Some Notes on Intersectionality
Just notes and thoughts…ramblings really.
Isn’t it necessary to the long work of social justice to conceive of and speak about intersectionality in both capacious and specific ways? In terms of the latter, the foundations of intersectionality, as both a method and epistemological centerpiece of Black feminist thought, are undeniably rooted in the experiences of Black women. (Readers, there is no “but…” looming.) Those foundations seemed to have established two phenomena with which we are currently dealing. Intersectionality set in motion a means for theorizing and empirically investigating marginalized and thus invisible experiences, rendered so by overlapping oppressions of racism, sexism, and property relations. It also remapped the socionomic spaces in which the marginal subject could articulate herself as a self. These paved a way toward the capacious view that any given experience is greater the sum of intersecting oppressions that forge the material conditions of many kinds of identity. In such a reading, the crucible is the historico-political ambit of contingent relations of power — power being broadly defined here as regimes of knowledge, accepted ways of knowing, and modes of intelligibility. But not all experience that ambit in ways that empower, as the continuing effects racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the U.S. can attest. Identities are, however, how a subject relates to that ambit, the history and world into which she finds herself and by which she is both empowered and disempowered. Thus Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined and laid the bedrock for these analyses, continued her work and suggested that there are structural and political intersectionalities. In one sense, there needn’t be an either/or approach to the theoretical potency of intersectionality. What must be always emphasized is the historical contingencies and dynamics of power we have defined as race, gender, and class.
So why the in-fighting, the bickering and shade these days amongst activists and scholars alike? One utters or types the words “intersectional identities” and a myriad of “corrective” (or rather corrosive) Tweets assemble acrimonious energies and sub-Tweets — all of which render intersectionality a static model, a mere method, for the Twitter user. Or, perhaps worse, is merely a sigil. In that sense, these energies convoke a propertied interest in the direction of a method and a theory of Black women’s experience. It is ironic, then, that the proprietary energies that enable such in-fighting reproduce the non-emancipatory relation to private property. (What’s worse, some of those who engage in this discourse are men!) These energies regulate the possibilities of emancipatory discourse through an almost paradigmatic reenactment of colonizing values and epistemologies, smuggling in something that feels neutral but, instead, dismisses as much as it claims to embrace.
Of course, there are differences to be drawn here: namely from what empowers and is empowering, what is given and what is taken for granted, and what is participatory and exclusionary about the compulsion to “own” a discursive apparatus. I emphasize that locating and enunciating a socionomic space — one that Hortense Spillers has defined as that site in which a subject might articulate and dis-articulate herself from within the histories and imaginaries of a supremacist culture — is not the same as claiming discursive rights to the apparatus and critique of the possibilities of and for that space. That claim is problematic when carried to its logical end. It’s regressive and is a politics of convenience. Consider the ease with which one might critique ordinary life within neoliberal, racist, colonial, homophobic, heterosexist, transphobic, and altogether problematic structures of power without regard to how proprietary values are the lifeblood of those structures. That goes for any academic or activist, especially ones already benefitting from privilege, given their unique role in contributing to the dismantling of the many houses their (my) ancestors helped to build. The sustained critique of such relations of power, deeply sutured to our ways of life in the U.S. must be vigilant across such course axes of difference that are not, in the end, inevitable. I fear we are continuously running the risk of diluting the strengths of laser-like critiques. For instance, those that seek to decolonize thought without accounting for the (marginalized) forms of life having already attached themselves to entire object-worlds born of that thinking. Or the criticisms from queer and (some) trans writers who call for the abolition of a sex/gender binary because their experiences, bolstered by a selective reading of an otherwise vast trans archive, indict it as inherently violent. What of trans people living with and making do, having made a life possible, as part and parcel of what they conceive as Life? Do their narratives count? Are they outliers to the common revolutionary cause who must be taught the true way? The point is that we cannot know in advance where any of these theoretical commitments may lead. And we cannot misapprehend the complexities that stitch together the intimate relations of a subject to her world as room for potentially acrimonious debate in the name of high theory.
“People are different from one another,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote in Epistemology of the Closet. “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for dealing with this self-evident fact.” Since I wrote that short essay on “Cisgender,” I have seen even more of what A. Finn Enke had meant as the undeniable mobility of cis privilege even in naming and creating an entire discourse out of that site of privilege. I read a Tweet recently arguing that ciswomen need to abandon their cisness in order to provide the necessary solidarity for transwomen and their self-fashioning trans politics. What the fuck does that even mean? Is cisness referencing cisnormativity or simpmly the experiences associated with being cis? And since transwomen are women, how does cisness figure? Wouldn’t that simply privilege cis? Are transwomen really ciswomen? So what of transness? Should transwomen seek to disidentify from their transness? The rhetorical elements that stabilize these questions need further examination.
Do what you will with those questions, however. But I feel a deep anxiety that cisness and transness are becoming a Gordian knot, a binary so tethered that it produces disciplinary schema over liberatory critique. Cis still seems to govern what it means to be trans. And I think it owes its energy, in large part, to the fact that “there is a large family of things we know and need to know about ourselves and each other with which we have, as far as I can see, so far created for ourselves almost no theoretical room to deal.” This diagnosis hinges on a continuing problem that at the current moment, when we need vitalizing taxonomies and enunciatory discourse about nonce practices to proliferate, withering debates reign. The nimbus of “reparative reading” or any reparative strategy, has always been looking at what can be otherwise, what is different about and engage with why it is different, rooted always in history and cultural context, and never assuming an a priori trajectory to the complexities of how ordinary interactions will converge. The energies to making a life within structural forces of oppression are all too often opaque to even those who live within them. Who dares to say, to speak on behalf of, or to know ahead of time what any one of us feels or can know? (Do you know why I feel dysphoric? Or know why I hate certain organs of my body?) Can intersectionality be part of that reparative classification of criticism, of a site of healing and feeling, and not paranoid deconstructions that lead some to invidiously conclude that any individual subject is a manifestation of a structural antagonism?