Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Identity Politics and the Prepositions of Speaking

There is a way of thinking about identity in which identity categories (race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, caste, nationality, etc.) are taken to explain the individual’s subjectivity and actions. It is the case that in complex societies a variety of identity categories shape individuals’ self-consciousness and interactions between individuals. So, while I would never suggest that identity and identity categories are unimportant, as I tried to make clear in my post “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture,” the individual is neither reducible to nor determined by identity categories and cultural context.

Much writing and thinking about identity politics is motivated by the desire to mitigate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, or other prejudices and discriminatory practices. It often does so through the celebration of works and deeds of individuals of a particular identity category, e.g. the celebrations of black history month or women’s history month, or the commemoration of works by women composers, black poets, gay playwrights, etc. There’s nothing wrong with the celebration of anyone’s creative expressions or good deeds, and a lot right with calling attention to worthy creations of individuals often overlooked simply because of prejudice. At the same time, at its most extreme, identity politics involves a logic that minimizes the possibilities for critical dialogue and unwittingly recapitulates some of the effects of the very prejudices it desires to affect.

Identity politics goes awry when notions of authenticity are linked to authority to speak, when only those with authenticity are seen as having authority to speak about a topic or category and when those with authenticity are prescribed to speak or express themselves only in authentic ways. For example, when the work of black poets or musicians is called into question as not “black” enough, this doesn’t fight racism but recapitulates it by assuming that there is a particular domain of content and form which is “black,” that black individuals should limit themselves to such domains, and that the only reason why they might want to do otherwise is through internalized racism and/or inauthenticity. Further, when the perceived right to speak is linked to notions of authentic categorical membership, this in no way reduces prejudice or discrimination but places new boundaries in the way of open and critical dialogue.

Aside from the important problems with authority and authenticity, there is also here a confusion about prepositions, about the difference between speaking for, speaking as, speaking about, and speaking to.

Speaking For and Speaking As

Simply put, I can’t speak for anyone but myself and shouldn’t try to. Not being someone else, and not having others’ subjective experience, I can’t place myself in someone else’s subject position and refer to myself as “I” for them. As someone who takes the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis seriously, I can’t even speak for myself in all contexts, times, and places. The same is true for anyone else, and it’s farcical for anyone to attempt to speak not just for another person but for an entire category or type of person.

What’s not so often recognized is that this is just as true for those within a particular category as those without. It may be more blatantly sexist for a man to try to speak for women, but no woman can speak for women other than herself.

Speaking as a member of a category is less problematic. Since social categories are perceived by others and shape interactions between individuals, identity categories do shape the experiences of individuals, and we can speak of experiences that tend to be common or statistically typical for members of a class. In that sense, a woman can speak as a woman, or a gay man as gay, insofar as their subjectivity reflects experiences often common to others sharing the same identity. But even speaking as cries out for caution, as it is easy to shift from speaking as someone whose subjectivity reflects experiences often typical of the group to speaking of oneself as the representative of the group. Speaking as easily slips into speaking for.

Speaking About and Speaking To

While I can’t speak for anyone other than myself (and can only problematically speak for myself by performing as if my subjectivity is more unitary than it is), I can speak about all sorts of things, including other people, and I can speak to anyone. Ideally I should do so with knowledge and with respect, but there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able and free to speak about whatever they want and to whomever they wish. Approaches to identity politics that attempt to tie authority to speak to authentic membership in an identity group or possession of an authentic viewpoint inherently limit the development of human consciousness and communication.

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