A couple updates. To start, an article by Michael Rectenwald has finally been published over at The North Star under the title “What’s wrong with identity politics (and intersectionality theory)?” It’s yet another response to Mark Fisher’s polemic, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” but is addressed equally to his critics. My hope, probably naïve, is that Rectenwald’s piece will be seen as the final word on the debate. Of course, anyone who’s still itching to pen a rejoinder and join in the fray is invited to do so. The uproar can hardly last forever, though.
Either way, I’d like to draw attention to one passage by Rectenwald in particular, one that I feel makes the connection between intersectionality and identity politics explicit. Now that I think of it, I never got around to spelling out what ties them together. Instead, I left it implicit. Rectenwald fills in this lacuna in two succinct paragraphs:
Fisher never explicitly refers to intersectionality theory, but it lurks just beneath surface of his contempt in “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” Developed in the 1970s and 1980s within feminism, intersectionality seeks to understand how power intersects identities along various axes, including those of race, gender, sexuality, or sexual preference, etc. It aims to locate the articulations of power as it traverses various subordinated peoples in different, multiple ways. Suggestive of a radical critique of patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy and other forms of domination, it complicates any sense of gender, sex, class, or race as homogenous wholes. And it problematizes any hierarchy of one categorical determination over others. As such, it appears to serve as a method of analysis for opposing oppressions of all kinds. Intersectionality should, it seems, work to deepen our understanding of the composition of class society, and to add to the means for overcoming it.
But operating under the same schema as a more simplified identity politics, intersectionality theory serves to isolate multiple and seemingly endless identity standpoints, without sufficiently articulating them with each other, or the forms of domination. The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship. While it may be useful for sociologists attempting to describe groups and their struggles with power, as a political theory, it is useless, or worse. This is because, by ending with the identification and isolation of its various constituencies, it in fact serves to sever the connections that it supposedly sought to understand and strengthen. The practical upshot of intersectionality theory is the perpetual articulation of difference, resulting in fragmentation and the stagnation of political activity that Fisher bemoans.
This explains the kind of “race to the bottom” mentality that tends to accompany intersectionality and identity. In fact, here’s a graph I found that illustrates exactly their relationship, with binaries emanating radially from the center in either direction, showing relative degrees of privilege vs. oppression:
Logically, I suppose identity would thus be a subordinate or constituent component of intersectionality, with each category of identification counting as a sort of token that signifies a form of oppression. Tokens toward tokenism, as it were, which as a compensatory mechanism encouraging diversity strikes me as far more condescending than what would result from a strict adherence to lines of argument and the matter at hand. Nothing would be more insulting, at least in my view, than someone saying of me: “Oh, he’s a fabulous male writer,” or “He’s a great Jewish critic.”
Why not aspire to universality, to simply be a great writer or critic? Didn’t Elif Batuman point out over three years ago (in her glorious diatribe, “Get a real degree”) that “The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as ‘difference’…Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.” Batuman’s piece is limited to the pernicious influence this ideology has exerted over literature and the field of literary studies, but its consequences can clearly be extended to politics in general — and leftist politics in particular.
Second, the latest issue of CUNY Grad Center’s publication The Advocate has come out. It includes a review I wrote of Ben Davis’ book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, which I’d recommend for anyone who’s interested in aesthetics and social theory. You’ll have to visit their site to read the full piece, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from Davis’ book and a gloss from me that I feel best summarizes my attitude toward it. Davis writes:
In recent years, the art world’s trendy philosophies all suggest an interest in politics, rather than the semantic games and neologisms of classic deconstruction: the dilettantish political mysticism of Giorgio Agamben; the Maoist mathematics of Alain Badiou; the orotund autonomism of Antonio Negri; the gentleman’s anarchism of Jacques Rancière; the erratic musings of Slavoj Žižek…Yet do any of these figures offer anything resembling a clear, historically rooted response to today’s problems, any graspable alternative vision of social organization or political strategy? I would say no.
My thoughts on the matter, taking issue with Rachel Wetzler’s review for Jacobin, are as follows: “Some have taken such polemics as just further proof of Davis’ ‘palpable disdain for the academy,’ but in this respect Art and Class provides a sorely-needed dose of vulgar Marxism after decades of so-called ‘radical aesthetics’.” Check out The Advocate website to read the rest of it.