Notes on Style: A reply to a reply

Your suggestion to flip the question – to ask about what implicit knowledges shape style, and are communicated through style; to ask how style constrains substance, rather than to ask about how style constrains substance – is totally pertinent. It brings to mind several of the reflections on the practice of philosophy going on in Hypatia’s new special issue on Interstices, edited by Kirstie Dotson (and Donna-Dale Marcano), that I want to bring into the conversation. I will address a couple of them in specific and how they relate to this tension between style and substance we’ve been circling around.

In her piece, “Inhabiting Philosophical Space: Reflections from the Reasonably Suspicious,” Stephanie Rivera Berruz reflects on what English as the hegemonic language of academic philosophy has done to her; she argues that it enforces a kind of duplicity – a doubling that is duplicitous on either side, since there is no genuine self to return to (echoing Lugones’ conception of self in “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception”). She compares the practice of philosophy to ‘passing’: “… attempting to ‘pass’ within the spaces of philosophy often means translating our story, our history, our language, our bodily comportment to meet the normative standards of philosophical spaces. The comportment of our bodies has to shift in order to be read as appropriate philosophical subjects” (3) – (all references are to the “early view”; the full journal isn’t out yet, and both are/will be behind a paywall).

Here the very practice of philosophy shapes the body in much the same way you describe in playing music. For instance, in playing the violin, the fingers are trained to curl over the frog of the bow in a certain way, and the arm and wrist are trained to pull and push the bow in long, light curves. However, when you go to play the fiddle, an entirely different physical comportment is required: the instrument is held slightly differently; the movement of the bow is entirely different, the arm and wrist are tighter, more forceful; playing more than one note at a time is more common, and you start to think of notes in terms of chords and songs in terms of chord progressions, or as organized into an ‘A A B A’ structure, rather than thinking in terms of motifs, movements and suites. In order to effectively learn to play fiddle, you must, to a certain extent, unlearn playing violin – even though you’re holding the very same instrument in your hands. The difference is, in the practice of philosophy, only one of these bodily comportments are legitimate, or are properly philosophical. Philosophy cannot be done properly in another language – or, if in the case of continental philosophy, it can only be done properly in a select group of European languages, in non-colonial contexts.

Berruz goes on to describe an instance in which she was confronted by a white male philosophy major about the Latin American philosophy course she was teaching. The student called into question her choices for the syllabus, and called into question her training as a philosopher, because the course was to his mind insufficiently philosophical – because it failed to engage white European philosophy, or refused to treat philosophical concepts as divorced from the history from which they emerged in Latin America. She writes, “Similarly, the experiences of Latinas/os and their respective worldviews and philosophy could only be translated, or made suitable subjects of philosophical study, for my student by the use of white, male, European perspectives. Because I resisted this act of translation to the best of my abilities, my identity, as well as my area of study, could only be understood as a philosophical failure” (6).

Drawing on Anzaldúa, Berruz wants to emphasize the “wounds” that this duplicity causes – the burdens, physical and mental, of those responsible for the task of translation. I want to pick up, however, on the theme of failure.

But first one other piece. In “’Now How You Sound?’ Considering a Different Philosophical Praxis,” Devonya Havis argues for a set of “alternative legitimating practices for a particular kind of philosophy… the hybrid philosophical processes that I engage while doing philosophy” (1-2). Distinguishing these alternative legitimizing practices from the account of the legitimizing practices of hegemonic philosophy that Kirstie Dotson describes in her article, “How is this paper philosophy?,” Havis sets out a set of guidelines for a hybrid philosophical practice that would center the experience of black women. She writes,

“Do our practices as philosophers overtly or covertly exclude the possibility that philosophies derived from some Black women’s experiences can be intelligible? If we continually ask ourselves ‘how we sound’ when doing academic philosophy, perhaps we will be able to hear in this alternative philosophical praxis what Emmanuel Levinas has said about philosophy in general: ‘The fact that philosophy cannot fully totalize the alterity of meaning in some final presence or simultaneity is not to me a deficiency or a default. [T]he best thing about philosophy is that it fails. It is like a game with something slipping away, a game absolutely without project or plan, not with what can become ours or us, but with something other, always inaccessible and always still to come. (Cohen 1986, 20)’” (4).

I think that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think of these alternative legitimating practices in terms of style – a way of practicing philosophy, or of a kind of philosophical comportment. However it is a style that is matched to substance: that is, taking seriously the experience and the knowledge of Black women as philosophically rich. Havis argues that the hegemonic practice of philosophy is constituted by a set of legitimizing practices that exclude Black women’s experience, or renders them philosophically unintelligible. This is hardly the end of the story, however. The title of the piece, “Now, How You Sound?”, refers to the woman who raised Havis’ father, Mamma Ola, who asked this question of her father. In it, she hears an open-ended philosophical calling to account: how do we sound when we do philosophy? How do we sound to those who listen to us? Considering how we sound is not normal philosophical practice. But normal philosophical practice is a style that is constituted not to hear certain folks, or that renders some folks unintelligible. Normal philosophical practice, I would argue, can hardly hear itself, much less hear how it sounds to others, whether on the margins or outside that practice.

It is useful to think, perhaps, about what constitutes failure in this context. Both of these pieces refer to failure, though the affect at work in each of them is very different: in the first, the author is marked as being, herself, a philosophical failure, because she has failed to adequately or accurately reproduce the legitimizing practices of philosophy, or failed to properly reproduce proper philosophy itself. This failure leaves her wounded – exhausted, anxious; perhaps as a later contributor to this special issue might argue, the author is a victim of gaslighting. In the second piece, failure is located in the heart of philosophy itself – failure is named as a philosophical value, failure being inherent in the game of philosophy, always open to “the alterity of meaning.” The identification of philosophy as a game calls to mind María Lugones’ useful distinction in “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception” between game as mastery and domination, or game as colonial conquest, and game as open, directionless, irreverant, making up the rules as we go along – a game in which we are open to becoming other than we are.

I want to say more on the subject of failure, but I fear my archive is a little limited at this point (and so I’m tagging you in here, Megahertz!). That is, my hypothesis is that there is a whole lot that queer theory can say to the possibilities of failure: if succeeding in the US under contemporary neoliberal conditions means achieving as close to Audre Lorde’s “mythical norm” (“white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financial­ly secure”) as possible, and doing it “all on your own,” then failure to live up to this idealized norm might be all to the good – especially when that failure is also rich with the possibilities of life lived otherwise. While it is vitally important to remember, as Berruz calls us to, the wounds that such failure produces – wounds which demand amelioration, which demand that life be otherwise – the material for building such a life lived otherwise is already available to us (though never completely, it must be added).

What precisely does this mean about the practice of philosophy? I think it means that hammers are not all that’s available to us, as you suggest – we’ve also got nail guns, glue, needles and thread and twine, sledge hammers and crowbars when we need them (and much about the state of philosophy in the last few weeks has called to mind a need for a sledgehammer). But a hammer can be put to many different uses, as the late Pete Seeger reminds us. Just as the violin is also a fiddle, the hammer is also a crowbar, in the hands of someone who knows how to use it – not to use it right, necessarily, but to use it in a new and powerful way.

Perhaps this is the true import of pluralism in philosophy. While I always want to emphasize the political conditions that structure the discipline of philosophy, and I am suspicious of the deployment of this term, “pluralism,” (and given recent interpretations of this term available from Leiter and from Spiros, this suspicion seems warranted), I am ideally a “let a thousand flowers bloom” sort of philosopher. Philosophy needs feminists, and philosophers of language, and Fichte scholars, and Aristotelians, and cognitive science puzzlers, and Lacanians, and critical philosophers of race, and business ethicists, and logicians, and Derrideans, and Marxists, and queer theorists, and Straussians. I am not naïve about the differential valuation of these different philosophies, and I am not naïve about the project of pluralism in “overcoming” (or perhaps just more effectively disavowing) the analytic-continental divide. Nevertheless, the work is out there. It’s a matter of navigating failure as wounding, as debilitating, and failure as fecund, as a means of resistance, or of imagining philosophy otherwise – with the caveat that the experience of this distinction, that is, who is made to undergo this experience, and who has the privilege of abstracting away from it or taking the long view, is also the work.

I want to think more about a couple of questions that stem from this. Namely: what is standing in the way of this work? What ideologies are standing in the way, and how best to confront them? How best can philosophy become other than what it is, and still be philosophy? Or is commitment to the ideal of philosophy part of the problem – that is, is philosophy a version of Lorde’s “mythical norm”? And is this connected at all to philosophy’s civil wars, as Alcoff calls them? That is (and this is always my question), is philosophy’s demographic problem related to the analytic-continental divide, and if so, how? That is, what is the relationship between style and substance in philosophy?