I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess

Jasbir Puar, ‘‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics’, 2001. [http://eipcp.net/transversal/0811/puar/en]

Intersectionality and assemblage are not analogous in terms of content, intent, nor utility, but they have at times been produced as somehow incompatible or even oppositional. While, as analytics, they may not be reconcilable they need not be oppositional, but rather frictional.

A brief survey of these and other key texts makes clear that intersectionality emerged from the struggles of second wave feminism as a crucial black feminist intervention challenging the hegemonic rubrics of race, class, and gender within predominantly white feminist frames. But, in precisely in the act of performing this intervention, it also produces an ironic reification of sexual difference as a/the foundational one that needs to be disrupted—that is to say, sexual and gender difference is understood as the constant from which there are variants.

The theory of intersectionality argues that all identities are lived and experienced as intersectional–in such a way that identity categories themselves are cut through and unstable–and that all subjects are intersectional whether or not they recognize themselves as such.

[…] while Crenshew’s work is about reconciling what are perceived to be irreconcilable binary options of gender and race, Audre Lorde’s seminal piece “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”[5] from 1984 reads as a much more dynamic, affectively resonant postulation of lived intersectional subjectivities,

This ironic othering of WOC through an approach that it meant to alleviate such othering is exacerbated by the fact that intersectionality has become cathected to the field of women’s studies as a primary, if not singular, feminist method, and the paradigmatic frame through which women’s lives are understood and theorized, a problem reified by both WOC feminists and white feminists.

This claim to intersectionality as the dominant feminist method can be produced with such insistence that an interest in exploring other frames, for example assemblage, gets rendered as problematic and even produces WOC feminists invested in other genealogies as “race-traitors.” This accusation of course reinforces the implicit understanding that intersectionality is a tool to diagnose racial difference.

Much like the language of diversity, the language of intersectionality, its very invocation, it seems, largely substitutes for intersectional analysis itself.

Further questions arise when the viability of intersectionality as a theoretical frame is re-situated within a changed historical and economic landscape of neo-liberal capitalism and identity. What does an intersectional critique look like—or more to the point, what does it do–in an age of neo-liberal pluralism, absorption and accommodation of difference, of all kinds of differences?

Let me qualify that my concern is not about the formative, generative, and necessary intervention of Crenshaw’s work, but of both the changed geopolitics of reception as well as a tendency towards reification in the deployment of intersectionality.

What is a poststructuralist theory of intersectionality that might address multicultural and post-racial discourses of inclusion that destabilizes the WOC as a prosthetic capacity to white women?

[…] many of the cherished categories of the intersectional mantra, originally starting with race, class, gender, now including sexuality, nation, religion, age, and disability, are the product of modernist colonial agendas and regimes of epistemic violence, operative through a western/euro-american epistemological formation through which the whole notion of discrete identity has emerged, for example, in terms of sexuality and empire.

So part of Massad’s point is that while we might worry, for example, about the globalization of the term queer, we deflect from the much graver problem of the generalization and assumed transparency of the term sexuality itself—a taken for granted category of the modernist imperial project, not only an imposed epistemological frame, but also ontologically presumptuous–or in fact, an epistemological capture of an ontologically irreducible becoming.

A prominent concept in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the political applicability of assemblages appear less time-tested––as if intersectionality holds fast as a successful model of political transformation. Intersectionality is thought by many feminists to be the primary rubric for theorizing difference for the past two decades, and is now a prevalent approach in some strands of queer theory (increasingly known as “queer of color critique”).

Intersectionality and assemblage are not analogous in terms of content, intent, nor utility, but they have at times been produced as somehow incompatible or even oppositional. While, as analytics, they may not be reconcilable they need not be oppositional, but rather frictional.

Crenshaw mapped out three forms of intersectional analysis she deemed crucial: structural (addressing the intersection of racism and patriarchy in relation to battering and rape of women); political (addressing the intersection of anti-racist organizing and feminist organizing); and representational (addressing the intersection of racial stereotypes and gender stereotypes, particularly in the case of 2 Live Crew)

A brief survey of these and other key texts makes clear that intersectionality emerged from the struggles of second wave feminism as a crucial black feminist intervention challenging the hegemonic rubrics of race, class, and gender within predominantly white feminist frames. But, in precisely in the act of performing this intervention, it also produces an ironic reification of sexual difference as a/the foundational one that needs to be disrupted—that is to say, sexual and gender difference is understood as the constant from which there are variants.

Rey Chow has produced the most damning critique of what she calls “poststructuralist significatory incarceration”, seriously questioning whether the marginalized subject is still a viable site from which to produce politics, much less whether the subject is a necessary precursor for politics.

Rarely have scholars concerned with the impact and development of representational politics come into dialogue with those convinced of the non-representational referent of “matter itself”–Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz, Elizabeth Wilson, Karan Barad, Patricia Clough, Dianne Currier, Vicky Kirby, Miriam Fraser, Luciana Parisi, to name a few.

Divested from subject formation but for different reasons, these feminist scholars in science and technology studies inflected by Deleuzian thought have been concerned about bodily matter, claiming its liminality cannot be captured by intersectional subject positioning. They proffer instead the notion that bodies are unstable assemblages that cannot be seamlessly disaggregated into identity formations.

[Haraway stated]

that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, favoring the postmodern technologized figure of techno-human hybridity—the body as an information construct–over the reclamation of a racialized, matriarchal past (thus implicitly invoking this binary between intersectionality and assemblage).

While several theorists have critiqued Haraway’s use of the trope of woman of color to signify a cyborg par excellence, including Chela Sandoval and Malini Joshar Schueller (who has argued that women of color function as a prosthetic to the cyborg myth, which as I point out earlier, is not unlike how WOC function in relation to intersectionality), there has yet to be a serious interrogation of what these theories on matter and mattering might bring to conceptualizations of intersectionality.

Indeed Schuellar has argued that this focus on matter, driven by science and technology studies, produces and is produced by a desire to avoid theorizing race. This is most certainly a legitimate complaint, but it also bypasses the issues being raised here, namely a critique of linguistic performativity that presumes that everything resides within signification.

Haraway does not actually approach a human/animal/machine nexus, though more recent theorizations of the nature/culture divide, by Luciana Parisi for example, demarcate the biophysical, the biocultural, and the biodigital. Still, the question of how the body is materialized, rather than what the body signifies, is the dominant one in this literature.

Assemblage is actually an awkward translation–the original term in Deleuze and Guattari’s work is not the French word assemblage, but actually Agencement, a term which means design, layout, organization, arrangement, and relations–the focus being not on content but on relations, relations of patterns.

There are thus numerous ways to define what assemblages are, but I am here more interested in what assemblages do. For my purposes, assemblages are interesting because:

A. They de-privilege the human body as a discrete organic thing. As Haraway notes, the body does not end at the skin. We leave traces of our DNA everywhere we go, we live with other bodies within us, microbes and bacteria, we are enmeshed in forces, affects, energies, we are composites of information.

B. Assemblages do not privilege bodies as human, nor as residing within a human/animal binary. Along with a de-exceptionalizing of human bodies, multiple forms of matter can be bodies—bodies of water, cities, institutions, and so on. Matter is an actor.

C. Signification is only one element of many that give a substance both meaning and capacity.

D. Finally, categories—race, gender, sexuality—are considered events, actions, and encounters, between bodies, rather than simply entities and attributes of subjects. Situated along a “vertical and horizontal axis”, assemblages come into existence within processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari problematize a model that produces a constant in order to establish its variations. Instead, they argue, assemblages foreground no constant but rather “variation to variation” and hence the event-ness of identity.

DeLanda thus argues that race and gender are situated as attributes only within a study of “the pattern of recurring links, as well as the properties of those links.”

One of Kimberle Crenshaw’s foundational examples–that of the traffic intersection—actually situates intersectionality as an event. As Crenshaw writes, “Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.” And later: “But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm. In these cases the tendency seems to be that no driver is held responsible, no treatment is administered, and the involved parties simply get back in their cars and zoom away.”

As Crenshaw indicates in this description, identification is a process; identity is an encounter, an event, an accident, in fact. Identities are multi-causal, multi-directional, liminal; traces aren’t always self-evident. In this “becoming of intersectionality,” there is emphasis on motion rather than gridlock; on how the halting of motion produces the demand to locate.

Another of Crenshaw’s primary concerns is with the structural prejudices of domestic violence: unequal access to services, representational and re-presentational biases in the legal system. I want to turn now to a moment in Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual where he reads domestic violence through the “home event-space.”

For him, the event is not defined as a discrete act or series of actions or activities, but rather the “folding of dimensions of time into each other”

So what do we have here? First, an intensification of the body’s relation to itself (one definition of affect), produced not only by the significance of the game, Superbowl Sunday, but by the bodily force and energy given over to this significance (notice difference between signification and significance). Second, a focus on the patterns of relations—not the entities themselves, but the patterns within which they are arranged with each other. Not Assemblage, but Agencement. Third, household bodies: the television as an actor, an actant (Bruno Latour), as matter with force as determining who moves where and how and when. The television is an affective conductor: “in proximity to the TV, words and gestures take on an unaccustomed intensity.” Fourth, “Anything could happen.” A becoming. A deterritorialization. Fifth, intersectional identity: the male is always already ideologically coded as more prone to violence—a closing off of becoming. Finally, the strike: the hand against face. Reterritorialization.

Thus this reading of Massumi’s is not a textual analysis of the possibility that watching violent television produces violence, or violent subjects. It is not a theory of spectatorship identification, but of affective intensification: the meeting of technology (good old TV, no need to always privilege the internet), bodies, matter, molecular movements, energetic transfers. Massumi insinuates that ultimately, the relationship of positionality to affect, feelings, and sensations is arbitrary. Thus, a politics of affect underscores subject positionings that are seemingly irreconcilable. Unlike Crenshaw, the focus here is not on whether there is a crime taking place, nor determining who is at fault, but rather asking what are the affective conditions necessary for the event-space to unfold.

My interest in interrogating the predominance of subjecthood itself is driven precisely by the limitations of poststructuralist critique that Rey Chow foregrounds, the concerns about the nature/culture divide and questions of language and materiality that the science and technology feminists have outlined, the attention to power and affect that assemblage theorists centralize, and finally, my own relating of all of this to the debates on disciplinary societies and societies of control driven by the work of Michel Foucault and Deleuze’s extension of it.

Many relations between discipline (exclusion and inclusion) and control (modulation, tweaking) have been proffered as a of late. One, as various overlapping yet progressive stages of market capitalism and governmentality; two, as co-existing models and exercises of power; three, control as an effect of disciplinary apparatuses–control as the epitome of a disciplinary society par excellence (in that disciplinary forms of power exceed their sites to reproduce everywhere); and finally, as Foucault suggests above, disciplinary frames as a response to control.

It seems to me, and I pose these as tentative questions and points that I am working through, that intersectional critique has both intervened in the legal and capitalist structures that demand the fixity of the rights bearing subject and also reproduced the disciplinary demands of that subject formation.

At this productive impasse, then, is this contradiction—on the one hand, the heuristic of intersectionality has produced a proliferation of work on WOC while simultaneously excusing white feminists from this work, re-centering gender and sexual difference as foundational and primary. On the other hand, “we” might be reaching a poststructuralist fatigue around the notion of the subject itself.

Therefore, to dismiss assemblage in favor of retaining intersectional identitarian frameworks is to miss the ways in which societies of control apprehend and produce bodies as information, as matter that functions not or predominantly through signification, as modulation of capacities, as dividuals in populations with any array of diverse switchpoints (rather than Althusserian interpellation per se), and surveilles bodies not on identity positions alone but through affective tendencies and statistical probabilities.

But to render intersectionality as an archaic relic of identity politics then partakes in the fantasy of never-ending inclusion of capacity-endowed bodies, bypassing entirely the possibility that for some bodies—we can call them statistical outliers, or those consigned to premature death, or those once formerly considered useless bodies or bodies of excess—discipline and punish may well still be the a primary mode of power apparatus.

There are different conceptual problems posed by each; intersectionality attempts to comprehend political institutions and their attendant forms of social normativity and disciplinary administration, while assemblages, in an effort to re-introduce politics into the political, asks what is prior to and beyond what gets established. So it seems to me that one of the big payoffs for thinking through the intertwined relations of intersectionality and assemblages is that it can help us produce more roadmaps of precisely these not quite fully understood relations between discipline and control.

To return to the title of my talk, and the juxtaposition that Haraway (unfortunately, but presciently) renders, would I really rather be a cyborg than a goddess? The former hails the future in a telelogical technological determinism–culture– that seems not only overdetermined but exceptionalizes our current technologies. The latter–nature—is embedded in the racialized matriarchal mythos of feminist reclamation narratives. Certainly it sounds sexier, these days, to lay claim to being a cyborg than a goddess. But why disaggregate the two when there surely must be cyborgian-goddesses in our midst? Now that is an becoming-intersectional assemblage that I could really appreciate.