Defensiveness and Intersectionality Wars - An Excerpt
I am part of a panel at a small conference with a few other black feminist scholars, all of whom work on intersectionality. The mood is tense as we discuss the racial politics of intersectionality’s circulation, its movement across the humanities and social sciences, and its status as women’s studies’ signature analytic.
One scholar remarks that intersectionality’s ubiquity reminds her of a passage from Ntozake Shange’s choreo-poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf: “Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.” The audience roars in delight, and I find myself fascinated both by the deployment of Shange’s provocative image of theft and by the audience’s enthusiasm.
This book was born of questions that emerged that day: Why had the idea of intersectionality as something stolen resonated so deeply? How might we understand the racial politics of this scene, one where a canonical black feminist work is used to theorize the violent theft of another canonical black feminist work? Who owns intersectionality, and who steals it? What might this encounter—the use of Shange, and the audience’s reaction to it—reveal about the affects of contemporary academic US black feminisms? What does it mean when an anticaptivity project like black feminist theory claims ownership as a primary model for conducting black feminist inquiry?
I treat this scene as a point of departure to capture what I argue is a distinctively contemporary academic black feminist affect: defensiveness. I read defensiveness as a practice of a certain kind of agency—indeed, I argue that it is the primary form of agency that black feminists exert in the U.S. academy. It is a form of agency that is seemingly exercised on behalf of black women’s intellectual production, and on behalf of black women as subjects worthy of study, and one that does its work through an exertion of ownership. It is, though, ultimately a dangerous form of agency, one
that traps black feminism, and black feminists, rather than liberating us, by locking black feminists into the intersectionality wars rather than liberating us from those battles, and enabling us to reveal how deeply problematic these battles are.
The defensive posture produces a kind of impasse for black feminist theory, one that keeps us fundamentally stalled, and that frustrates black feminism’s political projects. Indeed, the defensive position is constitutive of the impasse, the “holding pattern,” that marks black feminist theory. Despite evidence that the attachment to the defensive position is toxic, the attachment persists because it offers the sense of collective world-making, and because it is the exertion of a certain form of agency.
The defensive posture unfolds not only through a territorial hold on intersectionality but also in and through black feminism’s ongoing attachment to the university, even as black feminist theorists have long captured the violence of the university. In other words, black feminist theorists retain both a deep critique of the university and its violence—including the imagined violence of intersectionality’s circulation apart from black women and black feminism—and a continued faith in the university as a space that can be reformed and reimagined to do justice to black women’s intellectual labor.
Indeed, very few black feminist theorists have called for a wholesale rejection of the university, or a profound investment in doing black feminist theoretical and practical work outside of the killing engine of the university, even as black feminist theorists including Ann duCille, Barbara Christian, and Grace Hong have posed crucial questions of the university, like the provocation “Can black feminism survive the academy?”
Thus, black feminist defensive tactics around intersectionality take hold in the context of a larger theoretical tradition attached—optimistically, self-destructively, or both—to the university.
My understanding of defensiveness is also indebted to Sianne Ngai’s work on “ugly feelings.” For Ngai, ugly feelings are “petty, amoral, and non-cathartic feelings” that “offer no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release. In fact, most of these feelings tend to
interfere with the outpouring of other emotions.” The “ugliness” of the “ugly feelings” indexes social conditions of marginality and “state[s] of obstructed agency.”
What appeals to me about Ngai’s formulation is not simply the idea of “ugliness,” the sense of a negative affect that is nonproductive (though, unlike Ngai, I view black feminist defensiveness as deeply cathartic, and as deeply appealing in the sense that it is an ethical and virtuous practice staged on behalf of black women’s intellectual production). I am also drawn to the idea of defensiveness as indexing an “obstructed agency,” which for Ngai is not a personal (or psychic) condition but a social one. In other words, ugly feelings are a sign of the social conditions that allow for obstructed agency to be the only form of agency imaginable.
Here, I argue, is the richness of Ngai’s work for my purposes—it helps us understand black feminist defensiveness as an attempt to exercise agency, as a willful form of territorial exertion in the service of autonomy, but one that is frustrating and frustrated. Ultimately, this book treats black feminism not simply as an intellectual, political, creative, and erotic tradition but also as a way of feeling. The felt
life of black feminism is varied and complex, but what I hope to underscore here is that the felt life of black feminism is shaped by black feminism’s institutional location in women’s studies. In making this claim, it is not my contention that black feminism is a subsidiary of women’s studies.
Indeed, black feminism has its own lives outside of women’s studies—in allied disciplines, including black studies, that have embraced black feminist theories, methods, and analytics—and outside of the academy. But it is precisely because women’s studies has imagined black feminism as central to its institutional project, because the field is marked by a preoccupation with black woman, that I imagine black feminism and women’s studies as bound up, and that, I argue, means that the felt experiences of academic black feminism are necessarily rooted in women’s studies. When I describe the felt experience of black feminism, my investment is in considering how the tradition is felt by those attached to it, by black feminists themselves.
It is clear that nonblack feminists also feel black feminism in certain ways, viewing it as a place of hope, retreat, anxiety, disgust, imagining it as both world-making and world-ending simultaneously. These are feelings projected onto black feminism and black feminists, often in ways that are supported by the field of women’s studies. My own investment in tracing the felt life of black feminism, though, is in considering the structures of feeling that attend to and underpin the practice of black feminism in the academy by black feminists themselves. In treating black feminism as a felt experience, I am attempting to honor the panoply of scholarship rooted in the intellectual tradition that has voiced the ecstasies, frustrations, longings, and fatigue of scholars who organize themselves around the sign black feminism, including Patricia J Williams, Rachel Lee, Tiffany Lethabo King, Brittney Cooper, and Amber Jamilla Musser.
These scholars have, in varied ways, named the complex experiences of performing black feminism in the academy. For example, Cooper captures the experience of describing herself as a “black feminist theorist” and notes that she often receives “looks of confusion, eyebrows crinkling into question marks, and long awkward pauses, as colleagues wait for me to clarify. . . . This kind of ambivalence does not usually attend to my white feminist colleagues’ declarations that they are ‘feminist theorists,’ or that they ‘do feminist theory.’ Even if they have to give specifics, feminist theory names a universe of possibility that Black feminist theory apparently does not.”
If Cooper’s description of the “ambivalence” (or, I would argue, disbelief) that attends to reactions of her investment in black feminism, it also describes the experience of being a black feminist in the academy. To be invested in black feminist theory in the academy, Cooper reveals, is to inhabit a position that is subject to scrutiny; it is to require an additional explanation, or to be prepared to be challenged. In other words, the experience of being a black feminist engenders certain kinds of feelings in its practitioner, feelings of fatigue, of sadness, of anger. What Cooper’s account underscores is that to claim black feminism as one’s academic home is an experience that has an affective charge.
Ann du Cille’s work also emphasizes the felt life of black feminism: Today there is so much interest in black women that I have begun to think of myself as a kind of sacred text. . . . Within the modern
academy, racial and gender alterity has become a hot commodity that has claimed black women as its principal signifier. . . . This attention is not altogether unpleasant, especially after generations of neglect,
but I am hardly alone in suspecting that interest in black women may have as much to do with the pluralism and even the primitivism of this particular postmodern moment as with the genuine quality of
black women’s accomplishments and the breadth of their contribution to American civilization.
Du Cille’s analysis of black women’s curious place in academic life focuses on the felt life of black feminism and the paradox of being both “a sacred text” and “neglect[ed].” That is, race and gender are “hot commodities” while the fleshy materiality of black women’s bodies continues to be theoretically neglected. Du Cille’s insight reveals that the place of black feminists in the academy is marked by an experience of what Lee terms “fetishized marginality,” being both desired and disavowed simultaneously.
In flagging black feminism as having a felt experience, I am also situating it within the broad tradition of affect studies.
Affect studies, as a field, has been notoriously inattentive to questions of race, and to the specific contributions of black feminist scholars in theorizing death, loss, grief, and ambivalence, to name just a few. My own desire here, then, is to craft alternative genealogies of affect theory that recognize and center the long attachment of black feminist theory to the felt life.
Though a history of the affective turn falls outside of the scope of the project, I will flag that the recent investment in affect is often intellectually tethered to queer theory. Ann Cvetkovich, for example, argues that scholarship on affect is marked by an “interest in everyday life, in how global politics and history manifest themselves at the level of lived affective experience, [and this] is bolstered by the role that queer theory has played in calling attention to the integral role of sexuality within public life. Moreover, our interest in negative affects draws inspiration from the depathologizing work of queer studies, which has made it possible to document and revalue non-normative ways of living.”
I aspire to complicate genealogies of affect studies that downplay or entirely neglect the affective work of black feminism, and its centrality to making visible the importance of affect to creative and political lives, by emphasizing both how black feminism has treated racism and sexism as felt experiences and how black feminists have theorized what it feels like to do labor that is both desired and devalued inside an academy that was not designed to celebrate or even support black women’s intellectual work.
Instead, I ask what it might mean to tell the story of affect theory centering, for example, Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights, Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. How might terms like “survival,” “loss,” “pain,” “spirit,” “grief,” and “desire” look (and feel) different when black feminist texts are centered at the heart of the tradition? Moreover, one of the tremendous insights of affect theory has been its invitation to consider how structures of domination feel, and to suggest that simply naming structures fails to do justice to how they move against (and inside of) our bodies.
Following Kathleen Stewart’s call to take notice, to inhabit, and to observe the workings of “ordinariness,” recent scholarly work has turned its attention to capturing what academic life feels like. Cvetkovich, for example, characterizes academia as a location “where the pressure to succeed and the desire to find space for creative thinking bump against the harsh conditions of a ruthlessly competitive job market, the shrinking power of the humanities, and the corporatization of the university.”
Cvetkovich reads (white academic) depression—the affect at the center of her theory-memoir—as indexing a set of social conditions that mark academic life for both graduate students and faculty on the seemingly endless grind of the tenure track. This depression is steeped in ordinariness, marked by the seemingly banal texture of an everyday life spent researching, writing (or, not writing), responding to student e-mails, performing “service” labor, and teaching. Black feminists alongside women of color feminists have offered rich ethnographies of the felt experiences of academic life, a project that continues with celebrated volumes like Presumed Incompetent and Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower.
This work has foregrounded practices of racialized and gendered pedagogies, theorizing how questions of authority, hierarchy, and power shape the experiences of women of color in the classroom. For example, Paulette Caldwell’s work on the felt experience of black female law school faculty asks how it feels to be “the subject of a law school hypothetical,” a way of reframing W. E. B. Du Bois’s question “What does it feel like to be a problem?”
As Caldwell begins to teach Rogers v. American Airlines, a case centered on American Airlines’ purportedly neutral ban on employees’ braided hairstyles at work, she theorizes her own discomfort. She writes, “I had carefully evaded the subject of a black woman’s hair because I appeared at each class meeting wearing a neatly-braided pageboy, and I resented being the unwitting object of one in thousands of law school hypotheticals.”
Caldwell introduces the “problem” of the body for female faculty of color, the ways in which our bodies must be mitigated, performed, inhabited, toned down, and played up in a variety of ways depending on institutional and student demands. Williams describes these competing demands: “I am expected to woo students even as I try to fend them off; I am supposed to control them even as I am supposed to manipulate them into loving me. Still I am aware of the paradox of my power over these students. I am aware of my role, my place in an institution that is larger than myself, whose power I wield even as I am powerless, whose shield of respectability shelters me even as I am disrespected.” Williams’s description of the central paradox of pedagogical life for faculty of color—how to “woo students” while “fend[ing] them off,” how to claim power in an institution that systematically “disrespects” bodies of color—beautifully captures the conditions of the present.
Indeed, this body of scholarship has usefully posed questions like: What are the felt experiences of teaching when one is “presumed incompetent”? Yet what interests me about this black feminist work on the felt life of academia is its tendency to efface the affective labors of intellectual production, research, and writing. Teaching, it seems, is the space where racialized and gendered labors are most visibly performed. Research and writing are imagined as a kind of solitary refuge, or at least as spaces that are less fraught than the performative and affective task of pedagogy. This book asks: What does it feel like when analytics that one imagines as one’s own—such as intersectionality—become popularized, institutionalized, ossified? How does one come to imagine an analytic, method, or tool as one’s own? What does it feel like when one’s scholarly work becomes termed a “buzzword” or is mobilized by universities in ways that feel at odds with one’s own work? And what does it mean to feel that the symbols of one’s body and intellectual production have become the cornerstone of women’s studies
programmatic ambitions and wills to institutionalism? My work intervenes in this conversation by treating defensiveness as the black feminist affect that attaches to the popularization and circulation of intersectionality. I understand defensiveness to be a space marked by feelings of ownership and
territoriality, and by loss and grief. The book, then, theorizes defensiveness as the feeling that emerges when intersectionality is thought to be a lost object or, worse, a stolen object. It is also a book that seeks to encourage and imagine other ways of feeling black feminist, other ways of being black
feminist and doing black feminist labor in the academy that eschew defensiveness and its toxicity.