Author Archives: educated ice

“Sexual Paranoia” and Trigger Warnings: Speech and Power

I have been watching the recent response to this Laura Kipnis piece in the Chronicle with knots in my stomach. Then I developed a sprain in my eyeballs from the rolling.

At the end of February, Laura Kipnis argued in “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that new codes governing sexual conduct between professors and students exhibit a “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” a kind of hysterical feminism that exaggerates the vulnerability of students and constructs a “fiction of the all-powerful professor.” Against this dour picture of the current state of sexual affairs on campus, Kipnis reflects nostalgically on her own art college experience in the mid to late 1970s: “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum… Lots of smart, ambitious women were doing the same thing, according to [Jane Gallop], because it was a way to experience your own power.” She argues that policies such as these – as well as trigger warnings – are part of a climate of sexual paranoia on campus that ill-serves students in preparing them badly for the “boorish badlands of real life” and treats professors as predators, making it far too easy to destroy their lives. Far from defending an antifeminist position, Kipnis argues that she herself would want to see sexual harrassers “chemically castrated, stripped of their property, and hung up by their thumbs in the town square.” She suggests that if universities want to deal with sexual assault, we shouldn’t ban professor-student relationships, but rather fraternities; and that if we want to deal with sexual favoritism, we should end spousal hires, “where trailing spouses are getting ranks and perks based on whom they’re sleeping with rather than CVs alone, and brought in at salaries often dwarfing those of senior and more accomplished colleagues who didn’t have the foresight to couple more advantageously” (too which – I’m just not even).

The center of this piece is a series of lawsuits and counter-suits surrounding a case of sexual assault between an undergraduate student at Northwestern University (where Kipnis teaches) and her philosophy professor. Obviously many of us from philosophy departments (present tense or past) know about this case, and the role that it has played – or the ways in which it has been used – to shape responses to activism within the discipline to create a better climate for the women who work in and study philosophy. So I think that we at xcphilosophy are in a particularly good position to think about this, and to parse what’s going on in this conversation about feminism, speech, sex codes, trigger warnings, etc., from the perspective of what’s going on in philosophy – rather than the perspective of a resuscitation of the culture wars of the 1990s, complete with an Andrea Dworkin v Wendy Kaminer cage match.

So, I just want to say a couple of things about this.

First, in this piece, Kathryn Pogin, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Northwestern, points out that she contacted the Chronicle to address several misrepresentations about the Northwestern case in Kipnis’ piece. This includes the claim that the accused professor is also suing a graduate student that he previously dated for defamation, since the student alleges that he sexually harassed her. Pogin points out that it is the accused professor who claims that he was dating the graduate student as part of his defense; the graduate student herself says that they were not dating. Kipnis took this claim on its face; that is, she believed the claim the professor makes in his lawsuit against the graduate student. So, okay. Moreover, in email exchanges about Pogin’s request for corrections of these misrepresentations, she was referred to in an email sent to her by mistake as a “girl” “splitting hairs” in an “incomprehensible tirade.”

Also, as this piece points out, I have literally never heard students complaining about campus feminists violating their right to sleep with their professors? Like, never. I have more than once heard hysterically defensive claims from professors, like: “But what if the student in class is leading me on with what she is wearing?” and “We don’t need a sexual harassment policy. The pretty ones won’t mind and the ugly ones don’t need it.” If all of this worry about coddling and abridgments of free speech or whatever is truly all about affirming the agency of our students, then why aren’t we hearing much from them about protecting their rights to sleep with their professors, rather than hearing about professor’s rights to sleep with their students? The erotics implied between professors and students here are themselves a confirmation of the power imbalance: after all, do people in equal relationships often threaten each other, or feel threatened by, sexual blackmail?

These conversations are not merely theoretical for many of us in philosophy. We have heard the stories about how women in philosophy in generations before us were expected to sleep with their advisors. It was just how things were done. It’s not a big deal, really; we should be cool about it. We should in fact be so feminist about how not a big deal it is that we should prove it by sleeping with our professors (or so they said). Women who are successful in philosophy are as a result often hobbled by implications that what is valuable about them is not exactly their intellect. And many of us have  students who come to us now, crushed and filled with self-doubt, when they realize that their professors’ attention was grooming, not mentorship. Many of us therefore carry what Sally Haslanger refers to as a “deep well of rage” inside of us at the accumulation of these stories and experiences.

Kipnis’ piece generated several responses, including one from Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, and Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Shulevitz uses Kipnis’ piece as evidence of an overall trend towards coddling college students from scary ideas, alongside campaigns to designate certain areas or whole campuses as “safe spaces,” and the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in classrooms. There is a lot to be said about trigger warnings – where they came from, what they have developed in to, what they do and don’t do – and some interesting and productive things said about them are here and here.

What I am most concerned about in all of this is the total lack of attention to the role played by the university’s neoliberal risk-management culture. That is, there is a huge difference between the origins of trigger warnings in online feminism – requests for warnings about content, discussions and arguments about what they mean and whether they are effective, the meanings of accessibility and difference, and the inevitable joke content warnings about Justin Bieber – and the adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings in syllabi or in the classroom as policy enforced by university instructors’ contracts.

Even further than that, my university – like many – has decided in the wake of the “new legal environment” following the “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 addressing guidelines for compliance with Title IX and the Clery Act, to make reporting of “sexual misconduct” mandatory for all faculty on campus. We are designated “responsible reporters,” meaning that we cannot keep confidential any conversations about assault that may have taken place between university students, staff, or faculty confidential. This policy is one adopted wholesale from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA), a subsidiary of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, whose CEO, Brett Sokolow, has argued that such blanket reporting structures are necessary to ensure that there is no “confusion” about compliance.

This effectively means that my syllabi, my office, and my classrooms are not safe spaces for survivors (or “accusers,” if Kipnis prefers). And if a university with this policy provides a so-called “safe space” for those triggered by particularly graphic speech on campus (as in the Shulevitz piece), given the blanket “responsible reporter” policy, it is probably not a safe space for students who report that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted on campus.

What this means is that, in several respects, this conversation about coddling students and attacks on free speech on campus is using feminism as a front. While individual feminists might advocate the adoption of trigger warning policies, or safe spaces, or better policies for students who are victims of rape and sexual assault, I don’t know any feminists who begin from the presumption that we should take away choice from survivors, and put them through a process that is not meant to ensure their healing but rather the indemnity of the institution, whether they want it or not. Let’s not get confused about who is in charge here, and whose interests are at stake.

Thoughts on Cosby, Mike Brown, and Respectability

I haven’t got much to say. Much that makes any sense, anyway.

I keep looking for words that will make sense. Or make things make sense. I have yet to find them. What I have instead is the following.

Back in February, while researching the dynamics of the politics of respectability for their applicability to the situation of white women and women and men of color in the discipline of philosophy, I discovered a story that Bill Cosby had been accused of sexual assault. In fact he was accused of serial rape: at least thirteen women were prepared to testify in the suit Andrea Constand brought against Cosby in 2006 that he had drugged and assaulted them in the same manner as Constand in 2004. In the last six weeks, several more women have come forward telling similar tales, 18 so far, stretching from the late 1960s to the mid 2000s.

A child of the 80s, I didn’t grow up watching episodes of the Jeffersons or Good Times or Sanford and Son. Black life on TV was the Cosby show, followed by the spinoff A Different World, which followed Denise Huxtable as she went to college. The Huxtables’ lives were, as the kids say, ‘relatable’ – it reflected the kind of aspirational upper-middle class life that bouied much of middle america as we watched other people enjoy the rising tide of the 80s.

That the Cosby show, along with Cosby’s humor itself, made black life relatable to whites is a testament both to his skill as a comic and to the white desire for an alibi. As Mervan Osborne said in the New York Times, “There was a time when white people used to claim, ‘I watch “Cosby” ’ as their bona fides.’”

That desire for an alibi renders racism a matter of what’s in your head, a place that conveniently can never be accessed, while you complain that, despite your live of hip hop, you are forbidden as a white person from using “the n-word.” It leads to the requirement that the NAACP denounce black-on-black crime, while expressing their hope that an agent of the state will be held accountable for the murder of an unarmed 18 year old. It leads to the belief that state violence against black people can be prevented by just being better people – presumably, being more like Cosby himself.

This is where the logic of respectability politics takes you. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his excellent mea cupla (for failure to adequately report on the accusations of rape in his piece on Cosby) in the Atlantic, reminds us that “[o]rganic black conservatives (like Cosby, for instance) are traditionalists, but they hold no such illusions about America’s past. They believe this country to be racist, perhaps irredeemably so, but assert nonetheless that individual effort can defeat trenchant racism. The organic black conservative vision is riding high at the moment… The author of this moment is Bill Cosby.”

Bill Cosby’s first performance in the aftermath of this latest, much stickier round of allegations took place in Melbourne Florida in front of an “almost exclusively white” audience. A reporter for LA Times interviewed members of the audience: “‘I think what you have is a lot of people on the left who don’t like him,’ said Ray Harker, a white resident of the nearby town of Grant who owns an air conditioning and heating business there. Harker came out to the show with his wife, Eleanora, who nodded in agreement with much of what her husband said. ‘They don’t like what [Cosby] says about black people taking more responsibility, and this is their chance to beat up on him,’ Harker added.”

I would like to hold open a space between what Coates calls organic black conservatism and the white desire for an alibi. To say that the latter determines the former is certainly much too reductive, and has the effect of reifying all black politics as a merely effect of white supremacy. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the politics of respectability unites both sides into a single logic. It is a logic of inclusion, a way of making a claim to citizenship on the terms of citizenship as already established. And to that extent, it works: inclusion can be gained, can be bought with success, can be achieved if you are twice as good, if you are never weak or never fail, if you are never marked by the phenomenon of error, that which is said to make us human. You can achieve inclusion, by being something more than human.

I began writing this piece while waiting for the indictment of officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was murdered for appearing to be something more than human: according to Wilson’s testimony to the grand jury, after already having been shot, Brown fought with Wilson for control of the gun like “Hulk Hogan” and “bulked up” in order to run into more bullets; according to Wilson, “it”s face appeared to resemble a demon.

I argued last winter that while the politics of respectability might be a reasonable response to liberalism, it re-produced another set of constitutively excluded others, and that those who could not be included under the old paradigm – the poor, the queer – found out that they were on their own. What are the costs of respectability? Who is required to pay it?

Last week, when Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed regret for not doing more reporting on accusations of rape against Cosby, writer Ishmael Reed accused Coates on Facebook of joining a lynch mob. Reed said that, given his identity as a black man, he was loathe to join a lynch mob since he himself would be most vulnerable to it. Novelist and Vassar professor Kiese Laymon pointed out the logic at work here: Reed is willing to think of 18 women as liars because he might himself be accused of assault one day. Perhaps it would not even be necessary that they be liars. All that is necessary is that the overwhelming actuality of sexual assault not matter as much as the slimmest possibility that Ishmael Reed be someday accused of it.

Today, in a breathtaking piece, Kiese Laymon wrote the following:

My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.

Is the price of respectability politics Cosby’s ability to rape 18 women with impunity?

How respectable could Mike Brown have been in order to survive?

What is the price of white desire for an alibi?

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.




Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability, Part III: Epistemic Disobedience

I’m just looking for/Just looking for a way around…

I’m just looking for/one divine hammer…

– The Breeders

One might fairly ask what all this has to do with philosophy.

In the feminist blogosphere, there is an old trope that goes, “If it’s not about you, then it’s not about you.” This phrase is primarily meant to defuse defensive posturing, whether from MRA types, or from radical feminists who call into question the right of transwomen to use the bathroom, or racism from white feminists. But it is also a call to reflection: it demands on the part of the reader reflection as to whether or not a critique is about you, or not, and what that might look like. In that vein, I’m calling myself out here as much as anyone. Curry and Drabinski’s analysis – and this entire exchange – has made me think deeply about my own philosophical practice, and what I might be missing when I center the voices of white thinkers in order to analyze race, or men when I analyze the condition of women, or white men when I’m practicing philosophy, (not that these three are so easily separable as hegemonic philosophy might wish, and as I hope we demonstrate!). I consider this not merely for liberal inclusivist reasons, but precisely for how it might change the framework, and change the work itself. It has also called me to reflect on the politics of respectability that such a practice is underpinned by and reproduces, reinforcing the notion that, while it might be nice to take up race or gender as questions, we need to turn to white men to do the heavy lifting when we need serious philosophical analysis. We have to use the hammer, and use it correctly, for the sake of our legitimacy as philosophers. We have to reproduce philosophy faithfully, in order to shore up that legitimacy, in order to advance in our careers. We have to be respectable, in order to avoid the policing we see others around us subjected to.

Meanwhile, women in philosophy are subject to subject to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Meanwhile, people of color of all genders and sexualities are subject to a state of permanent probation: presumed incompetent. Meanwhile, feminist philosophers are subject to routine suspicion, from claims that they are unqualified to objectively assess the climate for women at the department at CUBoulder, to claims that they are hardly philosophers at all.

The distinction you make between bad pluralism and good pluralism is a great analytic with which to read dynamic. On the one hand a good pluralism, one that maintains the faithful reproduction of wealth and power or the faithful reproduction of philosophy, but which can marshall a certain claim to broadmindedness as an alibi, as proof of the legitimacy of this faithful reproduction, while retaining its right to police the boundaries of respectable philosophical practice and to gender violence as one of its privileges. On the other hand, a bad pluralism, one that fails to reproduce faithfully, one that resists essentialism, insists on internal differentiation and complexity – a ratchet, disrespectable, disobedient pluralism.

A disobedient pluralism takes its lights from Kirstie Dotson’s suggestion, in her introduction to the Hypatia issue on Interstices, that feminist philosophers of color practice an epistemic disobedience that is routinely – and interestedly – misread by hegemonic philosophy. This marks a failure of philosophy to understand the work of feminist philosophers of color as central to their survival and flourishing, or as you put it in an earlier post, an instance of philosophy failing its diverse practitioners. Dotson writes,

Strict adherance to norms of current, academic scholarly inquiry and/or epistemological commitments serve to distort the deliberate epistemic disobedience of women of color feminist philosophy by generating oversimplifications of complex positions, at best, or accusations of incompetence, at worst. Such failures to serious acknowledge deliberate epistemic disobedience ensures that those reading women of color feminist philosophy are not just misreading this work, but are actively engaged in particularly colonializing scholarly engagement… Women of color feminist philosophy often actively struggles to decolonize the academy in its very performance. However, one should not take such performances of decolonizing as apologies, as they are done for the sake of one’s own survival, often at the expense of one’s place and ease in the academy (7).

I think that Dotson’s concept of epistemic disobedience offers a great alternative to the politics of respectability currently animating “good” pluralist philosophy in this neoliberal moment. Epistemic disobedience also reframes failure here, putting the responsibility for failure on hegemonic philosophy, and casting epistemic disobedience, not as a practice of failure, but instead as a practice of survival, even if it also endangers one’s position in the academy. Epistemic disobedience, insofar as it is a philosophical practice that is tied to the survival and flourishing of diverse practitioners of philosophy, and in specific women of color feminist philosophers, negotiates the distinction between negotiating failure as wounding and failure as fecund by tying style intimately to substance, and by paying attention to the conditions out of which thought emerges.

Epistemic disobedience, as a practice of breaking the hammer, asks us to consider to whom is our thought faithful? What might a disobedient pluralism look like? And where might the practice of disobedient pluralism, a practice of a different faithfulness, take us?

Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability, II

In this post I want to present a little genealogical work on respectability politics, in order not to carry it too far from the conditions out of which it was produced, or – if I do – to be accountable to that. If, as I claimed earlier, that the work of pluralism is negotiating the distinction between failure as fecund, and failure as wounding, with attention to who is made to bear that distinction, then attention to the ground out of which this concept grew is important part of that work.

Respectability politics is a theoretical analytic traceable back to the Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higganbotham. In her book, Righteous Discontent, which describes the role that black women in church organizations and clubs played in setting the norms of respectability in the project of racial uplift, Higganbotham argues that

“Respectability demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes. Individual behavior, the black Baptist women contended, determined the collective fate of African Americans… There could be no transgression of society’s norms. From the public spaces of the trains and streets to the private spaces of their individual homes, the behavior of blacks was conceived as ever visible to the white gaze” (198 – as quoted in Boundaries of Blackness, 72).

E. Francis White, in Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, describes the contradictions of respectability politics:

“On the one hand, women in clubs and church organizations used respectability as a discourse of resistance… Ironically, by censuring African Americans who did not behave in ways that black club and church women considered proper, these women helped authorize racist stereotypes. In some ways, they worried too much about what whites would think about black people… Black club and church women also used the white gaze as a tool to regulate black behavior” (36-37).

Respectability politics can be both a discourse of resistance and at the same time an oppressive discourse. If black folks are racialized as stupid or lazy, then it is resistant to prove white supremacy wrong by being well educated and hard working. In a culture that affords no dignity, it is resistant to insist upon one’s dignity. This can at the same time mean that, even if it doesn’t seek integration, respectability politics seeks assimilation to white norms. And because identities are constituted multiply, this means that the policing of behavior integral to respectability politics has differential, and oppressive, effects on women and gays/queers.

These oppressive effects of respectability politics are analyzed by Cathy J. Cohen, in Boundaries of Blackness. There Cohen argues that the particular focus of respectability politics on sexuality had the effect of excluding homosexuality from this construction of blackness. This contributed to a pervasive denial about AIDS within the black community, endangering the lives of gay black men in particular, since it was impossible for them to adhere to the heterosexual norms at work in respectability politics; black gay men therefore thus fell outside of the construction of blackness it shapes:

‘…there was a silencing of, and a silence among, those who wanted to step outside the model of innocent victim to challenge their secondary position in black communities as well the inactivity of black elected officials in response to AIDS. Black women were allowed to speak as long as what they said did not threaten the respectability of community members, in particular black male elites. Highlighting stories on black women and children instead of, for example, black gay men is facilitated by myths that construct black women and children as community members who need and “deserve” protection and are not fully capable of independent group membership. This is an interesting contrast to many dominant narratives of black communities structured around the strong, black matriarch protecting or destroying, depending on your perspective, her family, and black men in particular’ (202).

One of the faithful proponents of respectability politics is the venerable comedian Bill Cosby. In a representative speech from 2005, commemorating Brown v Board, Cosby claimed black vernacular speech, wearing pants low and hats backward, and $500 sneakers were examples of black folks responsible for failing to adequately combat racist stereotypes. While most black conservatives don’t have the media access Cosby has, this kind of sentiment is not unusual. Nor is it universal. What is interesting about Cosby as a representation of respectability politics, however, is how comfortably respectability sits alongside accusations of sexual abuse. Bill Cosby is accused by multiple women of having drugged and raped them.

Insofar as respectability politics claims personal behavior as the site of reproduction of racism, it places the responsibility for combatting racism on the individual. This makes respectability politics uniquely suited for a neoliberal age. As Frederick Harris argues in “The Rise of Respectability Politics,”

“What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elite to ‘uplift the race’ by correcting the ‘bad’ traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans – but particularly for black Americans – the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.”

It is this neoliberal politics of respectability that can lead Geraldo to imply that Travyon Martin was responsible for his own murder because he was wearing a hoodie. It is this neoliberal politics of respectability that says that young black men can successfully combat joblessness, mass incarceration, and murder by turning their music down and pulling their pants up. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues convincingly that, “as in all cases of respectability politics, what we are really saying to black people is, ‘Be less human.’” The lesson of respectability politics is that, when white people say, “I don’t think of you as black,” that this is precisely the goal.

Under a liberal political paradigm, the politics of respectability might make more sense: it puts the lie to the liberal ideal of equality, challenging it to fulfill itself by extending its privileges to those who have been unjustly excluded from it. The performance of respectability is a sensible strategy against constitutive exclusion, in showing the grounds of exclusion to be baseless, on the claim that black folks can enact the same norms. Historically this was a successful strategy, but it came with a cost. It led to the further exclusions, such as that of black gay men – characteristic of what Cohen theorizes as advanced marginalization. And it is totally consistent with gender violence, especially intraracial gender violence – as liberalism is itself entirely consistent with gender violence (as Carol Pateman so masterfully shows).

These exclusions, and the politics of respectability as a strategic response, have the effect of essentializing, or shoring up the identities on either side by surpressing the internal difference on each side. This is on display in Mia McKenzie’s brilliant analysis of the feminist response to Beyoncé over at BlackGirlDangerous. In that post, McKenzie looks at the responses to Beyonce’s newest album across the feminist blogosphere. She sees the imposition of a troubling demand on the part of black feminists to defend Beyoncé against white feminist skepticism that she is a feminist, or feminist enough, to join the club. McKenzie worries that this has had a kind of essentializing effect: the need to defend Beyoncé against racist attacks on her feminism leads to the suppression of legitimate critiques feminists might have of Beyoncé’s expression of feminism on the album. She points to perhaps the biggest cause for worry: the inclusion in “Drunk in Love” of Jay Z’s (Mr. Sean Carter-Knowles, legally speaking) reference to a scene from biopic of the marriage of Tina Turner and her famously abusive husband/manager Ike, in which Ike forces Tina to eat a piece of cake by smashing it in her face. McKenzie finds the inclusion of this scene of domestic violence troubling, and expresses worry about a woman of color/black feminism that requires her to overlook this in order to defend Beyoncé. The point here is not the policing of feminism per se, but rather a kind of politics of respectability that reduces complexity, for the sake of rushing to support Beyoncé as a feminist in the face of racist mean girl skepticism. Instead of refusing the air the dirty laundry on Beyoncé’s own record, McKenzie argues for an understanding of feminism that goes beyond the essentializing politics in which it is embroiled: a politics that asks how much we should expect from pop star feminism, and how much more we could expect from a feminist pop star.

A similar dynamic is at work in the discussion of the NYT piece by Stanley and Weaver. While Stanley grants that the piece he co-authored with Weaver should have 1) included authors from within the black tradition, but also admits 2) that a more radical critique would not have made it into the NYTimes, specifically into the Stone column, and thus would not have had the impact the authors desired, Stanley is granting that their piece is shaped by the politics of respectability. First, by separating the issue of the inclusion of an author from the black tradition, and the issue of the substance of the critique, Stanley is at odds with the very critique that Curry and Drabinksi were making. That is, while Curry and Drabinski argued that they piece ought to have included voices from within the black intellectual tradition, given that the subject was racial domination as practiced against black people, they also argued that this was not a matter of simple liberal inclusion. Instead, they argued that turning to the black intellectual tradition and engaging it more fully would alter the frame of analysis in such a way as to de-center the liberalist frame upon which Weaver and Stanley rely.

Both of these are examples of how essentialism is produced through respectability politics, an essentialism that is produced by means of the constitutive exclusion along other axes. Respectability politics can police the sexuality of black people by excluding gay black men from the conception of blackness it animates; and it can well tolerate a spokesperson who puts the burdens of combating racism on the shoulders of individual black persons, while exercising his own exceptionalism against the bodies of black women.

So, while the politics of respectability may have been a reasonable strategic response to liberalism, it produces a whole nother set of constitutively excluded others. Under neoliberalism, those who could not be included under the norms of the older paradigm – because they constitutively excluded in virtue of their poverty, or their queerness – found out that they were on their own.

Denken ist (Weiß)männersache: Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability I

Denken ist männersache

I would like to follow up on an earlier post about substance and style in the exchange between Stanley and Drabinski/Curry. This post dealt with the question of the relationship between style and substance in the sense that Stanley argued (in his comments on the piece) that the piece he and Weaver wrote had to be styled in a certain way so as to be acceptable to the readership of the New York Times. He agreed that he and Weaver should have made an effort to include more writers or theorists of color in their analysis, but did not seem to indicate that this inclusion would significantly alter the terms of analysis. This became, for us, a question about the relationship between style and substance, the implicit knowledges contained in the performance of a particular style, and how that style is constrained by the material practices of philosophy, which in turn constrain its substance – or constrain what practices can appear as philosophical. That entire problematic was rehearsed again this past week, under the shifting signifier of pluralism, and in the wake of (as you point out) ongoing contestation over its meaning.

This seems to me to be a question of liberalism, the politics of representation, and of the difference, as you point out so brilliantly, between good and bad mixing in the event of pluralism.

This post was supposed to be about the politics of respectability, but I think our conversation has moved, to a certain degree, beyond that framework. As I see it, the politics of respectability is a strategic response to a certain set of political conditions, but both the interpretation of the conditions, and respectability as the strategic response, are framed by a certain kind of liberalism. This liberalism takes style as separable from substance in a way that doesn’t necessarily fundamentally alter the substance. That is, if we focus on the issue of representation – the inclusion of some (white) women on conference programs; the citation of (white) women in journal articles, the recruitment of (white) women in graduate programs and in departments. Liberalism marks inclusion as evidence of, or sufficient for, equality, without asking after the conditions of equality, without asking, therefore, “equal to whom?” – the question posed both by Luce Irigaray in “Egales á qui?”  and bell hooks in “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression.”

You echo this point here and link it to the political economy of the university. I think, however, that what is at stake here is perhaps the outmoded application of a political strategy to conditions that have changed. That is: if the politics of respectability ever were an effective strategy to challenge philosophical exceptionalism, it is definitely not effective any longer, and more than that, it is damaging.

Let me explain what I mean. I think that focus on the politics of representation are potentially useful and important in response to certain conditions, or were perhaps useful and effective at a particular time. If the definition of philosophy is predicated on the more or less absolute exclusion of women from it, then perhaps demanding representation does shift the picture appreciably. That is, the substance of philosophy might be radically altered by the introduction of a new style – in this case, the inclusion of women. However, if conditions have changed, then this strategy is less effective.

Effective for what, is the question. Equal to whom? Effective for what?

If the style can be changed without changing the substance, then that would be seen as ideal to those who are invested in maintaining a certain control over the terms of philosophy. The question then becomes, who can be trusted to reproduce philosophy faithfully? Who can be included without changing the terms, without radically redefining philosophy in either style or substance, either in theory or in practice? Who can we trust to use the hammer as a hammer, and not use it as a crowbar, or bring in other things – needle and thread, glue guns and sequins?

This is meant to echo as well your point about disciplines as kinship structures. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when this was released. If we view philosophy as underpinned by or managed through a kind of kinship structure, then the whiteness and heterosexuality of philosophy comes into focus. Because we ought to remember that women have always been a part of philosophy, from Aspasia on down, although most frequently as its mirror – as again Irigaray might argue. Insofar as women can be trusted to faithfully reproduce philosophy, then they can be included. Inclusion then operates on a colonial or assimilationist model. The “health” of philosophy is then assured – in terms of both style and substance, in terms of representation and in terms of reproduction. Thus does philosophy maintain its exceptionalism with regard to the rest of the humanities, with proper deference to science, free of “scolds” and “charlatans,” of “boutique” courses and too much “theory.” Here, however, a strange confluence between style and substance, or between representation and practice, occurs: too many people of color, as you point out, is evidence of the unhealth of philosophy, of bad mixing [with or without respect to the kind of philosophy being practiced by these bodies?].

This indicates that, if philosophy is animated by the operation of constitutive exclusion, this operates differently with respect to gender and race. That is, if philosophy defines itself through the exclusion of women – and to a certain degree it must, at least historically speaking; the flute girl, or Xanthippe and the baby, must be dismissed in order for the work of philosophy to get done – then this exclusion can be managed through the inclusion of certain women who faithfully reproduce philosophy. But if philosophy defines itself through the exclusion of people of color – as again it must: see Kant on this issue, or Hegel; see Charles Mills’ searing indictment; see what kinds of claims, and from whom, pass as universal in this business – then again this exclusion can in theory be managed through the inclusion of certain people of color who faithfully reproduce philosophy. So far, however, philosophy seems less able to reproduce itself faithfully in the latter case than in the former.

In a situation in which women and people of color are explicitly excluded, irregardless of the liberal principles of meritocratic inclusion, then a politics of respectability is a reasonable response. Demanding inclusion by demonstrating that the hegemonic narrative about women and people of color is wrong, by being twice as good, is an effective response to explicit exclusion. Demanding that those who espouse these principles live up to them by including the deserving is a sensible response. However, if those principles are structured through an exclusion to which they are blind – as in the structure and operation of constitutive exclusion – then these exclusions will be displaced and reappear in new forms at new sites. Moreover, as the political logic changes – from Jim Crow to colorblindess; from women’s liberation to post-feminism; from gay liberation to marriage equality [again, equal to whom?], from the individual to the statistical, from liberalism to neoliberalism [I’m thinking Foucault here, and Lester Spence] – then respectability fails to work as a strategic response.

The Healey data published this past summer can give us some sense of the how the politics of respectability fails to serve women and people of color in the practice of philosophy. The Healey data shows a that in the top four philosophy journals, work that treats a select group of persons – pretty much all white dudes – gets published. I think that this shows us that, in a certain sense, the politics of respectability works. Working on white men and citing them works to get you publications in the top four journals. Getting along to get ahead works – depending on what is meant by that term. Nevertheless, I think that the politics of respectability, while it might certainly be producing good philosophy, does not well serve women and people of color in the profession.

I don’t mean to argue by this that women and people of color, or diverse practitioners of philosophy of whatever stripe, aren’t also amazing philosophers who specialize in traditional areas of philosophy. And certainly many people of color and women in the profession deeply resent the implication that because they are a woman they must study feminist philosophy (or ethics) and can’t just be a philosopher of language, or that if they are a person of color they must work on race and can’t be a straight-ahead Hegel scholar [though this resentment is itself a function of white supremacist patriarchy, on the model of the tomboy as I argued earlier ]. As I staid before, I’m very much a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of philosopher. And not just out of some libertarian, you do your thing, I’ll do mine kind of ethos. We need specialists to keep each other honest, to make our work substantively better, philosophically.

But if women and people of color can only get published if they act as nodes in the circulation of white men, then what does this say about the inclusion of women and people of color in the practice of philosophy? What does it mean about the relationship between form and content? What kinds of political forces are shaping our practice as philosophers, whether we are reflective about them or not? What does that mean for the substance of the work? If the politics of respectability limits inclusion to repetition, then what does it do to the work get if it honestly engages a wider variety of responses? What does this mean for the purported universality of philosophical claims?

Up next: the politics of respectability and its effects; breaking the hammer and epistemic disobedience.

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?

Dateless Wonder: A response to Megahertz on White Supremacy and Philosophy

 Wow, I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better example of ideology at work in the discipline of philosophy – especially in its relation to current political-economic and ideological conditions at work in the university.

Let’s take this at two levels: first, let’s grant the central assumption, that there is such a crisis in the humanities, and see what there is to say about it. Then, let’s challenge the assumption of a crisis itself. And finally, I will take a look at philosophical exceptionalism.

So here is the description of the problem as Rosenberg states it:

“The crisis faced by the humanities is not a lack of warm bodies in freshman classes. Those classes are crowded, thanks to distribution requirements and budget cuts. The problem is the lack of interest in pursuing further study of these disciplines in advanced classes. One reason for this may simply be that students don’t really believe that the humanities hone the relevant abilities, educate them for leadership or even deal with the human condition in a way that matters to them.” (Rosenberg)

Fair enough. Some points:

1)    If it is the case that there is a disconnect in the curriculum between the lower and the upper division courses, isn’t this better explicable through the labor hierarchy in the discipline itself? That is, are the same professors teaching the intro courses and these upper division, “boutique” courses? The answer is usually no: the bulk of core education requirements are being fulfilled by contingent faculty. This creates a number of problems, few of which are seen as “problems” – or as problems serious enough to be addressed – by tenure-track faculty. To Rosenberg’s point, however, if it is the case that these “boutique” courses are alienating for students – a claim that, without numbers, I cannot substantiate – then is this because the theory is out of touch, or is it because the teachers are out of touch? If it is the case that the most important factor in a student deciding to major in an area is the first teacher they had in that discipline, then we might understand that our students are bummed when the teacher that made them passionate about a subject disappeared at the end of their contract.

2)    This is just to point to the larger political economic forces at work framing even Rosenberg’s article: if those same budget cuts have meant fewer sections on the books, even as more kids are required to take them, are these the best conditions to encourage learning? How well can a student evaluate whether a subject can help her hone her abilities under these conditions? Who is responsible for setting these conditions? And who ultimately takes responsibility for them?

3)    When Rosenberg argues that faculty in the humanities have produced these alienating, too-theory heavy, ’boutique’ courses as a result of having “viewed the need to widen their curricula as a zero sum game, in which the entrance of more women, underrepresented minorities, nonwestern peoples has required the exclusion of more dead white dudes,’ who, exactly, is he talking about? Who has viewed the curriculum as a zero-sum game?

4)   This is really just a side note, but it is superbly ironic – from the point of view of philosophy, anyway – that the broadening of the curriculum to include women and people of color lead to the curriculum being more theoretical, and that this is precisely the problem.

5)    How is the incentive structure in philosophy different from that in other humanities, as Rosenberg describes it, such that senior faculty teach distribution courses? To be honest, I doubt very much that this claim bears out. There are always some senior faculty who like to teach intro-level courses, but anectdotally this doesn’t seem to bear out – that is, in my experience, the graduate students and the adjuncts are actually teaching intro courses, and ‘baby logic’ is actually often a major requirement, not a distrubution or general education course. I don’t have the data, but I’m betting if we were to look at the data the distribution of labor in philosophy departments would look a lot like the distribution of labor in other humanities departments. Except it would be whiter and more male.

Insofar as this entire account however rests on the assumption that the humanities are in a crisis – that the humanities are suffering an historical decline in popularity, that students are fleeing irrelevant humanities degrees for degrees more useful on the market – then that assumption needs to be questioned. Like a lot of crises, this one seems to have a cycle, or at least this story about the crisis in the humanities seems to reanimate every few years. However, using things called “numbers” and “arithmetic” – a few things that scientists and those who love them might be familiar with – Michael Berube argues every few years that this account of the humanities is flat wrong. Humanities enrollments have remained steady since about 1980; the bulk of the “decline” happened between 1970 and 1980, when things like “computer science” and “business school” were introduced into university curricula, and when a huge number of new folks, thanks to the GI Bill, were increasing raw numbers and diversity in universities.

What then is this crisis of humanities? It is a political crisis, but not the one that Rosenberg and other folks lamenting the idea that these danged kids just aren’t allowed to appreciate a good book anymore. The crisis is not keeping the humanities pure of politics, as these hand-wringing accounts imagine (if only those new people hadn’t ruined our humanities by politicizing it so much!) – the crisis is the humanities recognizing the politics in which it is already imbricated. What is the reason for these perennial claims about how no one like the humanities anymore? Why are humanities programs being cut, even when these claims are untrue?

This is deeply connected, I think, to your reading of white supremacy and the “health” of philosophy relative to the “health” of the (rest of) the humanities. The politics in which the humanities is already imbricated is especially a racial politics. It is also a racial politics as a gendered politics, in a certain sense – would it be too much to say that philosophy’s whiteness renders it more masculine in this case? At least there is a strong interaction between philosophy’s masculinity and its whiteness here. That is, one of the symptoms of the “ill-health” of the humanities has been its inclusion, in the curriculum, of the work of women and people of color. This is – unsurprisingly – closely related to the labor of women and people of color as they’ve gotten professorships in the humanities. As Alcoff points out in the conclusion of “On Judging Epistemic Credibility,” “It is no accident that new forms of scholarship have emerged from the academy since its democratization with the GI Bill, the passing of Civil Rights legislation, and affirmative action.” The redefinition of the work of the academy, and the shifting of the universal that this symbolizes, is bound up in political struggle.

The defense of philosophy made here – that it has avoided the crisis of the humanities because it 1) hasn’t redefined itself much, despite the women and people of color it has included, and 2) comports itself properly in relation to science – reflects the racial and gendered position of philosophy, a race politics and a gender politics that is at the heart of this defense, rather than outside of it. This politics is also fully imbricated in – and perhaps intensified by – the political economy of higher education and the particular texture of ideology at work in it. If these are the terms on which philosophy makes its claims for relevance in the permanent austerity crisis that defines the current environment in higher education, then philosophy is essentially marketing itself by means of a white supremacist masculinist exceptionalism in relation to the rest of the humanities. This exceptionalist stance is similar to the stance of the tomboy in relation to feminism – a stance I am guilty of claiming myself, a stance I imagine a lot of feminists began from. The tomboy often abjects femininity in order to prove her loyalty to the boys, in order to prove that she is one of them. She doesn’t like girls, she’s not like the others. At a certain level this is just a symptom of negotiating and combatting oppressive gender norms. But if you can’t identify the norms as the source of the problem, then you end up blaming the people with whom you are associated and identified. You resent the girls when the boys won’t let you play. When they do let you play, this is proof of your worth – a value ‘on the market’ that is watered down with each successive girl the boys let play. This makes the tomboy an incredibly effective gender “border police,” as Falguni Sheth articulates this concept in her Toward a Political Philosophy of Race.

So, where does this leave “diverse practitioners of philosophy,” as you ask? I love the depiction of them as the eternal irony of the community. We are like Sophia’s unmarriageable sisters, unschooled in femininity (as Hegel said, women gain education mysteriously, like plants, by osmosis, as it were), always asking the wrong questions at the wrong times, in front of the wrong people. We make her look bad. Sophia is just trying to teach her little sisters how to behave, how to have a sense of their place, so as to stop embarrassing her so much in front of her friends. 


Style and Substance – A response to Megahertz

This post was drafted as a stand-alone, but since it speaks so well to the very issues at the heart of this post, I will go ahead and frame it as a response.

First, thanks for providing an excuse to get lost in a Google-image search of ‘Teddy Boys.’ I had no idea that this referenced Edwardian style, and moreover I was only familiar with ‘Teddy Girls,’ and only recognized that style as referencing women adopting a masculine style, not adopting a masculine style of dress that was itself subcultural. I also associated it with an anti-racist skinhead aesthetic – think the group of friends in Shane Meadows’  2006 film, This is England. So I was unprepared to learn about the 1958 Notting Hill riots, in which Teddy Boys were implicated in racist attacks against West Indians. I guess this is the English obverse of the 1940’s Los Angeles Zoot Suit riots, in which Xicano zoot suiters were attacked by whites. The drape of the coat in teddy boy wear seems to reference zoot style. Zoot suits used as the dress of late 1950’s hip young white supremacists – a pretty weird development in this racial/cultural mix. One would have to know more, I suppose, about the particular cultural conditions out of which these styles developed, in order to accurately read their racial performance.

The relation between style and substance is also at work in this recent piece by Tommy Curry and John Drabinski, a response to this article by Vesla Weaver and Jason Stanley in The Stone, the column in the NYTimes devoted to philosophy and philosophical topics.

Weaver and Stanley’s article is about one of the central effects of mass incarceration, the political disenfranchisement of black people in the United States. Weaver and Stanley ask whether this indicates that this United States is what they call a “racial democracy.” Their argument is a convincing one, and it resonates with thinking going on about mass incarceration in many other spaces. Curry and Drabinski concur on the success and import of the argument, but they wonder about the way in which Weaver and Stanley made their argument. In other words, they are thinking not only about the substance of the argument, but also about its style. In their piece, Weaver and Stanley draw on Plato, Aristotle, on Benjamin Constant’s essay on the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, John Dewey’s claim that we ought to judge a culture by what kind of people are in its jails, and on philosopher Elizabeth Anderson’s argument that the gap between an ideal and the reality which fails to meet it sometimes indicates that the ideal is itself a part of that failure, blinding us to the reality.

Curry and Drabinski turn our attention to the practice of philosophy, and the philosophical implications of that practice. While the authors want to “elevate the visibility of the Black experience, to make suffering under institutional racism identifiable and to hear the voices of its victims,” they find it “disconcerting” that in order to accomplish this task, Weaver and Stanley turn to white philosophers. While they want to center the experience of black people, the interpretation of that experience is the task of philosophy, which is white. Curry and Drabinski write,

However unintentional, the turn to white philosophers when discussing urgent matters of race and racism sends a clear message: when important stuff is analyzed, we fall back on what white people have said.

This is not simply a point about the politics of representation, however. Curry and Drabinski argue that attention to work from within the black intellectual tradition would deepen the analysis Weaver and Stanley provide, moving it from a liberal framework – the question of the relation between liberal ideals of inclusion and fairness and the reality of exclusion and unfairness – to a more radical framework that centers on the mutation of white supremacist forms of domination from slavery, through the convict lease system, to the targeting of black liberationists as political prisoners and the growth of mass incarceration: a “racial realist” framework that indicts the very ideals liberalism claims we have simply failed to meet in this or that instance.

Moreover Curry and Drabinski note that the repetition of this philosophical trope – perhaps what we might call for our purposes in this conversation, a style – that “black people are looked at and spoken for… rather than doing the looking or speaking themselves” reproduces in form precisely what Weaver and Stanley wish to challenge in content.

In response to the post, author Jason Stanley responded with thanks for the critique Curry and Drabinski offered. He responded that while “including the critiques of liberalism you [Curry] mention, as well as critiques of the very idea of a non-racial democracy in the united states, would clearly have made it a much better philosophy piece. I’m still not sure that (a) it would have been accepted into the NY Times, and (b) would have had the same impact, had we included these deeper and more radical points.” He also responds that “None of this affects your point that we should (and I’m furious at myself) have started out and centrally featured black American philosophers.” Later he writes that “You cannot call an end to the illusion of the America project in the pages of the NY Times.”

I totally believe Stanley when he says this – as he says, he has a lot of experience trying to write for the Times, and it is a very particular kind of writing, a particular style, we might say. I think it is an interesting question to pursue, however, to ask that, since the style constrains the substance in this way, and constrains its ‘impact,’ then who is served by this style, and what would happen if this style were changed? Impact on whom, and for what purposes?

The relationship between style and substance as we have been discussing it here operates, I would like to argue, as a function of the politics of respectability. I will turn to this in another post, and (hopefully!) have occasion there to talk a whole lot about feminism, race, and Beyoncé. I hope that there we can flesh out a little more fully, perhaps, what is going on in this important question from Megahertz’s post:

Is there any connection between the normalization of (some) continental philosophy and the re-inscription of the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy, work that has been hugely influential in the development of feminist and queer theory? Or is this merely sociological?

This puts it on the table in a really great way. As the old quote about Hegel used to have it, what is living and what is dead in continental philosophy? Who decides this? And what might remain productively undead in continental philosophy?

That is, is the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy connected to the marginality of feminist and queer theory? Is this merely sociological? Might this need to connect these two represent an impulse to come to the rescue of a continental philosophy that has no special love for its feminists or queers?  And where is race in this? That is, I want to avoid the analyses of gender and race in the discipline of philosophy that tend to occlude race, or take gender as an analogy for race. Therefore (not to undercut the analysis before its even begun, but) is the politics of respectability therefore an adequate framework for thinking these issues together? 

The Demographic Problem and the Divide: At Least Bad Pizza is Still Pizza.

I want to focus my analysis around two questions, or two problems. They are separate because they are always taken up or treated as separate; or we are told that we must be careful to keep them separate, that we shouldn’t confuse one with the other. What others call confusion I call dialectics, so my aim will be to take these problems/questions as separate and then, hopefully, to show their mutual implication – or at least show a way forward common to both.


The first question treats the so-called “divide” between continental and analytic philosophy, and the efforts aimed at overcoming this divide – most often represented by the term “pluralism.” The divide is most often framed as stylistic or as merely sociological.
This piece argues that in order to discover the distinction between the two,

We should look for differences in founding fathers, exemplars, sources of authority, core concerns, patterns of citations, and family resemblances between works. (Note: I am not using ‘founding father’ for someone who actively founded something but for someone who is generally seen as having originated something.)


The good news is, if the divide is merely stylistic or sociological, then this is not an indictment of the substance of the work; style, and/or the sociological condition of the development of these differing styles, is/are seen as external to the content of the work itself. Great! Even for those of us (like feminists perhaps? philosophers of art? critical theorists? continental philosophers?) who have called into question the very distinction between form and content, substance and style, this interpretation of the divide is much better than other possible interpretations, such as “analytic philosophy simply doesn’t exist, it is known as ‘philosophy,’ whereas ‘continental philosophy’ is simply ‘not philosophy.’” These attempts at defining the two schools/approaches/ are however all rather interesting or instructive, as they tend to devolve into a kind of ghost-chasing: continental gets rendered as “Party-Line Continental”; this gets conflated with “Postmodernism”; everybody denies that they (or anybody really) are “Postmodern” (well maybe Lyotard), we all agree that at least we aren’t closed-minded party-liners, like “them” (whoever “they” are at this point), and we all leave feeling better about how ecumenical we are.

Treating the divide as a matter of style or as merely sociological does not always avoid the ghost chasing described above, but at least it leaves open the door to the possibility that work done by “continentalists” can still be described as “philosophical.” Perhaps the clearest proof of this is that more and more philosophers trained in “analytic” departments now claim “continental philosophy” as one of their specializations, or one of their subfields. To which, Huzzah! The more the merrier. But I’ve got a feeling that folks trained in continental departments aren’t necessarily going to be getting a whole lot of Facebook requests or invitations to put together a panel for the APA from their colleagues trained up under different circumstances. As one blogger put it,

When philosophers cannot make themselves understandable by other philosophers, there is a breakdown. When philosophers do not care about making themselves understandable by other philosophers, they are no longer doing philosophy…
Continental philosophy, under current sociological divides, and given the interest in making sense of the primary sources in such a way that almost precludes making sense of them to others outside the tradition, is thus almost fated to be, for the most part, quite bad. Even when it strives for clarity—and I want to commend here Gary Gutting’s spectacular history of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century—massive problems remain in terms of making sense of how these thinkers or anything they say could be made relevant to analytic philosophy today. This is the problem. People like Gutting, Lee Braver, Linda Alcoff, and many others have tried seriously to undertake such tasks. This is the kind of “continental” philosophy worth supporting, with the hope that it will transcend the parochial divides and challenge the self-enclosed continental establishment in order to make it better, to force it to do philosophy rather than focusing too exclusively on how others have done philosophy, and to bring it to the fold of the universal.

Cool story. But wait: who is the philosopher, and what is philosophy, if it has to be “forced” be philosophical, and brought into “the fold of the universal”? This marks a curious moment in the development of philosophy as Hegel would have understood it. If philosophy has to be forced into the universal, then was it ever properly philosophical at all? Who authorizes the practice of philosophy? And what philosophies get authorized in this practice?


The second question takes up what Linda Alcoff calls the “demographic problem” in philosophy. As a result of a combination of both hard work and circumstance, this problem has gotten much more attention in discussions of the discipline as of late. All the immense (self) organized labor by the Gendered Conference Campaign, bloggers at feministphilosophers and newapps, anonymous contributors to the “What Is It Like To Be a Woman in Philosophy?” website, the Society for Women in Philosophy, the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, new journals and special issues, and the generosity and tenacity of several senior philosophers such as Linda Alcoff, Tina Chanter, Sally Haslanger, Sandra Harding, Jenny Saul (and many others) gained new traction this past summer when famous philosopher Colin McGinn resigned rather than be investigated for allegations that he sexually harrassed a graduate student, and wrote a series of increasingly bizarre pieces defending himself by means of what zinester Al Burian called the ‘genius defense.’ Increased attention to the abysmally low percentages of women and people of color employed in philosophy have definitely started to shift the needle. But these steps forward are marked by certain persistent problems.

First, feminist philosophy – the only subfield of the discipline in which women predominate – continues to be met with suspicion or outright derision. As Erin Tarver points out, the situation of women in philosophy cannot be entirely separated from the situation of feminist philosophy, since the devaluation of feminist philosophy disproportionately affects women.

Second, race – including the particular situation of women of color in philosophy – continues to be occluded in this conversation. Frequently conversations that begin with the topic of race in the discipline are derailed – or threadjacked, in the parlance of our times – and end up as conversations by and about (one may assume, white) women.

Moreover, as Leigh Johnson has indicated, the disjunction between the territory marked by the situation of women in the discipline and that of people of color can be shown by the essentialist assumptions at work in the former. She breaks down the usual logic:

1. Professional philosophy is, if not by its nature then at least in practice, a fundamentally antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline. (See Brian Leiter’s “The Aristocracy of Sex in Philosophy.”)
2. Philosophy ought not be (or ought not be only) an antagonistic, aggressive, combative discipline. Or, stated positively, Philosophy can and ought be practiced in a way that is more cooperative, caring, mutually affirming, cognizant of and attentive to the value of difference. (See Jonathan Wolff’s “How can we end the male domination in Philosophy?”)
3. Women would be better represented in professional Philosophy, and/or would be better at Philosophy, if the dominant professional culture of the discipline practiced Philosophy in a way more like (2) and less like (1).

Johnson argues that this last point – that women would be better represented in the discipline if the practice of philosophy weren’t so antagonistic, aggressive, or combative – indicates an essentialism about gender that would be shown to be more obviously, um, problematic if it were applied to race. That is, if we assume that 1 is true of the practice of philosophy, whether or not we agree that philosophy simply is this way by nature or could be done differently, this does not help us to explain why there are so few people of color in philosophy. If it did, we would have to assume that people of color, just like women, are turned off of philosophy because they are not given to antagonism, aggression, or combativeness. But no one ever argues this – because white supremacy dictates that people of color are usually already viewed as antagonistic, aggressive, or combative. Or usually just angry – irrationally so.

Moreover, as I’ve argued previously on this blog, the dominant framework for understanding the “demographic problem” in philosophy – that of “implicit bias” – has significant limitations. Implicit bias, and the psychological and sociological research from which it stems (the Harvard IAT project), is certainly useful in disarming arguments that philosophers simply cannot be oppressive, discriminatory, misogynist or racist if they do not consciously, willfully intend to be so. However, especially given the long history and wide variety of (philosophical!) analyses of gender, race, sexuality, and power available to philosophers, it is incredibly frustrating that we remain at the level of convincing our white male friends and colleagues 1) to believe us and 2) anyway, their ignorance isn’t really after all their fault.


Richer analytical tools are available to us, I argue, if we explicitly treat both the “divide” and the “demographic problem,” as political, or as operations of power. By taking up these questions or problems as political, I mean both seeing these problems in the practice of philosophy as implicated in institutions and economies that benefit some at the expense of others, and seeing the discourse of philosophy as in part constituted by those practices of philosophy – that is, seeing the discourse of philosophy as white, straight, able-bodied and cismasculine. If the New York Times in their article on the McGinn debacle can forefront the permanent probationary status of women as thinkers, I think we can probably manage it ourselves.

First, as regards the “divide.” In his reading of the “normalization” of continental philosophy (using as his primary evidence the Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy), Simon Glendinning distinguishes acceptable Continental philosophy, or work that “‘establish[es] connections’ with the Anglophone mainstream” (187) – work presumably “forced” to be philosophical or brought into “the fold of the universal” – from work that belongs to “‘the so-called ‘Continental’ traditions of philosophy’” or “‘Continental’” philosophy (185), or work that has sought to detach itself from the Anglophone mainstream (187). This work is largely French, or French-inspired: Beauvoir, Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Lacan, Irigaray, Kofman, Kristeva, Butler. Is there any connection between the normalization of (some) continental philosophy and the re-inscription of the marginality of (feminized) French philosophy, work that has been hugely influential in the development of feminist and queer theory? Or is this merely sociological?

Second, as regards the “demographic problem.” The condition or situation of women and people of color in philosophy (and, speculatively, of queers, disabled folks, trans folks, or simply what Kristie Dotson calls “diverse practitioners of philosophy”) would be more usefully analyzed through the lenses of patriarchy and white supremacy as political systems. Though not all of these folks define gender or race exclusively or entirely within political terms, feminist philosophers and and critical philosophies of race or critical race theorists – such as Sara Ahmed, Linda Alcoff, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Emmanuel Eze, Lewis Gordon, Sally Haslanger, Sandra Harding, Luce Irigaray, David Kim, Julia Kristeva, María Lugones, Howard McGary, José Medina, Charles Mills, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Lucius Outlaw, Tommy Shelby, Falguni Sheth, Garyatri Spivak, Ron Sundstrom, George Yancy, Iris Young, and many, many others besides – have developed useful concepts and analyses that go beyond issues of will, intent, and consciousness, situating their analyses at the level of institutions and discourse. Recourse to these concepts and analyses is critical in order for us to adequately understand the whiteness and maleness of philosophy, and in order for us to grasp the essentializing logics the discussion of the “demographic problem” has apparently got stuck in.

Without such a political analysis, we get versions of pluralism that blame jobseekers with Continental training for not getting jobs, because they arrogantly refuse to read the work of their interviewers – What interviews? For that matter, what jobs?

Without such a political analysis, we are less able to understand situations like this one, in which feminist philosophers are told we must drive Judith Butler out of the club in order to protect the good name of philosophy, in order for us to prove ourselves worthy of philosophy.

With such a political analysis, we can begin to put a finger on the specific logics – hegemony, ideology, white supremacist hetero cis patriarchy – at work in these problems, and to formulate effective practices of resistance to them.