Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Response to the Critiques of Intersectionality

The past few years have been defined by a debate over the value of what can roughly be called intersectionality.  There has been a sustained critical attack on the framework by a loosely associated group of self-described Marxist thinkers, many of whom have coalesced around a radical journal, Jacobin.[1]  Despite some real differences in its participants, this group can be defined by two qualities: the interest in returning to a party form, whether in the form of a reformist, social democratic organization or in the form of a more radical, Marxist formation, and the tendency to want to center those organization on a more class focused analysis.[2]  It’s important to note that this group isn’t the first group to critique the framework, and critiques of intersectionality have come from a variety of perspectives, ranging from feminist critiques of the framework to Afro-Pessimist and social reproduction theory.  These critiques point to the real contentions over the now dominant theoretical framework and its perceived limitations.  More significantly, there are points that these frameworks make that potentially show the limitations of the intersectionality framework
 However, Jacobin oriented critique has defined the present debates, rather than the more limited and nuanced critiques presented by social reproduction theory and the rather blunter rejection of the theory by Afro-Pessimism.  The problem with this mode of critique is that it rejects the close materialist analysis of the theory ostensibly embraced by the group making the critique.  Rather than taking a close look at how the framework was created, how it evolved, and how it became a dominant theoretical framework for a variety of academic and activist groups and institutions, the perspective has the tendency to reduce the theory to its primary metaphor, the intersection, and places that in opposition to the superior Marxist framework.  In effect, rather than taking on the kind of immanent critique embraced by Marx in his work, this work jettisons Marx’s methodology, while holding onto his image as one worthy of veneration.   It’s notable that these critiques have generally occurred within the interstices of academic and political discourse, in twitter battles and Facebook comments, effectively avoiding the need for substantial engagement through the limitations of the media. In intend to begin this discussion by closely reading one such intervention, and then to contrast that engagement with a sketch of what such a materialist engagement would need to take on to live up to that framework.

We can see this framework spelled out by a Facebook posting that was widely distributed by this grouping, a statement made by R.L. Stephens, who states:

"The sooner we accept that intersectionality is a bad theory, the better off we'll be. As a moral principle or ethos, it's alright. But it cannot properly explain the world as it exists nor as it should one day be. 

Taking race for example, intersectionality posits that race and class intersect, which implies that they are distinct. That's ahistorical. Race only exists because of class, and because of a particular moment of class conflict at that. Intersectionality (by virtue of its roots in Title VII anti-discrimination law) is based on the premise that race is immutable, meaning unchanging and constant. Yet, we make and remake race every day because race is an ideology wholly dependent on class, not an abstract transhistorical "immutable characteristic" as the law says.

If we abandon the idea of essentialism, of fixed immutable identities, then we've rejected a critical underlying premise upon which the *theory* of intersectionality is built. I am not criticizing people's moral or ethical desire to be inclusive and fight against discrimination. I share that principle and I've dedicated my life to pursuing it. Intersectionality as a theory is not a proper worldview, and it cannot help us get to the world we want to see."

The statement is attempting to do a lot of theoretical work within a very short space, so it’s going to take a while to break down that material.  The statement wisely begins by separating the notion of intersectionality as a theoretical framework from the broad ethical commitments that are implied by that framework.  In effect, the comment wants to avoid impinging on the commitment to opposing racism and sexism within the framework, while challenging its ability to understand the causes of such phenomenon.  No problem so far, but as the analysis shifts into the second paragraph, and moves into the actual critique, it starts to go off tracks.  It begins implying that intersectionality posits the notion that class and race exist independently of one another, but the very notion of intersection rejects this independence.  The passage is, in effect, making a very elementary mistake, confusing categories of analysis with the reality that those categories of analysis are designed to help us understand.  The more significant impact of the framework is that no one category of analysis is going to be sufficient to understanding that reality. Stephens may reject this framework, and want to place a primacy on class and class struggle to understand this complex phenomenon, but the argument that this framework sets up race and class as distinct phenomenon doesn’t really hold up.

Moving on, Stephen argues that the framework of intersectionality has its beginnings in the construction of title VII anti-discrimination law and that both have the same theoretical shortcomings, notably that both operate on the premise that “race is immutable, meaning unchanging and constant.” While it’s true that a few notable creators of the intersectionality framework, notably Kimberle Crenshaw have a background in legal studies and probably had an impact on the framing of the law, it doesn’t necessarily hold that those thinkers hold by the framework of the law that they might have influenced or even helped write.[3]  But by doing so, Stephens argues that the legalistic framework of title VII with the theoretical framework of intersectionality are equivalent, a critique of one can stand in for a critique of the other.  Because the law frames race as ‘immutable’, the thinkers of intersectionality must accept the same premises.  Stephens then points out how foolish that assumption is because “we make and remake race every day….”[4] The rest of the analysis is an outgrowth of this critique.

This critique would be fairly damning if it were true.  The meaning of race is continually mutating and is defined by a series of ongoing and uneven struggles over its meaning, and efforts to fix its meaning are primarily linked to efforts to shore up racist institutions and practices.  But the argument is premised on the notion that the framework of intersectionality is homologous to the law.  I don’t think this works.  To understand why not, we need to turn to the origins of the intersectional framework.  The narrative that follows offers a very rough sketch of this process, and one that has been better explained by quite a few people, but it will do for the present.  That work exists in a very specific feminist context.  From the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s, feminist theoretical work was defined by a variety of efforts to understand how women operated as a class.  This work drew from the ideas of Marx and Freud, but more significantly, was influenced by structuralism, which attempted to identify ahistorical structures that defined the daily lives of individuals, often at the unconscious level.  It rejected the phenomenological emphasis on experience to argue that experience itself had to be understood as being structured by a series of rules sets that defined social life.  Radical feminism drew on this work, and attempted to understand the experiences of women through the framework of patriarchy, which set and enforced a series of untenable rules upon the lives of women.  The work of Kate Millet, Shulamith Firestone, Juliet Michell, and Gayle Rubin[5] in their own individual ways, attempted to show how patriarchy shaped and defined the lives of women. The cultural feminism of the early to mid-1970’s only intensified the trans-historical tendencies of radical feminism.

The concept of intersectionality arose out of a variety of black feminist critiques of this feminist tradition, beginning with the work of the Combahee River Collective.  The work argued that the experiences of black women were left out of the efforts to frame women as a class, which based its structural analysis based on the experiences of white women.  That work emphasized that its existence was based on a series of common struggles in response to the intertwined forms of oppression and exploitation that defined the experience of black women.  Far from claiming that these forms of oppression were timeless and trans-historical, the collective framed the existence of its politics in relationship to the transformation of the society in the post-WWII era.  The framework found in the initial statement of the collective can be found in almost all the work that started the framework of intersectionality.  Far from attempting to claim that the category of race was trans-historical, the framework used experiences of racism to challenge the structuralist assumptions of radical feminism. When we start to look at Crenshaw’s work on the subject, we see a legal theorist looking at a series of projects that operate under either the premise of the radical feminist ‘women as a class’ or the legal categories of oppression created by civil rights legislation.  What she finds is that these frameworks of analysis produce reform projects that cannot or will not deal with the needs of the women who are supposed to be aided by these actions, whether in the form of legal decisions or the form of spaces designed to allow women to escape from domestic assault.  Far from emphasizing the trans-historical nature of race, Crenshaw’s analysis emphasized the particularity of the experience of oppression, one that needs multiple vectors of analysis to understand.

This is further complicated by the both implicit and explicit critiques of the concept of race as developed by black nationalist figures of the period by black feminists, challenging their emphasis on the primacy of race as a category of analysis and perhaps more significantly, the essentialist understanding of race within these analyses.  These critiques can be seen in the work of bell hooks, Michelle Wallace, and Audre Lorde, and largely destroy any remaining shred of the legitimacy of Stephens’ critique.[6] Intersectionality, rather than a framework of timeless essentialist identities, argues for an analysis of concrete struggles that engages in multiple frameworks of analysis.  It attempts to complicate previous frameworks of analysis, and uses that complication to engage in an analysis of historical struggle.  There is space to critique this framework for analyzing and engaging in those struggles, but those critiques must actually take on the history of this form of critique.  It’s also worth noting that intersectionality theory has taken on a multiplicity of meanings and forms over the past thirty years, and newer forms might have begun to engage in the essentialism that Stephens discussed, but a critique of those transformations needs to engage in those specific analyses, rather than claim their problematic claims as standing in for a whole of intersectionality that often stands against those claims.  Similarly, one cannot ignore the radical roots of this theory if certain contemporary strands seem to support or reproduce the logic of the contemporary neoliberalism.  Critique needs to be immanent and materialist, which has largely been ignored by current debate.

[1] I’m specifically referring to intellectual and political networks here, rather than the editorial policies of the publication.
[2] I should note that the first position is held more strongly than the second position, where there is more diversity in the group.
[3] As far as I know, there is no indication that any significant thinker within the framework helped create these laws.
[4] Stephens frames this slightly differently than is framed here, arguing that the shifting meaning of the definition of race occurs because of its dependence on class, but even if one accepts such a premise, class itself goes through similar transformations. The more significant critique is the notion that intersectionality ignores the very real transformations of the meaning of race, which is why I focus on that critique, rather than the larger framework.
[5] To name a few significant thinkers in this framework.
[6] One can also see this in the work of Marlon Riggs.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Thoughts on the blog while on spring break

     I've spent the past week and a half trying to recover from a cold, which has led me to neglect the blog a bit.  It turns out that feeling tired and coughing up phlegm doesn't inspire occasional writing.  For the most part, I've spent my energy working on setting up the lesson plans for my students, giving those students feedback on their papers, and teaching classes.  My schedule doesn't massively overwork me, but this limited activity is all that I've been able to accomplish lately.

     However, I'm now on spring break, and am hoping to spend some more time writing for the blog.  At this point, I don't see myself covering too much political material, primarily because I haven't been very politically active lately, but also because a lot of the recent political kerfuffles haven't been very interesting.  For instance, most of the conflicts over Jacobin context has been rather dreary, and the most recent twitter battle just looks depressing.  I like the publication, but a lot of the material that has gotten coverage lately seems to be dedicated to dredging up battles that were tedious twenty years ago.  Other than that, so much of political debate seems to be negotiated through dreary clickbait pieces that don't even particularly look worth reading, let along spending any substantial time in response.  I suspect I will make an exception to write a review about publication of Stuart Hall's 1983 lectures on cultural studies, but that's more of an academic topic.  If there are some particularly interesting recent political interventions, please let me know.

      On the other hand, I have some potential ideas for topics focused on science fiction and genre fiction.  It's material that often falls on fallow ground with my small and activist oriented audience, but its a topic that I'm still interested in.  I'm planning on writing a sort of review of Nisi Shawl's Everfair.  For those who don't keep up on these matters, Shawl has produced a sort of revisionist steampunk novel.  Building off the critiques that the genre has tended to ignore the racism and imperialism that defined the era it fetishizes, Shawl has produced a novel that is set in the colonial space of the Belgian Congo.  The narrative constructs an alternative history that imagines a challenge to Leopold's colonial project in the form of an unstable alliance of Fabian socialists, African American abolitionists, and a substantial indigenous resistance.  I don't think Shawl lives up to the monumental task she sets up for herself with the project, but it's a very interesting failure and I want to write about that failure.

     In addition, I'm planning on writing about the Hugos.  I've been a part of the voting process for the past two years, which is something anyone can do if they are willing to spend forty bucks to join up, but I want to write about my process of voting this time.  My hope is that we have seen the end of the reactionary puppy campaigns to subvert the election process and that we will have a lot more interesting science fiction to read and discuss in the top nominations of the year.  I've avoided writing about the material before this year because of the tedious nonsense nominated by those campaigns, and I'm hoping we will see an end to that trend.  I'm also going to finally start writing about the Stephen King and Margaret Atwood novels that I have been reading for the past year or so.  I'm not entirely sure what I want to write about in regards to Atwood, but I really want to think about the moments that King discusses race and racism in his early novels.  (If you're interested in the topic, I recommend looking at It and Carrie in particular.)    

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Brecht's Measures Taken as an Activist Pedagogical Project

     I've been periodically thinking about a series of didactic plays written by Bertolt Brecht in the early 1930's, which are commonly grouped under the rubric of the "learning plays", for the past few years.  The learning plays were a collection of experimental theatrical works put together by Brecht and his collaborators in the late 1920's and early 1930's, designed to explore the concepts developed in his theoretical writings.  The plays were designed to break down the barrier between audience and actors, transforming the theater into a space of learning and engagement.  More specifically, I've been thinking about a play that was written for amateur workers' theatrical groups, Measures Taken.  You can see my initial thoughts about the play here.  Despite the fact that the play was explicitly written as a direct political intervention into the crisis of the Weimar Republic to be presented by workers' groups outside traditional theatrical settings, very little effort have been made to read the plays within this political context.  In a sense, it's understandable.  After all, the play itself was a failure, rejected by the structures of the German Communist Party and performed minimally. But, exploring that framework can provide a useful lens for thinking about the process of organizing, as well as the roll of organizers.

      The narrative structure of the play can be understood as an elaboration of two previously written learning plays, "He Said Yes" and "He Said No."  Each were thinly rewritten versions of classical Japanese No plays.  Both narratives were substantively the same; in each case, a journey is taken to deliver a set of documents, and in each case, the delivery of those documents is potentially put in danger by the misbehavior of one of the younger members of the party, who is injured due to this misbehavior.  The decision made on how to rectify this situation, however, radically differs.  In the first play, the individual decides to sacrifice his life in order to allow for the journey to continue, while in the second play, the individual rejects that idea, and simply proposes that the party returns to take on the journey at a different time.  While the ethical implications to each situation is radically different, each frames the ethical quandary of the play through this moment of decision, between life and death, between a strong commitment to duty and a commitment to the well being of the individuals involved in the upholding of that duty.

       However, when we turn to the narrative structure of "The Measures Taken", we a substantial transformation of the narrative.  The setting shifts from the setting of the classical No plays to the revolutionary situation in contemporary China, as defined by the crisis in the party after the destruction of the party by the Guomindang.  The play is no longer defined by a single moment of decision.  Instead, the narrative structure is stretched out, and is defined by a long series of small decisions, each of which has its consequences, but ones that are set up a new framework of choices, which themselves lead to the need for other decisions.  In each case, the figure of the young comrade makes a mistake in the process of organizing, a mistake of solving the immediate problem himself, rather than seeing the problem as an organizing opportunity, that is to say, as an opportunity to help the people involved self-organizing skills.  In each situation, the young comrade is given the opportunity to self-criticize, and in each situation, the young comrade recognizes her or his errors and commits to the revolutionary project.  The narrative ends with a moment of crisis.  Something has gone deeply wrong, and the young comrade is badly injured.  She or he insists on sacrificing herself or himself, rather than jeopardizing the project.  Indeed, its this very act of sacrifice that allows the revolution to go forward, and the committee members reporting back note that it was a contribution that the party had not expected.

      However, to fully understand the implications of the play we need to move beyond the simple structure of the narrative and to take a little bit of time to discuss some of the basic framework of the performance of the play itself.  Designed for street and other contingent modes of performance, the play requires minimal set work.  One could go farther and argue that the play is designed for very small groups, for political discussion groups, for educational groups, etc.  Rather than imagining the theatrical experience as spectacle, the play is designed for the actors and the audience to discuss the play, for the play to be an educational experience for all involved.  More significantly, the cast, who are in masks, rotate roles in the play, which means that every individual, at some point takes on the role of the young comrade.  In effect, the play asks each of the actors, who is most likely an activist or organizer herself or himself to reflect on a moment of failure, of a moment in which she or he caused the failure of an aspect of a project through a set of mistaken actions.  Moreover, it implicitly recognizes that any organizing project is going to be littered with these moments of failure.  The difference between the failed project and the successful project, at least the difference that can be controlled, is not the lack of failure, but the recognition and acceptance of that failure, and the commitment to develop new practices from those inevitable moments of failure.

     The play, in effect, becomes a meditation on the experience of failure and the mechanisms to learn from that failure and change, rather than slipping into despair or into defensiveness.  By doing so, it marks failure as a normal part of organizing, as something that must be dealt with and moved beyond.  Additionally, there will be many occasions when those failures were caused by the fairly ordinary mistakes made by the organizers and activists involved in the project.  But, perhaps more significantly, the play forces its participants and small audience to recognize that there is going to be a moment where they are the young comrade, that is, where a small or large error they made translated into a moment of defeat for the project.  It attempts to deflate the impact of that experience, to create the conditions in which that individual can recognize that error and attempt to make amends.  It's a process that I believe we rather desperately need within the structures of subcultural activism that I had been a part of for a number of years, which is ironic, because we fail so often, at so many levels.  But we lack the structural mechanisms to engage with that failure, to make its experience ordinary, to neutralize the trauma involved in it to allow for reflection.  I'm not sure how to do it, perhaps a return to this theatrical experimentation would provide a framework for thinking about the process.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Short Review of The Merril Theory of Lit'ry Criticism

     The Merril Theory of Lit'ry Criticism is the fourth book in a recent series published by the feminist science fiction publishers, Aqueduct Press. The series reprints forgotten authors and out of print works by significant writers within the genre. So far, the selections made by the publishers have been fairly interesting, and this edition isn't an exception.  Judith Merril's contributions to the genre of science fiction both as an author and as a critic has received some recognition in the past decade, but her critical work has remained out of print until this publication.  Rather than being contained in a single collection, that work is spread over a series of small publications, anthologies, and other ephemera produced by the subculture of science fiction. The book rectifies this situation and is a collection of Judith Merril's reviews, introductions to anthologies, commentaries on the genre, and investigations in the work of individual authors.  The book cannot cover all of the material produced by Merril in the 1950's and 1960's, but Aqueduct offers an ebook version of the text, along with the paper copy of the text, that completes the collection.

     The material is fascinating if you already have an interest in the work of Merril, the history of the genre during the time period, or the early history of science fiction criticism.  The book provides a good sense of her approach to the genre, and provides some fairly interesting critical readings of work within the genre, for instance her reading of Dune. There is also a lot of interesting, if fragmented, commentary on the business side of the genre, discussing its commercial prospects, and the shifting nature of the science fiction publishing business. The two longer commentaries on the genre of science fiction are probably the most in depth engagements with the structures of the genre, but one gets a pretty good sense of her views in the columns, reviews, and anthology introductions. Just as significantly, the collection of articles is an excellent companion to the work of Damon Knight, James Blish, and the more recently republished reviews and essays of Joanna Russ in its contribution to understanding the early attempts of genre criticism, which was focused on a efforts to improve the genre, rather than attempting understand its basic structures.

     However, that material tends to make the book fairly esoteric reading. The critical material, while interesting, largely engages with a series of texts that have been largely forgotten by all but a small group of fans of the genre.  The material from the anthologies is interesting, but makes more sense within the context of the anthologies, which are fairly easy to find used copies, rather inexpensively. None of these issues should be of much concern if you are interested in Merril or the history of the genre, because the book provides a fun look at that history, and I recommend picking it up.  The materials add up to produce an interesting an unique perspective on the genre, produced by someone at the center of its artistic production, combining aesthetic and business concerns.  On the other hand, if you're looking to the collection to get an introduction to the work of Merril, I wouldn't recommend this book. Instead, I would recommend starting with a collection of her short stories or her novel, Shadow on the Hearth

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reflection on what I learned from the Campaign against sanctions in Iraq

            Two relatively minor events marked the height of the campaign against the sanctions in Iraq in the 1990’s, a disruption of a televised town hall meeting in Ohio held by members of the Clinton administration and the disruption of a speech by UN ambassador Bill Richardson at the University of Minnesota.  The actions sank the impending plans on the part of the Clinton administration to increase the aerial assault on Iraq and possibly introduce troops on the ground, but did little to challenge the sanctions themselves and their destructive effects on Iraqi society.  Moreover, the small impact of the campaign disappeared with the election of the Bush administration in 2000 and the transformation of the destructive sanctions campaign into an even more destructive invasion of the country.  The campaign had very little impact and disappeared into the mists of time.  Unlike the protests around prisons or the anti-globalization campaigns that arose around the same time, it has very little impact on either the political imaginary of radical politics or much to do with the tactical or strategic aims of the formations that define that politics.

            However, it was my first sustained entry into political activism, and has had a deep influence on my understanding of politics in this country.  In the early 90’s, the Bush administration was driven out of office by the Clinton administration, who promised a much more domestic focused national policy, and the situation in Iraq had been largely forgotten by public institutions, but the Clinton administration continued and in some cases even expanded the sanctions on Iraq started just before the Iraq war.  The sanctions covered anything with a conceivable military use, and therefore covered many of the necessary equipment needed to rebuild the war-torn country, and even affected items such as pencils and materials needed to clean and purify water.  The results on the country were devastating, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  Those deaths received only minor attention from the press and were of a concern of only a small number of activists.  Some officials from the UN protested the effects of the sanctions, but there was no opposition to the policies from Democratic politicians, even those who had opposed the war in 1991 or those who opposed the later invasion.

Although I would not want to dismiss the lessons in organizing that I learned from my fellow activists in the Progressive Student Organization, I think that seeing the collusion of the Democratic Party, even its left wing was the most significant lesson I learned from the campaign.  Because the campaign was directed against the actions of a relatively popular Democratic administration, it removed the illusions that the dominant system could offer a way out of the situation.  Just as significantly, I entered the practices of activism not in response to a state of emergency or a crisis of governance in the country, but in response to the immense violence that the United States government was capable of in ordinary times.  The United States government actively aided and abetted the death of hundreds of thousands and virtually destroyed a generation of Iraqis as a matter of every day policy, policy that was embraced by both parties and had no substantive official opposition. It operated in full legality, and was not the product of a subversion of either the constitution or ordinary forms of governance.  It was an ordinary form of that governance. 

The campaign itself lacked the enormous rallies that defined the two anti-war movements that bookended it.  The largest rallies involved hundreds, rather than thousands and lot of the events were small and often frigid affairs in front of the federal building.  Most of the work was rather thankless and was responded to by the larger public with indifference, contempt, and occasionally, hostility.  By the time we disrupted the speech of Bill Richardson, the core of the activists involved in the action had been to dozens of often small and ignored actions that preceded it.  Richardson represented a face of the awful activities that we had protested and attempted to educate the public about, and he had that anger directed at him in an hour-long event where he was unable to say anything more than a few syllables.  However, that brief triumphant moment was unique in our work, which was hidden from public view.  That work made me see the daily work of activism in non-spectacular terms, building small campaigns that often had very little in terms of immediate results or gratification, but were still attempting to challenge important issues. 

In this sense, I feel that my experience in this campaign put me in a far better position to understand the politics of the country than many of my counterparts who entered activism through the 2003 anti-war movement, a movement that was dismantled by the illusion that the Democratic Party was the answer.  This is not too say that the campaign was not without flaws.  Using a somewhat dated understanding of anti-imperialism, our organizations were far too reticent to acknowledge the real flaws of the Iraqi regime. At the time, I was deeply critical of this error, and it contributed to my participation in the huge and, retrospectively, somewhat mistaken factional fight that undermined the PSO in the mid-nineties.  But looking back, I don’t think that this error had any real substantive impact on the efficacy of the campaign.  Instead, we probably accomplished all that we could have accomplished within those structural limitations. Our ability to move beyond those limited accomplishments would have required actions and events that were substantially outside of our control.

It’s also a forgotten moment that is worth remembering at this moment.  We’re continually being told that the oppressive and destructive actions of the Trump administration are truly exceptional. It is challenging the constitutional limitations put upon it in a variety of ways, and is actively allied to fascist elements in a way that our government has not done for over a half a century.    In many ways, I don’t disagree with that assessment, but we also shouldn’t ignore the very unexceptional forms of violence that occur within the very ordinary governance of this country, a country that is desperately holding onto its position at the center of the capitalist world system, a system built on systemic dispossession and the theft and exploitation of labor. We shouldn’t allow the extraordinary actions of Trump to slip in the kinds of erasure that we saw with the anti-war movement, and we shouldn’t accept the current nostalgia for the immensely destructive Clinton administration.  (This essay doesn’t touch on this, but in many ways this narrative of exceptionalism is also challenged by the thread of white supremacy that defines our country’s history, which structures that dispossessio, theft, and exploitation.)