The problem of silencing unprivileged groups appears to be a major concern for many researchers. The increasing focus on multiple, intersecting and conflicting dimensions of inequality, especially the intersections between race, class and gender, can probably be seen as a response to this ethical-political concern. The terminology of intersectionality is said to be a promising attempt at dealing with differences or complexities in theory production while maintaining the political impetus of feminism. But could the terminology be too promising, as it were? Could it be that the terminology of intersectionality, which includes the key concepts “complexity” and “multiplicity”, actually obscures more than it reveals when it comes to dealing with difference? Some would perhaps object that discussing distinctions between different concepts of difference is a theoretical idiosyncrasy of no or little relevance to most researchers, let alone the subjects of scientific studies and people in general. The author argues, however, that intersectionality perspectives that ignore aporetic difference could, as a consequence, contribute to a continued silencing of those others who do no fit with the dominant evaluative standards. This is, perhaps paradoxically, most likely to happen when the theoretical perspectives are motivated by an ethical-political “will to empower” unprivileged groups and break what the researchers consider as a historically enforced silence.
The problem of silencing unprivileged groups appears to be a major concern for many researchers. The increasing focus on multiple, intersecting and conflicting dimensions of inequality, especially the intersections between race, class and gender, can probably be seen as a response to this ethical-political concern. Intersectionality studies, with their claimed constructionist basis, purport to capture the mutual constitution of social categories, and thereby claim to avoid the pitfalls of both essentialism and universalism, albeit without giving up the potential for political mobilisation (see e.g. Chancer and Watkins, 2006). According to Gudrun-Axeli Knapp, the terminology of intersectionality is a promising attempt at dealing with differences or complexities in theory production while maintaining the political impetus of feminism (2005: 254). But could the terminology be too promising, as it were? Could it be that the terminology of intersectionality, which includes the key concepts of “complexity” and “multiplicity”, actually obscures more than it reveals when it comes to dealing with difference?
In the following I endeavour to explore the way in which the concept of complexity is used in association with the concept of intersectionality, doing so by focusing on the notions of difference implied by the concepts of complexity. Some would perhaps object that discussing distinctions between different concepts of difference is a theoretical idiosyncrasy of no or little relevance to most researchers, let alone the subjects of scientific studies and people in general. I argue, on the contrary, that no matter how critical of universalisations and essentialisations they are, and however context-sensitive and complexity-oriented they might be, intersectionality perspectives that ignore “difference of kind” associated with “events” could, as a consequence, contribute to a continued silencing of those others who do no fit with the dominant evaluative standards. This is, perhaps paradoxically, most likely to happen when the theoretical perspectives are motivated by an ethical-political “will to empower” unprivileged groups and break what the researchers consider as a historically enforced silence.
Black women’s political critique of feminism in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s contributed to the development of the concept of intersectionality. The feminist movement was criticized for its homogenizing and totalizing presupposition, and for silencing black women in particular, by presuming an exclusionary (white, middle-class) concept of “woman”. Due to this critique feminist scholars were compelled to theoretically reflect upon the meaning of “woman”. The phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?”1 is an idiomatic expression of the black feminist’s critique, and it emblematically points out the challenge of intersectionality: its fundamental questioning of ahistoric, objectivist, unitary, totalizing, homogenizing and essensializing categories.2
In recent years the concept of intersectionality has been widely used and discussed, theoretically as well as methodologically. In their article “Ain’t I a Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality”, Avtar Brah and Ann Phoenix regard the concept of intersectionality as “signifying the complex, irreducible, varied and variable effects which ensue when multiple axes of differentiation […] intersect in historically specific contexts” (2004: 76). According to them, the concept of intersectionality “emphasizes that different dimensions of social life cannot be separately extracted and presented as discrete and pure strands” (76). The concept thereby defies the homogenizing and totalizing logic of identity that characterizes modernist reasoning and identity politics.
In a special issue on intersectionality of European Journal of Women’s Studies, Baukje Prins argues that the concept of intersectionality constitutes a critical alternative to identity politics. It not only takes into account differences between groups, but focuses on intra-group differences as well. At the same time, she states, intersectionality constitutes a critical alternative to additive claims involving multiple jeopardy for the others (2006: 278). For instance, intersectionality dismisses the additive claim that black women are twice as badly off than white women due to sexism and racism. According to Prins, intersectionality emphasizes that “the complexity of processes of individual identification and social inequality cannot be captured by such arithmetical frameworks” (279). Totalizing and essentializing categories are dismissed in favour of complex and multiple categorisations (with an emphasis on the processual dimension).
Kimberlé Crenshaw (2004), who coined the concept of intersectionality in the late 1980s, and who later has been one of the most influential contributors within this field of research, claims that the concept of intersectionality offers a way of mediating the tension between assertions of multiple identities and the ongoing necessity of group politics. What is of particular interest with respect to my argument is the way in which she theoretically distinguishes intersectionality from the closely related perspective of anti-essentialism. She associates anti-essentialism with the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. She maintains that this postmodernist critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance, which corresponds with a remark made in the beginning of her article, namely that the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, but rather that it frequently conflates or ignores intra-group differences. These statements are significant inasmuch as they allude to a general issue that has afflicted intersectionality studies right from the beginning: the epistemic status of difference.
Knapp notes that the debate on difference among women climaxed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a clash between identitarian (political) articulations of differences and radical questioning of the epistemological and political foundations of feminism (2005: 254). The radical questioning of unified, identitarian categorizations was, among others, voiced by Judith Butler. She confronted theories of feminist identity that elaborate predicates of colour, sexuality, ethnicity, class and ablebodiedness, and then close with an “etc.” at the end of the line. Butler asks what political impetus is to be derived from the exasperated “etc.” that so often occurs at the end of such lines (1999: 182).
Following Knapp, this question signifies a fundamental aporia in feminist theory: the clash between identitatian articulations of difference and radical questioning of the foundations of the epistemological and political foundations of feminism:
The principle indeterminateness of this generalized ‘We’ on the one hand and its practical, operational character of the other hand, hint at a fundamental aporia that distinguishes the field of feminist critique from other traditions of critical theory. The aporia lies in the simultaneous indispensability and impossibility of a foundational reference to an epistemic or political subject (Knapp, 2005: 253) .
As mentioned above, bearing Crenshaw’s argument in mind, Knapp characterizes the programmatic of intersectionality, pioneered by black feminists’ interest in theorizing race, class and gender as a trilogy of oppression and discrimination, as a revolution in perspective. As noted above, intersectionality promises to lead a way out of the impasse of identity politics in theory production while maintaining feminism’s political impetus (Knapp, 2005: 255) . However, as Knapp also notes, the political and moral need for feminism to be inclusive if it is to keep to its own foundational premises opened the way for dispersion and acceleration of “race/ethnicity, class, gender/sexuality etc.” in terms of the fast travelling concept of “raceclassgender” (253). In my view, intersectionality could easily jeopardise the kind of differences that defy foundational references and identity politics by way of its fast travelling terminology and the processes of disembedding that characterizes fast travelling theories. In the following, I argue that the widespread “complexity” and “multiplicity” terminology seems to confound differences that defy a foundational reference with multiplicity or multiple identities. Before elaborating on this problem in some detail, I shall give a brief account of the concept of difference that is the crux of the matter.
Difference that defies any foundational reference can be accounted for by referring to “the event”, as described by e.g. Jean-François Lyotard (1993; 1988). “The event” refers to an immediate occurrence of things that cannot be subsumed under a general rule, law or concept. Going beyond our powers of representation, “events” cannot be made the objects of conceptualization, which means that we must judge without criteria. The concept of “the event” is therefore sometimes associated with indeterminate judgement (Kant).
By virtue of being unclassifiable and exceeding our systems of classification, “the event” could also be associated with the Greek concept of aporia. Aporia normally refers to a figure of undecideable ambiguity, an irresolvable internal contradiction or a logical disjunction in a text, argument or theory. Thus, aporia is often articulated in terms of gap, lack, confusion, dilemma or irresolution. In Greek, aporia means anxiety or perplexity. In rhetoric it refers to a figure of speech in which a speaker deliberates or purports to be in doubt about a question, i.e. hesitates between alternatives (source: Oxford Reference Online).
Let us now return to Knapp’s claim that the programmatic of intersectionality articulates the aporias in feminist theory and promises to lead a way out of the impasse of identity politics in theory production while maintaining feminism’s political impetus (2005: 255). In making this statement Knapp calls attention to a particular kind of aporia characteristic of feminist theory. At the same time, however, the specific kind of aporia which is at stake in feminist theorizing could be seen as signifying the aporia in general, associated with “the event”. Without the prospect of more than one aporetic gap or difference, it is always possible to sacrifice the specific aporia on the altar of the prevailing social order and thereby eliminate it (cf. Lyotard, 1988). However, such pragmatic elimination of a particular aporetic difference is not an option if we maintain that the unclassifiable heterogeneity is an underlying condition for all theorizing, cognition, knowledge production or social intelligibility. On that account, the programmatic of intersectionality could be associated both with the specific aporias in feminist theorizing and the aporia in general.
Against this backdrop, we may argue that “the event” signifies an unclassifiable gap of heterogeneity that resists unification, classification, conceptualization, categorization, definition or identification, and yet conditions the systems of classification. By virtue of being the constitutive outside of our classifications, the aporetic difference is the very impetus of our categorizations, at the same time as it inherently calls into question the foundation of our categories and identities. It not only calls into question totalizing and essentializing identity categories; it calls into question identification and categorization per se.
The unclassifiable heterogeneity of “the event” is sometimes referred to as complexity that cannot be identified because it cannot be subsumed under a general concept, or rule or law. The complexity is considered to be beyond the logic of identity, and that is why the logic of identity is sometimes called the logic of the excluded “middle” (the “middle” being the in-between space that is excluded) (cf. Grosz, 2001). However, the concept of complexity is sometimes also used to designate plurality, multiplicity or diversity where the main object is to defy unitary identity categories in defence of multiple identities, without defying foundational references, and thus without questioning identification and categorization per se. Hence, complexity that pertains to multiple identities may be inconsonant with homogenizing, totalizing and essentializing categories, but consonant with (coalition) politics (see e.g. Yuval-Davis, 1997). The latter concept of complexity questions homogenizing and totalizing presuppositions within feminism and other areas of knowledge production, but it does not do so by presupposing an aporetic “difference of kind” associated with “the event”.
When Brah and Phoenix claim that “recognition of the importance of intersectionality has impelled new ways of thinking about complexity and multiplicity in power relations, as well as emotional investments” (2004: 82), they seem to identify complexity with multiplicity. Notwithstanding that they take intersectionality to fit with “the disruption of modernist thinking produced by postcolonial and poststructuralist ideas” (82), complexity does not seem to imply “difference of kind”. Postcolonial and poststructuralist ideas seem, in turn, mainly to be associated with the decentring of the universal, unified subject, together with the disavowal of essentialism and simplistic binary oppositions characteristic of the modern logic of identity. It is likely, therefore, that their intersectionality approach implies an omission of “the event”.
Without asserting for certain that this applies to Brah and Phoenix, it could be argued that in some of the literature on intersectionality the terms “poststructuralism”, “postmodernism” and “relativism” are mentioned at regular intervals to ensure that the additive, identitarian reductionism pertaining to modernist homogenization and tolalization is held adequately at bay. However, as Knapp argues, the presentation of “postmodernism” in this type of literature could be seen as an example of what Derrida (1990) calls “doxographic discourse”, which refers to a second-order or meta-theoretical discourse in which theories tend to move in taxonomic entities. As noted above, fast travelling concepts tend to be disembedded; they are abstracted from their epistemological premises, and “stripped of concretion, context and history” (Knapp 2005: 254).
In a similar vein, although with a different focus, Kathrin Hönig asks what reasons there could be to plead for “relativism”, as some feminists do, instead of working for an improved or broader concept of objectivity, when this is obviously what they ask for. Does the refusal of the traditional epistemic concept of objectivity and universalism necessarily imply an adherence to relativism (2005: 410)? Relativism is not adhered to as long as one does not account for epistemological incommensurability which proceeds from unclassifiable heterogeneity: “the event”. Thus, many of those who purport to be relativists seem merely to call for context-sensitive, accountable descriptions of the social reality. As Hönig notes, they call for “more finely differentiated descriptions of concrete epistemic practices and for a certain degree of contextualisation” (415). They no doubt question descriptions that are unconditionally universalizable, but by simply multiplying the epistemic descriptions, and thereby giving a pluralistic account of knowledge (412), they do not question categorization and identity formation per se.
Hönig emphasizes that you can have your context-sensitive descriptions and still be able to logically conjoin them with others or “translate” them into a more abstract language (412). In this regard, universalist and essentialist categories are disavowed, only to be replaced by multiple identity categories – sometimes referred to as complexity and multiplicity – as if a more difference-sensitive, sophisticated scheme could solve the crisis of representation or the problem of categorization all together. Opposed to this, I argue, in line with Hönig, that unless room is made for “the event” and incommensurability on a theoretical basis, relativist epistemology is rejected while relativist rhetoric is embraced (413). Relativist concepts seem only to be mentioned, not used, as Knapp illuminates in her article. The fact Knapp establishes is this: “mention differences – and continue doing what you’ve always done” (2005: 255). One might just as well add “etc.”
The additive, identitarian “etc.” at the end of the line differs from the “ et cetera” as defined by Borges in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (1965). In this essay the term “et cetera” designates that which cannot be classified. However, as Maria E. Maciel notes, Borges’“et cetera” does not come at the end of the list, as would be expected; it comes before the two last categories. She claims that this grants it a more solid status within the whole, and it creates even more surprise in the reader, because it breaks with the predictability of the very classificatory logic of conventional systems (2006: 48). Maciel wonders whether this “et cetera” is the topos par excellence of the “unclassifiable”, and, by extension, the category that is lacking in all the taxonomic systems in general.3
By virtue of resisting the law of taxonomies, the concept of “et cetera”, like the concept of “the event”, points to a complexity that cannot be managed. Or put differently, the unmanageable complexity assumes an unclassifiable heterogeneity that does not fit the existing categories within the classificatory system. At the same time, as I argued above, the unclassifiable can be regarded as a constitutive limit of our classificatory systems. We may suggest that the unmanageable complexity denotes a lack or inadequacy of our cognitive powers (Kant) that calls into question determinative judgement, on the one hand, and conditions the very same determinative (will to) power4, on the other. However, this dynamic between heterogeneity and homogeneity does not operate in accordance with a dialectical logic. Seen from a deconstructionist point of view, the dynamic operates in accordance with a supplementary “logic” (Derrida). If we now (re)turn to the concept of complexity, we may suggest that complexity assumes a “difference of kind”, that is, an excluded “middle” between categories, sections or identities. From the vantage point of (de)constructionism, complexity assumes an in-between space or gap of non-identity associated with the “et cetera” or “the event”.
According to Paul Cilliers, “the view from complexity” implies a critical understanding of complexity. He argues that complexity does not provide us with exact tools to solve our complex problems. On the contrary, complexity shows us why these problems are so difficult (2005: 257). He moves on to argue that the knowledge we have of complex systems is based on the models we make of these systems. However, to function as models, they have to reduce the complexity of the system. This means that some aspects of the system are always left out of consideration, and the problem is compounded by the fact that what is left out interacts with the rest of the system in a non-linear way. Thus, we cannot predict the effects of our reduction of the complexity (258). Consequently, we cannot have complete knowledge of complex systems; we can only have knowledge in terms of certain frameworks (258-9).
Informed by deconstructionist thinking, Cilliers does not seem to regard complexity as a matter of fact, that is, a feature of the globalized world that we, as researchers, endeavour to come to grips with but cannot manage due to its unpredictability. Instead of viewing complexity as something out there which is beyond our reach, he seems to conceive of complexity as an outcome of our production of knowledge as well as being the subject of our studies (which partly escapes our system of knowledge).
This means that our production of models or frameworks falls short when dealing with complexity management, but perhaps most importantly, our reductionist, determinative power is, in turn, productive. Our determinative (will to) power produces complexity – and not simply reflects a complex reality – by the very fact that it leaves out something that interacts with the rest of the system in a non-linear way. Our knowledge production makes the world complex by constantly leaving out the irreducible heterogeneity associated with “the event”, i.e. the irreductive remainder, residue or aporetic difference which exceeds our categories.
The fine but critical distinction between a realist approach and a deconstructionist approach to complexity seems to signify the gap between complexity in terms of multiplicity (plurality, diversity, multiple identities), on the one hand, and complexity in terms of radical questioning of identitarian categorizations, on the other. Above I argued that the former concept of complexity does not call into question identity formation with respect to aporetic difference associated with “the event”. What is called into question is merely homogenizing unifications and totalizing universalisations.
To elaborate on this problem in some detail with regard to intersectionality, I will now turn to Leslie McCall’s article “The Complexity of Intersectionality” (2005), which was originally presented as a paper entitled “Managing the Complexity of Intersectionality”.5 In her theoretical reflection upon intersectionality research McCall distinguishes between three ways of dealing with complexity, depicted as three different methodologies along a continuum. The first approach is called anticategorical complexity, the second intracategorial complexity and the third intercategorial complexity. McCall notes that the three approaches “are defined principally in terms of their stance toward categories”, and that they “attempt to satisfy the demand for complexity and, as a result, face the need to manage complexity, if for no other reason than to attain intelligibility” (2005: 1773). Methodological issues concern, in this context, “the philosophical underpinnings of methods and the kinds of substantive knowledge that are produced in the application of methods” (1774). In the following, I will limit myself to discussing the two former approaches, insofar as these are, according to McCall, the two major approaches within intersectionality research, and because they are the most relevant ones with respect to the problem at issue in this article.
According to McCall, the anticategorical approach is based on a methodology that deconstructs analytical categories. Within this approach, social life is “considered to be too irreducibly complex […] to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions that produce inequalities in the process of producing differences” (1773). McCall argues that the anticategorical methodology was born in a moment of critique where “feminist theorists, poststructuralists, and antiracist theorists almost simultaneously launched assaults on the validity of modern analytical categories in the 1980s” (1776). On the basis of this concurrence, McCall suggests that at least initially, the emphasis for both feminist deconstructionists and feminists of colour was “on the socially constructed nature of gender and other categories and the fact that a wide range of different experiences, identities, and social locations fail to fit neatly into any single ‘master’ category” (1777). She contends that the premise of the anticategorial approach is that “nothing fits neatly except as a result of imposing a stable and homogenizing order on a more unstable and heterogeneous social reality” (1777). The deconstruction of master categories also pertains to inequality and the possibility of social change:
Moreover, the deconstruction of master categories is understood as part and parcel of the deconstruction of inequality itself. That is, since symbolic violence and material inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender, the project of deconstructing the normative assumptions of these categories contributes to the possibility of positive social change (1777).
McCall adds that the point is not whether this research in fact contribute to social change; the point is that many feminist researchers employ this type of analysis because of their belief in its radical potential to alter social practices, and enable a politics that is at once more complex and inclusive (which corresponds with the programmatic of intersectionality, as described by Knapp). According to McCall, the primary philosophical consequence of this approach has been “to render the use of categories suspect because they have no foundation in reality: language […] creates categorical reality rather than the other way around” (1777).
For example, the category of gender was first understood as constituted by men and women, but questions of what distinguishes a man from a woman – is it biological sex, and if so what is biological male and female? – led to the definition of ‘new’ social groups, new in the sense of being named but also perhaps in the sense of being created (1778).
Against this backdrop, the anticategorical approach seems, on the one hand, to rely on a realist assumption about reality that does not allow of aporetic difference. To the extent that reality is considered to be complex, an anticategorial attitude would be to develop a methodology that allows researchers to mirror and manage that complexity. Moreover, the anticategorical approach seems to involve an ethical-political “will to empower” unprivileged, silenced groups by scrutinizing the possibility of social change through deconstruction of normative categories that do not fit the social reality. In other words, the anticategorical methodology is said to involve a will to disclose the constructed nature of dominant structures of power in order to empower those (others) who suffer under the prevailing order.
However, to the extent that social reality is, on the other hand, conceived of as produced by language, such realism is contradictive. Thus, judging from McCall’s delineation, there is a fundamental ambiguity – and a latent tension – within the anticategorial approach, which concerns the epistemological status of difference. McCall suggests that there is a tendency to conflate anticategorial complexity with the second methodology, intracategorial complexity. To a certain extent, this may serve to explain why the anticategorical approach is characterized by an epistemological ambiguity with respect to difference.
If we look at the second methodology presented by McCall, the intracategorical approach, complexity seems to designate multiplicity or multiple identities. The centre of analysis is multiple dimensions across categories, such as race, class and gender. McCall argues that traditional categories are initially used to name previously unstudied groups at various intersection points (2005: 1782). However, according to McCall, the researcher is equally (and unavoidably) interested in revealing the range of diversity and difference within the groups. On the one hand, categories are explicitly used to define the subject of analysis and to articulate the broader structural dynamics present in the lives of the subjects. On the other hand, scholars also see categories as misleading constructs that do not readily allow the diversity and heterogeneity of experience to be represented (1783).
Similar to Hönig’s characterization of those who call for more finely differentiated descriptions of concrete epistemic practices and for a certain degree of contextualisation (2005: 415), McCall points out that while “the standard groups are homogenized as a point of contrast, the social group that is the subject of analysis is presented in all its detail and complexity, even though in the end some generalizations about the groups must be made” (2005: 1783). She explains that the point is “not to deny the importance – both material and discursive – of categories but to focus on the process by which they are produced, experienced, reproduced and resisted in everyday life” (1883). These studies thus “avoid the fully deconstructionist rejection of all categorization, yet they remain deeply sceptical of the homogenizing generalizations that go with the territory of classification and categorization” (1783).
Notwithstanding that there are some critical distinctions between the anticategorical and the intracategorical approach, McCall’s delineation also demonstrates some substantial overlaps between the two. Except from the obvious shared premise that “relationships among social groups are containers of definable and indeed measurable inequalities” (1785), the two approaches seem to share the premise that dominant categories as misleading constructs that do not fit social reality. So although categories are considered to be constructed, and social groups are assumed to be created, categorical contingency is likely to be understood as artificiality (with regard to reality) even within (some versions of) the anticategorial approach (see e.g. McCall, 2005: 1778). Thus, both approaches are concerned with the imposition of categories (characteristic of modernist reasoning) that silence unprivileged groups, and both approaches appear to assume an objective reality that can be rendered visible if the dominant, normative categories are deconstructed.
However, as already mentioned, there are also significant distinctions between the two major approaches within intersectionality research. In her description of the anticategorial approach, McCall speaks of “irreducible heterogeneity” in contrast to “ethnographic realism” (2005: 1778). As for anticategorical complexity, she claims that “new practices of ethnographic representation have been developed to allow anticategorical feminist research to proceed while the authenticity of both the subject and the researcher […] is questioned” (1778-9). And she makes clear that some of these methodological interventions follow from the anticategorical critiques of categorization and not from many of the critiques of categorization by feminists of colour (within the intracategorial approach). According to McCall, many feminists of colour have realized that critique of unification and essentialization does not necessitate a total rejection of the social reality of categorization; what they criticise are broad and sweeping acts of categorisation, not categorisation per se (1779). Therefore, she notes, “one cannot lump these critics together with either deconstructionists, on the one hand, or multiculturalists and proponents of identity politics, on the other […]” (1779-80).
The conclusion that we might draw from this passage is that McCall, in her delineation of the two major intersectionality approaches, eventually makes a distinction between the two concepts of complexity along the lines described above: the radical questioning of identity formation on the basis of aporetic difference and “the event”, on the one hand, and the questioning of totalizing unifications and homogenizing categorizations without any such reference, on the other. However, McCall’s elaboration of the anticategorical remains confusing as long as she does not elaborate on the convergence of aporetic difference with identitarian difference (multiplicity) which seems to be apparent within this approach (judged from her own delineation). In this regard, her theoretical discussion of intesectionality might contribute to reaffirming this theoretical ambiguity, and we may ask whether the conspicuous realist inclination within both approaches is, to a certain extent, the result of her own perspective. This being said, McCall’s outline no doubt reflects a realist tendency within ostensible (de)constructionist intersectionality research, notably among researchers who call for difference-sensitivity in order to break a hitherto enforced silence (cf. Brown, 2005).
A similar ambiguity is apparent in Crenshaw’s (1994) delineation, at least on a conceptual level, inasmuch as she identifies “anti-essentialism” with “postmodernism”, and thereby conflates the two perspectives’ concepts of difference. If we take postmodernism to imply epistemological relativism, we may argue, in accordance with Hönig (2005), that whereas a postmodern, relativist approach presupposes incommensurability and thus aporetic difference associated with “the event”, an anti-essentialist approach merely pleads for a difference-sensitivity in terms of a more complex concept of objectivity.
The realist call for a more complex concept of objectivity seems, in turn, to allude to a view of society as an “objective” unity in terms of a “complex whole” (Badiou, 2005: 42; cf. Lyotard, 1984: 11 ff.), whose management requires us to develop finely differentiated methodological tools. Complexity is, in other words, considered to be, in principle, intelligible or comprehensible within the whole, but in practice, the managing of complexity is a constant methodological challenge (cf. McCall). In this sense, complexity amounts to complication. As Monica Greco makes clear, “[a] phenomenon is complicated when the task of predicting its behaviour presents a difficulty due to incomplete information […], but when in principle it is possible to explain and understand it by extending a simple, fundamental model” (2005: 23). The notion complexity, in contrast, “signals a break in the presumed continuity of different aspects of reality and of the laws that explain them. It signals that no single (or simple) set of questions may be treated as a generalizable norm.” (23). Thus, complexity deflates not only the aspiration to produce exhaustive knowledge, but also the realist notion of society as an “objective” unity.
To render concrete and exemplify the theoretical ambiguity described above, I will now draw attention to what I consider to be two illuminating texts on race, class and gender, namely Beverley Skeggs’ Formations of Class & Gender (1997) and her theoretical book, Class, Self, Culture (2004).6 Skeggs’ book from 1997 is based on participant observation among white working-class women during the 1980s and 90s in Northern England. Her analysis shows how dominant classes exploit and silence the less privileged, because some people gain legitimacy while others are degraded and silenced under dominant norms. Her analytical starting point is the concept of class as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, revolving around the four types of capital: economic, cultural, social and symbolic. She claims that gender, class and race provide the relations in which capitals come to be organized and valued (1997: 9), and the symbolic struggles enable inequalities in capital to be reproduced (10). When conversion of cultural (and economic) capital to symbolic capital is impeded, positions of inequality are maintained. She emphasizes that the symbolic capital of one group enables it to use its power to culturally and economically exploit another (11). This theoretical perspective is further developed in her book from 2004. I have chosen to focus on these texts because they, by combining ethnography and theoretical inquiry, highlight the questions at issue in my discussion.
As a researcher Skeggs is inevitably faced with the problem of categorization. It is therefore reasonable that she, at the outset, asserts that she wants to steer clear of the modern desire to impose order. She claims that the desire for control through knowledge is a fantasy, and cannot be enacted in the research process as there are “gaps, lacks and spaces which we cannot know or control” (1997: 31). Accordingly, she wants to highlight the continual tension between theoretical generalization and the multitude of differences experienced in practice. It is an expressed wish to “portray the complexities, nuances, contradictions and heterogeneity of their [working-class women’s] experiences” (32). In line with Hönig’s description of context-sensitivity and McCall’s outline of the intracategorical approach, Skeggs aims at presenting the social group that is the subject of analysis in all its detail and complexity. She seems to be of the opinion, paraphrasing McCall on the anticategorical approach (2005: 1777), that symbolic violence and material inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defines by race, class, sexuality and gender, and that the project of deconstructing the normative assumptions of these categories contributes to the possibility of social change.
When Skeggs warns against imposing theoretical categories on empirical complexity, for instance by claiming that academics “may define class, but how it is lived may be significantly different” (2004: 42), it could be conceptualized as a problem of discrepancy between a great variety of life forms that exist within a social order and the (reductive) dominant representations. It could also be articulated as a problem of overcoming the troubling gap between the empirical and the theoretical levels. Skeggs seems to relate to both of these issues, and in so doing she prefigures the tension between realism and (de)constructionism that – with reference to the discussion above – seems to characterize much intersectionality research.
One way of elaborating on this problem is to proceed with what appears to be the opposite problem of imposing theoretical categories on empirical complexity, namely founding one’s analytical categories on the self-representations or self-understandings of the informants, and thus transform practical categories into analytical categories (which is of course not a peculiar feminist inclination). In this process, the distinction between the empirical and the theoretical level is blurred. As far as working-class women are concerned, Skeggs appears to conceive of their experiences as somehow more veritable or authentic than the experiences of the privileged classes, especially when dealing with working-class women’s resistance to middle-class values. Even though Skeggs is critical of feminist standpoint theory (see 1997: 26-27), she seems to agree with Sandra Harding’s assertion that starting research into the lives of the most oppressed women will yield the most objective claims (Harding, 1991: 179-80).
Skeggs aims to “provide a rhetorical space where the experiences and knowledge of the marginalized can be given epistemic authority, be legitimated and taken seriously” (1997: 38; cf. 39, 166, 168). She argues that “[l]istening to and hearing others is important for the production of accountable and responsible knowledge” (167), and she goes on to argue that different “political articulations need to take the specificities of ‘real’ lives into account […]” (168). These statements seem to presume a reality that puts limits on knowledge (cf. McCall’s perspective), and entails an attribution of an indisputable authenticity to women’s experience (see Scott, 1992: 31). It is interesting to note, however, that the context-sensitivity with respect to working-class women’s knowledge and experiences is combined with a (de)constructionist perspective on the middle-class formation of class. In her theoretical book she writes:
What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle-class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect. Any judgement of the working-class as negative (waste, excess, vulgar, unmodern, authentic, etc.) is an attempt by the middle-class to accrue value (Skeggs, 2004: 118).
She states that the representations of the working class “[…] have absolutely nothing to do with the working-class themselves, but are about the middle-class creating value for themselves in a myriad of ways, through distance, denigration and disgust as well as appropriation and affect of attribution” (118). The purpose of her book, she claims, is to reveal how class is always a matter of inscription, representing partial perspectives, power and particular interests. And she underscores the performativity of the social concepts: that they have very real material, economic and political impact (44, cf. 45).
The question is how this (de)constructionism can be accompanied by a realist notion of truth. The answer might be that the dominant categories are indeed considered to be constructs, but misleading constructs, so that the diversity and heterogeneity of experience is not allowed to be represented (cf. McCall, 2005: 1783). As indicated above, it seems likely that the perspective on formations of class and gender assumes a prediscursive, objective reality, largely infused by middle-class ideological constructions, and yet able to resist some of the imposed cultural norms and values of this class. The lived experience of women is perhaps not seen as leading directly to resistance to oppression, as is the case with standpoint feminism (cf. Scott, 1992: 31), but there seems nonetheless to be a connection between knowledge gained from lived experience and resistance. In order to reveal the experiences of the working-class women – and break their enforced silence – the constructed nature of middle-class ideology has to be laid bare, and thereby laid open to criticism and resistance.
However, the fact that the constructionist theory seems mainly to apply to the dominant order, and that the deconstruction of the middle-class system of classifications thus lets realism in through the back door, is what Wendy Brown designates as an ontologically contradictory project; one adheres to social construction theory on one hand, and epistemologically privileges women’s accounts of social life on the other (1995: 41). This indicates, firstly, that deconstruction is tantamount to ideology critique. Secondly, and this is of particular interest with regard to my argument, it indicates that the tension between a foundational reference to an epistemic or political subject and the simultaneous defiance of such a subject (cf. Knapp) is eased by the peculiar reconciliation of realism and (de)constructionism that is characteristic of much feminist research. Significantly, the specific irresolvable conflict is “solved” (or sacrificed) at the expense of aporetic difference and “the event” in general.
We may conclude that the purported (de)constructionism of intersectionality research is sometimes compromised for the sake of realism. As the discussion has shown, this holds true of not only Skeggs’ work, but appears to be a general tendency in research on race, class and gender. The totalizing “will to power” that characterizes (white, middle-class, male) modern reasoning – indeed knowledge production in general, according to a (de)constructionist approach – is in this process counterbalanced by a realist “will to empower” those who are subjugated to the dominant powers. Eventually, therefore, the problem of silencing unprivileged groups is defined as a matter of revealing the truth about people’s lived experience and real lives. This might indeed be an appropriate way of approaching exploitation in relation to race, class and gender, and some would perhaps argue that it is the most efficient way of dealing with inequality. However, as I have intended to show in the above argument, the ethical-political “will to empower” could just as well distract attention from complexity in terms of “events” that cannot be subsumed under the prevailing criteria for judgement. Ultimately, therefore, the attempt to break a historically enforced silence, and focus on that which has real integrity, as Skeggs puts it, could contribute to a continued silencing of those others who do no comply with the dominant evaluative standards.
I would like to thank Cathrine Egeland, Christine M. Jacobsen and Yngve G. Lithman for their comments and stimulating discussions on this and related topics. I am also deeply indebted to Henrik Kj�rum for his careful review of the manuscript.
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1. The phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” was first introduced by the female slave Sojourner Truth in the United States, and has later become a much used and paraphrased title by feminists and other writers who call into question unified and thus excusatory categories, among these the black feminist bell hooks, whose book Ain’t I a Woman?:Black Women and Feminism (1981) has become a classic.
2. To essentialize a category or a group of people means to define them by fixed characteristics or qualities without which the category or group would not be identifiable. Essentialism might therefore be associated with social movements that base their politics on notions of fixed identities, i.e. identity politics.
3. With reference to Elisabeth Grosz (2001), we may ask whether it is at all reasonable to refer to this non-category – this “space” in-between categories – in topological (spatial) terms, insofar as it does not conform to a logic of spatiality. According to Grosz, space is the field of “differences of degree”, i.e. linear representations. We may therefore argue that such representations reduce the “differences of kind”, i.e. the non-categorical or non-referential differences (“events”), and replace them with “differences of degree” (see pp. 141-42).
4. The concept “will to power” refers to the ordering processes of human knowledge production and social life in general. Both Nietzsche and Foucault associate our knowledge of and practice in the world with a “will to power”. As Foucault argues in his article “The Order of Discourse”, the world is not “the accomplice of our knowledge”; on the contrary, discourse should be conceived as a “violence which we do to things” (1981/1971: 67). According to Schmidt and Kristensen, the “will to power” is an attempt to endow the constant stream of creation with a finality, i.e. to give it a form. It reveals itself in all human relations, in cognitive processes and in social processes (1968: 18). In the book The Will to Power (1967), which is a selection of Nietzsche’s posthumously collected notes, it becomes clear that the doctrine of “will to power” is related to a compensation for the lack in our instincts through the development of categories. According to Nietzsche, we apply our subsuming and logical power in order to survive and thrive.
5. The paper was presented at the Regular Session on Feminist Theory, 2001 American Sociological Association Meetings, Anaheim, CA. It is published at: www.rci.turgers.edu/~lmccall/signs1f-ext.pdf
6. Even though Skeggs analyses the mutual construction of gender, class, nation and sexuality in her texts, and may therefore be associated with intersectionality research, she does not herself use the concept of intersectionality. In an unpublished conference paper she criticises the concept of intersectionality for being reductive (Skeggs, 2006). For instance, she maintains that setting up a series of equivalences between race, gender and class obscures the peculiar logic of the class struggle, which aims to overcome, subdue and even annihilate the other. Like several feminists, including many of those who use the concept of intersectionality (e.g. Verloo, 2006; Yuval-Davis, 2006), she calls for sensitivity to the way different logics bring conflicts of power. We may ask, however, whether this focus on different logics and conflicts signifies aporetic difference in regard to studies of race, class and gender, or whether it is just another way of underlining the importance of sensitivity to the complexity of the real world. This question will be further investigated below.
The phrase “Ain’t I a Woman?” was first introduced by the female slave Sojourner Truth in the United States, and has later become a much used and paraphrased title by feminists and other writers who call into question unified and thus excusatory categories, among these the black feminist bell hooks, whose book Ain’t I a Woman?:Black Women and Feminism (1981) has become a classic.
To essentialize a category or a group of people means to define them by fixed characteristics or qualities without which the category or group would not be identifiable. Essentialism might therefore be associated with social movements that base their politics on notions of fixed identities, i.e. identity politics.
With reference to Elisabeth Grosz (2001), we may ask whether it is at all reasonable to refer to this non-category – this “space” in-between categories – in topological (spatial) terms, insofar as it does not conform to a logic of spatiality. According to Grosz, space is the field of “differences of degree”, i.e. linear representations. We may therefore argue that such representations reduce the “differences of kind”, i.e. the non-categorical or non-referential differences (“events”), and replace them with “differences of degree” (see pp. 141-42).
The concept “will to power” refers to the ordering processes of human knowledge production and social life in general. Both Nietzsche and Foucault associate our knowledge of and practice in the world with a “will to power”. As Foucault argues in his article “The Order of Discourse”, the world is not “the accomplice of our knowledge”; on the contrary, discourse should be conceived as a “violence which we do to things” (1981/1971: 67). According to Schmidt and Kristensen, the “will to power” is an attempt to endow the constant stream of creation with a finality, i.e. to give it a form. It reveals itself in all human relations, in cognitive processes and in social processes (1968: 18). In the book The Will to Power (1967), which is a selection of Nietzsche’s posthumously collected notes, it becomes clear that the doctrine of “will to power” is related to a compensation for the lack in our instincts through the development of categories. According to Nietzsche, we apply our subsuming and logical power in order to survive and thrive.
The paper was presented at the Regular Session on Feminist Theory, 2001 American Sociological Association Meetings, Anaheim, CA. It is published at: www.rci.turgers.edu/~lmccall/signs1f-ext.pdf
Even though Skeggs analyses the mutual construction of gender, class, nation and sexuality in her texts, and may therefore be associated with intersectionality research, she does not herself use the concept of intersectionality. In an unpublished conference paper she criticises the concept of intersectionality for being reductive (Skeggs, 2006). For instance, she maintains that setting up a series of equivalences between race, gender and class obscures the peculiar logic of the class struggle, which aims to overcome, subdue and even annihilate the other. Like several feminists, including many of those who use the concept of intersectionality (e.g. Verloo, 2006; Yuval-Davis, 2006), she calls for sensitivity to the way different logics bring conflicts of power. We may ask, however, whether this focus on different logics and conflicts signifies aporetic difference in regard to studies of race, class and gender, or whether it is just another way of underlining the importance of sensitivity to the complexity of the real world. This question will be further investigated below.