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This article reflects on the worlds that María Lugones has made and has transformed, particularly for the doing of feminist theory. Thus this article will be more exploratory than argumentative: to explore the lessons that Lugones's work holds, especially her work on pluralist feminism, world-traveling, the uses of anger, boomerang perception, and the multiplicitousness of both our selves and our communities, for our twenty-first-century challenges. This article argues that Lugones's work addresses how to negotiate conflicts that arise within social movements of liberation, within coalitions or spaces of shared commitments.


world-making, decolonial, conflict, fragmentation, multi plicity

What a remarkable body of philosophical work María Lugones has given us! It is fair to say that her oeuvre is unique in the professional circles of our discipline: there is no writing that looks to have been done for tenure or for promotion, and no retreat from the most controversial and sensitive issues. [End Page 199] Lugones has chosen to write on topics that involve certain challenges within social movements, and political controversies that needed elaboration and analysis. She has said things that needed to be said, and said them with clarity, precision, and force. In this body of work, she has helped to make our work—of philosophy, of feminist philosophy, of Latina feminism and queer feminism, and of decolonial theory—smarter and better, more honest, more straightforward, and more expansive. And those of us who are women of color or otherwise minoritized working within feminist theory have an especial debt to her—for airing with such an incisive examination and accurate assessment the exclusions, the omissions, the disrespect the mainstream stage has sometimes inflicted. She has taken the risks to make the field better in ways that make our work more visible today.

In this article I reflect on the worlds that Lugones has made and has transformed, particularly for the doing of feminist theory. Thus this article will be more exploratory than argumentative: to explore the lessons that Lugones's work holds, especially her work on pluralist feminism, world-traveling, the uses of anger, boomerang perception, and the multiplicitousness of both our selves and our communities, for our twenty-first-century challenges? What can we learn once again from this body of work in this moment where dismissals of 'tribalism' reverberate, and in which insistence on differences such as race and sexuality are still treated as unproductive. What can we learn in this moment where the 'excesses' of social movements that disrespect 'due process' are continuously denigrated even from within feminism. I suggest Lugones's work will have a few things to say. The mainstream in our profession as well as in our societies still struggles with questions of difference, still demands that we set some forms of oppression aside so that we can address other forms of oppression, and is still puzzled about how political considerations can positively impact scholarship.

Lugones's work seeks to disarticulate these various forms of skepticism about the role of difference in social movements, rejecting the view that an attentiveness to difference will always or necessarily tend to undermine effective coalition. Yet she makes these arguments in a way that never downplays the conflict.

Feminism has always been a conflictual terrain in which internal forms of racism and colonialism have created theories that led to an expansion of rights for only some groups of women. But it is worth noting that, until recently, colonizers and white supremacists have not so much invoked [End Page 200] feminist arguments as patriarchal ones, to protect white women or to save brown women. What is relatively new in our discursive era, it seems to me, is the turn these same powerful voices are now making to feminism as a way to continue colonial invasions. Today, powerful states make use of feminism to advance neo-liberal economic policies. For example, the dismantling of the welfare state has been justified on the grounds of helping women into the paid labor force, no matter their family situation, and the United Nations has celebrated forced migrations of women workers to the global North on the grounds that this exposes them to ideas about gender equality (Eisenstein 2009). States from the global north have also given feminist arguments to justify unilateral military invasions, and a number of prominent feminist organizations, such as the Feminist Majority Foundation, at times have played along.1 These arguments of course echo older colonialist strategies that justified annexations on the grounds that in this way gender practices in poorer areas of the world will be "modernized" (Ahmed 1992).

I want to call this form of feminism imperial feminism. Imperial feminism assumes a fixed and stable universal meaning to the idea of feminism, and does not view feminism as a dialogic, irreducibly multiple and local project. Some feminists reject the category of 'imperial feminism' on the grounds that this cannot be true feminism if it is not truly liberatory. Yet the reality is that feminists disagree about what is liberatory, so it is more realistic to understand feminism as a loosely amalgamated set of diverse discursive and practical activities. There is no central committee or unified genealogy or set of texts that can adjudicate disagreements (Roth 2004). Further, it may disable self-critique if we portray feminism as necessarily anti-colonial.

What Lugones's work provides is an account of the workings of imperial style feminism within the work of feminist theory, in the idea that a theory of oppression could be pursued non-dialogically or in a non-interactive way. Remember one of her most memorable analyses of the 'disclaimers' that became ubiquitous in 80s feminism, where a speaker would acknowledge her identity, often white, straight and middle class, as if acknowledging this in and of itself was sufficient to overcome the situational limitations of her theorizing. In "On the Logic of Pluralist Feminism," Lugones wrote, "The responsibility for corrections … is [then] left to the reader or interlocutor who is outside these limits … so the disclaimer just serves as an announcement that the author will not accept responsibility for the effects of her own [End Page 201] particular 'social and sexual history' on others" (Lugones 2003, 69). But this, as Lugones goes on to say, is to "leave us to write another article on the subject, but one that is dependent on hers" (69). What is missing here, she points out, is "the interactive step"—the effort to travel to other worlds.

In truth, imperial feminism can be especially subtle and difficult to overcome when it is manifest in the realm of theory, since theory, like philosophy, usually understands itself to have a rather general and abstract charge: to theorize "gender," "identity," "sexual violence," "masculinity," "femininity," "sexism," and so on, in a non-local way. Philosophy aims to subsume differences between contexts within some meta-level rubric that takes itself as transcendent of context. Decolonizing feminist theory may in fact be more difficult than decolonizing feminist practice.

Achieving a completely decolonized theory is no doubt a quixotic quest. And yet, the aspiration toward decolonization helps us to formulate and deepen our self-reflexive knowledge practices. As Lugones says, we must do more than announce our situatedness. We must at least attempt to understand the effects of our material and local contexts on the formation of our knowledge. We must learn how our words are always interactive, with multiple effects, and we must learn how to be interactive in a different way. This is a challenging task. As she and Elizabeth Spelman put it, "[T]he task can be compared to learning a text without the aid of teachers" (Lugones and Spelman 1983, 580).

Lugones develops the important notion of multiple worlds of sense to help us spatially map and imagine the domain of theory in a more variegated terrain. But I have also been interested, along with Mariana Ortega, in the multiplicity within worlds that Lugones invokes (see Ortega 2015). This is a multiplicity within resistant communities, radical communities, communities of the oppressed. Lugones cites Audre Lorde here to say that this requires exploring our "non-dominant differences" (Lugones 2003, 84). By "non-dominant differences" I take her to mean the varied conflicts that emerge among those who are all excluded from mainstream power and status. Here, Lugones is working through, I'll argue, the contradictions among the people.

In a speech in 1957, Mao Tse-tung famously distinguished between types of conflicts that occur in the course of radical social change. His analysis was developed in the context of the Chinese revolution, as part of a series of writings intended to explain the strategies that led to the success of the revolution. Mao said, "The contradictions between ourselves and the enemy are antagonistic contradictions. Within the ranks of the [End Page 202] people, the contradictions among the working people are non-antagonistic, while those between the exploited and the exploiting classes have a nonantagonistic as well as an antagonistic aspect. There have always been contradictions among the people, but they are different in content in each period of the revolution" (Mao 1977, 385). He goes on to argue that not all conflicts should be approached in the same way, with the same methods: it may make sense in regard to conflicts among the people to look for mediation and resolution and thus to engage in "discussion, criticism and reasoning" with the aim of achieving stronger solidarity (411). But in the case of contradictions with the enemy, resolution is impossible, and revolution is called for. Mao further divides the contradictions among the people into two categories, between those that are antagonistic and those that are not. Small landowners or small business owners who hire employees and pay them poorly are exploiters, and this he calls an antagonistic relation even though it occurs within the group that makes up the anti-imperialist coalition. But there are also non-antagonistic contradictions among the people that should be addressed up front, as Mao explored in what is perhaps his best work of political theory "On the Ten Major Relationships." Here he develops a sound and mature analysis that calls on us to demarcate qualitative differences in the nature of our conflicts. The virtue of Mao's approach is that he does not downplay the conflicts that inevitably emerge within the group he refers to as "the people": he notes that these conflicts can involve exploitation, and thus serious antagonisms, and yet they call for a different approach.

Lugones's writings are focused on the contradictions among the people, I'd suggest. She is not writing to convince the enemy. For example, she writes that "I would like to be heard as if public spaces were thick with us both speaking and hearing and as if our public spaces were fluent in the conversation" (Lugones 2003, 151, emphasis added). This is the world her writings bring forth, in which the majority world is not marginalized but "thick" in the center and throughout the conversations. The image of a revolutionary world she gives us, then, like others of her generation, is no monolingual, or hetero-normative, social realism. As she argues, a realism about the sphere of the social world would reveal its diversity as well as its internal contradictions. Thus it is an image of a revolution in which we can dance but also argue, where conflicts are not censored, or silenced, or left unaddressed. This is not a romanticized social realism but a realism about the social sphere, even when it is "thick with us" as she puts it. [End Page 203]

Only occasionally in her essays do the truly recalcitrant anglos appear—there is the white woman sitting beside her on the plane refusing to believe that racism still affects people of color, whose husband directs his wife to stop conversing with Maria (Lugones 2003, 20-23, 158–59). Generally, the encounters she describes are of a different sort, they are among feminists, among Latinas, among queers. Even in her angry essays (essays that evoke an unedited affect), Lugones remains in conversation: her confrontations are meant to strengthen coalition among the people.

Consider her essay "Hard to Handle Anger." Here Lugones offers a typology of forms of anger with diverse political genealogies: there are angers based on fear, explosive anger against oppression, forms of controlled anger directed to the mainstream, "anger that challenges respectability," anger addressed to one's comrades in resistance, and more (Lugones 2003, 103). The anger of many subordinate groups, women in general, are "outlaw emotions," as she quotes Alison Jaggar (104). Lugones is interested in anger for what it reveals about our multiple "worlds of sense," and for what this reveals about the selves who are angry. It is interesting to note this problematic in relation to more general feminist treatments of anger and other "ugly" emotions. For Lugones, the question is not simply to defend a generic anger against the politics of respectability and the disciplinary norms of femininity, but to consider very specific angers by specific groups of women and the challenges to the intelligibility of these angers for other women.

In the context of resistance movements, Lugones is interested in "whether the anger has a communicative or an incommunicative intent" (Lugones 2003, 105). This indicates that her project is both inner directed and outer directed: to "consider questions related to the self of the angry person" as well as to consider the role of anger in conflicts that arise within liberatory coalitions (104). "First-order anger seems to be backwardlooking," she suggests, airing grievances about the past, responding to "someone's … having been wronged, harmed, enslaved" (113). She cites Lorde again here, who says that this sort of first-order anger breeds strength but is nonetheless limited: it can "only demolish the past" but "cannot create the future" (ibid.). Only second-order or reflective anger serves "our visions" (ibid.). Lugones reads Anzaldua as arguing that although rage can isolate the self, it can also be a way to push against the oppressive intrusions of others so as to make space for one's self. Thus at least in some cases, rage can be a second-order anger even though it may appear to be only reactive. [End Page 204]

Lugones remarks that the anger that has enlivened her own "angriest" response is the anger across what she refers to as "non-dominant differences." This is the anger that reveals "the difficulties of working across oppressions," spanning the multiple worlds of sense that create "hard to overcome" barriers (2003, 115). The concept of multiple worlds of sense helps us to understand the distorting effects in how we are seen by peers and comrades. But ultimately, she writes, the anger expressed across non-dominant differences is an attempt to communicate, to correct the distortions, and to overcome separation. Thus, she says "this is a generous anger" (116).

Consider also her essay "Boomerang Perception and the Colonizing Gaze" which she subtitled as "Ginger reflections on horizontal hostility." Here Lugones foregrounds the marginal among the margins, the "green-eyed Blacks, never-been-taught-my-culture Asian Americans and U.S. Latinos … mixed-bloods and mixed-cultures," focusing on "how we perceive each other" (2003, 115). Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the awardwinning novel The Sympathizer, has spoken movingly about the dilemmas of displaced refugee writers and how his own use of English is both a form of resistance and a painful sign of his colonization.2 There is a doubled need for legitimacy that has marked his experiences as a Vietnamese refugee in the United States—a need to disprove assumptions that Asians cannot excel in English, but also a need to be accepted within a Vietnamese refugee community in which communism and left politics are not always in favor. Nguyen is navigating the complex terrain Lugones describes.

Lugones argues that "the degree of solidity" one experiences—that relaxed and easygoing sense of being understood, of not being seen as "faking it"—"changes from place to place" as one moves about (2003, 152). Her description resonated with my own childhood growing up in Florida, reared largely "as their own" within my mothers' family of lower class white Anglos. This acceptance was double edged, since it meant experiencing an unedited racism toward the culture of my father and siblings. The multiple worlds of sense here were antagonistic. Such experiences can leave one "fully conscious of one's self-alienation," Lugones says, which gives one "the sense of lacking a soul." She suggests we can identify two forms of perception that lack sociality. There is the exile who "is constituted by a denial of identity, and a ghostly subjectivity" (155). There is also the warring self, and here she cites Edward Said, who characterizes "nationalism and exile as opposites 'informing and constituting each other,'" even while each attempts to vanquish the other, driving their world of meaning from the stage (ibid.). [End Page 205]

Lugones is concerned about the production of subjectivity under these sorts of conditions, and the unhealthy obsession oppressed people can sometimes manifest "over the oppressor's perception of their subjectivity," an obsession that can be paralyzing, overwhelming, and unproductive (2003, 156). She argues that achieving a "resistant subjectivity … requires a different logic" (ibid.). And here again Lugones turns her focus on the issue of horizontal hostilities, arguing that these judgments are sometimes based on oppressor logics. She asks "why do core persons of color, bred in communities of shared traditions, subject the less solid to inspections that constitute them as fakes? [C]an those without homeplace … provide a critique of closed boundaries of nationhood"? (ibid.). She suggests "gingerly" or provisionally that in order to neutralize the effects of the "racist/colonial-ist gaze" we need to consider how the narcissism of boomerang perception works even here, even in hostilities among the non-dominant. Boomerang perception looks at the other but comes right back to oneself: in this way it "domesticates the exotic" (157). When employed by the oppressed, Lugones suggests, boomerang perception is a way of repudiating the multiplicities of their worlds. "There is an understanding of only two logics that are markedly distinct, in fierce opposition: racist logic and resistant logic" (159). And this is motivated by "a deep fear of losing this anchor [of one's homeplace], this seeing circle that gives one substance, as it stands as the sole conceivable source of a resistance subjectivity" (159).

Lugones writes so often of her own intimate relations and spaces—her difficult love for her mother, the painful way she is taught to perceive servants—that it prompted me to reflect on how my own theoretical tendencies are informed by my formative experiences growing up as a mixed child from a transnational, multilingual, multiracial family. In my case, this family was engaged in an internal cold war. The question of where my one full sister and I would live was the main point of contention, and threats of unleashing the power of the U.S. immigration authorities was used by some of my white family to keep my father from making an appearance or maintaining the connection. But there were plenty of causes for horizontal hostility, and no side was innocent of some serious harm. It was a complex interplay of volatile forces in which my sister and I were treated as the spoils although we were also collateral damage in the conflicts among adults.

I have a tendency in my writing at times, and in my professional activism, to mediate, to seek resolution, but also, sometimes, to try to step up [End Page 206] and take bullets for the cause. It can be a weakness to desire peace at all costs, and this is surely born of my childhood. I always knew perfect resolution was impossible, but I'd hoped for some peace agreement that would make it possible for my sister and I to move about more freely, to express and explore our multiple identities more fully, without being made to feel like traitors to anyone.

Lugones differentiates fragmentation from multiplicity in a way I find helpful in this regard, validating multiplicity but distinguishing it from fragmentation. To fragment is to break apart, to sequester and separate, while to multiply is a more generative and expansive move. I will turn to this topic next, starting with multiplicity.

In her prescient overview of Latina feminist phenomenology, Mariana Ortega characterizes the theme of multiplicity that runs from Gloria Anzaldua to Cherie Moraga, Lugones, Edwina Barvosa, and herself. This body of writing acknowledges and explores the fact that there exist multiple worlds of sense, of meaning, in nearly every space one can occupy. Latina theorists never view these as simple, additive pluralities that cohabit spaces without friction, but as conflictual pluralities that pose contested narratives. Lugones at one point refers to this in a phrase I find arresting: as a "manyness of the past in the present" that both dominated and dominators attempt to "quiet down by anesthetizing and mythologizing history" (2003, 4). Within my family, the mythologizing moves were played like chess strategies to maintain and secure the favored narratives. In truth, as Lugones suggests, there always exists a complex and varied sociality, where domination never succeeds in establishing a monolingual hegemony, and resistance never manifests without its own duplicity and ambiguity (x). It's as if the multiplicity is manifested more as algebra than as arithmetic, less an additive element to reality than a manipulation of symbols in the effort to control the formulation of value.

If we begin to understand the multiplicity of worlds as the outcome of colonialism, male dominance, and racist racial contracts, we can never again imagine an easy or neutral pluralism. On the one hand this means that a binary of domination and resistance permeates Lugones's work, yet we must remember that the binaries she presents are constantly undermined by their permeable boundaries, as she describes them. The many worlds are "intertwined semantically and materially," in that their meanings overlap as well as their structural constitution. And as we know, there is a lot of traveling. [End Page 207]

What is most arresting here is not so much the multiplicity itself but the positive political and moral valence sometimes given to multiplicity in the Latina philosophy trend that Ortega identifies. The contrast is stark with mainstream western philosophy, where a coherent unified self is taken to be the normative goal, a criterion of adequacy for agency and self-respect. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, for example, to have a divided self is to "lack those virtues of integrity and constancy that are prerequisites for exercising powers of moral agency" (quoted in Barvosa 2008, 87). On this view, a multiplicitous self cannot but be judged as weak and dissembling.

Consider here also the radical, liberatory tradition in philosophy. For Marx, the domination of living labor turns the worker into something alien to himself and to his species being: "The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself" (1959, 66). The worker has in effect two lives, two selves, two sets of affective relations outside of or at work. This twoness is the result of his enforced truncated self on the job, a self so partial that Marx believes it to be incapable of expressing its human self.

Remember also Ofelia Schutte's important analysis of the cultural alienation of the Latina in Anglo dominant philosophical spaces, a social domain that enforces another form of truncated self (Schutte 2000). Schutte describes the Latina philosopher as incapable of expressing her full self or having it understood. W. E. B. Du Bois also famously describes a doubled consciousness as a "peculiar sensation" of "warring ideals" that threatens to tear the self in two. Multiplicity in this theoretical work is figured as the product of coercion and oppression that thwarts selfdevelopment, and multiple worlds of sense under conditions of social domination are described as choking communication.

In contrast, Lugones takes the complexity of our sociality to be productive: it "requires a humbling and a honing of [our] perception" (2003, ix), it disables hubris and dogmatism, and moves "against entrapment." Lugones, and Anzaldua, Ortega, and others, are not suggesting that the powerful descriptions Du Bois or Schutte provide are untrue, and we should recall that for Lugones, oppression is often defined as the coercive domination of a single world of sense that eclipses and silences others. Yet the change of focus from negative effects to potentialities is startling, and it changes how liberation can be defined. As Ortega points out, the Latina feminists she analyses do not define the goal of liberation as an emergence of a whole self that is internally consistent, a relief from alienation [End Page 208] or multiplicity. That would truly require silencing and disciplining the "manyness of the past in the present." Lugones says "faithful witnessing leads one away from a monosensical life" (2003, 7). And further that "your having that double consciousness about yourself in space is transgressive" (2003, 9). In a Nietzschean vein, she suggests that multiple perspectivalism resists a coherent mapping: one cannot fold together "the understanding of place that sees it as already lost, next to the understanding of place in a mythologizing of its eternal meaning, next to the understanding that seizes its endurance in the possibilities of resisting both myth and erasure" (2003, 5). These contested narratives can only be mediated through fragmentation, but all multiplicitousness is not similarly doomed. Liberation is defined, then, as changing perceptual and analytical practices so that multiple worlds of sense can be revealed.

I read Lugones as providing an alternative to some of the poststructuralist or postmodernist trends that produce models of multiplicitousness in which proliferation is an end in itself. This is perhaps another form of the ineffective disavowal: where I present myself as speaking from my particular location, while I take no responsibility for how my words interact with others, or their effects or the limits of their applications. The concept of 'throw-away theory' refuses to take theory seriously at the ontological or the meta-level, so that I need not take responsibility for the effects of my theory on the ground elsewhere.

Notably, although Lugones persistently returns to the tensions, cracks and openings that make up the social (2003, 5), she also moves against "social fragmentation." "Fragmentation hides multiplicity," she asserts (34). I take it she means here the sort of fragmentation Du Bois and Schutte diagnose, in which one must mask a part of what we know, in order to conceal our otherness. The manyness of the past in the present is not to be overcome with a theoretical flourish: multiple worlds of sense may be the product of power, coloniality, oppression, and yet the visibility of these multiple worlds is the solution, not a continuation of the problem, nor what disempowers resistance. Theory should not flippantly disavow the complex political effects of making multiplicity visible.

So what of feminist theory? Lugones suggests that white feminists have sometimes expressed more concern about what the insistence on differences does to theory than about what false universalisms have done to women of color. But she too is interested in the question of how this emphasis on multiplicity affects theory. She says "what women of color [End Page 209] know is what I'd like to find in feminist theorizing" (2003, 67). This is an invitation. The problem is not just about the identity of the theorist, but the way we all do theory, and what we expect of theory.

In this there is an interesting contrast with modal philosophy, or possible world theory, in which multiple possible worlds are constituted as thought experiments. As Lugones points out, in this field "possible worlds are not historical, but logical entities" (2003, 24). We discern their contents by formulating logical possibilities that flow from dislocating or replacing a single entity. So in a sense, the multiplicity of possible worlds is not a challenge to coherence or consistency, and in fact the thought experiments extend the mastery of the Cartesian individual knower, who, from a single location, can map worlds beyond even the actual.

This is not, then, a form of theory that will work to reveal multiplicity. Because it is not attentive to power or history, the manyness of worlds is not being revealed or acknowledged here as already existing, but invented.

A pluralist feminism such as Lugones calls for does not aim to achieve total coherence or consistency, and thus it must alter our vision of our political goals. As decolonial theorist Catherine Walsh writes, decolonial approaches seek to "make visible, open up, and advance radically distinct perspectives and positionalities that displace Western rationality as the only framework." And this project challenges us "to think with (and not simply about) the peoples, subjects, struggles, knowledges, and thought" present in our shared world (Walsh and Mignolo 2018, 17). Effective thinking with requires attending to the ways in which power differences affect communication, the production of knowledge, and the articulation of conflicts. And as Lugones emphasizes, this thinking with will also require attending to interactions and to the relationality between our practices, our values, our analyses, and our worlds. I began this article with an interest in discerning what Lugones could teach us about difference and multiplicity, and have ended finding myself drawn into the questions of interaction and relationality, how we can learn to interact differently. This is a difficult task, but we are not without the aid of teachers. We have María Lugones. [End Page 210]

Linda Martín Alcoff
City University of New York
Linda Martín Alcoff

linda martín alcoff is Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College and the Graduate School, CUNY. She is a past President of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division. Recent books include Rape and Resistance (Polity 2018), The Future of Whiteness (Polity 2015), and Visible Identities: Race, Gender and the Self (Oxford 2006), which won the Frantz Fanon Award for 2009. For more info go to


1. For example, the Feminist Majority Foundation supported the war in Afghanistan as late as 2009. See

2. Interview, Democracy Now, April 2018.


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