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.

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