Seven Types of Intersectionality

Posted, for no better reason than attention-seeking, over at Medium.


“Intersectionality” finally names a projected system of correspondences: between social structure and lived experience, between lived experience and theory, between theory and political practice, between political practice and discursive representation. (And within theory: I have seen it claimed that an intersectional “approach” or even “method” is necessary in order to accomplish an intersectional analysis). Each “post” in this system is related to the others via its intersectional character, as if intersectionality were a global semantic “bus” routing messages from post to post. What may seem semantically unstable or protean to the uninitiated is thus in fact highly systematic. But a signifier capable of doing this kind of universal mediating work is no longer functioning as a descriptor; it is rather, like “power” in Foucault or “difference” in Deleuze, being employed meta-descriptively as the “glue” holding a system together, or as the guarantor of an idiom.

Sufficiency, Adequacy, Fidelity

The “principle-of-sufficient-X” is a principle held by X, stipulating a condition to which it either aspires or already conforms by (its own) definition. Rule 34 is something like a principle of sufficient internet porn: it entails that ∀x: P(x), or equivalently that ¬∃x: ¬P(x), where P(x) means “there is porn of x”. But it is a meta-pornographic principle, a rule “of the internet”, rather than intrinsic to the pornographic stance: porn neither presupposes nor purports to enact its own sufficiency (i.e. the pornifiability of everything). The limit of pornographic inscription is not set by any unrepresentable act, any “last taboo” (there is always one more taboo, and it is always possible to break it – and where else but on the internet?), but by the rubric of explicitness*: porn is emphatically not about anyone’s interiority. (A new rule of the internet is needed, in fact: for every feeling, there is a corresponding “tfw” – “that feeling when” – statement illustrating the circumstances that would give rise to that feeling, ideally paired with a suitable gif. But “tfw” is arguably the gravestone of interiority: its premise is that every feeling is communicable, and linked to an occasion outside the self.)

Here is a trivial model of “sufficiency”: for every set, there is a free monoid whose elements are the finite sequences of elements of that set, whose identity element is the empty sequence, and whose monoid operation is the concatenation of sequences. Every set is convertible with its free monoid, in a precisely definable way (there is a functor from the category of sets to the category of monoids, and what is meant by “free monoid” in this context is that this functor is left-adjoint to the forgetful functor running in the opposite direction. Haskell programmers know the monad arising from this adjunction as the “List monad”; it’s worth studying, as an elementary example of how such things work). The free monoid construction means that there are “sufficient” monoids to cover the entire category of sets (although this shouldn’t be thought of in terms of there being an equal quantity of monoids and sets, since we’re dealing with infinite categories).

Is this really a model of “sufficiency” in the sense intended by Laruelle, when he talks of the “principle of sufficient philosophy”? Not quite, and it’s worth trying to figure out why. The principle of sufficient philosophy doesn’t just entail that for every entity in some domain – the world, or some region of the world – there is a philosophical reflection or representation of that entity and its relations with other entities. It is also implied (in Laruelle’s usage) that this reflection is not “free” (in the sense of being “freely generated”), but rather involves the covert addition of extra structure or information. Philosophy’s “world-system” is then a construction over the world which uses materials taken from philosophy - Laruelle will sometimes describe it as a “hallucination”. Philosophical sufficiency is thus indicted as an imposture: the in-sufficient or over-sufficient specular model poses (itself) as sufficient, and in doing so does a kind of violence to that which it claims to reflect.

We are dealing, in that case, with a kind of failed or defective specularity, which “makes up for” its defects by violently normalising that which it purports to reflect, mutilating the foot to make it fit the glass slipper which supposedly transparently ensheathes it. And there are many such systems abroad in the world today (although I note in passing that this account lines up rather well with Friedrich Hayek’s in The Road to Serfdom: Hayek claims that a centrally-planned economy must compensate for its inability to model the informational complexity of real economic activity through distortion, cover-ups, and ultimately violent political suppression…). But we also have in hand an example of a “mapping”, or transference between categories by means of a functor, which is rigorously, demonstrably, non-violent - which serves, in fact, as a counter-example to the violence of which Laruelle accuses philosophy. For there are “full and faithful” functors as well as “forgetful” ones – and the mathematics of category theory exhibits a panoply of different kinds of specularity, different ways in which one thing can be reflected in, projected on to, extracted from or transformed into another, faithfully or lossily, invertibly or non-invertibly.

The point here is not to say that all we need to do is turn philosophy into mathematics and all will be well. It can’t be done anyway – mathematics can propose images of thought to philosophy, and philosophy can do its best to attend to them carefully, but there is no general-purpose mapping between the two. We have to recognise something like Badiou’s Being and Event as a philosophical construction of ontology with mathematics, which draws on set theory as an organon of ontological stricture.

What I mostly miss in Laruelle is any sense that stricture can be useful: the general drift is towards destriction, letting it all hang out.  In some respects of course Laruelle is very strict – Galloway describes him as having a “prophylactic” ontology, which absolutely forbids the binding together of entities under any representational syntax whatsoever. But this enforced unbinding and excommunication of entities serves the purpose of allowing them to mix promiscuously, to be brought into identity with each other in an ad hoc manner, without regard for regulated channels of communication (or, it must be said, the semantic conventions proper to their discourses of origin). I compare Zalamea’s vision, in Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, of a universe of “transits” between regions of mathematics, in which extremely delicate constructions make it possible for remote areas of knowledge to be brought into communication with each other, mixed and modulated and amplified in just the manner Laruelle seems to desire, but with complete and unyielding exactitude.

  • But on this, see Helen Hester’s Beyond Explicit, which considers precisely the impasse encountered by porn when it attempts to go beyond the “frenzy of the visible”. The pornographic act may be one of explicit depiction, but it is haunted by the undepictable.

Samois Gamgee

Chiara d'Anna in The Duke of Burgundy
Here comes the new boss

Back in the days before the Feminist Sex Wars (ask your mother), radical feminists used to fret about sexual practices which revolved around domination and submission – their contention was that compulsory heterosexuality already revolved around domination and submission, and that S&M just did the same thing harder and more openly (which made it a convenient target of critique, e.g. Andrea Dworkin reading heterosexuality through porn, and porn through Sade and Bataille, telescoping together a long chain of determinations into a single static image of bad sex). At the root, the radix, was the fact of male domination: political, economic, physical; from this came the inscription of domination into sexual practice, which set the stamp of male power on gendered bodies.

In spite of decades of people arguing that this was ludicrous, and that domination in a sexual context had no necessary connection with social forms of domination (everything that now goes by the name of “kyriarchy”), I still think the radical feminists had a point. Social facts shape embodied practices, and what we do with our bodies is part of how we reproduce social forms. The claim commonly made for S&M is that it’s a way of interrupting that process of reproduction, making explicit and available for transformation the power dynamics that are implicit in less consciously mediated practices. That seems plausible enough, but it’s also a little like believing that racism isn’t properly racism if you’re doing it ironically. At some level you’re still really doing what you’re consciously, mediatedly, subversively and transgressively doing. It wouldn’t be any fun if you weren’t.

However, I also don’t think it’s worth arguing about any more. The radical feminists had this notion that you could derail patriarchy by attacking its reproduction via embodied sexuality; but nobody really wanted to go along with that all the way to the end. We have to live in the world as it is, embodied as we are, and that means compromising (with) ourselves. The last two decades of feminist talk about sex have largely been a mixture of thrashing out the terms of that compromise, and establishing the consent standard as a kind of minimal, universally agreed-upon index of OK-ness.  What do they want, who want neither Virtue nor Terror? Mostly, just to be left alone.

(There is a kind of melancholia attached to this compromise, which I do think deserves attention. As Janet Halley brilliantly argued, the radical feminist vision of sexuality gave rise to an extraordinarily total sexual politics. There is something rather degraded and shabby, in comparison, about the argument that we should just go on doing whatever we feel like – within the parameters of consent, naturally – but should also take time to “question where our desires come from”. What possible outcome is being imagined for such questioning? A mild frisson of guilt and regret at being so unreconstructed?)

One thing I found intriguing about The Duke of Burgundy was the way it set its laborious fetish-games in a male-free, child-free, female-only world – the world of artsy lesbian softcore reimagined as a temporary autonomous zone – in which sexuality had no patriarchal referent or context: no reproductive hazard, no men to please or pacify, no discernible “metaphysics of force” of the kind outlined in Dworkin’s Intercourse. What social facts are being reproduced through embodied sexuality here? Ultimately, and rather tellingly, the axis of domination resignified in the lovers’ games is class. The key question at each moment is, who is working for whom? It’s clear that the relationship is rather tyrannical, that the submissive party is actually obnoxiously demanding, and that what she demands above all is emotional labour: say the lines with conviction, be spontaneous, surprise me. She’s like a terrible neoliberal employer: not only do you have to go through with this whole scripted routine, you have to do it with a smile (or, in this case, a convincing “coldness”), adorned all the while with the requisite number of “pieces of flair”. The feeling of relief when the lovers agreed to give it all a break for a bit was palpable – this was the true utopian moment in the film.

I imagine it was the tyrannised-by-the-client aspect of their relationship that most resonated with viewers who weren’t themselves particularly into lesbian BDSM roleplay, that seemed most “universal”. In this way, The Duke of Burgundy has a kind of remorseless deductive logic about it: by bracketting off the entire context in which feminism had previously debated the ethics of sexualised domination, it’s able to isolate and present the true form of contemporary social power – that of the Pret-a-manger store manager, directing the behaviour of frontline staff like a client instructing a dominatrix in precisely which admonishments to use.

Matheme and mytheme

I’ve occupied, and still move back and forth between, the world of the figurative and the mythematic, and the world of the thetic and the conceptual. If I have an argument, it is that it is necessary to know both, and to know the difference.

There is a thetic demarcation of the mythematic: the world of myth according to the world of ideas. A pantheon of gods-according-to-the-philosophers, of secularisations that are also elevations, spiritualisations of the concept. There is also, and without any symmetry between them, a mythic re-absorption of the thetic, which does not demarcate and delimit (since that is not the mode of myth), but rather destabilises and re-integrates. The concept appears there in person, or as persona, subject to the trials of storytelling. There is no firm truth there, because there is no firmness anywhere: reversals and transformations are common. The pantheon is brought down to earth, and its gods are set to hustling along with the rest of us.

A mature thinking must set up a transit between these two worlds, and their reflections in each other. That is not the same as constructing a complete model of one inside the other. The domination of the concept leads to a brittle world-image, a server-room infinity. The domination of the mytheme leads to disorientation, apocalypticism or blood-and-soil political poetics. Both are real and present dangers to the future of human thought.

Notebooks Out

You Just Can’t Understand Our Gnostic Sooth-Saying Because You’re Too Occluded

If this book/Voyage could be placed neatly in a “field” it would not be this book. I have considered naming its “field” Un-theology or Un-philosophy. Certainly, in the house of mirrors which is the universe/university of reversals, it can be called Un-ethical. Since Gyn/Ecology is the Un-field/Ourfield/Outfield of Journeyers, rather than a game in an “in” field, the pedantic can be expected to perceive it as “unscholarly”. Since it confronts old moulds/models of question-asking by being itself an Other way of thinking/speaking, it will be invisible to those who fetishize old questions – who drone that it does not “deal with” their questions.

Philosophers Are Children Scared Of The Dark

Patriarchy is itself the prevailing religion of the entire planet, and its essential message is necrophilia. All of the so-called religions legitimating patriarchy are mere sects subsumed under its vast umbrella/canopy. They are essentially similar, despite the variations. All – from buddhism and hinduism to islam, judaism, christianity, to secular derivatives such as freudianism, jungianism, marxism, and maoism – are infrastructures of the edifice of patriarchy. All are erected as parts of the male’s shelter against anomie.

We Get Ours Straight From The Real

In order to reverse the reversals completely we must deal with the fact that patriarchal myths contain stolen mythic power. They are something like distorting lenses through which we can see into the Background. But it is necessary to break their codes in order to use them as viewers; that is, we must see their lie in order to see their truth. We can correctly perceive patriarchal myths as reversals and as pale derivatives of more ancient, more translucent myth from gynocentric civilization. We can also move our Selves from a merely chronological analysis to a Crone-logical analysis. This frees feminist thought from the compulsion to “prove” at every step that each phallic myth and symbol had a precedent in gynocentric myth, which chronologically antedated it. The point is that while such historical study is extremely useful, we can, whenever necessary, rely upon our Crones’ clarifying logic to see through the distortions into the Background that is always present in our moving Self-centering time/space.

So, Mary Daly is quite the non-philosopher avant la lettre – the same global characterisation of all hitherto-existing thought as a sterile, self-regarding enclosure inextricably linked to a project of domination; the same claim to have discovered a radically different way of seeing (“Crone-logy”, “Spinning” etc) which treats that thought as material for revisionary redeployment; the same belief that one can (iff authentically female) immediately and in-person incarnate and speak “according to” an occluded Real. I was going to say that Laruelle was Mary Daly for dudes, but it would be more true to say that Mary Daly is gnosticism for lesbian separatists.

If Only You Had Been Right

I’m thinking – what else would I be doing? – about the valuation (in left-accelerationism and elsewhere) of the cognitive, its overvaluation or undervaluation. Here, for example, is what the internet already knows to be Dominic Fox’s Favourite Andrea Dworkin Quote:

There is also, possibly, sexual intelligence, a human capacity for discerning, manifesting, and constructing sexual integrity. Sexual intelligence could not be measured in numbers of orgasms, erections, or partners; nor could it show itself by posing painted clitoral lips in front of a camera; nor could one measure it by the number of children born; nor would it manifest as addiction. Sexual intelligence, like any other kind of intelligence, would be active and dynamic; it would need the real world, the direct experience of it; it would pose not buttocks but questions, answers, theories, ideas – in the form of desire or act or art or articulation.

I imagine an allergic reaction to this being triggered almost immediately by the word “intelligence”, and the reader breaking out in hives at the valuation of the “active and dynamic”, the masterful and virile intellect posing its “questions, answers, theories, ideas” to “the real world”. A pose of aggressive sufficiency, in which “desire or act or art or articulation” is always caught up in a movement of intelligence from itself to itself, “discerning, manifesting, and constructing”, making things smart. This vision of what intelligence is, and does, is indeed what I love in Dworkin: I think it is more characteristic of her than almost anything else; even her macabre involvement with extremes of violence, horror and humiliation is subservient to it, driven relentlessly forward by it. Pessimism of the intellect, but never pessimism towards the intellect. (Firestone was much the same).

We see also here Dworkin’s devaluation, in which I share wholeheartedly, of the world of appearances – “painted clitoral lips”, the imaginary realm scoped out by scopophilia, turned into manifest reality by pornographic staging. For her there is a dreadful fall from the qualitative – the deep interior of things, that which intellect must delve into and reason out – into the quantitative, that which can be measured, posed, addictively consumed. Intelligence has nothing to do with this “unreal” world, the world of commerce and communication (and this is where my Dworkin meets my Badiou, in their shared disdain for the democratic-materialist unworld of circulating signifiers). There is nothing to be learned from the “posed”, the “painted”. An entire dimension of performativity – everything that can happen on a stage, in front of a camera, for the amusement of an audience – is condemned here as essentially unworthy of thought. (Dworkin is in this sense perhaps the least “queer” lesbian ever).

My imagined allergic reader feels the lash of this condemnation and recoils. A part of humanity, perhaps a preponderant part, is to be carved away and cast into the fire. You can try to offer reassurance, but it’s too late. Most people don’t experience their intellect as in any way sufficient to their lived reality; the demand that everything be filtered through “intelligence” feels tyrannising and small-minded. They say that Dworkin hated sex; she didn’t, she found it endlessly rich and fascinating and complex. A challenge for thought, a genuinely worthy problem – “not the fun kind”, as she said of herself. What she hated was the kind of inane cruelty that comes out when things slip the reins of intellect and people’s childish wishes are brought garishly into fruition (the porn fairy waves her plastic wand…); the way this cruelty demands subordinated bodies to play its games with, to fashion into the material of its enjoyment. I’m with her there, 100%: obscenity and transgression are always fun for someone, and damn that someone to hell (even if, or especially when, it’s me). But you cannot separate humanity from obscenity: there is no possible “integrity” that does not involve some kind of compact with the unavowable.

Everybody Be More Dialectical

Round about now seems like a good time to say a word or two in defence of Sarah Ditum, if for no other reason than that it will annoy people.

I should start by admitting that I’ve often found Ditum’s attempts to push back on terminology to be quixotic, to say the least. For example, I think she’s at least half-wrong about TERF (which she claims is a “slur”) – there have been historically, and are still, radical feminists who maintain a separatist line that excludes from feminist political organising not only men but also transwomen on the grounds that the latter “are” men (and men intent on infiltration of sacred women’s space, to boot). Mary Daly was in this sense a trans-exclusionary radical feminist; Sheila Jeffreys was and is likewise. Whether someone like Gia Milinovich merits the label is another matter. I agree that it’s become a term of attack, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to use it; rather, I think it’s a reason to use it with precision against the right targets. Some people seem to think that no man, and perhaps even no woman, should ever employ any term of attack against any woman whatsoever. But I cannot think of any good reason, other than her notorious fondness for litigation, not to call someone like Cathy Brennan a TERF and, moreover, a transphobic bigot. I will own that I am attacking her in doing so; but I do not think I am subjecting her, or the language, to abuse. Even if you don’t agree with me that this distinction can be made about my own conduct here, you can probably think of a scenario in which it could and should be made. Sometimes it is right and just to go on the attack, and to use attacking language in doing so.

But enough of that for now: on to the main event, which is Ditum’s recent article opposing the adoption of “sex work” as a term for selling sex (or performing sexual services) for money.

A term like “sex work” is intended to push some things into the background – notably, as Ditum points out, the overwhelmingly gendered character of that work – and foreground others. It’s a baby-and-bathwater question. Most of what proponents of the new terminology are trying to clear out of the language is moralistic dreck and prurient fantasy that gets in the way of making proper sense of things – all the stigmatising muck that clings to words like “prostitute” and “prostitution” (which Ditum also acknowledges is dehumanising and distracting). What they are trying to bring out instead is the character of “sex work” as labour, and so amenable to labour organisation as a tool of political change, with the goal of bettering the lives of the (mostly) women who perform that labour.

This is a program with which many but not all of the people in that – perhaps unhelpfully broadly defined – line of work are increasingly aligned, along with a vocal chorus of allies. It’s a bit disingenuous to say that “sex work” is the term that sex workers prefer: it’s rather the term that people who prefer to think of themselves as “sex workers” prefer. There seems to be a general agreement among left-thinking people to see those who’ve adopted this form of self-definition as the conscious and militant fraction of their class, and as especially representative of it for that reason (irrespective of their actual numbers, which I’m not competent even to guess at). Ditum and others – I’ve recently seen Kate Smurthwaite taking a similar position – stand outside of this agreement, seeing sex-workers-who-prefer-to-be-called-“sex workers” as atypical; where many people see the political and polemical initiative being taken by a hitherto ignored and disrespected minority, they tend to see it as PR bluff and “industry” money amplifying the voices of a relatively privileged (and self-interested) subset of that minority.

There comes a point when the incessant demand to “listen” to such voices arouses impatience: when what is posed as urgent and authentic testimony begins to sound, on the contrary, like someone rehearsing a very familiar ideological narrative. At some point you’re going to want to question that narrative, at which point you will likely be placed automatically in the camp of “people who refuse to listen”. It is, as I well know, very tempting to double down at that point, and dig in to the contrary position just because.

The thing is, it’s a genuine differend: you can’t resolve the issue by calling on an authoritative subject – “sex workers themselves” – which just transparently knows how things stand. That’s begging the question, which is precisely whether this subject is a genuine political subject in the sense demanded (that is, a “conscious and militant fraction”, if not a numerical majority). If it is, then an attempt like Ditum’s to arrest its self-definition is arguably reactionary; if it isn’t, then Ditum’s is a timely and useful skepticism. I’m genuinely undecided about this. I don’t think it’s at all a simple matter, or simply resolvable. “It’s not work, it’s abuse” is also the statement of someone who knows, from experience, “what it is like”. The synthesis of contraries is a tricky business.

Ditum’s a thoughtful and nuanced writer, which in the context of internet polemics is a bit like being Tim Roth doing all that fancy fencing shit in front of Liam Neeson in Rob Roy and then getting cloven from shoulder to navel with a bloody great claymore (or, if you prefer, there’s a scene in one of Neal Stephenson’s books where one of the finest swordsmen in England is battered to death by an adversary wielding a large log). Defensive auto-stupefaction is the order of the day: people will “what is this I can’t even” you the moment you go off-script, and all the care you put into examining what the script actually says and what that really entails will be lost. You may press on anyway, in the hope of finding a sympathetic audience somewhere, but the crowd of people making “durrr” faces at you and telling you you’re dumb and obstinate will just go on getting bigger. I like and (in case it’s not obvious) identify a lot with Ditum’s cussedness in the face of that kind of treatment, even if I’m not convinced that it’s always properly directed. But there is a danger that the wind will change and you’ll wake up as Brendan O’Neill.

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