Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Coherent intersectionality is quantified

Power is complex. This point seems obvious today, but it's a relatively modern insight, and represents a significant break from the relatively reductive political theory of previous centuries. In this light, Michel Foucault, as Gavena writes, was "the most influential theorist of power of the late 20th century" - and Foucault puts it best:
Power is everywhere...it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing...exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.
For this reason, as I have written elsewhere, modern left thought often devolves into a wild goose chase, "hunting out ever-more-obscure microaggressions and ever-more-elaborate forms of privilege". But here, I'd like to note how this tendency also devolves into extremely limited and compartmentalized analyses of power that fall short of the more holistic conceptions Foucault had in mind.

The problem is one of missing the forest for the trees. Consider, for example, this exchange:
These points are both true as far as they go, but they cannot provide any sort of holisitic analysis of the role of sexism in Clinton's campaign. And the reason, here, is simple: the advantages and disadvantages that sexism provides to Clinton are not being formulated in comparable terms. Are we talking about the polling advantages and disadvantages? Fundraising? The emotional / psychological highs and lows? Some nebulous combination of everything? These are all important considerations, but unless you can place them into some kind of economy of power with each other you will be left with making vague observations like "Sexism hurts Hillary in some ways and it helps Hillary in other ways."

Beyond just being generally obvious, one major problem with that kind of analysis is that it trivializes the overall impacts of oppression. If all we can say about sexism against Clinton is that it hurts her and helps her, we've done nothing to distinguish her from the Men's Rights Activists, who can come up with plenty of cherry-picked instances of bias against men. The difference, clearly, is that while MRAs may face isolated incidents of sexism, they are incomparable in magnitude to what women face - and they are obviously completely outweighed out by the ways that MRAs benefit from sexism. It is easy enough to establish this difference quantitatively, for example by demonstrating that men get nominated for office far more frequently than women; but if you don't want to look at the numbers, you're going to be trading anecdotes all day.

Intersectionality means finding ways to account for the ways that extremely diverse forms of power and oppression interact with each other, compare with each other, and compound each other. As far as I can tell, quantification is the only way to do this with any kind of rigor, coherence and depth. It may abstract away certain intangible aspects of oppression, but it allows us to escape the vague and superficial conceptions of power that always leave the left spinning its wheels. Especially if we keep the trade-off in mind, this, I think, is a worthy trade-off to make.