Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Identities, Cyborgs, Children's Books and Politics

And just like that, my worlds collide. Dissertation, children's books, presidential campaigns. An implosion Donna Haraway could be proud of!

Clare and I sometimes read a book before bedtime titled, Only You. It's a little love poem from a parent to a child, with lovely illustrations of waking up, playing, bathtime, bedtime--the daily routines which are the stuff of life lived together. Some of the pictures are of mommies and babies. Some are of daddies and little kids. Some are white. Some are black. Clare will often point to the mommy and say "mama." She used to point to the baby and say "baby"--now she points and says, "Clare." And then you turn the page, and see the illustration of a black man holding his little boy's hand as they walk through autumn leaves. And Clare points and says, "that's Daddy." And "that's Clare."

What I love about this is that she either doesn't notice at all, or doesn't know that it matters, that these pictures don't look like her or her Daddy. What defines the correspondence is not the identity of the people--it's the relationship depicted between them.

Clare is already beyond identity politics. I wish to God the rest of us really were, and I pray to God that somehow, I can mother her in a way that protects her from being dragged into them.

You're probably tired of hearing about cyborgs and transgressed, permeable, blurred boundaries from me. But all that ontological talk, while sometimes useful, obscures the real motivation for introducing cyborg discourse. The cyborg is, always was, a political figure. The cyborg is meant to signal the hope of breakdown of identity politics. After all, when you have no stable, categorical identity with which to label yourself, you can't really engage in the Us vs. Them of identity politicking. When you know you are both Us and Them...who do you pick a fight with? How do you choose sides?

Haraway writes, “With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical construction, gender, class, and race cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity…Gender, race or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. And who counts as ‘us’ in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground such a potent political myth called ‘us,’ and what could motivate enlistment in this collectivity?” ("Cyborg Manifesto," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 155). To decode: when you realize that there's nothing essential about the identity of Woman, Blacks, The Poor--a realization easy to come by when you fit into multiple categories at once, since essential identity is presumably a coherent unity, who you really are--then you also realize that there's nothing automatically binding you together with other women, blacks, poor people in some mystical, magical, transcendent understanding. If there's understanding, it's forged through the difficulties of navigating similar social/historical circumstance--the same thing that categorizes you in a lump to begin with. But that understanding must be actively constructed, not assumed. Assuming those essential identities as the political starting point not only accepts the -ism spawned systems which birthed them, it opens the door to what Haraway describes as "endless splitting and searches for a new essential identity" (155).

The cyborg sidesteps this dizzying circle of identity politics with its tautological reasoning and categorical essentialism, because the cyborg knows from the beginning that its identity doesn't fit in the available identity boxes. So: "From the perspective of cyborgs, freed of the need to ground politics in 'our' privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities... To recognize 'oneself' as fully implicated in the world, frees us of the need to root politics in identification, vanguard parties" (176).

I don't need to be like you to work together with you. I don't need to have the same categorical identity as you to have the same goals. I don't need to feel like we are, in some deep way, the same.

Andrew Sullivan sees Barack Obama as having skipped the dialectics of racial identity politics in this campaign. I said it long ago: he's the cyborg candidate.

But Sullivan says something else, too, something that I've been noticing more and more as the campaigns drag on and on. Identity politics may not be a part of Obama's campaign. But they have become a part of the McCain/Palin campaign.

When I blogged about Joe the Plumber's mythological existence--he's right up there with dragons, ghosties, Tinkerbell, and Santa Claus--this is what I was trying to express. Somehow, Joe the Plumber became the representative of Real America. Imagine--I mean, wow, the unprecedented move of choosing a white man to represent all American citizens. But beyond my knee-jerk gag reflex...the more terrible truth is that Joe the Plumber wasn't really meant to represent all American citizens. Joe the Plumber represents Real America, not all America. The America inside America: the small town values, the pro-America areas of America, the hard-working America, the patriotic America. We will fight for you, Real America. We understand you. We are just like you. As for Barack Obama, we don't know who he is. He has a weird middle name and lived overseas and his black preacher seems pretty pissed about stuff we don't want to talk about and there's that Weather Underground dude back in his hood in Chicago, also. So we are pretty sure he's not like you. And that means he won't be fighting for you.

How effective is it? Well, it's what we're used to. It's what we know: Us vs. Them is a game we get, a language we speak fluently. Tina Graham gets it: "'I never really thought about whether or not that I was racist, or however you want to put it,' said Tina Graham. She fears Obama would focus on African-Americans at the expense of poor white people like herself. 'It's just the fact that I think that he will represent them, and what they want, and what they need. ... They're his people, they're his race.'" (You can listen to the NPR story here.)

Is it racism? Maybe not. Maybe having a black friend saves you from having to claim that shameful label. Maybe it's just, as Sullivan puts it, "the reductio ad absurdum of political appeals based purely on cultural or ethnic identity." It's absurd all right. But it's also powerful.

Don't get me wrong. This sort of divisive identity politicking happens everywhere. Bill Maher trades in it every time he says there are two Americas, one progressive, European country trapped inside this backwards conservative evangelical country (I've heard this statement twice, once on Charlie Rose and once to Jon Stewart, who, to his credit, didn't seem to buy it). The simplistic antagonistic atheism of Maher meets its religious mirror image in the FotF 2012 letter. Despite the ideological gulf, they are indeed mirror images of the Same, mimicking each other in an endless recursion of self- and other-defeating suspicion.

In a presidential campaign that contains both the defeat and the revivification of identity politics, we have a choice. Do we, as a nation, succumb to the tempting, security-blanket familiarity of voting our Identity? Or do we take the huge step of recognizing that we don't need to have the same categorical identity to have the same goal of building together a liveable world, for everyone who lives in it? Can we follow the lead of a politician whose own personal identity, bridging the categories we like to think within, provides a starting point that sidesteps the necessity of Identification for political cooperation, whose campaign has steadily resisted drawing the boundaries between our various American identities that we all wish weren't there?

1 comment:

JTB said...

Travis, thanks for the link to the video. Perfect.