Obama vs. Clinton: Identity's Violence and the Insights of Feminist Theory

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This essay begins by unpacking the implications of Senator Barack Obama’s statements about the need to negotiate with ‘terrorists,’ and uses his remarks as a springboard for distinguishing an essentialized reading of identity from one that is phenomenological and performative. Subsequently, the essay examines the potentially damaging dimensions of identity politics inasmuch as the latter can be accused of fomenting violence and encouraging retrograde, utopic ideas about group cohesion. Arguing that essentialized notions of identity are problematic and politically dangerous, the essay draws on the writings of Stuart Hall and Amin Maalouf as it considers the Bush administration’s strategic reliance on an “axis of evil,” whose essentialism is paralleled by expressions of “anti-Americanism” throughout the world. Each camp proves guilty of propounding an essentialized reading of the other in ways that promote the escalation of violence. Thus, according to Hall and Maalouf, it is only through a loosening of identity’s claims that a more humane approach to politics might be achieved. Feminist scholarship has much to offer here, for the question of an essentialized female identity and the dangers that accompany its claims have long been discussed in feminist circles. Consequently, this essay then draws on the writings of Judith Butler as it illustrates the manner in which a distanced, contingent approach to identity can prove instructive to global politics. Senator Obama’s remarks about the need to negotiate reflect the insights of Butler by insisting that the label “terrorist” can only be attached to specific behaviors, and not to à priori assumptions about identity. Ironically, then, it seems that Senator Obama is more attuned to the lessons of feminist theory than his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton.

Keywords: Identity Politics, Terrorism, Feminist Theory
Stream: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Mary Caputi

Professor, Department of Political Science, California State University
Long Beach, CA, USA

I teach and publish in the areas of feminist and critical theories,postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and postmodern theory. I have published two books, Voluptuous Yearnings: A Feminist THeory of the Obscene (1994) and, more recently, A Kinder, Gentler America: Melancholia and the Mythical 1950s (2005). I am currently at work on an edited volume addressing the impact of deconstruction on the liberal arts. I have taught at both small liberal arts colleges and a large state university. In the classroom, I strive to demonstrate the relevance of political theory to everyday life.

Ref: I08P0286