Identity has always been virtual. To understand what is entailed by this claim is to understand identity as an effect of processes of identification, to recognize identity as always-already a type of mis-recognition. To assert that identity is virtual is not to assert that identity doesn’t matter but, rather, is to to examine the processes by which it comes to matter. In other words, the rejection of the materiality of identity in favor of it’s virtuality is not to discount identity as a lived political fiction, as something close to us and something that does matter.
To begin, identity is virtual because identity has always had a strange relation to the real, to exist as if it were real. When we speak of identity, we treat it as a substance, something that exists in and of itself. However, this is illusory. Identity has only ever existed as an effect, an effect of processes of identification. This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates refers not to "white people" but to “people who call themselves white”, in so doing, he is calling our attention to the metaphysical operation of identification which produces whiteness as a virtual substance.
These processes of identification have always also been processes of distinction. It is this distinguishing identification which constitutes the self (or the person, the character, the subject) as as discernible and thus something that is discernible. Once this discerning processes of identification occurs something is recognized, something which possess a unique set of attribute that persists through time. And to recognize identity as a unique set of attributes, assigned through identification, through the distinguishing identification of recognition, is to recognize identity as virtual in another sense. Or, perhaps, to recognize identity as virtual in a sense beyond the as if-ness of its sensibility, beyond the virtuality of identity as certain proximate as if-ness to the real.
This (other) sense in which the identity is virtual is the manner in which identity is understood to possess the capacity to possess virtues. The discerning recognition of identification seeks not to produce an identity for the sake of an producing an identity. Rather, it produces an identity as a thing that is capable of possessing certain attributes or virtues (FOOTNOTE 1: the word virtual comes from the medieval latin word virtualis which means possessing certain virtues) .
This assignment of virtues is of course the utility of identity, the way in which identification functions to discern, classify, order and make legible a world in flux. In arresting this world, transforming effect into cause, verbs into nouns, it makes this world graspable and inhabits it with persons, characters, selfs, identities.
Here, it becomes clear that the distinguishing identification of recognition, of the recognition of identity, is in fact a form of mis-recognition. This recognition is a mis-recognition because it treats the identity produced through identification as somehow existing prior to the moment of identification. In other words, it treats what is merely an effect of identification, the identity, as somehow a cause of that identification, as if identity somehow preceded identification.
This act of mis(recognition), the mythic metaphysical operation of substituting a cause for an effect, also produces a certain virtual substance, the substance of identity. This substance is virtual in both senses: something that both exists as if it existed in and of itself, and something that is capable of possessing virtues.
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