Return to Sender

David Marinos Skin (2012)

When gay communist Didier Eribon came out of the closet, it wasn't as a gay man or a communist. The French sociologist came out as working-class

[/rl]The term “intersectionality” was coined in 1983 by UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a paper she wrote examining women of color in Los Angeles who had suffered domestic violence and rape. The term encapsulated Crenshaw’s argument: the experiences of these women could not be understood solely through the lens of sexism, nor solely through the lens of racism. Instead, they had be understood through the intersection of these two forms of oppression. Crenshaw’s paper posed an implicit challenge to mainstream feminism, dominated as it was by middle- and upper-class white women who frequently misunderstood or ignored the experiences of women of color. (Thirty years later, little has changed in this regard.) In response to this challenge, mainstream feminism balked, dithered, and generally embarrassed itself: as the concept of intersectionality was eagerly taken up by feminists of color and radical scholars, many mainstream feminists decried it as divisive or overly academic.

While initially developed in a feminist context, the concept of intersectionality has since been broadened to stand for the idea that there is no central form of oppression. Domination should rather be understood as operating through multiple interlocking systems—racism, sexism, class exploitation, and so forth. This has become a basic principle of many radical currents in recent years, especially Black feminism—and unsurprisingly, it has also provoked a backlash from the old-guard left. Some orthodox Marxists who hold that class supersedes all other forms of oppression have denounced intersectional politics as a distraction from the one real struggle—the class struggle. But placing class above (instead of alongside) other forms of oppression creates serious pitfalls for radical politics—pitfalls that are thoroughly explored in a new memoir by Didier Eribon, a prominent French intellectual celebrated for his work on Michel Foucault. Eribon grew up gay in a working-class family that extolled class struggle, but maligned homosexuality. In Returning to Reims, he blends moving personal reflection with arresting social analysis to show how a failure to recognize the interrelation of different forms of oppression not only produces individual trauma, but also cripples radical social movements.

When Returning to Reims was initially published in France in 2009, it shocked the French literati. Eribon had previously garnered high praise for his books on the formation of gay male subjectivity, so it wasn’t the passages about his boyhood dalliances with his rowing club teammates that scandalized readers. Rather, as George Chauncey explains in his introduction to the Semiotext(e) edition of the book (superbly translated by Michael Lucey): “In its pages the distinguished public intellectual Didier Eribon came out again, not this time as gay, but as a son of the working class.” Eribon had never publicly discussed his working-class origins—a personal detail that would’ve caused him to be shunned by the thoroughly bourgeois French intelligentsia. In Returning to Riems, Eribon seeks to understand why he avoided talking about his class background for so long. In the process, he provides an absorbing account of how this background, despite his considerable efforts to escape it, shaped his adult self.

Riems is a mid-sized city in northeast France where Eribon was born in 1953. After hardly visiting for decades, Eribon returned to Reims a few years ago. What prompted this visit was his father’s grave illness—although Eribon didn’t go there to see his father, whom Eribon had long despised for his homophobia. He went instead to comfort his grieving mother and to ask her about his childhood. In the course of several conversations, Eribon confronts the boy he once was and the world he fled. The “return” of the book’s title is thus also, as Eribon explains, a return to an earlier self: “It was a rediscovery of that ‘region of myself,’ as Genet would have said, from which I had worked so hard to escape: a social space I had kept at distance, a mental space in opposition to which I had constructed the person I had become, and yet which remained an essential part of my being.”

This “social space” that Eribon yearned to flee was marked by the deprivations and frustrations of working class life in postwar France. His father worked long hours in a factory and his mother cleaned houses. The family lived in a series of cramped government-provided apartments where he and his three brothers shared a single bed, and where each floor in the apartment building had only a single communal bathroom. One of the few bright spots in Eribon’s bleak upbringing were the neighborhood dances and festivals organized by the local branch of the French Communist Party. Eribon’s parents were staunch supporters of the Party, which provided them and their fellow workers with a sense of collective identity and hope for the future. “The Communist Party,” as Eribon explains, “was the organizing principle and the uncontested horizon of our relation to politics.”

Eribon began to chafe against this community at a young age. He liked to read books instead of play sports, which put him at odds with his father, his brothers, and virtually every other boy in his working class neighborhood. He was the first person in his family to attend high school (doing so wasn’t mandatory in France at the time), and this produced the first of many ruptures with his family: “The educational process succeeded in creating within me, as one of its very conditions of possibility, a break—even a kind of exile—that grew ever more pronounced, and separated me little by little from the world that I came from.” This separation grew wider when, at the age of 13 or 14, Eribon fell in love with a male classmate. Homosexuality was scorned in Eribon’s hyper-masculine milieu, so he was forced to conceal his desires. Sometimes he even leveled homophobic insults against other boys to ward off any suspicion about himself. This psychic disjunction—a nerdy gay boy hiding behind a fake manly facade—produced within Eribon a split self. He found himself perpetually “shuttling back and forth between two registers, between two universes.”

As he strives to comprehend how these traumatic experiences shaped his fragmented identity, Eribon relies heavily on critical theory, especially Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Eribon explains that this use of theory is necessary in order to tame the intense emotions that come with remembering—emotions that can inhibit real self-understanding:

A project like this—to write a “return”—could only succeed if it was mediated by, or perhaps filtered through, a wide set of cultural references: literary, theoretical, political, and so on. Such references…permit you to neutralize the emotional charge that might otherwise be too strong if you had to confront the “real” without the help of an intervening screen.

It’s this use of theory by Eribon—to understand, for example, how the working-class habitus he carried with him into the classroom slowed his academic progress—that most distinguishes Returning to Riems from the navel-gazing memoirs that dominate the bestseller list. Eribon uses theory to connect his personal experiences to larger processes of oppression and historical change. He thus interprets the homophobia he faced in high school as partly an attempt by disempowered working-class boys to assert some shred of power over others. In this way, Eribon doesn’t just attain greater self-knowledge in the course of writing his memoir. He also arrives at a deeper understanding of the social dynamics that animated his childhood. Returning to Riems turns memoir into a form of sociology. (Eribon is, in fact, a professor of sociology.)

Eribon finally escaped at age 20, when he moved to Paris to continue his graduate studies. He immediately found himself in an environment that embraced his intellectual ambitions and gay identity. But at the same time, it was an environment where working class tastes and experiences were denigrated. In a fascinating parallel, Eribon reveals that at high-brow social gatherings in Paris, he employed the same techniques he once used to conceal his homosexuality to now conceal his class origins. This entailed “a constant self-surveillance as regards one’s gestures, one’s intonation, manners of speech, so that nothing untoward slips out, so that one never betrays oneself.” Eribon’s move to Paris also precipitated a shift in his politics. In his late teens he had been a devout Trotskyist, but the latent homophobia of his comrades ensured that he never felt completely comfortable in this milieu. “I was split in two,” he says. “Half Trotskyist, half gay.”

Then, in Paris, Eribon discovered Foucault’s writing. Foucault’s conception of domination as a sum of multiple vectors of oppression—not just class, but also sexuality, race, and “sanity”—resonated with his own experience. Eribon writes that for himself and other marginalized subjects facing sexual or racial hatred, it was necessary to escape the hegemony of class-centric Marxism in order to open up new ways of thinking about domination:

During the period of the 1960s and 1970s, when I was student and when Marxism dominated French intellectual life, at least on the left, all other forms of “struggle” seemed “secondary”—or they might even by denounced as “petite bourgeois distractions” from the place where attention should be focused, the only “true” struggle, the only struggle worthy of interest, that of the working class. Movements that came to be labeled as “cultural” were focusing their attention on various dimensions that Marxism had set aside: gendered, sexual, and racial forms of subjectivation, among others. Because Marxism’s attention was so exclusively concentrated on class oppression, these other movements were required to find other avenues for problematizing lived experience, and they often ended up to a great extent neglecting class oppression.

Eribon’s refusal of class in his personal life thus coincided with a refusal of class in his political activity. For many years to come Eribon would avoid the topic of class in his activism and his writing. As he himself observes, his acclaimed books on homophobia barely mention class.

But with Eribon’s “return to Reims,” he brings his evasion of class to an end. While talking with his mother, he realizes that class oppression is fundamental to understanding the world he came from and the ways it shaped his subjectivity. He reevaluates his memories in the light of class relations, and the result is not only a series of moving personal epiphanies, but also a compelling account of the fortunes of the French working class in the second half of the 20th century. Eribon comes to see his father’s anger and unhappiness as a consequence of the harsh conditions of his life—backbreaking work, perpetual instability, a sense of thwarted fulfillment—conditions that have defined the working-class experience for ages: “My father bore within him the weight of a crushing history that could not help but produce serious psychic damage in those who lived through it.” When his father dies before Eribon can attempt a reconciliation, Eribon chastises himself for succumbing to his bitterness for so long: “I regretted the fact that I had allowed the violence of the social world to triumph over me, as it had triumphed over him.”

Enlarging his analysis from his family to the French working class as a whole, Eribon goes on to elucidate a shocking political reversal by French workers: in 2002, huge segments of the French working class—including Eribon’s mother and brothers—voted for the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential election, enabling Le Pen to enter a runoff election against Jacques Chirac. (Chirac won by a landslide in the runoff.) Eribon attributes this startling development to the gradual abandonment of the French working class by the establishment left. This process began, Eribon says, in the 1970s and ’80s, when ambitious left-leaning politicians—some of them veterans of May ’68—quietly relinquished the traditional left-wing commitment to class conflict in order gain access to the halls of power. When François Mitterrand of the Socialist Party was elected president of France in 1981, it initially seemed like a major victory for the left. But once in office, his administration slowly jettisoned the leftist language of “domination” and “exploitation” in favor of the neoconservative language of “individual responsibility” and “the social compact.” This produced, according to Eribon, “a strong sense of disillusionment in working-class circles.”

At the same time, the French far right began to promulgate a shrewd discourse that blamed the plight of the beleaguered French working class on the influx of black and Arab immigrants. This discourse may have been factually suspect (and patently racist), but in the absence of any counter-discourse from the left that linked precarious working conditions to global capitalism, large swathes of the French working class were drawn to Le Pen. The far fight came to play the role that the Communist Party once played in the lives of Eribon’s parents and many other workers—providing a language that explained and legitimized their predicament. As Eribon writes, “Whole sectors of the most severely disadvantaged would thus…shift over to the only party that seemed to care about them, the only one, in any case, that offered them a discourse that seemed intended to provide meaning to the experiences that made up their daily lives.”

As a first step toward reversing this rightward drift in the French working class, Eribon calls for the reintroduction of a vigorous class language in mainstream leftist discourse. However, he is quick to add that this does not mean the French left should revive the old orthodox Marxist language that viewed class as the only oppression worth talking about. It means, rather, that the left must devise a language that recognizes class as one among many forms of oppression:

Why should we be obliged to choose between different struggles being fought against different kinds of domination? If it is the nature of our being that we are situated at the intersection of several collective determinations, and therefore of several “identities,” of several forms of subjection, why should it be necessary to set up one of them rather than another as the central focus of political preoccupation?…If we are shaped as political subjects by discourses and by theories, should it not be incumbent upon us to construct discourses and theories that allow us not to neglect this or that aspect, not to exclude any form of oppression, any register of domination, any form of inferiorization?

This litany of rhetorical questions is a powerful summation of intersectional politics. And it’s all the more powerful considering that neither here nor anywhere else in his book does Eribon reference the scholarly discourse on intersectionality. He seems to have arrived at this analysis independently, based partly on his personal experience. The above passage can also serve as a description of what a thriving revolutionary culture might look like—one in which different forms of oppression aren’t crudely ranked, but instead recognized as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Nevertheless, intersectionality has lately come under fire from inheritors of the very same vulgar Marxism that Eribon sought to escape as a young gay man. In an article titled “Intersectional? Or Sectarian?,” the British journalist James Heartfield, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, denounced intersectionality as a “minefield of political correctness.”

But Eribon’s personal and political trajectory demonstrates the importance of understanding class as shaping and shaped by other forms of domination. After growing up in a political environment where the homophobia he faced was treated as “secondary,” as a merely “cultural” form of oppression, Eribon felt the need to abandon the category of class in order to realize himself as an openly gay man. But as he discovered when he returned to Reims, his working-class background was just as fundamental to the formation of his identity as his homosexuality. His challenge was to understand how these seemingly antagonistic traits interacted to produce the person he became, how his halves made a whole. A similar challenge faces today’s radical social movements: to recognize the interrelation of seemingly distinct kinds of oppression, and build an opposition whole enough to fight back.