Identity: That Most Troubled of Words

I wanted to write a short post about this in order to have a think about where the concept of identity politics actually came from, and where it is now, and how it got there. I’ll admit this is really just my own ruminations, however, it seems to me it won’t hurt to put my thoughts down about this, and maybe it will help us to consider just how much the concept of identity politics has been compromised, and why.

So okay. It pretty much seems to me that what we now understand to be ‘identity politics’ emerged from political movements – the civil rights movement, feminist movement and gay and lesbian rights movement. Before these movements, I guess anyone who wasn’t a white straight dude didn’t really exist. There was Class White Straight Dude, and everyone’s interests were assumed to lie with Class White Straight Dude, even when they didn’t, and if you had a life narrative or political reality that wasn’t that of Class White Straight Dude then you simply didn’t exist, and didn’t matter. And if you tried to speak up then people (meaning men) laughed at you, or got angry, or locked you up.

The various political movements that emerged to fight for the rights of those who belonged in other categories was about establishing identity as a political category, and also as a class identity. CLASS identity, not personal identity. And I don’t think the idea was to identify AS a member of a class; it was to identify WITH your class. That is, a woman (for example), instead of identifying with the interests of white men, would realise that she identified WITH other women because of their common elements of class based oppression, and subsequently join her class to create political organising strategies to overcome said oppression.

It is true that one common theme across all these movements was the use of personal narrative to identify common elements of CLASS experience, but again, I think this was about encouraging people to recognise themselves in the stories told (possibly for the first time ever) and develop a positive identity politics based on shared experience, shared reality, and the building of new communities through affirmative action as well as fighting class-based oppression.

Of course this was a complex undertaking and it certainly went off the rails often enough, and because life is messy, people couldn’t always just be slotted neatly into a single category and stay there. But nevertheless, it still seems to me that the salient feature of identity politics, as it was originally formulated, was about fighting class-based oppression through identifying WITH your class. (WITH your class. Not AS any damn class that you feel like).

What we have now, via the unholy unity of postmodernism with neo-liberalism (Gail Dines), is an identity politics that has become entirely personal and de-politicised, whilst still appropriating the language of political class action. And so we have private individuals who are obsessed with the idea of identifying AS a class of people, or identifying AS belonging to a particular intellectual or political camp, regardless of whether they have the right to do so, regardless of whether their beliefs, behaviours and actions are actually consistent with those people or ideas they claim affinity to. It also leads to the endless monologues where individuals are obsessed with positioning themselves exactly on spectrums of privilege or gender or sexuality, imperfectly parroting earlier narratives that were not about personal self-obsession, but political consciousness building.

Unfortunately, it has been an extremely successfully strategy. Class-based politics has become embarrassingly passé, whilst young ‘radicals’ run endlessly in circles picking and choosing in the vast capitalist shopping mall of potted and packaged political feel-good ideas. Everything can be political now, from what cereal you choose to how you get your orgasms, and, if you do this, so your professors say, you don’t need to do anything else. Just sit back and watch the revolution roll. It’s fun! Way more fun than being hated on by everyone and getting death threats and not being able to keep your job and having people always laughing at your ideas.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say.

5 thoughts on “Identity: That Most Troubled of Words

  1. MarySunshine says:

    The English language can so easily be used to wreak havoc with human intelligence.

  2. ehungerford says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I wish we could have coffee and discuss it in more detail.

    But nevertheless, it still seems to me that the salient feature of identity politics, as it was originally formulated, was about fighting class-based oppression through identifying WITH your class. (WITH your class. Not AS any damn class that you feel like).

    Identifying WITH versus AS is an excellent distinction! I like to think of it as the difference between being INVOLUNTARILY associated *with* a class (social oppression) and VOLUNTARILY/consciously aligning yourself with a class in order to be considered a *part of it.*

    When you are ASSIGNED class membership, you can identify WITH it because there is a *preexisting relationship* between you and the class: it is established coercively, through external social framing and personal treatment.

    When you CHOOSE TO JOIN a class (cultural, religious, political, etc), you must CREATE the association between yourself and the class through your behavior/appearance/actions.

    And so we have private individuals who are obsessed with the idea of identifying AS a class of people, or identifying AS belonging to a particular intellectual or political camp, regardless of whether they have the right to do so, regardless of whether their beliefs, behaviours and actions are actually consistent with those people or ideas they claim affinity to. It also leads to the endless monologues where individuals are obsessed with positioning themselves exactly on spectrums of privilege or gender or sexuality, imperfectly parroting earlier narratives that were not about personal self-obsession, but political consciousness building.

    Just awesome. Thank you again!

  3. weirdward says:

    Thank you! Yes, the points you raise are exactly what I was trying to get at, and you’ve said it much more clearly and elegantly. It would be wonderful if it was easier for all of us to meet up and talk in person, wouldn’t it? But do feel free to use the ideas as much as you like if they are of use to you.

  4. WordWoman says:

    Thanks for your clarity in writing about this.

  5. I think you’re the first person (regarding another one of your posts) that I’ve read on Simone de Beauvoir, who has actually read the Second Sex. That’s amazingly refreshing in itself. With regards to this post, YES. Finally. Actually I’m not surprised to find out that Gail Dines has written on the unholy alliance between postmodernism and neoliberalism – identity politics is incredibly capitalist. Radical feminists are actually some of the last people I am seeing picking up on that kind of thing. Feminism and marxism are both being basically demonised these days or transformed into a kind of pick-and-mix identity politics, and it’s pretty scary to be honest.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s