Cognitive Science, Gender, Philosophy

Intersectionality and Other Concepts

Friday, 18th October 2019

This is an interview with Jennifer Nash about her excellent book on intersectionality. I’m interested in the ways that concepts are created for specific purposes and then drift, or get appropriated, or get hijacked, or adapt. The reaction of some who know the history of the concept is to decry this and mourn the loss of the original usage. Nash argues that there is a creative potential in that drift. In that, she is walking a similar line to Mieke Bal, who wrote Traveling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide back in 2001. Still one of my favorite books, for describing both the creativity and violence that happens with concepts as they move from one conceptual ecosystem to another.

Of course, it’s not always so benign as simply moving from one space to another. Many of my examples of concepts moving and morphing come from feminism (e.g., sexual harassment, identity politics, intersectionality), and that’s no accident. I think as concepts are created in these spaces to name and speak about some aspect of women’s experience, there are very quickly other forces to try to dilute or hijack those descriptions, because if they are true they imply a deep critique of the status quo. “Identity politics” moves from Black women’s statements about their experience in the Combahee River Collective (see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on this), to a much more generalized label for experience based on any differentiating feature, to a clobber term of the right for special pleading.

So concepts can diffuse and move because of opposition. They can change because they are loved too much, that is, they have a power in their initial space and so people try to replicate that power in other spaces (and the result is to obscure their sharp focus in the initial space). One might think that the answer to this is the philosopher’s answer, that is, to clarify and define things so that different uses can be distinguished. But it’s not so simple. That philosopher’s move assumes that the world of concepts is a static one, a world in which concepts are like differentiated objects that can each be seen as unique, even if they do have family resemblances.

What if, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, all concepts are multiples? What if there is no conceptual atoms, unique to themselves, but only a flow and flux of concepts? I think Nash’s book on intersectionality is not just a political rethinking of how to deal with what some might see as the erosion and diffusion of that concept, but a rethinking of concepts themselves and their existence in their ecosystems. We see that they come into existence, not discovered but created, and if that is the case, they can get recreated. It would be nice if a powerful concept would stay put in its original place, and retain its power for that purpose, but that never happens. The more powerful a concept is, the more useful it is. The more useful it is, the more it will be used, and those uses will involve some level of violence to the concept in order to make it work in a new conceptual space.

So there is a choice at that point. One could push back against the re-appropriations, the dilutions, and the co-optionings. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. One could create new concepts, as old ones become inadequate to describe and house experience. One could see the creative potentiality of the traveling of concepts for the original space (e.g., the concept of evolution might have been created for an initial purpose, but as it gets introduced in other conceptual ecosystems it picks up new tricks, which might be useful in the original space).

Part of the problem here is the concept of “concept”. Various spaces think they own and understand it, to the exclusion of the others, or at least to the prioritization of their own version over the others. For some, concepts are mental representations; for others, they are intellectual objects that do some work in arguments; for others, they are points of view or perspectives or ontologies; for others, they are part of a rhetorical space, useful for description and persuasion. “Concept” travels, just as concepts do.

Nash, I think, sees these things. Her very interesting and smart argument is that, especially after the last US election, Black women have been seen by some as “white feminism’s salvific figures”, the ones who, time and again, have to clarify the purpose and provide the conceptual tools for white feminism to not go off the rails. White women voted for Trump! the argument goes, and so Black women must remain the conscience of feminism. (this is from the Coda of her book: “Some of Us are Tired”). So, if that is Black feminism’s role, how does it accomplish it? By policing the concepts, by making sure there isn’t erosion or diffusion or co-opting. And that’s what Nash is questioning, that any such policing can really happen, and the psychic toll it takes to do it. To quote her:

“My endeavor in this book is to show that this proprietary relationship with intersectionality – these practices of holding on – actually constrains black feminist theory and black feminists. The defensive affect makes black feminism a critical interlocutor in the intersectionality wars rather than a tradition that can crucially explore and expose the racial politics of intersectionality’s circulation in women’s studies. … While black feminist theory has brilliantly captured the ways that the US academy has been a killing machine that cannibalizes black women, violently extracting our knowledge and diversity service, it has yet to fully capture the toxicity of defensiveness, and how exhausting – physically, spiritually, psychically – the defensive posture can be.” (Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined After Intersectionality, 137-8)

Obviously, I’m not the one who this book is directed at. I’m interested in the door Nash opens to considering how concepts circulate, the creative potential they have and the violence that is done to them as they move, and the efforts made to keep them in their place. Her assessment of the politics of Black feminism is something better left to others more qualified than me to assess. But I think she has given us something very insightful and important, when it comes to how concepts work.

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