The historical and discursive contexts within the phrase “identity politics” indicate a series of political movements within the society and theoretical developments in academia, which on account of the communal experience of injustice and political struggle among individuals of certain social groups with specific identity category that based on a central organising principle of gender, sexual preferences, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and so forth. In the view of political contention, the formations of identity politics generally endeavour to obtain the representative marginalised community’s political freedom within the political landscape, which individuals of that particular constituency propose and demonstrate to comprehend the recognition of their peculiarity and uniqueness in order to confront the existing dominant oppressive system and societal discourses. Various types of affirmative movements (feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, civil rights movements, and such) have merged into the historical trend of “identity politics” in the 1960s, the emergence of large-scale political movements have also be influenced and driven by certain philosophical movements and vice versa. Inspecting on the intellectual chronicle of the recognition politics from Hegel to Franz Fanon, it could be perceived that those academic contexts have come to critically engage with and influence the contemporary social movements and political philosophy. Indeed, under the impact of post-structuralism, the ‘identity’ – ‘the authentic self’ with a glimpse of essentialism has been questioned, identity politics confronts a crisis which began to fail to cope with the new requirements of radical politics. Consequently, this essay aims to decipher the predicament of today’s identity politics through the investigation upon the complex context and connotation of contemporary gender studies.
I. The Contextualisation of Identity Politics
The fundamental consensus of the politics, economy and culture in the 20th century is that capitalism gradually attains hegemony, which contemporary capitalism has not declined as prognosticated by Marx but has become the only visible realistic political-economic system through the expansion of globalisation. Within the overall framework of the capitalist system, a series of tumultuous political situations have generated copious transnational diasporas, and the ever-increasing economic globalisation has engendered increasingly sizeable regional differences in the division of labour. The emergence of intellectuals with third-world backgrounds such as Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Homi K. Bhabha in Western mainstream universities signifies the normalisation of the migration of intellectuals and cultural hybridisation inside modern society, which as Antonio Negri and Michael Hart’s description in Empire that the unprecedented dynamism of the victorious global capitalism during the process of deterritorialisation relies on the emerging uncertain miscellaneous identity. The differences, identification and integration of various identities have become an unavoidably universal reality. At the same time, the anxiety about identity has never been as intense as it is today. It is worth noting that the concentration on identity is not a privilege of intellectuals, but gradually converts to a political discourse that is vigorously cited, contested and confronted among all parties. Conservatives reject immigrants on nationalist grounds, religious extremists promote jihad against infidels, and racist “white supremacy” assertion continues to be rampant.
The intervention of identity issues is particularly necessary for the politics of the left, which is related to the re-examination on the search for the basis and motivation of criticism and transformation on the society. This may be regarded as another struggle strategy of the left after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’s socialism in the 1990s — shifting the focus of theory to various culture and individuals on the premise of avoiding failure. The post-modern leftist narrative shifts from political and economic struggle to the competition of irreversible multi-subject identity, in an attempt to resist capitalist ideology and even challenge the authority of its system by adopting a new type of subject (the fundamental reason for the effectiveness of ideology is to discipline and shape the specific subject). However, its limitations are glaring, as Wendy Brown points out: “the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain renaturalization of capitalism” (Brown, 1995: 60). In a sense, this sort of struggle acquiesces to the essential structure of the modern capitalism from the very commencement and is barely a partial resistance within the capitalism, which is difficult to form a subversive revolution. The prevalence of postmodernism in Anglo-American academic circles in the 1980s had pushed intellectuals with anti-capitalist tendencies such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze to the forefront of history, but meanwhile, it intentionally or inadvertently obliterated the inherent radical characteristic of postmodernist ideas. Postmodernist thoughts have gone from the marginal resistance in its inception to become the mainstream of the existing ideology. Theorists take it for granted and routinely blame the totalitarian tendencies of collective politics of all kinds, declare the collapse of grand narratives, and turn to concentrate on micro-politics and cultural studies, in this case, the concepts of subject and identity generally become the latest places for theoretical exercises. The reflection and deconstruction of the transcendental autonomic and the essentialist subject by the postmodernist scholars present an adequate theoretical weapon for the rise of identity politics.
The orderly class politics advocated by socialists politicians has been substituted by a more decentralised and diversified politics of identity, which often involves a kind of self- conscious declaration of marginal identity against the existing dominant discourse in the post-modern period (Butler, 2002). Identity politics can be perceived as the recognition that distinct groups and identities have their particular interest needs and forms of struggle. It is a politics of difference with the marginal identity of race, gender and class and other categories as the centre of resistance, contrasting difference against sameness. It is also under the impact of post-structuralism that scholars recognise that identity and the opposite ‘the other’ are all a discursively ideological construction. The attention to the identity issue is frequently accompanied by prominent politically ideological bias, which is related to power and discourse embed behind; therefore, the plural narratives of the political problem of identity has emerged.
II. The Political Problem of Identity
The complexity and interconnectedness of power lie behind the intricate identity and its uncertainty, which constitute a dynamic map of power that brings political and philosophical conundrums to identity subject. If the projection of (gender) identity is governed by social norms that are interpreted as a heterosexual compulsion, then the heteronormativity may be partially responsible for the form of corporeal traits that define gender. The heteronormativity is undoubtedly not the only disciplinary mechanism that generates bodily contours or establishes boundaries of body intelligibility, but operate simultaneously and in concert with the other discipline systems (race, ethnicity, class, and such) to define and shape the materiality of the body and the process of forming identity (subjectivisation).
i. The Logic of Repudiation from the Perspective of Butlerian Arguments
Whether in psychoanalytic theory or gender theory of the better known, the attainment of gender roles is through a logic of repudiation which is based on the abjection concerning homosexuality; moreover, this repudiation logic that determines and destabilises the assumption of gender assumes a type of relationality with heterosexuality furthermore devalues and degrades the possibility of homosexuality to the temporal domain of ‘The Imaginary’. Here, homosexuality is not entirely denied, it received ‘entertainment’, but it is, and always will be, an insignificant rebellion without the power to reinterpret the corresponding provisions of the law. This domain of cultural impossibility sometimes fought against ‘The Symbolic’ but was eventually conducted by the law as illegal. This repudiation logic also signifies the connection between homosexuality and abjection. In fact, in the core of heterosexual identity, there is an identification regarding the possibility of being abject as homosexuality. This system of repudiation suggests that heterosexuality and homosexuality are mutually exclusive and can coexist only if one of them is culturally possible and the other only temporary and imaginary. Accordingly, Judith Butler believes that it is necessary to explore the repudiation of the normative ‘citation’ that generates and sustains the gender roles as mentioned above. Such repudiation is politically inevitable in order to distinguish the distinction between specific roles. Paradoxically, this repudiation itself sequentially weakens the coalition that craves to unite, as Butler states:
Not only does such a strategy attribute a false unity to heterosexuality, but it misses the political opportunity to work the weakness in heterosexual subjectivation, and to refute the logic of mutual exclusion by which heterosexism proceeds. Moreover, a full-scale denial of that interrelationship can constitute a rejection of heterosexuality that is to some degree an identification with a rejected heterosexuality. (Butler. 2011:75)
This affects a political conundrum: If this logicality is produced by the production, exclusion, and denial of the repugnant illusion that threatens the subject-position, then what is the cost of articulating a coherent and intelligible identity-position? Conceivably the two can only be linked at the expense of the illogicality and incoherence of identity. To some extent, the subject deposits its boundary and constructs its appeal of ‘integrity’ through this repeatedly compulsive repudiation of constitutive identification (2011:76).
On account of Butler that a subject is not “disavows” its identifications, but some exclusion constitutes the subject and continues to exist as a permanent or constructive illusion of its own turbulence. This transformation of all excluded identities into contained elements and the idea of unifying all differences into a universal unity mark the Hegelian synthesis, all the differences are attributed to its own typical characteristics. The reinforcement of identification cannot recognise the exclusion on which it depends, in order for this intensive identification to exist, these exclusions must be abject as these identifications must be rejected. It would be its form of violence to conquer once and for all the structural constraints that facilitate it to obtain cultural viability — leading to an obscure exclusionary principle toward alterity and the logic of hegemony.
ii. The Dilemma and Possibility of Today’s Identity Politics
Identity inflates the inquisition about the complexity of power; in addition to gender, there are many other categories of the signification of bodily materiality, for instance, race, class, ethnicity, and the correlation and intersection between them — just as the tragedy of Venus’s death in the film Paris is Burning. As the ideal type of regulation and discipline, these power vectors are interdependent and configured, intersecting each other for self- representation. It is worth mentioning that those investigations that place one vector of power on top of another not only disregards or depreciates other vectors but the process of construction of one vector is also based on the exclusion of the others. Besides, that analysis that alleges to contain all power vectors has already fallen into the trap of epistemological imperialism: the assumption that the author and their (as gender-neutral pronoun) texts have the privileges and capability to demonstrate and illustrate the complexity of their contemporaries fully. The identity issue is no longer a predetermined and pre-settled role or a homogeneous entity, yet as a part of the dynamic map of power in which the identity is constructed and/or erased, established and/or abolished.
Some form of identity politics, when the logical identity-role(position) is elevated and adjusted to a primacy political strategy, the regulation of identity dynamically serves a politics of a wide-ranging cultural struggle seeks to be re-expressed and empowered by groups that are denied and excluded by ‘coherent subjects’. This suggests that we need a system of differences that forces the reconstruction of non-conflicting logic that does not have an intersection between the various identities at the crossroads where various identities are formed and displaced. But considering the complexity of the power that constitutes all identity-based political groups based on identity, the politics of coalitions that demand dissident and disjointed identity will inevitably produce a violent estrangement, a kind of violence that will eventually be ruled out and teared up the identity. In the public sphere, homophobia and racist hegemony are constituted by erasing or disciplined culturally and politically constructed identities. Insisting specificities become the necessity for the purpose of exposing the false nature of imperialist humanism based on implicit privilege. The firm assertion of a clear identity will certainly lead to the liquidation of the constructive exclusion (that is, the exclusion imposed on all representations) of the reconsolidation of hegemonic power differences.
The transformation of identification does not mean that one identification is denied by another. Stuart Hall suggested that since identity is constructed by discourse, why can’t we construct our discourse to shape people’s presumed identity? On the one hand, Hall opposes the naturalistic identification view which identification is derived from some universal and invariable origin, on the other hand, he also emphasises that the most crucial part of identity discourse analysis is to concentrate on ‘what to do’ rather than ‘what is it’, he wrote, “the discursive approach sees identification as a construction, a process never completed – always ‘in process’. It is not determined in the sense that it can always be ‘won’ or ‘lost’, sustained or abandoned” (Hall, 1996:2). It is this uncertainty that makes Hall perceive the plasticity of subject identity, which he believes is a ‘blessing’ of discourse theory for identity studies. By exploring how the subject constructs new discourse or anti- discourse in the ideographic practice of discourse and then creating a new identity, this changes the passivity and domestication of the subject in Foucault’s discourse theory. Through the creation of new discourses to actualise the reconstruction of self-identity, and to explore their own social and cultural representation rights as a matter of urgency. “identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being … Identities are therefore constituted within, not outside representation” (Hall, 1996:4). Obviously, Hall’s “constituted within, not outside representation” which is different from his own summary of Foucault’s diagnosis “Nothing exists outside of discourse” (Hall, 1997:44) or Derrida’s argument that “There is nothing outside the text” (Derrida, 1997:163). This transformation marks the possibility of recognising the correlation and cross-influence of the related power fields on a larger scale.
Under the impact of trends of post-structuralist thoughts, all kinds of identity politics are faced with the need for solidarity and cooperation in order to collectively and simultaneously confront the hegemonic culture. The barriers between political camps seem to be increasingly anachronistic, and the contemporary gender politics and emerged ‘Queer Theory’ with deconstructive characteristic is an intense interrogation concerning the essentialist thoughts of ‘identity’. In this context, the political tendency of adhering to the ‘subject’ of women and female ‘identity’ has become more and more strained, which the traditional forms of identity politics are facing a trial that they cannot deal with and coordinate the new demands and forms of radical politics.
In the case of gender, it is impossible to separate from its specific historical, cultural, and political contexts throughout the consideration and discussion about gender, which interacts with the identity patterns constructed by other analytical categories. Extravagantly, ‘the universal identity of cross-culturalism’ is not only impracticable to achieve compatibility, instead, imposes hegemonic thinking on others and different groups of people, thus promoting the hegemonic mechanism in the name of ‘freedom’. What’s more, the establishment of an identity politics based on the notion of an exclusive, contingent ‘identity’ or ‘subject’ (whether that subject identity is ‘female’, ‘queer’ or ‘human’), the very operation of the exclusive distinction actually restricts the movement itself from its goal of expanding ‘representation’. The formation of the subject takes place in a specific field of power. If the specific ‘subject’ or ‘identity’ is advocated blindly, the power field that shapes the subject will be obscured, and criticism will not be crucial and hit the point.
Given this, the past ‘identity’ politics in which the oppressive apparatus of the regulatory regime is essentially relying on multiple identity categories should be sharply criticised and questioned (the ‘marginalised behaviours’ with a certain degree of subversion and resistance such as homosexuality and transvestism that are advocated and upheld by queer theory are gradually being incorporated into the existing society as ‘proper and legitimised’ practices in some developed liberal democracies, and thus become the new oppression authority to the peripheral assembly of the smaller minority). The limitation of feminism and even all identity politics is that it instinctively adheres to the unified ‘identity’ and takes it for granted that the ‘identity’ can be impeccable as long as the components such as race, class and ethnic group are filled in, but it fundamentally neglects the diversities and differences produced by the historical factors of political activities, culture, society. It is an epistemological and political act of imperialism to utilise the existing categories of identity politics uncritically and to attempt to incorporate the very different ‘the other’ into the present logic. The danger is that it reproduces the augmented act of self- expansion in hegemonic logic, colonises differences that could be used to confront and challenge the hegemony under the rigid ‘sameness’, and thus falls into the hegemonic logic that it resists and cannot extricate itself. Francis Fukuyama advocates that existing liberal democratic societies necessitate raising the goal of cultivating “integrative national identities” (Fukuyama, 2018: 103). People do not have to accept the contingent logic of postmodern multi-identity politics with peace of mind. Perhaps the proposition of the predicament of the subject will ignite a new universal appeal of the subject politics, and the universality of this struggle will ultimately release the revolutionary potential of identity politics.
Brown, W. (1995). States of injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Butler, C. (2002). Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1997). Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Fukuyama, F. (2018). Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Hall, S., Bauman, Z., Bhabha, H., Donald, J., Du Gay, P., Frith, S., Strathern, M. (1996).Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage.
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