Feminism and the political economy of representation : intersectionality, invisibility and embodiment

Dissertation, (2009)
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It has become commonplace within feminist theory to claim that women’s lives are constructed by multiple, intersecting systems of oppression. In this thesis, I challenge the consensus that oppression is aptly captured by the theoretical model of “intersectionality.” While intersectionality originates in Black feminist thought as a purposive intervention into US antidiscrimination law, it has been detached from that context and harnessed to different representational aims. For instance, it is often asserted that intersectionality enables a representational politics that overcomes legacies of exclusion within hegemonic Anglo-American feminism. I argue that intersectionality reinscribes the political exclusion of racialized women as a feature of their embodied identities. That is, it locates the failure of political representation in the “complex” identities of “intersectional” subjects, who are constructed as unrepresentable in terms of “race” or “gender” alone. Further, I argue that intersectionality fails to supplant race- and class-privileged women as the normative subjects of feminist theory and politics. In Chapter One, I demonstrate that intersectionality illicitly imports unitary concepts of “race,” “gender,” and “class.” In Chapter Two, I argue that intersectionality lacks a theory of hierarchy: it is a “flat geography” which cannot capture vertical and horizontal lines of power. In Chapter Three, I explore the role of analogical reasoning in rendering racialized women invisible both as gendered and as racialized subjects in twentieth-century social movements. To concretize this argument, I turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s use of race-sex analogies to describe (white, bourgeois) “women’s” situation in The Second Sex. In Chapter Four, I advance a programmatic unified account of oppression. I suggest that the possibility of a unified theory (as opposed to an intersectional one) is intimated in the concrete articulation of race, class, and gender. My point of departure is a phenomenology of capitalism, which reveals that these are all fundamentally modes of exploitation and appropriation. In Chapter Five, I theorize how they are made visible (and invisible) on the body. I extend Frantz Fanon’s account of “epidermalization,” drawing upon the marxian concepts of “fetishism” and “mode of appearance” to elaborate four structures of gendered racialized perception: first, the “miscegenation taboo” structures perceptions of the “purity” of whiteness and the “polluting” effects of blackness. Whiteness, theorised as a “possessive investment” and as “property” is defined by the right to exclude. Second, the “episteme of tellable differences” produces the conviction that we can automatically “tell the difference” between a body placed in one “racial” or gender category, and another—while bodies that temporarily confound classification cause fear and consternation. Third, the “race/reproduction bind” names the axiomatic assumption that “race” is reproduced through (heterosexual) procreation and that “race” is, therefore, biologically inheritable. Finally, the “fear/criminalisation reflex” refers to the bidirectional equation of particular racialised-gendered bodies with crime, and of crime with those bodies; this a function of the discursive use of ‘crime’ as an alibi for “race’” the systemic racialisation of punitive carceral institutions, and the historical origins of “race” in transatlantic chattel slavery, which shaped perceptual-cognitive associations of freedom with whiteness and captivity with blackness.



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Anna Carastathis
Feminist Autonomous Centre for Research

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