Challenged/Challenging Haraway/Puar

Generally, in my blog posts, I try not to summarize the readings, but instead to extend their arguments or raise salient questions. I’m not sure if this week’s readings have theory I have no grounding in, or that we’ve simply hit the inevitable point of endless sleep deprivation in the quarter, but I’m struggling to follow the theoretical arguments here. Thus, my focus here is tracing through what a couple of the readings’ arguments.

Haraway

It’s challenging to jump into Haraway’s manifesto without this book’s introduction, but in a general sense, I think she envisions a feminist politics and epistemology through the lens of the cyborg, which is defined as a “cybernetic organism, hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (149) In this chapter, she gives a theoretical background for the term “cyborg,” and doesn’t caution us about organism/technology integration’s impact on women, so much as tease out the multiple threads that influence this impact. While she doesn’t use this terminology, Haraway’s approach is intersectional (“I argue for a politics rooted in claims about fundamental changes in the nature of class, race, and gender,” p. 161).

Haraway cites several theorists who confront the challenges and limitations of identity politics, specifically as they relate to women (Chela Sandoval, Katie King). In response, she offers up the inevitability of fractured identities, saying that “cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.” (157)[1] Haraway is concerned that with the creation and integration of new technology (she articulates this shift in a chart of terminology that present historical and contemporary “informatics of domination”), women are disparately (negatively) affected. For example, as exported labor (like building cables or iPhones) is feminized (given mainly to women), world-wide conglomerates are able to create (often unfair) policies that directly impact (or influence) women’s health (reproduction, for example).

Many of her arguments come down to simplistic statements (ex: “totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality” – 181), and what’s important about this essay is not so much the arguments themselves, as the context in which she frames them (technology is inevitable and integrated into our lives now, and we have to confront its impact on women – materially, psychologically, politically, internationally, etc.) – or am I missing something?!

I think part of my confusion stems from Haraway’s tonal shifting; playfully tongue-in-cheek one moment, serious and deeply theoretical the next, it’s hard to track her argument since her approach to technology is (necessarily) ambivalent.[2] Additionally, contrary to almost every other technology we’ve studied, Haraway represents a step back in time, so perhaps what seems simplistic now (a focus on international labor, the simultaneous liberatory possibilities and dangerous inevitabilities of technology, imagining a world without gender) was more cutting edge then.

 

Puar

Puar’s project in this article is purportedly a thinking through of the relations between intersectionality and assemblage, but the majority of it reads as a take down of intersectionality (intersectionality as it currently stands, not Crenshaw’s intervention or intention, but the generative results of said intervention).

Many of Puar’s concerns strike me as misreadings; it’s not that I disagree with them per se, but much of her criticism seems like a paranoid (vs. reparative) reading of intersectionality.

For example, she says, “Malini Joshar Schueller argues that most scholarship on WOC is produced by WOC, while many white feminists, although hailing intersectionality as primary methodological rubric continue to take gender difference as foundational.” It’s hard to combat this without a deep dive into Schueller’s work, but… do most feminist scholars now really take gender difference as foundational? Isn’t that scholars like Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling have been arguing against for decades? And, do we really expect that someone other than WOC produce the majority of scholarship on WOC? Is that even a problem?[3] It seems like when someone else does do that kind of research, their work is always or almost always subjected to authenticity criticism.

I know that Puar’s larger point is that white feminism uses the terminology of intersectionality without actually utilizing it – but shouldn’t that be a criticism of intersectionality’s co-option, not the method of analysis and beliefs themselves?

Or consider, as another example, her question, “What does an intersectional critique look like—or more to the point, what does it do–in an age of neo-liberal pluralism, absorption and accommodation of difference, of all kinds of differences?” I think it still does much. For instance, “Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala,” by Edward Fischer and Peter Benson, traces a head of broccoli between its Mayan farmers and Nashville consumers. Fischer and Benson aren’t explicitly feminist scholars, but their research, which is ethnographic, Marxist at times, and transnational in focus, is deeply intersectional. Here, I think intersectionality “works” because it’s deployed ethnographically. By presenting specific portraits of farmers, Fischer and Benson are able to simultaneously consider farmer’s domestic situations, economic concerns, racial standing, transnational involvement, etc. – different flows of identity and situating.

While, nominally, Puar wants to consider how to utilize both assembles and intersectionality, she seems to reify a dichotomous view of them for much of her talk. But when I consider Agencement, the original form of assemblages, I’m mystified as to how it counters intersectionality. Intersectionality, to me, is among other things, a way to locate oneself and others in an ever-shifting web of identities and power dynamics. Both of these frameworks/methods use “networks” as a guiding principle. And I’ve always understood intersectionality as a way of thinking through a moment (or identity) in time – one that might influence the future, but in no way determines it.

What do y’all think? Am I mis-reading Puar?

Tangentially, what does Puar mean by “signification”? She references it throughout the essay, but the moment I’m most confused by is in response to Schueller’s argument that a focus on matter like Haraway’s cyborg also bypasses the issue of race, namely a “critique of linguistic performativity that presumes that everything resides within signification.”)

[1] She also opposes Catherine MacKinnon’s vision of radical feminism, arguing that it’s essentialist and “obliterate[s] the authority of any other women’s political speech and action.”

[2] After all, what, really, is an ironic myth?

[3] Yes, of course, one can argue that we need scholars to research groups that they don’t identify with, but isn’t that actually an argument for either getting more WOC into the academy/research positions OR a reductive stand-in for a larger argument against identity politics?

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6 thoughts on “Challenged/Challenging Haraway/Puar

  1. I also struggled with Puar and Haraway this week, having zero background in their work, and part of my blog post goes through a critique of Puar that I feel like addresses some of the things I felt didn’t totally add up for me as well. I think your statement about a paranoid vs. reparative reading of intersectionality is accurate–even if Puar is disagreeing with the *deployment* of intersectionality rather than the theory or theories themselves, it seems strange to almost collapse the two and not afford a lot of contextualization (which I feel like can be done in the same vein as critiquing intersectionality’s cooptation by the state, the university, and white feminists).

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  2. I’m happy you bring up how Puar considers “how to utilize both assemblage and intersectionality” by understanding the former as Deleuze and Guattari conceptualized it as agencement, “a term which means design, layout, organization, arrangement, and relations—the focus being not on the content, but on the relations, relations of patters.” I also had trouble with Puar’s take on Haraway, but I believe she considers assemblage in this sense as a form of intersectionality, both work side-by-side as valid methods of analysis. They seem to be analyzing similar networks, but I think the only distinction Puar makes is that with agencement the connections (networks) are stressed, not the content or perhaps outcome. I think this fits nicely with your understanding of intersectionality “as a way of thinking through a moment (or identity) in time – one that might influence the future, but in no way determines it.”

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  3. I agree with you that the Puar is difficult to access and at times confusing. As well that it reads more as paranoid than reparative. My biggest take away from what is now my 3rd reading of that article is that intersectionality is now used as commodity, misunderstood, and leveraged for theoretical uses it was never intended to. The Haraway as well when I reread I always think : “man I wish I was already a well-respected academic so I could write like a crazy person and people would just have to go with it”

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  4. Overall, I agree with your assessment of Haraway’s prose, and I think you raise a few crucial points in your readings of both her and Puar. Namely, both argue (although not always as such) in terms of discourses of authenticity and the power relations within them. Haraway, on the one hand, seeks to override the debate altogether through the cyborgian; that is, to do away altogether with questions of origin and legitimacy. As a result, I read the cyborg as a post-categorical assemblage. So, although it is always already intersectional, it also functions within a system whereby identity is of secondary concern. Consequently, the particular concerns of the cyborg are not those of identity per se, but rather placement or interfacing with the system.

    In a way, therefore, I think that your understanding of intersectionality in Puar lines up with Haraway. Or, to put it another way, that there are two possible iterations of intersectionality: 1) the facets of different flows of identity, as you mention; and 2) an increasingly fragmentary categorization of identities, all of which we must take into account. Each of these has its merits and demerits, but I also agree that intersectionality is a more powerful tool when we understand it beyond a politics of identity and begin to consider the geographical and historicity. My understanding of Puar is more in line with this latter point, then, in how she speaks of assemblages as the means whereby identity can be invoked contextually.

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  5. Rebecca, I also had the same thoughts upon reading the Puar. For me, it is one of those articles that is good to consider in terms of thinking about how intersectionality plays out, but it doesn’t lead me to leave intersectionality in favor of assemblage in an exchange. I always thought of intersectionality in the terms Puar describes, so it was strange to me when I first read the article that intersectionality was and is deployed in the ways she describes. On a slightly separate issue, I was also confused (and still often am) when I hear feminists discount intersectionality all together (as Elizabeth Grosz does). Until I read authors like Grosz, I was under the working model of intersectional feminism that subscribes to the idea that if you aren’t intersectional, then you can’t call it feminism in the contemporary moment (for example, if you exclude the trans community or people of color from your feminism and subscribe to a model that only includes white women). Feminists like Grosz have a different take on intersectionality and since I still don’t quite understand where they are coming from, maybe we can pause on that for a minute in class.

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  6. “…but shouldn’t that be a criticism of intersectionality’s co-option, not the method of analysis and beliefs themselves?”
    I also read Puar’s criticism of intersectionality more about what it is, rather than what it has been used for or how it’s been used. Since I am not familiar with Schueller’s work, I took Puar’s word for it. However, your post really made me think more critically about Puar’s piece. Specifically, to question what is she advocating for? Does she want intersectionality to not be used anymore? Is she advocating for a more nuanced use of intersectionality? What would her understanding of agencement DO to intersectionality?

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