Saturday, February 18, 2017

On Identity

Provisional thesis:

All types of identity "studies," while needed to remedy some neglected areas of academic inquiry, focus on just one part of a person's identity.

Intersectionality is an acknowledgment that a couple of identities make you up. But we're even more complex than that--we are individuals who act and love in particular ways. None of us can fit neatly in any identity category.

Arendt's pariah offers a two-fold critique: On the one hand, of politics, from a particular perspective. On the other hand, of identity categories themselves, which always also need to be critiqued. Particularity is so important to Arendt that she could never get on board with an identity category that wants to overpower particularity.

This is relevant to unexpected Trump voters, pro-life women who participated in the anti-Trump march, etc.


Miss Self-Important said...

Provisional anti-thesis: if the people who care about intersectionality, whether expressly or implicitly, were forced to think and write exclusively about particularity, wouldn't they either manage to turn particularity into a group phenomenon, or become bored and move into another field of inquiry?

Additional question: what is the political motivation behind the "discovery" of intersectionality? Surely it can't be that all the PhDs in America realized for the first time just two years ago that a black woman is *both* black and a woman, and may *in addition* also be other things.

PS: A taste for particularity is not democratic, sayeth Tocqueville.

Emily Hale said...

Ha--quite possibly. And group phenomena are worth studying! Just not as a replacement for particularity.

Wikipedia says it was invented to talk about competing systems of oppression (so maybe a more nuanced marxist theory??). But surely being a woman and other things can't be reduced to competing systems of oppression? Or maybe that question explains why I'm doing things wrong in my field:)

And yes, that's true.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, my suspicion is that "oppression" is key here. To see human life through the lens of group identity requires a narrowing and simplification of personality and circumstance, and oppressed group identity an even further narrowing and simplification. And Tocqueville told us we were going to go precisely in that direction, since it helps us to universalize more easily. "Who are you?" becomes "What pre-recognized groups do you belong to?" becomes "In which of five possible ways have you been oppressed as a member of a group?"

Emily Hale said...

Yeah, this explains my uncomfortable fit with the area of study. I think common experiences shared by members of certain groups might have something positive to teach us about the world. This sounds like the basis of a great critique which would be published exactly nowhere.:)

Miss Self-Important said...

Actually, Edge just sent me an article by Mitchell that contains some of this critique, so it can be published, by tenured faculty.

I don't know if there was ever a strong swell of suspicion about the instructive power of group experiences, at least in America. (I guess AT would say aristocracies are always suspicious of them, but he also describes aristocrats themselves viewing the peasants in their class character rather than as individuals.) What might be new is the antipathy to even considering individual experience, at least in certain corners of scholarship. I'm thinking of the hapless white guys who insist that, even though white men in the abstract might have privilege, they personally have never had any of the good things that the theory of privilege ascribes to them. And the response to them is the dismissive, despite all that, you were still a white man through all your troubles, and no matter how hard your particular life has been, being a white guy made it easier for you than it could've been if your identity were different. This seems like a pretty explicit instance of abstraction and generality completely overriding particularity.

Emily Hale said...

Haha--she sent it to me too. And it turns out the best way to never hear from me again is to send me an article in the middle of the semester:)

Yes--it was an interesting critique, one that I hadn't thought about. Thanks for sharing. (So my take was sort of on great groups and his on great men.)

Yes--very interesting. I encounter this in my teaching. When I teach a feminist author, my students take it that I want them to feel bad about who they are. Baffling!