Critical Intimacy Studies in the Era of Intersectional Hate – Nathan Rambukkana
When Rembert Browne coined the term “the intersectionality of hate” for a Daily Intelligencer article on November 9, 2016, using it as a way into discussing how the so-called “alt-right” had gathered forces across the lines of their various problematic interests to mobilize grassroots support for Donald J. Trump and pull off an election upset, it was like a lightning bolt went through me, catalyzing a contingent of uncollected thoughts and frustrations. Browne writes that:
Progressives talk a lot about intersectionality – meaning, thinking about race and sex and class simultaneously – but Trump won the presidency by making hate intersectional. He encouraged sexists to also be racists and homophobes, while saying disgusting things about immigrants in public and Jews online. Hate, like love, is infectious, and it is contagious. And for so many, the adrenaline felt by blaming one group for one’s personal ills bled into blaming all the others.[i]
His insight connected those dots. This was the affinity politics of the far-right, they were working the energies, synergies, and discourses of social justice work but for opposite interests and inverted motivations. This was the identity politics of White Supremacists/Nationalists and others who identify racial justice as reverse-racism,[ii] and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAa) who see women’s empowerment as sexist against men.[iii] Of Pick Up Artists (PUAs) who see their rape-culture promoting methods mocked in the mainstream press,[iv] of those legitimately disenfranchised by neoliberalism who see it as the fault of “immigrants taking their jobs,”[v] and of old-school gamers who see new games journalism, female game designers, and feminist game scholars as a conspiracy to “ruin gaming.”[vi][vii]
The rise of the far-right – repackaged, rebranded, and sanitized as the “alt-right” [viii] – is backlash politics writ large. It’s what happens when ensconced privilege is displaced and traditional power is questioned or eroded. This flash of insight, from long-simmering fears and worries, also illuminated something for me that I think is worth talking about: the role of critical intimacy studies in all of this.
While more recently, many scholars and others have discussed intimacy as a top-level critical term (for example Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ Intimacies (2008) [ix]), I associate this critical turn with the 1998 special issue of Critical Inquiry on Intimacy edited by Lauren Berlant,[x] and the consequent edited collection Intimacy (2000).[xi] In the introduction to the special issue, Berlant describes intimacies as the “kinds of connections that impact on people, and on which they depend for living,”[xii] and draws a large circle around many and varied scales of closeness and affect: from the macro-cultural intimacies of borders, ethnicities, gender and sexual categories; to the public sphere politics of cities, the media, and discourses; to the interpersonal politics of therapy relationships, sexual interconnections, and kinship; to the personal politics of relationships with important texts from fiction, music, religion, and philosophy. For me, the power of this critical view of intimacy is that it takes some of the category-questioning, orthodoxy-shaking power of queer theory, and translates it through a wider field of problematics. This was both a necessity for understanding the intersectional issues wrapped up (always, already) in sexuality politics, but also enabled that broader intersectionality, where we could discuss issues such as “intimate privilege” more broadly, and outside of the crucial, but necessarily delimited, frame of sexuality studies.[xiii]
In the original late-90s special issue introduction, Berlant talks about how there was widespread “panic in the intimate field”[xiv] due to critical intimate interventions. And how
In particular, across the globe challenges to the public/private taxonomy from feminist, antihomophobic, antiracist, and antipoverty movements have been experienced as an irruption of the most sacred and rational forms of intimate intelligibility, a canceling out of individual and collective destinies, an impediment to narrativity and the future itself.[xv]
Starting to sound a little too familiar, isn’t it?
Now, and tragically, the worm has turned. After a period of relative gains, we are seeing a snap-back to earlier positionalities, earlier perspectives. Those who fight on the frontlines of these battles have long known of these undercurrents and fought to address them – how often have I heard from those teaching first-year courses in women and gender studies, in cultural and communication studies, that it can be a challenge to get students to even see sexism, or racism, or the pitfalls of neoliberalism, when many (though not all) of our students have enough intersectional privilege that they are able to float above some of the worse impacts, or they don’t see that they are being impacted, or how. But this is starting to shift. Like the conservative and reactionary forces Berlant wrote about who experienced some of the changes and pushes of social justice movements as “a direct blow to the body,”[xvi] we too, now, are seeing a new intimacy “formed around threats to the image of the world [we seek] to maintain.”[xvii]
Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”[xviii] I think that critical intimacy studies can be, is, one of the tools we can use to crack open these systems, to forge strange affinities, uncanny new alliances, switch up binaries and sides. Just as the spectre of homonationalism [xix] haunts the “alt-right” with figures like Milo Yiannopoulos gaining new power there,[xx] on the flip side you have defections such as former White Supremacists/Nationalists coming public about how, for example, a chance encounter with a Muslim community group at a mall led to conversation, understanding, and bridges built [xxi]; or former arch-conservative mouthpiece Glenn Beck sitting down with liberal comedienne and talk-show host Samantha Bee in Xmas sweaters and discussing how “our future is going to require a broad coalition of non-partisan decency […] against Trumpism” [xxii]. Emma Vossen has written about how her early teen experiences with MRA discourse as a staunchly “equalist” gamer who hated feminism, “taught [her] (to some extent) what oppression meant, it taught [her] what the word “inequality” meant, it taught [her] that gender was actively policed [and] came along with expectations.”[xxiii] In other words, it actually put her in conversation with a number of social justice concepts and language; she even goes so far to posit that if GamerGate had happened a few years earlier, she might have been part of the movement, forcing us to take on notions such as sides and allyship in their full situated complexity.[xxiv]
What we can take away from these examples and insights is that perhaps there is a way that disillusioned members of movement such as White Supremacists/Nationalists, MRAs, and GamerGate – and we could add, the “alt-right” movement as a whole – might be approached as possible allies, especially as their familiarity, through hatred, with social justice movements and concepts might actually make them more cognizant of them than the general public. (Or, put another way, we could note that the Venn diagram of people in the world who, for example, know the terms “cisgender” and “social justice” would have much of the general population on the outside, but much of the “alt-right” on the inside.) Vossen notes how, for her, “men’s rights was like a wormhole directly into feminism.”[xxv] And we can maybe even extend this “wormhole theory” to think about how it might apply beyond feminism, to social justice struggles as a whole: how maybe there is a way to short-circuit (in the literal sense of the term) the hateful energy of some of these individuals and wrest it towards positive change. It might be a long shot, but I for one am up for the slog. Also, barring despair, what else is there?
The morning after the election, I was re-reading Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” for my Robotic Intimacies class, and this passage, written in the depth of 80s struggles and fear, leapt out at me an appropriate measure of where we – once again – find ourselves:
I do not know of any other time in history when there was greater need for political unity to confront effectively the dominations of ‘race’, ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’, and ‘class’. I also do not know of any other time when the kind of unity we might help build could have been possible. None of ‘us’ have any longer the symbolic or material capability of dictating the shape of reality to any of ‘them’. Or at least ‘we’ cannot claim innocence from practising such dominations. White women, including socialist feminists, discovered (that is, were forced kicking and screaming to notice) the non-innocence of the category ‘woman’. That consciousness changes the geography of all previous categories; it denatures them as heat denatures a fragile protein. Cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole. Innocence, and the corollary insistence on victimhood as the only ground for insight, has done enough damage. But the constructed revolutionary subject must give late-twentieth-century people pause as well. In the fraying of identities and in the reflexive strategies for constructing them, the possibility opens up for weaving something other than a shroud for the day after the apocalypse that so prophetically ends salvation history.[xxvi]
Here’s to new affinities, new alliances, new possibilities, and to fighting those old and new struggles now upon us – as well as those that loom in the offing. And here’s to weaving a new and better future, together.
[i] Rembert Browne, November 9, 2016, “How Trump Made Hate Intersectional,” Daily Intelligencer, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/11/how-trump-made-hate-intersectional.html
[ii] Shane Burley & Alexander Reid Ross, November 2, 2016, “How the Alt Right is Trying to Create a Safe Space for Racism on College Campuses,” Transformation, Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/shane-burley-alexander-reid-ross/how-alt-right-is-trying-to-create-safe-space-for-rac
[iii] Claire Landsbaum, December 14, 2016, “Men’s-Rights Activists Are Finding a New Home With the Alt-Right,” The Cut, http://nymag.com/thecut/2016/12/mens-rights-activists-are-flocking-to-the-alt-right.html
[v] George Monbiot, April 15, 2016, “Neoliberalism – The Ideology at the Root of all our Problems,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot?CMP=share_btn_fb
[vi] Shira Chess & Adrienne Shaw, 2015, “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 59(1), 208-220.
[vii] Matt Lees, December 1, 2016, “What Gamergate Should Have Taught Us about the ‘Alt-Right’,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/01/gamergate-alt-right-hate-trump
[viii] Serge F. Kovaleski, Julie Turkewitz, Joseph Goldstein, & Dan Barr, December 10, 2016, “An Alt-Right Makeover Shrouds the Swastikas,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/us/alt-right-national-socialist-movement-white-supremacy.html?_r=0
[ix] Leo Bersani & Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
[x] Critical Inquiry, 24(2), 1998.
[xi] Lauren Berlant (Ed.), Intimacy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
[xii] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue,” Critical Inquiry, 24(2), 284.
[xiii] Nathan Rambukkana, Fraught Intimacies: Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).
[xiv] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy,” 287.
[xv] Ibid, 287.
[xvi] Ibid, 287.
[xvii] Ibid, 288.
[xviii] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future (Columbia, 1992).
[xix] Jasbir Puar. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007).
[xx] Matt Lees, “What Gamergate Should Have Taught Us.”
[xxi] Roisin O’Connor. “Anti-Muslim Protester at ‘Draw Mohamed’ Rally has Change of Heart after Arizona Mosque Visit,” The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/anti-muslim-protester-at-draw-mohamed-rally-has-change-of-heart-after-arizona-mosque-visit-10297546.html
[xxii] Sarah K. Burris, December 20, 2016, “WATCH: ‘Strange bedfellows’ Samantha Bee and Glenn Beck Promise an All-out War against President Trump,” Raw Story, http://www.rawstory.com/2016/12/watch-strange-bedfellows-samantha-bee-and-glenn-beck-promise-an-all-out-war-against-president-trump/
[xxiii] Emma Vossen, June 3, 2016, “I was Vivian James: The Involvement of Girls and Women in Conservative Video Game Movements,” Canadian Game Studies Association Annual Conference, Calgary, AB.
[xxvi] Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in Linda J. Nicholson (Ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 199.
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Nathan Rambukkana is an Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. His work centres the cultural study of discourse, politics and identities, and addresses topics such as digital intimacies, robotic intimacies, the relationship of intimacy and privilege, hybridity and mixed-race identities, the social and cultural aspects new media forms, and non/monogamy in the public sphere. His book, Fraught Intimacies: Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere (UBC Press, 2015) explores the increased mediation of non-monogamies since the early nineties—in every medium from television, to film, to self-help books, to the Internet—and how such convergent mediation opens these discourses up to societal scrutiny, as well as transformation. By exploring the privileged logics that frame our conceptions of intimacy, it explores the political and cultural implications of how we frame non-monogamy broadly in sexual discourse, as well as how the public sphere presences of three major forms of non-monogamy (adultery, polygamy and polyamory) display a complex relationship with “intimate privilege,” an emergent state in which one’s intimacies are read as viable, ethical, or even real.
His new research is on digital and robotic intimacies. This work investigates the intimate potentials and problematics of digital platforms, drawing critical insights from intimacy theory (a subset of queer theory), but extending its ambit to consider multiple forms of digitally mediated togetherness. This project investigates past, existing, and emerging forms of digitally mediated intimacy. These include such topics as hashtags as technosocial assemblages; MMOs and avatar infidelity; the politics of race-activist hashtags such as #Ferguson; haptics and digital touching; and the emerging sex robot industry. In conjunction with this research he also started a research network at Laurier called the Robotic Intimacies Group and edited the collection Hashtag Publics: The Power and Politics of Discursive Networks (Digital Formations series, Peter Lang, 2015). This collection investigates the diversity of publics that hashtags address, with politics and positionalities ranging from subcultural and community maintenance; to speaking back to state, corporate, and societal power and privilege. He maintains a blog at http://complexsingularities.net.