Re: Foucault/Identity Politics

In your message of 20:28 Mar 12 1997, you write:

> I'm, um, shooting my fingers off because I don't have more than a layperson's
> definition of "identity politics" (ie. the individual is formed by his or her
> cultural experience) which sounds pretty much like a tenet fundamental to
> Foucault.

Yes and no....

Identity politics is a general term for political movements that center
around specific group identities -- e.g. gay rights movements, civil
rights movements, disability rights, and so on. My sense is that its
adherents tend to the notion that political organization -- both theory
and action -- is specifically informed by (even deducible from) who one
is and how one aligns oneself and is aligned by others along various
axes of possible identification.

I understand your suggestion that an identity politics might lie at the
heart of Foucault's work. One reason this sounds about right is that both
proponents of identity politics and of Foucault's work often tend to be
dismissive of the sorts of humanistic political movements that preceeded
them. (Those humanistic movements are the sort that say "We need to focus
on our similarity as humans; political prescriptions flow directly out
of our human nature." Think liberalism, rationalism, etc.)

Foucault(ians) and advocates of identity politics are in the same camp in
rejecting such humanistic politics. However, I think we have to be
careful not to assume that Foucault(ians) are thereby themselves
advocates of identity politics. The humanistic politics -- in the West,
politics as usual -- are rejected by these camps for different reasons.

The identity politics advocates reject it because they recognize that
what is assumed to be "human" in such humanistic politics is really just
what is shared by the most privileged or politically powerful persons of
that society: human=male=heterosexual=white=..... Clearly, Foucault
does not think that *this* is quite the difficulty with humanistic

In fact, Foucault's work can (and I think should) be read as a reaction
to and rejection of identity politics. For (many, most) advocates of
identity politics, political prescriptions are in some sense deducible
>from identities. Thus such advocates plan the emancipation of their
groups by certain political measures conducive to their identities.

Think of feminist political movements, for example. Clearly, there are
many attempts to theorize and practise life, ethics, and politics based
on what is presumed to be in some way special or distinctive or
essential about women. Thus the varieties of feminism: mothering theory,
ethics of care, ecofeminism, and so on.

(The matter becomes very, very complicated, of course, when it is
recognized that feminist movements (and gay movements, and civil rights
movements, etc) tend to reify the problems of simple humanist politics
by focusing on one aspect of identity. So you get arguments from those
with 'layered oppression' that such feminist movements are not inclusive
of all women, for example, because they don't take into account the
specific claims of women of colour, or poor women, or lesbians.... So,
the argument goes, if a feminist politics attempts to reduce to
something essential about women, it runs into problems of inclusivity
and exclusivity, suggesting that something may be misguided about basing
a politics on identity. This is a discussion occuring within such
movements for the last 20-30 years, primarily.)

But clearly, Foucault's work is a reaction against this sort of politics
at its base. But it is complicated. While he does think that such
identities "exist" in the sense that they have come about via relations
of power, he finds the prospect of basing political movements on
individual identities problematic for exactly that reason. The typical
model of identity politics is that there was a time (this is a metaphor
in some cases, and not in others) when all were equal; then some were
oppressed by being repressed, based on identity as woman, homosexual,
etc. So the political tactic is to remove the power, which stops the
repression, which ends the oppression. But Foucault thinks that such
groups don't really predate their oppression in that sense; that is,
such identity categories don't predate social relations of power, but
rather they are constructed by and within such relations of power.

The point here is that if identity and identity categories are a central
tenet of much of Foucault's work, that is not to say that he is an
advocate of identity politics. In fact, identity politics is anathema to
Foucault's work.

If I can add here, what I find interesting is the fact that whereas many
feminists have found cause to reject Foucault (though some endorse much
of what he says) many gay activists have taken up many threads of his
work in political theory and action. There are many possible reasons for
this difference; I could enumerate some of them if I had the stamina!

Hope some of this has been helpful.


Blaine Rehkopf
York University


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