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Philosophy & Social Criticism

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A politics of imperceptibility: A response to 'Anti-racism, multiculturalism


and the ethics of identification'
Elizabeth Grosz
Philosophy Social Criticism 2002; 28; 463
DOI: 10.1177/0191453702028004528
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Elizabeth Grosz

A politics of imperceptibility
A response to Anti-racism,
multiculturalism and the ethics of
identification

1 Recognition and identity


New strategies and projects are necessary to begin the labor of destructuring and realigning sexual, racial and cultural relations of domination
as Drucilla Cornell and Sara Murphy undertake in their wide-ranging
paper on the ethics and politics of living with and among a multitude
of others not assimilable to ones own self-representations. But it is vital
that new strategies must bring with them new intellectual resources to
be used in such a labor new concepts, arguments and conclusions.
Concepts need to be as inventive as the strategies they engender, and
they need to wrench terms from previous regimes and alignments of
domination for we cannot always rely on the terms provided by
dominant discourses to do the radical work of the transformation of the
old and production of the new. Rethinking multiculturalism and antiracism, conceptualizing them in terms that facilitate social, political and
economic change, entails the creation of more thoroughly radical
concepts, concepts with a less invested, and with perhaps a wider, range
than that afforded by the regime of recognition. Although the paper by
Drucilla Cornell and Sara Murphy provides much food for thought, and
raises many central questions in the analysis of the ethics and politics
of multiculturalism and racial and ethnic diversity, it is only the question
of identity, and its links to recognition, subjectivation and identification, that I will focus on in this brief response.
The central argument of the paper, put crudely and simply, is that
the politics of recognition, which the authors identify with seeking the
PHILOSOPHY & SOCIAL CRITICISM vol 28 no 4 pp. 463472
Copyright 2002 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
[0191-4537(200207)28:4;463472;024528]

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Philosophy & Social Criticism 28 (4)
equal dignity of all peoples (420) from the state and its instrumentalities, need not be tied to any authentic or given identity, but must also be
bestowed on strategic or provisional identities and identifications, not
just those with a clear-cut and recognizable history, language or geography, but those whose identifications are in the process of being formed
or changing. In short, the aim of the paper Anti-racism, multiculturalism and the ethics of identification is to disconnect the claim to authenticity of identity from the demand for recognition (420). Rather than
tying recognition to stable, authorized historically structured location
or position, the official or recognized minority position, new, incipient
identities, authentic or self-consciously constructed, historically laden
or recently acquired, equally require the authorization of social recognition. This recognition, at least ideally, should not be a repressive or
patronizing tolerance, nor should it be a mode of adjudication of the
authenticity and validity of any particular identity; rather, it should
affirm as a demand of right to the state . . . through the rubric of
freedom and the recognition of equal dignity (422) the universal and
reciprocally defining identification of the other as subject. The authors
claim that such identities may be produced through those acts of selfcultivation, and the cultivation of a collective imagination, that constitute cultural life; these identities need not be bound up with geographical,
historical, ethnic and collective verities what is as significant are the
modes and specific forms of identification that the subject undertakes.
While the authors affirm the value of self-representation and selfdefinition in the constitution of ones social identity, understood as a
process of moving beyond pre-given identities and cultural stereotypes,
producing new identities through new identifications and new cultural
imaginings, nevertheless, they accept that there are limits to the type
and form of identification possible at least for those in dominant
positions:
[There] is indeed an ethics, both as a practice of self-responsibility and as
an encounter with how we come to articulate who we are through our
identifications which take us beyond ourselves as individuals precisely
because we can never be completely in control of the social and symbolic
meanings of racial and ethnic categories.
Therefore, there is a sense in which we can be called to identify, as we
both feel called to do, as white and Anglo because these categories continue
not only to represent privilege but to enforce it. To deny that we are part
of the privileged group, then, is not only false; it is, more importantly to
us, unethical. The fluidity of categories of race and ethnic identity in no
way takes away from the social reality that ethically demands that we
confront the meanings of our own identifications. (435)

There are social realities which fluid identifications must nevertheless acknowledge as an ethical imperative. At least insofar as these

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Grosz: A politics of imperceptibility
social realities constitute one as a member of a socially dominant group.
So, although there are, as it were, limits to what one can affirm as ones
identity (like it or not we are white and Anglo because we are inevitably
shaped by how we are seen [436]); there are no such limits on imaginative identifications identifications with racialized, minoritarian
cultural phenomena, even if not with minoritarian identities. We are free
to re-form our identifications within parameters, those which we must
also be ethically called upon to recognize as we try to articulate who
we are (437).
Cornell and Murphy seek a certain kind of identity no longer a
fixed, pre-given or stereotyped identity, but one that the subject has a
degree of freedom to reformulate, to reconceive, through imaginative
identifications. There are, however, two sets of constraints, two unrecognized limits to these identifications, one coming from without and the
other from within the subject. From without, the subject is constrained
by the structure of recognition which requires the acknowledgement of
value and worth even dignity from the other, or at least the Other,
the social order; and from within, the subject is constrained by its own
structures of identification, its capacity to have an imaginative take on
new images as part of its self-representation.
Clustered together in this argument is a complex of terms: recognition/identification/subject-formation. These terms have a long and
illustrious history, as the authors acknowledge, which can be marked or
dated within a tradition from Hegels Phenomenology of Mind through
the phenomenological reflections of Husserl and Heidegger and the existentialists to the Hegelian inflection of psychoanalysis provided by
Lacan, to the structuralist and poststructuralist versions of feminist,
class and minority identity discourses. Cornell and Murphys project
needs to be located within this framework in which the subject can only
become a subject as such through being recognized by another as a
subject. This Hegelian law of desire informs and underlies most of
what today is called identity politics: that identity is not something
inherent, given or internally developed, but is bestowed by an other, and
only an other, and thus can also be taken away by an other. Identity
comes only as a result of a dual motion of the internalization, or introjection of otherness, and the projection onto the other of some fundamental similarity or identification with the subject. Two beings must
encounter each other in their alienness for either to have an identity of
its own; Hegels paradox is that the autonomy and identity of the subject
come only at the cost of the subjects indebtedness to the alien other
whom he presumes and makes his counterpart, an other for and of him.
In other words, Cornell and Murphy, as is common in much contemporary feminist, post-colonial and anti-racist theory, have wedded
together an Hegelian understanding of the subject/projection structure

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Philosophy & Social Criticism 28 (4)
of recognition with a psychoanalytically modeled understanding of the
subject as a creature of internalization, the processes of taking in the
others representations of the subject as part of the subjects identity;
and the processes of projecting outwards its own identificatory needs
onto the other. In this indebtedness to Hegelianism, Cornell and Murphy
share with Butler, Brown, Fraser and many others a fundamental
reliance on the structures of recognition and identification which
inscribe the other onto and as the subject, and the subject as the others
counterpart.
Pervasive as this tradition of phenomenology has been and it has
been disproportionately influential in accounts of sexed and raced forms
of subjectivity from de Beauvoir and Fanon onwards it has become
the dominant and almost uncontested discourse of minority cultures by
being brought together with a psychoanalytic understanding of the ego
and ego-ideal as the media through which the subject is interpellated,
constituted or comes to find itself. This Hegelian strand of Cornell and
Murphys argument, the strand that underlies all discourses on identity
that require the others tacit implication in the subjects formation, needs
to be counterbalanced with an alternative tradition, one with a considerably shorter history, which can be dated from the Nietzschean
rewriting of the Hegelian dialectic as the servile rationalizations of the
slave and the herd, rather than as the movement of an enlightening
spirit to its own self-fruition. Nietzsche offers an entirely alien framework to that posited by the Hegelians and the phenomenologists:
instead of identity, he seeks out forces or wills, instead of the dialectic,
continuous self-modification, he favors the dramatic and untimely leap
into futurity, instead of the becoming of being, he seeks the being of
becoming, instead of identity, he seeks a model of action and activity.
This redirection of interest from the subjects internal constitution, its
psychical interiority inhabited by the specter of the other, is turned inside
out in a Nietzschean framework what marks the subject as such is its
capacity to act and be acted upon, to do rather than to be, to act rather
than to identify.

2 Imperceptibility
It is one of Nietzsches most profound insights that will, subjectivity,
consciousness, the human, identity, are not causes, and that causation
is indeed a habit or explanatory model that puts the subjects position
as a being of habit at the center without adequate recognition of that
which causes, produces, the very fiction that is the subject. A subject
is not produced through the recognition of another subject, for the
subject is itself a productive and activating fiction:

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That which gives the extraordinary firmness to our belief in causality is not
the great habit of seeing one occurrence following another but our inability to interpret events otherwise than as events caused by intentions. It is
belief in the living and thinking as the only effective force in will, in intention it is belief that every event is a deed, that every deed presupposes a
doer, it is belief in the subject. Is this belief in the concept of subject and
attribute not a great stupidity?
Question: is intention the cause of an event? Or is that also illusion?
Is it not the event itself? (Nietzsche, 1968: 550 [2945])

Instead of conceptualizing the subject as an agent of causal effects


or as a victim of anothers agency, that is, as an interiority, a will, a set
of desires and identifications, especially as a radical will that acts and
produces events, effects, that can be seen to conflict with the forces of
social regulation, that is, instead of seeing politics as the more or less
violent negotiation between individuals, groups and institutions,
between individual and collective agents, Nietzsche may help provide a
way of understanding politics, subjectivity and the social as the consequence of the play of the multiplicity of active and reactive forces that
have no agency, or are all that agency and identity consist in. Which is
to say, force needs to be understood in its full sub-human and superhuman resonances: as the inhuman (Lyotard, 1991) which both makes
the human possible and which at the same time positions the human
within a world where force works in spite of and around the human,
within and as the human.
What is it that subjects seek? To be recognized? Cornell and Murphy
ask the crucial question the question at the very heart of the Hegelian
structure of recognition: to be recognized by whom? From whom do
oppressed groups and individuals seek identity through recognition?
Hegels own answer changes and moves with the very structure of the
dialectic itself: while two equal self-consciousnesses seek recognition from
each other, the dialectic rapidly transforms this apparent or provisional
equality into the very structure of lordship and bondage. Now it is the
slave that seeks the recognition of the master. And through other permutations and developments of the dialectic, in the end, the subject seeks
recognition for itself from the social and political order, seeks to be adequately represented and thus adequately recognized by it. Yet Cornell and
Murphy are not able to entirely affirm Hegels understanding:
Clearly, minority cultures are not always, or even mostly, addressing their
demands for recognition to the majority culture at least if we are to understand recognition as a comprehension of the minority cultures identity.
That freedom that Hegel saw achieved in the Western European democracies has been, after all, often written on the backs of precisely those
minority cultures now struggling for their own national identities, cultural
voices and economic sustainability. (Cornell and Murphy, 421)

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While the authors confirm that it cannot be the majority culture
whether conceived as white, middle-class, heterosexual, English-speaking
that bestows identity on minoritarian cultures, they remain unclear
about why it is a recognition structure that remains significant. If it is
not the majoritarian values that attribute an identity to the minority, if,
indeed majoritarian interests are vested in the non-recognition and a
non-comprehension of the minority cultures identity, then why is
recognition necessary and what does it confer? Or perhaps this is
another way of asking: why are identity and the struggles around
identity the rallying cry for politics? Can we reconceive politics without
identity (this is what Cornell and Murphy seek in their paper)? And if
so, why do we still need the residual concept of recognition (as they
continue to affirm)? In place of the desire for recognition as the condition for subjective identity, we need to begin with different working
assumptions, which may cover some of the same issues as those conceived by identity politics, without, however, resorting to the language
and assumptions governing recognition. In place of the desire for recognition, the emptiness of a solipsistic existence, the annihilation of
identity without the other, the relation of desperate dependence on the
other for the stability of ones being, we could place an account of subjectivity, identity, or agency at the mercy of forces, energies, practices,
which produce an altogether different understanding of both politics
and identity.
Subjects can be conceived as modes of action and passion, a surface
catalytic of events, events which subjects do not control but participate
in, which produce what history and thus what identity subjects may
have. In place of a phenomenology of identificatory subservience, as
entailed by the adoption of Hegelian structures of recognition, the
political struggles of subjugated peoples can be regarded as struggles for
practice, struggles at the level of the pragmatic. Oppression cannot
simply be resolved into failed, unsuccessful, or unaffirmed identities,
identities lagging for want of recognition; the more dynamic and affirming representation is to understand identity in terms of practice: one is
what one does, the history of what one has done constitutes ones character: and what one can or will do as that which is unpredictable and
open. This identity has little to do with how one represents oneself and
everything to do with the processes and actions one engenders and in
which one partakes.
Force has a number of attributes or activities which I have time only
to indicate rather than adequately develop:
1

Force is always both specific and a multiplicity (there are always


forces in the plural, but these forces share in common a force, a
charge, that enables them to compete with each other, to exert and

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extend themselves and to thereby effect each other), and is that


which both establishes and severs connections between things and
relations. Force makes forces level, without ever making them equal;
Force is always engaged in becoming. It is never stationary. It has a
history and a duration. Force does not seek intentions, goals,
purposes, but simply expansion and magnification always more
(this is why force is named the will to power in Nietzsches work);
Force is always a relation of intensity and thus of magnitude (a
relation of more or less, never ceasing, never depleting itself). Force
thus functions quantitatively, though not through any absolute
measure. This quantity is differential not absolute;
If force is differentiated quantitatively, out of these quantitative
differences come qualitative differences: it is differences in the
quantity of forces that produce differences in quality (to which
Nietzsche gives the names active and reactive, noble and servile);
Force is always contestatory: each force seeks its own expansion in
its own way and time; but this inevitably places forces in relations
of hostility and competition with each other, where forces seek to
subdue each other, to subvert or convert each other, where the
stronger seeks to overcome the weaker: All events, all motions, all
becoming, [i]s a determination of degrees and relations of force . . .
a struggle (Nietzsche, 1968: 552 [299]); and
Force is that which produces competition and struggle between
forces functioning in the same sphere and level, but is also that
which produces relations of alignment and cooperation between
forces. Force is thus also the condition of the assemblage (in Deleuzian terms), the complex, the molecular.

Rethinking the concept of subject in terms of force means profound


transformations in all related concepts of objects, of the social, of action
and agency. It is no longer a subject that takes before it a subject with
whom to identify, and an object on which to enact its desire or will;
rather forces act through subjects, objects, material and social worlds
without distinction, producing relations of inequality and differentiation,
which themselves produce ever-realigning relations of intensity or force.
They constitute an inhuman, sub-human field, a field of particles or
elements of force which are only provisionally or temporarily grouped
together in the form of entities and actions. This field is itself an individuality without individuals, a singularity without identity:
If we give up the effective subject, we also give up the object upon which
the effects are produced. Duration, identity with itself, being are inherent
neither in that which is called subject nor in that which is called object:
they are complexes of events, apparently durable in comparison with other
complexes e.g., through the differences in tempo of the event. . . .

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If we give up the concept subject and object, then also the concept
substance and as a consequence also the various modifications of it,
e.g., matter, spirit, and other hypothetical entities the eternity and
immutability of matter etc. (Nietzsche, 1968: 552 [298])

We have a theoretical choice: either we ascribe to a theory of the


subject that strives to have its identity affirmed through relations,
especially relations of desire, but also relations of identification, with
other subjects, a subject that seeks the recognition of others and a place
as a subject within culture (this is the basis of Butlers understanding of
performativity: the subject constitutively performs its identity through
acts of subject-constitution and consolidation. These performances in fact
produce the identity which they reportedly express. What makes them
performances though, rather than simply acts, is that they entail and
require a mode of address, an audience. It is this audience, or witness,
central to Austins understanding of the performative, and so carefully
analyzed by Derrida as the site of iteration in Limited Inc, whether it is
the heterosexual world that abjects the gay subject, or the gay world that
produces an identity for itself, this audience of others is crucial to Butlers
understanding of identity); or we ascribe to a theory of the impersonal
(and ultimately a politics of imperceptibility, the opposite of identity
politics, a politics of acts, not identities), in which inhuman forces, forces
that are both living and non-living, macroscopic and microscopic, above
and below the human, are acknowledged and allowed to displace the centrality of will and consciousness. At the very least, this means that there
are wills, forces, powers that can be ascribed no humanity, no life, but
which have their perspectives and interests, their own trajectories.
Forces have their own intentionalities to win, to expand, to become:
The victorious concept force, by means of which our physicists have
created God and the world, still needs to be completed; an inner will must
be ascribed to it, which I designate as will to power. (Nietzsche, 1968:
619 [333])

Instead of regarding feminist politics as a struggle around the rights


and needs of female and racialized subjects, individually or as a category,
subjugated by male subjects, who require a more adequate and respectful recognition by male subjects the basic assumptions behind various
non-aligned feminists: liberal feminism, identity politics and the politics
of performativity feminist and other forms of political struggle may
more ably function as a mode of rendering the subject the backdrop to
a play of forces which are themselves what constitute the ever shifting
and uncontrollable terrain of politics and identities. Feminism, and
especially feminist postcolonial theory, is not simply the struggle to
liberate women, even though it has tended to conceive of itself in these
terms (if this is its function, it has failed miserably!): it is the struggle

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to render more mobile, fluid and transformable the means by which the
female subject is produced and represented. It is the struggle to produce
a future in which forces align in ways fundamentally different from the
past and the present. This struggle is not a struggle by subjects to be
recognized and valued, to be and to be seen to be what they are, but a
struggle to mobilize and transform the position of women, the alignment of forces that constitute that identity and position, that stratification that stabilizes itself as a place and an identity. Politics can be seen
as the struggle of imperceptible forces, forces in us and around, forces
in continual conflict; it is a useful fiction to imagine that we as subjects
are masters or agents of these very forces that constitute us as subjects,
but misleading.
From the vantage point of (micro-) forces, wills to power, if politics
constitutes itself as the struggle for recognition, the struggle for identity
to be affirmed by the others who occupy socially dominant positions
and among peers for mutual respect, it is a politics that is fundamentally servile; if identity is a useful fiction, a subjectively apprehended
cohesion which required personal and collective validation to take its
place as a subject, then this identity is always governed, in advance, by
the image and value of the other. Instead of a politics of recognition, in
which subjugated groups and minorities strive for a validated and
affirmed place in public life, feminist and postcolonial politics should,
I believe, now consider the affirmation of a politics of imperceptibility,
leaving its traces and effects everywhere, but never being able to be
identified with a person or an organization. It is not a politics of visibility, of recognition and of self-validation, but a process of self-marking
that constitutes oneself in the very model of that which oppresses and
opposes the subject. The imperceptible is that which the inhuman
musters, that which the human can sometimes liberate from its own
orbit but not control or name as its own.
Department of Womens and Gender Studies, Rutgers University, NJ,
USA

PSC

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