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?