Identity has a history: rethinking identity politics through historical discourses of the self
thesisposted on 2022-03-28, 18:14 authored by Emma Sarian
Identity politics has long been accused of fragmenting and destabilising progressive politics,and critiques of its political effects continue unabated in light of its enduring significance. Yet, the majority of these accounts fail to historicise identity, proceeding from metaphysical or psychological definitions that flatten its effects. This thesis takes a poststructuralist approach that conceptualises identity not as some ontological pre-given but as a historically-derived discourse, and thus does not examine what it is but what it does. The aim of this thesis is thus to trace the historical emergence of this discourse in order to move current theorisations about its political effects into a more nuanced, productive avenue. To do so, it considers two social movements in Australia that are often seen as central examples of the rise of identity politics: the women’s rights movement and the Aboriginal rights movement. Engaging in a close reading of the political claims made by activists involved in these movements, it traces the discourses of selfhood through which activists articulated their political demands. More specifically, it takes up the insight that the rise of the term ‘identity’ is actually historically recent and should be understood as part of a broader historical discourse of selfhood, in order to answer the question of how identity politics works. In doing so, this thesis suggests that discourses of selfhood in the 20th century were closely tied to the knowledges being produced by the social sciences in this period, and that the discourse of identity reproduced by activists was likewise enmeshed within these logics. Analysing these political claims reveals three ways that identity politics has historically ‘worked’: by naturalising and thus universalising the individual capacity for agency in terms of recognition, by subsequently politicising human relations as foundational to this agency, and by positing culture as necessary for the development of this agency (and likewise problematising the claim that this capacity was exclusive to Western culture). Ultimately, this demonstrates that the kinds of political claims made possible by identity politics are more extensive than existing accounts allow.