We Were Never Identified: Feminism, Queer Theory, and a Disabled World
Robert McRuer

Licia Fiol-Matta’s A Queer Mother for the Nation is arguably one of the most

important texts to emerge in the past few years from the interdisciplinary field of queer theory.1 In a study of the Chilean Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, Fiol-Matta demonstrates how Mistral’s queerness — including a series of affairs with women, a non-normative gender presentation, and a spectacularly nonreproductive maternal identity — was deployed to abet state-sanctioned heteronormativity, patriarchy, and a racialized and racist nationalism. These discourses were consolidated, in other words, not in spite of but through Mistral’s identifiable queerness. Fiol-Matta’s text is important for many reasons, two of which I want to foreground. First, it makes explicit the fact that queerness has no necessary connection to progressive or radical political projects. Although arguably queer theory from its origins has demonstrated a sophisticated awareness that any discourse or identification can be appropriated, commodified, and made to serve dominant interests, Fiol-Matta fleshes out that awareness, providing in the process a provocative challenge to some of the more celebratory strands of queer theory or queer activism. Second, and related, her text implicitly participates in the larger critique of identity politics that has likewise animated queer theory from its origins, but that has become more urgent (and indeed much more common) as the normalization and heightened visibility of the past decade have focused perhaps more attention on tolerance of minoritized, identifiRadical History Review Issue 94 (Winter 2006): 148–54 Copyright 2006 by MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization, Inc.


McRuer | We Were Never Identified


able, contained lesbian, gay, or even queer identities, rather than on a queer critique of structures of heterosexism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Fiol-Matta’s book can be understood as part of a larger critical shift toward what might be called postidentity theory and politics. The opening chapter of Lennard J. Davis’s Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions, for example, positions itself with a similar intent from the first line of the title: “The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category.”2 Postmodernity, according to Davis, has authorized a critique of virtually every grand theory or totalization; but it also has, in his estimation, prohibited a critique of minority identity:
The one area that remained relatively unchallenged despite the postmodern deconstructionist assault was the notion of group identity. Indeed, the postmodern period is the one that saw the proliferation of multiculturality. One could attach the shibboleths of almost any ground of knowledge, but one could never attack the notion of being, for example, African American, a woman, or gay. To do so would be tantamount to being part of the oppressive system that created categories of oppressed others. One could interrogate the unity of the novel, science, even physics, but one could not interrogate one’s right to be female, of color, or queer. (12 – 13)

Davis then nods toward what he calls the “deconstructive worm of thought” that allowed for “performativity” and “social construction” to emerge as theoretical models within these movements, but somehow even these theoretical developments ended up undergirding the identity politics they were supposed to critique. As Davis argues, “the way out of the reductionist mode was to say that the body and identities around the body were socially constructed and performative. So while postmodernism eschewed the whole, it could accept that the sum of the parts made up the whole in the form of the multicultural, rainbow quilt of identities” (13). Postmodernism, in other words, almost did us in, but social constructionism and performativity kept us safe and allowed us to believe in identities that would always be part of the multicultural tapestry. Since, for Davis, African American, feminist, and queer thought have inadvertently reinforced a reactionary identity politics even as they attempted to dismantle it, Davis argues that disability studies might provide a way out. As an emergent discourse, it is, apparently, less caught up in the tendency to rigidify that other movements exhibit. Rather than embracing an identity position or a crypto-identity position, disability studies could be at the vanguard of a new postidentity world. “Disability,” Davis insists, “can be seen as the postmodern subject position”; indeed, the postidentity politics disability allows for can even replace postmodernism with what Davis calls “dismodernism” (14).


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Of course, to some extent, what Davis calls dismodernism has been under construction for quite some time. A slightly different version of postidentity politics, not explicitly announced as such, emerges in the famous opening pages of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, written a full decade before Davis’s book:
Epistemology of the Closet proposes that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structured — indeed, fractured — by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The book will argue that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition; and it will assume that the appropriate place for that critical analysis to begin is from the relatively decentered perspective of modern gay and antihomophobic theory.3

Sedgwick’s claims can certainly be challenged on several levels. For one thing, the closet actually became available as a metaphor only in the second third of the twentieth century; furthermore, cultural anxieties about the New Woman, the mannish lesbian, and what Lisa Duggan has called “Sapphic slashers” suggest that the crisis Sedgwick pinpoints could as easily be indicatively female.4 Nonetheless, Epistemology of the Closet accomplished a great deal, arguably rewriting contemporary theory in and through its grandiose claims that there is something queer at the center of “virtually any aspect of modern Western culture” and knowledge. What’s important to note, however, is that this rewriting of contemporary theory is accomplished not from a space of identification, but from the space where identification unravels: the crisis of definition Sedgwick analyzes may have bequeathed us a culture obsessed with identity, but the whole point of the analysis is to demonstrate that such an obsession is historical. Implicit in the assertion that sexual identities appear at a particular moment to resolve (imperfectly) a whole series of cultural anxieties is the possibility that they can disappear. And, perhaps, the postidentity implication that their disappearance would be in the service of antihomophobic projects. I would like to comprehend Davis’s project similarly, but it seems to me that his postidentity rhetoric functions rather differently from Sedgwick’s. “We can’t go back to a relatively simple notion of identity,” he writes. Furthermore, he argues, “I think it would be a major error for disability scholars and advocates to define the category in the by-now very problematic and depleted guise of one among many identities. In fact I argue that disability can capitalize on its rather different set of definitions from other current and known identities. To do this, it must not ignore the instability of its self-definitions but acknowledge that their instability allows disability to transcend the problems of identity politics” (23 – 24). As much as I take

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pleasure in the disabled world imagined by Davis, I would like for such a world to be realized through occupation and transformation of the world that compulsory able-bodiedness has made, not by a disability trumping and transcending other progressive theoretical projects, feminism and queer theory among them. Indeed, if a disabled world is achieved through trumping and transcending, it is hard not to perceive the projected moves as colonialist. If we create our postidentity politics using a rhetoric of transcendence, several problems will result. First, we are more easily manipulated by an academic market always looking for the latest key (in other words, transcendence seems to offer a plenitude that cannot be sustained, only surpassed by the next potential explanatory key); second, and ironically given that Davis wants to stress instability, transcendence and the romanticism that generates a desire for transcendence ultimately rely on a coherence and harmony that exclude difference; and third and most important, the objects being transcended need to be, basically, inert. And indeed that is what we are offered: theoretical and activist projects hung up on identity, unable to think outside simplistic notions of identity, trapped in “the dead end of identity politics” (Davis, Bending, 29). In the face of these quite serious charges, I confess that I see no choice but to take the decided risk of speaking for others. Even if somewhat playfully, then, let me go on record as saying this on behalf of feminists and queer theorists everywhere: we were never identified. Though it is definitely not what I mean, and though I do not think that the lament emerges from the most influential feminist or queer projects of the past few decades, I acknowledge that the assertion “we were never identified” could (and should) recall the lament that minority identities were just being formed even as they were deconstructed. Similarly, the assertion could and should recall our amazing, much-remarked on, and oft-feared capacity to labor undercover, working with and against various identities and identifications as we sabotage patriarchal and heterosexist institutions. What I really intend the assertion to signify, however, is twofold: (1) We were never identified in the sense that we were never reduceable to each other — the differences between and among feminists and queer theorists attest to vibrant, decades-long debates and disagreements about the cultures we would like to shape, transform, and inhabit; (2) we were never identified in the sense that we were never fixed with a simple, agreed-on, clearly demarcated identity, as in a police roundup that would pinpoint the culprit with a revelation that closes the case — “I think we can book her, Sergeant. Lock her up.” Even when we were seemingly most committed to a definable identity, things were not so simple. “Gay is good,” we insisted in the 1970s, insisting with the very next breath that “in a free society, everyone will be gay,” thereby leaving fairly open, perhaps even yet to be invented, what gay actually would signify.5 We need a postidentity politics, but a postidentity politics that allows us to work together, one that acknowledges the complex and contradictory histories of our


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movements, drawing on and learning from those histories rather than transcending them. As queer theorist Alexandra Chasin writes,
When it comes to choosing political allies, to committing material and psychic resources to a joint venture, it makes . . . sense . . . to choose trustworthy partners, people who share a vision, whether that vision is political, aesthetic, ethical, and/or otherwise social. It is also crucial to establish trustworthy techniques for coalition work, since trusting across identity proves so difficult. It would be foolhardy to ignore the role of identity, or to expect it to whither away, but it would be equally foolhardy to think identity politics can provide the basis for radical social transformation.6

Though both exhibit a will to postidentity, I find Chasin’s rhetoric more effective than Davis’s, for several reasons. First, Chasin demonstrates that feminists and queer theorists are aware of the troubles with identity. Second, and related, while critiquing identity politics, she acknowledges that identity is never simple (and it, like the condition of postmodernity, is not going away anytime soon, and if we want to effect radical change, we will have to somehow work with, through, and against it simultaneously). Third, although the instability of queerness has at times functioned as a direct answer or seeming corrective to identity politics, Chasin does not offer us a key. Queer theorists (and, perhaps most especially, queer rhetoricians) in general at this point are too aware of the fact that any discourse can be taken up, appropriated, redeployed in unexpected, problematic, even reactionary ways. That is, in fact, the central insight that founds a study like Fiol-Matta’s A Queer Mother for the Nation. And, to reconnect this to disability studies, I would argue that A Disabled Mother for the Nation is imaginable, regardless of whether disability is understood as a stable identity or an unstable postmodern subject position. In other words, our identities, postidentities, words, and arguments are always, like it or not, appropriable. We cannot transcend that fact about language, about rhetoric; we cannot bend over backwards to theorize our way out of it. We can, however, continue to develop a rigorous vigilance as we struggle (in coalition) against interrelated systems of oppression. Such a vigilance, it seems to me, is what Sedgwick’s famous epistemology allowed for more than a decade ago. And although it is certainly polemical, to me Epistemology of the Closet does not supersede other projects; indeed, I take it as an invitation. Sedgwick writes that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition,” thereby inviting — as I see it — similar theses: we might now say, for instance, that an understanding of any aspect of modern Western culture must be considered incomplete if it does not incorporate a critical analysis of the crisis of able-bodied/disabled definition.

McRuer | We Were Never Identified


Regardless of whether Sedgwick can be critiqued for understanding the crisis of homo/hetero definition as indicatively male, I wonder whether, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the crisis of able-bodied/disabled definition might be indicatively female, and, moreover, nonwhite. Perhaps it is an unlikely claim, given that an often-unmarked whiteness has arguably dominated disability studies to date. But as I read a text like Grace Chang’s Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy, a text not identified as a disability studies text, I wonder.7 Disability identity as such never appears in Disposable Domestics, but the story Chang tells of some of the ways in which immigrant women of color are currently incorporated into a global economy is a disability story nonetheless. Financial crises, exacerbated by the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have created a largely female, migrant workforce. In the United States and Canada, in particular, immigrant women of color have been transformed into what Chang calls a “super-exploitable, low-wage workforce to staff the nation’s nursing homes, ever-increasing sweatshops, and middle-class households.”8 Anti-immigrant discourses and policies have worked to keep this workforce contingent, temporary, disposable, and far away from public services, including health care and education. Many of the individuals and groups Chang writes about are themselves elderly, sick, or disabled, even though they might never identify as such and even though — or, perhaps, precisely because — illness, disability, and age are often cause for termination where they are employed. When sixty-five-year-old Natie Llever, for instance, was fired by Casa San Miguel in Concord, California, where she had been working as a certified nursing assistant, she was told, “You can no longer do this job because of your age. You are a sickly woman, and we want a young and strong worker for this job.”9 Youth, strength, and ability, however, are commodities that are both desirable and, in Chang’s words, “disposable” in regard to this workforce — long hours and hard labor ensure that a system that wants “young and strong workers” is always haunted by disability. I am not arguing that disability here be understood through a rubric of loss, lack, or pity; a disability identity politics has successfully challenged those able-bodied notions. I am arguing, however, that disability studies, in coalition with feminist, queer, postcolonial, and other movements, needs to develop new vocabularies for analyzing the postmodern subject position Chang writes about, a postmodern subject position that directly or indirectly (and problematically) enables all of us, given the foundational role an immigrant workforce plays in late capitalism. Queerness has no necessary connection to progressive or radical political projects, and neither does disability identity or postidentity. Rather than identifying how any of the fields in which we work may provide a, or the, critical or theoretical key, we might do well to approach the question backwards: How does our own work generate not just solutions but problems? What issues are never identified in our


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fields and movements as they are currently constituted? Why? Who haunts the margins of the work that we do, the margins of the feminist, queer, and disabled worlds? What would an ongoing commitment to those spectral presences entail?
1. Licia Fiol-Matta, A Queer Mother for the Nation: The State and Gabriela Mistral (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). 2. Lennard J. Davis, Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002). All future references to this work will be given parenthetically in the text. 3. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 1. 4. Lisa Duggan, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, and Violence, American Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). 5. See Allen Young, “Out of the Closets, into the Streets,” in Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, ed. Karla Jay and Young (1972; New York: New York University Press, 1992), 6 – 31, esp. 29. 6. Alexandra Chasin, Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 236. 7. Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Boston: South End, 2000). 8. Ibid., xii. 9. Ibid., 93.

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