Style and Substance – A response to Megahertz

This post was drafted as a stand-alone, but since it speaks so well to the very issues at the heart of this post, I will go ahead and frame it as a response.

First, thanks for providing an excuse to get lost in a Google-image search of ‘Teddy Boys.’ I had no idea that this referenced Edwardian style, and moreover I was only familiar with ‘Teddy Girls,’ and only recognized that style as referencing women adopting a masculine style, not adopting a masculine style of dress that was itself subcultural. I also associated it with an anti-racist skinhead aesthetic – think the group of friends in Shane Meadows’  2006 film, This is England. So I was unprepared to learn about the 1958 Notting Hill riots, in which Teddy Boys were implicated in racist attacks against West Indians. I guess this is the English obverse of the 1940’s Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots, in which Xicano zoot suiters were attacked by whites. The drape of the coat in teddy boy wear seems to reference zoot style. Zoot suits used as the dress of late 1950’s hip young white supremacists – a pretty weird development in this racial/cultural mix. One would have to know more, I suppose, about the particular cultural conditions out of which these styles developed, in order to accurately read their racial performance.

The relation between style and substance is also at work in this recent piece by Tommy Curry and John Drabinski, a response to this article by Vesla Weaver and Jason Stanley in The Stone, the column in the NYTimes devoted to philosophy and philosophical topics.

Weaver and Stanley’s article is about one of the central effects of mass incarceration, the political disenfranchisement of black people in the United States. Weaver and Stanley ask whether this indicates that this United States is what they call a “racial democracy.” Their argument is a convincing one, and it resonates with thinking going on about mass incarceration in many other spaces. Curry and Drabinski concur on the success and import of the argument, but they wonder about the way in which Weaver and Stanley made their argument. In other words, they are thinking not only about the substance of the argument, but also about its style. In their piece, Weaver and Stanley draw on Plato, Aristotle, on Benjamin Constant’s essay on the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, John Dewey’s claim that we ought to judge a culture by what kind of people are in its jails, and on philosopher Elizabeth Anderson’s argument that the gap between an ideal and the reality which fails to meet it sometimes indicates that the ideal is itself a part of that failure, blinding us to the reality.

Curry and Drabinski turn our attention to the practice of philosophy, and the philosophical implications of that practice. While the authors want to “elevate the visibility of the Black experience, to make suffering under institutional racism identifiable and to hear the voices of its victims,” they find it “disconcerting” that in order to accomplish this task, Weaver and Stanley turn to white philosophers. While they want to center the experience of black people, the interpretation of that experience is the task of philosophy, which is white. Curry and Drabinski write,

However unintentional, the turn to white philosophers when discussing urgent matters of race and racism sends a clear message: when important stuff is analyzed, we fall back on what white people have said.

This is not simply a point about the politics of representation, however. Curry and Drabinski argue that attention to work from within the black intellectual tradition would deepen the analysis Weaver and Stanley provide, moving it from a liberal framework – the question of the relation between liberal ideals of inclusion and fairness and the reality of exclusion and unfairness – to a more radical framework that centers on the mutation of white supremacist forms of domination from slavery, through the convict lease system, to the targeting of black liberationists as political prisoners and the growth of mass incarceration: a “racial realist” framework that indicts the very ideals liberalism claims we have simply failed to meet in this or that instance.

Moreover Curry and Drabinski note that the repetition of this philosophical trope – perhaps what we might call for our purposes in this conversation, a style – that “black people are looked at and spoken for… rather than doing the looking or speaking themselves” reproduces in form precisely what Weaver and Stanley wish to challenge in content.

In response to the post, author Jason Stanley responded with thanks for the critique Curry and Drabinski offered. He responded that while “including the critiques of liberalism you [Curry] mention, as well as critiques of the very idea of a non-racial democracy in the united states, would clearly have made it a much better philosophy piece. I’m still not sure that (a) it would have been accepted into the NY Times, and (b) would have had the same impact, had we included these deeper and more radical points.” He also responds that “None of this affects your point that we should (and I’m furious at myself) have started out and centrally featured black American philosophers.” Later he writes that “You cannot call an end to the illusion of the America project in the pages of the NY Times.”

I totally believe Stanley when he says this – as he says, he has a lot of experience trying to write for the Times, and it is a very particular kind of writing, a particular style, we might say. I think it is an interesting question to pursue, however, to ask that, since the style constrains the substance in this way, and constrains its ‘impact,’ then who is served by this style, and what would happen if this style were changed? Impact on whom, and for what purposes?

The relationship between style and substance as we have been discussing it here operates, I would like to argue, as a function of the politics of respectability. I will turn to this in another post, and (hopefully!) have occasion there to talk a whole lot about feminism, race, and Beyoncé. I hope that there we can flesh out a little more fully, perhaps, what is going on in this important question from Megahertz’s post:

Is there any connection between the normalization of (some) continental philosophy and the re-inscription of the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy, work that has been hugely influential in the development of feminist and queer theory? Or is this merely sociological?

This puts it on the table in a really great way. As the old quote about Hegel used to have it, what is living and what is dead in continental philosophy? Who decides this? And what might remain productively undead in continental philosophy?

That is, is the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy connected to the marginality of feminist and queer theory? Is this merely sociological? Might this need to connect these two represent an impulse to come to the rescue of a continental philosophy that has no special love for its feminists or queers?  And where is race in this? That is, I want to avoid the analyses of gender and race in the discipline of philosophy that tend to occlude race, or take gender as an analogy for race. Therefore (not to undercut the analysis before its even begun, but) is the politics of respectability therefore an adequate framework for thinking these issues together? 

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