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The Simulation of Praxis

The desire to occupy and study "identities" is a symptom of our inability to think beyond what might be called the "primal scene" of capitalist culture itself.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #1, September 1992

As long as the state remains Christian, and as long as the Jew remains a Jew, they are equally incapable, the one of conferring emancipation, the other of receiving it...In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.
--Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question

I'm not happy with the black movement; I'm not happy with any place in the world. But I'm hopeful.
--Cornell West, Marxist Theory and the Specificity of Afro-American Oppression

What leftists in academia today know and teach as "identity politics" is, I would argue, finally not the place from which we can begin to launch the final and annihilating critique of capitalism and all systems of oppression everywhere. I will here propose a method for reading the desire to occupy and study "identities" as a symptom of our inability to think beyond what might be called the "primal scene" of capitalist culture itself: the generation of dominant classes through exploitation and its disavowal.

In the post-1960s university, topics once unrecognized by dominant academic disciplines and their corresponding departments have entered the realm of the expressible with a vengeance. These topics, like African-American Studies or Women's Studies, are organized around categories of identity first "discovered" and constituted during the civil rights battles of the 1960s-- ethnic, racial and sexual identities characterized by their shared histories of marginalization, oppression and subcultural collectivities. To acknowledge and identify the history of human beings who were either literally enslaved or functionally powerless in the social realm, students and professors have participated in creating new academic disciplines in which a particular "identity" is the single focus of study. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and now the 90s, new "identity" departments have continued to proliferate; at UC Berkeley this year, a new Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Studies program is "under construction"-- academic programs grouped around this particular "identity" are among those most recently established within the university. It might therefore be said that we who work in the university now are in many ways living an institutionalized version of cultural values popularized during the 1960s. At UC Berkeley, for example, the administration recently approved a new "American Cultures" undergraduate requirement for all incoming students. The idea behind making mandatory the study of an "American culture" is clearly to ensure that all who receive a higher education will have studied not just the liberal arts, but also those "identities" historically ignored in a liberal arts curriculum. Thus I would want to claim that "identity politics" have gone mainstream within the university. I do not, as some might, equate mainstreaming with "degradation"; I am merely describing the conditions under which we labor. As such, we must question what kind of response these conditions invite from us-- in other words, we must ask how and what exactly "identity" makes us within the system known as "identity politics".

Part of the pedagogical and research practice associated with "identity politics" is an implicit injunction to "be" or "have" an identity of one's own. Certainly no one expects only women to teach Thelma and Louise, but it is often the case that women are understood to be experts mainly in "women's issues" or Asian- Americans likewise experts on the Asian-American canon. It has been my experience both teaching and taking classes that a point I am making about capitalism or class has been misunderstood to be a point about gender; and we have all heard stories about male professors turning to their female graduate students in class and asking, "What would a feminist have to say about this?" as if being female made one a feminist, or only women could be feminists. More frighteningly, a male professor might say to his student, "Because you are a woman, male professors may find you stupid," as if repeating the terms of oppression in an "enlightened" fashion might somehow constitute a progressive response to it. What I mean to point out through these examples of interpersonal behavior in the academic workplace is how "identity politics" can easily be made to serve the same interests sexism and racism have historically. Rather than being excluded from academia entirely, women and other "minorities" today are "excluded" by being constructed as (and encouraged to be) specialists in a particular kind of "identity" discourse. Implicit in these imaginary comments made by male professors is the idea that a woman would only be able to offer valuable insights into, and do intellectual work on, issues concerning "herself". This not only limits what the professor will "hear" when the student speaks, but also limits the practice of feminism itself, a methodology for interpreting systems of domination, not just unearthing the "woman's perspective." Moreover, the possibility that a man might understand and be capable of articulating a feminist argument gets foreclosed as well. Why, we might ask, in a classroom where feminist issues are being discussed, is the male professor somehow "ignorant" of what is at stake in feminism? The answer is finally that what we see happening when African-Americans study African-Americans, women study women and Chicanos study Chicanos is a less overtly oppressive version of the division of labor naturalized in an openly racist or sexist environment. Woman's labor is not now solely confined to the kitchen or household, nor is the Chicano always forced to work in a Central Californian tomato field while male white people carry leather briefcases to air-conditioned offices in the city: for this we can be grateful. However, insofar as certain academic "specialties" are understood to be mainly the domain of particular people on the basis of their race, gender or sexual preference, we still live in a system which promotes social division and associates women or people of color with a particular kind of work. And, I might add, as long as they are willing to shoulder the burden of that work, there will always be an "ignorant" person who never has to share their burden at all.

Whether or not one is articulating "identity" in essentialist or constructivist terms makes little difference; what I am trying to call attention to is how "identity politics" suggest that we fight oppressive categories by occupying them. Prominent anti- essentialist theorist Judith Butler has described the occupation of an identity as a process of repetition in which we question identities carved out for us by dominant culture by repeatedly "imitating" those identities with a campy or perverse twist. Thus, she claims--and I think her position is a widely accepted one--that we liberate ourselves from an historically oppressive term like "woman" or "homosexual" by being homosexual women in a hyper-conscious manner. I think the term to pay attention to here is "repetition". In psychoanalytic terms, the need the repeat a certain act or place oneself repeatedly in similar situations signals one's continuing inability to come to terms with some sort of historical and/or personal trauma. Repetition is also a potent form of denial, for in repeating a traumatic event one attempts to become master of, and thus deny, its origin. Say, for example, I am raped by my father. This is a trauma--I have been violated, humiliated and made helpless in my subordination to a culturally sanctioned authority. When I grow up, I "get over" my trauma by asking men to pretend to rape me over and over again. I have repeated my own historically oppressive situation with one important difference. Now I am in control and rape no longer bothers me at all. This is an extreme example, but we live in an historical moment which produces extreme identities. If the formative trauma for "identity politics" is the systematic exploitation and oppression of various groups by dominant culture, then our need to place ourselves in the exploited position these groups had, historically, little choice but to endure seems a dangerous and counter-productive one at best.

What occurs, it seems to me, when we become "identities" is that we repeat an historical trauma with one difference: our histories (of oppression) and our (racial, gendered and sexual) bodies themselves get recast as sources of pleasure. This pleasure stems in part from our sense that we are "in control" of our "identities" in a way our ancestors could not be. Of course, women and other minorities are in a very real sense able to control their destinies in ways impossible even twenty years ago. However, "identity" pleasure also stems from the way the lives of our oppressed ancestors get rewritten and in some sense "forgotten". To give an example: we take pleasure in Madonna and Michael Jackson's successes, for after all they are two "identities" who have been able to achieve fame and distinction. Yet both stars' success is largely mediated by their investments in and references to traditional categories of gender and racial beauty: Madonna wears the clothes of a "boy toy", and Jackson has surgically altered himself to look more like little white boy Peter Pan, his self-proclaimed idol. Taking pleasure in their admittedly self-imposed "identities" is to forget what Jackson and Madonna might have been before the 1960s, and to forget how much the politics of that time are still with us. Dan Quayle's comment condemning television character Murphy Brown's unwed motherhood may have been widely ridiculed, but it was no joke. Clearly, to many audiences Madonna is just another slutty pin-up and Jackson is just another "white nigger". While both celebrities consider themselves progressives, and both openly support feminist, anti-homophobic and anti-racist causes, their "identity" personas are not themselves meaningfully subversive. To take my analysis a step further, it could be argued that performing hyper-conscious appreciative readings of femininity or "racialness" in the context of a classroom or academic discipline is not automatically to act in the best interests of those who remain oppressed by gender and race. Not only can one's "appreciation" of Madonna be easily misunderstood as an endorsement of traditional femininity, but also the appreciation of Madonna is ultimately an appreciation of ideological containment. That is to say, inasmuch as Madonna performs her liberation by ironically borrowing her "identity" from the history of sexism, she is still trapped in and contained by that history. To celebrate Madonna's "identity" is therefore to confirm our inability to think beyond a history that has deformed us.

The pleasure we get out of wearing or living an "identity" therefore comes to compensate for the ways in which our histories and bodies are still the markers of our degradation and subjugation even into the present moment. One way we compensate is by forming academic "ghettos" like African-American Studies or Women's Studies which we choose to work in, and yet perform a function comparable to the ghettos in Los Angeles (at least until their residents lit them on fire and got everybody's attention): the academic ghetto by and large keeps the "minorities" and their cultures inside their own academic disciplines while allowing the other academic disciplines to remain as ignorant as they please of minority studies. To return to my extreme example, I would now want to ask you this question: how much pleasure do you really think I am getting out of being "a raped little girl" over and over again? It seems clear that my pleasure is derived mainly from revising the past in such a way as to make myself appear to be (and to have been) in control of what I could not prevent from happening to me when I was powerless. I have, in other words, invented a compensatory fantasy about my past so that the way it makes me suffer in the present does not hurt as much. I do not work to rid myself of a history that hurts, but learn to take pleasure in inflicting controlled doses of it on myself. To translate from the personal into the professional realm: teaching and studying our investment in the historically silent or incoherent "woman's language" or the songs of enslaved storytellers calls our attention away from real injustice taking place and originating in the dominant culture now. To covet and glamorize the culture of an identity forged in the ghetto is to deny what made (and makes) that ghetto possible. It is quite simply wrong to be proud to live in the ghetto, and it is wrong to repeat the scene of the ghetto over and over again until even historically oppressive categories become sources of misguided triumph. We need to concentrate on eliminating ghetto identities, not fetishizing or revitalizing their cultures.

Thus I want to call the "politics of identity" the politics of simulation. A simulated thing is a thing with no origin, only serialized versions of itself. The act of consuming such a thing is a profoundly alienated act; it is the kind of act that can only take place in highly advanced stages of capitalism. Moreover, a simulated thing is not consumed for itself, but for the way in which we perceive it to be "different" from other things. Therefore in late capitalism "difference" comes to determine value. A human being who acts out an "identity" is not a subject, she is a thing among other things like herself. She continues to be a woman, an object, but now she is granted the privilege of saying or performing just what it means to be that object in relation to those (good) subjects who made her "different" before she was born. When we make ourselves over as "identities" we simulate political action--that is, we act only insofar as we somehow repeat and take pleasure in our past. We divide ourselves up along gender and race lines without even having to be forced into it by white men, and some of us even claim to like doing it. And we forget who and what began the cycle of restrictive and exclusionary "identities" for us in the first place. We become, in other words, performers of those "identities" left to us by slaves and wives, rather than producers of new, truly emancipated identities unlike any ever seen on Earth. What I would suggest we must begin to imagine is a future where history makes us but does not restrain us; in other words, we must work to generate identities which are *truly* different because history itself comes to be different-- no longer a list of nightmares but a map for the future. For it is historical difference, a real break between the present and our oppressive past, that is the difference we long for when we repeat "identities" from history all over our bodies and in our minds. What we most desire is to live in a world where we did not have to watch our mothers say "yes" to our fathers because they were taught that women never say "no". Or where we had to watch our fathers get turned down for promotions again and again because men of color simply do not get to be on the board of directors even if they have worked seventeen years longer than their white colleagues. This is not a past we want to repeat, even in play. Let us change the world instead of our clothing, and let us not claim that freedom in the ghetto will make the whole world free.

If the goal of leftist political praxis--the union of theory and action--is to promote equality among human beings, then we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the "identities" which were used by the dominant classes to oppressively divide us yesterday still divide us today. We must work to stop repeating the past, and learn to gain pleasure not in our "difference" but in what can make us the same. We cannot allow ourselves to forget where real difference lies: in those historically produced class divisions which allow a small group to take pleasure in the painful labor of the many. We on the academic left must work to produce a theory of community which might bring together all the dispersed and isolated "identities" in a commitment to global economic and social justice. True praxis might therefore be understood as the moment at which historically oppressive systems of differentiation cease to regulate the way we form communities in the present and future. For it is still the case that in the system of "identity politics" as we know it, what makes us "different" does not make us free. In simulated praxis, freedom is a choice between "differences" and ghettos--as long as one forgets about history, it is easy enough to imagine freedom in that. After all, "the different" have nice bars to go to in San Francisco. And "the different" have special academic departments in which to study their own culture and historical oppression undisturbed. We live in the prehistory of what humanity might become. When we must go to special and secret places to love one another peacefully we acknowledge that our fight to become subjects in history--not subjected to history--has just begun. To articulate and "see" the relationship between the ghetto and the dominant is simply to reiterate one of the fundamental contradictions produced by capitalism in the late 20th century. Our task is to move beyond the politics of "identity", and finally instigate political action based on what we have learned from having to have "identities" at all.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.