-others puts an absolute limit on our freedom, that is, on the meaning and valuation of ourself within domains of projection configured by the Other.

It was Sartre who provided an ingenuous answer to the problem of determinism. He sharply separated the “real” self, which is the pure ability to nihilate the given, and the ego or more substantive self which consists of the historical sedimentation of states through which we have built up a substantive self and by which we would ordinarily identify a specific individual. That is, in one sense for Sartre the self is a mere capacity, in particular, the capacity to negate or go beyond whatever is presented to consciousness, including the given material environment, social context, as well as one’s own individual history. The substantive self or ego is formed through such acts of nihilating the given. But the essential feature of etre-pour-soi, that which demarcates it from etre-en-soi and that which causes all its existential difficulties, is its freedom to negate the given.

Thus, unlike Freud, Sartre erects an impenetrable border between the substantive self of the ego, consisting of the pattern of past choices, and the core capacity of the for-itself to nihilate the given. This distinction allows Sartre to hold onto a strong version of agency while recognizing the facticity of our unchosen situations, since the capacity to negate remains unaffected by the substantive self.

In Sartre’s ontology, then, identity---in both senses as public identification and as a lived, substantive experience of one’s self---is positioned outside the real self. “But what are we then,” he asks, “if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are, if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are?”30 Identity is a feature of the ego, which is coextensive with one’s past, or in its public manifestation identity is a feature of one’s situation, which imposes limited and often oppressive categories and is subject to a total negation. Sartre called it bad faith---a kind of moral failing motivated ultimately by cowardice---to conflate our real selves with our identity or our publicly interpellated self. “It is not that I do not wish to be this person or that I want this person to be different. But rather...It is a ‘representation’ for others and for myself, which means that I can be he only in representation. But if I represent myself as him, I am not he; I am separated from him as the object from the subject.”31

What should be highlighted here, and what has for too long been lost in debates over Sartre’s belief in radical freedom, is that the distinction Sartre draws between identity and the for-itself allows Sartre to hold, in effect, the Other at bay, such that the recognition by the Other vital to the development of subjectivity has purchase only on the ego or past self, and not on the real or core self. Sartre believed that the Other knows me in a way I cannot know myself, and this view, as much as Hegel’s, acknowledges a critical and unavoidable dependence on others: “The Other looks at me and as such he holds the secret of my being, he knows what I am. Thus the profound meaning of my being is outside me, imprisoned in an absence. The Other has the advantage over me.”32 However, by separating the for-itself from the ego or substantive self, the power that the Other has over me is deflated. The Other knows only the object that I act to represent, but I can negate this at will. Thus the Other is not in a position to know me as subject, or to constitute me, but only that past self from which I am already separated. “For man to put a particular existent out of circuit is to put himself out of circuit in relation to that existent. In this case he is not subject to it; he is out of reach; it can not act on him, for he has retired beyond a nothingness.”33

Notice also that the crowning activity of the for-itself, and that alone which separates it from the dreaded morbidity of the in-itself in Sartre’s ontology, is the ability to negate, to destroy, to change, and to imagine what is not, capacities which constitute the negatités. The essential character of the for-itself is to be remote-from-itself.34 The for-itself “must be able to put himself outside of being, and by the same stroke weaken the structure of the being of being.”35

There is no mention of absorption, augmentation, expansion, or generation as other modes of relating to the given with equal ontological significance in the structure of the for-itself. What can account for this valuation? The overwhelming individualism of Sartre’s early work certainly reminds one of the modernist predisposition toward the private and against the social, understood as if these were not mutually constitutive. That which is given to me, and thus by definition is not something I myself have made, must be challenged, thwarted, and rebuffed precisely in order to establish my own reflective consciousness, my own power. “Man’s relation to being is that he can modify it.”36

In its broad strokes, it is this sort of ontology of the self that is presupposed, I want to argue, in the philosophical and political critiques of identity that take it to be an a priori political danger and a metaphysical mistake on the grounds that identities commit the individual to social categories. These critiques conceptualize identity as outside the core self, as public and as imposed, and they hold that identity never provides a fair or adequate represention. It is this ontology that makes all substantive representations of the self inadequate and even equates the very attempt to represent with the attempt to oppress. The excess that escapes all representation is thought to be one’s real self, one’s capacity to negate, and the seat of purposeful action and choice. It is only the excess which is free, uncontainable, indeterminate, too fluid to be characterized in substantive terms. The excess is called an “excess” precisely because it is transcendent of identity. But the idea of transcending one’s identity, of never being fully contained within it, returns us to a Sartrian for-itself that is itself defined as transcendence.37

Thus, from Hegel’s inaugurating moment of recognizing the constitutive power of recognition itself, of bringing the Other center stage into the formation of the self, western philosophy has struggled with this alien internal presence, has struggled to find the means to offset its power of determination. The Other, from Hegel to Foucault, is accorded the power to recognize, to name, even to constitute one’s identity. This is why the look of the Other produces nausea and even terror, as our own capacity of determination drains away in Sartre’s famous metaphor. And as Lewis Gordon has argued, racism’s attempt to constrain, imprison, and deny nonwhite subjectivity is precisely motivated by this desire to deflect the look of the non-white Other. “The white body is expected not to be looked at by black bodies....There was a period in the American South when, for blacks, looking a white in the eye carried the risk of being lynched.”38 If the look of the Other generally has a terrifying power, the look of the Other whom one has colonized and enslaved is a special threat, and must be deflected at all costs. An identity that has been grounded on racist, vanguard narratives---an identity that gains its very coherence through supremacy---can literally not survive the Look of the colonized Other whose recognition must necessarily be accusatory. Irigaray has shown a similar effect of female presence in a masculine order where masculine subjectivity is predicated on the erasure of women. The power of the Other to constitute the self must lead, in such situations, precisely to the death struggle that Hegel envisioned.

In Classical Liberalism, developed against the backdrop of European colonial expansion, that which originates outside of me must be fought against, it is assumed, else my very selfness, my ownness to my self, will be at stake. The human self is essentially a reasoning self, but reason requires autonomy or the ability to gain critical distance and to pass independent judgement on anything external. The idea of being constituted by others threatens such a self with dissolution. The neo-Hegelian tradition we have just retraced starts from a different place but effectively ends in the same view. To submit to our being-for-others as if this were an inescapable truth about ourselves is to commit bad faith. The essential self is the capacity to resist, to transcend and to exceed all attempts at representation. This is an oedipal scene written into a phenomenological ontology of being, and it has unconsciously constituted the very meaning of “autonomy” and “freedom” in Western political traditions.39

We can find a similar scene, in a very different play, written into more recent treatments of identity given by Foucault and Althusser, the one ascribing it to ideology and the other locating it in the movements of Power. But in both cases the answer turns out to be the same as for Sartre: resistance to identity is somehow both metaphysically and politically mandated, in so far as it is possible (which in their estimation is far less than in Sartre’s). Foucault and Sartre were theoretical adversaries, and Foucault’s deterministic account of discursive formations and his repudiation of intentionality were aimed directly against Sartrian existentialism. However, a close look at Foucault’s treatment of the self reveals an almost indistinguishable account of the separation between identities, which are discursively constituted and imposed, and the basic capacities of self-transformation that Foucault assumes in his ethics of the self. Like Sartre’s privileging of the negatites, Foucault privileges resistance---and especially resistance to identity---as the central feature of contemporary political struggles, in his call to replace sexual identity with bodies and pleasures and “to refuse what we are” (Subject and Power 216).

The difference between modern and postmodernist accounts is simply in their degree of optimism about the extent to which the individual can negate the given and resist an external Power. Postmodernists are much less sanguine about the efficacy of individual agency. But in both modern and postmodern accounts it is striking that negation, resistance and destabilization of what comes to the individual from the social---whether that social is discourse, disciplinary mechanisms, the Law of the Father, or cultural traditions---are normatively privileged; this makes sense only given the prior assumption that what comes to the individual from the social is necessarily constraining and pernicious or that the individual must be the final arbiter of all value.

What is striking about Foucault’s variation of this theme is that there is no identity that is not a form of subjugation. As we saw earlier, identity is a form of subjection and subjugation in which the individual is interpellated within structures of discourse. Becoming a subject, that is, capable of self-reflective agency, of articulating one’s intentions, one’s rights, and one’s interests, is always also to be subjected to Power. Unlike classical liberalism, Foucault does not posit the existence of a self prior to subjection, a self that is then subordinated to the constraints of social life. Rather, he figures the process of subjectivation---of becoming a subject---as having an irremediably ambivalent political valence: it both makes possible agency and resistance to Power as surely as it enfolds the individual into Power’s embrace.

But why make this assumption? Why assume that giving any prereogative to the parent/community/society or the discourse/episteme/socius is in every case and necessarily, psychically pernicious and enabling only at the cost of a more profound subordination? Why assume that if I am culturally, ethnically, sexually identifiable that this is a process akin to Kafka’s nightmarish torture machines in the penal colony? Wilkerson’s essay provides a vivid example of a way in which the Other can be helpful in explaining myself to myself even in the very act of interpellation. In his example, the Other had a more accurate interpretation of his identity than he had, and acknowledging this fact helped move him toward a process of gaining autonomy. Nguyan and Moya show ways in which group identities not only allow for meaning-making but also for a fuller discernment of one’s environment. So why is it assumed so easily that accepting social categories of identity is a form of subordination?

My diagnosis points to a fear of the power of the Other as providing the missing premise to make this argument compelling. There is much reason to think that this fear itself is situated, not existentially primordial. The colonizers and the dominant need to deflect the reflection they see in their victims’ eyes, and the victims themselves need to be able to transcend the oppressors’ representations. Thankfully, however, these do not exhaust the possible relationships that can exist between self and Other. Nor do they exhaust the genealogies of social categories of identity.


Politics and Identities

At this point, it would be useful to clarify the differences between the post-positivist realist account of identity developed in this volume, and the view of identity that is presupposed by the critique I quickly summarized in the previous section, not least because post-structuralists often claim their views are misunderstood, especially on questions of “the real.” Anti-essentialists about identity eschew the word realism because they think it entails essentialism and naturalism, and thus that it would consider historical and social considerations irrelevant to questions of identity formation. But clearly, Mohanty’s account is not one that makes social practice or history irrelevant to identity or to its epistemic relevance. And the “post-positivist” adjective signals a rejection of the view that knowledge can be had free of mediation, which is a view that Butler and others also reject. When the word “real” is qualified as post-positivist, it is not even clear that a post-structuralist would necessarily deny the claim that identities, in that sense, are real.

So what do they disagree about? They surely do not agree in their accounts of how identities are formed. Both hold this formative process to involve a social dimension, but each suggest different ways in which this might work. Butler relies heavily on a psychoanalytic approach which minimizes prior human features down to the nodal point of bare resistance, while Mohanty conceives of a mediation between basic human capacities and objective human needs with social context. Is this the critical difference, sufficient to explain their political opposition? One might think that Mohanty’s commitment to the possibility of making universal claims about human capacities and needs would surely separate their views, but here too the story is more complex since Butler has gone on record that she is not against universals:

To set norms, to affirm aspirations, to articulate the possibilities of a more fully democratic and participatory political life is, nevertheless, a necessity. And I would claim the same for the contested status of “universality.”40

Unsurprisingly, she goes on to qualify this with the warning that “the cultural articulation of that term in its various modalities will work against precisely the trans-cultural status” of universal claims, but this is just to make the Hegelian point that universals are manifest only in particular historical modalities, and that they are subject to a process of interpretation that is itself spatially and temporally inflected.

Mohanty would appear to disagree here, when he says that “I am not convinced by some recent (vague) claims that universalism needs to be particularized before it can ‘acknowledge difference.’”41 And he claims that “It is the necessarily abstract (that is, acontextual) universalist moral claim that makes radical demands for equality and democracy possible.”42 But notice above that Butler also gives pragmatic, political reasons for the use of universals, and reasons that also have to do with democracy. Moreover, Mohanty’s post-positivist epistemology is inconsistent with the claim that the universals thus invoked are unmediated. Thus, their “acontextual” and “abstract” character is simply that which denotes them as universals rather than particulars. In the sense of historical mediation, universals are manifest in particular modalities---that is, they are made real, given life, and understood within a context of meaning that is situated in time and place. Mohanty’s point is that this does not mean that universals are not universals, that is, that they are merely particulars masquerading as universals. To believe that would be to commit an analogous mistake as the positivist makes when s/he says that if knowledge is mediated then it can never consist of reliable claims about the world as it is. Just as knowledge can be mediated and continue to be about the world, so universals can be manifest only in situated space-time without becoming reduced to “pure,” or atomistic, particulars. Thus, Butler’s and Mohanty’s views of universals are not necessarily in conflict.

The important difference between their respective views strikes me as less about what identities are as about the normative and epistemological implications of identity, which is to say it is about the politics of identity. Both might agree that in a certain sense identities are real, but they surely disagree over whether identities are politically healthy or reliable sources of truth.

On Mohanty’s view, identities are politically and epistemically significant because of their correlation with experience. But in regard to experience he wants to claim both that experience is theoretically mediated and that experience is the basis of knowledge, meaning not just what is taken to be true but what is true (or likely to approximate the truth). Mohanty argues that the infinite plasticity of meaning and the irreducibility of difference are belied by the fact that we, for any given we, share a world from which we can negotiate across our differences toward a fallible and partial but mutual understanding of the features of that world. Transcending difference does not happen through the application of abstract universal principles, or by forcing the Other to accept what we “know” to be the unmediated truth, but through a shared activity in a shared context. Thus do we achieve knowledge. Identities are not an unsurpassable block against achieving such understanding, but the location from which each must work, given the fundamental way in which our identities will limit and shape our possibilities, our desires, questions, and perceptions.

Of course experience is the basis from which we develop our understanding of the world and of others; of course these understandings can be more true or significantly less true as representations of what they are about; and of course identities will be politically and epistemically relevant because of their impact on experience. None of these claims suggest that those with the same identity will have the same set of experiences, or that the same experience will always yield the same understanding, but it is absurd to deny the importance of experience or identity, or to say that it would be better if we could just deconstruct all identities as soon as possible. This would make sense only if identities are conceived of as solipsistic bubbles which forever separate us, or as limiting constraints foisted on us by dominant structures. Because the practice of mediating experience is always a social practice, solipsism cannot be the result of recognizing the importance of identity. To say that we have an identity is just to say that we have a location in social space, a hermeneutic horizon that is both grounded in a location and an opening or site from which we attempt to know the world, and thus it is incoherent to view identities as something we would be better off without.

In the last section, I argued that the recent Western qualms about identity are rooted in a fear of the Other’s power over the self. But if identity is defined simply as something like social location---a definition which would certainly render plausible the claim that identity has epistemic salience---how does the Other have power over one’s social location? Doesn’t this compromise or at least complicate identity’s epistemic role?

In order to answer these questions, it will be helpful initially to distinguish two different senses or aspects of identity that are often conflated. These aspects are interconnected and interdependent but metaphysically distinguishable:

(1) Public identity, or that identity which one has in a public space such as on a street or in a census form, and by which one is hailed, interpellated, and categorized. This identity is external, visible, and under only limited individual control. It is what I am seen as, though I may be seen as something different in different cultural contexts. It is produced through social mechanisms of categorization and learned modes of perception. It is used by those around me, consciously and unconsciously, to interpret the meanings of my actions and utterances, with more or less accuracy and good will.

(2) Subjectivity is also sometimes involved in discussions of identity, especially when the link between identity, politics, and epistemic authority is being explored. Subjectivity refers to my own sense of myself, my lived experience of my self, or my interior life.43 It

My public identity and my lived self may be at some significant odds from each other. Fanon calls this a corporeal malediction, that is, the disequilibrium induced by the experience of having one’s subjectivity and one’s identity, or one’s first person self and one’s third person self, seriously as odds with one another.44 Richard Rodriguez relates just such an experience when he says, “My face could not portray the ambition I brought to it.”45 Here the “I” and the face---that is, the subjectivity and the visible, public identity---are at odds. One of the questions prompted by a realist account is what such a lack of correspondence between public identity and subjectivity means: does it always imply that one side or the other is “mistaken”? Should my own sense of self always trump public attributions? Or are we really talking about two different entities, or two different aspects of a single entity, which can each be described correctly or incorrectly but without being determined by the other? (I will henceforth use the general term “identity” to refer to both public identity and subjectivity, but I will make distinctions between the different aspects of identity by use of these latter categories).

Western common sense thinks that we have more individual control over our subjectivity than we have over our public identity, especially if the former is thought to be “internal” and the latter “external,” but this “internal/external” terminology is misleading. Our sense of ourselves, our capacities and aspirations, is made possible by our public identity. Hegel was right to argue that without some social recognition for our status as thinking subjects, our very capacity for subjectivity is stunted. Without a social space, such as a civil society or neighborhood or perhaps a family, in which the individual can operate as a free, moral, decision-making agent, the individual cannot become a moral agent, indeed, is not a moral agent. Slavery rendered impossible Sethe’s, and other slaves’, ability to make moral decisions regarding the welfare of their children: mothers could not oversee their upbringing, provide resources, keep the children with them, or even protect them from the worst kind of daily violence. Sethe’s act of murder, which Morrison based on a real event, was itself the only analectical act possible to her, that is, the only act that could take her and her child beyond the terms of possibility within her located present.46 For this reason it was unintelligible for those around her. Thus in a sense, it was the only act that was possible to her as a moral agent.

This is part of Mohanty’s claim in saying that identity denotes location: identities are indexical entities and thus only real within a given location. But this also means that the “internal” is conditioned by, even constituted within, the “external,” which is itself mediated by subjective negotiation. Subjectivity is itself located. Thus, the metaphysics implied by “internal/external” is strictly speaking false.

But there does exist a distinction between the sense one has of oneself as seen by others and of one’s own self-perception, the third-person and first person selves (both of which are dynamic and contextual). Fanon argued that the corporeal malediction produced by the disjuncture between one’s own “tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, and visual experience” and the racial parameters that structure one’s identity must be reconciled; one cannot live in permanent disequilibrium. One might weather intermittent contradictions of this sort, but not uninterrupted ones. Fanon believed, and lived experience confirms, that one cannot easily tolerate a serious and sustained conflict between a first person and third person identity without ot producing pathological effect.

The inevitable interdependence and connection between one’s public identity and one’s lived sense of self, and the felt need to pursue a coherence between one’s first person and third person selves, does not mean that the self can ever achieve perfect coherence. But it is also a mistake to assume that we are all incoherent to the same degree, or that one person’s struggle with multiple racial identities is essentially the same as the universal struggle individuals have to integrate their multiple selves. There are significant differences in the scope, depth and daily difficulties of various forms of heterogeneity and disequilibrium.

Belief in a sharp boundary between the inner and outer self no doubt contributes to the prevalent view that one should be able to psychologically “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” easily ignore social rejection, and believe in yourself. In contrast to this view, Bernard Williams explains that shame in the face of an internalized other----an other that need only be imagined but that embodies a genuine social reality---provides “through the emotions a sense of who one is and of what one hopes to be, it mediates between act, character and consequence...”47 His is essentially a development of the Hegelian account, to the extent that the formation of a substantive subjectivity operates through a mediating process seeking recognition in some respected or desired external other. Shame is simply one of the effects, and symptoms, of this necessary dependence on elements outside the self.

These are specific and contextually produced difficulties, not global ones inherent to having an identity itself. The perniciousness of identity based forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, lies not in the fact that they impose identities, but in that they flatten out raced and sexed identities to one dimension, and they disallow the individual negotiation and interpretation of identity’s social meanings. Racism, as Eduardo Mendieta has put it, feels as if one finds oneself in the world ahead of oneself, the space one occupies as already occupied. One’s lived self is effectively dislodged when an already outlined but very different self appears to be operating in the same exact location, and when only that projection from others receives their recognition. In the extreme, no true intersubjective interaction is possible in such a space; agency is eclipsed by an a priori schema onto which all of one’s actions and expressions will be transferred. Though this operates as a kind of identity in the sphere of social intercourse, it is not a real identity: there is no identifying with such flattened, predetermined identities, and there is no corresponding lived experience for the cardboard cutout. Even the conservative, anti-feminist woman is not really seeing herself as the sexist sees her, but taking the traditional role on as her own space of activity. In the sexist’s representation, there is no space in which she can operate as a critical and moral agent, where she can make choices, or where intersubjective interaction is possible.

Real identities are indexed to locations in which experience and perception occurs and from which an individual acts. Consider, in this light, Robert Gooding-Williams’ recent formulation of black identity. Gooding-Williams argues that “being racially classified as black---is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of being a black person.”48 The third person interpellation, the public identity, must be designated black; one cannot simply negate the modes and norms of description in one’s social world or reinvent new ones at will. But Gooding-Williams does not give this public inscription the last word. He argues that “One becomes a black person only if (1) one begins to identify (to classify) oneself as black and (2) one begins to make choices, to formulate plans, to express concerns, etc., in light of one’s identification of oneself as black.”49 This definition highlights the individuals’ negotiation and their subjectivity. That is, black identity involves both a public self and lived experience, which means that it is produced out of the modes of description made possible in a given culture but it is also dependent upon any given individual’s active self-understanding. Gooding-Williams uses this definition to make sense of the sort of experience he says is “described time and again in the letters and literature of black persons,” such as DuBois’ experience in his youth of only coming to the realization that he is “different from the others” after he has his visiting card refused by whites. Though he was classified prior to this experience as a black person, at least in some contexts, Du Bois did not have a black identity in the full sense by Gooding-Williams’ definition.

A realist account would argue here that there is a fact of the matter about DuBois’s identity. When he comes to recognize his different treatment, DuBois is recognizing a fact about his environment it seems impossible to deny, i.e. that he has a public identity in North America as a black person. Like Wilkerson, he is recognizing a truth about himself that pre-existed this recognition, and thus in that sense it is an objective truth even though the full or meaningful sense in which he has a black identity is only developed post-recognition. Gooding-Williams’ point in also requiring self-understanding is not to repudiate the significance of the public identity but to recognize that this is not all there is to one’s identity. Identity, on his account, and arguably in everyday parlance, is necessarily something that is one’s own. In the newspaper this morning it was argued that gun control legislation threatens the very identity of those who have grown up in communities where hunting is a central part of the culture. In this sense, identity is not simply that which is imposed, but is integral to the individual’s sense of himself, his place, and his culture. Advocates of gun control who ignore this are likely to fail. We also use identity to talk not only about how one is identified, but how one identifies with the new Latina at work, the working mother in the soap opera, the child victim in the sexual abuse reported in the newspaper, each on the basis of some aspect of one’s lived experience. In identifying with, one can come to identify as more self-consciously.

The idea of making choices, formulating plans, and expressing concerns in light of one’s identification of oneself as black, Latina, or otherwise is a key component of the rationale behind the original concept of identity politics. It should be obvious that one’s identity in this full sense, one’s positional consciousness, will play a role in one’s actions, particularly as these involve political contestations. Yesterday at an Anti-Violence Peace Rally in downtown Syracuse, the speakers spoke as young people facing daily violence in the public schools, as African Americans and Latinos with a different relationship to gun violence than middle class whites (for whom the problem of school violence might be newer), and as American citizens feeling the responsibility to oppose publicly their government’s military policy in Kosovo. This wasn’t about claiming authenticity, or an incontestable epistemic privilege based on identity, or “creating” divisions, but about sharing multiple, overlapping, but sometimes very different perceptions and analyses of crises in our shared world.

Both the kind of role identity plays, and the degree to which it plays a role at all, is entirely variable. The particular meaning and significance of one’s identity is interpreted in many different ways, and one may take one’s racial identity, for example, as more or less central to one’s life. Yet to be black, i.e. to self-identify as black in Gooding-Williams’ sense, cannot be understood as merely something that befalls one, something that cannot touch the “real self” of an individual as if that were prior to all identities. One makes sense of one’s identity based on one’s experience which is itself a function of interpellation. And, against Althusser, to respond to interpellation by accepting the hail, even in the context of racialized identities, is not simply to capitulate to power, but to actively engage in the construction of a self.

Somehow the process by which identity has been pathologized and all forms of realism have been demonized needs to be unravelled, for these claims are far from obvious when pressed. To self-identify even by a racial or sexed designation is again not merely to accept the sad fact of oppression but to understand one’s relationship to a historical community, to recognize one’s objective social location, and to assert one’s own power to negotiate the meaning and implications of one’s identity. The word real here is not meant to signify an identity that is non-dynamic, non-contingent, or not the product of social practices and modes of description. Rather, the word “real” works to counter a view that interpellations of social identity are always chimeras foisted on us from the outside.

A realistic identity politics, then, is one that recognizes the dynamic, variable, and negotiated character of identity. It is one that acknowledges the variability in an identity’s felt significance and cultural meaning. Yet it is also one that recognizes that social categories of identity often helpfully name specific social locations from which individuals engage in, among other things, political judgement. What is there to fear in acknowledging that?


1 Christine Battersby, The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1998); Elizabeth Grosz Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies (New York: Routledge, 1995); Teresa de Lauretis, “Upping the Anti (sic) in Feminist Theory,” in Conflicts in Feminsim eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller *New York: Routledge, 1990).

2 Thomas Hobbes, Elements of Philosophy (De Corpore) (1655) in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, vol. 1, ed. by W. Molesworth, (John Bohn, 1839), Pt. 2, ch. 8, sec. 23, p. 117; Quoted in Battersby, p. 28.

3 Battersby, p. 29.

4 Susan E. Babbitt, Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity, and Moral Imagination (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996).

5 “The Combahee River Collective: A Black Feminist Statement,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), pp. 362-372.

6 For discussions and/or defenses of these various forms, see William P. Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); Michael P. Lynch Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998); Catherine Z. Elgin Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Crispin Wright, Realism, Meaning and Truth, 2nd ed., (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993); Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1987); Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (new York: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Critical Realism: Essential Readings ed. by Margaret Archer et. al. (London: Routledge, 1999); Essays on Moral Realism ed. by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

7 See esp. Lynch’s discussion of this, op. cit.

8 Babbitt, pp. 143-144.

9 Babbitt, p. 142.

10 See e.g. Frederick F. Schmitt’s “Realism, antirealism, and epistemic truth,” which is a review of my book Real Knowing: New Versions of the Coherence Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), in Social Epistemology Vol. 12, No. 3 (July-September 1998) pp. 267-288; note also my “Reply to my Critics” same volume, esp. pp. 296-298.

11 Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History, p. xi; see also Joseph Rouse, Knowledge and Power: Toward a Political Philosophy of Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987); and Alcoff, Real Knowing: New Versions of the Coherence Theory, op. cit.

12 Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 214 and 221.

13 And the ethical relation with the self Foucault explored---when he talks about the cultivation of the self, the care of the self, or techniques of the self---stop firmly short of creating collective categories of identity or ways of being in a public domain that might reconfigure the collective imaginary.

14 See esp. his “Women in the Beehive,” in Men in Feminism eds. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 189-203; and “Deconstruction and the Other,” in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers---The Phenomenological Heritage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp. 105-126. There is a useful critical discussion of Derrida’s views on this topic in Henry Louis Gates Jr. “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African American Tradition,” in The Politics of Liberal Education (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 95-118; and in Meili Steele Theorizing Textual Subjects: Agency and Oppression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

15 Ernesto Laclau, “Introduction” in Laclau, editor, The Making of Political Identities (New York: Verso, 1994), p. 3.

16 Michael Steinberg, “‘Identity’ and Multiple Consciousness,” paper delivered at the colloquium “Identity: Do We Need It?” at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna, Austria May 1995.

17 See her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), esp. Part One; and The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), esp. Introduction and chaps. 3 and 4.

18 Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, p. 104.

19 Ibid, p. 28. I doubt that Butler’s account of Foucault is accurate on this point. Her aim in this book is not to follow faithfully Foucault, and she in fact argues that his accounts lead to postulations about the psyche that he himself could not follow up (a claim I do agree with). Nonetheless, she is taking Foucault as support for her global anti-identitarianism. And here, like others, I suspect that Foucault’s view of the subject and even of identity is more complex, given that he does call for the reformulation of subjectivities, and thus sounds a good deal less pessimistic about subjectivity, surprisingly, than does Butler herself.
Also, I realize that it may appear at this point that we are talking about two concepts rather than one: identity on the one hand, and subjectivity on the other. One might think of identity as one’s public self, based on publicly recognized categories, and of subjectivity as one’s lived self, or true self, or thinking self, etc. However, this neat separation doesn’t quite work: Butler takes herself to be critiquing identity and subjectivity (i.e. the modernist account of subjectivity) in the same breath, because to some extent on her and Foucault’s view they are created simultaneously.

20 Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

21 Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, p. 7.

22 Gayatri Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, (New York: Methuen: 1987), p. 205; for her reconsidered view on the topic, see “In a Word. Interview,” with Ellen Rooney, Differances, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 1989: pp. 124-154.

23 For such diagnoses, see Brown, op. cit., and also Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked with Culture Wars (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995).

24 Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture; Volume II: The Power of Identity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), p. 7.

25 This phrase comes from Nancy Fraser: she says that socialism will “require[] that all people be weaned from their attachment to current cultural constructions of their interests and identities.” See Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 31.

26 See Samuel Ramos, Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico, trans. by Peter G. Earle (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962); Leopoldo Zea, The Latin American Mind, trans. by James H. Abbott and Lowell Dunham (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963); Zea, The Role of the Americas in History ed. by Amy Oliver, trans, by Sonja Karsen (Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992); and Ofelia Schutte, Cultural Identity and Social Liberation in Latin American Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993).

27 See e.g. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, editor, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997); Katherine M. Faull, editor, Anthropology and the German Enlightenment (Lewisburg, PA: Buckness University Press, 1995); David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1993); Cornel West, Prophecy Deliverance! (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982); Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formations in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1986); and Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek, editors, Race, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

G.W.F. Hegel, Reason in History trans. by Robert S. Hartman (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs- Merrill Company, 1953), p. 68.

29 Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind trans. by J.B. Baillie (New York: Harper and Row, 1931, p. 229.

30 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, trans. by Hazel Barnes, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), p. 101.

31 Ibid, p. 103 (emphases in original).

32 Ibid, p. 473.

33 Ibid, p. 60.

34 Ibid, p. 55.

35 Ibid, p. 59.

36 Ibid, pp. 59-60.

37 I am not of course arguing here that Sartre/Foucault comprise a coherent philosophy, only that one can trace a common thread.

38 Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1995), p. 102.

39 See e.g. Nancy Hartsock Money, Sex, and Power (New York: Longman, 1983); and Genevieve Lloyd The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

40 Judith Butler, “For a Careful Reading,” in Seyla Benhabib, et. al., Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 129.

41 Satya Mohanty, Literary Theory and the Claims of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 199.

42 Ibid.

43 Subjectivity in this sense is not to be contrasted with objectivity; my use of subjectivity refers to a lived experience of self, rather than a biased, or interested perspective as often associated with the word “subjective.”

44 See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York, Grove Press, 1967). Gail Weiss very helpfully develops and explains Fanon’s view in Body Images: embodiment as intercorporeality, (New York: Routledge, 1999), esp. pp. 26-33.

Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (New York: Viking, 1992), p. 1.

46 For an explanation of this term invented by Enrique Düssel, see Michael D. Barber Ethical Hermeneutics: Rationalism in Enrique Düssel’s Philosophy of Liberation (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998).

47 Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 102.

48 Robert Gooding-Williams, “Race, Multiculturalism, and Justice,” in Constellations Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1998, p. 23.