Gensler Family Symposium Engages With the ‘Complex and Peculiar Lives of Intersectionality’

By SADIE HOUSBERG

COURTESY IMAGE
An image that ran on the front of the Gensler Symposium pamphlet, alluding to the ‘pussy hat’ phenomenon associated with the 2017 Women’s March.

“It ain’t feminism if it ain’t intersectional,” tweeted Ariana Grande this past March, garnering over 41 thousand retweets and 200,000 likes. Intersectionality, a term frequently promoted and used in hashtags across social media, has also become a buzzword in today’s political, academic and activist spheres. This year’s Gensler Family Symposium on Feminism in a Global Context, held last Friday, April 26, sought to understand and critique both the ubiquitous and celebratory nature of intersectionality’s widespread use in popular culture.

Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Professor Carly Thomsen and American Studies Professor J Finley are the architects behind the idea and organization of this year’s Gensler Symposium. The two, who also co-teach a class, entitled Beyond Intersectionality: Developing Anti-Racist Feminisms, had been looking forward to the date for around two years now.

“Some things said today will resonate with you, will anger you, will confuse you, will empower you,” presaged Finley in introductory remarks as eager audience members settled into their seats for the all-day event. The symposium kicked off with an introductory video made by GSFS major, Tate Serletti ’20, showcasing myriad deployments of intersectionality that began to problematize pre-conceived understandings of the term.

“What exactly is intersectionality?” Thomsen queried. She asked audience members to consider several questions including: “Is it a theory, an activist approach, a disposition? How do we do intersectionality and how do we make sense of competing definitions? How might intersectionality help us to create feminisms that operate in the service of racial and economic justice and how might it limit us? What do our affective attachments to intersectionality do? And what do they prevent us from doing?”

These are just some of the inquiries that have also been guiding Thomsen and Finley’s work. Because not only was the Gensler Symposium an event with a lineup of famous scholarly names in feminist and queer theory, but it was also, for Thomsen and Finley, a chance to introduce their research project — the first quantitative analysis of intersectionality’s circulation.

Nell Sather ’19 and Harper Baldwin ’19, research assistants who have been involved since the project’s genesis two years ago, presented the statistical findings from a survey of intersectionality’s use at Middlebury College at Friday’s symposium.

“It has been a blast and an honor to work so closely with Professors Thomsen and Finley on this project,” Sather said several days later. “It was particularly gratifying to share our research at the symposium after working on it for so long as a small team. The symposium felt like a uniquely embodied and social way to engage with scholarship relevant to our project, which was an element I really appreciated.”

85% of people at Middlebury College are likely to think of intersectionality in positive terms and though all of the day’s speakers recognized the benefits of and work done in the name of the term, they also engaged with its critiques. Some of these criticism includes, as outlined by Finley, the “sloppiness with which intersectionality is deployed in service of post-raciality” and its transformation into a conversation on marginalized identities rather than the structures that marginalize.

“Part of what has enabled us to ask the questions that we’re asking in this class, in our research, at the symposium, is that we do come from different disciplinary backgrounds but we have overlapping political commitments,” said Thomsen of her time working with Finley. “Also central to this work is really our friendship; we wouldn’t be able to ask the questions that we’re asking if we didn’t fundamentally trust each other.”

Many of the students who filled the RAJ conference room on Friday were members of the Beyond Intersectionality course and came to the symposium with some familiarity of many of the speakers. However, for many others, last Friday’s symposium was a completely new foray into the complex and peculiar lives of intersectionality, as described by Erin Durban, the first invited speaker of the day. An assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Durban discussed her experience of how the buzzword has been used in her own academic circles and questioned how the canon of intersectionality is policed and constructed.

Next, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor delved into a project of understanding the political invocations of intersectionality and the material conditions of the oppression of black women in the U.S.

Taylor underscored the importance of understanding the word’s particular historical and temporal construction.

Following lunch, Miranda Joseph, Chair of the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, presented concepts from Queer of Color Theorist José Muñoz’s work on the “commons” and her own on the role of accounting in describing gendered and raced social structures.

Often hailed as the most prominent critic of intersectionality, Jasbir Puar, Professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, offered both an exploration of the “intersectionality wars,” or the back-and-forth discourse, theory and politics surrounding the word and a discussion of her theory of assemblage.

As the final speaker of the day, Jennifer C. Nash, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University, concluded with a presentation of her new book, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Her work explores the affective relationships surrounding intersectionality and encourages as she writes, “a radical embrace” of criticism as a practice of love.

The event wrapped up with a round-table discussion between speakers and audience members.

“I think it was a really successful event because it brought together people on campus who, I think, consider themselves to really understand intersectionality and the work that it’s supposed to do especially in progressive terms,”said Finley. “Especially when it comes to how people who consider themselves to be liberal think about intersectionality. I think they came to the symposium and I think they had their ideas challenged.”

Part of this work of having their ideas challenged, Finley explained, is to consider in concrete terms how intersectionality circulates on Middlebury’s campus, which is part of what her and Thomsen’s research project aimed to accomplish.

“When we started this project two years ago, I imagined then that the symposium would be a kind of culmination of our work; now that the symposium is over, several new lines of inquiry have opened up that we’re having to grapple with. And that is really generative,” Thomsen told The Campus. Both Thomsen and Finley are excited to engage in these newly-inspired lines of inquiry.

“I think it’s rare that you can bring together — especially at the end of the year, at the end of April on a Friday — an all-day event like this, that you can get people to come and really want to think,” added Finley. “Regardless of what people did think of the talks, they came because they were interested in thinking about these ideas. So I’m really proud of us; I feel proud of us.”

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