Identity and Difference
The last two essays in the anthology focus on the provocative issues of identity and difference which have recently been hotly contested by feminist theorists. As feminists grapple with political and theoretical challenges to any easy understanding of the category “women,” questions of what an identity is and how it is constituted have led to theoretical responses which run the gamut from essentialism, to relational feminism, to postmodern feminism. Georgia Warnke and Allison Weir sort out these issues and what is at stake in them, arguing that Habermas’s discourse ethic can be useful in thinking through them.
Warnke argues that the “dilemmas of difference” which have of late beset the academic and political practices of feminism need not be seen as a fatal blow to feminist politics, or to its potential for developing relations of solidarity, which bridge women’s differing identities by recognizing and legitimating them. Warnke argues that Habermas’s discourse ethics, which
offers a procedure for arriving at a universal and rationally motivated consensus despite identity differences, can be useful to feminist theorists thinking through issues of identity politics, though she rejects his firm distinction between normative and evaluative issues. She explores the promise and the shortcomings of discourse ethics, using the moral and political issues raised by contract pregnancy to frame the argument that “normative questions cannot be settled independently of evaluative ones and that normative justification must include an exploration and articulation of our possibly differing values.”
In order to allow for pluralistic and yet still critical feminism, we must take our interpretive and evaluative differences seriously, she argues, and suggests that perhaps reaching resolutions about these issues might resemble not philosophical or legal arguments, but interpretive discussions of art and literature. Success might then be measured in terms of the insights achieved, rather than in terms of the force of the better argument rendered. People’s beliefs about the rights and or wrongs problematized by contract pregnancy stem from differences in sensibilities and associations, ideas of how to live one’s life, and convictions about motherhood and parenting. These seem, Warnke suggests, to have more to do with differences in cultural heritage, family, individual experience, and values, than with the force of the better argument. The possibility of persuading us of the legitimacy of certain practices lies only in part with arguments, for accepting them is not done independently of our values, traditions, and conceptions of the good. If we were to take our interpretive and evaluative differences seriously, and evaluate our different beliefs the way we would a text, no one interpretation would be assumed to be right. This does not pitch us into value relativism, Warnke insists, for though more than one interpretation of a text can be defended, not all interpretations can be sustained. We also believe that differences in interpretations must be explained and justified and made to cohere with each other, and with any new interpretations which are proffered. If, for example, beliefs about surrogacy were not seen as distillable into competing arguments, but were seen to be the complex outcome of different understandings of ways of life and notions of individuality and rights, then we might be able to acknowledge that our moral and political disagreements do not stem from the rightness or wrongness of one party’s position in relation to the other, but from different and equally valid understandings of the good. Warnke labels this recognition of different perspectives, “interpretive pluralism,” and argues that adopting it forces us to recognize that moral and political arguments do not derive from some neutral positions but are always rooted in a way of life and in pre-existing values and beliefs.
Warnke is proposing not just any pluralism, but rather a “normative pluralism,” which would allow us to develop our own interpretations
through an engagement with those that differ. The very possibility of recognizing the plurality and a multiplicity of perspectives requires the kind of ideal discourse conditions which Habermas specifies. The norms of communicative rationality provide a way to evaluate perspectives, so that those which would limit the recognition or equal legitimacy of difference, racist or sexist interpretations for instance, could be excluded because by restricting some voices they prevent the plurality of interpretive possibilities necessary to the formulation of our individual interpretations of the good. Having protected discussion from distorting ideologies of force or intimidation, does not, however, mean that a normative consensus will be reached, for the very plurality of our evaluative beliefs would mean that there might remain different and even competing beliefs.
Warnke concludes her article arguing that the differences problematized in feminist postmodernism are only problematic for feminist politics if one accepts consensus as one’s political goal, and the point of recognizing and articulating differences is thought to be the sublation of them. A feminism that is truly committed to difference, is a feminism truly committed to a plurality of perspectives arising from those differences. To this end, discourse within the parameters of Habermas’s ideal speech situation functions as an arena for exploring, comparing, and working not towards consensus, but towards building a community in which we work together to develop solutions to concrete problems which will allow the diversity of our beliefs and values to be served. The agreements about problems and solutions that shape out political goals should arise from our recognitions of our differences, not from calculations of our sameness. Even in situations where differences threaten to thwart any political strategy, as members of a feminist community, we can struggle to at least keep open the possibility of shifts in perspective by continuing the discussions of these conflicts.
Allison Weir also takes up the problems that differences in identity pose for feminist theorists and activists. Weir argues that seemingly intractable discussions about difference, as well as feminist’s critiques of notions of individuation, of agency, and autonomy, point to a critical need to reconceptualize our notions of selfhood. Weir argues that a useful account of identity must recognize that individual identity is embedded, embodied, localized, constituted, fragmented, fragile, and vulnerable to social, political, and linguistic forces while at the same time retaining a vision of humans as actors who learn, change, interpret, and reinterpret the world. In the essay in this collection, she works towards developing a theory of identity that bridges the gap between two feminist models of identity. The first, relational feminism, argues that most views of self-identity are premised on normative models of autonomy that too often conceal, deny, or deprecate relations of
connection, attachment, and dependence. The second theory of identity she considers, which she loosely dubs “postmodern and post-Structuralist,” (often referred to as difference feminism) views identity as produced by exclusions of difference by systems of power. Moving between and drawing from both these accounts, Weir proposes a model of self that defines identity in terms of the ability to participate in a social world through interactions with others; these interactions are in turn constitutive of the formation of self-identity. Contradicting the views of many feminists who hold identity and difference to be exclusive, Weir contends that the most central feature of modern self-identity is the capacity to reconcile often conflictual multiple identities and to understand, criticize, and to live with conflicting interpretations of identity. Though conceiving self-identity as entailing the capacity to resolve differences has not been popular, Weir argues that the ability to reconcile conflicts without excluding or repressing difference and non-identity, requires an ego with the ability to deal with difference reflexively, not through a denial of its connection with others, but through its recognition of itself as both intersubjectively constituted and autonomously capable, both dependent upon, and independent of others. Self-identity then, is tied up with identifications and relationships with others that are always interpreted and negotiated in terms of shared, though often conflictual meanings. Weir argues that while relational feminists have done important work clarifying the role of intersubjective relationships in the formation of self-identity, they lack an account of the role meaning and interpretation play in the process, over-emphasizing identity formation as the direct effect of relationships. On the other hand, post-Structuralists’s accounts of identity focus on the mediation of identity-formation by language without adequately recognizing the significance of affective social relations with others.
Rejecting both the relational feminist accounts of a subjectivity unmediated by the realm of the symbolic, and the post-Structuralist account of a symbolically but not intersubjectively produced subject, Weir formulates a theory of identity which draws from Habermas’s account of communicative rationality and from Julia Kristeva’s account of identity as formed through the child’s identification with the meaning of the social/linguis – tic/symbolic realm for the mother’s subjectivity. At the crux of her argument is the claim that identity formation is always both a socially and symbolically mediated process of negotiating and interpreting fundamentally socially given and socially redeemed meanings.
Arguing that a meaningful interaction of self and other requires reflex – ivity and capacities for abstraction and critique, Weir takes from Habermas the account of the intersubjective constitution of individual identity through communication, which holds that one becomes a part of a social world through making and redeeming claims negotiated through
intersubjectively recognized and maintained standards of normative validity. Identity is formed as a subject takes up communicative positions that require every full participant to assume speaker and hearer perspectives and offer and defend criticizable yes/no claims. Thus the full exercise of a subject’s communicative agency requires that a subject be able to sort through incoherence, conflict, and ambiguity in their own claims as well as those of others, and demands the ability to criticize, assess, and redeem meanings with others, it also inevitably opens the possibility of difference, confusion, ambiguity, and even conflict but communicative competence makes it possible to translate difference, clarify confusion, disambiguate ambiguity, and illuminate conflict. In Habermas’s account, identity is achieved in the development of the ability to recognize, understand, and negotiate difference, discursively.
Habermas makes it clear that the self-identity of the adult involves becoming a communicative agent, but he does not explain how it is that we come to commit ourselves to the particular socially produced meanings, choices, or goals which guide our practices and justify our claims. To fill in these gaps, Weir turns to Kristeva’s claim that subjectivity is constituted by taking up positions and identities in a social world. According to Kristeva, socially and symbolically mediated meanings do not directly construct identity, but are interpreted through a psyche formed in the context of our symbolically mediated affective relationships with others. It is in the play between those affective bonds and their individually and socially interpreted meanings that our identities are formed and our desires are structured. Individuation is produced in the nexus of unconscious drives, affective connections, and the socio-linguistic order. Kristeva, unlike Habermas, ties individuation to a psyche formed not just in the nexus of the symbolic integration of linguistically mediated norms, but to affective responses and to the unconscious. She offers (at least in some of her writings) the view that entry into the symbolic enables the development of identity; it cannot be understood as merely repressive for it allows expression and the realization of one’s specificity. As the child masters the symbolic, it escapes utter dependence as it becomes a fuller participant in the social world. She takes as a normative developmental ideal, an integrated self, which unifies the disunified and conflicting aspects of a self into a coherent identity which “is based on a reflexive and affective recognition and acceptance of the difference and nonidentity within the self.” It is only when a child moves from the prelinguistic stage of affective attachment that he or she can come to recognize the complexity, the difference, and the otherness of the caregiver, and thus establish his or her own separateness and internal differentiation. The child moves from a relationship with the primary caregiver, which is driven by needs
and need-satisfaction or need-denial, to a relationship based on a shared orientation to meaning; the child is driven not just by frustration and threats of punishment as Lacan proposed, but by the enticement of more complete and satisfying relationships with others, and entry into a larger social world where more and different desires can be satisfied. Weir argues that it is this affective investment in the social world of meaning that underlies differentiation within oneself, and individuation from others. For Kristeva, affective relationships are not an end in themselves, a point which Weir argues, many relational feminists miss. Affective relationships do not end only in affect, but serve as conduits for producing meaning in the linguistic and social order; it is through these meanings, and through their renegotiation, and reinterpretation that identity is constituted.
If Habermas could not provide an account of how affective relationships are constitutive of the identity of the communicative agent, and to the meanings in which it is invested, and to the norms it takes up, Kristeva lacks any account of a post-conventional psyche able to detach itself from its beliefs and desires, and subject them to reflexive scrutiny from a normative perspective. It is Weir’s contention that an adequate theory of identity must include an account of both our cognitive capacity to relate to norms critically, as well as an account of the affective relationships which influence both the norms we choose and the way we relate to them.
1. See J. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).