One of our most common terms, “identity” is rarely defined. In everyday language, its most common usages—“personal identity” and “social identity”—designate meanings not only distinct from one another but also hierarchically related. Personal identity is often assumed to mediate between social identities and make sense of them. Whereas our social identities shift throughout the day, what allows us to move coherently from one to another is often imagined to be our personal identity, or “who we are”—our constant.

Personal identity conventionally arbitrates taste and lifestyle. “It’s just not me,” a potential home buyer says to her realtor. “That’s so you,” a helpful friend appraises as the shopper steps out of the dressing room. An “identity crisis” is a crisis rather than an “identity opportunity” because personal identity demands proper and unimpeded expression. It is a value, something we prize. This sense of identity as ours implies an immutable essence unchanged by physical development or external circumstances. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origins of this usage to the late sixteenth century, but it has recently been challenged by social theory and postmodern conceptions of subjectivity, and feminist theory has generated especially rich rethinkings of our notions of identity.

In reference to social categories, identity has long carried the meaning of relational and mutable identifications, actuated either by the individual’s chosen identifications or by others who label individuals or groups on the basis of characteristics and behaviors that seem shared. Whereas we commonly talk of having a unitary personal identity (our “personality”), social identity is regarded as a constellation of different and often competing identifications or “cultural negotiations” (Alcoff 2000, 315). Adrienne Rich’s volume of poetry Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) is one example of such a negotiation. It draws on feminism, Jewish history, and progressive social struggles to ask what in identity is chosen and what is given:

With whom do you believe your lot is cast?
From where does your strength come?
. . . There is a whom, a where
that is not chosen that is given and sometimes
falsely given
In the beginning we grasp whatever we can
to survive

W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous formulation of “double consciousness”—“one ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro” (1903/1986, 364)—also speaks to this sense of not merely negotiated but “warring” social identities. If personal and social identity are seen as “warring”—if I must keep “who I am” intact and unrestrained by “who I am supposed to be”—then the stakes of such negotiation are inevitably raised. Recognition of our multiplicity may not seem as important as resolution of it.

Identity politics, as it emerged in the United States from the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, gay rights struggles, and the New Left in the 1960s, offered new conceptualizations of the importance of recognizing—and valuing—previously denigrated or devalued identities. This “politics of recognition” expanded the kinds of rights claims that were earlier associated with progressive demands for the redistribution of social goods. As Charles Taylor (1992, 25) influentially put it, “a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a conflicting or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” At the same time, identity politics articulated coalitional strategies for linking those social identities to one another and to a range of struggles for justice, equity, and rights.

Since the inception of identity politics, however, it has also aroused suspicion and criticism from the very avenues where it originated. Because group identities—religious, tribal, and national loyalties especially—can be obstacles to building broader political coalitions and often have been the excuse for systemic social violence, the limits of group identity sometimes seem to outweigh any political benefit or affective comfort to be had by such belonging. Hence, the struggle for recognition becomes a questioning of recognition. Rather than taking personal or political recognition for granted as a social good, some scholars and activists argue that recognition is a red herring that hooks us to concepts of belonging and being that can only prove exclusionary. As Ernesto Laclau (1994, 5) argues, how to legitimize and affirm “the proliferation of political identities in the contemporary world” (by whom and under what social practices) has now become “the question that sets the agenda for democratic politics.”

On the one hand, then, identity politics has been understood as grounding new democratic possibilities through its reinvigoration of ideals of representation, voice, and self-determination. On the other hand, it has also been seen as limiting those possibilities by encouraging narrow solidarities rather than broader identifications. In a complex defense of a more nuanced identity politics, James Clifford (2000, 106) writes, “Given the constitutive tension of positive and negative impulses in claims to peoplehood, all assertive identity movements, including those that empower the dispossessed, can seem to be symptoms of a general disease.” The negative view, Clifford notes, associates identity claims with the violence and scapegoating that make “people kill . . . their neighbours” (106). A fluid sense of identity categories may provide a more positive resolution to the contradiction, since it sees the categories we want recognized as positions we move through in complex, challenging, and changing ways, not as boxes we are stuck in for all time (C. Kaplan 1996). And while it may seem that we are caught between two views of social identity—one of which demands that overlooked and denigrated identities be recognized and affirmed, and another that sees the immutable self as a socially constructed fiction from which we need to free ourselves—the tension between these two strains in contemporary theorizations of identity can be productive. In practice, it can inform a progressive identity politics capable of embracing this tension as its own.

Within the academy, acknowledging that social identities matter, that they make a difference, and that we may need to both contest and celebrate them has led to some of the most sweeping changes in the history of postsecondary education; disciplines have been reconfigured and vital new models of knowledge production created. These new fields are often focused on the recognition and exploration of different social identities, most prominently in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and lesbian and gay studies programs. While these institutional formations tend to be premised on recognition of diverse social identities in their intersectional relations to one another, the intellectual work that these formations generate and support has been able to challenge the very idea of identity.

Rejecting the notion of the self as a centered, transparent, or realized presence, a deconstructive notion of the subject argues that identification, the chief mechanism of identity formation, reveals identity’s lack or absence. On this account, identity is neither something we possess nor something that defines us but is instead an unending linguistic process of becoming. Whereas identity politics, the politics of recognition, and multiculturalism insist that a lack of affirmation for some identities is a social insult needing rectification, a poststructuralist or deconstructive perspective names identity itself as the problem. When ascriptions are placed onto individuals and groups by others, and when those ascriptions limit or constrain the myriad personal and social identities one might wish to claim, recognition of our identities no longer seems a mechanism of social justice but rather seems to be the social insult. In the global marketplace, moreover, multiculturalism and a diverse politics of identity always risk reinscription as just another commodity, offering us a “superficial shopping mall of identities” to keep capital flowing (Clifford 2000, 101).

Some theorists suggest that what we need is the subversion of identity, not its recognition. But how do we subvert “what we are”? One answer has been that we use identity categories only strategically, refusing to treat them as if they referenced an independent or transcendent reality. This is what is meant by the often-repeated injunction to be “strategically essentialist” in one’s thinking about and practice of identity (Spivak 1990). Another answer has been that in place of seeking recognition, we play with it and that we do so in such a way as to make clear that recognition is a circuit of power, not a naming of reality. If identity is, in Judith Butler’s words, a “regulatory fiction” and if political appeals based on available social categories reinforce “limitation, prohibition, regulation, control” by addressing “ready-made subjects,” we can subvert identity by revealing how it is “ready-made” (1990, 2, 149). This subversion is what is meant by “performativity,” a concept with enormous impact on American studies, cultural studies, and related interdisciplines. Performativity is understood to unfix regulatory identity by exposing the reiterations by which “a phenomenon is named into being,” a process called “citationality” (Butler 1993, 13). A performative understanding of gender’s citationality, for example, can reveal how gender does not name “what we are” but rather constitutes the identities it purports to name through chains of repetitive citational signs. Performativity can be a subversive practice because it reveals that identities are not really “our own” and that we are not really “what we are”; rather, we are how we identify—a process that is mutable and changeable. As a citational practice, performativity can refigure available norms as contingent and open to change.

The subversiveness of performativity cannot be determined in the absolute, outside of specific practices, acts, and situations. This may account, in part, for why the appeal of performativity as a theory of resistance has proved limited outside of the academy. Accepting that there is no “there there” and that identity is a “regulatory fiction” does not necessarily lead people away from a desire for identity. From popular culture to the reinvigoration of identity politics to the rise of new nationalisms, we see a persistent desire for identity, however much identity may be constructed, illusory, and unstable. One of the tasks of American studies and cultural studies will be to explain that persistence, to trace its workings, and to offer suggestions for how to make contradictions enabling and liberatory. The call for “a realistic identity politics” is one such attempt to recognize “the dynamic, variable, and negotiated character of identity” (Alcoff 2000, 340, 341) in ways that reposition us toward a more just and equitable world.

Embodiments, Feelings, Nature
Works Cited
Permanent Link to this Essay