Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
— Macbeth, Act V, Scene V
For those of you lucky enough to live the real world, which is to say having no connection to academia, the Left, or Twitter, what follows may seem obscure to the point of being obtuse. Sadly it is neither.
Richard Seymour, a former junior intellectual in the Socialist Workers’ Party turned majordomo of the International Socialist Network, has been censured by his own organization. His crime? Defending “race play,” a form of racialized and sadistic sexual role playing. That he would even mount such a defense, according to his fellow intersectionalists, means Mr Seymour is racist. Anyone who pays attention to such things cannot but find it darkly comic. Mr Seymour himself has shown little mercy in the past, denouncing many of his opponents as beyond the pale. As the intersectionalists themselves might well say: “Wow. Such schadenfreude. Very gloating.” But the anathematizing of one ex-Marxist is just one short chapter in the development of an ideology so toxic that it threatens to drive a wedge into mainstream political discourse.
Intersectionality, devised in the late 1980s by UCLA law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a theory of justice that’s been embraced by the radical left since the 2008 financial crisis. Though initially the theory was mostly influential in post-Apartheid South Africa, intersectionality proposes, modestly enough, that disadvantage — which its proponents call oppression — comes in many forms, forms that intersect with one another, not only compounding each other but dividing the interests of the oppressed. So, a black woman may be oppressed by white feminists, a black feminist herself may be oppressing gay women and all of them may be oppressing transsexual women. Since then it has taken up residence in university departments, particularly though far from exclusively, in the United States. Popular in social science and cultural studies, it has spread to disciplines as seemingly unrelated as literature, and, of course, is rapidly becoming dominant in gender studies.
So far, so what? Well, were this simply another academic fashion or cranky far left displacement activity it wouldn’t matter a jot. Its importance lies in the fact that not only does it specialize in the application of guilt and silencing through deploying epithets such as racist, misogynist, and homophobe, thus going some way toward making sincere debate impossible, but also because it fits so perfectly, not into radical politics, but into US-style social liberalism.
There are a number of factors that differentiate intersectionality from previous far left identity politics, such as the radical feminism of the 1970s or Eurocommunism of the 1980s. For a start the liberals, for want of a better word, got there first. Leaving aside the Gramsciite/Eurocommunist (in the UK) and New Left (in the US) antecedents of the theory, the core of intersectionality isn’t much more than multicultural babble, arranging pyramids of oppression, complaining of privilege, and clamoring for “recognition.” It’s for this very reason that it took off so rapidly: liberal-minded people were already receptive to the core idea. It thrives in academia for similar reasons: the dominance of “theory,” particularly postcolonial, critical, and Gramsciite, et al, and the thoroughgoing destruction of truth performed by the now passé postmodernists (who seem mild by comparison). Intersectionality is the tyranny of good intentions, bent badly out of shape.
Anyone who has had a run-in with them online may feel that intersectionalists seem like angst-ridden teenagers who’ve been given ham radios, but this stuff didn’t just spring from the ether. Despite its seemingly radical, even revolutionary, pretensions, intersectionality is little more than a partial inversion of John Rawls’ older Theory of Justice, filtered through a particularist American, and primarily black and feminist, lens, focused on achieving recognition.
The philosophical and historical ignorance displayed by many proponents of intersectionality, not to mention their philistinism, is breathtaking. This is the world viewed through the eyes of an Edwin Abbott Abbott character: everything is flat. Such a philosophically thin concept is useful precisely because it is malleable: the already-embattled literary canon, all of the great philosophers and political theorists — even those proposing liberation, such as feminists — they can be dismissed, or more accurately denounced, as oppressors.
In practice intersectionality is simply a series of mores, rigidly enforced by threat of excommunication from polite society. Disagree and you’re a misogynist, “white supremacist” (yes, this term, formerly reserved for the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, is commonplace in intersectional discourse) or transphobe. The only way to make amends is not to argue one’s corner as would be expected in traditional liberal discourse, but to admit the transgression, apologize, and promise to learn. Focussing on identity, intersectionality divides. This is its very raison d’être. It takes the postmodernist celebration of difference to its logical conclusion, rejecting as oppressive the universal political subject, be that expressed as the individual, the working class or anything else that might bring people together. It represents the reification of identity, in academic jargon. It’s a worldview that collapses individual agency, rejects the human subject, and masquerades as liberatory while in fact being essentialist.
Importantly, the internet is a huge factor in intersectionality’s spread: it not only allows advocates of the theory to organise, but also “swarm” opponents and shout them down. As a result Twitter sometimes seems like an endless, global Maoist “self-criticism” trial. As an aside, on a Facebook thread attempting to reeducate him one person bemoaned that Mr Seymour would have known better if he had spent more time on Tumblr. It sounds ridiculous, but microblogging web sites really are where intersectionalists learn this stuff: Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. A younger friend of mine espouses a great many intersectional ideas and has a hard time understanding my objections to it. He simply thinks that more or less everything is racist, homophobic, or misogynist, or some combination thereof.
The concept of intersectionality is also extremely American: placing race at the center of every issue, seeing all “white people” as a monolithic bloc, using American jargon and orthography. That’s not to say it’s not popular here, it is, just that if one wanted to be cheeky one might call it cultural imperialism. Alas, to do so would only fan the flames of madness. To use today’s common parlance, intersectionality is unsustainable. In its divisive “calling out” of all slights, perceived or real, it has turned left politics into the ouroboros wherein oppressions eat themselves.
As a result, intersectionality may well burn itself out, but I have a feeling it will do great damage in the process. Well meant, intersectionality is in fact little more than an invisible knapsack full of unverifiable grievances.
While my reposting of Jason Walsh’s article should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of the views it contains, I agree with many of his assertions. In particular, there’s a connection between postmodernism and intersectionality as a critique of New Left identity politics (in favor of an ever more nebulous and overwrought identity politics, it turns out). Two comments appeared on Facebook when I posted this, both by John Gulick, which elaborate somewhat on the timeline of this theory’s inundation of nominally “leftist” practice. His comments are consolidated here into one and reproduced below.
I wrote a long entry on this, but said fuck it and shut it down. To make a long story short: [Walsh’s] critique is great; the analysis of the contemporary drivers of the practice is on target, but he doesn’t get the genealogy of the discourse quite right. (He mostly ignores the 90’s US higher education milieu, especially left-liberal sociology and ancillary disciplines. No mention of Patricia Hill Collins and the banal race/gender/class holy trinity. Gen X’er grad students learned it then and there and transmitted it to the millennial kiddies, who took it online and then broke this plague out into the “real” world during Occupy and afterwards.)
But a semi-masterful piece nonetheless. There are a few or more 45-year-old Marxoid geezers like me, seasoned by this crap back in the 1990s, who might vaguely recall intersectionality’s ruefulness. We wondered where in the world it re-emerged from in recent years, banshee-like. Walsh’s answer is not fresh to me, but nonetheless it is the answer