Intersectionality, assemblage, and energy-field imagery: unpacking theories of identity

In the last two weeks, I’ve been reading Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, some of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work anthologized in this compilation, and this article by Jasbir Puar, which explains what she identifies as the “friction” between intersectionality and assemblage theory.

The other day in an advising meeting, I tried articulate the relationship (is there one?) between Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages and Ratcliffe’s energy-field imagery in Rhetorical Listening. I couldn’t, really. So I’m going to keep working through it here.

I see Puar and Ratcliffe articulating similar questions. How are bodies — human bodies, post-human bodies, institutional or governmental bodies, etc. — discursively produced? And then, how do specific configurations of individual bodies push back on / transform discursive identity construction?

In order to parse Puar and Ratcliffe, I think it’s important to first discuss intersectionality since it’s so central to both of their own critiques (and most conversations about identity, for that matter).

The legal scholar and an important figure in the field of Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, developed the theory of intersectionality. At its inception Crenshaw was using intersectional critique to examine particular anti-discriminiation laws that failed to account for an uneven impact on women of color. The basic takeaway was this: we need to understand how bodies are simultaneously marked as raced, classed, gendered, nationalized, able / disabled (this is not an exhaustive list), because intersections unevenly impact the way that structures (like laws, policies, institutions, etc.) affect people. Put more concretely, the material effects of an implemented policy on spousal abuse might differently impact a trans woman of color and a cis white woman. Any policy, version of feminism, advocacy effort, curriculum, etc. that doesn’t take this into account risks further marginalization.

Since Crenshaw’s theory emerged, lots of others have taken up the paradox of how to talk about the material effects of race and racism without reifying (constructed) categories. In other words, if race and gender and ability and nationality and sexuality, etc., are all made up, how do we talk about them (or study them) while recognizing that the boundaries are constantly shifting?

Puar seems to be working through that with assemblage.

Puar is worried about what she calls “the automatic primacy and singularity of the disciplinary subject and its identitarian interpellation” (Terrorist Assemblages, 206). In order to do an intersectional critique, we have to insist upon the realness of an identity category (giving “black” or “female” or “straight” a kind of credence that they do not inherently possess). We also have to “freeze” identity in a particular historical, geographic, temporal, and contextual moment.

Puar pushes back on this with assemblage theory, which was introduced in Deleuze and Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). In it, they argue for a more fluid model in which relationships within and between bodies (human and otherwise) of component parts form temporary and ever-shifting constructions of identity. In Terrorist Assemblages, Puar uses assemblage to consider the way that liberal multiculturalism has cultivated (stable) identities. She thinks specifically about the ways in which gay rights discourses (mobilized, in part, by these fixed ideas around identity) have potentially furthered US imperialism and Islamophobia.

This is really interesting work that I could further unpack, but I want to move toward how I see assemblage interacting with what Ratcliffe calls “energy-field imagery,” which she uses to conceptualize identification (and disidentification).

Energy fields, like the ones depicted in the (trippy) photo below (thanks, by the way, to some website that is literally called seem to me to be somewhat akin to assemblages. Ratcliffe imagines each of the colors of the field as a discourse constructing a body. But the current image is a snapshot of a particular moment. The discourse is in motion, just as the body is in motion. And as one beam of color passes through the head or the leg, it changes (incrementally). It comes into contact with what was already there, and what was surrounding it. If there were two bodies in the frame, the colors between the bodies would shift, which might, in turn, shift the colors inside the bodies.

A human silhouette with several colors of gas passing through it (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red)

An energy field

If this model of identity rings true, I think Ratcliffe’s imagery helps us to do a few things. First, while it shows both the possibilities and limitations of personal agency, it doesn’t totally discount it. Second, as she puts it, it makes visible how identity is discursively produced (which makes discourse a primary place of interrogation because of its transformative potential).

It also helps us to understand the limitations of research methods in rhetoric and composition which ask us to use a snapshot to make generalizable claims and to form and interpret broader conclusions. It seems possible (or, more possible) to do this if we’re using intersectionality as a model, because intersectionality helps us to make claims about groups of people who ostensibly “share” the same set of identity categories. Energy-field imagery and assemblage recognize the real effects of these identity constructions while also recognizing that individual people can experience different concentrations of what Ratcliffe calls “shared atmosphere” (71). These nuanced concentrations can impact individual agency and the possibilities for identification or disidentification with dominant discourse.

This cannot mean that identity can be dismissed in critique in any way.  It is, instead, perhaps a way to inject some nuance. Ultimately, it feels to me that both Puar and Ratcliffe are simply trying to account for more than a snapshot of a cross-section. Am I reading this correctly?

Questions I still have: what do these theories mean for the possibilities of collective action? When we call for feminism (or anything) to be intersectional, it seems like what we mean is that we take multiple simultaneous realities into consideration at once. Can assemblage / energy field imagery help us to do this, too? How might these theories account for the impulse of cosmopolitan English to focus on the porousness of language potentially at the expense of flattening uneven individual histories (I write about that a bit in this post). Who addresses these things in our field, or outside of it?

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