Biopolitics Unfolding: Imagining Identity Studies

By Beads Land-Trujillo

A significant feature of the resistance to establishment of a gender studies program at the New School is the critique upheld by many that such a program would amount to a narrow biopolitics of identity, not in keeping with the desire professed by many for a depoliticized academic mission.  A graduate gender studies program was in fact established at the university in years past, only to be discontinued.  A separate cultural studies program, modeled on then contemporary programs in England, was at its formation envisioned as a catch-all for studies of gender, race, queer, and related issues. It did not last long as such, instead being shaped in accordance with the proclivities of other academic disciplines at the university.  Given the New School’s historical claim to prominent voices speaking against power, and given further demonstrable interest in the subject on the part of both faculty and students, the absence of a program continuing in this tradition is not notable merely in the abstract nor is its absence merely disconcerting for its advocates.  Rather, the absence of gender studies at the New School presents itself as a problem itself open to study.

In a project organized this year, New School Anthropology graduate students Katie Detwiler and Chelsea Estep-Armstrong began research on the political and cultural landscape of the university vis a vis gender studies, examining both  adherents and detractors. The New School, as institution and community, was itself taken up as a site in which a particular discourse differentially does and does not occur.  The research has necessarily operated at multiple valances, some instrumental, others theoretical and practical.  For even as the questions motivating the study were born of disillusioning frustrations and unrepentant hopes, such situated activity toward change shadows deeper and broader processes in academia, politics, culture, and society.  It is through participation in this very space of discourse, not simply as discussants but as leaders in the innovation of our very approach to questions of identity, that the New School might not simply hearken to the unique voices of our institutional past but distinguish itself as home to a coherent multivocity of practice.

Our imaginary is inspired by Detweiler & Estep-Armstrong’s project, while scoping the problem somewhat differently.  Rather than asking about the state of the study of gender at our institution, here we are wondering what texture might be taken by a study that incorporates as threads the very conditions that might preclude or produce a program in the study of gender.  Our preliminary imaginings wind of three resonant plies: (1) a discernible critique of gender studies as a narrow, or limited, biopolitics of identity; (2) past and present affinity for an alliance or enfolding of gender studies with queer studies and/or race studies; (3) the New School’s heritage of leadership in the integration of disparate political and philosophical traditions. Following this yarn as it trundles off our jenny, we observe that where gender studies would problematize questions of identity, the establishment of any such program itself is stymied by a problematizing of that very act of inquiry.  Meanwhile, attempts to marshal power in opposition to such forces of resistance, by enfolding gender studies within broader categories, has served not so much to blend as to fray and wear away the very material at hand.  Finally, seeking to produce a meaningful program by embroidering the whole cloth of an imported intellectual fabric would be to adopt a stance entirely out of keeping with our home-spun knitting of distinctive political and philosophical crafts.

As already observed, the resistant encounter of gender studies as itself constitutive of a problem has emerged for us as a research question in its own right.  Such a study must necessarily take up the critique of gender studies as an object of investigation.  Yet if we are to honor our traditions as a university, it is not enough to hold up such a critique as a recapitulation of the very relations of power that gender studies would have as their subject.  Such recursion neither opens to our inquiry the forces against which any envisioned gender studies program runs afoul, nor offers a path to a skillful means of yielding (rather than wielding) power, which requires drawing opposition into a shared space of debate.  We might instead perform a Socratic move of asking not “Why haven’t we had a gender studies program at the New School?” but instead “How might we engage and interrogate a critique of gender studies as a narrow biopolitics of identity?”

With this, we shift from a strategy of folding to a space of unfolding.  Rather than seeking to ball up gender, race, sexuality, etc.  so as to thwart our clawed interlocutor by sheer mass of lowly denominational commonality, we here unwind and unpack biopolitics and identity, as at once problematized questions and questionings of problematicity. Gender in this space neither struggles for admittance into the field of academe nor disappears into a morass of mixed inquiries interned in an imported vessel.  Rather, from an inquiry unfolding both identity as problem and the problem of identity, questions gendered, racial, and queer, but also neutered, race-blind, and normative, necessarily emerge.  Such a generative unfolding would be decidedly more in keeping with the New School’s reputation for avant garde transgression into new spaces of inquiry than would be a post hoc adoption of an area of studies already well established in other institutional settings.  In the form of a rude question:  when other universities are celebrating 35th or 40th anniversaries of gender studies and women’s studies programs, shouldn’t the New School be leading, rather than trying merely to catch up?

It is from this vantage that we shall imagine a curriculum of identity.  Following from a deeply engaging and wonderfully playful conversation this past October with Eugene Lang College professor Ann Snitow, and drawing together insights gleaned from panelists and participants at both the “No Longer in Exile” and “Politically Queer” conferences held this March and May respectively, we begin with a tentative list of prospective course offerings.  The intent is not that the pedagogical profile set forth below would substitute for or replace traditional coursework in gender studies (or, for that matter, queer or race studies), but rather that by defining a core curriculum of Identity Studies, together with electives (cross-listed with other disciplines) that continue a line of flight expressive of inquiry into a critique of identity, the wealth of existing courses examining identity as encountered along one or more dimensions would be enriched and more deeply elaborated.  This being the genre across which our imaginings unfold, let us consider the following:

History of Identity – modeled after Paul Duguid and Geoffrey Nunberg’s “History of Information” course at UC Berkeley, drawing a timeline history of identity as concept and experience, from earliest archeological artifacts to the digital era .

Biopolitics and its Discontents – tracing the geneology of biopolitics, the term itself, its usage in both political theory and philosophy, and the strains of thought both dismissed and embraced under said label, both contemporaneously and anachronistically.

Identity Impure/Identity Instrumental – exploring the intersection of culture, morality, politics, nationalism, conflict, and relations of power and empowerment, through the lens of identity as it is taken up, discarded, policed and challenged.

Who Owns Identity?  Categories of Production – examining identity as manifestation of capital and mechanism of control, with attention to the economic, political, and legal claims and counter-claims to, upon, and against identity and group.

Comparative Religion of Identity – orienting themes of identity, commonality, and universality across religious traditions, Abrahamic, Indian, and Taoic, and within ethical schools of thought emerging of and responding to these religious frames.

I Am Who:  Reflections on Self and Other - drawing upon multiple sources across psychology, political theory, and philosophy to articulate historical and current understandings of identity formation and attribution, empathy and altruism, and social group dynamics.

Performative Encounters:  Workshop in Identification – training in dramatical and role-play methods and techniques for acting upon and through identity, and elaborating identities in performance as an approach to critical reflection and dialogue.

Nonlinear Geology of Identity - observing identity as movements of temporality and flows, territoriality and scale, at once coincident and stratified, with attention to interstitial and macrohistorical processes of formation and subduction.

A Habit of Saying “I”:  Identity as Philosophical Problem – delving into philosophical critiques of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, including post-humanist, anti-humanist, and trans-humanist conceptions of identity and its alternatives.

Body Politic / Identity Embodied – investigating the existential, linguistic, performative, and organic dimensions of identity as embodiment and body plan, as incorporated into and “excorporated”  without of multivalent, enmeshed bodies of identity.

Generation and Generativity:  A Social History of Identity – exploring the interplay of history and life cycle, precedent political efforts and subsequent cultural norms, to tease out tensions between identities once forged and now forming.

Material Girls and Tattooed Men:  The Stuff of Identity – examining the ways in which identity is fashioned, including not only clothing, jewelry, body art, and other trappings, but also modes of transportation, inscription, documentation, and comportment.

Howl, Roar, Lilt, Patter:  Identities Heard – taking note of the soundscapes that give voice to, drown out, and mash up various expressions of identity, as language, music, movement, and silence are shaped through accent, context, architecture, and technology.

Memories of Lives Untold - reviewing existing methodologies for uncovering identities hidden in history and the hidden histories of apparent identities, analyzing the effect such concealments have across political, scientific, and personal domains.

Contemporary Peace and Identity Studies – exploding conceptualizations of conflict and the allegiances of activism, through tactical and strategic analyses of the ways in which identity claims and assertions establish borders and zones of contestation.

Building Selves, Zoning Others - mapping the spaces and territories by which the construction of identities is ordered, observed, and obscured, through architecture, design, urban planning, and processes of economic and environmental change.

A Course in Promiscuous Disciplinarity – reflecting upon the demarcation and transgression of scholarly identities, through histories pedagogical and political, and critically examining discourses of unification, synthesis, theories of everything, and area studies.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Essential Spacing blog in October, 2009.