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Fantasies of Identification

Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Fantasies of Identification
    Book Description:

    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 Identificationexplores the roots of modern understandings of bodily identity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-5504-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Crisis of Identification
    (pp. 1-24)

    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...

  5. PART I Fantasies of Fakery

    • 1 Ellen Craft’s Masquerade
      (pp. 27-49)

      The crisis of identification that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States was fundamentally driven by the anxieties of “a culture that worried that a full knowledge of a person’s racial origins could become obscured” (Otten 231). In the antebellum period these anxieties emerged in increasingly desperate attempts to codify racial difference as biological and therefore inescapable. The ability of fugitive slaves to subvert, manipulate, and defy these attempts through their successful escapes both challenged and accelerated southern white efforts to define race as physically fixed. Additionally, by midcentury the increased public role taken by women in the abolition and...

    • 2 Confidence in the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 50-65)

      From the entanglements and potent implications of Ellen Craft’s masquerade, we now move to consideration of the disability con writ large, in its peculiarly prominent cultural emergence in the middle of the nineteenth century. Just four years after the Crafts’ escape, on July 8, 1849, an article appeared in theNew York Heralddescribing the crimes of one William Thompson, better known as the “Confidence Man.”¹ While Thompson himself quickly faded from historical record, the moniker of confidence (or con) man persists to this day, describing a type of wily swindler whose success derives from his manipulation of others’ perceptions....

    • 3 The Disability Con Onscreen
      (pp. 66-80)

      With the advent of the new medium of film, portrayals of the disability con in American and British film became swiftly popular, perhaps due to the suitability of the medium for dramatically “unmasking” the perpetrator. The wheelchair-user walking, the blind beggar reading a newspaper, the twisted limb that suddenly straightens: all of these familiar visual tricks were developed during the very earliest years of cinematic invention. Short films such asThe Fraudulent Beggars(1898),The Beggar’s Deceit(1900),The Fraudulent Beggar(1900), andBlind Man’s Buff(1903) followed a stock formula of a fake-disabled beggar unmasked and pursued by a...

  6. PART II Fantasies of Marking

    • 4 The Trials of Salomé Müller
      (pp. 83-97)

      The wistful jurist voices here the inadequacy of personal recognition in an increasingly diverse and urban British society, particularly in the colonial context.¹ This problem was even greater in the United States, due to rapid immigration, geographic expansion, and the lack of a centralized policing agency (S. Cole 17). Thus by the late nineteenth-century, a highly reductive—and seductive—fantasy began to emerge and compete for dominance of cultural discourses on identification. This new fantasy of marking—a persistently imagined belief in a single physical mark of identity, produced by nature and legible by the state—appears at first to...

    • 5 Of Fiction and Fingerprints
      (pp. 98-118)

      In the introduction to this book, the case of Will West richly demonstrated the fantastical status of fingerprinting in modern culture, exposing its material effects as well as its mythical origins. In this chapter I argue that the power of fingerprinting to realize the fantasy of identification stemmed largely from its imagined power to mark and control racial and disability identities. This analysis assumes that race and disability must be read as mutually constitutive and imbricated, as “the colonial encounter and the series of migrations that it triggered in its wake served to displace the discourse of disability onto a...

  7. PART III Fantasies of Measurement

    • 6 Proving Disability
      (pp. 121-140)

      The overmastering fantasy of modern disability identification is that disability is a knowable, obvious, and unchanging category. Such a fantasy permeates all levels of discourse regarding disabled bodies and minds, even as it is repeatedly and routinely disproved by the actual realities of those bodies’ and minds’ fluctuating abilities. As we will see, individuals whose lives are shaped by such disability identifications often experience a kind of bodily/textual dissonance, in which their experiences are displaced and superseded by a written authentication that palimpsestically overwrites their own bodily knowledge. Carrie Sandahl, a disability scholar and performer, challenged this dynamic in her...

    • 7 Revising Blood Quantum
      (pp. 141-160)

      Like the fantasies of marking discussed in part II, fantasies of measurement also rely on a merging of expert and lay assessment of bodies; however, even more than in the case of marking, identifications based on measurement produce vast bureaucracies and systems of biocertification. Perhaps the most powerfully entrenched example of such a system can be found in the institutionalization of blood quantum identification for Native people of the United States. Blood quantum refers to the amount of Native or Indian heritage possessed by an individual residing in the United States, measured by genealogical inheritance: one parent equals one-half blood...

    • 8 Realms of Biocertification
      (pp. 161-184)

      We have seen how blood quantum constitutes a powerful historical and current fantasy of identification, as well as the resistant counter- and disidentifications realized through artistic revisions of blood quantum discourse. Yet this discussion remains incomplete without a consideration of the enmeshed histories of blood quantum and disability categorization in the United States. Such a consideration allows us to understand why, in the United States today, both Native and disabled people are required to carry and produce government certification that purports to validate their biological being in order to access certain rights and resources.¹ Such biocertification has become a persistent...

    • 9 DNA and the Readable Self
      (pp. 185-212)

      In her 1989 poem, “The Weakness,” Toi Derricotte describes being dragged out of a Saks department store by her grandmother as the eyes of a hostile white crowd bore into them, seeing “through / her clothes, under / her skin, all the way down / to the transparent / genes confessing.” The secret confessed by the grandmother’s body, and by Derricotte’s narrator as well, is racial, the trace of blackness that is no longer discernible in hair or skin or any of those outward, obvious markers of the previous century. Instead, by the close of the twentieth century, such hidden...

  8. Conclusion: Future Identifications
    (pp. 213-214)

    Fantasies of identification inevitably fail to accomplish their primary claim of neatly categorizing all bodies and identities. Yet, as we have seen, merely the insistentattemptto fulfill that claim has material and often devastating effects on lives and communities. The question we are left with, then, is: What alternative systems of identification are possible? If my critique of current fantastical modes of identification—such as blood quantum, disability certification, and genetic testing—has demonstrated their many inadequacies, does it follow that these modes should be abandoned altogether? How would we respond to the undeniable challenges of limited resources, vast...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 215-236)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-258)
  11. Index
    (pp. 259-264)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-265)