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The species of self-transformation that Foucault describes in the course of rationalizing his attempt to “think differently” in the second and third volumes also constitutes his object of analysis in those works. According to his account, Greek “arts of existence” consist not in discovering or realizing one’s subjective identity, but in departing from it. Thus in taking the occasion to anatomize ancient techniques of the self that exhibit little preoccupation with identity, Foucault departs from his own intellectual identity and Sameness without Identity its itinerary, to such an extent that publishing conventions necessitate some explanation of the evident discontinuity. Yet in this resistance to identity we can discern a larger continuity structuring Foucault’s entire oeuvre, namely, his ongoing commitment to the critique of identity as a classificatory mechanism indispensable to regimes of normalization. Since for Foucault identities represent forms of imprisonment, it makes sense that he would resist those classifications through which we identify and position intellectuals and their work too. The most basic way of thinking differently is thus to think against identity, particularly one’s own.
Thinking differently counts as political activity because it promises a kind of freedom: “The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.”4 Here the phrase “one’s own history” refers to both the history of one’s epoch and one’s own specific trajectory within that context. The possibility of liberating thought “from what it silently thinks” suggests achieving some distance from unspoken assumptions—one’s own as well as those of others. But the idea of a form of thinking that operates silently within thought itself conjures the specter of something akin to the unconscious; indeed, it
is not difficult to read Foucault’s sentence as an allegory of psychoanalysis:
the object is to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently. Psychoanalysis, too, represents a practice of self-transformation, of becoming other to oneself by doing substantially more than merely switching self-identifications. From this vantage point, to think differently would be to think psychoanalytically, even if in certain contexts that entailed thinking against psychoanalytic orthodoxy or counter psychoanalytic institutionalization.
In making this argument, I do not wish to assimilate Foucault to Lacan, or to nullify the former’s critique of psychoanalysis. Rather, I am interested in how, for both Foucault and Lacan, thinking seems antithetical to identity—how, that is, “thinking differently” may be considered a redundancy, insofar as thinking entails introducing a difference to what otherwise appears seamlessly self-identical. As Lacan put it in one of his many revisions of the Cartesian formula, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.”5 For both Lacan and Foucault (albeit differently), thinking ruptures identity. Within a psychoanalytic framework, thinking ruptures identity because there can be no thinking, no movement of consciousness, that is not divided by the unconscious. When we regard the unconscious as an effect of language, we grasp how the linguistic sign’s division between signifier and signified renders impossible any psychical identity that would remain untroubled by slippage. Lacan thus establishes psychoanalysis on an antipsychologistic basis, rejecting psychology as a science of identities.
It is not only psychological presuppositions that are challenged by this basic psychoanalytic move, but also philosophical and sociological conceptions 122 Penumbra of identity. We should not forget that philosophy, psychology, and sociology all employ different senses of the term: while for psychology identity designates a self-conscious sense of selfhood, for philosophy the term refers to a non-psychological principle of unity or indiscernibility; sociologically identity betokens social categories of classification—for instance, those of gender, race, and sexuality—that variably inform an individual’s psychological identity while remaining irreducible to it. I note these extremely schematic distinctions merely to observe that critiques of identitarianism often draw inconsistently on discourses of identity (for example, by using a philosophical sense of nonidentity to try to undermine oppressive social identities), and that Lacan’s account of subjective division, while it carries far-reaching implications for all these discourses, rarely employs the term identity.6 If thinking ruptures identity, then we must entertain the possibility that in this formula the term thinking might be substituted with deconstruction—deconstruction ruptures identity—insofar as the latter has shown how every identity is fissured from within by differences that are not merely contingent upon, but rather constitutive of, identity. Jacques Derrida’s early neologism différance articulates this principle, suggesting how writing ceaselessly betrays the semantic identities that it is supposed to secure.7 While attributing disruptions of identity specifically to writing, Derrida also aligns the differential and deferring properties of inscription with the Freudian unconscious, arguing famously that “writing is unthinkable without repression.”8 Drawing on Freud’s model of the psychical apparatus as a “mystic writing-pad,” Derrida contends that writing cannot be conceptualized apart from a self-division or internal difference that is identifiable with the unconscious. In pursuing this line of thought he is, of course, mounting a tacit critique of Lacan’s account of the unconscious as an effect of spoken discourse. My purpose in recalling these old debates, however, is not to negotiate Derrida’s complex and ongoing engagement with psychoanalysis, but rather to emphasize how for several decades the critical avant garde has been inseparable from a multivalent critique of identitarianism, whose implications we still are in the midst of assessing. Whether in psychoanalytic, deconstructive, or historicist guise, critiques of identity politics have found in the concept of difference a powerfully unsettling critical tool.
If poststructuralism may be distinguished by its focus on the disruptive effects of internal difference, then the political consequences of such disruption have been exploited most avidly by various minoritarian schools of thought, in which attention to internal differences fruitfully complicates analyses of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and postcoloniality. As a critique of sexual identitarianism, queer theory emerges from this nexus, based philosophically on Foucault’s genealogy of sexual classifications in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Unlike Foucault, however, queer theorists have expressed considerable ambivalence about “the loss of specificity” attendant Sameness without Identity upon a rigorous dismantling of sexual identity categories. The danger is that demonstrating the historical contingency of identity categories and thereby evacuating their contents will cancel the hard-won recognition of differences and reinstate a universal norm, with disastrous political consequences for those whose identities are defined by their distance from the norm.
Anxiety over “specificity” in queer theory thus takes the following form.
Foucault has shown how the category of homosexuality emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century as an instrument of regulatory power that was designed to identify, isolate, and control those whose erotic behavior failed to conform to a certain reproductive ideal associated with capitalism.
Homosexuality’s becoming an identity, a new kind of pathological selfhood, forms part of the larger process of differentiation that constrains human life by binding us to any number of psychological classifications. As a result sexual identities—no matter how ostensibly liberatory—come to be understood as problems rather than solutions. Or, rather, liberatory sexual identities, such as the categories lesbian and gay, become necessary only in response to severely pathologizing identitarian classifications. The process of differentiation that enabled homosexuality to emerge as a quasi-permanent difference from heterosexuality—and thus ultimately to challenge the latter’s normative universality—remains contaminated by the regulatory intentions that inspired differentiation in the first place.
Once seen from this perspective, the political potential of proliferating erotic identities appears distinctly limited. Yet the counter-response to these problems of differentiation—for which the term queer has come to stand in the field of erotic politics—risks returning sexual minorities to the invisibility they suffered before sex and gender universals were challenged. In short, critiques of identitarianism provoke the fear, for both individuals and groups, that too much will be lost if identity is lost. Minoritarianism cannot survive a full-scale assault on identity politics, a fact that helps explain the ambivalence surrounding anti-identitarianism. There are limits to how far a complete dismantling of identity categories can be sustained, in part because the structures of imaginary recognition through which we make sense of ourselves depend on these categories. Without some baseline minimum of identity, the ego dissolves. And hence too much internal difference tends to be experienced as intolerable.
We thus encounter two related problems: first, that the introduction of differences can undermine identity categories to the point of disabling incoherence; but second, and conversely, that difference always threatens to reestablish itself as identity and thereby to generate a new status quo, which inhibits recognition of further differences. Bisexuality provides a good example of this Janus-faced conundrum, in that most lesbian and gay thinking tends to regard full acknowledgment of bisexuality as dangerously compromising to gay politics, whereas most bisexual thinking feels marginalized by the 124 Penumbra hegemony that lesbian and gay identities assume beyond the ambit of normative heterosexuality. If one is bisexual, gayness or lesbianism can seem like the status quo that one is struggling against, quite as much as heteronormativity.9 When difference coalesces into identity—when it becomes reified or essentialized—one is no longer “thinking differently” in the way that Foucault describes. Instead, once difference congeals into identity, one ends up thinking against the other rather than against oneself—and this is infinitely easier to do. Thus difference rapidly appears as an external problem, a question of the boundary between oneself and others, rather than figuring an internal inconsistency that renders one other to him- or herself.
Another way of framing this problem would involve pointing out that the relation between identity and difference tends to be conceived in imaginary or binary terms, such that difference effectively denotes merely a different identity. To forestall this recentering of difference as identity, a third term that remains inassimilable to either pole of the binary, while also refusing to function as a compromise between them, is needed. Elsewhere I have argued that Lacan’s distinguishing among registers of alterity offers one way of thinking the identity-difference relation in non-imaginary terms, since the otherness of language remains irreducible to social differentials. That is to say, Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order maintains a distinction between otherness and difference that is both conceptually and ethically beneficial.10 Linguistic alterity functions as a third term mediating different identities or subject positions in such a way that no identity can claim to be unfractured;
no subject position can achieve complete self-identity once language is taken into account. Derridean différance functions in approximately this way too, as an unregulatable force of differentiation that perpetually prevents the recentering of difference as identity. It is by employing versions of this logic that poststructuralist queer theorists, such as Judith Butler and Lee Edelman, critique the assumption of sexed and gendered identities.11 The poststructuralist emphasis on difference has often led to a collapsing of otherness with difference, and thus to a neglect of the specificity not so much of social differentials as of linguistic alterity. But even when the specificity of representational mediation is observed scrupulously, the doubleness of this mediating alterity tends to go overlooked. By this I mean that identity is troubled not only by the fissuring of linguistic alterity, but also by what language misses. To put this in explicitly Lacanian terms: subjective identities are compromised by both symbolic and real axes of mediation. The language through which we express and thereby create ourselves fractures selfhood doubly, since it not only proliferates signification beyond our control, but also fails to signify completely in spite of its generativity. Lacan calls linguistic excess the unconscious; linguistic deficiency he calls the real. The pertinence of the Lacanian real lies less in its undermining of identity than in its sabotaging of difference. That is to say, the real represents a zone of undifferentiation—a Sameness without Identity place where difference cannot exist—because it is devoid of signifiers; the real is defined negatively as nothing other than this void. If it betokens a logical space that is equally inhospitable to difference and identity, then perhaps the Lacanian real could be conceived in terms of sameness—a sameness that is distinct from, indeed resistant to, identity.