Identity and Institutions

I’ve been reading Wendy Brown these days, returning to her take on history and politics, among other things.  I agree with many of her arguments, especially about the ways in which the left “holds history responsible, even morally culpable” at the same time that it doesn’t believe in history as a transformative force (378).  But I don’t agree with her take on Women’s Studies and other institutions that focus on identity.  I agree with her skepticism towards institutions, but lose her when she suggests that there is something especially or particularly bad about institutions that define themselves through identity. In her words, “Women’s Studies as a contemporary institution, however may be politically and theoretically incoherent, and tacitly conservative” (382). For Brown, this incoherence and implicit conservatism emerges from its stable object of study–identity.  As queer and feminist theory destabilize what it means to be (and to study) ‘women’–women’s studies programs must defend borders that are obsolete.

I’d argue, however, that the issue is not that women’s studies is an institution that emerges from identity, but rather that women’s studies is an institution.  For this is what institutions–of whatever kind–do.  They persist, they endure, and, in doing so, they encourage conservative defenses of increasingly conservative forms of organization.  The issue is not identity, the issue is institutions.  When Brown moves to considering institutions such as the state, for instance, she questions the assumption that the state “could be a deeply democratic and nonviolent institution” while challenging criticism of the state that implies it is a benign figure, only “momentarily misguided” (384).  But she does not say that this violence, in part, results from the identity positions that the state institutionalizes.  By not connecting state violence to the identity position it shores up (White, upper/middle class, male), she misses two important points: 1) that the state, as an institutional form, not only leads to violence, this violence emerges from the identity position that the state institutionalizes (there’s a reason that both slavery and genocide underpin modern state formation); and 2) that the problem with women’s studies is not identity politics but rather institutional ones.  Identity, like institution, is inescapable, so contending that particular institutions are problematic because they center identity mistakenly suggests that other institutions don’t center identity. Politics “out of history” then is not identity politics, but rather institutional politics.