Identity Politics: Genealogy, Problems, Legitimacy

This is an essay I wrote last semester for my Women's Studies class. For some reason, I've been hemming and hawing about posting it here, but finally decided what the heck, maybe somebody will get something out of it. At any rate, those who took the class with me might like reading it.

Identity politics has become a pervasive theme both in everyday life and in scholarly work. As a feminist scholar, I know I need to have a well-articulated “take” on identity politics, but I do not yet. The essay that follows is a critical reflection on the academic conversation surrounding identity politics. In it, I review briefly the genealogy of and problems associated with identity politics, including experience and its interpretation, normativity within groups, transience, and self-subversion. I then discuss the place of identity politics in my own work on the conflict between proponents of the women-born-women only policy at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and advocates of trans inclusion, and conclude with a preliminary evaluation of the need for identity politics. Although politicized identity is fraught with legitimate problems, I argue that for psychological, social, and emotional reasons, most people have a need for it, a need that, it could be argued, is powerful and as legitimate as identity politics’ critiques.

In her genealogy of politicized identity, Wendy Brown points to two major factors that made it possible: first, the classification of people into categories by disciplinary power, and second, the “renaturalization of capitalism” and its accompanying “bourgeois norm of social acceptance, legal protection, and relative material comfort” (60). In post-Enlightenment society, the Western government changed from a “minimalist liberal state” that “enables our politically unfettered individuality” to a “heavily bureaucratized, managerial, fiscally enormous, and highly interventionist welfare-warfare state” (Brown 57-58). This produced a measure of doublethink experienced by the liberal subject concerning individualism and universalism, and it also put people into categories. Brown gives the example of welfare categories such as age, sex, and race that were used to classify people and claims that in such an act of classification, the welfare state does not merely provide the raw materials for future politicized identity categories, but “produces identities as these categories” (58). This change to the current welfare-warfare state was facilitated by a windfall of wealth and by capitalist ideology.

Capitalism met with resistance in the revolutionary theory of Marxism, but in Western culture, particularly North American culture, a strong backlash to Marxism and Communism combined with relative prosperity and freedom (i.e. no large-scale famine or totalitarian regime prohibiting free speech) enabled the relegitimation of capitalism as default, unquestioned reality. By the 1960s and 1970s, Brown argues, class politics had been suppressed, allowing for the emergence of identity politics based on factors other than class. Examples include the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave feminism. During these decades, consciousness-raising groups were popular, especially among feminists, who would share their experiences, interpret them together, and, realizing that they shared many common experiences, form collective identities. This ordering of experiences, bonding with and identifying as a group, and especially the naming and categorizing of what one feels one is or has experienced (lesbian, bisexual, Chicana, date rape, sexual harassment), became a foundation for political action.

In the 1980s and 1990s, scholars started to identify problematic aspects of politicized identity. Joan W. Scott problematized experience by pointing out that while identity politics takes for granted that, for example, African Americans have a common experience, that is not necessarily the case. In fact, two African Americans can have completely different experiences, even if they are the same sex, sexual orientation, and class. Experience is filtered through every individual’s interpretive framework, and is therefore suspect; it is not appropriate as a basis for theory, interpretations of history (for example, Jewish history), or politics. Instead, Scott argues, we should expose and study the discursive processes that produce a given identity category; to take the category as a given is to reify it. Studying the history of the experiences of Jewish people would be augmented by studying the discursive processes that made “Jewish” a political category as well as a religious affiliation. Other critics, notably Satya Mohanty, have declared that, while experience is admittedly mediated by the individual’s interpretive framework and that of the group, that does not discredit experience entirely. Like most of the issues within identity politics, this one has not been resolved.

Another problem with identity politics is the tendency toward normativity within the group. Many people, feminist or not, will upbraid a feminist woman if she enjoys S/M with a man or hip-hop music, because “good” feminists do not enjoy those things. Brown and Judith Butler have critiqued such normativity in representational practices, insisting that it “generates multiple refusals to accept the category” (Butler, Gender Trouble, 7). In this sense, identity politics engages in what Brown calls “self-subversion.” Brown goes a step further to argue that the bonds formed by people sharing a common disenfranchised identity rely on the Nietzschean idea that such disenfranchised subjects resent the dominant group for their privilege. The group ends up needing the oppression in order to have a sociopolitical raison d’etre. The result of such normativity is a transient politics; for example, a Jew who disagrees with Israel’s foreign policy may be made to feel ostracized and alienated due to the normative injunction among many Jewish communities to support Israel. Another scenario is the fairly common evolution from identifying as heterosexual, to bisexual, to lesbian, and finally female-to-male transsexual. The subject tries identities on, finds some characteristic(s) in the category that does not feel right, and moves on until the right one is found. Because such a process is transitory and volitional, critics of politicized identity argue that theory and politics cannot be formed on it.

The female-born-women only Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is governed by an identitarian, normative logic; among the attendees, there is much diversity, but there are areas especially for women of color, deaf women, Jewish women, women over forty, and women over fifty, and the entire campground is playfully marked with names for female body parts: a trail called “Labia Lane,” a camping area called “Bush Gardens,” a tent called the “Womb” for first aid and health care supplies, a “Cuntree Store” for camping gear, food, and other items, and a staff services tent bearing a sign that says “Staff Cervixes.” The justification for such a separation of women into categories such as “deaf,” “women of color,” and “over fifty” is that in these groups, these women can talk about experiences unique to them. Most of the women at the MWMF are Second Wave feminists, radical feminists, and lesbian separatists who support theory and politics based on identity and experience. In these groups, hegemonic, “party-line” views of issues that are based on experiences of “the group” are often established, and if members of the group disagree with these views, they must keep the disagreements to themselves or leave the group. Scott argues that in such groups, narratives of experience, usually involving oppression, preclude analysis or critique, and “[turn] politics into a policing operation: the borders of identity are patrolled for signs of nonconformity” (10). For example, in a recent article in Bitch, Grover Wehman explains that if she were a transwoman in a MWMF workshop with a group of women who were discussing their experience as little girls, she would have to be quiet about her experience as a transgendered child or get kicked out of the group.

Although the women-born-women only policy clearly states that no one's sex will be questioned, in order to attend the MWMF, transwomen must “pass” as women-born women, which some transwomen do. A politics of identity, in which those marginalized from the group must “pass” in order to be accepted, imitates the very forces it protests. Butler asks, “What sense does it make to extend representation to subjects who are constructed through the exclusion of those who fail to conform to unspoken normative requirements of the subject? What relations of domination and exclusion are inadvertently sustained when representation becomes the sole focus of politics?” (Gender Trouble 103). Proponents of the women-born-women only policy become oppressive and violent when they draw boundaries that include some and exclude others. As intersex activist Emi Koyama eloquently puts it in the same Bitch article, “Any time we try to draw a clear boundary around gender we end up cutting somebody's flesh.” In this case, we see a clash between these women and Third Wave feminists who also attend the festival, many of whom support trans inclusion.

While I agree that identity politics is fraught with serious problems, part of me knows that, on the ground, people want to attach themselves to most of their experiences and to be a part of a group—even if they hear the argument that such naming is only performative and that they are attached to the identitarian term because of a narcisisstic urge to attach themselves to their social existences (Butler “Subjection, Resistance, Resignification” 245). I agree with Scott’s argument that it is important to look at the processes that create identities, but at the same time, I question whether that would make any difference or not in the attachment one feels toward one’s identity. That desire for identity, a desire that Cornel West pointed out in his reality check, “A Matter of Life and Death,” is, for many people, worth dying for, and it will most likely always be there.

Works Cited (sorry no full bibliographical citations. If you want one, ask me.)

Wendy Brown, "Wounded Attachments"

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

Judith Butler, "Subjection, Resistance, Resignification: Between Freud and Foucault"

Jana Sawicki, Disciplining Foucault

Joan W. Scott, "The Evidence of Experience"

Joan W. Scott, "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity"

Cornel West, "A Matter of Life and Death"

The article in Bitch is a transcript of a panel discussion and is titled "A Fest in Distress."


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There was an awesome article on MWMF and the trans-exclusion policy in The Believer one or two issues ago. It was written from Camp Trans, and made the fight personal, rather than purely political.


Thanks, Kerri!

Ah--November 2003:

Transmissions from Camp Trans
Michelle Tea
The battle lines have been drawn in the transgender revolution, and they cross through two festivals in the backwoods of Michigan.

Identity Politics and MWMF

I just want to say that i've always found critiques of identity politics to be really interesting in that they tend to fall apart across lines of race.

I think the only people who can even assert that such politics "cut" are those that have never been limited by them on lines that depend on such politics. who defines the "wrongess" of identity politics? are there any black men, or black women who find identity politics to be useless? any people of color?

if you live in a world where you have always been defined BY, identity politics are a place to create yourself for the first time, in opposition to, in survival of oppression.

MWMF is fundamentally important to women whose entire life experience has been women for this very reason. Especially those women who from youth are told they are the wrong kind of girl. That is much different that being told to "act more like a boy," if told that at all.

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