Wednesday, October 13, 2010

intersectionality and animal studies

Without a doubt one of the biggest moves in animal studies these days is to talk about intersectionality. There are basically two ways this gets talked about: One is a discussion of the fact that the vegan/animal rights movement tends to be predominately white (my brother pointed this usage out to me when I was talking about this with him earlier). But the other way is to discuss the methods by which speciesism intersects with other oppressions. The classical example (perhaps the first example) would be Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat, which deals with the intersection of sexism and speciesism. And while interlocking oppressions (or, oppressions that are enmeshed but still discrete and semi-autonomous) are certainly important, intersectionality has traditionally carried with it a level of subjectivity that seems to be missing in these discussions. To clarify, when Crenshaw first developed the term (and the way it has been updated by Collins), intersectionality referred to a way that interlocking oppressions produced/shaped a subjectivity that exceeded the sum of those oppressions. So, the experience of a black could not be reduced to either the experiences of a white woman or a black man, or even those experiences combined. And while the term has developed a level of plasticity in the last two decades of its existence, in all the work deploying the term I am aware of, intersectionality continues to have a level of subjectivity to it. However, when most animal scholars are using the term, they are not saying that, for example, female animals have a unique intersection of oppression that is different from male animals or female humans (though this might be an interesting topic). What animal scholars are usually saying is that racism, sexism, classism, etc are bound up with speciesism. Now, I think that intersectionality is perhaps a confusing term to be using in these contexts, maybe even a misleading term. Maybe we need a different term, or if animal scholars are going to insist on using the term, at least they need to address the changes the term is undergoing in their work.

Update: My brother points out that in later works by Carol Adams, she does talk about the sort of intersectionality I mean. In that she talks about how female cows and chickens are particularly and uniquely abused because of their gender and species status. Though, I don't think she uses the term (which is more than fine). Fair enough, and vastly important. Still, my larger point remains. Most people who use this term in animal studies tend to gloss over the differences of thinking about intersectionality as a way of relating multiple oppressions to subjectivity to analyzing the way multiple oppressions sustain each other. If people are using the term in more traditional ways, that is fine. But I think people who are shifting its focus should deal directly with that issue. That's all.