“Questioning a Continent’s Validity”

“Europe is not and has never been a continent
Yet they teach us it is all through school
So when I raise my hand in class and ask:
‘Ey teach, continent is defined as a large land mass
surrounded completely or almost completely by water
Europe is neither large
Even almost surrounded by water
How is it a continent?”
I get looked at like a fool.
Teach tells me, Because it is.
Now this never flew with me as a kid
I aint get the answer needed
I’m disrupting the rest of yo’ class period
So now I’m in the principal’s office
Being asked to explain
why I’m questioning a continent’s validity”

Shakti Butler’s new documentary, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, released two months ago (September 27, 2012), begins with this piece from poet and hip hop artist Y. Jelal Huyler, an Oakland Poetry Slam finalist. This video is a performance of the poem at the Oakland Poetry Slam. The poem is excerpted throughout the documentary and Jelal narrates the transitions of the film.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent”

Philosophy is not European.

My mind was blown a little bit when I saw and heard this poetic argument. Not because it was hard to swallow; no, because it was so obvious and had such fantastic implications for questioning the validity of continental philosophy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a some-time student of The West Wing, and I’ve seen the Peters Projection map of the world, which is a better representation of the globe stretched across a flat surface, and if you don’t know it, Europe and the US turn out to look even smaller than they do on the Mercator. So I wasn’t completely ignorant of the politics of geography here. But it had never occurred to me in such a direct and explicit way that Europe doesn’t fit the definition of a continent.

This got me thinking, along the lines of EI’s recent post ‘Why Still Philosophy?,’ about the Adornian appeal to immanent critique, and the question of what strikes whom as immanent. Huyler’s excerpt that opens Cracking the Codes ends like this: “You raised me to focus on facts/I’ve done what you asked/Now you let me know I’m digging too deep.” I suspect many readers of this blog will be familiar with this feeling of doing what you were taught to do by the parental/first generation (see the Manifesto)—in our case it’s methods rather than facts, per se—and then being punished for the questions you are able to ask, in some cases because of those methods. But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled by the methods or topics of continental philosophy so much as they are by the other reading we do and the other lives we lead. That it is these other lives we lead that allow for certain questions to emerge as immanent. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? As my mother likes to say when I’m looking for some physical object that is right there and yet I can’t find it: “If it was a snake it would bite you.”

“Now I’m in the principal’s office/ Being asked to explain/ Why I’m questioning the validity of a continent.”

If Europe (You’re-up?) is not and has never been a continent, what is “continental philosophy?” It is not, let me be clear here, any kind of Derridian impossibility—at least not for me. It’s not a philosophy to-come. Like EI, I hold out for what philosophy could be, but I hesitate to even use the word philosophy because I think it might have to be called something otherwise in order for it to be the otherwise that it can be.

No, this post is not about continental philosophy’s promise.

No, Continental philosophy is one tiny narrow slice of the planet’s tools for critique, critical thinking—for something like, but importantly otherwise than, philosophy. Just as the “continent” of Europe is an even tinier portion of the planet, even if you only include the planet’s land mass, when you look at a Peters map. Some readers might quibble that many other disciplines and many people from all over the planet think about and draw on the work of “continental philosophers,” but I think we need to be very careful to even concede this claim, and I think we need to be very clear about the European essentialism it trades on. In Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, María Lugones promises herself and her readers and communities: “I won’t think what I won’t practice.” Sometimes we understand the practical, oppressive implications of certain kinds of thinking without needing to entertain the thinking, and perhaps these moments more than any others reveal that it’s the other things we read and the other lives we lead, more than the continental methods we’ve learned, that cultivate this sense.

And one final point I think we need to be aware of: the fact that most “continental philosophers” don’t draw on other disciplines and don’t listen to voices from other parts of the planet is a mark of our arrogance, not our lack of need of them.

“Europe is not and has never been a continent.” Philosophy is not European.

6 thoughts on ““Questioning a Continent’s Validity”

  1. megahertz

    Awesome post, LP. I take the gist/most important part of your argument to be that (a) if Europe is not a continent, and its coherence is not geographical or otherwise “objective”, then (b) the coherence of “continental” philosophy actually comes from the relatively consistent life experiences of its practitioners. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, just explicitly connect dots that you implicitly connect.

    If that’s the case, then to what extent are debates about what counts as “real” or “continental” philosophy actually demands that already-privileged experiences continue to be centered? (Or, is disciplinary boundary-policing really just the demand that privileged philosophers not have to deal with alien experience/intuitions/things that don’t directly affect or concern them?)

    Kodwo Eshun has this line, “Who needs Heidegger when George Clinton is already theoretical?”–and I take that question really seriously. Who DOES need [continental philosophy] when [black vernacular cultures] are already theoretical? One response is to reverse it: Heideggerians need George Clinton’s theory. Or, philosophical projects need our alternative experiences–they make philosophy better. This line runs the risk of “white civilization needs the Others to rescue it from its discontentment.” Another response is: well, maybe thinking Heidegger and George Clinton together, “crossing the streams” if you will, produces unexpected insights and questions. Another response is: well, in my own experience, there’s been some Heidegger and some George Clinton, and they both inform my thinking. Why should I have to choose? This is maybe the mestizaje-style argument. In my experience, philosophers are less willing to entertain attempts to translate or examine the “theoretical” aspects of “George Clinton” and put them in conversation with “Heidegger.” And this is maybe something especially pernicious on “continentalists” self-definition as “texts over methods.” Sure Clinton is not part of the continental canon, but if he’s _theoretical_, then we can work with that, as theorists, right? Well, not according to that definition of continental philosophy.

    So maybe, and I guess this is my question to you LP (and others): Can we take your geography vs experience argument (what I discussed in the first part of my response), and map the texts vs methods discourse onto it? In other words, does the geography:texts::experience:methods analogy work? What I mean by that analogy is something like: “europe” and “continental philosophy” gain their coherence by appealing to a supposedly objective unit (a continent, a canon); this is just a disavowal of what really gives these entities their coherence, experiences and methods. So, for those of us with extra-canonical experiences, is it perhaps in our interest to push the “methods” argument (e.g., “George Clinton” is already theoretical, there’s a somewhat common method)?

  2. aufheben

    At SPEP last year, Del McWhorter (swoon!!) gave a remarkable reflection on 50 years of post-structuralism that ended with a “meditation on continents” that blew me away when I heard it. A few graphs:

    A continent is not an island. Continents are big. They accommodate many different topographies, climates, flora, fauna, and human cultures. The people on any single continent have been of differing races and religions and have used differing languages and technologies for as long as anybody has known anything about continents. Many islands, by contrast, were homogeneous for long stretches of their histories. Nobody has ever owned a continent; unlike islands, continents, in their vastness and differing, defy possessive mastery.

    We might be troubled by the fact that continents seem awfully stable; their differings take place on or in a place, to which they give a foundation. We are not fond of foundations. But I must remind you of something we Virginians were reminded of on the afternoon of August 23, 2011: continents move. And when they do, everything moves, rather violently. The truth is that continents are not stable or unified or ahistorical. They sit on a ball of hot fluid and gas; they float on the face of a star.


    Perhaps continental thinking affords common ground without need of firm identity, ground that transcends nationalities and canonical texts and accommodates, even inspires, differing, endless becoming, in Grosz’s words, or, in Lingis’s, an endless stream of improbabilities. There is room in our philosophy for things undreamt of, and for dreaming, for remembering and forgetting, for loss and potency, for emergence and for nothing, nothing at all. And while there is room for conflict and even hostility, as our own years together evince, there is no room for hostility toward heterogeneity and historicity. In our next fifty years, let us take up our continental differing anew, not viewing it through the narrowed eyes of island-thought but affirming it in its Pangaean splendor.

    the full piece was in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26.2, and is online here

    1. lesbian phallusophy Post author

      I want more time to think about McWhorter’s continents and islands meditation, but for now I’ll just say this: I wonder what Édouard Glissant would have to say about her invocation of “the narrowed eyes of island-thought” and the claim that “No one has ever owned a continent; unlike islands, continents, in their vastness and differing, defy possessive mastery.”

      These ideas actually make me deeply uncomfortable–again, this is an initial reaction that I need to sit with, but I thought if others had any similar reactions…

      More soon!

  3. educated ice

    thanks for this, lp.

    one thread I want to pick up on is the sense of practice in your piece, practice as an almost aesthetic sensibility.

    the answer to the question Dotson asks in her incredible article, “How is this Paper Philosophy?” would then be, well, I’m a philosopher, so this is philosophy – but in the sense of a practice, rather than a (legitimized, authorized, ‘leiterrific’) identity. the practice would be informed by whatever else you have to bring to it, in the multiplicity we are, not allowing one part to eclipse any of the others, as Lorde argued. in fact it might be that very practice of refusing to eclipse any of the single parts, or critiquing the demand to eclipse. this is very close to the sense of immanence I was thinking of in my piece: it is less about the future of continental philosophy (though i think it is bound up with it) than it is about all that it is right now, without knowing it. maybe a way of unlocking all of those buried shards is thinking about this as a practice, one which draws on the seemingly disparate parts of us, one organized carefully as a critical aesthetic practice, like drag.

  4. costa brava

    McWhorter’s refiguring of the continent is interesting, but I am unsettled and ultimately unconvinced by the reading of islands on which it stands.

    That islands were possessed/are possessable is far from given or accepted, as we see in so much postcolonial scholarship, art and writing. Imperial agents may have at one time or another ‘possessed’ or still possess island territories, but history gives us many examples of cultural, political and philosophical resistances to such possession. The question of possession–especially ideologically and culturally–is far from closed unless we only see history through the eyes of (imperial, temporary, former) victors.

    Islands, like shores and seas, are networks of multilingual/mutliracial difference and defiance, far from the narrowness symbolized in them by the likes of John Donne and Simon & Garfunkel.

    In fact the fluidity, endless becoming and heterogeneity marked in the last paragraph above as qualities of the continent are attributed by earlier theorists to islands.

    (What separates an island from a continent?)

    For more on island epistemologies, you might find of interest Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s _La isla que se repite: el Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna_ and (less directly but more broadly) Paul Gilroy’s _The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness_, just two of many fine examples from oceanic/island studies.

    Thanks for the reflective post, LP; I particularly appreciate your performance of reading against the continental. And cheers to all on this excellent new venture.

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