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 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.
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?
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.