Identities, political spaces and the significance of boundaries

Cara Atkinson (2016), UCL, MA in Gender, Society and Representation


As humans, we cannot think without marking, reinforcing and performing conceptual limits. Each time we identify a concept or object (mentally or in language) we engage with sameness and difference. Every moment of recognition and understanding is a moment of exclusion as well as inclusion. Such processes do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, the ways in which we identify concepts and objects are shaped by the language we speak and our cultural reference points, which are both historically produced. Thus our very thought is structured around culturally produced notions of sameness and difference – of boundaries.

It should be of little surprise, then, that these boundaries are multiple, intersecting, and often difficult to disentangle from one another. The titular essay, ‘Geographies of Identity and Difference: Marking Boundaries’, suggests that Geraldine Pratt is interested in the spatial expression of identity and the differences between individuals that can come to constitute identity, which are in themselves forms of boundary projects. The colon in the title of that essay expresses a key aspect of Pratt’s argument: a boundary is not a limit that cannot be passed; instead, it is a division between concepts (or conceptual categories) that should be read across. Reading across the boundary does not erase it – rather, it emphasises how the boundary is intrinsically connected to what it separates. For Pratt, ‘marking boundaries’ does not, therefore, refer simply to the drawing of spatial boundaries or the process of identification. It also involves ‘keeping the process of boundary construction in view, as well as tracing the interdependencies of what lies on either side of the boundary’ (1999: 156). Bearing this in mind, it becomes clear that to insist ‘on the materiality and persistence of differences’ refers to the acknowledgement, not the reification, of boundaries and their real impact on how we live our lives.

Acknowledging the significance of boundaries to people’s lives and self-conceptions does not necessarily involve the total rejection of concepts like mobility, hybridity and thirdspace. Earlier in her essay, Pratt discusses these three terms in relation to boundary production. Starting from Stuart Hall’s metaphor of identity as a bus ticket (‘the whole of you can never be represented in the ticket you carry but you have to buy a ticket in order to get from here to there’) she claims that modern conceptions of identity focus too extensively on mobility – the non-essential and shifting nature of identity formed through multiple identifications – and as a result obscure the fact that all identities, including the most mobile, are formed through processes of exclusion (quoted in Watts, 1997: 494). Neither hybridity nor mobility can be thought of as unproblematically or intrinsically ‘good’ (1999: 155). As a similar concept to mobility, hybridity ‘articulates a non-essentialist view of cultures, one in which cultures are continually produced in relation to others’ (1999: 154). When ‘layer[ed]… onto our understanding of geographies’, the concept of hybridity destabilises the notion of places (and the individuals who inhabit and construct those places) as static and thus preservable (1999: 154). Pratt also draws attention to the ‘emancipatory potential’ of thirdspace, but does not engage with it at length (1999: 155). As Soja (1996) defines it, thirdspace is a kind of ‘critical thirding’, in which, the original binary choice is not dismissed entirely but is subjected to a creative process of restructuring that draws selectively and strategically from the two opposing categories to open new alternatives (5)

For Soja, but not explicitly for Pratt, the formulation that is being primarily reimagined is ‘the old modernist binary of public versus private space’, along with other dualisms (like mind and body) that are frequently tied to it (1996: 116). However, as its name suggests, thirdspace is still produced in relation to binaries – as a ‘“thirding” of the spatial imagination’ it can never be unfixed from binary conceptions of space (1996: 11).

Combining Soja’s focus on thirdspace in relation to the binary of public and private space with Pratt’s undefined and hardly addressed notion of boundary maintenance as ‘politically productive’ enables a rethinking, and extension, of Pratt’s argument itself. Mobility, hybridity and thirdspace remain relevant and suggestive concepts, but only when their limitations are recognised. The centrality of spectrums of sameness and difference to our systems of thought means that boundaries cannot simply be erased – instead, boundaries are constantly reinforced, renegotiated and multiplied, even in efforts to break them down. Boundaries constantly shape human lives, positively as well as negatively. Widening the range of the political sphere allows the impact of difference and sameness to be recognised in their real world settings, and for political productivity to be thought of as closely tied to, rather than distanced from, the multiple identities of the self.

I begin with the fundamental issue of identity. It is through debates surrounding this issue that the ‘materiality and persistence of differences’ becomes particularly pressing, especially with regards to issues of exclusion and the creation of putative hierarchies (that value, for example, men above women). When Pratt refers to ‘the constructed nature of identity’, rejecting the concept of ‘an essential identity’, we must ask precisely what she means beyond implicitly defining the former against the latter (1999: 152). She associates identity-as-construction with ‘the partial disclosure of identifications’ – in other words, with sharing parts of one’s identity and keeping other parts private, or, as she puts it, ‘invisible’ (1999: 152). For Pratt, then, identity is constructed not just through conscious identifications with particular groups, but also through what one chooses to make visible about the self to others. Identity must therefore be considered to exist on two levels – the public and the private – which are negotiated through each moment of self-presentation and can never be considered to be fixed in organisation. In Pratt’s example, Mhay, a Filipino domestic worker, chooses not to share her heterosexual identity with her employers, but evidently shares such ‘“private matters”’ with her partners (1999: 152). With each moment of self-presentation the precise structure of identity – what is revealed and thus made public, and what is retained and thus kept private – alters.

This observation – that identity is not static but is instead constantly (re)negotiated, brings us to a key text in contemporary discussions of identity. Pratt’s treatment of identity echoes Butler’s argument that ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender… identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (25). Although Butler refers specifically to gender identity, her observations can be applied to all identities. Identity is action, not essence – it is something that one does rather than something that one necessarily is. These actions, Butler argues, and thus the forms that expressions of gender are confined to, are subject to ‘political regulations and disciplinary practices’ that in effect mark the division between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (136). In Butler’s theory, the differences that delineate identities cannot be considered material nor continuous as they are entirely produced and have no existence outside the process of their production. This is clearly a step too far. Public identity is evidently performative, but private identity – what one feels about the self even if one does not have the words to describe it – is often deeply felt and experienced.

Butler thus regards difference as a kind of social fiction, and through this ignores the materiality of difference as lived. Such conceptions of identity (and thereby of the self) are problematic in that they position the self as ‘a rhetorical category’, an abstraction that functions as an ideal, rather than as ‘a real, feeling, experiencing being’ (Hekman 2004: 11). Thus when Butler advocates, in her 1993 extension of Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, for the ‘political resistance of incoherent identities’ – identities that are not produced in line with hegemonic gender ideology and that resist any notion of fixity or totality – she fails to note that all identities require a certain degree of coherent difference that render them intelligible from other identifications. This is true even of the ambiguous, complex identity label ‘queer’. Difficult to define, it is used as a self-identification by people who feel that they belong outside binary categories of sexuality and/or gender. As an identity, it acknowledges differences without specifying what form(s) these differences take. Queer identity is fluid, yet coherent, and it acknowledges and accepts the materiality of differences by providing an inclusive identity that is neither male nor female, gay nor straight. The boundaries of queer are elastic and porous, while remaining clearly visible. Indeed, the visibility and coherency of queer allows the expression of private, often complex and deeply felt, identities that may be otherwise consigned to an unnamed and therefore resolutely Othered position.

The abstraction of the self and identity at the expense of feeling and experience is rooted (somewhat ironically) in the modern, liberal conception of identity that Butler and other postmodern theorists of identity, including Pratt, position themselves against. In (post-)Enlightenment thought, the ‘“individual”’ appears as ‘a coherent, consistent, rational space paired with a consistent, stable, organized environment’ – his monolithic identity (the individual is always implicitly masculine) is indistinguishable from his self (Kirby 1996: 45). Kathleen M. Kirby imagines this individual in spatial terms as ‘a closed circle’, a metaphor that draws attention to his boundedness, as well as his abstraction (1996: 45). It also points to the way in which difference – especially bodily difference – was, and to some extent continues to be, consigned to apolitical private realms and spaces and considered inappropriate to express in political, public spaces.

Political spaces were always equated with public spaces, and the ‘apparently neutral’ citizen who operated successfully within political spaces was ‘veiled by the ideology of the abstract citizen’, obscuring ‘a very distinct identity: the white, male property owner of the liberal tradition’ (Hekman 2004: 6). It is this refusal of difference, via the legitimation of the hidden identity of the political citizen, that Iris Marion Young named ‘the logic of identity’ (1990: 98). Young argues that this logic, which is tied to the reification of impartiality as a moral and political principle, ‘has operated to exclude persons associated with the body and feeling’ from the public, political realm, due to its efforts to outrun the unstable, potentially disruptive nature of ‘sensuous heterogeneous embodiment’ through the imposition of dichotomies that delineate difference (1990: 97-99). Thus women, people of colour, the working class, and non-heterosexual individuals were considered to be marked by their identities, incapable of the abstraction and impartiality required for successful political involvement. In addition, the logic of identity delimited what could be considered a political issue and the ways in which political discussion could be conducted. Political actors had to maintain a pretence of abstraction in order to maintain political legitimacy – hence the huge and often devastating consequences of so-called ‘sex scandals’, which remove the veil from political figures and reveal them to be messy, distinctly corporeal beings after all.

In the face of the totalising force of the abstract political subject, particularity and interconnection must be insisted upon, especially in relation to the sphere of politics itself. The idea that there is a discrete political realm located solely in public spaces ignores the way in which spaces flow into, disrupt, and reshape one another. Public space cannot be split neatly from private space, just as public identifications cannot be split from private identity – rather, the public and the private exist as indistinct conceptual spaces with numerous points of connection between them.

Similarly, drawing ‘the political’ out of the closed, pseudo-public sphere enables the politicisation of Othered identities previously confined to private spaces. What Pratt refers to as ‘politically productive’ needs to be thought of in terms of this movement, which takes the form of a (re)negotiation of hegemonic models of visibility and invisibility, in either direction. Actions that can be thought of as politically productive disorder restrictive, and often enforced, conceptions of identity and difference, often in spatial terms. This can be accomplished by insisting upon the importance of identifications to the living of everyday life and the structuring of the self. bell hooks considers home, for African Americans, a site with a ‘radical political dimension to it’ for this reason – it is a space free from ‘constant reminder[s] of white power and control’, which belongs to African Americans themselves and, through this, provides possibilities of healing and resistance (1990: 41-43). As hooks suggests, in everyday life difference often coheres in material forms – to her, as she remembers walking through a predominantly white neighbourhood, ‘porches seemed to say “danger,” “you do not belong here,” “you are not safe”’ (1990: 41). Marking a similarly material space where the stigmatised identity is not invariably reiterated as part of a negatively construed, absolute Other is a political action that marks both the oppression encountered outside of African American spaces and the solidarity encountered within them. Furthermore, spaces like hooks’ homeplace allow multiple identities to be expressed – in the homeplace, an African American woman is not just black, but also (perhaps) a mother, a wife, a lover of jazz, and so on. Putatively private spaces associated with particular identities can in fact render other identities visible, paradoxically multiplying boundaries by insisting upon their presence.

Additionally, places that appear private may actually constitute what Nancy Fraser dubs ‘subaltern counterpublics’, ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses’ (1995: 291). These areas offer visibility within the community they serve, while preserving some level of control over the visibility of individuals while within the space. It is tempting to argue that such spaces cannot be considered public as they involve exclusion according to difference, but all spaces, whether public or private, involve some level of exclusion. What differentiates subaltern counterpublics from public political spaces is that there is no pretence of neutrality or abstraction. Rather than bracketing issues of inequality and identity (Fraser 1995: 290), subaltern counterpublics place them at the centre of the ‘practice’ of public space by enabling the reconfiguration of identities rendered marginal through hegemonic discourses (Mitchell 2003: 4).

The concept of subaltern counterpublics points to ways in which ‘political productivity’, as the successful (re)presentation of the self through the renegotiation of visibility and invisibility, can be realised through the demarcation of boundaries within space. Gill Valentine (1996) draws attention to the street as a decidedly heterosexual space that is produced, like gender under Butler’s schema, through the congealing of repeated performances of heterosexuality, and is policed through a kind of collective panoptic gaze. This heterosexing of space is in itself a political act, an attempt to obscure individual difference under a normative collective order. However, spaces are not static – like identities they are inherently multiple and are produced in a range of ways at the same time (Valentine 1996: 150). Subaltern counterpublics form part of public space, not alternatives to it. LGBT+ bars exist alongside ‘heterosexual’ bars in many towns and cities, often demarcated by little more than the mannerisms, dress and behaviour of their clientele. As this example suggests, subaltern counterpublics are not necessarily tied to particular material spaces – rather, they are often written on and enacted through what Adrienne Rich describes as ‘the geography closest in – the body’ (1986: 212). For lesbians, particular dress codes and styles, objects worn or carried on the body and body language help materialise difference and sameness on the surface of the body, visually encoding their identity as lesbians within a personal, subjective, and mobile geography that disrupts hegemonic, heterosexual imaginings of public space (Valentine 1996: 150).

Thus even the presence of individuals whose self-presentation makes public personal identifications in space materialises boundaries that are in themselves mobile. Shifting networks of visibility, connection and identification (as well as invisibility, disconnection and rejection) are constantly (re)drawn as people move within spaces and are viewed by others, who each identify new and unique patterns of sameness and difference. As Dorothy Painter (1981) argues, straight women may well not see indicators of lesbianism because identifying lesbians is not relevant to their desires – but equally, if lesbians can recognise other lesbians through ‘a sense of sameness – she’s like me’, then straight women may well recognise lesbians through a sense of difference, commingled with the sense of sameness born of a shared identity – that of identifying as a woman (Valentine 1996: 150). Even when identities are consciously made visible upon the body, they can never be considered in isolation from other identifications, however insignificant these identifications may seem. Identifications usually not considered political – such as marking oneself, through the wearing of a band t-shirt, for example, as a metal fan – mingle with representations that traditionally carry more weight, such as those of sexuality or class. All materialisations of identities resist the reduction of the self and work to destabilise hegemonic conceptions of space and the selves that inhabit them.

Insisting upon the centrality of difference to our systems of thought, experiences and selves is in itself a politically productive task. Differences are marked whenever identities are rendered visible, which is whenever the self is presented to others (and, arguably, even to itself). Thus the very notion of the self, whether mobile or static, is born of notions of difference and sameness that render the individual socially intelligible. Social intelligibility occurs in multiple spaces and on multiple levels at the same time, as individuals move through space and witness each other’s self presentations. Different publics are formed as individuals interact, mapping networks of sameness and difference, and private spaces emerge, cohere and dissolve within and around public spaces as individuals (re)negotiate which identifications to reveal and which to withdraw. It is through this constant process of representation that identities can come to be considered politically productive in their own right, and that boundaries can be thought of as simultaneously identifiable and porous, coherent and mobile, concrete and conceptual.


Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, London: Routledge.

Fraser, N. (1995) ‘Politics, Culture, and the Public Sphere: Toward a Postmodern Conception’, in L. Nicholson and S. Seidman (eds) Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.287-312.

Hekman, S. (2004) Private Selves, Public Identities: Reconsidering Identity Politics, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hooks, b. (1990) ‘Homeplace: A Site of Resistance’, in b. hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, London: Turnaround, pp.41-49

Kirby, K. (1996) ‘Re: Mapping Subjectivity: Cartographic Vision and the Limits of Politics’, in N. Duncan (ed.) BodySpace: Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality, London: Routledge, pp.45-55.

Mitchell, D. (2003) The Right to the City, London: The Guildford Press.

Painter, D. (1981) ‘Recognition Among Lesbians in Straight Settings’, in J. Chesbro (ed.) Gayspeak, New York: Pilgrim Press, pp.68-79.

Pratt, G. (1999) ‘Geographies of Identity and Difference: Marking Boundaries’, in J. Allen, D. Massey and P. Sarre (eds) Human Geography Today, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.151-167.

Rich, A. (1986) ‘Notes Towards a Politics of Location’, in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985, New York: Norton, pp.210-233.

Soja, E. (1996) Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places, Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Valentine, G. (1996) ‘(Re)negotiating the “Heterosexual Street”: Lesbian Productions of Space’, in N. Duncan (ed.) BodySpace: Destabilizing Geographies of Gender and Sexuality, London: Routledge, pp.146-155.

Watts, M. (1997) ‘Mapping Meaning, Denoting Difference, Imagining Identity: Dialectical Images and Postmodern Geographies’, in T. Barnes and D. Gregory (eds.) Reading Human Geography: The Poetics and Politics of Inquiry, London: Arnold, pp.489-502.

Young, I. (1990) ‘The Ideal of Impartiality and the Civic Public’, in I. Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.96-121.

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