Who's afraid of identity politics?

Linda Martín Alcoff
CUNY Graduate Center
This volume is an act of talking back, of talking heresy. To reclaim the term “realism,” to maintain the epistemic significance of identity, to defend any version of identity politics today is to swim upstream of strong academic currents in feminist theory, literary theory, and cultural studies. It is to risk, even to invite, a dismissal as naive, uninformed, theoretically unsophisticated. And it is a risk taken here by people already at risk in the academy, already assumed more often than not to be uninformed and undereducated precisely because of their real identities. Of course, identity is today a growth industry in the academy, across the humanities and social sciences, influencing even law and communication studies. The constitutive power of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and other forms of identity has, finally, suddenly, been recognized as a relevant aspect of almost all projects of inquiry. However, as I shall discuss in this essay, simultaneous to this academic commodification of identity is an increasing tendency to view identity as politically and metaphysically problematic, some have even said pathological. So on the one hand the theoretical relevance of identities has become visible, while on the other hand many theorists are troubled by the implications of the claim that identity makes a difference. Increasingly, then, the attachment to identity has become suspect. If identity has become suspect, identity politics has been prosecuted, tried, and sentenced to death. To espouse identity politics in the academy today risks being viewed as a member of the Flat-Earth Society. Like “essentialism,” identity politics has become the shibboleth of cultural studies and social theory, and denouncing it has become the litmus test of academic respectability, political acceptability, and even a necessity for the very right to be heard. In contrast, there has been a noticeable thaw regarding the term essentialism. What was once perfunctorily denounced at the start of every paper in feminist theory has recently been tentatively examined by a few theorists for possible signs of validity..
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