disidentification, Pablo Martínez

narrator Pablo Martínez
term disidentification
published November 2022, Madrid
affiliated institution MACBA

The practice of disidentification performed by → queer, racialised and other minoritarian subjects has been theorised by many queer thinkers. It can be described as the range of practices by which minoritarian subjects resist the prevailing notions of identity: disidentification situates these subjects both within and against the forms of identity deemed acceptable by the dominant ideology. In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler poses a central question for queer practice by asking what can happen if and when disidentification is politicised. For Butler, disidentification comes about when subjects both see and fail to see, simultaneously, the kind of groupings or phenomena with which they might want to identify. This experience of misrecognition is complex, and is not just a matter of being left out of public discourses: it is about seeing things from a particular perspective – a deviant one – whereby said minoritarian subjects duly feel the need to create and reclaim alternative forms of identification. One example of this is Jack Halberstam’s dislodging of masculinity from biological maleness. In Female Masculinity Halberstam updated and → reterritorialised the concept of masculinity, generating other possible identifications and disidentifications with it.[1]


In Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz puts forward a theory of disidentification based on examples from the field of art and camp performative practices. He defines disidentification as follows:

Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalising and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.[2]


For Muñoz, performances of disidentification are those strategies used by queer and racialised subjects to negotiate their identity in a world not meant for them (or rather, constructed against them). The dominant ideology, which is the result of colonial processes, has long ensured that minorities are classified as non-normative by the forces of white, heterosexual supremacy. Identity, according to Muñoz, is a fiction accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects, meanwhile, must deal and negotiate with the available identities and roles, and somehow construct their own identities in relation to these normative ones. The systemic violence exerted upon them provokes acts of disidentification – as opposed to identification (assimilation) or counter-identification (rejection/opposition) – by means of which queer subjects rearticulate the majoritarian cultural codes. It follows, then, that disidentifications are processes not only of creation, but also of survival and → liberation. After all, queerness itself is a continuous practice of disidentification: queer subjects are always situated in places where meanings and things are not quite aligned.


Muñoz devotes a chapter of his book to the Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996, at the age of 38. Gonzalez-Torres lived and worked in the United States, during a period marked by the harsh conservative policies of successive Republican governments, as well as by the emergence of identity politics and debates on multiculturalism within academia and art. Nevertheless, he eschewed essentialism: as Muñoz put it, Gonzalez-Torres “actively rebelled against any reductive understanding of how his identity affects his cultural production”. Instead, he worked to activate what Muñoz called the politics and performance of “disidentity”, i.e. the reconfiguration of identity via → diverse strategies which, in Gonzalez-Torres’s work, led to a reconstructed identity politics, with a view to remaking the self.


In what can be understood as a grammatical act of rebellion, Gonzalez-Torres refused to use the “correct” accents in his names, and he turned his two surnames into one by hyphenating them, thus defying Hispanic surname conventions.[3] This deviation from normative orthography, this constant error, committed again and again throughout his life, represents the permanent transgressing of a supposedly fixed identity. It might also be seen as an act of disidentification, in various directions: it is perhaps a rejection of his Spanish origins (following his traumatic stay in a religious school in Madrid at the age of 13), or even a protest against Latinos being treated as second-rate citizens by the US authorities.


Despite this, when MACBA held a retrospective of his work, the accents were used in the marketing campaign. The exhibition’s curator, Tanya Barson, wanted to acknowledge the fact that Felix saw these accents as problematic: for political reasons, he was keen to draw attention to the way that names condition identity. The act of naming, which sometimes even takes place before birth, is the very first and one of the most violent acts exercised by the ideology of the state apparatus of control. It designates each person as an individual subject with a gender, class, ethnic background, and so on. MACBA’s inclusion of the accents could, on the one hand, be understood as an act of violence against Felix’s name. However, it also reflects how Felix himself chose to displace his own identity: he would neither deny nor reaffirm it, but rather just move a few steps away from it.


In the late 1980s, Felix Gonzalez-Torres uses photographs of crowds to make puzzles, plates and wallpaper, thus joining the long tradition of artists who have recognised → the crowd as a fundamental motif of 20th century visual production. The way he handles these crowd photos, given their ambivalent nature, can be linked to disidentifying strategies. The notion of disidentification, elaborated by Muñoz, is helpful when it comes to thinking up strategies for the deterritorialisation of heterosexuality, as shaped in the queer multitude.[4] In fact, one of the fundamental problems with the crowd, at least for liberal → schools of thought, is that the subject’s possible identification with a rational and fixed individual becomes diluted, and, in turn, their sovereign responsibility gets diluted too. This circumstance reveals the extent to which the capitalist states, in the form of liberal democracies, really do need the subject to be squeezed and fixed into one set identity, so that the prevailing social order can be reproduced.


In this sense, it is worth reassessing Althusser’s classic assertion that ideology interpellates individuals into subjects.[5] Althusser developed his influential theory of subject formation and interpellation in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970), one of the first articulations of the role of ideology in subject formation, and a fundamental text for understanding the processes of disidentification. In Althusser, an individual is a subject before they are even born, given the structure that awaits them and forces them into a particular sexual form, identity and place, conditioning them to be produced as that pre-packaged subject. This notion has since been challenged by Jodi Dean, for whom it happens the other way round: the subject is interpellated into an individual, and this is why crowds are quite so problematic for the thinkers/protectors of the order. As Dean claims, there is a subject who goes beyond the individual form, and who is constrained to a fixed identity.[6] The idea of a unitary, autonomous and self-controlled subject, then, must be challenged by (among other things) processes of disidentification such as the ones produced in the shifting, largely anonymous experience of the crowd, a phenomenon which so fascinated Gonzalez-Torres. No wonder he came up with forms of representation “premised on invisibility”, as Muñoz notes.


Being part of a crowd is all about a politics of the affects, and is inherently linked to moving, in all senses of the word. That is, it entails moving in terms of the affects, as well as the physical movement of bodies, in a range of actions: influencing and being influenced by others, getting caught up in the excitement, going with the flow (not to mention, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick claims in Tendencies, that queerness is in perpetual flux anyway). Essentially, multitudes of bodies challenge the normative logics of identification, as well as the liberal democracies’ conceptions of both property and sovereignty, as Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler point out in their conversation about dispossession and → the performative in politics.[7] Athanasiou says that the people jammed together in crowds “enable and enact a performativity of embodied agency, in which we own our bodies and struggle for the right to claim our bodies as ‘ours’ […] However, our claim does not refer merely to individual, individually owned, self-sufficient bodies, but rather to the relationality of these bodies.”[8]


With regards to these attitudes, Muñoz defines, following Nancy Fraser, the concept of “counterpublics”, i.e. those communities and relational chains of resistance that challenge the white, bourgeois, liberal and heteronormative public sphere: “Counterpublics are not magically and automatically realised through disidentifications, but they are suggested, rehearsed, and articulated. Disidentifications are strategies that are called on by minoritarian subjects throughout their everyday life.”[9] This definition of counterpublics refers to different subaltern groupings that are classed as falling outside the majoritarian, hegemonic, public sphere. During my time working at MACBA (2016–21), a great deal of the museum’s programme was oriented towards this idea of counterpublics. One example would be Histories of Art from Barcelona, inspired by the Histories of Art from Bogotá of the art historian Marta Traba, from the 1980s. MACBA’s project aimed to generate audiovisual teaching materials that narrate different ways of creating and experiencing life that are not heterosexist and/or white. Writing a history of art based on AIDS, sexual dissidence or the diaspora is one way of addressing the underserved counter-audiences that disidentify with the majority culture.[10]

[1] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998)

[2] José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 31.

[3] As Felix’s friend and gallerist Andrea Rosen has confirmed, this was not in fact systematic: he liked to play around with it at random. From personal correspondence with the author.

[4] , Paul B. Preciado, “Multitudes queer: Notas para una política de los ‘anormales’”, Brumaria 3:  Prácticas artísticas, estéticas y políticas (Madrid, 2004), 231–8.

[5] Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (London: Verso, 2016), 76–105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler, Desposesión: lo performativo en lo político (Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia, 2017).

[8] Ibid., 178.

[9] José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (London and Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 179.

[10] Videos and other materials from the project can be accessed online at “Historias del arte desde Barcelona”.