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Intersectionality and Postmodern Feminism

intersectionality-illustrated1We left the last post having worked through the basic conceptualisation of intersectionality. If you can’t be bothered to trudge through its thousand or so words, simply put it is the appreciation of how different oppressions rooted in ostensibly discrete sets of violent (symbolically and physically) social relations can intersect and condition the lives of whole groups of people. Furthermore, activists involved in social struggles have to be conscious of and fight against the replication of oppression within discourses and movements committed to liberation. For example, feminism has to be alive to the possible marginalisation of black and minority ethnicity women, disabled women, and so on within the women’s movement.

There are some issues with this, not least the pathological forms of identity politics that have become indistinguishable from intersectionality in the eyes of many participants and observers of the relevant debates. What strikes me, however, is how none of these debates are nothing new. Historical debates within feminism since the 60s were characterised by the “classical” distinctions between liberal, socialist and radical feminisms which, in the 80s and 90s, were followed by critiques attacking unconscious ‘race’, class, cis-gendered, and heteronormative biases, and a valorisation of doubly/triply etc. oppressed experiences of womanhood, are visited and revisited by today’s ‘third wave’ feminism. This is less a ‘second time as farce’ repetition, even if the chosen venues for such arguments are Facebook and Twitter feeds, and more a cycle reflecting the persistence (or the perception of persistence) of really existing issues.

Without getting into the debates themselves, over the course of the last year my Twitter feed has been lit up by the refusal of a group of radical feminists to admit transwomen access to their events, of apologies for not checking one’s privilege, and accusations that powerful white women in the mainstream commentariat use their position to exclude BME women. Go back to 1992 and you would find the same complaints reported in academic overviews of the then burgeoning postmodern feminist scene. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s important to grasp the tacit theoretical agreements underpinning the disputes in postmodern feminism to have a handle on what’s going on today. Contrary to contemporary crude renderings of postmodernism, these were very much concerned with the materially-lived existences of women bearing the marks of multiple oppressions. They were not about denying the possibility of developing sociological knowledge or activist-oriented theory, just sceptical towards what Lyotard called metanarratives. That is overly-simplistic catch-all theories that claim to explain everything, such as neoliberalism, or the Duplo Marxism common to most Trot groups. This is a scepticism that is well-justified considering at best the experience of women, let alone gay women, black women, etc. were dismissed as distractions or, at worst, people-categories to be manipulated and/or scapegoated and/or oppressed.

The tendency of the re-presentation of these debates for the poststructuralist movement among the 90s academy was not so much the under-appreciation of their materiality but the near-exclusive focus on identity. If postmodern feminism accepted the critiques that all three types of 2nd wave feminism with its unconscious privileging of white, middle class, Western women, if feminism then cannot speak for ‘all women’, who can it speak for and what can it do? One way was to try and find new universals women hold in common (for example, see here). Another option was to take the analytical scalpel and slice deeper into the social relations responsible for disaggregating ‘woman’, ending up with the distinctively pomo project of trying to destabilise gender relations by showing their discursive roots and free-floating performative character. Another strand still looked at ways of exploring alliances between different groups of women to achieve certain objectives, and to which intersectionality properly corresponds.

However, what is evacuated from postmodern feminism – even though the materiality of oppression is front and centre – is interest. This will be visited again when I get round to blogging about class and intersectionality. It’s sufficient to say here that within the terms of postmodern feminism, its disappearance is understandable. With the fragmentation of the unified subject ‘woman’ who has certain interests vis a vis patriarchy, it follows there are instead multiplicities of interests – some of which might be at odds with one another. There’s also the recognition that making assumptions about certain women’s interests might actually infringe on hard-won autonomies. Who am I, as a white woman, to declare that the hijab is a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression? Who am I, as a straight woman, to cast aspersions on the political strategy of lesbian separatist feminists? Who am I, as a bloke without much of an evening life, to pronounce on the topic of women’s interests?

Postmodern feminism dealt with it by not dealing with it. By leaving interest untheorised a thousand relativist flowers bloomed. Those feminists who wanted to build alliances among women were hamstrung because the absence of interest gave no grounds for such an coalition to be articulated. Trying to rally the troops behind Butlerian deconstruction of gender and sex as discursive constructs in specialist journals weren’t much of a go-er.

Unfortunately, it’s this legacy of postmodern feminism that gets replicated in the social media wars of 3rd Wave Feminism, albeit on a larger, pathological scale. It appears as if convulsed by identity wars, of authenticity vs faux feminism, of privilege vs underprivilege, of contestations of who counts and who doesn’t count as a woman. This doesn’t preclude participants from shifting wider public debates about the status of women-in-general, or staging high profile stunts, or winning campaigns. Yet for the most part, the ethereality of feminism as postmodern identity politics lends itself well to the public presentation of self social media fosters, of the kind of discursive loop where what is and what isn’t feminism is gone over time and again.

Yet the seeds for overcoming this seeming dead end can be found within the impetus that has remade feminism a force to be reckoned with. As the internet generally and social media specifically opened up public life to millions and millions of people, women not only found new spaces to share experiences but found the same old sexist, misogynistic crap had taken up the keyboards too. Remember, oppression (in this case gender) is a social relation and as per the old, traditional ways it defined women as second class citizens, as objects ripe for abuse. Regardless of identity and its nuances, the wave of discrimination that fell upon women – ironically – did not discriminate. The standpoint of patriarchal privilege and power cares nothing for difference among women, save for avenues it can drive cartloads of divide-and-conquer down. The starting point isn’t a universalist subject of feminist agency or endless fights over what that looks like, but rather the catch-all negative constitution of woman by those who benefit from it. And what feminism and socialist politics can do.

 This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

Image Credit: ‘Intersectionality,illustrated’ by Ententa’s Magic licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivations 3.0 Unported License

12 Comments

  1. swatantra says:

    This is the kind of article that gives Feminism a bad name. I can’t make out what it is trying to say.

  2. Chris says:

    “feminism has to be alive to the possible marginalisation of black and minority ethnicity women, disabled women, and so on within the women’s movement.”

    In practice, that just ends up meaning pandering and promotion of tokens. I really don’t like the feminist movement, but it’s not racist.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Is this article a spoof? I wish it were but I guess that it isn’t. In it we read.

    “…the basic conceptualisation of intersectionality … simply put it is the appreciation of how different oppressions rooted in ostensibly discrete sets of violent (symbolically and physically) social relations can intersect and condition the lives of whole groups of people.”

    “the pathological forms of identity politics that have become indistinguishable from intersectionality in the eyes of many …”

    “unconscious ‘race’, class, cis-gendered, and heteronormative biases, and a valorisation of doubly/triply etc. oppressed experiences of womanhood”

    “… the refusal of a group of radical feminists to admit transwomen access to their events”

    “Duplo Marxism common to most Trot groups”

    “… the distinctively pomo project of trying to destabilise gender relations by showing their discursive roots and free-floating performative character. ”

    “… Butlerian deconstruction of gender and sex as discursive constructs in specialist journals …”

    “… contestations of who counts and who doesn’t count as a woman.”

    “The starting point is… the catch-all negative constitution of woman by those who benefit from it.”

    Finally there is the promise/threat

    “… what is evacuated from postmodern feminism … is interest. This will be visited again when I get round to blogging about class and intersectionality.”

    Please don’t.

  4. Chris says:

    Patriarchy? So male workers lord it over duchesses do they?

  5. Gerry says:

    David Pavett – hilarious post, thank you for making me smile this morning!

    There are some interesting and accessible points buried deep in this article, but why do they have to be totally smothered in jargon and phraseology only a gender studies masters student can “decode”?

    And I keep reminding myself: feminism was, and should always be, an egalitarian ideology..one committed to ending patriarchy and all other oppressive systems, which is why – to answer Chris – working class women AND men would benefit from its struggles and success!

  6. David Pavett says:

    @Gerry

    Thanks for the comment. If we can’t laugh at the ridiculous then we are lost (Emperor’s clothes …).

    The great joke (although a rather sad one) is that this jargon of feminist postmodernism (which I guess has few supporters among feminist generally) is that its jargon-filled material about not excluding working class women can have not other effect than to do just that. It is a political absurdity and laughing it is is certainly better than respectful silence as if there were some great mysteries being revealed.

  7. Chris says:

    “feminism was, and should always be, an egalitarian ideology..one committed to ending patriarchy and all other oppressive systems”

    That’s not feminism though. That’s socialism. Feminism is just for women, which is why the “intersectional” attempt to make it apply to every form of disadvantage is misguided.

  8. If you want to know what it’s really about google Derrick Bell and Critical Race Theory. CRT (a pseudo Marxist form of “Critical Theory” related to race is a satire on the US constitution. Intersectionality is really nothing more than a feminist code word for CRT dreamed up by Bell’s protege Kimberle Crenshaw. One can have some sympathy for them in that in the US there is no protection for minorities via hate legislation and also they lock up more people than anywhere else on the planet (disproportionately black prison population) but … the actual ideology is CRT rather than the more interesting research it is based on is pretty twisted. While there are no doubt many injustices in the US legal system CRT reads like a vexatious litigants’ charter. Bell believed that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational”… ie that any organised body run by predominantly white people who have “all the socio-economic power” will almost by definition be institutionally racist. Except they dont used non-inflamatory langauge like “institutionally racist” but “White Privilege”. All white people are part of a system that is solely designed to keep down “people of color”. This is best exemplified by the fact CRT “theorists” have their own definition of racist – it is “prejudice + power” – not as the rest of the world defines it racial prejudice. In short CRT hinges on the deluded belief that minorities cannot be racist. Sheilded from accusations of racism themselves by the new Katz/Bidol redefinition of racism and secure in the knowledge that they are only prejudiced the proponents of this surreal doctine stalk the internet accusing all and sundry of “racial microaggressions” and simply being racist for existing. And of course since racism is “intersectional” it doesn’t matter even if you say something that isn’t racially prejudiced as “it is all one thing”. Instead of immigrants being expected to to some degree assimilate into the majority culture it is instead totally the responisbility of the majority culture to be fully informed about every minority issue “it’s not my job to educate you”. CRT theorists also pose the argument that because America has a “racist history” it is almost irredeemably racist. Which raises the question “what happens in the UK where we have a different history?” The problem is not “not least the pathological forms of identity politics that have become indistinguishable from intersectionality” the problem is intersectionality and CRT it’s self. It is an intolerant ideology. Perhaps there is a reason if not excuse for this in that the US government is very constricted in what it can do for minorities without violating the Constitution but you have to ask the question here, where we have a more fluid Consitution, and countless special legal protections for minorities what is the point in CRT? Is the answer affirmative action? We already have that. Is the answer positive discrimination? To do that properly you need to very carefully monitor demographics and statistics. CRT however remains as subtle as a brick through a plate glass window. And that is the real reason intersectionality has such a bad name. With its assertion that all white people are guilty merely as a result of their existence it’s almost a re-creation of original sin and borderline incitement to racial hatred…?

  9. David Pavett says:

    @Anthony Millar

    What you say make sense to me and seems to me to confirm my view about the absurdly jargonised contribution of P B-C.

    There is a place for jargon in specialised study areas but only when that jargon is a clearly established short hand for a prior development of an idea. And even then when writing for people outside the given speciality it should be possible to do without this jargon, or at the very least to make its meaning perfectly clear. If Einstein could express his ideas in terms which the interested outsider can understand, and he could, then that is something for the rest of us to aim at.

    In my view it is more than a touch ridiculous to try to make points about excluded groups in language that excludes nearly everyone. Contradiction in terms or what?

  10. Gerry says:

    Chris – agreed re socialism, but feminism – as an egalitarian ideology – is for women AND men too…. although of course it is womens’ actual experience of sexism, discrimination, violence, abuse, stereotyping, harassment, patriarchy etc which gives feminism its actual politics and programme.

    David – your final point re excluded groups and exclusive language is well made..if this is the tone of the debate about “intersectionality” then heaven help us all (to quote Stevie Wonder, a disabled black man!)

  11. @David Pavett

    Hard line Marxists love wrapping their ideas up in over complicated language like anarcho syndicalism so that they can kid themselves that the ideas are rejected because people dont put the thought in rather than they are nonsense.

    The term intersectionality was coined by Krenshaw …something along the lines of if a black woman is standing in the middle of a road intersection with racist cars coming in one direction and sexist cars coming in another she is a victim of two forms of discrimination (racist and sexist) so does it matter which car she is hit by?

    There is some logic in this in that studies show that racist people tend to be sexist as well but there is a huge deductive leap involved to say “it doesn’t matter” if she’s hit by something racist or sexist. Also the metaphore doesn’t quite work in the UK since we have roundabouts and intersections so no one knows what on earth it means without it having to be tediously re-explained all the time.

    There’s also the problem of is the black woman doubly disadvantaged by being black and a woman? Surely even if she stands more chance of being hit she can still only be run over once. And of course one might suggest she use a zebra crossing like everyone else instead of standing in the middle of the road waiting to get run over.

    You can see/imagine how some of these ideas became popular (such as the idea that black people cant be racist) in the aftermath of the abolition of segregation and the Jim Crow laws and, of course, the ideas tend to be popular with disenfranchised groups because they give them a carte blanche to be radical … but it is a fairly dangerous creed if you ask me …. although none of these movements come out of nothing. Much of Krenshaw’s work for example considers how people who have language difficulties are unaware of the help available to them… which is of merit … however the conclusions that some of these people draw from that are dubious in the extreme. For example Derrick Bell wrote an infamous sci-fi story about all the white people in the US voting to sell all their black population to a bunch of aliens for technology and cash. And interesting conjecture but to put it mildly …a rather bleak view of human/white nature.

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