Reflections on the Prison and Theory Working Group at SPEP 2014

On Friday night at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) yearly meeting, the Prison and Theory Working Group hosted a session in which participants were asked to reflect on the relationship between prison and theory. The PTWG, framed the event by introducing the group’s 10 principles. Everyone in the room was then asked to briefly state what brought them to the session. Participants included invited anti-prison activists from New Orleans and members of SPEP who attended for a variety of reasons, ranging from curiosity to direct experience of the carceral system. The group’s aim is to create spaces for relationship building, support, and accountability for people theorizing and taking action against mass incarceration.

The PTWG event was unique in my experience of SPEP – no one read papers, we were in a big circle that broke up into smaller circles for discussion, people talked seriously about accountability. In talking seriously about accountability, participants brought up problems of accountability at SPEP. There was a strikingly open conversation about the fact that people known to have committed harms, like sexual assault and sexual harassment, operate within the organization without public acknowledgement of or accountability for what they have done.

Of course, in our retributivist context, the idea of acknowledging or seeking accountability for such behavior makes a lot of people nervous. “Witch Hunt” comes quickly to people’s lips. But we need not reproduce that retributivism within SPEP. Indeed, SPEP offers us an opportunity to build a noncarceral space through practicing the very difficult work of seeking accountability, rather than retribution for the community, which usually involves the loss of autonomy for the people who have been harmed and isolation of the person who has committed harm. And I think SPEP could be one site within the larger discipline of philosophy for this accountability work. As the many public cases of sexual harassment and assault within the discipline attest, there’s work that needs to be done.

So, inspired by work at the PTWG and in the spirit of working to decarcerate all aspect of our lives, I ask: What would it look like for the members of SPEP to hold people accountable for the harms they have committed without treating them like irredeemable monsters? I am thinking specifically of sexual harassment and assault, because that is what I have heard most about, dealt with directly, and it’s a pressing issue within the discipline right now. But, as we begin this accountability work, we can and must expand the range of its concern. We will be in practice and more capable of addressing harms that are now mostly only spoken of in hushed voices among trusted friends – for instance, overt and covert exercises of white privilege and transphobia.

Every year there is harassment and inappropriate behavior that targets those of us who are underrepresented in philosophy – these interactions run the gamut from overt acts of aggression and harassment to more subtle microaggressions (there will soon be a website about what it is like to be a person of color in philosophy).  Members of SPEP, let’s be less comforted by the thought that at least it’s not the APA. It’s not, but that doesn’t make it a good place for all the people who practice or want to practice Continental philosophy. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it can be tempting for members of SPEP to think that since Continentalists are a minority in philosophy our conference spaces are therefore free of domination, or at least better than the APA. The former is simply false and the latter is not a standard.

In the spirit of the PTWG, we could start with a session in which we discuss the need for community accountability at SPEP. It is possible to address harms to members of our community without demonizing those who have committed harms, but that will take a great deal of reflection on the part of members and the broader SPEP community.

The PTWG states: “Mass incarceration is a legacy of the failure to achieve abolition democracy.” So, calling for accountability at SPEP may seem like a strange take-away from the PTWG session– like I’ve missed the point that we’ve got bigger problems than some misbehaved philosophers. But the PTWG also states:

We are committed to activism in an expansive sense. We understand activism to include any abolitionist theory or praxis—that is, any activity that unmasks carceral logic, de-centers whiteness and patriarchy, and unsettles the inside/outside binary. Such activism can occur in the university in everyday ways through the texts we read, the topics and figures we discuss, the people we hire, invite, mentor, etc.

Motivated by what the PTWG brought to SPEP, I’m calling for those of us who love Continental philosophy to work within one of the most important organizations that sustains its practice in the US to make it better – a lot better. And in the process, we’ll learn how to decarcerate other parts of the world.

There are many resources that can guide SPEP in this work, but here’s a good starting place is the decades of work done by people who are addressing harms in their communities without resorting to retribution.

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