Philosophy, Decolonization, #NotAllWhites

When I posted this response to Garfield and Van Norden’s piece to my site, I figured it was a small concern, but worth writing out. I’m super gratified that it attracted a lot of interest and responses – some criticizing my claims, some ridiculing my motivations, some affirming the programme-of-sorts I tried to lay out in a short post (it’s an enormous project; blog posts can only be a first sketch of an entry point). All of this stuff is worthy of ongoing discussion. It’s a conversation that the profession needs. Philosophy as a discipline is in serious crisis.

It is interesting, though, how the critical function of whiteness – what I’d hoped would be the central something of my post – slipped past a number of the criticisms. Part of that is no doubt due to my need to write more clearly, and part of that is no doubt due to the problem of invisibility and whiteness. If whiteness is defined, as I’d define it, not only by its invisibility but by its imperative to hide from visibility, then sustaining its visibility will always be a difficult task.

I liked how John Protevi’s summary of a day of intense discussion both focused on the question of visibility and (rightly) extended that question to other kinds of cultural hegemony that inform the formation of not just the canon of white Western philosophy, but the very idea of what counts as philosophy, philosophical reflection, and proper philosophical inquiry (formulation of problems, kind of argumentation, etc.). Leigh Johnson does something of the same, but sidesteps the question of whiteness in order to raise questions of sexuality and gender as preconditions of the Western tradition. Making the hegemonic and exploitative conditions of the white Western tradition visible is an enormous project. I hope the project moves to the center of the profession. It’s a good and right thing from a political point of view. It’s also interesting, engaged, and very relevant type of scholarship.

Eric Schliesser posted a longish and interesting piece just today. The piece raises critical questions against my post, and I think they are worth responding to in a bit of detail. They are worth responding to because I think they reflect a problematic re-disappearing (then problematic re-appearing) of whiteness at the very moment I tried to move a critique whiteness to the center.

(Schliesser misspells my name once. I appreciate that (smile, just kidding around). It’s part of the Polack experience! Sincerely, John E. Drabinksi, Drabinki, etc. – fwiw, your name autocorrects as “Schlepper,” but I think I caught and corrected all of them.)

Schliesser raises two objections: that what I call for is not actually thinking, but rather prosecutorial historicism, and that what I call the white Western canon is in fact more diverse and complex than generalizations can capture.

First, the question of the prosecutorial. I’m not sure why this seems the case, except that raising issues about race and racism near-always registers as prosecution and shaming. I’d not meant to do that, though I also think feeling some shame about the racism of one’s personal, national, and cultural history is an altogether good thing. Such shame is not an end in itself, but surely that’s the right affect for getting started (I wrote on this vis-a-vis Stokely Carmichael awhile back). What I’d meant or hoped to do is call for a decolonization of texts. That means decolonizing ourselves as readers, and from that moment of reorientation – one that now sees with a critical eye to historical, political, and cultural context – re-read key texts as entangled with the dominant issues of their era: slaving, conquest, mass killing, colonialism, and global subjugation. Decolonization is not simply identifying moments and sites of entanglement. It is, further, about critical re-reading that dis-entangles, if one is so inclined, and argues about what (if anything) is left for thinking in the wake of entanglement and dis-entanglement. I tried to do this in my Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other in some detail, focusing on one particular thinker (Emmanuel Levinas) and finding what is meaningful about the ethical after an entangled reading. It’s a thought-full book. It’s not a prosecution, though, with the anxieties that are part of any discourse about race in white spaces, it has sometimes been read that way. Alas. I think we can do better, fellow white people. We really can.

I know that Schliesser says something kind of like decolonization when he notes, at the end, that “[b]y all means let’s detect and strip Whiteness away.” I only want him and others to sit a long, long time with that whiteness. It’s not a quick and easy process, nor do I think “stripping away” is the right figure. Stripping away imagines the relation to enslaving, conquest, and subjugation to be a veneer or exterior feature that conceals the true meaning of something, as when you strip off the paint on an old piece of furniture to re-discover the lovely wood grain. Entanglement is messier and, as we all know from disentangling string or ribbon or wires, it means you probably snap and break stuff when trying to tease out what is still useful. This is a long process. No small blog post captures what’s at stake, and in fact I like to think of decolonization work as particularly patient, diverse, and (as with all serious scholarly practice) fraught with debate about basic methods. Patience and long sitting with the whiteness of the white Western tradition is crucial. Especially when so little literature in philosophy works in this direction (there is plenty outside the discipline, which is why I think philosophy needs to become a quasi-interdisciplinary discipline – but that’s for another post).

(For what it’s worth, there is some really interesting stuff that does just this disentangling work: Fanon’s appropriation of Sartre in Black Skin, White Masks, Du Bois’ work with Hegelian models of history and race in the early writings, Suzanne Césaire’s and Aimé Césaire’s creolization of Breton’s surrealism, Senghor’s re-reading of life philosophy in France, Heideggerian motifs in Glissant, recasting of Deleuze and Guatarri in Benítez-Rojo’s theoretical work, and so on and so on. This is work that entangles, dis-entangles, and re-deploys. I’m not proposing we reinvent the wheel.)


Second, the problem of generalization and “canon.” What Schliesser says is plainly true: there is always a complication to any one story, always variations, always people forgotten when telling a big story. Perhaps part of our task, and I take this to be Schliesser’s suggestion, should be to introduce those complications, making minor figures into major ones, and so forth. At the same time, the white Western canon is a very real thing, an existing hegemonic force in education and scholarship, and can be addressed as such. That white Western canon or tradition is not a place or a thing, however. It is a project. And as a project, I argue, it conceals its whiteness and its deep involvement with the viciousness of white Western history. The white Western tradition (I prefer tradition to canon, but let’s leave them interchangeable for now) is ideological, insofar as it is a reflection, production, and reproduction of existing social forms. All projects can be questioned because they are ideological through and through. I think the racial dimension of the white Western tradition is a base structure of “the West” as a project, so questioning it at its base is a form of fundamental, perhaps radical, critique.

But the turn to other white people as a form of response to what was, from me, a critique from the texts and critical concepts of the Black intellectual tradition is itself an odd, even deeply problematic orientation. It’s one of those #NotAllWhites things. For Schliesser, it means that, hey, there were abolitionists and critics of colonialism, so why not discuss them when you discuss the white Western tradition? Well, sure there were. But why is the first impulse here to return back to the white Western tradition to find resistance? Is it to prove that not all whites were bad? That some whites did good? Okay. I got that. My home country has made a whole sub-industry out of white savior movies. And yet I wonder if that isn’t one of the whitest things you can do, to hustle and get white people back at the center of critique at the very moment in which non-white people are introduced as critics and thinkers who expose the racial project called “the Western tradition.” I also wonder if white texts are the best texts for thinking through this all as a racialized project. Actually, I think they’re not. I should just say that.

I don’t think this is a matter of what Schliesser somewhat derisively calls “the latest moral and political insights.” Those insights have been a part of the Black intellectual tradition for two centuries or much more, after all. So, I’m not promoting a “self-aggrandizing narrative of progress,” as Schliesser puts it. I’m saying that there’s been this critique for a long time, one that is not simply a counter-narrative or tradition-at-the-margins, but instead a tradition that, in addition to having tons of positive exposition of its own positions and disputes, also exposes in no uncertain terms the white Western tradition for what it is: entangled in the worst violence in world history. The fact of contrary voices in the white Western tradition – the abolitionists and similar types – only deepens that entanglement. That is, we can’t say Kant was simply a product of his time. There were also objecting voices…and so? And so maybe Kant’s (or whomever else’s) big project was about responding to and crushing those critics in the interest of empire and its enslaving, colonial needs.

Important: this is not claiming that, in Schliesser’s phrasing, “philosophical acuity” must “entail a proper functioning moral and political compass.” Making questions of decolonization into moralizing or checking into the political street cred of a given thinker cheapens the project. Moralizing, such that it is, is only starting point, a point of shame, a point of outrage, or even just a point of curiosity – how could this thinker, who thought all these amazing things, also be such an unapologetic defender of the basic ideas of conquest, enslavement, and subjugation? I take thinkers to be whole and coherent. Even as I want to take away from them in the end, this is a moment of interpretative generosity. Not boy geniuses. Just real smart people who had a lot to say and were systematic about it. Let’s take them at their word, that they meant all of it, and work from there.

But let’s not do the #NotAllWhites thing and try to retrieve the good side of whiteness. There’s been plenty of that work. I say let’s turn elsewhere.

All of this also puts questions to us. I recall reading someone’s Facebook status update a few years ago, in which the person asked how we Africana studies professors will be viewed by the generations that follow if our teaching and our scholarship ignores what he sees as the central issue in contemporary Black life: racialized mass incarceration. I found that question to be chilling (and I promptly created a new course and embarked upon a massive reading project; it genuinely moved me morally and politically). How does our own work situate in relation to the crushingly difficult, awful issues of our time? Racism, imperial wars, massive income inequality, reactionary shit on sexuality and sexual identity, dialing back progress on women’s issues, unchecked state violence, and so on. We will be read as entangled. Without a doubt.

It is a terrifying thing to imagine that we might be read in the future.

But maybe it’s also motivating.

To be more responsible in what we do.