Centre for the History of the Book

Rita Felski

Identification: A Defense

‘Identifying’ points toward an all too common experience: a felt connection with a fictional character or other aspect of an imaginary world.  Literary critics, however, tend to view identification with distrust--—as evidence of a naïve, unsophisticated, or insufficiently rigorous response. Identifying is something ‘other readers’ do.

In my talk I defend the act of identification—as a more multi-faceted phenomenon than it is often made out to be. This means thinking about identification as a distinctively aesthetic response and questioning any simple equation of identification with political or philosophical identity. The history of feminist debates about identification offers one relevant context for such discussion. I go on to develop a four-part definition of what it means to identify: as a matter of alignment, allegiance, empathy, or recognition, or of any combination of these four possibilities. Seen in this light, identification turns out to be ubiquitous, and perhaps unavoidable.  In the latter half of my talk I argue that it shapes practices of academic argument as well as the aesthetic and affective responses of ordinary readers, albeit in somewhat different ways. Identification is not the antithesis of critique, but its very basis..


Rita Felski is William R Kenan, Jr. Professor at the University of Virginia and the editor of New Literary History.

View her profile at the University of Virginia