the end of pre-identity nostalgia

We should put an end to identity politics. So argues Mark Lilla, professor of history at Columbia University, in his recent New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Lilla then proceeds to appropriate the tools of identity studies themselves to advance a male supremacist ideology of patriarchal rule, repeatedly engaging social divisions along the lines of identity, all the while maintaining that we should aspire to a “post-identity” politics. Eventually, he makes clear that this “post-identity” fantasy is actually based on a partial return to a “pre-identity” past — a fictional moment inside Lilla’s nostalgic imagination when enslaved individuals were kept quiet, untroubled by their oppression.

“The End of Identity Liberalism” conveys layers of confusion in the author’s mind concerning “identity politics,” which for the sake of my essay I will use alongside two related phrases: “identity studies” and “identity knowledges.” Identity studies is a scholarly discipline that brings together methodologies of philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, and political science. This academic work emerged from and alongside activist work based on identity, which considers experiences of race, class, ability, religion, gender, sexuality, and nation as foundational to political education, engagement, and critique.

Lilla appears to have little familiarity with identity work by academics and activists, whose methods he repeatedly trivializes and condemns throughout the essay, summed by this claim: “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” Mistakenly characterizing identity as something that can be won or lost, Lilla suggests that identity is merely a political tool. In fact, identity is an expansive, inescapable facet of experience that is lived daily by human subjects and which serves as an invaluable source of knowledge about the world.

Lilla is a historian of ideas, but his arguments about identity as a historical concept are inaccurate. One of Lilla’s main critiques of identity studies is that, when applied in university curricula, such study often involves “historical anachronisms.” As an example, he points to how people retroactively apply contemporary categories of identity to historical figures such as the founding fathers. Setting aside the fact that non-linear views of time are widely engaged across the sciences and humanities, in any case, the application of contemporary identity studies to historical figures is not anachronistic. In historical analysis, the methods of identity studies do not add or invent identity where it was historically absent; they reveal identities that were always present but universalized to the point of invisibility in historical record.

Further, in an assertion of male supremacy, one rooted in patriarchal entrainment, Lilla describes the “achievements of women’s rights movements” as secondary and successive to the “founding fathers’ achievements.” He states that students of history and politics can only appreciate “women’s achievements” — implying, we must assume, first-wave feminist suffrage, or second-wave sexual liberation — if they first understand the work of the founding fathers, as if women’s resistance to male domination was not coeval with the founding of the United States, and as if white-male supremacy was not foundational to the emergence of American political structures.

Further still, Lilla states that “the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan,” which is debatable if not entirely incorrect. Such a claim overlooks the organizing activities of identity-based groups prior to and simultaneous with the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, groups that organized along many different lines of identity such as blackness, womanhood, and sexual desire. In any case, Lilla’s observation that a reprehensible organization such as the Ku Klux Klan centers itself around identity does not justify an end to identity-based politics. If anything, it highlights a need for richer understanding of identity’s operation in white supremacist movements. It is possible to analyze identity without blindly celebrating it.

Finally, when Lilla does recognize the value of identity knowledges, he does so through normalization of difference that takes for granted heteronormative standards of normality. In an attempt to acknowledge some “good effects” of identity politics, Lilla writes, “Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.” This celebration of normativity suggests that queer identities are worthy of inclusion in liberal democracy — and in the protection and security it claims to offer subjects — only insofar as they adhere to dominant expectations of them. This demand for assimilation of marginalized citizens has resulted in a society in which 41 percent of trans adults have attempted suicide, as scholar of trans and intersex studies Hilary Malatino has shown. As they argue, “If we are to promise queer youth that it gets better, we must acknowledge the horror of the present moment — for queer youth as well as queer adults — and get to the radical and difficult work of imagining and constructing viable, non-homonormative alternatives.”

In his essay, Lilla not only denies the need for such difficult work; he actively holds such work in contempt. He writes, “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” This callous remark should be considered hate speech, a dismissal of the experiences of trans people that functions to minimize, if not altogether silence, non-normative voices. All this is written in the name of the “real foundations of modern American liberalism,” a past that in the end remains elusive, a thing of myth.

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Identity studies, like any field of knowledge, warrants critique. Reflection on the value of identity studies is in fact central to the field; it might be said that identity studies is the most self-reflexive of all academic disciplines, its practitioners more willing than those in any other area to examine the limitations of their own analyses. Sadly, Lilla appears to be disinterested in any such conversation.

Most recently and most overtly, Robyn Wiegman’s text Object Lessons, an extensive review of identity studies, which she also calls “identity knowledges,” offers a cogent account of the premises, goals, and tactics of the study of identity toward political ends. In her introduction, she writes: “I explore a range of identity knowledges—Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Queer Studies, Whiteness Studies, and American Studies—in order to consider what they have wanted from the objects of study they assemble in their self-defining critical obligation to social justice.” What follows is a wide-ranging dismantling of ideas such as diversity, difference, multiculturalism, intersectionality, and even justice as they relate to politics in the United States.

Despite Lilla’s ignorance about such work, and in general about identity studies as an academic field, he nonetheless appropriates tools of identity studies toward his own ends. It is without irony that he calls for further attention to a “much maligned, and previously ignored, figure,” that of the angry white male. He argues that, with respect to this supposedly poor, neglected character, “A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion.” He thus tacitly mimics the methods of intellectuals such as scholar of Chicana history Emma Pérez, whose book The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History offers one incisive interrogation of the politics of historical erasure and the exclusion of marginalized groups from official archives. He borrows from her methods, even as he condemns and trivializes their existence.

Lilla’s own call for further understanding of white male religious attachments and other “ignored” categories of identity is but one of many examples by which Lilla recognizes stratified difference within the United States, going so far as to call for corrections to resultant erasures along identity lines — even as he condemns “celebrations” of difference, and even as he half-heartedly tries to himself celebrate the fantasy of a unified “we,” a word meant to encompass “everyone in the world.”

Identity scholars have long criticized such appeals to “we,” a word that erases difference not in the name of neutrality, as proponents of the “we” intend, but inevitably in favor of historically dominant groups, who absorb the “we” and its benefits of majority and strength in numbers. This dismissal of unity as a goal of political organizing by identity scholars is so commonplace that the dismissal has itself become subject to internal critiques by experts on identity. In Object Lessons, Wiegman addresses this claim that use of the universal “we” erases difference. In her introduction, she writes that her book “engages not only how and why we has been so harshly condemned but the hope that our struggle with it reveals. What, after all, fuels the fierceness of our objection to we: the wish it reveals or the fact that the wish has yet to come true?”

Central to Wiegman’s discussion is the assertion that identity knowledges are “not immune” to critique, and she proceeds to conclude that the knowledge identity offers us is ultimately “no match” for what we want from it. While Wiegman shares many of Lilla’s skepticisms, her work is sincere and transformative, encouraging ever more precision in “excavating inadequacy and error” in diversity work.

In comparison, Lilla’s scattered arguments are self-absorbed, short-sighted, and seemingly unaware of the many hypocrisies on which they rely and the power concentrations — inevitably along the lines of identity — that have enabled his assertions in the first place, and which continue to permit their wide circulation and appreciation among other critics of “identity.”

As ideologies of male supremacy, and fantasies of male oppression, emerge stronger than ever before, strengthened by the election and ensuing appointments of male supremacists to executive positions, our resistance to the fallacies pervading Lilla’s essay is urgent. He suggests that activists working in areas such as sexuality and religion should “work quietly,” meanwhile loudly threatening that those “who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it,” even as he himself plays the game and, in the eyes of many of his supporters, wins it. This patently nonsensical worldview is one wealthy, white men have long advanced, smugly and with great satisfaction.