The “event of pluralism”: good and bad mixing

Thanks for your awesome post, Ice. To pick up the tag-off I want to detour through (a) the recent discussions of “pluralism” you mentioned in your previous post, and read them through (b) Jared Sexton’s critique of the sexual and racial politics of neoliberal multiracialism/multiculturalism. This detour will put me in a better place to address two issues of central concern in your post: failure and respectability (which are of course related).

The most recent round in the ongoing analytic/continental sparring frames the issue of philosophical pluralism as a matter of advising students, of protecting “those most vulnerable in our profession” (as Spiros puts it), of, indeed the reproductive futurity of the discipline. The move from “pluralism” to “protecting the children” is already implicit in Brian Leiter’s original post, but it gets amplified in each reiteration. See (all emphasis mine):

Leiter writes:

The term ‘pluralism’ has, alas, been debased to the point that everyone now knows it is usually a code word for ‘crappy philosophy is welcome here.’…There are, fortunately, lots of good places in the U.S. these days for students interested in Kant and post-Kantian European philosophy–Columbia, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Brown, BU and, in many ways, Chicago–but UCR is as good as any of them, and may be the best.

Spiros writes:

In the context of a very nice post about an exceptional department, Professor Leiter claims: “The term ‘pluralism’ has, alas, been debased to the point that everyone now knows it is usually a code word for ‘crappy philosophy is welcome here’. That’s accurate, but a little too generous! For one thing, it understates the self-congratulation with which the term is deployed, and well as the ways in which it is wielded in order to deceive those most vulnerable in our profession.

Jon Cogburn summarizes, “But what about the children, whom it is our duty to save from cognitive depravity?”

What this discussion implies is that there is a proper pluralism that reproduces respectably, and there is “bad philosophy” that corrupts the children. Students must be guided to paths of proper philosophical mixing, and steered away from the kinds of philosophical pluralism that, as it were, breeds philosophical degeneracy (note de-gene-rac-y, racination, etc.), a.k.a. “crappy philosophy.”

At first seems odd to see philosophers using “corrupting the youth” as an accusation of philosophical incompetence. (Doesn’t the Apology pretty much codify that as our job description?) But, if you think of it as a matter of breeding philosophers with the right kind of “diversity,” the politics of this move become more clear. There is a respectable kind of mixing, a mixing that ensures the proper transfer of privilege and wealth, and a corrupt kind of mixing, a mixing that fails to ensure the reproductive futurity of a specific, dominant slice of the discipline.

It’s sort of like the racialized virgin/whore dichotomy applied to philosophical pluralism: there’s respectable and ratchet intercourse–the former produces ‘good’ healthy children, the latter just recycles intergenerational poverty (and can we please, please keep in mind the Symposium’s long discussion of philosophy as proper reproduction here?). Jared Sexon’s work on mixed race theory and neoliberal multiculturalism clarifies the connection between the valorization of pluralism or interracial mixing and a politics of hetero/cis-sexual respectability.

Sexton argues that our dominant understanding of mixed race “thinks of race mixture in heteronormative and reproductivist terms” (7), that is, as the effect of interracial sexual reproduction. “Multiracial exceptionalism,” he argues, is basically a “repackaged family values platform” (1). Heterosexual reproductive sex, the kind of sex that produces the ideal mixed-race subject, is treated as the telos (in the full philosophical sense of the term) of race mixture and multiculturalism. This mixed-race individual is the product that redeems and justifies multicultural social institutions and interracial sex. As long as this mixed-race baby is the outcome of proper heterosexual intercourse, ze will reaffirm rather than disrupt the transfer of wealth, property, status, privilege, and all the other things necessary for the ongoing reproduction of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. Moreover, “our” (note the scare quotes–how does this claim define the boundaries of the “us”?) tolerance of and/or love for this mixed-race individual is evidence of “our” progress beyond older, obsolete forms of white supremacist heterosexism. The primary thing the respectable mixed baby/multicultural society does is insulate against blackness. Heterosexually respectable interracial sex produces a non-bastard child, a child who inherits property and privilege–the ‘whiteness’ that insulates one against the precarity of blackness (the lack of wealth, the lack of health, etc.). So, in Sexton’s account (which, for what it’s worth, I think is pretty much correct) sexual and reproductive propriety is tied directly to a racial politics of antiblackness.

So, neoliberal multiculturalism/multiracialism, insofar as it is respectable, is both anti-queer (it’s all about reproductive futurity) and anti-black. If we substitute “philosophical pluralism” for “multiracialism,” can Sexton’s framework help us connect the dots from discussions about “good” and “bad” pluralism to discussions about racist sexism/sexist racism in philosophy? I think it can. And one reason I think it can is because it requires us to put anti-blackness, hetero/homonormativity, and misogyny at the center of discussions of philosophical pluralism. Or, to use your terms, I think Sexton’s account helps us connect the dots between the demographic problem and the A/C divide, and it does so in a way that keeps discussions of “diverse practitioners” at the center of analyses of “diverse practices.”

Key to Sexton’s analysis is his concept of the “event of miscegenation.” From one angle, it’s a reworking of Foucault’s claim that the repressive hypothesis actually produces and incites the very “sexuality” it claims to suppress. What Sexton calls the “event of miscegenation” is basically the idea that the invocation of miscegenation or race mixing itself produces racial difference rather than confounds it. So, the event of miscegenation is ambivalent: black/white binaries both exist (as past mistakes) and do not exist (as having been overcome).

Because of this ambivalence, the event of miscegenation produces racial difference as both incoherent and absolutely coherent: for example, as Adrian Piper has argued, most nominally white Americans are, by the logic of the one-drop rule, actually black (most US whites have some black ancestry); at the same time, the black/white binary is pretty clear and distinct, and the ‘whiteness’ of these same nominally white Americans goes unquestioned all the time.

According to Sexton, antiblackness is what sutures or stabilizes this ambivalence into concrete, commonsense forms.

Antiblackness, as a matter of political ontology, materializes in the violent closure of the event of miscegenation, reifying it in a moment of conclusion that signifies miscegenation as concrete sex acts or forms of identity within a discursive chain that contributes to a frame of (particularly visual) intelligibility” (219)

The event of miscegenation is the constitutive exclusion of blackness from a white supremacist ontology (think about Fanon’s claim about blacks lacking ontological resistance in the eyes of the white gaze). Treating miscegenation/mixed race merely as a matter of identity or of multicultural pluralism naturalizes the structuring work of anti-blackness in miscegenation as event. Interracial sex and mixed-race identity treat blackness, in the form of the one-drop rule, as something that has been or ought to be overcome. It fixes blackness as a thing which we good multiracial pluralists are not. For example, as a feature of the ‘unhealthy’ type of mixing, “the black body” is treated “as the primary source of danger to planetary public health (where ‘public health’ is often enough shorthand or code word for ‘national security’ and ‘stable business environment’” (235-6). “Blackness” disables the mechanisms of social reproduction. This is why “black identity appears as an antiquated state of confinement from which the ‘multiracial imagined community’ must be delivered, the negative ideal against which ‘the browining of America’ measures its tenuous success” (6).

So hopefully here the parallels to discussions of philosophical pluralism are fairly clear:

  1. Just as mixed-race theory must constantly invoke the black/white binary as superseded or supercedable, philosophical “pluralists” must constantly invoke the analytic/continental divide as something “overcome” or surmountable.

  2. Just as the presence of black bodies signifies a threat to public health, the presence of black faculty (and students) can signal a philosophically ‘unhealthy’ department, as my earlier post argues.

  3. Blackness, especially insofar as blackness works in assemblages with queerness-as-non/disrespectable-reproduction, is what distinguishes respectable philosophical pluralism from ratchet philosophical pluralism. (I’m using this term ratchet specifically for its connotations of working-class blackness.) So it’s not just that the demographic problem is connected to the analytic/continental split, but that demographics are the central mechanism by which people distinguish between good and bad pluralism. What we’re witnessing when we see discussions like the one I cited above unfold is “the event of pluralism.”

  4. This is a question: Sexton argues that “blacks in this [pluralist] moment do not so much police the traditional boundary between blackness and whiteness as that which obtains between blackness and everything else” (13). Perhaps the analytic/continental division can be thought in terms of the old model of white supremacy, that “whiteness-vs-non-whiteness,” and these new discussions of pluralism are like the “blackness-vs-everything else”? And how does re-framing the discussion of philosophical pluralism in this way change our analysis of it? (I don’t know. That’s something I want to think/talk more about).

And with this idea of “bad” pluralism and its ties to unhealthy bodies (of practitioners, of text) in mind, I want to shift to the question of failure. Sexton, in discussing his method, centers what he calls Fanon’s “methodological dereliction” (10) and interdisciplinarity. Methodological dereliction is like “bad” pluralism, ratchet stream-crossing, disrespectable mixing. To practice methodological derelection is, from the perspective of good pluralists, “to take up residence in the camp of the unenlightened, the backward-looking, the narrow-minded, the plain and simple” (248). And it’s bad, ratchet, and disrespectable because it’s queerly black; it means queerly failing in ways associated with anti-black understandings of blackness.

Those failures read as queerly black because they fail to do what respectable mixing does–i.e., to ensure the the transfer of privilege and wealth, the reproductive futurity of philosophy as such. These failures make us precarious.

Diverse practices make diverse practitioners more precarious; they often amplify the philosophical capital of respectable practitioners. Otherwise respectable practitioners can be methodologically derelict and “appropriat[e] ‘everything but the burden,’ to borrow Greg Tate’s apt phrase” (233). Pluralism that still reads as “good philosophy” appropriates everything but the burden, everything but the burden of queer blackness, everything but the burden of failing to meet disciplinary standards for ‘success’ (TT employment, tenure, employment at a ‘top’ program,’ prestige and recognition for one’s philosophical work, etc.).

So how does one practice “methodologically derelict” philosophy that doesn’t just amplify the burden on the already burdened? Or, Ice, as you put it:

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.

Failing in mainstream terms is survivable only with support from subcultural institutions. Sometimes those are within philosophy, sometimes those are outside philosophy, sometimes they are in the open-ended Lugones-style play you mentioned in your post. And I would suggest that this play is possible only if we stop caring about the ‘rules’ of the neoliberal university (things like ‘impact’ or rankings), at least some of the time. How can we make new rules, rules that we can communicate to our assessors as alternative rubrics of value? What if we measured the impact of our work on public discourse, about how it is taken up in ongoing conversations by the public instead of where it is placed in paywalled journals relatively few read? Or, how would we communicate the value of philosophical ‘dereliction’ in terms that our assessors understand? These won’t be terms of disciplinary excellence, per se (like publication, prestige in the field, and so on), but something else…what could these terms be? How can we show that philosophy matters beyond quote-unquote “philosophy”?

We may fail to be sufficiently philosophical, but there are also ways philosophy fails us. I’m thinking in particular of two recent students of mine, both black queer students who are extremely philosophically adept, who are questioning whether philosophy is and can do enough for them. Philosophy can be more than what it is (or, Ice, as you’ve put it previously: “philosophy is always more and other than what it is”), but are we in a situation in which we can positively realize philosophy’s non-being in projects that sustain us both intellectually and materially? (Beauvoir resonances intended here). And that sustenance will not sustain “philosophy” as it presently “is.” To sustain ourselves materially and intellectually we have to fail to reproduce “philosophy.” No future for you, as they say. Failing to reproduce philosophy is, I would argue, not the rejection or negation of philosophy, but the only way to authentically realize a philosophical project.

But as Beauvoir teaches us, freedom (positively realizing non-being) is an option only for those in situations that materially, socially, and ideologically facilitate our projects. Women of color philosophers have put this question at the center of their philosophical work: insofar as philosophical legibility (respectable reproduction) is needed to maintain a viable situation/practice, how do we both create sustaining situations in ‘philosophy’ and fail to sustain ‘philosophy’? How do those of us, like me, with access to some of those ‘situational’ necessities, redistribute these necessities to put others in better situations? (Which, I’m not gonna lie, is gonna hurt where it “counts,” e.g., in job evaluation terms. I’m not going to appear as ‘productive’ or ‘successful’ if I waste my resources on derelict projects, unreproductive philosophical intercourse, and so on.)  Because this is about the failure to respectably reproduce the discipline, the failure to transfer wealth, property, and prestige along white supremacist, patriarchal, cis/heterosexist, capitalist lines.

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