Transcending Intersectionality

13 April 2017

These days, at least in certain feminist circles, something called intersectional analysis is all the rage. I was reminded of this fact recently by an intense dinner conversation with a group of friends and acquaintances. In response to something somebody said, I tried to make the point that while for some men the world may be their oyster, there are plenty of men who are relentlessly grinded down by the world. What about all the men of color in prison, I asked? What about all the Appalachian white men, cast aside by relentless globalism?

The impatient response came back. “But let’s bracket race and class. Race and class are special cases.” It was as if the problems of black men or white working class men are not the problems of men, at least not of men as such. “Of course,” my interlocutor hastened to add, “intersectional factors are important. But right now we’re not talking about race or class, we’re talking about gender. We can talk about those things later, when we get gender right.”

I fully understand the impulse behind intersectional thinking. It deserves at least one cheer, maybe two. That’s because intersectional approaches contain a somewhat begrudging and belated appreciation of human complexity. But intersectionality does not, in my mind, deserve three full-throated cheers. There is a very deep problem at the core of the intersectional way of thinking. And in my opinion, it’s high time to move beyond intersectional analyses and to make a sort of fresh start.

My starting thought is the observation that there is no man who is purely and only man. Similarly, there is no woman who is purely and only woman. Indeed, there is no human who is purely and only human. Man, woman, human is each arrayed in a sprawling configuration space, constituted by many distinct locations. The many locations in each configuration space correspond, respectively, to the manifold differences among man in his totality, among woman in her totality, and among the human in its totality. Because of this fact, the very idea that some distinguished point in configuration space represents the unmarked case of the male or the female or the human is unsustainable. Black man is still fully and equally man, as is working class man or gay man. Black man and gay man are no more and no less man than privileged wealthy straight white man. However privileged white male may parade or be paraded about in the world as if he alone is purely and only man, with no modifier to mark him as but a problematic subclass of man, he remains, in the end, just one configuration of man among other configurations of man.   

The early feminist mistake was to tacitly sanction and endorse his parading. Doing so may have served certain political, ideological and theoretical aims. But it also distorted reality. The same is true of woman, in her vast array of alternative manifestations and configurations. Wherever we find woman in configuration space, she is still fully and equally woman. That is, lesbian woman is still woman fully and equally. Poor woman too is still woman. Disabled woman is still woman. The same goes for the human in general. All humans, no matter where located in configuration space, no matter what modifiers and markers we attach to them, still partake fully and equally of the human.

Once this much is granted, the intersectional approach is revealed for what it truly is. It is not a progressive advance over the non-intersectional feminism of earlier days. It is, rather, a rearguard attempt to recover from what I think of as original sin—that is, from a profound and consequential error. The original sin was the sin of treating some men as the unmarked case of man, some women as the unmarked case of woman, indeed some humans as the unmarked case of human. It was as if race or class were markers that separated their bearers from those who were purely and only man, purely and only woman, purely and only human. It was as if ‘black’ or ‘poor’ or ‘gay’ or even ‘woman’—at least when woman was regarded as one configuration of the human—are markers reserved for special and problematic cases. As special cases, they were to be set aside for special treatment at some later stage of the dialectic.  

Intersectionality does not resist such thinking. Indeed, it embraces it, even if not openly and confidently. Or so it seems to me. It is time to move beyond such rearguard, defensive thinking. What is called for is a new beginning. We should seek to understand man as man, in his variegated and complex totality, woman as woman, in her equally variegated and complex totality, the human as the human, in its even greater complexity and variety. Only by beginning anew to construct new concepts and new theories, with the explicit goal in mind of developing concepts and theories that enable us to adequately represent and explain the topology and dynamics of the vast and variegated landscape into which we humans, in all varieties, configure ourselves can we transcend the limits of the outmoded rearguard intersectional approach to man, woman, and the human.