“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.