A Working Definition of “Post-Identity”
By Olivia B. Murphy
To uncover the meaning of this complex term “post-identity,” we must first dive (however briefly) into its root term: identity. Although we all have personal identities that we claim or that are placed upon us, there are larger societal identities that exist in the politicized context. The creation of these are often derived from an oppressive binary system, where the “other” is codified as distinct from the so-called “norm” in an attempt to enforce the us vs. them duality that Western society is built upon. As Simone de Beauvoir states in the introduction to her 1949 novel The Second Sex, “a man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man…for man represents both the positive and neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria without reciprocity.”
For our purposes, one could substitute “man” in this case with a number of aspects that have become “neutral” in our society, such as white, upper class, able-bodied, American, straight, etc., because the power structure perpetuates the idea that the small “majority” is somehow representative of a universal identity. This notion works to reinforce an asymmetrical power binary that privileges those who fall within this norm, and either excludes or punishes those who fall outside of it. So it’s within these terms that we must question how identity functions; will it be used as a tool of the oppressor to subjugate the “other,” or as a tool of the oppressed to band together, create community and ultimately overcome?
For the majority of the 20th century, movement after movement has erred towards the latter in an attempt to topple this power structure and advocate instead for the equality of all people. From Civil Rights to Women’s Liberation, people banned together around these identities as a way to gain access and equality for the subjugated masses. This ownership of identity seeped into every corner of American culture—from TV to advertising to art, so much so that by the 80s and 90s, the United Colors of Benetton began using multi-culturalism to sell clothing. Artists were also openly exploring the social and political issues that were present in their lives, such as racial injustices, gender inequality, and overall visibility of historically marginalized peoples. Photography in particular became an incredibly important tool in bringing to light the hidden or ignored narratives of the “other.”
During the convergence of all these movements, we saw the creation of the umbrella term “identity politics,” which encompassed new “politically-correct” identifiers, as well as a general push towards inclusivity in politics, in society, in culture, and in power. This of course predicated a swing of the conservative/progressive pendulum that our culture seems to be trapped within; from the progressive attitudes of the 90s, we saw a shift in the early 2000s towards a more centrist apathy, a general feeling of being over identity politics. If affirmative action worked, black and brown kids were getting higher education, women were climbing the corporate ladder, and gays could adopt kids, weren’t we finally post-race, post-sexism, post-homophobia? To say we were “post-identity politics” was to say, the Benetton ads worked, we’re all “just human” after all!
And although things like marriage equality and affirmative action began to make a dent in “leveling the playing field,” that field was still firmly rooted in the narrow vision of a white, middle-class America. Discrediting the need to recognize the diversity in our collective identity—claiming we as a society were somehow post-identity—essentially functioned as a way to whitewash over the problems that are inherent in our culture, but that people were tired of talking about.
And while it may have been easy for the talking heads on the 24-hour news cycle to claim that racism and sexism ended in 2008 when a woman made it to the primaries and black man was elected president, the fact remains that there is still systemic violence and oppression against women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community that must be addressed if they can ever be truly eradicated. Which means that although these are difficult conversations to have, they are necessary for the country to move forward as a whole.
But in an increasingly polarized political landscape, it is perhaps through culture—TV, film, music, and especially art—that we can see most clearly why we are in no way past the need for identity. Because identity is not just a political tool, it’s the lens through which we see the world. And artists are still finding the need to depict the realities of their unique lived experiences because for many, those realities are still shaped by inequality.
The works compiled in this show all relate back to the idea of identity and place; women photographers working in California. The six artists in the show each confront identity through different interactions with environment, sexuality, gender, and the roles we inhabit on both a personal and societal level. Jo Ann Callis plays with objectivity and gender in her dark, often brooding photographs, while Andréanne Michon creates segmented landscapes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but each relates back to the photographer’s unique view of the world.
To say that we are in an age of “post-identity,” is to deny the reality of this diverse and ever-changing nation. It marks a dangerous adherence to the fallacy that there can ever be equality without the recognition of inherited struggle or privilege. Because the fact is, the damaging effects that a capitalist, racially-biased patriarchy have left on our society are far too great to ever truly be forgotten. And although I hope one day there will be generations of Americans who will be free from the direct effects of this oppression, it will still be engrained in their history in their failures and in their triumphs in the form of identity. So rather than rejecting this identity, we can choose to keep learning from it, to let it unite and embolden us through our culture, our politics and our art for generations to come.
Olivia B. Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, with a BFA in Studio Art from NYU. Her writing focuses on art and culture, and has appeared in various publications both in print and online, including L’Officiel, Freunde Von Freunden, Whitehot, doingbird, and ArtSlant.