Three Cultures from the "Inside"

or, A Jew, a Lawyer and a Dyke Go into This Bar...

How to Cite

Newman, F., Summerfield, T., & Plunkett, R. (2000). Three Cultures from the "Inside": or, A Jew, a Lawyer and a Dyke Go into This Bar. M/C Journal, 3(2).
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01


It's not what I am but what I do. Or is it? The relationship between doing and being is the theme of these three explorations of cultural "identity". The first is a search for the ways in which the Jewish preoccupation with eating, talking, and talking-about-eating, works to create, embody, enact, and/or produce Jewishness. Felicity provides an example of the formation of identities through one specific practice: "eating". Tracey questions the use of identity in a particular site: law. She replaces the notion of identity with something ostensibly different which is based on a collection of practices. The concept of a collection of practices is picked up by Reece as a way of doing something other than (the usual understanding of) "identity politics" with sexual subjectivities.

If a conclusion can be taken away from these three related pieces, it would be that one can't help but fall into cultural or collective subject positions, regardless of the problematic of essentialised identities, but that these are derived from common (ordinary, everyday) cultural practices. It is the doing that gives rise to the being. These remain crucial sites of investigation.

The Jew: Felicity

It's nauseating really, the clamour to claim an identity: ethnicity is particularly fashionable. But then I can say that, because I'm ethnic, even if "impossibly" (as Jon Stratton puts it). Suddenly everyone is searching the attic; ethnicities which were once millstones have now become markers. I'm not so sure how much otherness I can claim, though. After all, where I grew up, in Bondi, being Jewish was de rigeur and consequently mundane. Removing myself made me different. It was only after leaving Bondi that I experienced anti-semitism. Living without Jews I have become very Jewish, if fraudulently. Certainly, I'm seen to be ethnic, and academia embraces means 'authentic'. But I have known "real" Jews, so I know myself to be "not them", and this still doesn't displace my suspicion of the concept of authenticity because, after all, I don't say "there is an authentic", I say "I'm not it". I eat ham on Saturday. My parents were not Holocaust survivors. I'm not married, let alone to a Jew. Even so, I have a mezzuzah on my door. It lives comfortably with my pantheism. My child is Jewish. I cook matzo balls that are fluffy everytime.

Of course, we could say, it's "globalisation" and that "postmodern" blurring of boundaries that's behind it all. As we intermarry, eat each other's food and become more alike, we desperately search for ways of inscribing difference. Jewish food may not be as sexy as Thai, but it too has been appropriated. Just think of the bagel.

Jewish food, the ways of eating it and the talk which goes on about it, and while eating it, are what have made me feel Jewish. I use Jewish food and foodways to introduce my child to the notion of being Jewish in an even more secular world than the one I inhabited as a child. I once asked my mother why she cut the claws off chicken wings before cooking them.

-- Because we're Jewish, that's what we do.

I have never forgotten; I always cut the claws off, even if I'm only making stock. I never even asked why again, and I don't think she could have told me anyway.

Jewish foodways serve to make Jews conscious of their difference when performing the most mundane of everyday acts. We're talking about creating certain kinds of (perhaps "docile") bodies here, bodies whose every act reinscribes their cultural identity. Eating ham makes me feel Jewish because I shouldn't do it. When I do, I am not just anybody eating a ham sandwich; I am Jew eating ham -- it is an abomination and I know this even if I don't believe it.

So what does it mean to be Jewish and how does it show? Are there any necessary and sufficient parameters of Jewishness (and I mean this in a cultural rather than a strictly religious sense)? Because there's "being Jewish" and there's "being recognised as being Jewish". I recently ran into a woman, an academic I'd met several times before, only this time I was wearing my Magen David.

-- Oh! she said, you are Jewish, I thought so... . I am too, but it's not the sort of thing you ask somebody.

We both laughed, then I said:

-- Yes, but our mothers would!

Jews recognise each other as such, when gentiles might not, and this is probably true of many groups linked by cultural practices. How does this happen, how do you learn to become Jewish?

My answer is that it's all about food, and the ultimate expression of the importance of food to Jews is the Seder, an occasion when story and food combine in such a way that the meal tells a story, the story of Exodus. And just to give it a little extra cachet, that meal has also become a defining moment for Christianity. I employ the Seder as my vehicle for the exploration of Jewishness; as a metaphor for Jewish foodways. Passover is a lot like Christmas, because even the most secular of Jews will pay lip-service, even if it's just the purchase of a box of matzo. My mission appears to find out how it is that this preoccupation with eating, talking and talking-about-eating works to create Jewishness.

The Lawyer: Tracey

My colleagues speak here of "identities". Such a sexy tag. But describing myself as "a lawyer" doesn't exactly feel too sexy. It feels a little fraudulent as well, since I do law but I don't practice law in the conventional sense. I don't own a briefcase; playing dress-ups is donning my Spice Girls boots. If I were to wear a wig, it wouldn't be grey. And the closest I get to St Georges Terrace (aka "Law Suit Drive") is the Perth Myers store. So what is the marker of authenticity for these other identity groups, vis-à-vis my own? How is that I "do" law (probably as well as Reece does lesbian and Felicity does Jewish) and yet I'm not counted as lawyer?

The difference might be the degree to which "identity" touches upon one's soul, one's sense of being. And while "doing law" might connect me to a fraternity of other people who do law in a variety of ways, it's not what I am when I wake up on a non-work morning. It's what I do, but it isn't what I am. Law may have a culture, but it isn't a culture.

This isn't to say that studying law and taking on the professional mantle of law doesn't affect me outside of work. Clearly, to engage with any discipline, even on a purely "academic" level, I must establish that I can engage with it discursively. I'd have to consult with my learned friends on this one, but I submit that the flow between this particular work life and home life is not transparent to those who knew me BL (before law) and AL (after law). But it only touches my identity on the fringes. It's not centrally a part of my being. There might be radars that are alerted from Jew to Jew, or from lesbian to lesbian without a word being spoken. But take a lawyer out of the space of work and I doubt that you'd recognise her as one. No law-person-to-law-person "wink" or tilt of the head; no "I know what you do, so do I" sort of look.

And yet clearly there are ways in which those doing law, whether through practising, studying or teaching, do form alliances and adopt markers of community, apart from the driving of quite posh cars (perhaps there's even a signature car for successful law people, a community of which I'm patently not a part). There are cultural associations. However, these aren't necessarily attached simply to law as a broad category. Instead, I think the attachments exist in the ways in which one engages with the law; they're loose groupings formed on the basis of what it is one wishes to achieve with and through that institution.

This might be what permits a parallel between my "community" -- or whatever it is one wishes to call their social organisation -- and the communities (aka "identities") of my co-writers. That is, while my identity might not be constructed with a view to law-ing, I will at times come into play with others who read law, becoming part of a community of people who read law in a particular (for example, legalistic) fashion. At other times, I might do law in other ways with other people; for example with feminist lawyers, thereby becoming part of a different community. It's about the practices upon which we hang these relationships. It's what is done and for what purpose. Isn't this what one does when coming together with others under a single "identity", or when they form alliances within that identity grouping?

In short, I might not have a sexy identity but, no doubt, I have something that looks like identity in the formation of communities of practices. I might not walk proud, but at different times, for different reasons, I belong -- and at other times, I don't.

The Dyke: Reece

Who are we and how does that relate to politics? Having spent a futile decade or more trying to get the answer right, many of us gave up and argued that the question was wrong. Insisting that it's 'our' party (organisation, collective, music festival, nightclub, Mardi Gras, Pride parade...) didn't help because the next round of questions always returned -- or at least threatened to -- to questions like: "Who do we mean when we say 'ours'?" "Who don't we mean?" "Who makes the guest list, and who gets to spend the evening in the 'bin' (repository of undesirables)?" Besides, "Who decides anyway?"

Not having recourse to a "proper" answer -- the sort of answer one could give a quick press and pop on for any occasion -- one strategy has been to depend on a sort of tactical vagueness when drawing up the guest list. "Not straight" will do. But, given that straight is taken as "heteronormative" (the "two point two kids, one spouse, good suburb, lights on, no fantasy, pervert free" model in which sex/gender/sexuality are not only true, but line up, utterly), such a move makes for a potentially exhaustive list. So "queer" becomes the statistical norm. And who, except the Rev Fred and the WA Liberal government front bench, would elect to be seen dead in a yesterday category like "heteronormative"?

A related, and much stronger version of this, is to argue that identity, as in identity politics, is neither possible nor desirable. The problem, it seems, is not the content of GLBTQ or whatever identity categories, but our understanding of identity per se. In some wild and woeful accounts, however, a lack of absolute identity slides into an absolute lack of identity (no essential identity, therefore, essentially, no identity), making any claim to an "us" necessarily futile. Post "identity politics" becomes "post-identity" politics. And even if identity were possible, the story goes, it is a regulatory regime. As such, it creates a "bin", an anathema to an anti-oppressive politic. If sexuality is fluid, mobile, partial, not reducible to the homo/heterodivide etc., then the most useful project would be to destabilise the regulatory regimes by which the logic of identity (and the bin) is held in place.

These moves, simultaneously, mobilise an all-inclusive category (queer), retain specificities (G,L,B,T,Q) and undo the whole edifice (queer as critique of all "identity"). Another move is, of course, to avoid the mistake of slipping between "no absolute truth" and "absolutely no truth" and, instead, to ask how we go about making up what we do, including who we are, (à la Sedgwick, Halberstram, etc.), what purpose it serves, and for whom. My question then is how "same-sex" has been used, by what "communities of sign users", in the formation of which subject positions, and with what effects. Sometimes the "community of sign users" is the same as "queer community" ("queer community" may be an oxymoron in some quarters, but there are no signs of its immanent withdrawal from "community" circulation, regardless of contamination or logical impossibility). In other instances, the "community of sign users" is not so readily identified in terms of our existing identity markers (maybe we need Eve's nonce taxonomies?), like "pro- and anti-gay law reformists" for instance. And sometimes the subjectivities in question are marked "queerly" (G,L,B,T,Q, for example(s)). Others are not necessarily marked as "sexual" at all, yet are brought into being by and for their relation to queer (in the extended sense). The "Average West Australian", for instance, bears a very specific relation to "same-sex" when used by Peter Foss (W.A. Attorney-General) to argue for continuing legalised discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Critiques of "identity politics" rightly focus on the nonsense that what we do, unproblematically, is who or what we are. Nevertheless, some sense of 'who or what', some sense of identity, remains crucial to the ways in which we (and they) negotiate the world, even if that identity, like the "Average West Australian", is not necessarily understood as such.

Author Biographies

Felicity Newman


Tracey Summerfield


Reece Plunkett