- Identity vs. Embodiment:A Materialist Rethinking of Intersex and Queerness
The Persistence of Identity
Identity is a stubborn category. Almost as soon as theory became an entrenched feature of the U.S. academy in the 1980s and 1990s, regular calls were issued for the abandonment, attenuation, or dismissal of identity as a heuristic category, and even more as a category of subjective identification. Such critiques ranged from Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler’s differing arguments for the abandonment of identity categories in relationship to a more deconstructive yet potentially majoritarian conception of queerness, the articulation of women-of-color or third-world-women as an invented political categories by post- and decolonial theorists such as Chela Sandoval and Chandra Mohanty, which while still articulating a concept of identity was organized around an explicitly constructed one, the argument proffered by Paul Gilroy that we need to move beyond conceptions of race, even as we hang onto the category of racism, and towards what he terms a planetary humanism, psychoanalytic critiques of the ego-based and thus conservative basis of most notions of identity, to Marxist critiques, by figures like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, of identity politics as, at worst, an ideological production of late capitalism itself and, at best, forms of micropolitical struggle that are not able to challenge the global reach and penetration of contemporary capitalist exploitation and appropriation. As this list demonstrates, the critique of identity and identity politics has been a regular refrain in the past thirty or so years in academic discourse.1 Yet identity as a category and as a site of identification has survived these critiques, and what’s more it [End Page 65] seems to have thrived in our era of social media, avatar culture, microaggressions, and agonistic interpersonal exchange.
Of course, the very persistence of the critique of identity suggests its centrality as a positive category of analysis and identification. Thus, for every critique of identity, there are many more theoretical arguments that invoke it or related categories like subject and subject position, which despite the difference in nomenclature often seem to boil down to a version of the same thing. In this context, identity means an active, largely conscious, and created yet not necessarily chosen, sense of personal and collective affiliation, one that imagines a relatively seamless, if often partial, conception of the self as attached to a specific category of identification. Identity in this context is as much attributed and collective as it is individualized and constructed. This version of identity is a key mediating term in theorizing the politics of subjectivity and embodiment. Identity as it is posited in this context thus holds a number of distinct advantages as a category, suggesting some of the reasons for its persistence. First, it becomes a common-sense way by which categories such as race, gender, sexuality, disability, religious affiliation, and even class (a category in which the limits of identity as a concept are particularly striking) get mapped onto distinct bodies and subjectivities. Second, it becomes a common-sense locus of collective affiliation, one that can enable struggles around rights and equality. Third, it becomes a potent category for challenging the constructions of liberal law, which typically posit subjects as abstractly equal before the law. Such a conception of abstract equality has, in Jameson’s terms, both a utopian dimension—imagining the possibility of equality between qualitatively distinct identities—and ideological dimension—constructing a fantasmatic and quantitative equality which covers over material and symbolic inequalities and differences.2 Fourth, the positioning of identity between fixity and fluidity, subjective construction and social determination, challenges both liberal conceptions of identity as thoroughly fluid and individually produced and right-wing conceptions of it as hard-wired and biological (what it has less ability to combat is what Paul Gilroy has described as specifically culturalist forms of racism). For all of these reasons, then, identity has been a powerful and persistent rubric.
Yet for all of its power as a rubric, identity also betrays a number of distinct and recurrent limitations. Hence the regular and sustained critiques of the concept from a number of distinct theoretical vantages. The problems with...