philoSOPHIA 2014: continuing the conversations, pt.1

We XCPers are huge fans of the work done at philoSOPHIA, so we were happy to host a series of posts reflecting on and continuing the conversations that happened at the 2014 meeting. 

Robin James (@doctaj) kicks it off:

philoSOPHIA is always such an amazing conference–it’s one of the places where the best philosophical work gets done–work that is both intensely philosophically engaged, and that deeply and immediately matters to real shit in the world. It’s also where I get to see many of my favorite philosophers ever. But now I want to think through some ideas that are really sticking with me, ideas that are important to my work, to the work of others, and to the broader philosophical-political project that some people call “XCPhilosophy,” or the kind of work that I talked about with the DePaul grad students this February, philosophy that’s also very directly about survival.

This is all a lot of thinking out loud, meant mainly to continue conversations rather than to arrive at any firm conclusions. So, if it feels unfinished, it is! But, let’s continue these conversations.

Into the Death

Lynn Huffer’s talk on “Foucault’s Fossils” overlaps with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as either “death” or “melancholy.” Huffer reads the fossil as a “non-vitalist alternative to materialism’s vitalization of matter.” Or, a fossilized state is one where biopolitical rationality is suspended. Reading the figure of the fossil in Foucault’s late work, Huffer argues that the fossil “fractures the now that makes today intelligible as biological life.” Huffer used A TON of sonic language to describe fossils (and, the quoted lines are my best transcription of what Lynn said):

  • the “fossil emerges against constant background noise.”
  • “the fossil figures the emergence of intelligibility out of the murmur of the monstrous.”
  • “Reading the fossil record interrupts the rhythm of the human.”

This suggests to me that there’s something “sonic” about the intelligibility of (biopolitical) “life” as such. There are a few ways this sonic metaphor for biopolitical life can work:

  1. If we think of life as ‘vibrancy’ or ‘vibrant matter,’ then it’s pretty easy to understand these vibrations as radiation, as the “dynamic patterning through a medium” (Henriques, Sonic Bodies), as pressure waves, as mechanical waves, as longitudinal waves.
  2. Sound waves are basically intervals of more and less dense, more and less intense compression. Sound waves are, materially, patterns of intensity. If you follow a certain strain of Foucault scholarship (e.g., Nealon), then neoliberalism, or neoliberal market-thinking, is a logic of intensification. This doesn’t directly relate back to biopolitics and life, but, I need to do some more work here to make that connection, which I’m pretty certain can be made.
  3. Biopolitical life is statistically governed; statistics and algorithms are biopolitics’ medium of governmentality. Algorithms are also the medium of ‘governmentality’ of sound. We represent and manipulate sound’s patterns of intensification as algorithms, which we graphically represent as sine waves.
  4. All the ways Foucault talks about biopolitical governmentality–rates, patterns, etc.–as well as the ontology of dynamic emergence preferred by feminist new materialists, these are both better represented by sonic metaphors (which are 4D in the art historical sense, meaning temporal, meaning dynamically emergent) than visual ones (which are not dynamically emergent but re-presentational, governed by 2D logics of signifier/signified).
  5. Here’s where I want to think more about the shift from the beginning of The Order of Things, which is an analysis of a painting about the gaze, to the end, which Lynn discussed in her talk. This is the last line of the book: “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Here, Foucault figures the end of the Classical Episteme, the episteme characterized by the gaze, as the erasure of a 2D pictorial representation (that of the face of ‘man,’ the object of that gaze) by waves. These waves are metaphors for the new episteme, that of biopolitics, in which “life” replaces “man.” I think it’s very important that biopolitics is represented here as waves.

But what does the sonic character of biopolitics have to do with death? Well, if death or ‘fossils’ “fracture the now that makes today intelligible as biological life,” it does this by breaking the pattern that makes waves intelligible as such. It breaks the algorithm, the thing that makes a bunch of otherwise incoherent vibrations coherent as a viable project (and by ‘viable project’ I mean something that supports/is intelligible to MRWaSP capitalism). Lynn argued that fossils exhibit an “out of synchness,” and it’s this out of synchness that does the work of fracturing. I propose that we think of this out of synchness as being out of phase with the dominant patterns of vibration. This out-of-phaseness is what we experience when we hear something (a) dissonant and/or (b) noisy.

I talk about “out-of-phaseness” here (in my 2013 SPEP talk). I argued there that:


If classical melancholy involves “hanging on” to what ought to be excluded (e.g., women’s art), neoliberal melancholy would manifest as insufficient resilience, incandescence that radiates at the wrong frequency, so, for example, we couldn’t hear or see it. Instead of turning silence into speech and writing, melancholic art would queer silences. Jonathan Katz’s essay “John Cage’s Queer Silences” begins with the line “John Cage never quite came out of the closet.”[16] He never positively claimed his identity as a formerly damaged (closeted) but now un-repressed sexual subject. In other words, he didn’t transpose his homosexuality into the terms that would interpolate him into resilient citizenship. Instead of openly proclaiming his gay identity, he remained queerly silent. His silence is “queer” because it doesn’t conform to the in/out or mute/vocal binaries that structure the closet’s epistemology. As Katz explains, “Cage himself, while never denying his sexuality, preferred instead to duck the question: when asked to characterize his relationship with Merce, he would say, “I cook and Merce does the dishes.” Cage answers the question, but in terms that aren’t directly and efficiently legible as a response—cooking and dishwashing seem to have little connection to sexuality.

Cage’s silences aren’t just a political response to sexual normativity; they’re also musical responses to increasingly deregulatory (read: neoliberal) compositional methods like “open works” and chance processes. For example, 4:33 can be read doubly, as both resilience and queer silence. Insofar as it recoups extraneous concert-hall noise and places it at the center of the musical work/performance, 4:33 is a paradigmatic example of what Ziarek calls modernist experimentation and what I call deregulatory resilience. However, as much as philosophers love to cite this work as an example of something, it’s hard to find examples of people enjoying the work. Nobody actually likes 4:33, in the sense of rocking out to it while exercising or driving down the highway. The affective surplus value we expect from resilience (e.g., glowing radiance) is absent here. The compositional practice of resilience fails to adequately perform the cultural/affective labor with which it is usually tasked. Instead of amplifying affective and aesthetic pleasure, 4:33 completely undercuts them by giving us the wrong kind of excess. Cage shows us that silence is full of sounds we can’t hear because they radiate at frequencies we can’t (or won’t) hear, that are queerly out of phase with our ability to perceive them. Steve Reich calls these the “irrational” moments in phase compositions like “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Violin Phase.”

The “irrationality” (again, this is Reich’s word for patterns that aren’t culturally/aesthetically intelligible) of out-of-phase sounds hearkens back to Lynn’s comment that “fossils are mad.”

So, this is all very preliminary and I have a ton more to think about with Lynn’s paper. But, I just wanted to begin to make the case for thinking sonically about biopolitics and biopolitical death. My JPMS article I linked at the beginning of this section also begins to articulate what can be queer about this out-of-synchness, as does the above discussion of Cage. The connection between queerness, biopolitical death, and being out of phase is something I need to think more about.

Beauvoirian Ambiguity

This concept appeared throughout the conference in papers on lots of different things: Christine Deigle used Beauoviran ambiguity (the idea that humans are both subjects and objects, and that the world is made, materially, by human interactions with it, so even objects are subjective) as an alternative to feminist new materialism’s absolute rejection of “the subject” in favor of “objects” or “matter.” I find that really productive move, in large part because Beauvorian ontology can account for “the subject” as a material reality or apparatus that has been made real (sort of in the same way that ‘race’ has been made real): for several centuries, the world has been organized as though subjects exist, as though races exist, so they have been made to exist. And just as it is politically imperative to account for the material reality of race (i.e., not make the “race isn’t real so we should just forget about it” colorblind move), I think it’s politically imperative to account for the material reality of ‘the subject.’ And Beauvoir’s concept of ambiguity might be one great way to do that.

Mairead Sullivaln also used Beauvoir’s concept of ambiguity to discuss “epistemological strangeness” or a “thinking that does not rely on oppositional logic.” Mairead’s paper aimed to complicate the bi-valence of “ambiguity,” and it did this with the concept of “strangeness,” which it defined as “unclear but not unknown or illegible.” I particularly liked the idea that “strangeness suspends the need to know,” as Mairead put it. I like this idea for a number of reasons, but mainly because I think the assumption of knowability, the entitlement to know, is one of the main ways privilege manifests itself: “I ought to know or be able to know.” I wonder about the relationship between suspending the need to know and a practice of what XCP has been calling “epistemic disobedience.”


Feminist Philosophy and Sports

Erin Tarver does some amazing work on sports and sports fan cultures (her work on mascotting and race, which she presented this year at UNCC, is really interesting. It has me thinking about the relationships between what she calls “mascotting” and blackface minstrelsy). I think there are lots of affinities between what she does with sports and what I do with music–for example, I think Erin is doing philosophy through pop culture (not ‘of’ it, applying philosophy in a top-down way to tell pop culture its truth, but through it, interpreting pop cultural phenomena as themselves philosophically rich sites of inquiry). But I also really value the differences between our projects–thinking about what is specific to sports helps me learn more about what is specific to pop music.

The talk she gave at philoSOPHIA focused on female sports fans. One of her claims was that “women sports fans have a different kind of knowledge than men sports fans do.” Or basically, women’s knowledge of both (a) the game, and (b) how, as a fan, to relate to the game (what maybe you could call the ‘practices of fandom’) are different of men’s knowledge of both a and b. This point about women’s knowledges, and Erin’s further claim that perhaps women’s fandom practices could have an affect on sports fandom practices more generally (or, that women’s sports fandom could reorient mainstream sports fandom) had me thinking of poptimism. Poptimism is, to be a bit reductive, a music fandom and/or critical practice that centers typically feminized values and fan practices. And, in the last decade or so, poptimism has been a significant influence in mainstream music criticism.

Elizabeth Keenan has an excellent overview of both poptimism and its gendered stakes here. (Seriously, feminist philosophers, you should read that post for its own sake. It’s sooo great.) There, she argues that the centrality of poptimism to mainstream music criticism goes hand-in-hand with a move past genre-specific fandom to “omnivorous consumption”:

It actually means that more forms of music are evaluated than before. “Poptimism” is just one aspect of omnivorous consumption; in terms of Pazz and Jop, it’s also meant that artists like Kanye West have landed in the number 1 spot (more than once).

Basically, ‘feminized’ listening practices and aesthetic values are centered/dominant in a context where genre doesn’t matter (i.e., where gendered high/low, rock/pop binaries are flattened). In music, the valuation of feminized music and women’s fan practices has coincided with a move that is both post-genre and post-gender. That is: there’s some sort of correlation between the centering of women’s knowledges and a move to a post-identity aesthetics.

With respect to Erin’s project, I think Elizabeth’s analysis of poptimism raises the following question: what’s the relationship, both theoretically and practically, between a mainstreaming of women’s sports fandom knowledges and practices and neoliberal post-identity-politics more generally? Can women’s sports fandom knowledges and practices be centered and valued in a way that doesn’t coincide with or require some sort of awful shift to post-gender, post-feminist MRWaSP? Are sports fandom and pop music fandom different enough so that what happened with poptimism won’t happen with the move Erin’s trying think through?


Resilience & Precarity

I was on a fabulous panel with Jana McAuliffe and Sina Kramer. Jana and I talked about resilience, and Sina talked about precarity and vulnerability in Butler’s work. I have so, so, SO much that I’m still thinking about from this panel and from the discussion (which was great! thanks EVERYONE!); I can only scratch the surface here. And, to try to impose some order on this sea of thoughts, I’m just going to make a list:

  1. Sina’s paper made me wonder: Why is vulnerability such a trendy concept in contemporary feminist philosophy? What’s the desire to begin from the claim (to naturalize the claim?) that humans/people/bodies are first and foremost vulnerable? Or that vulnerability is and ought to be the best ground for ethics, politics, ontology, and well philosophy generally? Is the continual incitement of vulnerability in feminist philosophy part of resilience discourse more generally, insofar as resilience discourse requires, as its first step, the positing of damage? If vulnerability-theory is just another branch of resilience discourse, wouldn’t that mean that vulnerability feminisms are actually not at all critical or revolutionary, but another mechanism for normalizing us all to neoliberal institutions?
    1. The other point here, and I think this is a point on which Sina might agree, is that it’s not the vulnerability it’s the distribution that’s the issue. Sure, sure, we’re all vulnerable, but institutions are set up so that some people’s vulnerability supports the health and, indeed, resilience of others.
  2. It’s not just vulnerability that’s distributed unevenly, it’s “resilience.” I want to clarify that I’m using “resilience” as a technical term to describe a particular manifestation of practices of resilience. Resilience in my technical sense means a very particular performance of therapeutic overcoming, one that takes three steps: (1) damage is incited and posited (“The media makes me hate my body”); (2) that damage is spectacularly overcome in a way that is legible to and consumable by others (“Look at me as I go on TV in my underwear in a Today Show segment called “Love My Selfie”); (3) that spectacular performance generates a profit, in human capital, that I can invest in myself, and that further vests hegemonic interests (i.e. MRWaSP capitalism). There are plenty of resilient practices that aren’t intelligible as “Resilience” because they (a) don’t generate profits that the performer can re-invest in themselves, and/or (b) they don’t generate sufficient surplus value for MRWaSP capitalism.
  3. I take one of the major points of Jana’s paper to be that only certain kinds of “good, rational, economic thinking” are rewarded as resilience. There are plenty of decisions that are pathologized as unhealthy, ignorant, and wasteful that are actually rock-solid at the level of economic rationality. Jana gave the example of someone gaming the EBT system’s rules; I often talk about buying lots of packaged and processed foods (which is seen as unhealthy, but when you have a limited food budget, some food is healthier than no food). While we work to reform and/or dismantle the institutions that pathologize these behaviors (like, say, white supremacist capitalism), how can we also build spaces where these otherwise pathological behaviors aren’t punished and quarantined? I take that to be one of the main questions of Jana’s paper, and it’s a hugely important one.