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Useful Fictions

The left needs to turn the idea of transformation on its head. We do not need narratives of individual transformation within a society that does not change. Instead, we need to construct fictions of identity that inspire individuals to work for social change; fictions of identity that are predicated not on the individual's opposition to society, but on her or his integration into it...
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #19, March 1995

This piece was influenced by many that have appeared in Bad Subjects, but especially Annalee Newitz's 'The Simulation of Praxis' and Joe Sartelle's 'As If We Were a Community' from our first issue, way back in September 1992.

In recent years cultural critics have spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about the ways in which individuals possess or are possessed by, not one identity, but a multiplicity of identities. The idea of transformation is crucial in this work. It shows us how people metamorphose as they as they cross political, linguistic, and socio-economic 'borders,' how they change from one identity into another. When we speak of 'transformational identities,' it is these metamorphoses that we are thinking about.

Any discussion of transformational identities is faced with a basic question: who is being transformed? Answering it is not easy. If a person acts as an African-American in one context and a woman in the next, is she still the same individual? Common sense urges us to answer 'Yes, of course!' We live, however, in a culture long preoccupied with narratives that center on more radical transformations: horror narratives in which people become monsters or animals, science-fiction narratives in which people become machines and machines become people, and crime narratives in which ordinary individuals become rapists and murderers, to name the most obvious. Clearly, common sense does not fully account for our intuitions about the modern world and our relation to it: it needs to be supplemented by fantasy.

To return to our earlier example, some part of us demands fantasies in which we aren't sure whether the person who acts as an African-American in one context and a woman in the next is really the same individual. At the same time, it is obviously convenient to think that there is an overarching identity, an 'identity-in-the-singular,' that encompasses and transcends such transformations. It helps us, in other words, to use a term like 'who' to refer to both the person before the transformation and the person after it, to be able to ask the question 'Who is being transformed?'

This leads us to a question worthy of Dr. Seuss. How do we define a 'who'? Or, to rephrase it in language better suited to our topic, how do we determine identity? If we are going to talk about transformational identities, this is a question we need to explore. What follows is a discussion of different models by which identity is understood and the way in which each one relates to the question of transformational identities.

Three Models of Identity

As I see it, there are three basic models of identity circulating in our contemporary world, each of which casts the idea of 'transformational identities' in different light. For clarity's sake, in summarizing them I will make a common distinction between 'individuals' — actual people — and 'subjects' — which is what those people become when they assume an identity and act in accordance with its contours.

The first model is based on the idea that when individuals mature, they assume the identity of free and autonomous 'subjects' who have the liberty and capacity to act as they see fit. In accounting for the transformations these subjects pass through as they cross borders, proponents of this model argue that subjects transform themselves for rational motives. They believe that individuals possess a subjectivity which encompasses and transcends the plurality of their transformational identities. This subjectivity is conceptualized as the power to conceive and undertake rational action, a power variously termed 'will,' 'agency,' or 'intention.' Because this power is a constant throughout all of an individual's transformations, it gives her or him identity-in-the-singular.

Because it underlies both our legal system and modern common sense, this model of identity is the one with which we are most familiar: the 'discourse of the subject' as it has been handed down to us in the Western tradition. Indeed, it is so familiar to us that we easily forget that we are thinking within its conceptual limits. Even when we attain the degree of self-consciousness necessary to realize its influence on us, however, it still takes a great deal of mental effort for most of us to think beyond or outside of those limits.

The other two models of identity in circulation today represent collective mental effort of this sort. The first — usually termed 'essentialism' — seeks to counter this discourse of the subject by emphasizing the differences between individuals. Rather than base identity on the abstract and universal power of subjects to conceive and undertake rational action, it bases it on those supposedly constant qualities that mark individuals as being different from one another: race, gender, sexual preference etc.. Proponents of this model seek to show that, within the Western tradition, the universal and abstract power of the traditional subject has tended to be the particular and all-too-concrete power of privileged white men. They argue, for example, that for African-Americans who were once property, deprived of legal and political subjectivity, the discourse of the subject represents not equality, but a history of violent oppression. In seeking to particularize identity, proponents of this model wish to create a means of accounting for and correcting historical injustice and its legacy in the present. They insist that subjects are not universal, but particular, not outside of history, but determined by it.

When we turn to the question of transformational identities, however, the problems with this model quickly become apparent. For one thing, because it defines identity on the basis of qualities that are thought to inhere in individuals' essential being, this model cannot adequately deal with individuals who straddle more than one identity category (which really means all of us, though some more obviously than others). Is someone with a black father and a white mother necessarily 'black,' or only because people in power have traditionally defined this race mixture to be 'black?' Is a homosexual Latina first and foremost a woman, Latina, or lesbian? As meaningless as questions like this one may seem, they are the sort that people who work within the framework of identity politics are often forced to confront. Though absurd, they produce real anguish. Indeed, Bad Subjects' critique of identity politics derives much of its impetus from our sense that there is something deeply wrong with forcing people to decide which identity is most essential to their being.

The third model of identity in circulation today — usually called constructivism — provides us with a way to avoid such dilemmas. Inspired by psychoanalytic and Marxist traditions, proponents of this model argue that nothing is necessarily constant to an individual's make-up. They try to show that what seems most integral to an individual's being is actually put-together in a social realm that both precedes and exceeds her or his bodily boundaries. Another way of putting this is to say that this model of identity insists on the social-constructedness of all subjects. In a sense, this is not so much a model of identity in its own right as a countermodel whose purpose is to refute other models of identity.

Obviously, if we agree that an individual's will is constructed by social forces, then it becomes impossible to say that individuals are in complete control of their actions. Likewise, if we agree that qualities like race, gender, and sexual-preference are imposed on an individual by those forces, then it becomes impossible to state that a given individual is essentially anything. More generally, if we agree with this model, we are forced to acknowledge that the notion that individuals possess identity-in-the-singular is itself a construct. That is, we must acquiesce to the superficially radical idea that all identity is a fiction. We get a very different picture of transformational identities when we consider them in the light of this model. It suggests that transformational identities are not a special case, but the norm: if there can be no fixed identities, then what we have been calling 'transformations' are the only identities we have, plain and simple.

Although this model suggests that all identities are fictional, its more extreme proponents — usually called 'post-structuralists' — reserve special animosity for the idea that the different identities an individual performs can somehow add up to a coherent 'self,' an identity-in-the-singular. They imply that the more time an identity must span and the greater the number of individual actions it must therefore encompass, the more dangerous it becomes. In a way, this is to argue that the problem is not which identities are made or how they are made, but that they sustain themselves at all.

Unfortunately, if we draw this sort of conclusion from the constructivist model of identity, it is nearly impossible to imagine substantive political action. Almost all political action requires concerted effort towards a definite goal over time. And such effort, in turn, requires a reasonably stable identity. After all, it is impossible for individuals to strategize unless they know that they will have the same general goals tomorrow that they have today. In radically critiquing the idea of identity-in-the-singular, the post-structuralists who draw this conclusion ultimately promote passivity.

Hegemony, Ideology, and Identity

Of course, it is one thing to realize that all identity is a fiction, but quite another to decide what to do with that insight. We can draw other conclusions to from the constructivist model of identity, ones which can enable political action rather than inhibit it. In order to get a better sense of what they might look like, we need to take a detour through theory more directly concerned with the workings of society as a whole.

When Marxist social theorist Antonio Gramsci looked at the Western world of the 1930s, he saw that vast numbers of people appeared strangely content to live within a power structure that runs counter to their own best interests. In trying to account for this phenomenon, Gramsci realized that the ruling class in modern societies does not rule by threat of force alone. He theorized that the majority of people in such societies behave themselves, not only because they fear punishment, but also because they consent to the power structure that maintains the status quo. Indeed, since most people do not break the law or seek to overthrow this power structure, it can be said that their consent plays a bigger role in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class than does their fear of punishment. Gramsci called the achievement and maintenance of this consent 'hegemony.'

Two aspects of Gramsci's theory of hegemony are particularly significant for our thinking about identity. The first is that he describes hegemony as a kind of cultural 'glue' able to bind and hold together very different sectors of modern societies, even ones which have little or nothing in common. As Stuart Hall phrases it in an article entitled 'Gramsci and Us,' hegemony 'does not reflect, it constructs a 'unity' out of difference.' The second aspect relates to the way hegemony manages to accomplish this. Because it resolves real differences into a semblance of unity, hegemony requires the creation and sustenance of an illusion. To put this another way, hegemony depends upon a collective fantasy in which conflicting sectors are perceived to be somehow alike, a fantasy that these sectors share a common identity. Hegemony is, in other words, a fiction of collective identity.

But how does this relate to the issues surrounding individual identity that we have been discussing? Gramsci doesn't talk about individuals much, except to discuss the ways in which they bond together in organizations. As I will explain later, I think it might be good to start thinking about individuals in terms of collective identity. For now, however, we can turn to another Marxist social theorist who tried to build on both Gramsci's insights into collective identity and Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic insights about individual identity.

In the essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation' from which Bad Subjects derives its name, Louis Althusser revises the traditional Marxist definition of ideology. Instead of contrasting the illusions of ideology to the 'truth' of reality as Marx had implicitly done, Althusser argues that there is no escape from ideology. 'Ideology,' he writes, 'represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.' Because our minds always 'mediate' (or filter) our relation to reality, it is not possible for us to have direct access to it. Instead, we only have indirect access to reality through the socially constructed fictions with which we define ourselves and our place in the world. To rephrase this insight in terms of our topic, because identity takes shape when we distinguish between what and where we are, and because it is socially constructed, it derives from our imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. We could say that, if ideology represents, then identity is a principal effect of that representation. If all identity is a fiction, then it must be ideology that creates and sustains that fiction.

As we can see, Althusser clearly argues for a constructivist model of identity. Where he differs from the post-structuralist proponents of this model whom we discussed earlier, however, is in his distinction between ideology-in-general and ideologies in the plural. 'Ideology-in-general' refers to the inescapable fact that we can never access reality directly: we always perceive it through what Lacan called the 'imaginary,' through fictions. Ideologies, on the other hand, are the historically specific fictions with which people of a given place and time make sense of themselves and their relation to the world. Making this distinction allows us to conclude that, while we cannot escape ideology-in-general, there is a lot at stake in determining which specific ideologies dominate our lives.

This returns us to Gramsci's notion of hegemony. Since hegemony really depends on the creation and sustenance of a collective fiction of identity, it is really just a specific ideology that holds sway over the majority of people in a society. As Althusser's argument suggests, hegemony is therefore not eternal, but something that can be challenged by other specific ideologies. From a leftist perspective, challenging hegemony requires the creation of an alternative fiction of collective identity. That is, if we wish to disassemble a particular power structure, it is not enough to say that it is bad. And it certainly isn't enough to show that it is glued together by a fiction that resolves real differences into a semblance of unity. Rather, we need to provide a different logic with which to make society cohere, one in keeping with our political goals.

Clearly, the idea that all identity is a fiction need not induce passivity. If, as Althusser argues, there is no political action, no 'practice except by and in an ideology,' then we must construct fictions of identity adequate to our political project. Those adherents to the constructivist model of identity who are so suspicious of identities that can be sustained over time seem to forget that, as Karl Marx puts it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 'men make their own history,' though 'not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.' They forget, in other words, that the social forces that construct identity result from the collective activity of human beings. Indeed, from Bad Subjects' leftist perspective, the strength of this model comes from its recognition that identities are made, not found. That its proponents would forget that the social forces that construct identity are themselves made, not found, seems remarkable.

Useful Fictions

As we mentioned earlier, we live in a society that, for all of its modernity, still reserves a prominent place for fantasies of transformation. The majority of these fantasies, however, narrate metamorphoses in which individuals change more or less independently of the society around them. When we do get narratives in which individual transformation is more closely linked to collective transformation, such as in science-fiction tales of the 1950s or Star Trek: The Next Generation's stories about the Borg, they tend to be extremely pessimistic. While becoming a vampire or murderer can give a character personality and even glamour, becoming a standardized cog in an impersonal machine cannot.

What all this suggests is that, although we need to imagine transformation, we are encouraged to imagine it only as individual transformation. This is a phenomenon leftists would do well to consider. Certainly, there are times when it is useful to imagine individual transformations. As several articles in Bad Subjects have attested, autobiographical 'conversion' narratives can be a powerful way of communicating with people who might ignore an explicitly political message. In the long run, however, our goal is not just to 'reach' people, but to organize them into a new and better society.

The left needs to turn the idea of transformation on its head. We do not need narratives of individual transformation within a society that does not change. Instead, we need to construct fictions of identity that inspire individuals to work for social change; fictions of identity that are predicated not on the individual's opposition to society, but on her or his integration into it; fictions of identity in which individuals act, not as autonomous individuals, but as part of a collective movement; fictions, finally, that are worth believing in.

Charlie Bertsch is a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at UC-Berkeley. He is currently at work on a dissertation entitled 'Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in post-WWII American Culture.' He is also a member of the 'SCH' club. He can be reached by e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © by Charlie Bertsch 1995. All rights reserved.