Thursday, August 11, 2016

Intersectional Discourse and the Rhetorical Impact of the Modern Social Justice Movement

First, it needs to be stated, restated, emphasized, underlined, underscored, and burnt into stone with the furious passion of the stepped on and maligned: There are uncountable acts of injustice perpetrated on a startling array of oppressed groups throughout the world. This is not in question here. What is in question is the efficacy of using the language and terminology of critical analysis in widespread format without the associated inculcation and context. 

In critical analysis of literature (that has, off and on, been dominated by literary offshoots of psychoanalysis long after the field has been discredited as an area of science because it still has a useful pattern recognition capability that allows for deep/close reading of a given text), concepts like metatextuality, intertextuality, and intersectionality, are complex terms used to describe the interactions of ideas and layers of perspective and facets of society in a way that is just this side of concrete enough to grasp, if only temporarily. 

 Their use in that discourse is an exercise in academic rigor and careful contemplation of an argument. They're used to say that a work of fiction (or anything designated as text) is, through its existence in time and space, sharing real estate in the mind of a reader with other works in time and space, or on behalf of the author itself, “saying” or “meaning” any one thing is both an act of faith and a herculean effort in building a careful, thorough argument.

To use that language in an act of analysis, you have to build slowly, urging your audience to agree somewhere (and everywhere subsequently) as you recognize that you are adopting terminology and using it within the context of your argument with full acknowledgement that you are borrowing a word or term that may carry another definition at another time. For example, to evaluate a film in this way, you’d refer to the film as text, stating clearly that this is part of methodology and not some concrete assertion that despite a movie’s obvious real status as moving pictures on a screen, it’s secretly a book. You’re simply asking your audience (or opponents) to agree with you to take part in the analysis. This is why, as mentioned, this sort of work is an act of academic rigor: you have to both request and earn acceptance as your argument builds, so at your conclusion, even if you’re not acknowledged as having discovered an invariable and definitive truth about the nature of a work and the society in which it was produced, you are at least acknowledged for having demonstrated sound thinking and pointed out that something has been revealed, albeit theoretically, and that revelation is worthy of consideration outside of the context of your argument. 

 This is what academic research in the humanities is, by the way. This is how it works, this is what humanities scholars “do” (among a billion other things). And while the immediate practicality of this isn’t always apparent, you can’t use humanities scholarship to get someone to the moon or purify drinking water, what it does do is stretch the critical thinking and analysis skills of us as a species. It’s the framework that allows for great theoretical undertakings in philosophy, macro-economics, political theory; this is the space where Marx as a theorist and Marx as a political ideologist can exist together and have abso-fucking-nothing to do with one another, a theoretical Marxist can be a rampant capitalist without feeling the slightest twinge of cognitive dissonance. To speculate in the ungirded wilds of what might be possible and leading us to try new and wacky shit to make the world (hopefully) a better and more equitable place is why this, these rather, these fields exist, if you absolutely have to have a practical reason. 

So, what the fuck does this have to do with modern trends in discourse and social justice? The same theoretical terminology is being used all over the place, but instead of being couched in the theoretical space of debate, recognition of possibilities (that simultaneously overlap, sometimes contradict, and nonetheless sit nestled together in their validity), it’s being used as a grand aha, as grounds for call-outs, as an opportunity to rip the mask of civility off of anyone that may represent a part of the tacit power structure and point and scream for vengeance at the hands of a deliberate, conscious taskmaster.

This has two flaws. First, theoretical discourse does not reveal concrete hidden truths. It simply doesn’t work like that, it’s not designed to, nor is it capable of achieving that sort of end outside of its designed-intent. It’s an excellent tool to analyse, examine, and discuss, but it is not archaeology sifting through ideas and finding objective truth. It is sifting through ideas and finding other ideas that bridge them together (maybe). This makes the conclusions no less worth exploration or valuation, but it does limit the ability to shout j'accuse and righteously and indignantly point and scream “deliberate oppressor!” 

 Second, on a much more mercenary but worthwhile note: it is profoundly alienating. In far too many cases, this approach divides groups rather than bringing them together. On the one hand, that’s completely fair and fine if those taking part so choose to do so and not expect anything else. Furthermore, if the oppressed simply want to use this approach to feel absolutely justified in purging their own emotional demons over how they’ve been treated, I will absolutely not say that anyone can’t do that. Where I will draw the line is in taking seriously the notion that this approach should result in absolutely cowing any unintentional member of an oppressing group, and anything else should be considered an act of malicious defiance and encouragement of that oppression. This is hilariously fucking stupid. 

 So, where does this leave us? As I said at the start, while this approach to oppression has its issues, it is, ironically enough, demonstrably “problematic” in its end-result. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe the ivory tower needs to have its secret language popularized for a while to inspire fresh blood outside of the typical entrants and bring in a new energy and perspective to academia. After all, the rigor of science and engineering in science fiction has been up the nose of scientists and engineers for nearly a century, but it has inspired countless ideas from countless new devotees. 

The end question that must be asked is this: is a tool used in the “wrong” way that still accomplishes its goal (and then some) really claimable as “wrong?” Or is this simply an evolution and an opportunity to expand the immediate practical reach of critical analysis? That’s going to have to be a question for posterity. The optimist in me says “yeah, actually.” The pessimist says “it’ll fade and move on, having ultimately damaged the reputation of literary scholars and theorists.” The answer to that pessimist is, of course, that the reputation of literary theorists can’t get any worse anyway, so fuck it, why not let people do what they want to express their anger and argue their point? I may bristle internally when I see it, but at least people are trying.