In order to see some of the strengths and weakness of identity politics as an approach to thinking about education, we need to make a distinction that is implicit, but not explicit, in Seyla Benhabibs essay. For there are at least two distinct conceptions of identity politics at work in her discussion, and criticisms appropriate to one may not apply to the other.
The first perspective considers identity a rather static quality of persons, and views the process of identity formation in predominantly passive terms; the other perspective involves what Benhabib calls the fungibility of identity, suggesting that identities are more active and flexible constructions. 2 Correspondingly, each of these views yields a different view of politics; both of which, I will suggest, can be seen as quite limited, but for different reasons.
For example, many identity theorists, and postmodern feminists generally, will balk at having Catharine MacKinnon put forth as an exemplar of their views. If she is an advocate of identity politics, it is only in a very specific sense, assuming a reified identity that is decided for women, by men, who with their foot on womens throats do not allow them to speak for themselves. MacKinnon also has a crude, instrumental conception of power, especially in her view of the state as monolithic and fundamentally insensitive to womens concerns (as she says, the state is male3).
As a result, her view of politics is strategic and somewhat opportunistic: she appears willing to forge single-issue coalitions with any group to advance her cause, as she has with right-wing groups in her antipornography crusade. MacKinnons expressed sympathy for Clarence Thomas in the Hill-Thomas case is rather stunning, given her larger views on sexual harassment, and Benhabib places considerable weight on these comments as representing some larger dilemma faced by postmodern feminists in that dispute; but I do not see that MacKinnons comments typify a position taken by postmodern feminists generally.
MacKinnon is not postmodern in any sense that I can understand, and it seems rather misleading to characterize the weaknesses of identity politics and of postmodern feminism largely through her example. If she is an identity theorist, she has a quite reified and passive conception of identity, as I have said. For MacKinnon, there is no active component in the process of identity formation; identity is constructed for women, imposed from without by powerful others and by hegemonic cultural norms and beliefs.
And because her politics are instrumental, she seems quite willing to denigrate the qualities and character of many women, as we see in Benhabibs quote from the Buffalo conference, not because their actions or attitudes are in any way objectionable, but because the genesis of those choices does not comport with the vision of womanhood authorized by a political vanguard. This sort of identity politics goes on in movements aside from MacKinnons, of course. Some groups within so-called new social movements are inbred, suspicious, and convinced that their issues are the preeminent ones.
For many of them, any Realpolitik to advance their cause is justified; as Benhabib rightly points out, they have no larger vision of social justice and little interest in taking on the concerns of other progressive causes. But I do not see what is postmodern in any of this. The passive and reified sense of identity at work here, the crude conception of power, the instrumental and opportunistic politics, the embrace of difference only in the sense of leaving space for other self-interested and exclusionary groups to ply their trade, all seem out of step with a postmodern outlook.
On the other hand, there is also a position stressing, as Benhabib terms it, the fungibility of identity, which, whatever its merits or shortcomings, refers to an entirely different strand of thought from MacKinnons. In such theories (Judith Butler is Benhabibs main example here), identity can be constructed in many different ways; and while this process is contingent, it can involve choosing, shaping, and reinterpreting the identity one has. Although I do not know much of Butlers work, it does not seem correct to characterize her view of construction as passive, as it is for MacKinnon.
For Butler, and for many identity theorists, the politics of identity seems to be about the continuous formation and reformation of identity, about the free play of diffrance, and about a process of exploration and experimentation that is active and open-ended. However one judges this theoretical and political trend, it is clearly discrete from MacKinnons: it is postmodern in a way that her view is not, and if it has problems, they are different problems from hers.
In fact, I would say that some of these views of identity may be too plastic and voluntaristic. If identity is a construction, it is not a mere construction; we cannot choose or reshape it in any way that we please, and a theory of constructed identities needs an account of how this process occurs. 5 It is revealing, to me, that such theoretical positions often take the construction of sexual identity as their model.
Benhabib rightly notes the fascinating shift in some postmodern literatures, dividing issues of sex away from reproduction and toward issues of sexuality. This may be partly explained by the influence of authors writing from the vantage point of gay, lesbian, or bisexual identities. But the enormous variety of gender-bending roles (which are being discussed with a refreshing new openness) may tell us very little about identities of race, ethnicity, class, and so on, where factors we do not choose seem to play a larger role in determining who we are.
As with gender in relation to sex, how we act out who we are is not necessarily determined by biological facts; but how others perceive us, and the horizons of social possibility, often are. My point is that the fungibility of sexual identity, or gender, may be a weak basis for arguing a more generally indeterminate view of identity. It may also be a weak basis for a general theory of the body. I would agree that there has been a general philosophical neglect of the fact that we are bodies as well as minds.
But it seems a legacy of the psychoanalytic tradition, even for those who do not accept psychoanalytic theory per se, that people assume that sex is the primal force underlying human psychological and cultural life. Yet there are other important things we do in our bodies besides having sex, and it seems to me that other bodily needs needs for nutrition, health, physical shelter, and protection from violence, for example may be at least as crucial for understanding identity as is sexuality, especially for the very young. Furthermore, a voluntaristic identity politics can be very limited.
When the political object of new social movements is merely to enlarge the space for identity choices, their political vision becomes anarchic and self-interested: give us the latitude to choose to be who we are and to whom we relate with the fewest institutional fetters possible (Benhabib calls this a mindless empiricist celebration of all pluralities). This stance implies no general view of a more just, open, or democratic society, and many crucial issues poverty, health security, protection from crime, and so on become submerged within a predominantly culturalist agenda.
Needless to say, the sorts of issues I just described have much more to do with the concerns of poor and working class people. New social movements will fall into transience if they view the politics of identity as simply a struggle over the conditions of self-formation. The interdependence of class, race, and gender issues ought to be considered, not as the occasional confluence of discrete single-issue interest groups, nor as the commonly decentered construction of multifarious identities.
What the historical politics of class and race can teach us is that material issues of resources, of access to the protection of service institutions (including hospitals and schools), and of opportunities for employment and housing, are matters around which enduring coalitions can be built, for they raise issues of fundamental needs and general human interests in the context of a more inclusive and compelling moral vision even as they might be related to specific cultural concerns.
New social movements have the opportunity to enlarge this agenda by relating the issues that pertain to material conditions of life to moral questions about how we construct our identities and our relations with one another. Issues about the environment, AIDS, sexual harassment, animal rights, and so on, are not merely symbolic or cultural issues; nor are they necessarily single interest-group issues. Framed well, they hold promise as parts of forming durable, multifaceted coalitions; framed poorly, they are divisive and force people into the sort of with us or against us dichotomies that MacKinnon, among others, exemplifies.
I agree with Benhabib that the Hill/Thomas hearings illustrated the difficulties when competing progressive groups, driven by inflexible identity theories and opportunistic interest-group strategies, were unable to reconcile their narrow interests into a larger and more effective political vision. I do not agree that it illustrates a general problem for identity politics of the latter, more fungible sort, nor for postmodern feminism generally. The fungibility view has a different sort of problem, I have tried to suggest.
Simply because identity is constructed does not mean that we can make our identity in any way that we please. Benhabib frames the issue well when she calls for another theory of subjectivity, one that can explain the sources of human creativity as well as victimization, agency as well as passivity. 6 What are some of the conditions that make possible the construction of identities that are sustainable in the face of material as well as cultural needs? Education is one of the contexts that can be re-examined through the lens of this question.
A general theory of social construction would need to respond to Benhabibs claim that furthering ones capacity for autonomous agency is only possible within the confines of a solidaristic community which sustains ones identity through mutual recognition. In this social dialectic, discourse clearly plays a central role. I have learned a great deal from Benhabibs work, and that of Nancy Fraser, about the social pragmatic conception of language: Discourses are historically specific, socially situated, signifying practices.
They are the communicative frames in which speakers interact by exchanging speech acts. Yet discourses are themselves set within social institutions and action contexts. 7 By shifting the focus away from structures to discourses, this model provides a clearer basis for explaining the active and passive components of identity formation: Complex, shifting, discursively constructed social identities provide an alternative to reified, essentialist conceptions of… identity, on the one hand, and to simple negations and dispersals of identity, on the other.
They thus permit us to navigate safely between the twin shoals of essentialism and nominalism. 8 Language, in this view, is not a structure that stands over and against us, but a social practice that we change, and are changed by, every time we participate in it. Because communicative relations are situated in specific contexts and social institutions, the possibilities and limits of language to allow us to engage in a reflexive examination and reconsideration of identity provide a critical lens through which those contexts and institutions can be judged.
Among other contexts and institutions, this is certainly true of schools. Whether they provide the discursive resources and the opportunities to engage in the reflexive examination and reconsideration of identity, or whether, instead, they tend to reinforce static and passive conceptions of identity, determines whether their aims are educational and enabling, or merely reproductive in the conservative sense. Yet, at the same time, this process of identity construction is not entirely flexible and voluntaristic.
What the discursive model also provides is a basis for understanding how the process of constructing or reconstructing identities operates within a social context in which relations to others, material needs, and practical constraints interact with personal choices. Identities are undoubtedly more fungible than people generally acknowledge; but the other side of this dialectic is a human need for stability and sustainability in identity.
A construction, as I have said, is not a mere construction. From a social pragmatic standpoint not all constructions are equally sustainable, nor are they free from moral assessments. Here, too, education can play a role that is liberating, not only by opening up identity possibilities, but by teaching ways in which this process can be undertaken thoughtfully and in due consideration of its consequences for the self and for others.