…of what is commonly termed ‘identity politics’ rests on one axiom – the interposition between what one does, and what one is. If a man has sex with a man, this is something he does. When this practice is turned into the basis of an identity, the practice becomes part of ‘who he is’ – how he defines himself. His identity becomes gay.
This tension between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ is present in all modern arguments and discourses around identity politics. And there are ebbs and flows. Fifteen years ago it was de rigueur to argue that gender was performative. The idea that people play ‘gendered roles’ of masculinity and femininity became uncontroversial. Much questioning of socially constructed roles, homely Mums and provider Dads, previously positioned as innate or moot, ensued.
And now of course we have a melange of the two – being and doing.
NZ’s Bird of the Year, for example, is a bat. The bat can compete with other birds because both birds and bats fly. This is something they ‘do’. Here we see that identity is performative. It is the action that matters, rather than the category, the identity. Until, of course, we think a little harder about this problem. Why can’t a Tuatara win Bird of the Year? Tuatara don’t have wings. Bats do. Wings are a physical characteristic. What about a Boeing 737, which I think we can all agree are very impressive on the wing, and you get cold drinks. Once again, we’re categorising an organism by its physical characteristics, which is a form of essentialism.
This is an inherent tension in gender politics – we’re all familiar with the tired and cruel circular arguments that go something like, ‘Sex doesn’t exist, it is a performative gender role, I am not bound by my physical body but also I would like to take hormones and have an operation to change my body to be the opposite sex’.
This contradiction is endlessly thrashed out in the test kitchen of identity – social media – with lashings of toxic cruelty.
Performative identity is based on either a thought, preference or practice. This is the ultimate in social constructivist identity. I am what I do.
The late 1960s is usually held up at the beginning of identity politics as we know it – a radical rethink and rejection of all social categories. People pushed back on their ascribed identities. Lesbians, for instance, claimed and mobilised around the term lesbian, pushing back against the oppression and persecution meted out to them by a heteronormative society.
The tension between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ brings to mind Foucault. Foucault had no problem with identifying people on the basis of their physical characteristics – man and woman, for instance. However, any project that involved turning practices into the basis of identity was deeply troubling to Foucault.
For Foucault, identity based on action – ‘you’re gay because you have sex with someone of the same sex’ – was a relatively recent form of knowing oneself,
Foucault argued that identities like ‘gay’ were a recent development, born as a result of a growing state. As the state bureaucracy grew and developed in the late 1800s (in Europe), people became its subjects – the state intervened in their lives in wholly novel ways. People’s behaviour, outputs, lifestyles and proclivities were all increasingly codified by the state. Aggregations were identified, organised and capitalised upon. The growing knowledge and creation of information of society, and the ‘will to knowledge’, resulted in a grand naming project, the creation of identities based on actions. The first information society.
Because for Foucault, this creation of identity was an artefact of information – a government increasingly improving and growing its knowledge of the people, codifying their behaviours and ultimately, turning them, quite literally, into its subjects. The government has the power to create categories that are ascribed to people, but also that people opt into themselves. The state makes the normal and the deviant.
It’s hard not to think of the rise of the internet in the 2000s as tracking the same path. For Foucault, the creation of social identities that were still familiar in the 1960s began in the late 1800s and became the principle form of government oppression. For him, identity is a tool of the oppressor.
You name what you own.
I finished this post half-cocked. There are a couple of other things I think should be flagged. Foucault, as described above, was not keen on performative identity, that is, one’s practices forming the basis for identity, as he thought that this was buying into state dictated archetypes, and therefore limiting. The criticism, as far as I can see, is that the oppression of groups, from women to gay people to transgender people, was being meted out precisely because of state sponsored archetypes of ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’.
To overlook the violence and oppression and simply say, ‘well, just opt out’ isn’t really feasible. The liberation movements of the 1960s attempted to use the state archetypes, claim them, and mobilise them for freedom and liberation. Foucault may not have been happy about it, but it no doubt benefitted his life. And let’s be clear, as a person of a certain age, I remember the terrible discrimination of the 80s. What sticks in my mind in particular, is the way the HIV/AIDS debate was framed, and the lack of research into the disease itself. It was a holocaust that ran through the gay community, and it is hard for me not to think of this when drug companies fire up and make a vaccine for Covid19 in under a year (although of course, this does not reflect the long lead time of R&D that preceded it).
The second thing I might add refers to the statement above, about how some theorists decided to move the idea of identity based in physical reality (‘I am same sex attracted’) into the non-physical realm (‘performative gender identity’). This is criticised by newer theorists who are concerned about transhumanism, the idea that we are now in an age of distancing ourselves from nature and embedding our identities online, rather than in physical reality.
This is a fascinating idea, and one that resonates strongly with ideas of human exceptionalism, the idea that we can make ourselves anything we want to be, we can ‘produce’ ourselves, we can purchase new identities un-tethered from physical reality. For the critics of transhumanism, this is evidence of a growing dismissal and disrespect for the ‘natural’ or physical world. That is, those that remain bound by physical biology (other organisms like non human mammals for instance) are lesser to humans. It’s a new version of the old Christian ideas of human superiority over the natural world, valued for its use value to humans alone.