On repetition and power

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of why certain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have ben accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.

May quotes Audre Lorde to address the question of why certain things have to constantly be repeated:

“We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?”

It’s clear that it isn’t about how many times it has been said before, but about how many times it has been ignored before. May writes:

An intersectional approach to asking, and answering, “why repetition?” requires recognizing asymmetries of power within rhetorics, social imaginaries, and cognitive authority, such that one state of obduracy necessitates that another, equally persistent worldview be continually rearticulated.

Writing this I couldn’t help but be reminded of other subjects in which repetition is necessary to survival. I began to think about the ways in which looking at what needs to be constantly repeated is an interesting way of understanding power relations within fields. Here I thought of Middle East women’s studies, and the constant need to disavow culturalist understandings of gender oppression in the Middle East. I thought of political science, where one has to navigate the simplistic understandings of political economy in the Middle East and constantly repeat that class and capitalism matter. I thought of development studies, where repeating the structural biases of international institutions like the UN and World Bank is imperative if we want to see development as an industry rather than as progressive. Working and writing within all of these fields means constantly repeating certain things, and coming up against walls when you do (thanks to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant conceptualisation of seeing opposition as a wall).

One wall is when you’re asked why you focus on X instead of Y. For example, when someone asks why you always talk about imperialism and orientalism when you talk about gender in the Middle East, and never about Islam or corrupt regimes. The ‘simple’ answer: you really can’t separate imperialism from corrupt regimes, or global power dynamics and modernity from modern Islamist movements. In other words, the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ are not neatly separable; and neither are the global and the national. Another wall is when you’re asked to ‘prove’ something, a wall I’m sure any political scientist is familiar with. Here we see that data, statistics, bar graphs and charts become the test your theory has to pass through, a test fashioned by the very system of capitalist modernity your theory is critiquing.

And then there is the wall of “this has been said before, why are you repeating it?” Or: “why are you addressing an old debate?” Well, because certain things have to be repeated or they will be left out, forgotten. We have to keep talking about intersectionality – even if it means we are critiquing it – because it does not become an old debate as long as there is still work in gender studies that ignores race, or the global division of labour. Similarly, we have to keep insisting that “class matters” in Middle East studies as long as there is work that aims to understanding politics in the Middle East without once addressing class, capitalism, or its more recent form, neoliberalism.

So it’s clear that repetition is necessary. Repetition is an act that pinpoints nodes of power. We should be asking, when we see certain topics debated over and over, why these debates keep happening. What is it about society and academia that makes repetition necessary? If, as Audre Lorde says, “this has all been said before,” then what are the stakes if we stop saying it?


2 thoughts on “On repetition and power

  1. I had a decidedly negative experience of repetition last week during a creative writing class. My MA program is in WGS, but I thought it’d be fun and challenging to try this writing class. The CW program at this school is dominated by white folks, especially cis white men, including the class I am– by number and frequently by voice.

    During last week’s class, I raised an ethical question about one of our creative texts, and during the ensuing debate, the professor and then three of the (cis white) male students in the class took turns echoing his questions. Around the third or fourth round of their Socratic-esque questioning me, I started to doubt what I was saying– not in terms of its validity, in terms of the actual words I was saying. Was I not making any sense? Why were they reiterating the same questions in slightly different lexis or diction, forcing me to reiterate the same concept? I struggled to give new examples that might help them understand, for they looked confused but would not answer me when I asked, “Am I not making any sense?” And it was asked entirely in earnest… I am a Mad person who has, at points, talked ‘nonsense’ and heard nonsense, as if the language-processing parts of my brain were malfunctioning. It’s terrifying. And in the past, it has begun with my talking to people and their not understanding what I’m saying. I immediately begin to question my grasp on ‘reality’ when this happens.

    The next day I wrote to two of my classmates who are women. I asked them bluntly, Did I not make sense last night? Be honest. They wrote back to say that yes, it made sense, and they believed that the professor and his fan club (my words) couldn’t grasp it because they can’t understand why anyone raises questions that could potential throw in jeopardy ‘literary freedom’, this kind of thing. They also speculated that because the professor and those students are cis white men, that perhaps they find it difficult to empathize with things like the negative feelings that come up in response to appropriation (which was the ethical question I raised). Finally, one of them speculated that perhaps the professor, himself, had never thought of the particular question that I asked about that particular text…and this made him reluctant to engage it. Whether or not they agreed with me, my women classmates allayed my feelings of craziness.

    So repetition… Your post gives me an entirely different way of thinking about this experience, not as something purely negative but also as necessary. This is not the first and certainly not the last time I will experience this, but it must be true that when repetition occurs, instead of jumping to the conclusion of redundancy, it is quite possibly necessary.

    1. Thank you for commenting! This is such a great example. I know the feeling of self-questioning when people appear to not understand something that seems clear or obvious. I think at certain times it might also be too exhausting or difficult to repeat and in those instances might be better to choose to not exert the energy. But other times it seems necessary to keep saying the same things so that someone says them.

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