The Trap of (In)Visibility and the Erasure of Difference

[published in CounterPunch, 15 January, 2016]

One of the best articles I read in 2015 was Adolph Reed’s “From Jenner to Dolezal” wherein Reed critiques the language of identity politics in this year’s almost coetaneous “outings” of Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. Reed’s critique takes to task specifically a Huffington Post article written by Zeba Blay who attempts to make a distinction between both types of identity declaring: “transracial identity is not a thing.” Reed’s response gets to the very problematic terrain of visibility as posited by Blay who deems one sort of identity (transgenderism) real and the other (transracialism) not. What this discussion points to, over and above any sort of identity as a catalyst of the real, is rather an indication that identity might very well have nothing to do with the real. Indeed today we are witnessing an era in which identifying with is actually a political act of identifying against, of implementing various forms of harassment online and off to foment one’s identity as that must be understood as a “thing” simply because the subject feels it or screams it.

Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked (1993), maintains that Western culture constructs the real as a vector of visibility, revealing the discursivity of the real as the act of verifying the visible. By looking for what she calls the “blind spot in the visible real,” Phelan searches for the use of the real in Western culture suggesting “that by seeing the blind spot within the visible real we might see a way to redesign the representational real” (3). Phelan examines the contradiction between “identity politics” which relies almost entirely on the mechanisms of visibility and the troubling prospect that visibility offers as a trap. Referring to feminist film theory of the 1970s and 1980’s Phelan suggests that there is “real power” in remaining (in)visible (what she calls “unmarked”) pointing out the serious limitations of “visual representation as a political goal” (6):

While there is a deeply ethical appeal in the desire for a more inclusive representational landscape and certainly under-represented communities can be empowered by an enhanced visibility, the terms of this visibility often enervate the putative power of these identities. A much more nuanced relationship to the power of visibility needs to be pursued than the Left currently engages. (7)

With the increasing visibility of transient genders and sexualities in the West—in quotidian life, popular culture, and the media today—we generally understand this visibility of identity as an equivalent of freedom. Phelan stops all such fantasy, however stating: “Visibility is a trap; it summons surveillance and the law; it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonialist/imperial appetite for possession” (6-7). Like Foucault whose analysis of power also concludes that visibility conjures the body as a visible field of politics, Phelan expresses that identity emerges when the body fails “to convey meaning exactly” inasmuch as identity only exists in relation to an other (6).

Phelan analyses Adrian Piper’s 1989 video installation Cornered wherein Piper addresses the “white” spectator through a series of questions which set out to overturn the problematic binary of “black” and “white” in the United States, endorsing the view that the belief that one is “purely” black or white is unsustainable given the history of slavery and its relationship to reproduction and rape. Phelan focuses upon the principle question which this installation piece poses for the spectator: to “identify as” African-American or “to pass” as white, while underscoring the problematic consequences of racial difference and the insignificance of the biological grounds upon which “race” is decided, genetics. Now just over twenty years since the publication of Phelan’s Unmarked, I am reminded of this important body of work in the field of (in)visibility in an era where identity politics has moved from the topography of struggling with the language of identity as a means of fighting political and social oppression to today, where identity politics has become consumed in the neoliberal integration of identity as commodity, commodity as self, the self as abstract, and identity as a perversion of historical materialist readings of the body. Today much of identity politics rests on a neoliberal solipsism where identity is viewed as the pinnacle of freedom where the individual is atomised in their own “truth” and hypertrophic subjectivity which relies on an “abstract naturalism that somehow lies within self-as-truth” (Curcio) and identity as a necessarily socially and collectively conferred act of “truth.”

But we have been here before. In “Society Must Be Defended,” Michel Foucault distinguishes the “juridical rule derived from sovereignty” from “natural rule.” For Foucault the idea of emancipation is displaced by another ideal of preserving sovereignty wherein juridic and medical discourses function to create a “society of normalisation” (34-36). Indeed, the twentieth century has already marked itself as an era where jurisprudence has become somewhat demoted by the current favour of media consensus and medical discourse regarding the “normalisation” of the individual and the realignment of the body whereby now the subject more commonly seeks affirmation and legitimation from the larger blogosphere or medical community. No longer is it the institution seeking out individuals to normalise, for there is neoliberal social nexus where individuals voluntarily seek out their legitimacy within the structures of various institutions. The body, part of this panorama of securitisation, is now procured by the subject who seeks to consolidate her identity through institutional narratives of legitimation. This self is procured and cultivated through the prism of the mirror as a means of structuring asocial commodified identities under the rubric of the “normal.”

Yet, for all of Foucault’s and Phelan’s analysis of visibility and its dangers, we are now living in political moment of not only hyper-visibility, but hyper-vigilance around visible bodies, newly constructed or conceived bodies, and the very prescriptive language being foisted upon the subject through which we must access these newly shaped bodies and identities. Ultimately what politics of visibility and markedness examined by Foucault and Phelan in the twentieth century have been morphed into a politics of visibility and language as pure identity. It is paradoxical that today the basis for identity is largely constructed built upon feeling and the erasure of any real (to which that identity pins itself). One particular space of rendering visible identity is the transgender movement which has gained political grounds in claiming what is now called “gender identity.” Once a discursive response to the politics of oppression, identity politics have, over the past two decades, become part of a larger transnational, western, and extremely neoliberal cultural construction in which both “identity” and “gender” been cast as monolithic, stagnant and increasingly visible. In fact, the very politics of identity have been abetted through various cultural performatives which hinge on the visibility of these performances, the rendering of gender as not only identifiable and explicitly readable on the level of identification, but that identity is poised on the subject’s desire to have her identification confirmed by the very agencies which are not necessarily equipped to authorise such a modality.

The current discourse of “gender identity” reveals how identity politics falls into the trap of the (in)visible and the neoliberal push to exchange problematic manifestations of identity as “proof” of gender. Where Phelan views gender as something that is performative, the current political discourse of gender identity posits gender as a “real.” Where Phelan views identity as “a form of both resisting and claiming the other, declaring the boundary where the self diverges from and merges with the other” (p. 13), today there is a radical portion of the transgender movement which attempts to erase the boundaries of somatic difference while rebutting all forms of somatic discussion as bigotry. As the current clash between many feminists and transgender advocates has evidenced in recent years, any attempt to address political issues specifically related to the female body within the context of historical materialist readings, the recognition of difference is treated as a quasi “hate crime,” while the transgender narrative attempts to sublate somatic difference within a narrative of (in)visibility. Where identity for transgender theory both depends on visibility (being seen and “passing”) while suppressing and rendering invisible narratives of difference (the specificity of the female body), problematic constructions of gender abound as gender is only readable and acceptable through rather regressive stereotypes and where resistance to such reductions is rendered invisible by anyone who dare speaks of any other real. Recent events of race and gender serve as an excellent petri dish for understanding this clash between the real as prescriptive versus the real as materiality, as immanence. Or rather, that one is a thing (real), while the other is not (fictive).

In his critique of race and gender, Adolph Reed’s “From Jenner to Dolezal” critiques this very terrain of invisibility and the language of identity politics in the recent “outings” of Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolezal:

The comparisons between Dolezal and Republican Jenner (I’ve decided to opt for that referent because it is an identity continuous between “Bruce” and “Caitlyn” and is moreover the one most meaningful to me) began almost instantly, particularly as a flood of mass-mediated Racial Voices who support the legitimacy of transgender identity objected strenuously to suggestions that Dolezal’s representation, and apparent perception, of herself as black is similar to Bruce Jenner’s perception of himself as actually Caitlyn. Their contention is that one kind of claim to an identity at odds with culturally constructed understandings of the identity appropriate to one’s biology is okay but that the other is not – that it’s OK to feel like a woman when you don’t have the body of a woman and to act like (and even get yourself the body of) a woman but that it’s wrong to feel like a black person when you’re actually white and that acting like you’re black and doing your best to get yourself the body of a black person is just lying.

Reed’s critique took to task specifically a Huffington Post article written by Zeba Blay who attempted to make a distinction between both types of identity by declaring: “transracial identity is not a thing.” Reed’s response gets to the very problematic terrain of visibility as posited by Blay who deems one sort of identity real and the other not:

What is clear is that it’s not at all clear what that statement is supposed to mean. It seems to suggest that transracial identity is not something that has been validated by public recognition, or at least that Blay has not heard of or does not recognize it. But there’s an obvious problem with this contention. There was a moment, not that long ago actually, when transgender identity was not a “thing” in that sense either. Is Blay’s contention that we should accept transgender identity only because it is now publicly recognized? If so, the circularity is obvious, and the lack of acceptance arguably only a matter of time.  Transgender wasn’t always a thing – just ask Christine Jorgensen.

What this discussion points to, over and above any sort of identity as a catalyst of the real, is rather an indication that identity might very well have nothing to do with the real. Indeed today we are witnessing an era in which identifying with is actually a political act of identifying against, of implementing various forms of harassment online and off to foment one’s identity as that must be understood as a “thing” simply because the subject feels it or screams it. Phelan’s Unmarkedoffers an excellent analysis of this point in her description of identifying “with a gender under contemporary regimes of power” which necessarily traverses myriad norms: “This ‘being a man’ and this ‘being a woman’ are internally unstable affairs. They are always beset by ambivalence precisely because there is a cost in every identification, the loss of some other set of identifications, the forcible approximation of a norm one never chooses, a norm that chooses us, but which we occupy, reverse, resignify to the extent that the norm fails to determine us completely” (pp. 126-127). Phelan demonstrates that gender is not stable, that gender identity is not a “thing” inasmuch as gender is a “forcible approximation” of normativity that one cannot and does not choose.   Gender is artefact which Phelan views as occupying this problematic space of “ghosting” wherein representation attempts to make gender more secure and singular, “sutur[ing] the gap between subjectivity and the Real” (p. 172). Reworking the contradictory narratives of representation from both “identity politics” of the Left which emphasise visibility and the psychoanalytic and deconstructionist critiques which doubt the power of visibility, Phelan contends that the unmarked occupies a space of indeterminacy which maintains a certain power over the visible since it eludes fetishization, surveillance, reduction, and possession.

So if gender is a problematic space long identified by women as objectifying, how is it that today we find ourselves at the intersection of transgender and transracial identifications which herald identitarian ideologies as progressive whilst the “stuff” of this discourse is anything but progressive: Rachel Dolezal who claims blackness because of her feeling oppressed and and Bruce Jenner who, while applying makeup, tells us that he now understands what women go through or who more recently declares that the hardest part of being a woman is “figuring out what to wear” because of course women know that style is everything and the political irrelevant. What we are seeing today is the inverse of Phelan’s and Piper’s critique of race and gender, but rather an ossification of gender and race based on the very emptiness of these identitarian discourses and of the very essentialist binaries that identifying as necessarily re-invokes. Refuting wiggerism, “the view that ‘feeling black’ can make one genuinely black,” Reed argues that the root problem that one can “feel or will one’s way into an ascriptive identity or that one can’t—presumes that the ‘identity’ is a thing with real boundaries.” And this locus of feeling is the very root of racial and gendered essentialism.

Relatedly, much of this discussion of gender and racial identity pivots on identity as teleological and the mechanisms in which identity politics often serves a privileged few whilst seeming to offer a greater visibility despite the lack of secured rights for many. Feminist theorist, Clare Hemmings, problematises this struggle through the retelling of sexual history:

We tend to tell the history of increased sexual rights and filling of gaps past and present or perhaps we point to some forbearers who made a fuller sexual present available or we point to places where those rights have yet to be secured. I am concerned here with the tension of that powerful fantasy of sexual emergence and what I think is a considerable instability of sexual meaning both then and now and with how we begin to articulate that complexity. One might in fact wonder wether increased recognition makes engaging that complexity harder and harder rather than easier and easier. Over time I have become more interested in what gets lost if we tell a sexual history that reflects our fantasy that we know our sexuality in the present. For me that reduces sexual history to identity and identity to a few privileged subjects with access to rights. No wonder we have a context in which gay rights can be claimed as part of modernity while sex education, sex worker rights, or experience of sexual violence are consistently denied in those very places where sexual rights are claimed as part of that modernity. And that this contradiction is not seen as a challenge to that predominant teleology.”

Similarly Adolph Reed views Rachel Dolezal’s “outing” as the moment which might move identity politics beyond its own solipsism, where the comparison between transracial and transgender identity, however uncomfortable it is for some, demonstrates the “conceptual emptiness of both essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies.” Where Hemmings views modernity as that contradictory space where gay rights can be proclaimed conterminous to the exclusion of sexual violence, Reed views identitarianism as a debate which “throws into relief the reality that a notion of social justice that hinges on claims to entitlement based on extra-societal, ascriptive identities…, neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness,” viewing identitarianism ultimately as fitting perfectly with the “neoliberal naturalization of the structures that reproduce inequality.” Just as Dolezal’s “performance and apparent embrace of culturally recognized representations of black womanhood rests on an aesthetic purporting to embody respect and celebration rather than the demeaning racialist fantasies that shape the commercial personae of the likes of Iggy Azalea”:

Nevertheless, for identitarians, to paraphrase Michaels, we aren’t, for instance, black because we do black things; that seems to have been Dolezal’s mistaken wish. We do black things because we are black. Doing black things does not make us black; being black makes us do black things. That is how it’s possible to talk about having lost or needing to retrieve one’s culture or define “cultural appropriation” as the equivalent, if not the prosaic reality, of a property crime. That, indeed, is also the essence of essentialism.

Reed follows this up with the parallel critique of gender essentialism:

It is only by treating gender roles as somehow endowed at birth that she can contend that transgender identity is “almost always involuntary.” That is, in the context of essentializing political discourse, gender identity must express a condition as “natural” or inherent equivalent, or prior, to biological sex type. Transgender identity requires being read as in effect “hardwired” only within a normative framework in which access to the domain of recognizable identity deserving of civic regard depends on essentialist claims, and the only way transgender identity can meet that standard is to collapse distinctions between sex and gender.

Wiggerism on the one hand and what Catherine Liu refers to as “queerfacing” on the other, such essentialist tactics of race and gender fail to admit “the grave political mischief ideologies of essential human difference have underwritten in not at all distant history, from segregation and other forms legal discrimination and imposition of separate spheres to genocide.” The struggle at hand is not to further reify gender and race where minority status is fetishized as progressive and emancipatory, but rather we must necessarily reverse the current which seeks to naturalize difference through the affirmation of superficial features of identity, held up as essential, as fixed and as uniquely demonstrable through the field of the visible be it the body as simulacrum or the performativity of being woman, of being black. To cling to any of these particular identities as something inherently mimetic or representable denies their fluid and transient character as historical products. The irony in this current debate of identity as Reed sees it is this: “It may be that one of Rachel Dolezal’s most important contributions to the struggle for social justice may turn out to be having catalyzed, not intentionally to be sure, a discussion that may help us move beyond the identitarian dead end.” The more pressing question, however, is if we might be willing to engage in such discussions that question if gender and race essentialism is emancipatory, or merely a rehashing of the older organizational orders of power.


Curcio, Jasmine. Facebook conversation with author, 23 June, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. “Il faut défendre la société.” Cours au Collège de France, 1973-1974. Paris: Hautes Etudes;Gallimard;Seuil; 1997.

Hemmings, Clare. “Sexual Politics and Revolution: Emma Goldman’s Passion” (paper presented at LSE Gender Institute, 11 March 2013).

Liu, Catherine. Facebook conversation with author, 15 June, 2015.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked. The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Reed, Adolph. “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much.” CommonDreams 15 June, 2015.