Interlocking Divisions of Labor and What it Means to Produce: Notes on Patricia Collins’ “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought”
The aim here is to explore Patricia Collins’ use of the concept of “Interlocking of Oppression” via Marx’ primary definition of the “division of labor” as found in The German Ideology and in so doing, to open up both Collins’ standpoint thinking and Marxist foundations to questions and development. First by considering Collins’ appeal to the binaries of oppression, and then by looking to Marxist intellectual origins of bifurcation itself, it is my focus to show that the importance of examining the notion of a “simultaneity of oppression” (Collins S19) lies in the very diversity of production it exposes in the development of all materialist relations. Only by recognizing these multiplicities of domination and production, can novel or still silenced forms of oppression be uncovered and taken into moral account. Further, it is my hope that the ultimate question of the produced-a wider view of what is produced, and how it is produced-may then establish even greater relevance for Black feminist thinking.
When quoting the ambitions of Black feminist Anna Julia Cooper as paradigmatic, there is a sense in which Collins relies upon the very “construct of dichotomous oppositional difference” (S20) that she is otherwise at pains distance herself from. Principally, there is a subtle contradiction. For Cooper in her vision expresses a hidden and perhaps core binary which may lie beneath all other dichotomies, that of nature vs. culture:
We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country or condition…not till race, color, sex and condition are seen as accidents, and not the substance of life…is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won…not the white woman’s nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and every woman who has silently writhed under a mighty wrong (S21).
The appreciation of this division, that of the produced class “humanity,” as distinct from what is not human-obscured here by the ambiguous terms “life” and “unnaturalness”- may seem like a necessary, and indeed vital distinction for moral positioning. For it is within the context of “humanity” that one sees with greatest clarity the oppressive binaries, “black/white, male/female, reason/emotion, fact/opinion, and subject/object” (S20), which African-American women have found themselves diversely subject to and from which Collins’ critical use of “interlocking oppressions” is derived. It should not be lost though that this distinction of the “human” also is an essentializing dichotomy, and as such, may prove foundational to the basic dichotomous ideas that for Collins ground and “crosscut multiple systems of domination” (S20). If so, one’s non-oppressive aim might be not a return to the broadest of these dichotomies, but rather new divisions of even greater communicability. There would be no turning back to a primordial simplicity of dichotomy imagined to be more “natural”, but only the more intricate and whole systems of relation, formed by giving voice, which recognize the oppressive nature of necessary divisions themselves.
It is significant that Marx starts from this same exact point, the emergence of the human from Nature, as a primary binary-what Collins and Cooper take as a direction, Marx makes as a beginning: “Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness,” he writes, “[humans] begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence” (Marx 150). What I would like to highlight, is that almost immediately Marx draws a distinction that momentarily seems to threaten the standing of women as producers, leaving their biological production of children potentially on the wrong side of the human vs. nature divide. “This mode of production,” he states emphatically, “must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are” (150). But because the biological carrying and birthing of children by women, that reproductive labor, is for Marx human only when it is seen as a “mode of life,” we see exactly the kind of line Marx is intellectually forced to draw in order to make a producer to a “producer” (α).
So Patricia Collins’ exemplar and Marx seem to be on the same page regarding this fundamental distinction that will universalize what is human. Yet in this primary distinction the bifurcating action of dichotomies has already begun, the human has been broken off from the material, and production from its means. By separating the world into the mentally made and the materially found, the superior and inferior halves of binaries upon which oppressions are formed have been initialized.
But let us dig deeper into the nature of such line-drawing, a nature which will be made clearer in the principle of Marx’ ‘division of labor,’ the production of a new means of producing a thing to be used through a specialization of the workforce. The “degree to which the division of labor has been carried,” says Marx, is shown by each “new productive force.” And a “new productive force” is defined as something that is “not merely a quantitative extension of productive forces already known.” Such a new force, that which exceeds that which is already known, “causes a further development of the division of labour” (150). When a plow has been invented, a new kind of metal is smelted, a population is enslaved, a production line is put in place, a town agora established, there is a new form of production, division of labor that increases relatedness-that is, a quantitative increase in the complexity of modes across which effects may pass. What is salient to my point here, is that the developmental degree is dependent upon newness itself, and newness is dependent upon what is already known. To return to our illustrative example, just as in the myth of a distinction that supposedly once made woman’s reproduction into a “baby,” so too new modes of production are framed by the recognition of material possibilities different than those already understood. The way something has been conceived in the past, its history, contributes to the material distinction as to whether there has been a new and productive division of labor. Marx’ materially oriented examination of the human world begins with a mental recognition of historic differences.
Now these divisions of labor are readily taken by Marx to be such things as specializations of a workforce along particular tasks or modes of the produced: the slave, farmer, the serf, the blacksmith, the cog-maker, and then the legislator, the priest, the teacher; but there is nothing in this definition that restricts these productions to solely those of the economic sphere (β). In fact, beyond Marx’ materialist aims (he seeks to foreclose the ideational as less real and subsidiary), because the very newness of divisions is dependent upon current states of knowledge and conception, one could argue that the economic character of the “division of labor” is solely that of the conceived-that Marx sees the division of labor strictly to be brought about at the moment of a division between mental and material labor (159), does not mitigate the productive dependence on thought in the entire process. Thinking and valuation creates difference. All material distinctions are mentally recognized, and all mental distinctions are materially manifested, if by degrees (γ). Indeed, what for Marx would place the reproduction of children on the right side of the nature/culture divide is in the fact that a birth is seen as an expression, as a mode of life (150). The point I put forth, beyond Marx’ intention, is that what is humanly produced in the reproduction of babies-and analogously in all reproductions- is the category of “mothers,” of “daughters,” “sons,” and so many other material instantiations of already-known differences. In this way one is to understand that the things we produce are not limited to instrumental material objects of use and exchange, things to be sold at market, but also to see that we produce ourselves, the material basis for known forces of production, and also that we are the fecund nexus of differences that may found new forces of production, through kinds of recognition, and recombination. There is a technology of selves.
So why is this important to Patricia Collin’s argument for the “interlocking of oppression?” She convincingly sets forth the assertion that African-American woman speak from a unique place in history, that,
The oppression experienced by most Black women is shaped by their subordinate status in an array of either/or dualities. Afro-American women have been assigned the inferior half of several dualities, and this placement has been central to their continued domination (S20).
The painful truth of this resonates throughout the claim of her position. It provides the far-reaching, crosscutting aspect power of her criticism. There are several trajectories of binary domination which have historically converged upon the African-American woman; as such, their voice becomes a voice that cannot be silenced by the privileging of any single binary as the primary complaint to be addressed. Collins asserts that attempts to “prioritize one form of oppression,” as in traditional Marxism, and “handle the remaining types of oppression as variables” (S20), proves wholly deficient to a group that has historically experienced oppressive binaries with oscillation: one form of oppression at a particular time takes a dominant role, only to recede as another that takes its place. Taking the historical example of the male black rights movement, and citing feminist Sojourner Truth, Collins makes this point. Black men would eventually gain legal rights as men, but this would only lead to new gendered forms of domination for African-American women, obscured by changes on a particular front (S19). Further, there is a complex circuitry with which ruling parties enforce these dualities, for instance the essentialization of the passionate character of black women by whites justified their sexual abuse, but an alternate structuring of their essences as irrational was accomplished by keeping black women from literacy (S20). This shows a network of as-knownreproductions which extend beyond any simple stratification of class, race or gender. By seeing the pervasive and nexus nature of oppression, Collins calls one’s attention to the diversity of what is produced in material instantiations of the new (δ).
Marx compares ideology to a kind of reflected image. Like the camera obscura, which guided the new realisms of Renaissance painters, upside down it actually reflects the material conditions that were thought by Hegel to be its products (154). If Marx made an essentialist mistake, it was not to see the complexity of vectors upon which his original definition of the “division of labor” could and does manifest itself. The newness of productions that depart from the known, are not just the specializations of the marketplace, but also new forms of oppression, new ways of exacting binaries to which peoples can be institutionally “assigned the inferior half” (Collins S20). Because what is “known,” is essential to the “newness” that distinguishes the advance of the division of labor itself-a division which founds the very character of our interrelatedness-one must grasp just what it means to produce. There was a time in history when “blackness” was not known, and then a time that it became a new “quantitative extension” of what was known, a new productive force of the difference. It seems a simple, if not obligatory move to imagine that “blackness” only followed the economic “slave,” but indeed as produced effects of difference, it is very likely that they developed on parallel but independent tracks. If ideology does indeed reflect the material means of production, as Marx imagined, perhaps it is most advantageous to understand that what is ever being produced in divisions of labor is a material form of newness, itself to be exchanged in circuits of power.
What African-American women have experienced is being the bodily producers of “blackness,” of “womanness,” of the “worker” to be segmented into organizations of the known (ε). Only more rarely have they been producers of “humanness.” Their history of words, expressions, mannerisms and culture, what Patricia Collins sees as “different expressions of common themes” (S18), has become the material basis for those inferior half productions. When Ms. Collins argues for self-definition, and self-valuing (S18), and for and an emphasis on African-American Culture (S20), what she is radically arguing for is the organized reclaiming of that which has been produced. But not only this. She is also calling for a new “quantitative extensions of productive forces already known,” a division of labor, though she does not frame her position consistently as such. Her appeal to a universal humanity that does not distinguish via substantive difference already relies upon a culture/nature dichotomy which classifies the human as essentially human against a backdrop of the non-human. This is a fair violation of anti-dichotomous principles for many moralists, for one need only make of all interactions “humanity” the guiding universal, a nice, clear biological, species-specific definition of justice. Yet there is an infinitely grayed, ever-productive boarder of the new that threatens even this class. The line between the humanity of the unborn, and the humanity of the agency of unionized and corporate persons for instance, defies such a clean moral judgment. And this essay suggests that such a move is not strictly possible.
What Patricia Collins’ use of interlocking oppression points to is that binaries proliferate and extend themselves on any number of newly produced trajectories. While ‘the human,’ may seem like a safe place to stop in our favor, what it ignores is that, as an examination of Marx’s definition of ‘the human’ shows, the bifurcation of the known into the newly known is a product of conscious development itself, it is the means of a growing interrelatedness. What interlocking oppression tells us is that the “oppressed” occur along any number of vectors, and very often with several such vectors converging on a particular people, a people whose very invisibility and silence may mark their status. What a radicalized version of Marx’ division of labor tells us is that the freedom of the oppressed does not occur through a return to an primordial “whole,” or an all inclusive depositing of people on the right half of conceptual binaries, but through the political production of new forms of voiced power, the countermanding of the products of one’s own image, the seizing of the knowness of one’s material existence. As Patricia Collins draws upon the lived experiences of the oppressed, the actual wisdom and analysis of Nancy White for instance (S17), her standpoint theory becomes the material reorganization of what was once historically organized in a different way. In so doing, exactly in accord with Marx’ vision, she allows what was once taken as material to speak, and in speaking to bring material change.
(α) The ideological component of this core distinction may not seem immediately evident. But illustrative of the resonant ideological aspect of even this most basic division, nature vs. culture, “reproduced physical existence” vs “distinct mode of life,” when reflected back upon something as simple as childbirth, is two-fold: one, women as the physical bearers of children ever threaten to fall materially on the silent, not-yet-human side of production, the side of the speechless “body”; and two, in that the meaning of biological reproduction is human only to the degree that it is culturally framed; the ideas that frame it are substantial in determining the place such reproduction has in social contexts. Its power and place are circumscribed and directed.
(β) The family and its gendered and age divisions as an Ur-type for Marx (156), indeed blurs the economic foundation of such distinctions, for although certainly one can see the significant economic core of recognitions of wife, son and daughter, the original cognizance of those gender and age differences certainly seems to transcend, or at least foreground even economic distinction. The awareness of difference must precede its function.
(γ) When the first homo sapiens looked up into the night sky and recognized the moon as a distinct object, was this material labor, or mental labor? Marx would claim that nothing “material” was produced, but because material relations between persons would be changed, those material relations-gestures, words, rites, amulets-would instantiate that newly conceived production. The newness of a moon is definitionally no different than the newness of a plow, so conceived, in that each produces a material increase of relatedness. And if a plow is insisted to be indistinctly new until it is actually fashioned, then so might also the a moon be thought so until fashionedwith gestures, words and rites. The ideational and the material in terms of the produced are not separable.
(δ) Marx attempts to foreclose these seemingly ideational productions because he does not wish to acknowledge the full ideational character of his original bifurcation…newness of relations conceptually produced. In seeking to drive his analysis away from ‘the conceived’ he does not fully recognize the material effects of all conceptions. In seeking to reduce all production to objects of industry, his analysis, and the analysis that is derived from his intent, does not appreciate the industry of distinction alone, that ‘objects’ are formed of relations alone, and hence are more plentiful and diverse than he might have allowed. Glances are exchanged as well as crops. His foundational dichotomy human/nature is not in error, simply not fully explored by Marx
(ε) The question of agency is central here, as one comes to grip with conceptions of historical determinism. While “blackness” and “womanness” can be described as historically produced, the empowering thought behind the critical dialogue between Collins and Marx, is that just as workers in Marx are awakened so to take hold of the means of their production, so too are subjected groups, and individuals themselves awakened to take hold of the means of their social production. In terms of agency, moving from a passive to an active, self-determining state, as a black woman realizes that she is producing the actual“blackness” and “womanness”, the material instantiations, the thereness of each, upon whose circulation the economy of the social whole relies, she then is called to lay claim to those productions, just as a worker does of cogs.
Collins, Patricia Hill. (1986) “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Social Problems. 33: S14-S32.
Marx, Karl. (1978 ) “The German Ideology: Part I” (selections). In The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker, 146-175. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.