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Mobilization and Its Discontents: Identity Politics in the Age of Identity Critique

  • Author(s): Martorelli, Paul D.
  • Advisor(s): Brown, Wendy L
  • et al.

How can subordinated identity groups organize for political change while avoiding self-descriptions that exclude or marginalize some of their members? How can "queers,” or “women," or "African Americans" mobilize politically without stipulating an idealized vision of their members that excludes or stigmatizes the practices or self-understandings of some who might travel under those very names? This dissertation examines, at a theoretical level, how identity-based groups can make justice claims without specifying what constitutes the identity or submitting to identity’s normative force.

Whereas critics of identity politics, such as Judith Butler, Patricia Hill Collins, and José Esteban Muñoz, examine how identity controls and constrains individual subjects, this project examines identity’s regulatory effects on collective subjects mobilized for political action. The engagement with poststructuralist theory and the focus on mobilization, not just social collectivities, differentiates this dissertation’s concerns from thinkers such as Anthony Appiah, Nancy Fraser, and Iris Marion Young. And while many feminist, queer, and critical race theorists focus exclusively on specific identities, this dissertation analyzes how our understanding of identity itself shapes political membership and mobilization across a wide range of identities and projects.

This dissertation revisits the extensively explored terrain of normalization and control through identity categories, but focuses specifically on identity constituted in collective political action. It begins by using the movement for marriage equality to illustrate how otherwise emancipatory and egalitarian identity-based political projects can subordinate and stigmatize some of their members in the quest for freedom and equality through idealized visions of membership. Then it explores alternative political formulations of identity that might avoid such injuries. Using feminist and queer theory to extend and transform work by Jürgen Habermas and the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, it refigures an identity-based political group as itself a coalition rather than a homogenous entity. Revisiting the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision validating same-sex marriage, it shows how treating identity as a coalition could relieve the social pity, indeed pathologization, of homosexuals living outside of marriage featured in the Majority decision.

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