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New Literary History 31.4 (2000) 765-780

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Assumed Identities

David Palumbo-Liu

We know of no people without names, no languages or cultures in which some manner of distinctions between self and other, we and they, are not made. . . . Self-knowledge--always a construction no matter how much it feels like a discovery--is never altogether separable from claims to be known in specific ways by others.

Craig Calhoun, Social Theory
and the Politics of Identit
y 1

One would think that the topic of identity (post-, or otherwise) would have been exhausted by now. When the word is mentioned these days, it tends not to meet with a straightening of the back and a defiant stare, nor even a wince and an evasive move, but rather a resigned sigh--"Oh, that again?" The constant probing, critiquing, stretching, shrinking of the term over the past two decades seems not to have resolved anything. At best it has marked off a set of common problems and positions to which one refers from time to time when the occasion calls for it. I shall not rehearse all those moves and arguments--they are well enough known. Suffice it to say that identity politics has acquired its own identity, which has made any inquiry into identity a suspect act that stands outside the decorum of polite academic talk. Identity politics has been reserved now to name a particular bad politics that intrudes upon what is taken to have been a polite consensus on how to seem not to do identity politics while all the while doing them. 2 It is minorities (sexual, racial, ethnic, class, and so on) whose articulation of identity is seen to be not only annoying, but impolite, for their voicing of these concerns forces others to engage in something they thought they had settled, and settled in their favor.

Besides this general aversion to speak any longer about identity, there is the specifically political move proposed by several social critics to move "beyond identity" and, in particular, into a "postethnic" era. These proposals do not necessarily come from the right; indeed, some of the more eloquent and persuasive advocates for this position identify [End Page 765] themselves within a tradition of leftist (if not radical) thought. For these critics of "identity politics," the real issue of bettering the lives of people can only take place if we set aside the distinctions identity politics seems to fix upon, and work together on a common platform of economic rights. Those associated with this position include Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty, David Hollinger, Michael Tomasky, and others. Each in his own way has argued that the progressive movement of the New Left was compromised by the emergence of identity politics. These critics argue that, whatever salutary value feminist, queer, or critical race and ethnic studies have had, they have caused the left to veer off-track and into the minutiae of finer and finer distinctions of special interest groups, each claiming priority over the others. This blocks any effective coalition building.

I have elsewhere gone into some detail to outline the historical context for and rebut the basic assumptions of such arguments; here, suffice it to say that this argument has a stake in both downplaying the pervasive significance of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other violent manifestations of prejudice against those who are particularly identified (that is, those not just "claiming" identity, but having identities foisted on them), and overplaying the economic as an isolatable space outside the racial, gendered, and otherwise identified social and political spheres. 3 "The economic" is taken as the firm foundation on which all else rests--if economic life is improved for all, is that not all we can hope for? Others, such as myself, while certainly not disavowing the genuine virtue of coalition building around issues of economic justice, are less willing to accept at face value the subordinated position into which issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are relegated.

In this essay I will argue that "postethnic" thinking subordinates group or collective rights to advocate as primary individual rights...


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