philoSOPHIA 2014: continuing the conversations, pt. 3

 For part 3 of our series on philoSOPHIA 2014, we’re pleased to welcome Sina Kramer.

Thanks for the opportunity! Much like Sarah, I too am still chewing on – or perhaps ruminating over, as Nietzsche might have it – all of the great philosophy done at philoSOPHIA this year. These are just a few of my reflections, around one theme and one panel. Hopefully I will be back for more thinking along different lines.

It was exciting to see work at philosoPHIA this year on race, prisons, and really insightful critical reflections on this “new feminist materalisms” thing. But a big theme for me at philoSOPHIA this year was neoliberalism, and in specific neoliberalism’s relation to or reliance on earlier, liberal social forms or concepts, especially race, gender, maturity, and failure. This links to the larger question of the emergence of neoliberalism, or more specifically the conditions of that emergence: on what is neoliberalism parasitic, or what must it disavow? If neoliberalism is (again, as Nietzsche might argue) a transvaluation of values, then how does that transvaluation occur, and by what medium? Is it enough to give to neoliberalism its history? If so, then which one? And if not, what more is needed? All these questions were tackled on my panel, so I’m just (selfishly) focusing on that in these short reflections.

Jana McAuliffe’s paper put these questions to play in a really nice way, by focusing on the distinctions at work in the concept of resilience. Now, if we are to take neoliberalism at its word, then there should be no such distinctions. If neoliberalism is as flat as it claims to be, then resilience should be a value for all subjects, and we would judge subjects as rational agents who are more or less on board with or good at resilience. Jana’s paper showed that even as education policy and higher education discourse increasingly focus on how best to train our students to be resilient, the students themselves already show a sophisticated and telling understanding of he concept of resilience as differential, or as expressing a valuation of some forms of resilience and a devaluation of others. That distinction breaks along more traditionally liberal (perhaps) concepts of race, class, and gender, or perhaps a neoliberal amalgamation or mutation of these. For instance, Jana wrote that her students devalue the resilience displayed by women on welfare, who get their nails done at the expense of their children, or find creative ways to use food stamps or WIC benefits to get Mountain Dew. This is certainly seems like a form of resilience, but not one that is valued as an investment in the self that is the hallmark of homo economicus – though I suppose that is part of the larger question: is this a devalued form of resilience? Or is it not properly reslience at all? There is definitely a political epistemology at work here that I can’t quite get my hands around – of a piece with the work on Foucaultian regimes of veridiction that Arnold Davidson has done. The most helpful question Jana’s paper posed for me is: are the tools developed to critique the forms of liberal subject production still useful under neoliberalism? This is a great approach, I think, which opens up the question at the right site.

Robin James’ paper was a great development of this analysis, by distinguishing between resilience and precarity in the language of financial capital: resilience would be an investment in human capital that produces a surplus or a return, whereas precarity precludes any return on your investment. This distinction is racialized, and managed through a racialized – and classed – gender: whereas under earlier social forms of race and gender, the work of white women was to purify whiteness, under neoliberal biopolitics, the work of white women is to purify blackness, in order to produce it as an exception. The particular kind of resilience at work in white femininity is the work of overcoming damage – or overcoming a specifically feminizing form of damage, that naturalizes and individualizes the experience of heteropatriarchy. We give credit to those white women who were able to overcome this damage – assault or harassment –and to succeed in spite of these, without giving any thought to the forces at play to support that success (i.e., “Lean In”) and without giving any thought to what happens when you lack those material supports.

This analysis seems right to me, and the distinction between resilience and precarity is useful. But it does seem to give up the game, as it were, and to agree with Jana’s students who don’t see the skills needed to navigate poverty as resilient, but instead only as deviant or criminal. Perhaps this is correct, but again I wonder about the political epistemology of this. I also wonder about the specific dynamics of race, class and gender in some areas: for instance, if we understand the work of white women as the purification of blackness, and in specific (following Lester Spence) the isolation of black men as a neoliberal exception, then what is the role of black women? And beyond the black/white binary here, what is the role of, for instance, immigrant/second generation Asian women, many of whom work in the very salons folks go to to get their nails done? What is the texture of multiracial white supremacy, and is all nonblack multiraciality white supremacist? If not, then how, and what does that mean? Having moved to Los Angeles during the 20th anniversary of the 1992 LA Riots/Uprising, I am more and more curious about the texture of multiracial white supremacy, and how it plays out in specific locations, geographies, and histories, so while I grant that multiracial white supremacy is totally a thing, the specific racializations of Hispanics/Chican@s/Latin@s and Asian and Native folks is more and more important to me.

Nevertheless I am super excited by the directions this work points to, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.