Wednesday 26 February 2014

Intersectionality and Postmodern Feminism

We 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.


Unknown said...

I only skim - read this but when men speak of 'patriarchal privilege' I always lol. whats it like to walk round with all that power? do you feel like John Wayne every mornning? do you go to bed having conquered the world? or is it a myth, this universal masculine power? I've never met a patriarch, except in my dreams.

Phil said...

It depends on what you mean by patriarchy. My understanding is the diffuse set of gendered social relations that tend to position us as feminine and masculine subjects. Hope that clears things up :)

Speedy said...

may I be the first to say - where's the fetus going to gestate Reg?

but thanks, i often wondered why "feminists" so often gave the hijab a free pass.

isn't there something that lays behind all of this though? Our friend Nietzsche's "will to power"?

everyone wants to have that power, only some of us have more of it than others. It never ends, there's no perfect world - that's why revolutions are usually usurped...

and that's why I've always suspected "feminism" was more of a reaction to the rise of working class power - bourgeois privilege was under threat so the ruling class doubled its "capacity" by bringing its women in to the fray.

so at the end of the day although it may "offend" them, they don't really make a big deal about oppressed brown women. "It's all about class, stupid." the whole feminism thing is actually a false flag.

asquith said...

I think the crux of our disagreement lies in your second and third paragraphs. What you seem to regard as a bug, I regard as a feature. It's not right to say it's a good and salvageable concept misrepresented by (you know the names... and they'll thank you for not "gaslighting" them, whiteboy). An idea is only as good as the changes in theory and practice it brings about, and I don't ultimately think this theory is going to advance humanity if widely taken up.

The other thing that strikes me is how centred on America it is. That's why anyone in Britain who tries taking it up just looks daft. I know the point of intersectionality is SUPPOSED to be that an African-American can relate to an asylum seeker in Shelton, or a well-heeled Indian working in London. But it never really happens, and in fact it's an idea transplanted from American universities to the bedrooms of perma-outraged twitters.

That is why there's no convincing response from that clique to, for instance, the homophobic "laws" recently passed in Uganda. Rather than endlessly and self-absorbedly checking one's privilige and cringingly waiting for permission to speak, I think there are atrocities in the world that we need to condemn without resort to whataboutery and the only debate worth having is over what we can do to end them.

Ken said...

Not having read Butler, I have to rely on the linked article for this, but I doubt that it misrepresents her argument.

A performative utterance is a speech act that is in itself an action: 'I solemnly swear ...' 'I now pronounce you ...' etc.

That performative utterance is possible seems to be conflated with the idea that gender is a performance, like an actor's preformance of Ophelia.

In another part of Theory, 'subject' in the sense of 'having subjectivity' seems to be conflated with 'subject' in the sense of 'being subjected to' or 'subnect' as in 'the subject of a monarch' or 'British subject'.

Et voila - subjectivity becomes the secret of dominance!

Can these two feeble puns really be the basis of so much Theory, or am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

yes, asquith, you're absolutely right. so much of this "theory" is awfully american-centric. and i'm writing this as someone who was born here in amerka! i miss the good old days when the clash were singing "i'm so bored with the usa". so what happened, guys? how did we come to dominate the world again, this time not so much through bombs and guns and tanks, but through the endless blather of cultural theory? can't someone please tell us to shut up?


Anonymous said...

and speaking of the good old days (well, no one's told me to shut up yet), how come none of the intersectionalists want to talk about, or even seem to know about something like the two tone movement (the specials, the selecter, the beat, etc.) from the late seventies as an interesting first step in creating a new popular culture that would break down barriers of race, ethnicity, even gender (remember the bodysnatchers?) oh, wait a minute. i think i know why. because it was an expression of working-class youth, and not something made up by a bunch of middle class wankers to confirm their own miserabilism! yeah, i think that's it.


p.s. this does not mean that i am in agreement with "speedy," who, on this issue, seems to be saying that feminism was something like a plot cooked up by the ruling class to bamboozle us poor clueless lads. really?

Speedy said...

Following on from what asquith was saying, my point is what lays behind? What is the motivation for the whole movement in the first place? Is it to achieve fairness or confound it? maybe have to go back to the theorists themselves.... And maybe it was a clever idea to earn some kudos (power) but what does it actually achieve? Thats pretty intersectional, no?

asquith said...

The thing is that bthe idea isn't 100% wrong, just mostly wrong. And they always tell us to go back to the original source, by which they mean the likes of bell hooks and that.

But if you think about it, the original source is in this day and age the people who are suffering the worst oppressions of all, most of them in developing countries.

And it's undeniable that I am priviliged over a gay person in Uganda, for instance. Now I think, as (for instance) Attlee and Orwell did, that I am obliged to support people who may have difficulty raising their voice- and they do, because they can't even write tweets and blog like your twitter "activist" in Britain or America obviously can.

It's right that we need to stop and rein in our tendency to talk over the really affected people (and this also happens when white feminists presume to speak for sex workers, but that's for another day*) but my definition is different.

I would, for instance, read Maryam Namazie and others that I would be able to think of if it wasn't 7:34 and I wasn't cycling off into the sunrise. Bye :)

*(and is an instance on which I in fact agree with your average intersectionalist).

Anonymous said...

Funny... I was also going to quote from Life of Brian in response to this:
'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?'

Indeed, who am I as a 2nd gen. Asian-Muslim, to claim that another's wearing of hijab is symbol of oppression when they see it as liberating. The point is that all theses things can have multiple functions and meanings. Social scientists can detect patterns, but people's lives are not only the pattern. Activists need to attend to the pattern, and the exceptions. Honesty - that is, admitting that oppression occurs unevenly, despite being correlated with gender, sexuality, race, class etc - should win allies, in my opinion.

'You're all individuals'...'Yes, we're all individuals'

Phil said...

I'm really uncomfortable with "who am I to say anything about X" arguments - it seems to privilege speech-position to the point of assuming that there's no possibility of a sensitive & rational (and productive) conversation between occupiers of different positions. If I were to tell a woman in a hijab that she's oppressed by it, she'd be entirely justified in telling me to shut up (or laughing in my face, which is perhaps more likely). But what does a hijab-wearer actually say when somebody else says that the burden of modesty prescribed in the Holy Qur'an is very unevenly distributed between men and women, and the hijab as we currently know it seems to be designed to accommodate sexist assumptions about the male gaze and women's bodies as objects to be appropriated, rather than challenging them? If she says "shut up, you can't tell me anything about my experience", the conversation's not going to get very far. I don't think our politics should be predicated on saying nothing at all (or claiming to know nothing at all) about areas outside our first-hand experience.

Speedy said...

No anon, im saying it was a plot cooked up to maintain class advantage and has bugger all to do with gender.

I thought that much was obvious?

asquith said...

Quite so, Phil, and it's also a regular occurence (not often dealt with in intersectional circles) that two people experience the exact same thing and draw different conclusions. There's a definite potential for reactionary ideas to creep in there.

The tragedy is that the ideas themselves aren't all bad. I do in fact think whitesplaining and mansplaining are both things, having seen fairly ugly and sometimes laughable examples of both. But to simply say all disagreement with an intersectionalist's statements, at all times, is automatically ruled out is daft.

It links in with this belief that's somehow come into existence that we must all "respect" religious beliefs and never challenge them. Why? You argue with conservatives, I argue with authoritarians, and we should all argue with those we consider to be wrong.

As I said the first time this came up, there's some potential there but the way it actually happens and gets played out on twitter feeds is unendurable.