Editors Note: This piece arose spontaneously in response to some of the Twitter conversations following Tripp Fuller’s awesomely provocative video earlier this week.
Perhaps there is a third way. Can we challenge the limits of identity politics in a manner that still disrupts imbalances in power? Can we avoid the trap of deconstructing identity in a way that dismisses the very real ways in which some identities are privileged over others (and thus reinscribes that privilege)?
These days I lean more towards thinking about identifications more than identities. The noun identity emphasizes the notion of a singular, stable, core-self that we both should and are able to unveil. In contrast, identifications is the noun form of a verb – the very structure of the word (an active verb held stable for a moment by the addition of the -ion suffix) suggests fluidity, acknowledging ever shifting matrices of engagements and influences. In its plural form, identifications makes room for one to stand in multiple places simultaneously. It acknowledges the experience of finding those multiple places sometimes congruent and sometime conflicting. Whereas identity is built on a foundation of core principles assumed to be universal across time and space; identifications shifts our attention towards practices, always in conversation with tradition, but finding meaning in particular contexts.
Identifications are less about core essences, more about free associations (in a historic Baptist polity kind of way). I identify with certain words and gestures and the ideas they represent because they have shaped a sense of subjectivity that, while always incomplete, is an attempt to speak about how I am reading what is going on with my body-self. Talking about my identifications pushes me to think about what I am primarily in terms of what I do. The practices take center stage. And yet, just as I am constantly reading and interpreting other people’s practices and gestures, they are also reading and interpreting mine. Despite the intention of my performance, of how I string together those practices, I have little control over how I am understood. My practices can play with words, symbols and gestures, juxtapose them onto one another in creative and interesting ways, reshape them and place them in new contexts, offer them up to those around me; but I cannot escape the systems of meaning through which they are read, nor can I control the route they take through those systems.
Yet, Sandoval’s notion of shifting consciousness has been really helpful for me in thinking about the usefulness of identity politics. The idea is that while we know that all identity categories are socially constructed, and that identity politics are always limited, sometimes they matter as effective strategies for challenging the exercise of power. So, while I’m all about destabilizing terms like “gay”, I also recognize that there are contexts in which it matters for me to hold gay as stable, which leads me to resist folks from privileged social locations unilaterally dismissing the usefulness of identity categories. The goal for me is to understand those categories as strategies rather than reflecting some essential truth, then to evaluate their usefulness based on the goals of any interaction.