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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 827-850

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Pleasuring Identity, or the Delicious Politics of Belonging

Marlon B. Ross

Why would this question, "Is There Life after Identity Politics," arise at the present time? Advancing a foregone conclusion, the question turns "identity politics" into an historical episode in order to cast it as a lost object of desire. Whereas the object, "identity politics," is deceptively tangible, the desiring subject, "Life," is teasingly amorphous. What if we cannot all agree on a single object that we can call identity politics, or on how something that we call "identity politics" operates singularly under these auspices? How, then, can we share in the observation of its disappearance? The question forestalls other questions. Which "identity"? What "politics"? "After" when and where? Indeed, whose "life"? As it playfully echoes the clich├ęs of sophomoric philosophy, pop psychology, Baby Boomer history, and Hollywood marketing--"Is there life after death?" "Is there life after sex?" "Is there life after forty?" "Is there life after Seinfeld?"--the question both answers itself and has no answer. Of course, people will still live, make love, write manifestoes, create alliances, and do politics after "identity politics"--whatever that may be--is dead. Because it requires a prediction about a state of affairs which is merely anticipated, rather than achieved, however, we are left to speculation based on our own most cherished biases and inclinations--that is, based in the politics of our own identities, both public (published) and private (unpublished).

I. Faces and Facets of Identity

So, each of the contributors to this volume poses a future for or beyond identity riveted to her or his own identifications and misidentifications as an author, scholar, teacher, activist, citizen, family member, lover, and so forth--as a person, in the most identical and thus impersonal sense of that word. (We are all persons under the skin means that we are all the same person after all.) A few of the contributors I have met in person, as we like to say. I'm very much aware of how my physical [End Page 827] encounter with them has some bearing on my sense of who they are as a facet (note the "face" in "facet") of what they write. Most of the contributors, though, I have never met in person. And yet I have a pretty vivid image (a mental image, not a physical one, no doubt an imaginary one) of what identifies them with particular agendas, ideas, feelings, institutions, ideologies, and cultural groups. I don't need an actual face, a curriculum vitae, a biography, a family chronicle, or a genetic map to infer an identity for those I have never met in person. The face is only one aspect (a word that means that which we can look at) of a human body, but it is taken as, if not the key to the soul, at least a locked door through whose keyhole we can peep to glimpse the messy inner life of an individual as a specimen of the group identifications that she or he has internalized. The face, as the front door of the head, has, not surprisingly, been the most intensely scrutinized body part--whether by gentle scientists cautiously manipulating calipers in the ethnological laboratory or by brutal bigots brandishing guns in the lynching mob. Eyes, nose, ears, forehead, mouth, lips, eyebrows, nostrils, teeth, tongue, all have been calibrated and recalibrated with both the most delicate instruments and the clumsiest weapons of the cartoon, the camera, and the naked eye of the white supremacist. A single squiggle of the pen--to narrow the eyes, broaden the nose, bulge the lips, lower the chin, loll the tongue--can sketch a jew, a jap, a nigger, a spick, a native savage the way a simple shortening of a hemline can turn a chaste lady into a whore who wants it.

We should not overlook the paradox here. On the one hand, the face provides the fastest take on the unique individuality of a person--quicker than any fingerprint or DNA...


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