Cover image for Private Selves, Public Identities: Reconsidering Identity Politics By Susan Hekman

Private Selves, Public Identities

Reconsidering Identity Politics

Susan Hekman


$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02699-2

168 pages
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Private Selves, Public Identities

Reconsidering Identity Politics

Susan Hekman

In Private Selves, Public Identities, Susan Hekman explores one of the most important political developments within the United States in the past thirty years, the emergence of group-based or ‘identity’ politics. Her lucid critiques of the liberalism versus multiculturalism debates, as well as her insights into the limitations of modernist and post-structuralist conceptions of identity and agency, make this book well worth reading. Moreover, her sophisticated analysis of the problems generated by conflations of personal identity and political identity is an important contribution to contemporary debates in political theory and feminist theory.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In an age when "we are all multiculturalists now," as Nathan Glazer has said, the politics of identity has come to pose new challenges to our liberal polity and the presuppositions on which it is founded. Just what identity means, and what its role in the public sphere is, are questions that are being hotly debated. In this book Susan Hekman aims to bring greater theoretical clarity to the debate by exposing some basic misconceptions—about the constitution of the self that defines personal identity, about the way liberalism conceals the importance of identity under the veil of the "abstract citizen," and about the difference and interrelationship between personal and public identity.

Hekman’s use of object relations theory allows her to argue, against the postmodernist resort to a "fictive" subject, for a core self that is socially constructed in the early years of childhood but nevertheless provides a secure base for the adult subject. Such a self is social, particular, embedded, and connected—a stark contrast to the neutral and disembodied subject posited in liberal theory. This way of construing the self also opens up the possibility for distinguishing how personal identity functions in relation to public identity. Against those advocates of identity politics who seek reform through the institutionalization of group participation, Hekman espouses a vision of the politics of difference that eschews assigning individuals to fixed groups and emphasizes instead the fluidity of choice arising from the complex interaction between the individual’s private identity and the multiple opportunities for associating with different groups and the public identities they define.

Inspired by Foucault’s argument that "power is everywhere," Hekman maps out a dual strategy of both political and social/cultural resistance for this new politics of identity, which recognizes that with significant advances already won in the political/legal arena, attitudinal change in civil society presents the greatest challenge for achieving more progress today in the struggle against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.

In Private Selves, Public Identities, Susan Hekman explores one of the most important political developments within the United States in the past thirty years, the emergence of group-based or ‘identity’ politics. Her lucid critiques of the liberalism versus multiculturalism debates, as well as her insights into the limitations of modernist and post-structuralist conceptions of identity and agency, make this book well worth reading. Moreover, her sophisticated analysis of the problems generated by conflations of personal identity and political identity is an important contribution to contemporary debates in political theory and feminist theory.”
“Taking the insights offered by a performative understanding of identity, Hekman demonstrates how identity can be fluid while retaining a core that avoids the problem of relativism. In the light of a careful development of the political concerns surrounding identity, Hekman offers a new understanding of identity politics that enables her to make some valuable suggestions about how identity might be articulated and a richer politics achieved. Feminists interested in theories of politics will find this a very important contribution to the field.”
“One of the strengths of Hekman’s work is her extensive review of the pertinent scholarship on contemporary liberalism, identity politics, the essentialism/anti-essentialism debate within feminist theory, multiculturalism, and the politics of recognition.”
“Hekman’s claims are well argued and persuasively presented in this well-written volume, which would be useful for advanced undergraduates, as well as for scholars of political theory less versed in feminism and feminist scholars new to liberal political thought.”
“In all, the book is a valuable contribution to the debate over the meaning and role of identity in politics. . . . Hekman’s book will invigorate debate on identity politics.”

Susan J. Hekman is Professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Humanities at the University of Texas, Arlington. She has published two previous books with the Penn State Press: Moral Voices, Moral Selves: Carol Gilligan and Feminist Moral Theory (1995) and an edited volume, Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault (1996).



1. Constructing Identity

2. Identity and the Liberal Polity

3. Identity Politics—the Personal and the Political

4. A New Politics of Identity



Constructing Identity

Questions of identity pervade nearly every aspect of contemporary life. Politicians debate the role of identity in the political sphere. Social and political theorists debate its theoretical status. Psychologists discuss competing theories of identity and subjectivity. Popular books invite us to create and re-create our identities on a daily basis, crafting new identities as the situation demands. Most of these discussions, furthermore, revolve around “solutions” to the “problem” of identity. The advocates of identity politics embrace it as a permanent and positive feature of our political life. They champion the advent of different political identities, particularly those defined in terms of race and ethnicity. “We are all multiculturalists now,” Nathan Glazer (1997) asserts. Social, political, and psychological theorists each have a particular position to argue on the question of identity and identity politics; each asserts that this position is the definitive solution to the problems raised by identity. Those who do not read their often esoteric books are given equally definitive formulations by more popular authors.

Yet the problem of identity will not go away. None of the solutions that have been offered have been embraced by all parties; no one approach to identity solves all the issues raised. On one level this is to be expected. Given the difficulty and breadth of the issues that identity raises, it is not surprising that an easy resolution of these issues cannot be found. In the following, I will break from the tradition of writings on identity and not claim that I have found the solution to the problem. On the contrary, I will argue that the problem of identity will not go away because contemporary issues of identity are too complex to be easily resolved. More specifically, I will argue that these issues challenge some of the basic presuppositions of our philosophical and political beliefs. The issues of identity cannot be “solved,” in other words, because they challenge assumptions that are deeply ingrained in our social fabric. We need to uncover those assumptions before we can assess the impact of the debate over identity.

My intent here, then, is not to propose a solution to the problem of identity and identity politics but, rather, to develop a perspective on identity that reveals what is at stake in these debates. That perspective is informed by feminist theory and practice. Although issues of identity are not strictly feminist issues, I ground my argument in feminist discussions of identity for a number of reasons. First, the postmodern challenge to the modernist conception of identity developed by feminist theorists such as Judith Butler has been immensely influential in discussions of identity. Butler’s fictive, inessential subject dramatically reveals the liabilities of the modernist subject. Although other challenges to this subject have been posed, the feminist argument has a particular resonance because it focuses on the masculinity of this subject. Understanding what is wrong, and right, about this conception is a necessary starting point for developing a new perspective on identity issues.

My second reason for focusing on feminism is that the feminist experience of identity politics offers the clearest illustration of the dilemma created by introducing identity into the liberal polity. Identity politics has perpetuated a debate in the feminist community that appears to have no resolution. Both embracing and rejecting the identity “woman” have unacceptable consequences for feminist theory and practice. Within the liberal polity as it is presently constituted, feminists and other marginalized groups can be neither for nor against identity.

My third reason is that feminist theorists have developed a critique of liberalism that reveals why identity politics is profoundly incompatible with the liberal polity. Explorations of why the identity “woman” has not fit neatly into liberal politics even after women’s suffrage have led feminist theorists to a broader understanding of the role of identity in the liberal polity. Although this feminist critique has not been explicitly applied to the question of identity politics, I will argue that it can illuminate that discussion in significant ways. My strategy is to use this critique to question the relationship between identity and politics in the liberal tradition and suggest an alternative to that relationship.

<1> Identity/Politics in Contemporary Feminism

In an influential article published in Signs in 1988, Linda Alcoff wrote: “For many contemporary feminist theorists, the concept of woman is a problem. It is a problem of primary significance because the concept of woman is the central concept for feminist theory. Yet it is a concept that is impossible to formulate precisely for feminists” (1988, 405). The context of Alcoff’s argument was the widespread conviction among feminist theorists that the modernist conception of the self/individual that has dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment is inappropriate to women. The argument that this rational, disembodied subject is inherently masculine and thus defines women as inferior was nearly universally accepted by feminists at the time Alcoff was writing. The problem Alcoff is addressing in her article, however, is not the rejection of this concept but what might replace it. Although the rejection, either wholly or in part, was widely accepted, its replacement was the subject of heated debate.

Alcoff labels this situation the “identity crisis” in feminist theory. She argues that how the question of the concept of woman is resolved will profoundly affect the future of feminism, that it will define the identity of feminism by defining the identity of “woman.” Alcoff is writing at the end of a decade in which one resolution of this crisis was dominant: the assertion of a monolithic concept of “woman” wholly different from that of “man.” Identified with theorists such as Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan “difference feminism” focused on the qualities shared by all women and, most notably, asserted that the alleged deficiencies of women are in fact virtues.

By 1988 the critics of difference feminism had revealed serious liabilities in this conception. The most telling criticism was that difference feminism replicated the essentialist fixing of identity that was the hallmark of the modernist conception. Thus, like the modernist subject, it necessarily created a hierarchy within the category “woman” in which some women, white, middle-class, heterosexual women, were more “woman” than others. Differences between women were ignored or erased. Increasing emphasis on the diversity and complexity of actual women, however, made it difficult to construct arguments for the alleged universal characteristics of women’s experiences. For all these reasons, Alcoff, along with many other feminist theorists, rejected difference feminism as a viable solution to the identity crisis in feminism.

The second possible resolution of the crisis was, in 1988, in the ascendancy: postmodernism/poststructuralism. Alcoff defines this position as the claim that “woman” cannot be defined and any attempt to do so is misguided. Alcoff has problems with this alternative as well. She claims that its nominalism reduces the category of “woman” to a fiction, and that this will lead to a wholly negative feminism (1988, 417–18). Alcoff’s rejection of both these alternatives leads her to advocate what she calls a “third way,” a definition of gendered identity as positionality. The third way is a kind of hybrid in the sense that it combines elements of both the opposing conceptions. It preserves the agency of the modernist subject and grafts this onto the discursive construction of the poststructuralist subject. In Alcoff’s view her position integrates the best elements of both conceptions.

I am beginning my story about identity and identity politics with Alcoff’s article because it outlines the context that frames the debate in which feminism is now embroiled. Alcoff’s reservations about the poststructuralist/postmodernist conception of the subject did not go away. On the contrary, they continued to appear in the debate over identity and identity politics throughout the 1990s. The question of how we can have feminist politics without the concept “woman” is never satisfactorily answered for many feminists. What Alcoff did not foresee, however, was the strength of the postmodern position that she rejects. Two years after her article was published, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) revolutionized the debate over identity and identity politics. Despite the widespread reservations of critics such as Alcoff, Butler’s position enjoyed immense popularity because it seemed to offer precisely the solution that feminism was seeking. Butler definitely rejects the essential identity of the modernist tradition and offers a radical alternative: woman as fiction. Butler’s position, more than any other feminist alternative, set the stage for subsequent discussions of identity and identity politics.

Alcoff, at the end of her article, briefly takes up the question of identity politics. She argues that identity politics provides a counter to the “disembodied individual” of liberal theory and, most notably, problematizes the connection of identity and politics by revealing the constructed nature of identity (1988, 433). In light of the debate over the following decade, this statement is difficult to assess. On the one hand, it is abundantly obvious that identity politics has not resulted in the problematizing of identity or the revelation of the constructed nature of identity but, rather, has moved to fix identity in new locations. Identity politics has introduced a plethora of identities in the political sphere. But on the other hand, these identities have not been conceptualized as the fluid, unstable identities that Alcoff, and certainly Butler, define. Rather, the new identities in the political arena are conceived as fixed and monolithic. The members of identity groups feel forced to conform to a rigidly defined identity. This fixing tendency has become the basis of many of the criticisms of identity politics, particularly in the feminist community. Alcoff’s conviction that identity politics would problematize the relationship between identity and politics thus has not materialized. But Alcoff was right to assert that it has the potential to do so. Realizing this potential, however, necessitates much more radical change than Alcoff imagined. It entails calling into question the philosophical and political foundation of the liberal polity. The practice of identity politics is radical, but in ways that were not immediately obvious at the time of Alcoff’s article.

The strands of meaning embedded in the issues of identity and identity politics are difficult to unravel. In what follows I will return to many of the issues mentioned above and introduce others. Overall, however, my thesis is that the discussion of identity and identity politics in feminist theory, as well as that of social and political theory more generally, rests on three fundamental misconceptions. The first involves a misunderstanding of personal identity. In the rush to reject the modernist, abstract, disembodied subject of the Enlightenment tradition, the appeal of the postmodern subject, particularly as it has been elaborated by Butler, was overwhelming. Despite the reservations about the fictive subject in the feminist community, Butler’s postmodern subject has had immense influence in discussions of identity and identity politics. The assumption informing these discussions is that unless we completely jettison the notion of a coherent identity that is associated with the modernist subject, we will continue to be caught in its evident errors. In other words, these discussions assume that unless we accept the fictive subject, the only alternative is the modernist subject. Attempts by theorists such as Alcoff to combine incompatible elements of the modernist and discursive subject are evidence of the dilemma caused by this assumption.

My argument is that the fictive subject of Butler’s theory is not the only alternative to the modernist subject. We do not, as Butler claims, reinvent ourselves every day, performing the actions that constitute our identity. Nor are we wholly formed by the hegemonic discourses that constitute our society; we are not social dupes. Rather, each of us possesses a coherent, core self that allows us to function as mature adults in a social world and provides us with an individual identity. But we need not assume that this core self is essential, disembodied, or abstract, a version of the modernist subject. Rather, it is itself socially constituted in the early years of childhood. To make this argument I will turn to a theory that recently has been much maligned in the feminist community, object relations theory. My claim it that object relations theory can be reinterpreted to theorize the subject as what I call an “ungrounded ground.” I argue that we all possess, by necessity, a core self but that this self is a social product constituted by a complex array of forces that are both public and personal.

The second misconception informing discussions of identity and identity politics involves the role of identity in the liberal polity. Since the advent of liberalism in the seventeenth century, we have been told that identity does not belong in the political arena. The citizen of the liberal polity is, like the modernist subject, abstract and disembodied. His [sic] personal concerns and identity are not relevant to his public political self. This conception of the citizen is what makes identity politics fundamentally illegitimate in the liberal polity. Since identities do not belong in the political arena, those who enter the public sphere embodying such identities, women, blacks, gays, and so on, find that they do not belong; they are segregated as “others.” These others are opposed to the allegedly neutral citizen who lacks an identity.

Except that he does not. As feminist critics such as Carole Pateman have revealed, the citizen of the liberal polity possesses a very distinct identity: the white, male property owner of the liberal tradition. The problems created by this citizen have a direct bearing on identity politics. The identity of the citizen in the liberal polity is veiled by the ideology of the abstract citizen. This veiling creates a paradoxical situation: the identity of the abstract citizen is both present and absent in the liberal polity. It is present in the sense that it is the contrast to this citizen that defines the others precisely as others. It is absent in the sense that his identity is never acknowledged as an identity. The result is that identity politics is doomed to failure in the liberal polity. Because the identity of the abstract citizen is never acknowledged, it is never possible to legitimate “other” identities.

My argument is that if we strip away the veil hiding the abstract citizen, exposing the fallacy of the concept, radical consequences follow. If politics is and has always been about identities, then they are not illegitimate aspects of politics, but, rather, necessary elements. If there is no abstract citizen, then the goal of subsuming all differences under a generic concept is revealed as meaningless and counterproductive. It entails that dealing with differences between citizens is not an aberration to be avoided at all costs but a necessary and legitimate element of political life. What is entailed, in short, is a very different politics, a politics that constitutes a radical departure from liberalism.

The third misconception inherent in discussions of identity and identity politics involves the failure to distinguish between personal and public identity. One of the principal criticisms of identity politics is that it necessarily involves the fixing of identity in a particular location. To engage, for example, in lesbian identity politics is to fix one’s identity as the “Lesbian,” an identity that allows for no ambiguity or differences between individual lesbians (Phelan 1989). It also forces lesbians to choose their sexual orientation as the essence of their identity, denying all other aspects of that identity. All of us have multiple aspects to our identity. Identity politics as it is now constituted forces us to choose one of those aspects as our essential identity.

My argument is that this is a false dilemma. Identity has been made to do too much work in our vocabularies. Each of us possesses a personal identity that is constituted by an array of influences and experiences that form us as a unique person. These forces are both public, the hegemonic discourses that define our social life, and individual, the character and situation of those who care for us as infants and through whom the public concepts are transmitted to us. The result of these influences is what I have referred to above as our core self. But in addition to possessing a personal identity, each of us is subsumed under an array of public identities: woman/man; white/nonwhite; middle class/working class, and so forth. Political action is one of the sites of interface between public and personal identity. When, for example, I enter the public arena espousing the identity “woman,” I am acknowledging that I am subsumed under this public category. My political action entails that I identify with this category, but I do not and cannot bring all the aspects of my personal identity into that act of political identification. My personal identity is not fixed by the definition of “woman” that feminist politics represents. Rather, I am choosing a public, political identification that is rooted in my personal identity, an identity whose complexities exceed that identification.

The problem is that identity means, in our language , both difference and sameness. Our personal identity makes us different from everyone else. Our public identity identifies us as the same as particular others. My argument is that personal and public identities must be understood as different entities while it is still acknowledged that they interact in complex ways. The public, hegemonic identity of “woman” plays an integral part in forming the identity of every woman in this society. But every woman in this society is different. My socialization into the concept of “woman” will overlap with yours but not be identical to it. We are all embedded in social structures but our embeddedness occurs at different locations. Thus one of us rebels against the hegemonic concept “woman” and becomes a feminist and another conforms to that concept. We need a theory that can explain both these developments.

My discussion of these three misconceptions of identity and identity politics correspond roughly to the first three chapters of the book. I say roughly because it is difficult to separate the strands of the discussion. To say that identity is a complex issue is a vast understatement. The personal and political, individual and social, overlap in multiple ways, making clear distinctions difficult. Which is precisely the point. Neat, clear distinctions distort the complexity of the issues raised by the problem of identity. Identity must be understood from within that complexity, not through a denial of it.

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