Postmodern origins of intersectionality

In a three-part series of posts, I’ll try to sketch the conceptual genealogy of intersectionality as a mode of postmodern discourse, politically not far removed from the “politics of difference” or “politics of recognition” characteristic of this period (1980s-2000s). At the same time, I’ll be relating it to concurrent historical transformations taking place within leftist politics. Though social, economic, and political transformations might not straightforwardly determine transformations in other spheres, on a one-to-one basis at least, I nevertheless consider it decisive in the reconfiguration of other ideologies around it. Postmodernism itself is (was?) more or less a symptom of the failure of Marxism to overcome the capitalist social formation in the twentieth century. So “intersectionality,” which I consider to be a botched or bowdlerized attempt to articulate a postmodern political practice — this never having been Crenshaw’s intent, incidentally, since for her it was meant for juridical use — would itself be a further vulgarization of theoretical postmodernism. A subsequent post will attempt to formulate a more rigorous political critique of the concept, thus properly situated, drawing upon the critical social theory of Adolph Reed, the Marxist feminism of Eve Mitchell, and the literary criticism of Elif Batuman, as well as other authors who’ve recently written on the subject (Maya Gonzalez of Endnotes, for example). Then after that, in a third post I’ll try to outline the only standpoint from which to grasp the complexities of race, gender, class, and so on without falling into reductionism on the one hand or nebulous, tangled confusions like “intersectionality”: namely, the totality of social relations. Without further ado then, let’s proceed.

The “cultural turn” following the death of the Left

The concept of “intersectionality” as a mode of analysis first emerged and was popularized during the late 1980s and early 1990s, up through the end of the millennium. In other words, at a moment where the Left, and the struggle against capitalism in general, was in abeyance. (Yes, “the Left is dead,” as the saying goes, and has been for some time. But sometimes it’s even deader than usual). With the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the consolidation of Dengism in China after the 1989 suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, even the grim alternative of “actually-existing socialism” no longer seemed available. Economic neoliberalism was the order of the day. Liberal-bourgeois democracy was heralded by neocons like Francis Fukuyama as the inevitable “end of history,” having at last defeated its great rival in communism.

At the same time, there wasn’t much life in the traditional sectarian Marxist parties or leftist intellectual groupings. Many of the professors and students radicalized after 1956 and 1968 had already capitulated to Eurocommunism by the 1980s — such as Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantall Mouffe, to name just a few. Some succumbed to even more reactionary ideologies — Roger Garaudy went from the PCF to Catholicism to fundamentalist Islam within the space of a few decades; Bernard-Henri Lévy gave himself over to various forms of liberal opportunism; Lucio Colletti became a supporter of Berlusconi in Italy. The “new social movements” that arose during the 1960s and 1970s — civil rights and black nationalism, second-wave feminism, and gay pride — all but collapsed during the 1980s and 1990s, moving into the very institutions they’d once critiqued. Participants in these movements tended to become either full-time activists or tenured professors. A new status quo solidified around them. With this, what had been living in the New Left was institutionalized and doubled back upon itself. Critical race theory attempted to theoretically formalize the practices developed in struggles for racial equality over the previous two decades. Second-wave feminism slowly gave way to the newer brand of third-wave feminism. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered reexaminations of sexuality and gender norms drifted toward what would become known as queer theory (thus LGBTQ, and not just LGBT). One common thread between these new fields of academic study was a shared shift in emphasis away from the social toward the cultural. Whereas the “new social movements” had prioritized social and economic matters such as equality, increased opportunity for employment, and comparable pay-scales, their scholarly counterparts were preoccupied with cultural and linguistic representations of women, minorities, and different sexual orientations in popular media. They followed the so-called “cultural turn,” moving from base to superstructure in terms of overall focus.

Unsurprisingly, this cultural turn was bound up with an abiding interest in poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, and continental European philosophy in general. Inroads were made early on into sociology, legal studies, and the humanities. This was where the concept of “intersectionality” originally took shape. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1983 address titled “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, and Violence Against Women of Color” is widely acknowledged as the first attempt to conceptualize this overlapping of multiple “vectors” of oppression or marginality. Compared with later instantiations and elaborations of the theory, Crenshaw’s use in this essay is fairly modest in its scope of application. She had no interest in extending the category beyond the sphere of policymaking and jurisprudence.

“Intersectionality” and the problematic legacy of postmodernism

While later theorists of intersectionality would retroactively cite earlier formations such as the Combahee River Collective as a practical precursor, this example was nowhere mentioned by Crenshaw. Crenshaw did cite postmodernism as a theoretical influence in this article, however. From its very inception, then, “intersectionality” was explicitly and self-consciously theorized along postmodern lines. She wrote: “I consider intersectionality to be a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory.” (“Mapping the Margins,” pg. 1243). Nor was intersectionality’s origin in postmodern conditions a trifling or accidental affair, one peculiar to its initial theorization soon to be expunged. As theorists in different disciplines picked up on the coinage and transpose it into different contexts, its roots in postmodernity remained in the foreground. Just five years after Crenshaw published her article, Caroline Andrew began to explore the concept’s possible political use. In a 1995 article written for the journal Nationalism and Ethnic Politics called “Ethnicities, Citizenship, and Feminisms: Theorizing the Political Practices of Intersectionality,” Andrew stressed postmodernism’s crucial contribution in laying the groundwork for “politics of difference,” writing:

Postmodernism has given visibility to fragmentation, marginalization, and multiple identities. The question of how to theorize the intersection of feminism and ethnicity partially reflects postmodern sensibilities. Postmodernism is certainly an important intellectual step towards the reconceptualizing of difference. The idea of multiple, fluid identities, of things being both what they are and what they are not, of the end of metanarrative — all these open up the debate for the better understanding of difference. (“Ethnicities, Citizenship, and Feminisms,” pg. 67).

Other authors have likewise noted the shared framework linking postmodern categories with the theory of intersectionality. Ananya Chatterjea discussed the critical vocabulary and conceptual toolkit common to both, underlining the importance of such notions as “otherness” and “alterity.” “It is precisely such practices of mobile intersectionality and of resistance to inscription by and in terms of the metanarrative of Euro-Western dominance, from a positioning in alterity, that seem to mark for me the recurring characteristics of a postmodern,” recorded Chatterjea in 2004. “[I]t seems that these notions, along with the consequent inscription in ‘otherness,’ [are] the persistent tropes of a ‘postmodern condition’.” (Resistive Choreographies Through Works pg. 104). Even Patricia Hill Collins, a major black feminist author sympathetic to Marxism who has written extensively on intersectionality, has tended to see the concept as emanating from postmodern discourse. “[T]he postmodern legitimation of ongoing projects of oppressed groups to decenter power, to deconstruct Western metanarratives, and to rethink differences,” Collins wrote in 1998, “legitimates efforts to understand race, class, and gender intersectionality.” (Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice, pg. 153). Collins’ own commitment to Marxian criticism led her to be wary of postmodern gestures’ susceptibility to harmless assimilation or “co-optation,” which is more than can be said for many other feminists who uncritically adopted intersectionality as a mode of analysis. Her cautiousness toward the postmodernism implicit in the concept of intersectionality is sorely lacking amongst self-styled “communists” relying on intersectional analysis today.

As if to cement this connection between postmodernism and intersectionality, the entry on “intersectionality” in the popular 2000 Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies once more dwelt upon the cultural turn signaled by this neologism:

Another aspect of the discussion of gender as framed in…postmodern terms stresses the need to connect gender to race, class, age, sexuality, disability, and other vectors of power…Postmodern feminists generally agree that gender does not stand alone as an analytic category and must be considered in relation to other salient practices of power, but postmodern thinking multiplies gender practices with the goal of disrupting them altogether rather than reconsolidating a better set. (Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies, pg. 134).

Clearly, postmodern thought has played a pivotal role in the development of intersectionality theory. Most of its proponents today seem either completely unaware of this source of inspiration or are anxious to dispense with this embarrassingly outdated periodicity. Others would like to decouple them, seeing postmodernism and intersectionality as more or less separable and would prefer to forget the former while retaining the latter. Multiculturalism’s still cool, apparently, despite critiques by Žižek and Badiou. Postcolonial theory still seems to empower subalterns of various stripes, so that’s okay too. Not so with postmodernism, though. But it should be clear from the preceding that intersectionality is intimately intertwined with postmodernism. What remains of a concept thus uprooted from its context, however?

Beyond postmodernity? Intersectionality after the millennium

By the early- to mid-2000s, as mentioned, “postmodernism” as a thought-figure periodizing the present was already becoming unfashionable. Likewise, “intersectionality” was on its way out in activist circles, returning to the rarefied realm of academe from whence it sprang. Not coincidentally, anticapitalist struggles (at least, movements calling themselves anticapitalist) only really reemerged with the neo-anarchist currents leading the anti- (or alter-)globalization struggles in 1999. I use the term “neo-anarchist” to refer to the politics described in David Graeber’s nearly contemporaneous NLR article “The New Anarchists.” Then with the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the “anti-imperialist” wing of the antiwar movement became dominated by more traditional sectarian Marxist groups. Armed with a readymade theory of imperialism lifted from dusty books by Lenin and Bukharin, otherwise amnesiac forms of Marxism began to regain traction amongst activists. During this time, “intersectionality” was pushed more to the back-burner.

The conceptual genealogy of intersectionality outlined here does not necessarily discredit it. But the fact that it has come on so strong again in the last couple years is indicative of a lull in renascent movements against capitalism since 2011. In other words, intersectionality’s sudden reappearance is due not only to outrageous, high-profile scandals such as the alleged rape coverup in the British SWP last year, but also owes to the loss of momentum in the popular anti-austerity movements (in Spain, Britain, Greece, and then the US) and sudden regional shifts (the Arab Spring) originating in this time. Though certainly anti-racist and anti-sexist concerns cannot be considered “secondary” to the “primary” struggle against capitalism, the reprioritization of and renewed emphasis on intersectionality is symptomatic of the widespread stagnation of these movements and growing disappointment among newly radicalized elements.

Bored to the point of ennui, the Left has lately taken to self-immolation once more: not productive disagreement, but rather the annihilating pull of anathematization.

63 thoughts on “Postmodern origins of intersectionality

  1. Thanks for this. Having been far removed from both academia and left political discussion for many years, I find this genealogy very useful in understanding the sometimes-bewildering current developments. It seems I didn’t miss much.

  2. Well encapsulated, Ross. While I don’t share yr contempt for Eurocommunism, nor yr belief that ‘anti-racist and anti-sexist concerns cannot be considered “secondary” to the “primary” struggle against capitalism,’ I do think yr precis and analysis are a valuable, much-needed contribution to the discourse on this critically important subject. The Left has become a moribund, Po’-Mo’, race/gender fetishist cult, and we are asphyxiating in our own noxious fumes. We are the Left the Right want us to be.

    The only thing I would add is that it is no accident that the Left has descended into identity politics and all the other divisive nonsense. The deradicalization and all the endless splintering is being carefully managed by the state. It is a form, an important strategy, in the class war directed against us from on high. This is not to say that Crenshaw and the like are insincere or are working for the Bureau. Not at all! But if she didn’t exist the Bureau would create her. Ideas and practices, like identity politics, which are inimical to the social revolution proliferate and circulate freely, the state will see to that. That which threatens capital is suppressed.

    Anyway, the last paragraph was brilliant.

  3. Pingback: Postmodern origins of intersectionality | saveourcola

  4. I enjoyed this article and would like to see more of this sort of analysis of intersectionality in contemporary politics especially given what is going on today with the current ‘gender wars’, if I might call it in this way. But the incredible dissonance between certain feminists about their leaning on historical materialist approaches to gender versus trans activists and allies and their reliance on postmodern notions of identity have led to quite a bit of friction.

  5. I’ve come to respect Kimberlé Crenshaw as a thinker, but only in the way I can respect a liberal who has no interest in socialism—it really should be stressed that Critical Race Theory and intersectionality were designed as ways to explain racism without having to think about class. Her mentor, Derrick Bell, continues to strike me as the black L. Ron Hubbard: a mediocre science fiction writer who built a cult.

  6. gee i can’t wait for him to “try to outline the only standpoint from which to grasp the complexities of race, gender, class, and so on without falling into reductionism on the one hand or nebulous, tangled confusions (on the other)”

    will he present some miraculous new all-encompassing formula for revolutionary praxis that us confused plebs could never have anticipated?

    how poetic for the solution to all prejudice to be arriving from one so seemingly normative as he, we will shower him in rainbow garlands and kneel before the modestly limp cracker wiener of his benevolent authority

    it’s the same thing again, his historical work or w/e is fairly sound, possibly *because* it is narrowly focussed, and to provide such context is a noble and worthwhile thing to do.

    but his analysis of the present and of potentiality is both shite/useless/counterproductive and positioned as authoritative!

    The meat of the text is “the word postmodernism can be seen in historical association with the word intersectionality”.

    And he carries on as if his casually stating “the idea’s favourable environment got rotten”, or “postmodernism was not able to successfully propel marxism to the forefront back then and now it’s not trendy at all any more”, comprises a successful attempt to articulate some ultimate anticipatory analysis of the moments at which intersectional critique is being forced once more upon the public face of “progressive” institutions and individuals.

    The archived historical behaviour of the word, and the fact it is being used in opposition to the institutions “of the left” is not in itself enough to evidence the claim that “Bored to the point of ennui, the Left has lately taken to self-immolation once more, not productive disagreement but rather the annihilating pull of anathematization.”

    For the author to say so betrays a naively narrow definition of the Left, AND a narrow view of “self-immolation” or what constitutes “productive disagreement”.

    if it is proof of anything it is proof of “the Left” institutions being held to account for having failed the Left theory they claim to abide by, and as I stated before, it *would be* productive disagreement within those institutions if their members would adhere to their own ideals. For so long as they refuse to, for so long as they themselves perpetuate “identity”-based oppression, then the banner of “the intersectional approach” will remain productive of further united anti-establishment discontent, that is, it will infact continue to both produce and to radicalise The Left, as it has been doing.

  7. Is there some Grand Ol’ Left I’ve been missing for so many years or who exactly are you referring to? A bunch of liberal con-artist businessmen?

  8. Bigot whites always believe their opinions are universal and fact, lol. “No, no. Intersectionality ISN’T done THIS way! Kimberle Crenshaw the CREATOR of the word didn’t mean for you colored people to USE it this way! Just like rock & roll, AND EVERYTHING WE ARE BETTER EQUIPPED TO DO IT AND ‘SHOW’ YOU HOW TO THEREFORE USE THE TERM!”
    I bet people like you also believe you have a BETTER UNDERSTANDING of how people of color should go also go about with civil rights, lol.

    And if not, we’re communist, socialist as well as bullies, lol.

    God bless those like you. Seriously.

  9. Also, to my fellow feminist reading this before you use this rubbish, trash written against your colored sisters who push for intersectionality in feminism think back on any particular time a MAN tried to TELL YOU A WOMAN WHAT being a WOMAN consist of and is! “A real lady is” etc. Those were ideals, rules and roles BY PATRIACH MEN! Same thing with intersectionality. We, women of color didn’t run with the term and change it. How dare a man tell us ‘how’ to be a lady and how dare racist oppressors colonize, manipulate our term and then tell us how to fight oppression.

    • What is quite funny, is that this viewpoint equates to ‘we don’t care if you are talking sense, you are a MAN, and therefore are automatically WRONG. Even if you are right’

      Way to go there, Scarlett

  10. And intersectionality doesn’t consist of sense or logic? The problem actually isn’t that you’re a man but that you are a man BLIND to his own racism like many of the British feminist who side with you and who refute intersectionality. You don’t WANT to UNDERSTAND intersectionality or challenge it,but like the racist of the 1950s, and 1960s with black Americans civil rights movement you want to SILENCE it, dispute it, and find it pointless when the civil rights movement has made a better America FOR ALL including and especially black Americans who wanted to be treated fair.

    So many white women also in the beginning OPPOSED the affirmative action here in America. They were then unaware that it not only allowed African Americans who are qualified for the job or with high test scores to be rightfully accepted into prestige universities, and high paying jobs BUT TO ALSO ACCEPT WOMEN INCLUDING WHITE WOMEN, MINORITIES, AND THE DISABLED!

    You know Dr. King and his wife were labeled communist, and socialist when they were indeed republicans. Intersectionality isn’t something from the left or right party because BOTH MARGINALIZE PEOPLE, AND WOMEN OF COLOR, AND IGNORE AND OPPRESS THEM. It is a way, and belief that if you are going to fight patriach you should have an understanding that for some women INCLUDING WOMEN OF COLOR BECAUSE THEY ARE WOMEN TOO, that patriarch and racism INTERSECT, INTERCONNECT like so many other things! Which means that as a feminist of color I even have to challenge the racist views of SOME white ‘feminist’ who declare they want to liberate ‘all’ women but see me, and women like myself as some hybrid species and ignore our concerns. Yet they are feminist? Just like we are taught patriarch we are taught racism and both are detrimental.

    If everything I just ranted about and stated doesn’t make sense to you or consist of logic it is only because you simply don’t want it to.

    God bless you.

    • Actually, there’s no evidence that King was a Republican. It’s only a rumor. If you’ve got confirmation, I’d appreciate it. Whether it’s fair to call King a socialist is a bit of judgment call, but he did say, “There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”

      As for intersectionality, it was developed by bourgeois folks who wanted to advance within capitalism rather than confront it. If you’ve got any evidence that Derrick Bell or Kimberle Crenshaw were interested in socialism, I would be very grateful to hear it.

  11. Wow youre a delusional, racist tough cookie. :) Actually Dr. King’s family said so and it is historically accurate that black Americans traditionally voted Republican during that time. You’re an adult I will not do your homework for you.

    Also, stop with the smear campaign intersectionality WASNT created by the bourgeois, and all it means is that women CAN oppress other women because of PATRIARCH AND RACISM. That’s where intersectionality comes in.

    Also, its quite distributing that you equate fair treatment for women or people of color to socialism when socialism is in regards to money, trade and capitalism.

    Lie, lie, lie, twist and manipulate. How sad and pathetic.

    • Yeah, I’m a racist tough cookie who marched in his youth for civil rights and was beaten for being a niggerlover. That’s cool. The first time I was called a racist by a Critical Race Theorist, I was flabbergasted, but I’ve since learned it’s like being called a sinner by a Southern Baptist. Don’t mean shit.

      If you’ve got a quote to prove King was a Republican, let me know. The quote I provided about democratic socialism is verifiable. Mind you, I’m not saying he wasn’t a Republican, and if he voted in the ’50s, he probably voted for Republicans, but until there’s evidence, I’d rather not make a claim either way.

      Are you saying Kimberle Crenshaw wasn’t bourgeois? I don’t know much about her family, but she was educated at one of the bourgeoisie’s favorite schools. Lawyers are generally considered part of he bourgeoisie.

      Socialism is ultimately about all forms of fairness. Why do you think the Communist Party defended the Scottsboro Boys? Why do you think “feminism” was coined in 1837 by Charles Fourier, a socialist?

      • Lawyers aren’t technically part of the bourgeoisie. They don’t own the means of production. But they are highly-trained, often self-employed specialists (unless they’re part of a larger firm).

  12. Oh my God, this is petty. They always need ‘evidence.’ Lol. Even ‘evidence’ of ‘racism.’ And today that slur they called you is now called getting cookie points from us blacks. Again, his family have stated it, do your homework and jump online.

    What racist like you in the dark or closet don’t understand is that being a socialist is actually IRRELEVANT TO INTERSECTIONALITY. Because though ‘fairness’ is linked to socialism IT ISN’T A PARTY! And whether Kimberle Creshaw accumulated wealth from getting an education is ALSO irrelevant because you are considered bourgeois if your family is wealthy not yourself.

    Yet, we’re getting off topic. Intersectionality yes IS about CLASS, and RACE in regards to racism IN FEMINISM but not in regards to turning the world into Marxist, communist or socialist, lol.

    And the only thing I agree with you on is that words don’t scare me. You, and your racist bunch of friends, and feminist can continue to call us feminist of color, and label us those words because you know they scare.

    Words like ‘communist’ scare even in this day and age.

    And if intersectionality is socialism please explain to me my fellow friends, and feminist who ARE or come from conservative backgrounds but understand and push for intersectionality in feminism?

    • If you don’t need facts, that’s okay. Critical Race Theorists love subjectivity. I like things to be connected to reality now and then, so I’ll bow out now.

      But I will leave you with advice from Malcolm X: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

      No one’s laid a hand on you.


  13. Yes, no one is laying hands on me but nonviolent, passive aggressive oppression, and abuse IS STILL ABUSE! And is an ugly, ruthless detrimental beast. Ask any one who has experienced verbal abuse.

    And you are not dealing with reality ONLY YOURS just like some white feminist.

    I just hope that someone or young feminist is reading this, and walks away a little changed and considerate.

    Intersectionality isn’t connected to any political party and actually more closer to science than politics. It’s like a theory that can be verified. Believing in intersectionality doesn’t make you a socialist or communist. Women of color today haven’t changed it but resurrected it. Believing, and fighting that oppression within feminism, and fighting for inclusion of those long ignored doesn’t make you a bad person, not loyal to your race or cookie hunter but my God a mighty decent person.

    Thanks for listening.

  14. Speaking of where ideas come from, it’s odd the way the throwaway term “conceptual genealogy” and this article’s scrutiny of the origins of intersectionality as it “vulgarises” theoretical postmodernism reproduces the language of racial supremacism’s invigilation of ancestry and purity.

    Meanwhile, the article’s concluding claim that the mainstreaming of intersectional criticism is linked to a disappointment of the Left in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and faltering anti-austerity movements is notably unsupported, but makes a clear gesture to the plaintive politics of Mark Fisher’s “Vampire’s Castle”, which falsely represented intersectionality as a political technology that undermines solidarity, as opposed to one that insists on a type of solidarity that satisfies meaningful requirements of inclusion.

    • The term “genealogy” here in no sense refers to purity of bloodline, ancestry, or lineage. Instead, it refers (ironically) to the method employed by Michel Foucault, adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Foucault considered Nietzsche a genealogist in this sense, though wrongly I think, since the entire point of that book had been to critique the “moral genealogies” constructed by British psychologists. My usage doesn’t exactly accord with Foucault’s, though, since Foucault actually saw genealogy and the search for origins as counterposed.

      At least as its been adapted as a political practice, I find intersectionality extremely divisive for reasons that Mark Fisher laid out. (Personally, I find myself more in agreement with the critiques of intersectionality leveled by Eve Campbell and Michael Rectenwald). Despite the fact that intersectionality was originally meant to undermine static identity claims, by insisting on the fluid character of identity and overlapping “vectors,” it in fact reproduces identity only in a more confused form. What it fails to recognize, despite its insistence on a “politics of recognition,” is that viewing matters like race, gender, and class as identities — rather than relations — is the problem.

      • Suggesting you’re reproducing the language of racial supremacism in your critique was a cheap shot, I’ll admit.

        To put it less divisively, I’d suggest you should apply your critique of the politics of human identity equally to your deployment of the politics of the identities of ideas themselves.

        In this piece, you treat “postmodern” as an identity of the contemporary practices of intersectionality, and use that identity (according to longstanding vectors of antipathy) to slur the present relationship of those practices to the left.

        The only point that this piece really touches upon that relationship (which, it’s probably fair to say, was the principal subject of the Vampires’ Castle piece and the torrent of response and counter-response it generated a few months back) is in its conclusion:

        But the fact that [intersectionality] has come on so strong again in the last couple years is indicative of a lull in renascent movements against capitalism since 2011.

        This claim really does need further substantiation.

      • You’re right about that last claim standing in need of greater clarification and evidentiary support. I hope to provide that in a subsequent post.

        Regarding Fisher’s article, which I certainly sympathized with in parts, what’s strange is that (if I recall correctly) he doesn’t mention intersectionality at all. His main focus is on “identity.” But there is an affinity between these claims, and a great deal of uproar was generated by James Heartfield’s article from around the same time, “Intersectionality? Or Just Sectarian?”

        Out of those debates I find Rectenwald’s the best.

      • I think there remains a shortfall in your argument about the nature of intersectional critiques, which I’ll try to elaborate.

        You reject the static categories of identity you say are deployed within identity politics. But if sometimes the use of these categories is simplistic or static, that stasis isn’t mandatory to an intersectional argument.

        The key element is the metaphorical execution of intersection itself: making a sufficiently nuanced situational reckoning of human experience shaped differently by its different subjection to social dynamics.

        Labour attachment under capitalism is one principal dynamic among these. The production and reproduction of the social categories that come to be regarded as aspects of identity (eg gender and race) by the demands of labour creates this material differentiation of lives: a differentiation that Crenshaw and also Black womanists, especially, have observed within emancipatory politics, their work currently collected under the banner of intersectionality.

        This asymmetry of experience requires the adjustment of anticapitalist political action because it is part of the terrain of actually existing capitalism. It’s not against solidarity to insist that different experiences be accounted for within the left: it’s just seeing the target clearly.

        Is there much inconsistency between such a view and, say, the Marxist politics of ? I don’t think so. An intersectional intervention, however “vulgar” it may be claimed to be, can draw on these politics just as directly as any simplistic algebra of demography. It is appropriate and necessary for us to be constantly reminding ourselves of the uneven terrain that we navigate, because the struggle of the left will be over the same ground.

  15. Hey Ross. Please don’t take this personal but I honestly don’t believe you know what you are talking (writing) about, and that this whole thing is spun and misleading. I re read what you wrote, I wrote, the comments of others and noticed that I was commenting from passion and a tone that you were already aware.

    Intersectionality does indeed view race,gender and class as relational. Or how else could we possibly achieve solidarity. But whether you are a academic, activist or feminist believing that feminism comes from one narrative is ignorant, makes you a simpleton and a dentrimental activist. That’s why Kimberle Crenshaw created the term. Its all about correlations something that you can learn about in any basic, beginning or intermediate science, biology, psychology or social science class such as sociology. Especially the correlation of racism and sexism or patriarch. Kimberle Crenshaw and feminist today never meant for it to be political.

    Intersectionality is also used amongst women of color, are you aware of that Ross? So how then is it divisive? Whenever I encounter an African feminist even though we are both women of color I never assume because we are both black, bleed monthly and are able to birth children that are struggle as women are the same. I can’t necessarily speak for her, and she can’t necessarily speak for me because I have never be mutilated through circumcision (hypothetically speaking as if its true) or denied access to schooling. And neither has she ever experience racism because she rarely came into contact with other races in her homeland. So that is were our feminism INTERSECT. I allow her a voice and she allows mine. I am aware of her discrimination, from Americans, and even other black Americans and she is aware of mine. We then mold our feminism to include and not silence each other.

    Same with all women. Sometimes as feminist we learn that our feminism includes liberating all women which consist of liberating certain women from our own stereotypes, discrimination, fears and racism.

    That’s intersectionality. Understanding structures and meeting at the intersection of solidarity. Nothing more or political.

    If that’s divisive that sounds divisive then I am at a loss for words.

    • Given that racism operates ideologically to justify imperialism/colonialism and continues to be central in the structural violence of global inequality that is the legacy of imperialism – I don’t know how anyone can say that an African ‘has not experienced racism’. What definition of racism are you using? The point is to see the inextricable connection between the use of ‘race’ to justify conquest of populated land and the use of that same construct to justify the enslavement, hyperexploitation or indentured labour of people (on the basis of physical characteristics associated with geographical origin).

      And of course, your experience as a woman relates to hers: had you been born a female infant in a different place and time her experiences would have been yours – educational restriction is a feature of women’s oppression the world over and only recently pushed back in the west – it was a key component of first wave feminism, for example. Attempts to control of female sexuality and reproductive capacity has been a central feature of women’s oppression in every variety of class society – it has taken different forms in different place, time and societies (female genital mutilation in some places/times, forced marriage, marital rape, property rights in women, restriction of abortion, forced sterilisation, as well as more subtle attempts – both ‘slut shaming’ and ‘prude shaming’).

      Feminism surely seeks to understand the relationship between the myriad expressions of women’s oppression, as well as understanding differences in women’s experiences by class and race. The virtue of finding our voices, only to find one speaks entirely alone as an individual (for nobody’s experience is identical to that of another) is lost on me.

    • Your explanation makes good sense to me. It does seem quite distinct from class, though. Racism and sexism are social and cultural phenomena, whereas class is properly an economic one. Of course in the real world these do not seem so separate, but I think they should be kept more analytically separate.

      I do think that economic exploitation is much more generic and less specific to individuals. Hence identity in this sense could focus more on the common struggle against capitalism than on the individual differences between workers.

      What do you think about that?

      • My reply was to Scarlett Bazile’s outlining of differences between herself and an African feminist – and particularly the notion that Africans don’t experience racism because they don’t come into contact with other races. This just struck me as a very incomplete definition of racism.

        Obviously class is differently structured from race and gender. To see why, we can show that ending exploitation definitionally requires the end of class (classless society). Ending racism, requires the ending of ‘race’ as ideology and social practice but would not however eradicate physical differences in people that the ideology of race is imposed upon. Ending women’s oppression requires the end of ‘sex roles’ as ideology but will not eradicate the physical differences in reproductive systems between males and females – simply mean they aren’t used as the basis of differentiated sex roles and oppression of one sex.

        I think seeing any of these things as ‘identities’ is a mistake – we are talking about social positions or roles imposed upon people independent of how individuals think, feel or identify about these social positions or roles.

        I don’t much like your ‘generic vs. individual’ or the ‘economic vs. social and cultural’ framing. Slavery and imperialism are clearly pursued for economic purpose, ‘race’ is the superstructural ideology – with significant material effects – that enables this. The control of women’s reproductive capacity and perpetuation of class society through our reproductive labour is clearly economic at base, ‘gender (or sex role stereotypes)’ the superstructural ideology – with significant material effects – that enables this. The potential of these differences to heighten intra-class division is a secondary question, though not unimportant.

        I don’t know what you mean about exploitation being ‘generic’ – it is a system (of production) and we have collective interests in relation to that system (dependent upon our class position) and both individual and collective experiences in relation to that system. Workers who are pissed off at London tube drivers for striking are prioritising their individual experience and what they perceive as immediate interest over their collective interests as workers. There’s a gazillion similar examples of ways in which workers are divided, precisely because their ‘identities’ as workers are not ‘generic’.

  16. No, my reply was actually to Scarlett Bazile, but the comment went under yours. It’s a reply to her post, not yours.

    With regard to your unease about economic exploitation being more generic, my main point is that we are dealing here with very different processes. I regard class identity as a kind of false consciousness, born out of a system that is totalising. It is the system that is primary. The notion of worker identity is not a very strong one (hence my use of the term generic, even if there are differences they are secondary), it doesn’t go to the core of one’s being. For this reason, I think every successful revolution depends on some vanguard that has ideas about systemic change.

    I question whether racism and sexism are actually tied to that system. Of course, they may coincide as with slavery, but at the end of the day other factors play a role as well. Many non-capitalist societies have had xenophobia/racism and oppressed women. This is because there are social factors involved that are not economic. Identities here are much stronger and involve people at a deeper emotional level.

    • ‘Worker identity’ gets rendered in these discussions as ‘classism’ – which is not a particularly good way to understand exploitation or class position, though it does show some of the ruling ideology used to disguise the nature of class relations.

      Many non-capitalist societies have indeed had xenophobia/racism (though I think xenophobia may be a different phenomenon to the racism originating in justification of European imperialism and the atlantic slave trade) and oppressed women. That does not show these phenomena ‘not economic’ – since non-capitalist societies (even non-class/pre-class societies) also have an economic/material basis.

  17. Hi Lilith. Though I have met a few Africans and Caribbean through the years who have sincerely believed that they only experience of racism or discrimination was here in the states, I want to clarify that I never meant that Africans from any part of the continent do not experience racism.

    If my experience as a woman relates to hers then are concerns would/should be the same, correct? We’ll how do you explain when they are not (hypothetically).

    You also stated ‘the virtue of finding our voices, only to find one speaks entirely alone as an individual is a lost for me.’ Well, I believed that the virtue of finding, and hearing the voices of others only to find one baffles me.

    Women of color from all over the world not just black descendants fight to be equal to men AND some women… I assume it is an experience not identical but that all women can relate to…

    God. No.

  18. Yes, in the end we have to look for a materialist cause. But I wouldn’t necessarily see economic relations in this as the basis. It’s a complex interplay between different aspects of human ‘species-being’. It depends on what kind of society one is looking at how these are balanced.

    Take for example Homeric society, with its extreme focus on war and maculinity in the service of honour and concomitant female servitude. A materialist account can be given for honour-bound militarism, based on male group dynamics and psychology. Hence the causation would be social. Homeric society (re)produces heroes, just as ancient Greece (re)produced the citizen. There is an economic basis to this, and it is very important: but it hardly explains the ideology and practice of heroism. Especially since other types of society were founded upon the same basis.

  19. Whatever this is, it’s not a genealogy, if by that term we mean something like the genealogical method Foucault developed from Nietzsche, and not just any old story of where something comes from. Genealogy entails piecing together the various discontinuous and fragmentary discourses – especially marginal ones – that combine to produce the object of your enquiry (i.e. intersectionality) and, importantly, to do so without having a predetermined narrative framework already laid out. So postmodernism might be one element that one would include -although it is far from a unified discourse, and you offer no clarification of what you consider postmodernism to be, or which postmodern elements are salient – but it is hardly the only relevant discourse to look at here.

    What you’re actually doing is telling a particular story which suits the particulars conclusion you want to draw: i.e. basically that postmodernism + neoliberalism + defeat of the left = intersectionality. To me it seems the key silence of your project [based on what you’ve written and have said you’re going to write] is that you fail to ask why specifically it is black feminists that develop this concept of intersectionality? What exactly are they reacting against? And then secondarily, what is driving those who want to rearticulate the idea of intersectionality within the radical left? Why has a 25-year-old concept developed in a specific political context suddenly begun to resonate, rhizomatically, everywhere across the left? I think those are in fact the constitutive silences of your project, inasmuch as they must remain as silences lest they reveal something rather awkward about what it is you’re actually trying to achieve.

    • Well, take that!

      I love how you write on your blog (response to Fisher), about the jealousy towards the vitality of feminist/intersectional discourse.

      Are we not seeing the great success it has in overthrowing capitalism, comrades? Too bad it leaves us grumpy ‘neoconservatives’ in the dust, all our efforts in vain and eclipsed by Identity Theory. See the rhizomes eating up all the bankers and rolling back inequality and exploitation! Hurrah!!

      Actually, comrade, most women I know don’t like bullshit either, so it has nothing to do with masculinity and everything with the sickness of contemporary academia and whatever organisations its ideas have infested.

    • I would agree that it’s not a genealogy in the Foucauldean sense. Here’s what I wrote a bit further above in responding to the comment by threecorneredvoid (not sure if you saw it):

      The term “genealogy” here in no sense refers to purity of bloodline, ancestry, or lineage. Instead, it refers (ironically) to the method employed by Michel Foucault, adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Foucault considered Nietzsche a genealogist in this sense, though wrongly I think, since the entire point of that book had been to critique the “moral genealogies” constructed by British psychologists. My usage doesn’t exactly accord with Foucault’s, though, since Foucault actually saw genealogy and the search for origins as counterposed.

      Regarding its “rhizomatic” resonance, I hope to explore that further in an upcoming post. That’s a claim that I should certainly substantiate more thoroughly. What I mean by “postmodern,” the aspect of it I’d like to stress, is the dissolution of grand metanarratives that the theorists of intersectional feminism mention above, as well as its connection to “pluralism” and a “politics of recognition” or “politics of difference.” Again, something these authors themselves stress.

      • What I’m implying, in case it isn’t obvious, is that intersectional appeared not as some random postmodern fragment that seeped into the left during times of defeat, but was consciously deployed against the current composition of the left by a variety of marginalised subjects who found it spoke to a deficiency they had experienced in working with the left. I would argue that rejecting intersectionality in toto basically amounts to an attempt to remarginalise these subjects, although that is just my reading of things, which I’m not going to try to dress up as being the result of a ‘genealogy’.

        Also, I think you’re ignoring the inconvenient fact the intersectionality didn’t just emerge in 2012 after we were defeated, but was a substantial and active force within Occupy, for example. That again, imo, challenges your narrative that intersectionality is where a frustrated left has gone to die.

      • When would you say that intersectionality (re)emerged as a major force in activist politics? I would agree that something close, thought not identical, to intersectionality enjoyed widespread popular acceptance in quasi-anarchist or “anarcho-liberal” circles from the short-lived New Students for a Democratic Society antiwar current (2005-2008), and then in Occupy and so on. “Privilege” theory is related to intersectionality in a number of ways, and the foundational text for it was published around the same time as Crenshaw’s essay. There was lots of “privilege-checking” and sensitivity training bullshit that nearly everyone — irrespective of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation — got extremely sick of really quickly. With New York, there was the disastrous experiment of the Spokes Council model, which more or less imploded after two months. To its credit, intersectionality seems slightly more subtle than “privilege” theory.

      • I can only speak to my own experience, which really only goes back to 2009, but I think I first started to come across the concept in 2011. I can recall giving a talk on facilitation at Occupy Cork where I felt it necessary to talk about gendered and racialised silencing dynamics, so it must have permeated my consciousness some time before Occupy emerged. But at that stage as far as I remember it was quite a marginal discourse in the Irish left, but from what I read of other Occupys, particularly in the states, it was one of the main conceptual tools used by feminists, people of colour, indigenous activists etc. to try and bring their perspectives into Occupy. There has been a sort of Cambrian explosion of intersectional discourses since then, which I suspect, at least to some degree, takes impetus from specific issues that arose during the struggles of 2011.

  20. Great read Ross. Just checking you are familiar with the writings of Ellen Mieksins Wood who has been a long-standing Marxist critic of identarianism and identity politics since the 1980s These kind of identity politics first emerged on the left in the US in the 1960s/1970s but were kept at bay in the UK by the relative strength of the labour movement there and the greater universalist promise to activists of the left social democratic movement around Benn and co. I’m not convinced the latest rebranding as intersectionality represents anything particularly new, only that new social media are now giving it an illusion of strength and activism. Obviously the collapse of left social democracy and the chronic sectarianism of far left groups have now pretty much left the field clear among young progressives to be colonised these ideas, hence why it is important to challenge them, albeit the tide is very high for intersectionality right now so expect the usual calumnies to be thrown hard at you. I’m interested though whether if there is a core of intersectional theory that can be saved if one removes the most reactionary identity politics elements from it, or if both baby and bathwater need dumping. It may be these ideas are now too far implanted in the minds of young progressives to attempt anything other than a fight against the worst excesses, which seems to be the approach adopted by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper here:

  21. Pingback: Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference | The Charnel-House

  22. Pingback: Wolf of Whose St.? Finance, Feminism and a “Moment of Openness”

  23. Pingback: Let’s talk about Marxist feminism: bell hooks’ “ain’t I a woman?” and intersectionality | Women's Fightback

  24. Pingback: Radical writings on Intersectionality, privilege, identity and difference | Automatic Writing

  25. Critiquing intersectionality in the service of reasserting the universality of Marxism – ie capitalism is the most important social system to fight – often takes the form of excusing/ignoring how Marxist movements and organizations have been and still are white male undertakings that lack/exclude female and nonwhite perspectives. The working-class has always been multiracial and pan-gender, and yet, marxists are nearly always white males. Maoism escapes some Eurocentrism, for interesting reasons, but not the male domination within the Marxist tradition .

    Capitalism itself is a white male undertaking, so it stands to reason that an immanent critique of capital would originate within that context and share some of its myopia. Intersectionality originated among black feminists in reaction to white feminists, not postmodernism. Pomo was an available tool in the academy to decenter various white male discourses, but blacks such as Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Cornel West reshaped these tools to their own agendas, so any putative genealogy is fractured.

    As an androcentric undertaking, capitalism excluded women’s labor from its formative structure . That historical exclusion opens the question of whether a (white) male industrial working-class movement could truly emancipate women, since women’s labor was changed by industrialization, but in a different manner than male labor was transformed. Women and nonwhite persons contribute important alternative experiences of capitalism than those selectively analyzed by Marxism, but which are no less crucial to a revolutionary critique of capitalism. A revolutionary universal struggle for human emancipation cannot limit itself to the Marxist tradition.

    • Capitalism is not “a white male undertaking”. Capitalism is an economic system. It does not hinder Carlos Slim Helu, Christy Walton, or Liliane Bettencourt from being in Forbes current top ten. China has 152 billionaires. Even Nigeria has one. What identitarians cannot grasp is that social identity and economic identity are very different things. If you want to work to ameliorate social oppression within capitalism, that’s your choice, but that has nothing to do with advancing socialism for everyone.

      • What most marxists cannot grasp is that universality is not innate, but must be created. We are all gendered and ethnically identified from birth. Capitalism does not eliminate these systems, it reconfigures them to its own ends.

        The presence of a few nonwhite female billionaires does not negate the Eurocentric origins of capitalism. You can’t fight capitalism as a merely economic system, that was one of the flaws of most Marxist movements. You must also fight it as a racist and sexist system.

        Every socialist organization I know is male-dominated, even if they are not white-dominated. My socialist organization deliberately gives equal representation to women in leadership and is explicitly committed to socialist-feminism, but not equally committed to nonwhite inclusion, so we are still have a predominantly white membership. Our membership is still mostly male, even with our aggressive feminist policies.

        You cannot advance socialism for women and nonwhite persons if your organization focuses only on white male social struggles. Women and nonwhite persons have fought against capitalism, but in movements distinct from the white male socialist milieu.

      • Do you want to oppose eurocentrism? There are many capitalists in Europe, North America, and the rest of the world who will join you. Do you want to support bourgeois feminists and people of color? There are many capitalists, male and female, white and of color, who will join you. But if you want to advance socialism, you need socialists, regardless of their social identity. Of course women and people of color should be included—any decent history of opposition to racism and sexism includes socialists, and in some cases, begins with them: feminism would not have a name if not for a white male socialist, Charles Fourier. But you should beware of bourgeois concepts of identity, and ask who they serve.

      • Capitalist can’t oppose Eurocentrism as a system because capitalism is inherently European. Even its Asian and African forms. Yes, you can find liberal critics of Eurocentrism, but they are often still embedded in white cultural assumptions. The better liberal critics of whiteness lean towards socialism, but often reject Marxism because it is myopic in its economism. I’m not saying discard Marxism, but rather supplement it and rethink it in light of a more historic clarity about race and gender as elements of global domination perpetuated by the capitalist class.

      • You haven’t noticed that capitalism is increasingly global and decreasingly eurocentric? Perhaps we should continue this discussion in 20 years, because your “more historic clarity” is based on bourgeois theory developed over the last forty years, primarily at very expensive private schools for the ruling class.

      • I have noticed that the European and American ruling class have exported capitalism everywhere, but still concentrate most power and wealth in their hands. The decentering of capital from its original homelands has consequences for undermining white supremacy, but that process is still very early. Chinese hybrid state capitalism is a very different animal from western capitalism, but has decades to go before catching up to western capitalism.

  26. Pingback: All Roads Lead to Communism, Redux: Against Marxist Obtuseness | RADICAL PROGRESS

  27. Pingback: Critical Engagements: Intersectionality, Privilege, and Identity Politics | Full Opinionism

  28. Pingback: Are Donald Trump Supporters Idiots? The Surprising Line Of Thought Connecting Donald Trump, Camille Paglia, and … – The Inquisitr | Bcst Connect

  29. Pingback: Are Donald Trump Supporters Idiots? The Surprising Line Of Thought Connecting Donald Trump, Camille Paglia, and … – The Inquisitr | List Author

  30. Pingback: Are Donald Trump Supporters Idiots? The Surprising Line Of Thought Connecting Donald Trump, Camille Paglia, and … – The Inquisitr | Screenny

  31. Pingback: Richard Dawkins And Camille Paglia Say Postmodernism Was ‘Nonsense’ And Foucault Was A Fraud — Are They Right? – The Inquisitr | List Author

  32. Pingback: Richard Dawkins And Camille Paglia Say Postmodernism Was ‘Nonsense’ And Foucault Was A Fraud — Are They Right? – The Inquisitr

  33. Pingback: Richard Dawkins And Camille Paglia Say Postmodernism Was 'Nonsense' And Foucault Was A Fraud — Are They Right? – The Inquisitr | Screenny

  34. Pingback: Richard Dawkins And Camille Paglia Say Postmodernism Was 'Nonsense' And Foucault Was A Fraud — Are They Right? – The Inquisitr | Bcst Connect

Leave a Reply