Identity Politics and French Feminism Today

by scholastress

In light of the changes to social and economic organization within Western capitalism after 1989, contemporary feminist thought has once again turned to reconsider the potential of identity politics, if not in quite so many words. In the face of mutable borders, bodies, and political means of representation, the processes of corporeal and discursive representations have become an acute area of focus for scholarly analysis and activist practice. Yet, just as theories of post-Fordism risk producing a certain nostalgia for the clearly defined boundaries of the factory, so too does the return to identity politics risk flirting with a regression into unsatisfactory (if better understood) strategies for contestation. However, as evidenced by recent works of European feminism, this revival of some of the principles of identity politics appears to be mobilized towards new ends, integrating both anti-essentialist and materialist critiques. The question this work asks, and that we must ask of this work in turn, could be phrased thus: when do flights of identity have liberatory potential and when do they merely rest complicit with the production of subjectivity under late capitalism?

Briefly charted, the history of identity politics has been tumultuous. Beginning with consciousness raising and the rallying cry of “the personal is political,” second wave feminist theory took as its foundational precept the organization and expression of a female identity. The centrality of the concept of woman, however, proved to be limiting in many respects as black feminist thinkers, Marxists feminists, and proponents of intersectionalism protested the hierarchy of oppression instantiated by white liberal feminism. Equally troubling was queer and post-structuralist challenges to the stability of female identity and practice. Following primarily in the wake of Judith Butler’s anti-essentialism, there has been a significant faction within feminist theory calling for the destruction or attenuation of the fixity of identity in both political positionality and personal practice. Curiously, and disturbingly, there has also been a parallel tendency within Western neoliberal politics towards the liquidation of fixed collectivities organized around class and community institutions (Boltanski & Chiapello 2007, 532). It is increasingly apparent that the flip side to the rigidity of identity politics may be a loss of solidarity, stability, and communal protections against precarity. As both flexible mutability and inflexible endurance have proven to be modes of potential collusion with structures of power, the tools of feminist thought would appear to be limited in their possible means of conceptualizing identity. It is at this moment that contemporary European feminist writing proves to be a dynamic site for re-apprehending the radical potential of identity, specifically in its changing embodiments.

The works of Catherine Malabou (2008, 2011, 2012), Virginie Despentes (2010), and Beatriz Preciado (2013) all characterize the mutability of bodies as the key site of both subject formation and contestation in late capitalism. Whether in the neuro-psychology of Malabou, the sexual labor of Despentes, or the hormonal experimentation of Preciado, these thinkers ground their discussions of power in the body, its cultural imperatives, and its material capacities for resistance and revolution. Writing after the propositions of Marxism and post-structuralism have long been debated, these texts thus offer a means to reflect on both the potential shortcomings and continuing promises of anti-capitalist and anti-essentialist critique. Taking Malabou, Despentes, and Preciado as significant sample of European feminist thought, one can find a shared concern for rematerializing identity and its instability along with a concomitant ethics of change in the face of labor practices that excessively privilege flexibility and immateriality. Change, in this framework, is best approached as an ambivalent horizon. The central problem in these texts can therefore be summarized thusly: how can bodily change be mobilized towards progressive ends when the incitements and tools of change are already pervasively present and antagonistically oriented against autonomous choice?

For all their shared concerns, however, this group of European feminist theorists is not a uniform one, and indeed the dissimilarities between these thinkers, whether overt or only visible in the nuances of their writing, provide an even more productive point of inquiry into the stakes and imperatives driving this work. In the two points of heightened accord across these texts, that of the materiality of the subject and the ethics of mutability, there is already a heterogenous community of opinion. This paper, in attending to these tensions, also points to a third: the larger omission of considerations of relationality in these theories of change. Reviewing, comparing, and contesting the three authors’ approaches to the revised politics of identity suggests that the potential for collective contestation is still endemic to the body and its community, even as its form becomes ever more malleable and difficult to define.

Of the texts considered, one of the most vivid features throughout the writing is the commitment to investigating identity, capitalism, and violence in terms of their material effects on the body. In Testo Junkie Preciado situates this gesture as part of a critical continuity with post-structuralist theory, arguing for the need to deepen analyses of production and subjectivity that stop “biopolitically at the belt” (37). Materializing theories of labor with an explicit focus on sexuality and gender creates a remobilization of Foucault, Butler, and Italian Marxism within what Preciado describes as the “pharmacopornographic regime” (33) and its “somatechnics” (78) of bodily-integrated control. Instead of restricting her/his analysis to the psychological, behavioral, or epistemological proclivities of the subject in its political formation, Preciado flattens semiotic, technological, and biological vectors of power into consumable “biocodes” of the body (55). In this framework, the manipulations of sexual acts and bodily metabolism, understood to be inseparably material and cultural at the same time, hold sway over the production of subjectivity and hegemonic capitalism (39). Freedom, borrowing from copyleft rhetoric and exemplified by Preciado’s self-experimentation with testosterone, thus becomes a matter of gaining control over the production and use of biocodes such that the bodily productions of identity becomes an open experiment without coercion (55).[1]

Obvious parallels between Preciado and Despentes writing are found in the centrality of sex work to the logics of late capitalism, the production of subjectivity, and the creation of gendered hierarchies of work and leisure. Despentes, however, concerns herself more explicitly with the lived experience of rape and sex work, turning to autobiographical reflection to situate her interventions into feminist theory and political policy within her book King Kong Theory. This focus on the body, rebelliously held apart from its cultural moors, allows Despentes to approach her experience with some remove from the political moralizing that so often accompanies such discussions (and, as Despentes argues, serves to weigh the interpretation of these events in favor of inequitable relations such as heterosexual marriage (55) and global capitalism (46)). Accordingly, over the course of her analysis she is able to articulate prostitution in terms of its working conditions (62) and femininity as that of a mode of dress (58) and of “bootlicking” (128). In weathering rape, and in moving between models of gendered performances and forms of bodily work in accordance with her economic and personal desires, Despentes positions her biography in opposition to both abolitionist feminism and familiar patriarchical exercises of power, arguing for the liberational possibilities of sexual self-determination (80). Female identity in this text is discussed primarily in terms of social prohibition and bodily discipline, along with the willful defiance of these injunctions through the body and the way it occupies space. Equal parts punk rock rebellion and socio-economic pragmatism, Despentes rallies for the liquefaction of moral prohibitions of gender and sex in order to facilitate greater female autonomy. Choice, and the freedom to use one’s body and to become what one wishes with one’s body, is the principle measure of authenticity within this particular strain of anti-abolitionist feminism.

A similar ethos can be found in Catherine Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity. Looking to the mechanics of self-formation on a neurological level, What Should We Do with Our Brain? answers the question in its title with the injunction to oppose passive flexibility with explosive plastic subject formations that defy the structures of power (78-79). As such the capacities of neurons to give and receive form supplies the basis for Malabou’s political and philosophical contestations (5). Just as Preciado and Despentes take the body and its sexual mutability as the paradigmatic model for capitalist production and resistance, Malabou sees a deeply neuronal logic to contemporary political and social organization (11), whereby “flexibility is the ideological avatar of plasticity—at once its mask, its diversion, and its confiscation” (12). Malabou’s specialized vocabulary, perhaps more clearly than the other two authors, makes apparent a distinction between authentic and coerced evolutions of identity. Self-determination, wrought by the body’s dissonant experience of its own materiality, is the liberational promise of plasticity and Malabou’s political imperative.

In comparing these approaches, all of which situate the analysis of flexibility within the materiality of the body, one clear correlation across the texts is the implicit or explicit individualism within this writing. For example, although Malabou addresses her audience in terms of the shared imperative of the plural second person, the nuances of her analysis of the brain are principally concerned with the self as the product of neurochemical synapses (57). Indeed, one of the primary arguments in her book is for a renewed appreciation of the centrality of the brain over the body and its environment (32), such that it is in varying degrees perceived as capable of taking on the heroic task of determining the subject autonomously (53). This model of self-creation, at times seemingly transcendent of material conditions outside the brain, comes to the fore in the dialectical encounter between the base level neuronal self of bodily homeostasis and the abstract mental self instantiated through the course of brain development. In theorizing how selves emerge and change over time, Malabou argues that identity is formed through an act of self-negation (72), and thus, “only in making explosives does life give shape to its own freedom, that is, turn away from pure genetic determinism” (73). She further notes the mechanisms of this action, whereby,

the plasticity of the self… implies a necessary split and the reach for an equilibrium between the preservation of constancy (or, basically, the autobiographical self) and the exposure of this constancy to accidents, to the outside, to otherness in general… What results is a tension born of the resistance that constancy and creation mutually oppose to each other. It is thus that every form carries within itself its own contradiction. And precisely this resistance makes transformation possible (71).

This is passage is a curious one in its simultaneous recognition of the necessity of an outside and its insistence that the self will sufficiently supply this force from within. The contradiction is explained to a degree by Malabou’s oppositional reading of Antonio R. Damasio’s model of brain development, though it is perhaps here that the material, scientific foundation of Malabou’s argument is at its weakest (72). More troubling for the political paralysis of identity politics, the external environment is significantly underplayed in favor of internalized Hegelian conflict. Bled of the specificity of bodily experience and difference save for the brief mention of resilient Romanian orphans (76), Malabou risks universalizing her model of subjectivity and thus limiting the potential for identity to found political resistance in the particular.

Despentes and Preciado’s texts also limit their potential through the privileged role of the individual. Unlike Malabou, however, this mode of individualism is deeply autobiographical, carrying forward the challenges of the politicization of personal experience that vexed second wave feminism, while also instantiating new difficulties in light of the contingent nature of bodily identity. For instance, although King Kong Theory opens with an invocation of solidarity (“I’m writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones” (7)), cracks in Despentes’ alliance appear throughout the text. Setting aside the question of whether or not the ugly ones wish to be written for, and under that appellation, Despentes’ strategic use of feminine conventions during her time as a sex worker would seem to at least momentarily exclude her from the category. There are also moments where her position as a white French citizen restrict the kinds of bodily experiences on which she can build a feminist politics. The devaluation of her sex work in Paris in light of a more competitive market (“Lots more girls, lots more white girls, from Eastern Europe, very pretty” (68)) suggests that part of her relative ease operating previously in Lyons stemmed from a position of privileged economic opportunity and the racial tastes of her clientele. As an individual, possessing a highly specific body in a market of inequitable corporeal goods, her experience and analysis does not encompass the sum of the differing political desires of her worker community. Still further instances in the text illustrate the limits of Despentes’ solidarity with those outside of her individual class position. Towards the end of the book in a spirited excoriation of male entitlement she writes, “when you defend your male prerogatives, you remind me of those servants at the five-star hotels who think they own the place, you’re just arrogant flunkies” (131). Read the other way, the right to occupy institutions of power in this analogy ironically does not seem to extend to working class hospitality labor. Although Despentes’ sex work was freely chosen, her freedoms were not wholly self-produced, and stem from prior structures of race, class, and immigration status.

Preciado her/himself is not unaware of the potential hazards of privileging the self within political analysis. In discussing the ethos of self-experimentation, s/he notes “romantic autoexperimentation carries the risk of individualism and depolitiziation” (351): two major transgressions within Preciado’s post-queer ethics. Nevertheless, there are moments in Testo Junkie in which s/he is caught between the specificity of her/his desire for bodily freedom and the difference between her/him and the community of cis-women that so often mediate this freedom in a quasi-dialectical fashion. Preciado frequently figures empowerment though the consumption of testosterone, whether on the part of retired sex workers seeking anonymity (290), as a politically subversive form of birth control (232), or as a tool for any cis-woman looking to enjoy some of the “political surplus value” of masculinity (237). And yet, this particular mode of transformation, escape, and appropriation may not be to everyone’s taste. Despentes, in what is likely a deliberate comment directed towards Preciado, writes: “wanting to be a man? I am better than that. I don’t give a damn about penises. Don’t give a damn about facial hair and testosterone—I possess all the courage and aggression I need” (132). The freedom to make oneself a new molecular identity, to “use the tools of the master” (Preciado, 372), may risk conforming too closely to the shape of hegemony, serving only to strengthen the force of its value relations.

These tensions concerning the specificity of the individual within the calculus of identity and its politics points to the second major intervention of the authors. Unlike the revolutionary fervor of Marxist, queer, and lesbian separatist texts, there seems to be an important ethical consideration at hand in these theories of differentialization. In all authors one finds moments of misrecognition: Despentes’ confusion at her feminized appearance (60) and slow reconciliation with her rape (39), Preciado’s disidentification with her/himself both on and off testosterone (397), and throughout Malabou’s later book Ontology of the Accident (2012) as it details the effects of “pathological plasticity” that befall victims of age, illness, or assault (6). Although these authors resist the now habitual citation of Levinas’ ethics of encounter with the Other, there is nevertheless an implicit concern for the just treatment and care for the strangers that appear unannounced in the mirror. Malabou discusses the need for emergency listening as a form of healing and rescue (2012, 49) while Preciado finds community in the unlikely depths of heteronormative nail salons (323-326). If, as s/he argues, “political subjectivity emerges precisely when the subject does not recognize itself in its representation” (397), then perhaps political possibilities and collectivities may be formed through an ethics of care towards the surprising forms of identities and embodiments that are produced through change, whether in the fragmentary bodies of others or in the shifting apparatuses of perception of one’s own body.

This ethics, however, is evidenced only in flashes throughout the texts which often do not wholly overcome the limitations of individualism that pose a continued challenge to the viability of their respective political aims. In her consideration of destructive plasticity Malabou is almost entirely focused on the affectively-deadened afterlife of the victim, to whom she attends only as an analyst of their texts and theorist of their condition. Rather than Despentes’ systematic analysis of the cause of gendered violence and the legitimacy of fantasies of revenge (115), Malabou’s book is haunted by a dark sense of fatalism, whereby brutality has no reason or means of contestation (60). In a different light, Preciado finds her/himself caught up in structures of violence as s/he is drawn towards the position and privileges of hegemonic masculinity on a visual and hormonal level. Her/his penultimate chapter ends with a reflection on the potential collusions created by this ascent to power. In examining the gendered becomings of pornographic labor described as the “Hairy Arm Complex,” Preciado pauses to wonder, “will I become a Hairy Arm if I keep on taking testosterone?” (408). The potential already seems present. Preciado’s flight from “woman” flirts with a subtle misogyny, however eroded the term may be after her/his efforts to dissolve the concept into the molecular. The analysis of female hormones in birthcontrol paints a stark picture of these androgens as a form of slavery (208), in part because of their role in the biopolitical control over women’s sexuality (205), and it part because of their associated drop in libido (210). Testosterone, conversely, is valued more highly for its potential to strengthen orgasm (222) and aggression (226), while containing the potential to equalize (and thereby destroy) gendered difference through the conversion of (all?) cis-women into technomales (234). This fantastical reduction of human difference into male uniformity values affects and bodies in a never-neutral fashion, leaving little room for women like Despentes who do not desire radical bodily change nor are willing to pay the physical costs of surgical and/or endrocinological modification. Also lost in this equation is the bodily experience of transwomen, whose fertility and bodily dimensions undergo a rather different process of embodying a new sex than transmen.

It seems that a key intervention to make into these texts would be to underscore the necessity of attending to relationality in questions of identities, bodies, and change. Unlike Malabou’s narrow portrait of neurological subjects or psychologically transformed victims, the impetus to change is formed in large part out of environments and communities, whether for good or for ill. Extending the subject’s contestation for authenticity out into the realm of shared ground enables a larger analysis of the agential factors that produce violence, a collective frontier for change, and a political emphasis behind the “we” of the community of brains. Similarly, Despentes’ call to action could be further strengthened by a consideration of the many different kinds of working bodies whose labor collectively constitutes the conditions for sex work. Individual choice does not belong solely to individuals, but is rather the product of the collective formation of society in which difference still matters even if it is not wholly disclosed. Finally, the radical potential of Preciado’s call to common ownership over biocodes is made all the more explicit when considering its effects relationally. Existing primarily through mutually-given structures of hierarchical worth, the open access of hormones, dress, and bodily practices stands to significantly alter the meaning of any given biocode when the relative position of the others falls out of alignment. Preciado’s vision of “technosomatic communism” (352), therefore, would constitute nothing less than the destruction of the present system of identity as a whole. This is, in many ways, the material equation for a long-held aspiration of queer theory and anti-essentialism. Its achievement, however, requires a collective rather than individual experiment and will surely devalue testosterone’s relational powers in turn.

These relations to the selves and others who have undergone change founds a new perspective on identity politics. Taking the body as a transformable medium and producer of identity, the task of feminist anti-capitalist politics follows as one not of positional certainty but of continued and surprising encounters with partial strangers. An emphasis on the material grounding of identity and the relational ethics of difference helps one discern the impetus behind change, its relative necessity, and the extent to which its production is one of contestation or complicity with structures of violence. Such a politics is one without transcendental foundation, in which the stakes and meaning of identity must be continuously and fractally apprehended. Rather than paralyzing identity politics in a sea of contingency, however, this continuous and relational encounter is itself the constitutive practice of a politics and an ethics appropriate to the contemporary climate of flexibility and change.

Works Cited

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Gregory Elliot. London and New York: Verso.

Despentes, Virginie. 2010. King Kong Theory. Translated by Stephanie Benson. New York: Feminist Press.

Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What Should We Do with Our Brain? Translated by Carolyn Shread. New York: Fordham University Press.

———. 2012. Ontology of the Accident : An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Translated by Sebastian Rand. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity.

Preciado, Beatriz. 2013. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Translated by Bruce Benderson. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY.


[1] At least at first. The narcotics metaphor complicates any narrative of straightforward liberation.