Philosophical Love and Theft

ESPECIALLY in continental philosophy, “otherness” is fashionable. The “other” can be something like consciousness, the unconscious, being, “the Other,” materiality, the Real, the phenomenal world independent of my perception and cognition, Woman, women, non-whites, non-European culture, popular culture…just to name a few. Many canonical figures, and plenty of us readers of these canonical figures, repeat some version of this rhetorical move: [X is “other” to philosophy–it is beyond philosophy’s limits of knowledge, control, mastery, domestication, etc. Yet I will use philosophical methods, concepts, terms, and technologies to make this otherness productive for philosophy.] This move at once naturalizes the limits of the discipline and instrumentalizes whatever’s outside those limits as a source of surplus value for philosophy, but only insofar as it remains sufficiently outside/other/exotic.

We eat otherness up, to borrow from bell hooks’s concept. We appropriate and domesticate it, extracting surplus value from it to further our own projects. But the authors of this otherness never get fair compensation for their work, and they necessarily must remain other to philosophy in order for us to profit on their otherness. We keep them in the ghetto, while claiming to respect, include, and take them seriously. That’s some serious “Love and Theft.” “Love and Theft” is ethnomusicologist Eric Lott’s term for 19th and 20th century white appropriation of black music; this practice begins with minstrelsy, continues to blues and jazz, and on into rock, disco, hip hop, house and techno….and on into the present. The term shows how white supremacy can come in the form of admiration and imitation. Black cultural practices and objects end up reinforcing white supremacy; white artists benefit from the popularization and commercialization of black music. Even more, black music’s cultural cachet assumes and reinforces the ghettoization and marginalization of black people. Or, black music is attractive precisely because “blackness,” as embodied in and by black people, is generally unattractive,

I want to talk about two kinds of philosophical Love & Theft: (1) On the “theft” side, “the traffic in [INSERT OTHER HERE]”, or hegemonic people/institutions/discourses’s use of underrepresented people/approaches as a means to jockey for status among themselves, such that one’s commitment to “diversity” signals your superiority over your rivals; and (2) on the “love” side, what Mariana Ortega calls “loving, knowing ignorance.” As Ortega defines it, “loving, knowing ignorance” is a specific type of epistemology of ignorance, “a type of “arrogant perception” that produces ignorance about women of color and their work at the same time that it proclaims to have both knowledge about and loving perception toward them” (56). It’s the sort of “good, white liberal” claim to understand and care about women of color that performatively negates itself: the assertion of knowledge and respect produces structured ignorance (i.e., ignorance structured by white supremacist patriarchy) and epistemic violence.

The Traffic In Philosophy’s Others

I get the phrase “the traffic in women” from anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s canonical essay, “The Traffic In Women.” There, she argues that in patriarchal Western societies, “women” are the currency that “men” use to transact relations among themselves as men. In a way, the traffic in women is commodity fetishism, but with women as/instead of commodities (and here is where we bring in Irigaray’s “Women on the Market”). “Men”–the structurally privileged group–use their possession, knowledge, care, and concern for “women”–the structurally oppressed group–as a way to jockey for status among themselves.

To what extent is the recent upsurge in interest in either/both (a) feminism/critical race theory, and (b) the status of women and minorities in the profession, a form of Rubinesque trafficking? Are women and/or feminist philosophy the instruments with which mainstream analytics and continentals wage their status-wars?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this question–in large part because I’m not a sociologist or an ethnographer, and I don’t have all of the tools I would need to give a definitive answer. But, I do want to offer some evidence for further philosophical consideration.

First: The controversy about The Pluralist Guide’s “Climate for Women” report quickly devolved into a battle between “Brian Leiter” and “SPEP” (note the scare quotes around both figures). Concern for women in the profession was just another front in this ongoing battle. That is, women’s situation isn’t addressed in and for itself; it becomes a means for demonstrating the relative superiority or inferiority of either “Leiterific” or “SPEPpy” patriarchy. I attended the SPEP business meeting in which this was discussed, and that discussion quickly became what felt to me like a patriarchal, white-saviorist-y crusade to “defend Linda (Alcoff).” I support Linda and her work, and I was glad that SPEP wanted to support one of its members; however, the line between “supporting a member” and “sketchy white patriarchal savoirism” was not interrogated. (Does anyone remember anyone talking about “defending Bill (Wilkerson),” who is also a director of the PG and also a member of SPEP (Paul Taylor, the other PG editor, was there but isn’t regularly a SPEP member/attendee, at least as far as I know)? I don’t. But maybe I’m misremembering.) Women in philosophy, and even Linda Alcoff herself, became the currency with which “Leiterific” and “SPEPpy” partisans attempted to wage their ongoing status wars. Such traffic in women is not feminist. In fact, it’s definitively patriarchal. I’m not really interested in retroactively diagnosing what happened with the Pluralist Guide so much as I am interested in trying to think more generally and systematically about the way underrepresented people and traditions are marshalled into white/male/mainstream philosophers’ existing and entrenched status wars. I also want to think more broadly about the white/male/mainstream saviorist-y aspects to this appropriation.

Second: The Gendered Conference Campaign can be another manifestation of the traffic in women. Among other things it does, signing the pledge serves as a badge of one’s status as “progressive” and “feminist,” and marks one’s superiority over other, more backwards and sexist philosophers. The maxim of not participating in male-only or white-only events is, at the level of ethics, a good one. However, when the campaign gets taken up by social media, it becomes more than just an individual ethical maxim. The pledge is no longer just a maxim for action, it’s also a visible speech-act, the performance of which establishes your status as “progressive” or “backwards.” I don’t think social media is to blame; it just changes the stakes. I think we need to be very, very careful that we don’t make the concern for underrepresented people/groups into some sort of hipster-y appropriation (i.e., my affiliation with marginal groups signals my higher taste/tolerance/broadmindedness, and thus establishes my elite status within an already elite group). But, as we move to include underrepresented philosophers and philosophical traditions, we run up against the problem of loving, knowing ignorance, which I discuss below.

I wonder if we can’t understand the GCC and related phenomena as instances of a therapeutic narrative of post-feminist masculinity (or a therapeutic narrative of post-racial whitenss): “I used to be a misogynist, but then I saw the light, and I have now changed.” Feminism and women are the media for patriarchal/male philosophers’ personal development. Feminism and women are not intrinsically philosophically valuable, nor are they means to or reasons for ending sexism and patriarchy. They’re just fetish-objects with which patriarchal institutions and subjects communicate their status. Post-feminist patriarchy asserts its supposed superiority over and advancement from traditional patriarchy by, for example, nominally including women philosophers on a syllabus. A genuinely feminist approach to, say, an Intro syllabus wouldn’t just include women authors; it would, more importantly, show how gender/patriarchy and race/white supremacy are fundamental to the history of Western philosophy. You can’t just add more women and stir; a genuinely feminist approach will catalyze a chemical reaction that deeply alters the basic structure of philosophical practice.

Loving, Knowing Ignorance

Loving, Knowing Ignorance is Mariana Ortega’s development of Maria Lugones’s work on “loving” and “arrogant” perception. Ortega complicates Lugones’s distinction, arguing that well-intentioned engagement (“loving”) can performatively and effectively be a form of “arrogant” disengagement. The tl;dr of her article is: philosophers think they’re genuinely trying to engage the work of WOC philosophers and theorists. They cite it in their work, they teach and study it. But, because training and experience in doing “philosophy” (the normal, mainstream discipline) won’t give you what you need to fully understand what’s going on in WOC philosophy, so your knowledge of these texts is structured by institutionalized, systematic ignorances. Here’s an example from my own experience: well-meaning people have included the Intro to Beauvoir’s Second Sex on their Intro syllabi, but have totally mis-taught it (i.e., argued basically that she’s a liberal feminist interested in individualism…which, if you know anything about her work, she’s not) due to a lack of familiarity with/study of her body of work. So, Ortega argues: “knowledge about the experience of women of color cannot simply be attained by reading their writings or the writings of white feminists.” Simply citing them in our work and including them in our syllabi doesn’t do justice to WOC philosophers, both (a) as WOC demanding racial/gender justice, and (b) as philosophers. Loving, Knowing Ignorance is both a justice problem, and bad philosophy; we don’t understand the full purchase of WOC philosopers’ theorization.

As Ortega argues,

Women of color cannot and should not continue being theoretical beings at the same time that many theories about them purport to do justice to their experience. A s Lugones suggests, it is important to see that for women of color, doing feminism is about ending racism, not simply about engaging in a theoretical debate (2003, 74; emphasis mine).

When we use WOC philosophers’ writing and theorietical work to advance philosophical projects that don’t ALSO take racial/gender justice as central foci, we misrepresent and misunderstand the philosophical purchase of their ideas. I’m sometimes guilty of this too. I take work out of its justice context and use it to advance a philosophical point that I represent as unrelated to justice. That’s Loving Knowing Ignorance. And it’s also bad philosophy–cause the real lesson is that apparently apolitical point is political, is a matter of gender/race justice. So it’s not enough to appropriate the theoretical insights developed in WOC feminist philosophy; this use must also be transformative, must address the interrelated problems of ending racism and ending sexism. And, let me emphasize, these problems are just as much philosophical problems as they are political problems. If philosophy is not transformed by its encounter with its others,  feminist philosophy, WOC feminism, critical race theory, these are blood diamonds, shiny baubles for “real” philosophers, bought with the blood of minority philosophers.

Part of that transformation is material, embodied, bloody, and personal: “Theorizing about women of color without checking and questioning about their actual lives, without actively trying to participate in their lives, without knowing any flesh-and-blood women of color, or without practical engagement with them, is loving, knowing, ignorance” (Ortega). A philosophical practice that cites WOC/women/POC in text without also engaging PEOPLE from underrepresented groups isn’t transformed. It’s just love & theft, white supremacy, patriarchy, new boss same as the old boss.

There’s a question about implicit knowledge here that needs further development than I can give it here, but let me start with this: I think such transformation, transformation of PHILOSOPHY and philosophical practice like Ortega talks about, such transformation has to happen at the level of implicit knowledge and material practice. White appropriation of black music separated out affect (e.g., the ‘groove’ of a song, the way you comport your body when you strut like Mick Jagger or twerk like Miley) from the implicit knowledge that informs that affective experience. This implicit knowledge comes from the political, historical, and cultural contexts that these musical traditions emerged in. The affect is a manifestation or expression of that implicit knowledge. Separating the affect from its epistemic context both misrepresents and diminishes the affect, and dismisses the epistemic tradition from which it comes. This implicit knowledge can’t be learned just by reading philosophical texts. It comes from engagement with people. It also means doing stuff that requieres implicit knowledges you don’t learn by studying philosophy or being professionally socialized as a philosopher. And I really, really wonder at just how much resistance to philosophy’s “others” comes at this level, that is, at the refusal to learn new implicit knowledges?