Trans Women: the Special Snowflake of the Intersectional Narcissus?
“And Osiris and the gods of the Nile
Gathered up a big storm
To blow a hurricane
To scatter us away
In a flood of wind and rain
And a sea of tidal waves
To wash us all away
And if we don’t behave
They’ll cut us down again.”
“The Origin of Love”, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Despite what you might have been told recently, intersectionality does not appraise itself as a bag of holding in which all solutions can be stuffed infinitely and indefinitely. Intersectionality, instead, views any totalizing narrative with critical scepticism, as they’re stories that pull together some elements while excluding others. We’ve witnessed such fictions, and their long-term lore of function according to the rubric of Someone Else’s authority. So, no doubt, our refusal to play along with communal plotlines pisses people off. And so a splurge of invectives and jeers—most of it very unpleasant–against intersectional feminists has come into vogue. We’re getting slagged off as reactionary sycophantry [Dx: Toxic Twitter Feminism] or indefensible phenomenology [Dx: Special Snowflake Syndrome]. –You’ll note my use of the passive voice in the previous sentence: I’m pretty sure you can guess who were the primary agents on this mission of diss.
Reasoned reassessments of intersectionality should be welcomed, studied, and considered. Critiques of intersectionality are inevitable; indeed, they’re existentially vital for an ongoing project of assessing how values and facts get hemmed in by context and prescription. Unlike the master narratives that some of those reviling us depend upon, intersectionality requests that revision and recalibration occur across a multiplicity of subjectivities. Intersectional feminism does not purport to be a small-c catholic, una voce one size fits all political paradigm hellbent on empty anticipation for absolute revolution or apotheosis of apocalypse.
Yet, given the shrill sanctimony of some of the accusatory cohorts — often spurred by a steel-toe boot of affective animus — I have to wonder . . . just what are they taking so very personally in telling us to to stop being “personal”, so readily identifiable in their reprimanding us for our identities?
There have been numerous instigators and replies on both sides: a survey of the debate, and its complex terms, isn’t my purpose here. Instead, my post is informed by Burchill’s perennial J’accuse — this year, it was in the Spectator (22 Feb), but it’s a quick remix that rehashes many samples and soundbites from the previous screed of before. She let rip with quite the deafening screech of the tyres, off to the race car rally of correct revolutionaries. Burchill’s ℞ for minorities? “Just be one of us! ONE OF US!” Setting aside for a moment how she shouts this with volatile glycerine, I would suggest instead having a read of Eve Mitchell, who produced a robust assessment, from a Marxist perspective, of intersectionality’s perceived lack of workability and ideological navel-gazing. Very clinical in tone and decidedly theoretical, one need not agree with all of her findings, or even their underlying premises, but still benefit from, and be informed by, many of Mitchell’s theses.
Likewise, many astute articles formulate responses to the “epistemic backlash” against intersectionality. For a notable example, see the comprehensive defence by Vivivan May in Hypatia. Her arguments are complex and require reading in full. But this is the genre of a blog; therefore, I can only note briefly some of her basic premises on intersectionality for reference:
Critiques are sites of discursive, epistemological, and political give and take— places where cognitive authority is negotiated: ideally, they entail epistemic (and political) efforts to bridge worldviews. Differential positionings in terms of power, social location, and cognitive expectation shape perception. (May 2)
Further, by way of evaluation, she asserts that,
Intersectionality challenges the pull of prevailing mindsets, in part by drawing from political expectations, lived experiences, and analytic positions not crafted solely within the bounds of dominant imaginaries. (3)
The sense described above is crucial for intersectionality’s confrontation with a “longer history of minoritized groups being characterized as problems” (7), and this theme of the characterized problem resonates in my own writing here.
Whatever the terms of the argument, let’s be honest though . . . this debate of modified structuralisms versus postmodernism is nothing new: really, it’s just getting more airplay. Terry Eagleton and Frederic Jameson represent two encounters in the very early 1990s that laid out some of the issues now being blogged. Postmodernism hasn’t shirked the critiques: the postmodern negotiation of Marxist communitarianism is multi-faceted and laid out in entirety, by various authors in various places. So, intersectionality has not just appeared as fringe praxis nor idea, although people who’ve only heard of it in the last six months seem to think it’s been hard boiled straight out of last term’s hatchery. Rather, as a standard methodology in sociology, women’s studies, feminist philosophy, and so forth, intersectionality has informed activism and research for minorities in various sectors, places, languages, and times. Many books on its practice now exist; journals dedicate entire issues to the subject (eg, Du Bois Review 10.2); and the topic provides an organisational reference for conferences, including one I’ll speaking at next month. (My paper will be on inclusivity theatre in HRC institutioned “solidarity”.) The practice of intersectionality isn’t just on the page. Student, eco and indigenous groups cooperate steadfastly through intersectionality in combatting transphobia. In any of these places, however, you’re very likely to find intersectionality referred to, or promoted as, a unitary and complete “theory”.
But the anti-IS crowd seems to have all the cultural capital. Burchill’s unlinkable link-bait represents that cadre of media echelon angst that I referred to in my previous post. The same names keep appearing, I assure you, with their mobile phones clenched in celebratory fist pumps and ringtones chiming Billy Bragg songs. (Remember what your man said: “I’m not looking for a new England/I’m just looking for another girl.”) To be sure, I’m having trouble understanding the replicative angst of mainstream feminists who claim silencing, but have major newspapers as their own oxygen-tanked megaphone. Who has silenced whom? They shout about their own past as street cred par excellence; because when they write on themselves, it’s empowering. But if a WoC does the same? Histrionic, hysterical, heretical. Here’re the equations that keep getting played out: white newspaper feminist rant = empowering rally cry; WoC blog post = narcissistic whinging. Just a scan of the mentions — and many social media slagging socialists do scan themselves for mentions — shows that much.
These are all discursive steps in characterizing someone else as “the problem”.
Burchill’s arch-disdain is targeted negation-characterization of trans women. After all, what could possibly be more haute-bourgeoisie than believing one can change his either/or her gender? Quel rêve, ô pauvre Folle! Honestly — the nerve us of “bedwetters”! So let’s think about the rhetoric of Burchill’s attack on “the problem” — that is, the wrong sort of woman who is the problem. She first takes a fairly naive reading of intersectionality, one based on her inerrant rightness with citations to random twitter arguments. Thus predisposed, she blethers across a single paragraph of breathless antagonism, besmirchingwoman of colour, with disabilities, and especially teh tranz … all replete with epithets and nasty analogies. Her rehearsed double-think gets tiring: trans women are boxed-wigs buffoons; but wait, we’re also a super-sinister cabal that brings down a cone of silence on our opponents. We’re bellicose (toxic feminist) and narcissists (special snowflakes), concerned only with market selection indulgences. Worst of all, we get in the way. We get in the way of her call, amplified with Name of the Father nostalgia, for a new socialist state. Her exclusivist vision thus calls for a pepositioning of discursive features to reclaim “truth” from distraction — in other words, the problem, the them … they who are judged as not being like the categorical us. In such a way, this predicated other shores us the credentials of the us who will manage everything. The insults are just the thrill of getting in a kick or two.
This is identity politics maximised: ideological hygiene depends upon the subordination or exclusion of the illegitimate other.
Oh, and I just so happen to be one of them. Je suis une autre.
So I’m thus lectured as to how certain new regimes are going to abolish gender for us all. Well then! I wonder what might Burchill’s grand scheme of social reinvention entail? One of her previous statements has been going round in which she seemingly advocates that, after the monolithic revolution, sex workers should be put up against the wall and shot. (Oh, surely just a metaphor?) We’ve heard the echos of righteous totalitiarian excess in various forms: whatever gets in the way, eliminate. Like Milinovich and her abortion tweet on the hypothetical of disposing the defect of trans foetuses. Is it morally ethical, she wonders? Being queer, being trans — how easily the socialist majority can shrug our lives off as PoMo micropolical obsessions. Or narcissistic colluders with the capitalist state. All on account of how on Monday we’re searching for trans friendly healthcare; Tuesday for non-discriminatory housing; Weds., for accurate passports; and so on. Really–how gauche! What historically myopic hedonists all of us be. We’re holding back la revolucion!
At this juncture of accusation, some of the fundamental rage towards intersectionality properly returns to its true form: in the macro-puzzle of social order to be resolved and installed, we’re the tessellated bits that refuse to fit. Fragments, pieces, incidents, “identities” — all of which are resistant to submitting: “We’re all bullshit you say? And you know best? Grand, so. Sign me up, comrade!” We know very well what happens when we accept a new doctrinarian fundamentalism of “we’re all in this together”, one that’ll just as soon leave us shipwrecked at their politburo’s door. What cause have we to assume otherwise? If there’s one thing that postmodern theory emphasizes — and this is the bit they hatey hate — it’s to not trust any totalizing myth that elocutionists promote as the(ir) one overwhelming answer.
Intersectionality doesn’t exactly put faith to this new, improved type of Marxist nihilist who enjoys their symptom to infinity and considers being an asshole a virtue of exigency.
Trans people have been involuntarily relegated by all sides to the abject gutter; and our transformation and resistance is shaped in these perimeters. Intersectionally marginalised women — really, do they really want any us on board their myth-bound utopia train? There’s no reason to believe that any mass political movement gives a toss about any of us. In fact, they’re hardly playing nicely with us now. Consider the ease with which a leftist cis guy will post a pic of Norman Bates in a dress and “sex-change” his FaceBook gender to trans woman. (No, really — Very clever. Très astucieux.) Because social media is mere capitalist simulacra to be abandoned — (unless it’s his name in bold, of course–such is the dominant logics of difference). And they wonder why I’m not laughing alongisde the phalanx of status quo bro and turn in my intersectionality as price for getting to tag along?
What I’m hearing a great deal of … anti-intersectionality is taking on the rhetoric of “special snowflake” jibes of invalidation, quoting from Fight Club machismo. Being trans, being marginalized and having to scrape for pieces of survival and recognition — this is all just bad faith individuality driven by liberal social justice niche markets. (It’s all capital, baby.) True consciousness requires a unified front collectivity: let them special snowflakes melt away — in Fight Club, like Burchill’s “put them up against the wall”, the message of burning the barricades is prefaced through a symptomatic desire for violent tactics against difference. The early Tyler Durden says, ditch your Calvin Kleins and FaceBook profiles for combat boots. Then, once he has enough hard boys on his side, the later Durden knocks some heads in because his raw, uncorrupted manliness, the powerful savage agency of authentic enlightenment, has been reasserted. Fight Club acts like a shirtless Rousseau joining with 300 for a new world social order combat op. All in HD, the totalitarian wet dream of extreme MMA mixing with military groupthink and coercive political attire of social cohesion. Because they are not special snowflakes. Because not-being-of-them defines their resillient core of “we being us”. That’s a form of identity formulation, through their relational paradigm.
And remember the seventh rule: “Fights will go on as long as they have to.”
I’d prefer to think, instead, a little bit about what intersectionality has actually tried to offer.
Intersectionality takes issue with Enlightenment projects of dismantling “power structures” as understood primarily through dominance that operates according to vertical lines of cohesion, unity, and universality. There’s an almost spiritual whiff to their sense of forthcoming transcendence with science overcoming ideology in a battle of the Platonist titans. (I’ll be waiting on that one.) In the mean time, intersectionality is suspicious of claims to external vantage points of supreme rationality that view the system matrix, in its entirety, through one crow-perched pan and scan. Such was one one postmodern point of departure, of Foucault from Althusser: models of a social order that are to come have, as past tense requisite, an impersonal truth that is always correct, reliable, and universal. Foucault, knowing how insidious power and knowledge operate, suspends the willingness to sign up for any truth edict that justifies itself through extension and absorption of difference. In short, when someone says, “Well, it’ll be better if *I’m* in charge. Just wait and see what I will do!” —but intersectionality, through Foucault, asks, “Why is your view of the social order so pure?”
Some super-leftists write with great omnipotence and analysis, whilst marching through the social media of advert marketing and followers counts; the whole while they give out to us that we’re the ones who are guileless dupes of the bourgeois refineries. What a seduction in language that must be.
And this conflation of naive identity politics — special snowflakes again — with intersectionality is unfortunate. Intersectionality, as I read it, does not presume static, naturalized selfhoods that exist as rationalized, independent, separated sites of closure. Postmodernism approaches subjectivity as a product of tension and flux between interlocking stratum, among abstract and affective immediates, unsettled continually by contradictions and contingencies. This is not a new observation. (Believe you me — as a trans woman, I’ve got this particular experiential sense as to the problem of how “self” is pressured by inner and outer constructions of politics and culture.) So much of what we perceive is, indeed, the contrivance of power that makes us into its materials. Thus, the foundation of postmodern and intersectional thought progressively took off according to these principles: a total explanation of identity is not warranted or even desirable.
Intersectionality provides multiple perspectives on how identity is fraught sites of tension against power; and whatever works as power operates subtly through alterity, fragmentation, and jouissance. Derided fields such as “cultural studies”, of which I am active researcher, prefer to contend continually with the present meaning(lessness) that enable us to live. Empathy through the negotiation of difference should be an ethical requirement of intersectional feminism. I’m always siding with Cixous on this one, against the master storytellers: we should not readily submit to erasure for some categorical “us” that marginalizes while claiming to concretise, all for some voucher of liberation or salvation. As Cixous writes vehemently many times as counterpoint — don’t fall for it: “For ‘woman’ does not exist for us; it is only an imaginary formation, while women is the duct of social relationships”.
There we have a clear statement in service of intersectionality, of epistemology in the plural, and the scepticism for monolithic collectivity. Cixous knew very well the master narratives of Marx — political economy — and Freud — phallic economy, as well as all the activism of the French left. Informed by these traditions but not beholden to them, she deduced the ways of monolithic totality through which men make claim to their embodied experience as primary. Rejecting these, Cixous, following de Beauvoir, fomented this central response of French feminism: a woman must begin with the breath as the claim of resistance, the immediacy of embodied experience: “I am spacious singing Flesh: onto which no one knows which is grafted but I . . . above all living, because changing I”.
However, we need not locate intersectionality as a reaction to the second-wave, as that limits our historical apperature. Womanism in the 19thC variously contended with how class, race, and gender intersected in the libidinal economy of ownership, territory, privilege, perspective and power. Feminism might hot have officially existed in Marx’s time; but the English women’s rights movements, entrenched in such texts as A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), were tearing apart Burke’s master narrative of God, king, and country. Wollstonecraft helped to initiate what would become a key feature developed by French post-war feminism: rigid conceptualizations promote identities in which the normal, the Man, becomes synonymous with the Same, while difference must be enforced to set aside the Other (the woman, the different).
Intersectionality criticizes this logic of difference and presses it further: what borrowed rationalizations are required as membership to universal solidarity based on the notion of “sameness” and “togetherness”? And why shouldn’t the Other expect yet another disastrous result out of their inevitable sacrificial contracts that are the monologue of the Sameness?
Tired of being spoken over, tired of being spoken for, fed up with mantras and mandates that pretend to include only by marginalising . . . intersectionality is a discourse born out of the resistance and struggle by minority women being dismissed as hysterical, emotional, and selfish. The various forms of abuse and harassment to conform to some imposed category distilled by populist System Knows Best. It is absolutely not difficult for me to interpret what they imply when they say “you don’t fit with our master narrative”.
Ah, but that’s the special snowflake syndrome of “identity politics” — to pursue meddlesome questions and not nod politely to the scripted answer. From my own perspective, Burchill’s crass polemic demonstrates how much her identity depends upon an utterly crude extrication of “me” from the “those not like me” — trans women, women of colour, those with disabilities, and so forth.
Yes, intersectionality understands that market economy is polyamorous, but prefers simultaneity to falsely homogenized imperatives. Thus, intersectional feminism informs so much of the politicized discourses of how bodies, and identities, becomes marginalised. This is Cixous’s sense of her authorship: “I, by definition, is changing — mobile — because living-speaking-thinking-dreaming.” So just listen to how underground hiphop acts in ways so global and versatile, yet local and culturally particular. Its analysis follows axises that include race, gender, and ability. When I hear French rapper Kenny Arkana reject master narratives through her lyrics, I sympathise with her reasoning: ” ‘Vive l’évolution!’ tu parles! Plus rien ne va dans l’immédiat!” Arkana’s musical ouevre, informed by her “identity politics” of an immigrant in the banlieue of Marseilles, rejects the shoring up of some version of political normativity at the Other’s expense. Though I guess I should slag her off because she’s sold a few records as a performing artist? Or colour-check her because she’s from Argentina?
Nah — I’ll follow Cixous again: “I believe in what we French call quand même, the nevertheless, or the still … the possibility of sharing me through my writing”, as she wrote. Well, isn’t that selfish? Well, trans women are used to being told off for being selfish, for being difficult, for not clicking into place neatly as a dependent unit. This is why the intersectionality of French feminism has so profoundly influenced — indeed helped — my transition:
Cixous — “Text: my body, shot through with streams of song”.
Irigaray — “Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time?”
Perhaps for those not under immediate threat, the accusation of narcissism and sloganeering is the easy dismissal to make. However, far from faulting myself as “selfish,” I follow de Certeau’s concept of la perruque: the practice of everyday life requires, especially for those of us heaving for air, those actions that are covert and instantaneous in order to win back time. Hence, the internet has been the chosen forum for many intersectionalists: the networks and multiplicities increase the potential reclamation of time, for us, which we know relates inextricably to being. We writeagainst the poachers of self-consciousness.
Such poachers, of course, include all of those grand narrative teleologies of scripted revolutions seizing absolute control of the totalatizing apparatus and reformulating a centralized locution of speaking.
Yet special snowflakes that we are . . . for those of us surviving only through a struggle to love in the moment — we’re being scolded that these moments of lived experience are readily appropriated by media culture capitalism. As if we aren’t aware enough of that already. Intersectionality does not deny this; indeed, precisely what many theorists are concerned with has been to reformulate notions of power as deauthorizing subjectivity in a rhizomatic apparatus, felt so accutely in the information age. But rather than concede defeat, or churlishly keep up our subscriptions whilst pretending to be divorced from them, intersectionality devises alternative forms of symbolic representation — not because they’re perfect, but because they’re reactive and creative.
Quite frankly, giving up intersectionality for their solidarity, so often touted as an uncompromising cohesion, isn’t a tempting alternative. Indeed, I have nil reason to believe that any revolution will value and include me as a trans woman. You know they’ve said as much, right? If Hegwig and the Angry Inch informs me of anything about transsexuality under communist East Germany, it’s that queers disappear under regimes. Trans women are an inconvenience or, at best, a mere adjunct to their system of transcendence. And to join we must sign off on our special snowflake genders. I’m sure you’ve noticed there’s been a rising coalition of TERFs and the ultra-orthodox left, banding together in a totalitarian blur of gender abolitionism — more master narratives, more lauded teleological reboot. So that’s why we speak of “existential threat” along their policy lines of measure and erasure. Just look at how one of the KGB’s top surveillance officers is now an authoritarian president who has institutionalised hatred of LGBT people. Oh — but the figure skating was so delightful.
Two of my favorite authors whom I routinely teach in comp lit seminars satirize the Marxism they saw, in idealised practice, among the quasi-revolutionary sites in their home countries. In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, student far-leftists are the first to return to the classrooms after the marching grows tiresome. They are, to the person, male in leadership: as the character Midori notes, women are called “comrade” (or “girls”) and asked to wet the tea. Roberto Bolaño, the renowned genius of contemporary Spanish literature who spent time in Pinochet’s cells, depicts in The Savage Detectives a politic that is extremist in name only, those heterosexual guyly-guys whose words are Marx but whose indulgences are Rimbaud. Add to the list the UK Tony Benn socialists who all have the nicest houses in the brilliant class satire of 1980s England, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.
But the figure skating was so delightful!
Burchill gets paid to earn page counts by calling us “dicks in chicks’ clothing”. I don’t begrudge someone trying to make a living. However, you must forgive me if I’m sceptical for this glorious solidarity herd currently being blogged by UK media élite or grad school politicos.
Marxism provides models to assess power as economic class division, which most intersectionalists — myself included — need to understand more thoroughly. I concur with Marxism that class is not just another ‘axis’, alongside gender and race — nor do I think the former entirely superimposes on the latter. But that’s another important topic; indeed, one I need to study more — and I thank Mitchell for compelling me to think more analytically about these issues. Likewise, in terms of constructive critical discussion, many feminists have pointed out that Marx fails to account for how women’s bodies are figurised as possessable entities, not just as mothers but in other formations as non-monetary possessions, within those class divisions. Whatever progressive attitudes Marx had about women, the historical 20th century feminism showed that progress hinged upon rebelling against male violence over women’s bodies. The received wisdom was decidedly patrilineal in every variation: the phallus and pistol as the patriarchal power plays of family, marriage, politics, and heterosexuality.
On that note, my heteronormative patriarchal nuclear family already has been dismantled without the gunshot of revolution. I transitioned, got taken out of the gene pool, and now my parents nor my siblings will ever speak to me again. And was that a monetizing decision on their part? How about this new “deny the gay” law in Arizona as demonstrating that profits can be given up for prejudice? No price need be placed to invalidate LGBT lives as abject waste.
Intersectionality understands violence not only as epic moments of dialectical turnover through classist tug of wars. Because, quite simply, we don’t fit anyone‘s teleology. So intersectionality is wary of what May warns are the “bracketing dominant logics”, ones that situate monolithic categories like “woman” or “the worker” — catch-alls that clearly, in actual practice, serve certain needs at the expense of others. Intersectional feminism thus gained ground when the historical apparency that white women were pushing for equal pay after a hard day’s work: a worthy goal, and remains so. But, meanwhile, black women were also seeking equal pay, as well as a seat on the bus after the day’s work was over. Is that being a special snowflake? Because when I hear the elderly disabled socialist on twitter who worries she’s a burden, I worry as to what solidarity means to someone’s personal well-being.
Then, after all, perhaps I’m just stubborn. I carry on being a pomo intersectional social justice weirdo trans feminist. But I am where I am because of people who follow the same outlook as me. It was many years ago, in a queer feminist bookstore in Amsterdam, when I got my first book that gave me information on my condition as transsexual. Twenty and nervous as fuck, I was helped by an awesomely tall Dutch dyke, of mixed ancestry, who gave an intersectional shit about my confusion, my oppression. She knew I needed something more than another dialectical stalemate.
So I’m not convinced that the alternatives to intersectionality aren’t yet another irony playing nice with Sameness, but with wry, fake-moustached consciousness. There’s a simulacra to be wary of. This voyeuristic thrill of a phantasmal subject who, according to coercive identification, takes on another enforced reflection of sameness for the safety of a unified account. Whole inside, whole outside, all because the personalized tort [fault] is misleadingly corrected through an overwhelming devotion to a delayed justice, in which right inverts wrong.
I won’t be the one writing the agitprop musicals when they take over their own Soviet states: “Surrender your gender and your race — class is the only matter you have to face!” Actually, I no sooner expect a revolution to support me than I did my academic colleagues to use my legal name after transition. (Some had, many had not, but that’s another story.) Though they power-washed me away and implied my transition was the cheap graffiti of narcissism, I still refused to go along with a programme that was pounding me with demands as to what was academically good for me.
I remain committed, as a trans woman, that intersectionality can best be understood not as a unitary theory, but as an hermeneutical tool to augment existing analysis. This is what I have in the here and now. For soon many of the anti-intersectionalists will just move on — perhaps taking their American-minted PhDs into tenure track jobs, within departments that exploit the hell out of their adjuncts; or perhaps to lobster lunches in London, reminiscing with a magnate about how much frost was once on their boots.
Meanwhile, the abject other gets forgotten or remembered either as problematic footnotes or hilarious headlines. We’re called insane, dishonest, ignorant, and criminal for describing ourselves otherwise. Theirs is not the last word, however. Intersectional feminism insists no more means no more. You know we won’t sit down for it anymore, right? And, really, just what is that they’re demanding we sign up for under their programme? Yet another final, authoritative metaphysics in which the “wrongs” are sliced off by the correct; of the “sick” being sectioned from those whom appoint themselves as strong? For dogmas that doesn’t correspond? Of having to heed to some promisory futurity of truth, and its attendant dogma demands, even as we’re being spat upon literally in the very now? And all that just to prop up more incongruous spotlights, more privilege, more socio-political finesse? For their accented repeats about the end of history that is always and evermore postponed?
«Aujourd’hui, le combat prend une autre figure ; au lieu de vouloir enfermer l’homme dans un cachot, la femme essaie de s’en évader.»
Because in the dim zone of alterity, intersectionality is what I have to guide me in the immediate.