Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race

Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race

Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race

Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race


In the mid-nineteenth-century United States, as it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between bodies understood as black, white, or Indian; able-bodied or disabled; and male or female, intense efforts emerged to define these identities as biologically distinct and scientifically verifiable in a literally marked body. Combining literary analysis, legal history, and visual culture, Ellen Samuels traces the evolution of the "fantasy of identification"--the powerful belief that embodied social identities are fixed, verifiable, and visible through modern science. From birthmarks and fingerprints to blood quantum and DNA, she examines how this fantasy has circulated between cultural representations, law, science, and policy to become one of the most powerfully institutionalized ideologies of modern society.

Yet, as Samuels demonstrates, in every case, the fantasy distorts its claimed scientific basis, substituting subjective language for claimed objective fact. From its early emergence in discourses about disability fakery and fugitive slaves in the nineteenth century to its most recent manifestation in the question of sex testing at the 2012 Olympic Games, Fantasies of Identification explores the roots of modern understandings of bodily identity.


Nations provoke fantasy.

—LAUREN BERLANT, The Anatomy of National Fantasy:
Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life

In the mid-nineteenth century a crisis began to emerge within modern nations regarding the identifiability and governability of the individual bodies making up their bodies politic. This crisis of identification was driven by a multiplicity of factors, including greater geographic and class mobility; urbanization, colonialism, and expansion; the beginnings of the welfare state; and challenges to racial and gendered hierarchies. Intersecting with these material developments, and no less essential to the making of the crisis, were ontological concerns about the naming and classifying of persons as they moved within and across categories of meaning. The shift in European countries from social worlds based upon local and personal affiliations to those that Michael Ignatieff has called “societies of strangers” (87) was even more dramatic and problematic in the United States, with its tremendous geographical breadth, racial and class diversity, federalist political structure, and uneasy allegiance to ideals of equality and democracy predicated upon the exclusion of certain kinds of persons. Cultural texts from the United States during this period reveal a landscape of intensifying anxieties regarding embodied social identities, particularly those that differed from the recognizable subject of democracy: women, disabled people, and racial others.

A number of events at the century’s midpoint signal both the accelerating crisis and its attendant cultural responses. The American Medical Association was founded in 1845, the same year as the publication of the phenomenally popular Narrative of Frederick Douglass and the intensification of abolitionist movements. Three years later feminist . . .

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