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"Knowledge, Power, & Resistance"

Kelly Agra | 19 May 2022


 
Reflections on Intersectionality and Knowledge-sharing

The following text was delivered at the Messerli Research Institute, Vienna, Austria, on 19 May 2022, through a workshop on Intersectional, Decolonial, and Affective Approaches to Knowledge. The workshop was organised by Rhona J. Flynn (University ofVienna) and funded by the Vienna Doctoral School of Philosophy. An updated version of this text will be published as part of my recent essay: "Resilient Resistance and Resistant Knowledge Projects: Subtracting Resilience from Neoliberalism" which will be included in the Resilience: The Brown Babe's Burden edited collection, edited by Tracy Llanera (University of Connecticut).



In Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory, Patricia Hill Collins elaborates on the strengths and the pitfalls of ‘intersectionality theory’ as it evolved since Kimberlé Crenshaw’s development of the concept in 1991. Collins, I interpret, stresses in this work that social theorizing in general, has to incorporate ‘intersectionality’ in its analysis of power and oppression in order for it to provide a more robust and expansive account of the different ways in which different systems of oppression reinforce one another, as well as the ways in which social actors may become both oppressed and oppressors depending on how such systems of power intersect. She writes, “As a discourse, intersectionality bundles together ideas from disparate places, times, and perspectives, enabling people to share points of view that formerly were forbidden, outlawed, or simply obscured.” (Collins 2019, 2).


Meanwhile, intersectional social theory for Collins, has yet to become a critical social theory. She stresses that in its current form, intersectionality has not yet realized its potential for becoming a critical tool for offering insights on social problems or facilitating social change. One of the main challenges posed against intersectional social theory which Collins identifies as getting in the way of this ‘criticalization’ of intersectionality is its association with eugenics which she diagnoses to be born out of intersectionality and eugenics' fundamental affinity with the concept of ‘relationality’. I will not elaborate on this criticism but suffice to say that Collins strongly suggests the reconstruction and development, perhaps critique, of intersectional social theory—because for her, as it stands, it is not yet critical enough. (By critical, Collins is also referring to two senses of the term: critical as offering a critique and critical as vital or important to something.)


In this opening session, what I would like to draw our attention to is the potential of a would-be intersectional critical social theory to fostering the building of ‘coalitions against oppression’—to use María Lugones term. I draw this on Collins’ discussion of ‘Resistant Knowledge Projects’ where she points to how certain knowledge projects become sites of intellectual resistance. She argues that critical social theory is a form of intellectual resistance, but she worries that it is limited within the academe. By contrast, she identifies critical race theory, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory, as three other forms of intellectual resistance, that developed both within and outside the academia, and are fundamentally committed to fighting inequality and seeking social transformation. As opposed to explaining the social order, these three resistant knowledge projects, Collins notes, have political resistance at the center of their theorizing. They do not merely bring action and ideas together, they are themselves always-already both action and ideas. They take experience as a rich resource for theorizing and social action as in itself a form of theorizing. As Collins writes: “There is a distinction between critical analysis that originates within academic assumptions that knowledge for knowledge’s sake will somehow contribute to social change, and critical analysis that has the practical intent of fostering social change.” She emphasizes how critical race, feminists, and postcolonial theorists have a vested interest in resisting the very forms of oppression they theorize.


What I want to explore in the next few minutes is Collins’s suggestion to ‘network’ resistant knowledge projects—such as critical social theory, critical race theory, feminist theory, and decolonial projects—and facilitate a more collaborative and expansive form of resistance—both at the political and epistemic level. I want to pursue, through your help, the pitfalls and strengths to this approach in the context of the theme of our workshop ‘Knowing the Distance’, within which we will try not only to theorize possibilities for bridging gaps in knowledge systems, but also of highlighting how and why there are gaps in the first place, to perhaps de-pathologize such gaps and understand when is it necessary to ‘network’ or ‘share’ them and when is it necessary to ‘acknowledge’ or ‘recognize’ them instead—and thereby allowing the reframing of our notion of epistemic authority as well as theorizing the centrality of experience (as opposed to cognition) in learning or knowledge production.


For one, Collins raises the flag against the growing tendency in intersectionality theory “to collapse distinctive resistant knowledge projects into one overarching project and label it intersectional” such that intersectionality “easily become[s] a discourse in which resistance is hollowed out” because it fails to properly acknowledge and confront the particularity of the interests, methods, and goals of different resistant knowledge projects. However, she also thinks that a critical intersectional social theory has the potential to expand critique itself and allow us to have a wider horizon from which to analyse forms of oppression. In the following, I discuss this in relation to the role of knowledge-sharing in the resistance to identity-based forms of oppression.


In his work on Epistemology of Resistance José Medina defines what he calls resistant imagination as “an imagination that is ready to confront relational possibilities that have been lost, ignored, or that remain to be discovered or invented.” (Medina 2013, 299) It has both a retrospective and a prospective aspect where the former refers to a resistant memory and the latter refers to the projective use of the imagination. In resistant memory, epistemic subjects revisit the past with a view of uncovering lost, ignored, or dismissed memories and experiences. In the projective use of imagination, we discover or invent new and non-hegemonic social imaginaries. In Medina’s account, resistant imagination is necessarily pluralistic, founded on a collaborative pursuit of epistemic friction within epistemic interactions. A pluralistic resistant imagination combined with a kaleidoscopic social sensibility—that is, a shared social sensibility on the basis of differences rather than at their expense (Medina 2013, 306)—in his point of view, are what foster what he calls network solidarity. Network solidarity is an account of solidarity that is “formed by weaving together problems, values, and goals that, though often irreducibly different, can overlap, converge, or simply coordinated so that they can be addressed simultaneously and enjoy mutual support.” (Medina 2013, 308) Similar to intersectionality theory, the guiding idea to network solidarity is the intersection of axes of oppression and power. Unlike accounts of solidarity that are based on shared identities, properties, or perspectives, however, network solidarity is instead based on common or intersecting problems and concerns. (Medina 2013, 308)


What I find interesting in Medina’s account is the level of importance he gives to plurality. For him, plurality lies at the heart of epistemic interaction, and that it has to be taken advantage of rather than suppressed. Homogeneity for him should not be the goal of solidarity or epistemic interaction but the affirmation of differences. For the interest of space, I will no longer discuss my reservations to Medina’s pluralistic epistemology, but I would like to retrieve from his account the concept of ‘sharing’ which seem to have the double status of being partly dangerously homogenizing (when understood in the context of sharing identities) and partly solidarity building (when understood in the context of sharing problems and goals).


The view of sharing that I would like to defend in relation to resistance is two-fold. First, when understood in relation to identities, I take ‘shared identities’ to refer to ‘intersecting identities’. Second, as opposed to a given state, I understand sharing as an activity. In particular, I refer to knowledge or experience sharing, which I take to have an ‘agency-activating’ and ‘context-transcending’ (Cooke 2006) dimension, and can help fortify and sustain resistances.


In the context of identity-based forms of oppression, I think that shared aspects of our being pose an obstacle to resistance and solidarity, as Medina suspects, only if it is understood in terms of its ‘self-enclosing’ (Llanera 2019) tendencies. That is, if the shared identities, properties, or perspectives only aim at self-assertion rather than genuine intersubjective recognition and mutual support and learning. Without denying this possibility or tendency, I retrieve the ‘coalition building’ account of ‘sharing’ in this context, by understanding it to mean ‘intersecting’. Identities, when they intersect, and hence becomes the basis of shared identities, can serve as foundations for coalition, most especially in the context of identity-based forms of oppression, insofar as they presuppose that members of an identity group are in general exposed to similar problems and concerns, albeit varied in degrees and complexity. It proceeds from the assumption that because their identities intersect, there is likelihood that members of the identity group will have an idea about how it feels to live that identity, or that there is a possibility for them to experience in some future time what other members of that identity group have experienced. It is thus to their interest to forge alliances as it will help them navigate intersecting mechanisms of oppression together. While this is not always the case, coalitions and movements based on intersecting identities, e.g. Black Feminism, Women Doing Philosophy group in the Philippines, Society for Women in Philosophy, Satyagraha movement, Civil Rights Movement, etc., have in reality emerged and have created frictions in the epistemic and political spaces within which they have negotiated or are trying to negotiate their existence. As Collins notes, subordinated groups have a vested interest in resisting their subordination, such that if their subordination has to do with their identity, forming coalition with those whom they intersect identities with then aligns with their interest to resist. In response then to Medina’s blanket assertion that it is not shared properties that build solidarity but common problems and concerns, I stress that in the context of identity-based forms of oppression, the common problems and concerns intersect with the identities of the people undergoing and problematizing those problems and concerns. Intersecting identities can be reasons to coalesce if the problem is based on those identities.


To reiterate, this is not to say that coalitions can only be based on intersecting identities. However, to ignore why coalitions are formed based on identity lines, I argue, is to ignore the reality of identity-based forms of oppression. It is to ignore “a struggle long overdue” as Linda Martín Alcoff writes (2003, 1). Furthermore, by intersecting identities, it does not have to refer only to one identity but to multiple identities. Identities are not uni-sectional and unidirectional, but intersectional. One is not only a transgender, a person of color, a working class, a disabled person, a person belonging to a certain nation or religion. One can be all of these at the same time, and the very intersection of all of these creates privilege and vulnerability differentials that when ignored are what can cause horizontal oppression among subordinated identity groups. By emphasizing intersectionality, we can be made more attentive to these differences and we can rethink our strategies of resistance more sensitively. As Collins emphasizes, intersecting systems of power may be co-producing one another, that is, “racism, sexism, class exploitation, and similar oppressions may mutually construct one another by drawing upon similar and distinctive practices and forms of organization that collectively shape social reality” (Collins 2019, 46). By establishing collaboration based on multiple-intersecting identities, we may be at a better vantage point to understand and resist the forms of oppression that emanate from them. This point also resonates with Alcoff’s stance on the value of learning about multiple identities:


All students of society and all who want to become effective citizens must become educated about the multiple identities that structure our social worlds in order to be able to understand, evaluate, and if they choose, meaningfully participate in the struggles against identity-based forms of oppression. (Alcoff 2003, 8)


The second sense of sharing that I want to elaborate, as I have mentioned, has to do with the act or process of sharing knowledges or experiences which I claim to be capable of transcending the self-enclosing tendencies of solidarities based on shared identities. To emphasize, I use the term ‘sharing knowledges’ as opposed to ‘shared knowledges’ as I mean to refer to the act that you do or process that you undergo or achieve, rather than something that has already happened or is given. Knowledge or experience sharing, I suggest, signals to the way in which knowledges or experiences can traverse and be circulated across members of an epistemic community who may not and even possibly will not personally know or experience those knowledges or experiences; but whose epistemic faculties and social sensibilities can be receptive and responsive to what such knowledges and experiences may mean or imply and who can draw learnings from them. Through the act or process of knowledge or experience sharing, these knowledges and experiences, I stress, transcend their contexts and other knowers gain a certain degree of access to them. This is what I see as the context-transcending dimension of knowledge.


The act of sharing can also be interpreted as an act of trust towards the people one is sharing the knowledge or experience with. This show of trust is what I take to be agency-activating, and this is what the #MeToo movement has been able to powerfully capture. When a person speaks up about or stands in protest to their oppression, their speech or their act can be very empowering for others, to the extent that their speech or protest can serve as an invitation for others to do the same. It helps encourage other members of the community to share their own knowledges and experiences and help show the scale and severity of a certain situation. When this gains traction and valence, the series of speeches and protests can constitute a body of knowledge that can serve as reference points for understanding the multiple ways in which oppression is similarly or differentially experienced, including the ways in which one can stand up against them. The point that I want to emphasize here is that meliorating injustice requires such epistemic resources to be pooled as they are the ones that can stay and linger on long after the acts or moments of resistances have taken place. They help future generations to understand and remember what happened and why they happened. Epistemic resources help sustain the resilience of a resistance by providing access to knowledges and experiences that would otherwise remain hidden, undiscovered, lost, or ignored. They help organize the epistemic supports to movements such that they can be made understandable and can stand the demands of reason and justification. In addition, they can also help cultivate resistant imaginations, i.e., the retrieval, discovery, invention, of new relational possibilities and new forms of freedom and social organization. The more one is exposed to and engaged with these resources, the more can one become alert to and able to track manifestations of subjugating relationships and social organization. This enhanced attention and sensitivity can make one more open and receptive to further motivations and reasons to resist structures of oppression. While it is not a guarantee that learning about mechanisms and forms of oppression will lead one to resist—since time and again, history has proven that human beings can be equally reactive against such epistemic resources, as in the case of historical revisionism, genocide denialism, or epistemicide—these resources nevertheless give members of an epistemic community somewhere to start. They can provide epistemic subjects some sense of the magnitude of a problem, its complexity, and its instantiations, and may spark responsive action across identity lines, not just among subordinated groups. This again is the context-transcending and agency-activating potential of knowledges, their appeal to reason and imagination has the power to move and unify individuals and groups from all walks of life.


These epistemic resources, generated and organized for the sake of resistance are what is referred to by Collins as resistant knowledge projects. As in decolonial, feminist, critical race, and critical theory, the knowledges they generate are not simply knowledges in the traditional sense—they are at the same time political knowledges and they are themselves a form of politics. As Collins writes, “Epistemic power is deeply intertwined with political domination, and exercising epistemic power is a form of politics.” (Collins 2019, 126) For Collins, “Ideas matter, but when it comes to social inequality, critical theorizing is not just about ideas.” (Collins 2019, 118)


By way of opening the discussion, I’d like to point to one of the core challenges to the idea of sharing and networking different resistant knowledge projects, i.e. what Kristie Dotson’s refers to as the difficulty of becoming fluent in alternative sets of interpretive resources. She writes in her discussion of what she calls ‘contributory injustice’ (a third order epistemic injustice that takes the form of a wilful hermeneutical ignorance—to use Gaile Pohlhaus Jr.’s term), that: “Even if the space for transconceptual communication has been opened, which is by no means easy, as mentioned earlier, it could literally take decades to become truly fluent in an alter- native set of hermeneutical resources” (Dotson 2012, 35). This ‘fluency’ she notes is a “kind of communication” that “requires a kind of embodied engagement that extends beyond conversation and dialogue.” (Dotson 2012, 35). Collins’s proposal for continuous dialogue seems biased towards yet another linguistic form of critical thinking, that sidelines that central role of embodied engagement in knowledge development. If there is room for arguing this, can we say that intersectionality contributes to epistemic oppression because of its linguistic bias? Meanwhile, if this is even half defensible, do we also lose the more collaborative and expansive approach to critique? I’d like to hear your thoughts.


With my fellow presenters (left to right): Taynna Marino (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań), Rhona J. Flynn (University of Vienna) and Tường Vi Nguyễn (FU Berlin).


References


Alcoff, Linda Martin. "Introduction: identities: modern and postmodern." Identities: Race, class, gender, and nationality (2003): 1-8.


Collins, Patricia Hill. Intersectionality as critical social theory. Duke University Press, 2019.


Cooke, Maeve. Re-presenting the good society. MIT press, 2006.


Dotson, Kristie. "A cautionary tale: On limiting epistemic oppression." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.


Llanera, Tracy. "Disavowing Hate: Group Egotism from Westboro to the Klan." Journal of Philosophical Research (2019).


Medina, José. The epistemology of resistance: Gender and racial oppression, epistemic injustice, and resistant imaginations. Oxford University Press, 2013.


Pohlhaus, Gaile. "Relational knowing and epistemic injustice: Toward a theory of willful hermeneutical ignorance." Hypatia 27, no. 4 (2012): 715-735.

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

My research falls at the intersection of Critical Social Theory and Social Epistemology, but with specific attention to Decolonial and Feminist Critique. In my work, I develop the concepts of "(Mis)education" and "Epistemic Paralysis".

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