Unity and the Police

I don’t really consume any television news sources, so the tv at the gym has been a revelation. In the worst sense.

Of course, as you might guess, most of it was a combination of endless heartbreak pieces about the dead police officers in Dallas and commentaries meant to focus and direct our response. I mean, it was flat out endless repetition of their faces and names and exhortations to be sad (in very specific ways) about it all. The Sterling and Castile stories, from the same moment, were predictably always about “the investigation,” something that was posited as an ongoing something, but we never knew (or know) what’s actually going on, what’s the process, who is involved, to what end, what are the source materials, what do they expect or hope to find, and so on. The victims themselves in those two cases? Well, there’s no exhortation to remember and mourn. They, by which I mean their deaths, are overwhelmed by “the investigation.”

There’s nothing surprising about this. I’m observing nothing but the expected and the common. It’s a standard, old as I can remember, combination of media racism and worship of the militarized state – even as that militarization takes on new forms and targets us. It’s all part of our learning to love the repressive state apparatus. By “our,” I here mean mostly white people, for whom fearing the repressive state apparatus is not the first go-to, but instead a last resort, something worked out on the bodies of protesters here and there. The whole pitch for white people begins with love for the repressive state apparatus, renewing it if we’ve felt it slip, and nothing brings people and apparatuses closer than death inside that apparatus (the slain officer, the personal story of the Army soldier, the special forces op that resulted in a sad death, American Snipers all of them). That’s a really important aesthetic feature of media politics in this kind of moment. Love, then learn to love again when you fall from passion.

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But what kept coming back on the news screen, surely predictably, in every interview or panel, was this whole “we must unite” thing. In a certain sense, that originates in the fear of a rebelling populace, which changes the fear-first approach to asserting the repressive state apparatus in Black and brown communities and replaces, or at least appears to replace, fear with a certain kind of love. With friendship. With fraternity. Racialized all the way down, at one level (we all know that polite interactions with the police won’t blanket save Black lives), but also coded as proper citizens, which have always been racialized citizens, the first citizens, white Americans.

It’s interesting enough that this love, friendship, and fraternity – the variations I can see in this “unity” talk – is a sick, twisted demand to love your abuser. And the crooked belief that somehow this can work, if in fact that’s what’s behind the whole thing. I think this repetitive exhortation, worked to perfection on CNN yesterday morning, functions differentially, to rally white viewers around the love they’ve already come to have (or come to think they should have) for the repressive state apparatus, which in turn marks the dissenter – the protester, the Black person – as an outsider because of their own moral failure to mobilize as mourners. It helps, too, when we see the spectacle of citizens lining up to “hug a Dallas cop,” as we did yesterday (11 July) in viral videos. That multi-racial citizenry hugged their way, symbolically (and perhaps materially), into the repressive state apparatus fan club. The fan club is for citizens, whether that reassures your citizenship or bestows it for the first time (the distinction might not even work here; perhaps every repetition is a first time). For everyone initiated, the non-initiates look all the more outside, problematic, disposable, frightening, foreign, and therefore more readily available for abuse. Why didn’t you hug an officer today?

Just to underscore it: this “belonging” is nothing more than participation in rituals of submission to the police. Because the police are everywhere, this is a crucial initiation that repeats itself on the screen. Are you sufficiently sad about the killing of these officers? Are you sufficiently rallied to the side of the police as an institution and symbol? It’s like a test on the screen as Don Lemon moves from guest to guest, with the occasional dissenter (bless them, they do crazy hard work) getting shouted at and shamed for not articulating belonging properly. I watched Alicia Garza speak and insist and argue and hold her ground, and all I could think was, damn, that is some will and courage.

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All of this is to say a little bit of something about the viral photo of Ieshia Evans at a Baton Rouge protest (by Jonathan Bachman, with Reuters), confronting the fully militarized police with nothing more than her presence. Nothing more than her presence. That means so much to me, this “nothing more,” not because it makes for a compelling contrast – thinking here of the iconic photo of hippies putting flowers in the gun barrels of police and National Guard troops – but because it is just a simple presence, woman in an everyday dress with her everyday posture, hair, glasses, stance, set to mark with undeniable clarity the people with whom we are relentlessly called to say “unity.” In our everyday clothes, like Evans, we are supposed to say unity with paramilitary forces. I think we have to be blunt about that. Why are we the ones called to unity? Who wants to live in that burning house, to evoke Baldwin’s famous imagery of a racist United States? Well, that’s the work of race as violence. Plenty of people.

I don’t think this is news to folks who think and work hard on race, racism, and the state. Nothing here is meant to be that. Rather, I’m just saying that we have, in ways I haven’t seen so clearly articulated, the terms of belonging set out in front of us without any trace of ambiguity. The cops aren’t smiling, middle-aged chiseled jaw men in friendly repose or laughing with children. They aren’t even that super sad guy from The Leftovers. That rhetorical thing is gone, at least in this moment. What’s left is a paramilitary unit, our unity aspiration, converging on a private home in Baton Rouge, LA to arrest and suppress protestors and protests. And then the call to unify with them. To see, not that they belong to us in a shared humanity (no, never that, not any longer), but that we, through our expressed love and dedication, can belong to them through rituals of submission and praise. Because we aren’t the same. I sit in this apartment in southern California, writing this in boxer shorts and a t-shirt; protesters in these clips wear a few more clothing items and hold their phones up; the paramilitary forces, which we habitually call “the police” still, carry machine guns, drive military vehicles, and wear all the gear of warfare.

And that’s what it means for us to imagine unity these days. An odd sense of democracy.

I wonder, too, to reach a bit with speculation, if this isn’t also a way of framing the “new Jim Crow.” Because it marks one form of belonging that the racial terror of the police ensures cannot belong, in any deep or abiding sense, to Black people. Racial terror means the repressive state apparatus means racial terror. You can’t love the apparatus on those terms. Instead, you endure or rebel, in each case expressing, arguably, aspects of the necropolitical order in which killing or sacrifice seem the only paths of resistance. While simultaneous with that is the exhortation to whites: belong through love, this is your unity. Behind the police. They stormtroop for you. Learn to love that.

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Police and Extra-Judicial Killing

I really have no idea what to say as another pair of high-profile killing make their way around our awareness. But I noticed something and here’s a note on that.

Every few rounds of social media response to awful violence seem to generate a twist on vocabulary. In my corner of the world, I keep seeing the phrase “extra-judicial killing” over the last couple of days. Like, I’m seeing it a lot a lot. Everywhere.

I find this to be a really interesting and important phrase. Technically or by strict definition, that’s exactly what these police murders of Black people are: killings by the state without the adjudication of guilt or innocence, killing outside the law without consequences for that killing. But rhetorically, for me anyway, the phrase “extra-judicial killing” is the way we used to characterize military and militaristic dictatorships in 1980s and 1990s Latin America, and in particular the paramilitary death squads that did the real work of terror and domination. Think of Pinochet’s goons throwing people out of helicopters or Fujimori’s paramilitary forces slaughtering people by the hundreds in the Andes, etc. It is awful and terrifying and shameful to be defined, as a country, by extra-judicial killing. Or so I would hope (history doesn’t really give reason for that hope. I get that).

This all goes to the heart of what and who this country is or has become. The state has been killing Black people since 1776. That’s not new. And we’ve always been a militaristic country, whether waging war on borders or borderlands or in conquest, or in other countries in wars big and small. But I think we have to start associating extra-judicial killing and its broader (lack of) meaning with the notion of a military dictatorship. Think about it: what support is there, nationally, for continued presence in Iraq or Afghanistan? Or support for intervention in Syria? Do any of us, except those who read targeted stuff about that part of the world, really even know the extent of our presence, expenditure, death toll, and so on? No, of course we don’t. Because that’s the point: the military works (and has been for a very long time, maybe since the beginning) completely autonomously, bearing little if any relationship to the democratic arm of the state.

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And who would ever question that autonomy? No one does.

The police operate with that autonomy, absolutely. Not unlike the paramilitary forces I associate with the phrase “extra-judicial killing.”

This autonomy operates with so little questioning (if any) from white people. It reminds me of the interviews in Patricio Guzmán’s ‘Chile, la memoria obstinada’ in which Chileans cheerfully remember and defend Pinochet’s reign of violence. I find my fellow white people defending this shit just as terrifying and terrifying in exactly the same way. What is wrong with you guys, my god?!

No significant elected official says anything about these police murders, except to send a prayer here and there, which is some deep fucking cynicism that we just accept as a society.

If the military operates without concern for public support to the tune of trillions of dollars, and the police kill with absolute impunity, then why would we say anything other than that the United States is a military dictatorship? The enigma is this, of course: we are a military dictatorship without a strongman figurehead, unless you think presidents are that (I don’t).

Anyway, if you know me, I’ve said this about military dictatorship stuff for a long time, so this is repeating myself. But seeing this phrase “extra-judicial killing” appear in my social media has been striking and its rhetorical sounding is really something worth thinking about. This is a question we have to take very seriously, whether or not we need to start thinking about the United States as a form of military dictatorship, with the police as an arm of that military and the one place where the citizenry feels the violence, intensity, and impunity of the power occupying the state of exception. This sort of characterization of our (or my, if you’re reading from outside the U.S.) country needs its own accounting, because it is outwardly imperial in new ways and inwardly murderous in ways consonant with origins in conquest and enslavement.

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I’m reminded of Nathan Huggins’ book Black Odyssey, which after many many pages of documentation of anti-Black violence at every level since the founding of the U.S., from law to everyday life, concludes with what we have to conclude: that the United States has always been a tyrannical state for African-Americans. This is a moment to maybe extend that characterization (while also a moment to sit with all these particularities, to know their names and to remember them, R.I.P everywhere), and to also ask questions about casual complicity by white Americans in the development of military authoritarianism inside and outside their own country. It’s wrong to see military dictatorships or authoritarian governments as formed at the expense of the people. Watch Guzmán’s film, or even just recall Nazi Germany, or watch this election season: “the people” have great passion for authoritarianism, especially when it comes to bear on old, enduring racial hatred. To kill brown people. It’s the plain. The excuses begin. The refusal to imagine the military wing of the state accountable begins. Or maybe better to say that “it all continues.” Choose your despairing characterization.

As much as anything, the publicity of these murders by the police and how they remain (rightly) in our view for so long, has me in a spiral that keeps saying “I just have no words.” So, these are words about police murders – not “about” in the sense of getting to the heart of it all (I have no words for that heart of the matter, just profound despair), but “about” in the sense of dancing around edges and borders of really singular, terrifying loss.

[featured image is from a tweet by @Nnedi, retweeted by @amplify285]

Abbas Kiarostami, Rest in Peace

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami.

I remember when he had his moment in the U.S., when Taste of Cherry made its rounds. It’s nothing to say that it’s a fantastic bit of cinema. It just is. I remember thinking how much I loved his lingering without ponderous sense of shot and attention to landscape, how people moved through the frame so naturally and normally that it seemed less like a film, more like looking out of a window. That’s why “realism” gets attached to a lot of his stuff, I guess.

After seeing Taste of Cherry, I found what I could of his films in translation and tracked down the Earthquake Trilogy. All of them are fantastic, but I was especially taken in by what, in the version I first saw, was titled in translation And Life Goes On. Now, it goes by the presumably better translation Life, And Nothing More, but the title And Life Goes On is especially important to me as a thinker and scholar. In fact, the title and the film’s content changed the way I think about the world and my own commentary on it. And Life Goes On is about a filmmaker and son driving, talking, observing, and seeking out survivors of an earthquake in rural Iran. The title I first saw – And Life Goes On – tells the deeper story of the film, that it documents, as a quasi-documentary, the relationship between traumatic events and the obstinacy of life. The fact that an earthquake might destroy everything, but life goes on even after. That is, there is never not life.

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The film came to me as I’d finished my dissertation, revised it as a book, and was looking for a new project. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah had really deeply affected me. So, I was starting to think very hard on questions of trauma and memory (one of oh so many doing that in the late-90s) and I read around the Holocaust memory studies literature. Nearly every source was fixated on fixations on the past, and for good reason; traumatic pain fixes attention on the past that recurs as a wound, re-wounding in each turn. But I was also thinking a lot about the Americas, especially the afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectual traditions, both of which made a lot out of a traumatic past, but without a similar fixation on fixation on the past.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that difference. But I saw this Kiarostami film and it changed so much for me. It changed so much for me because it was insistent on the presence of the traumatic past – the entire film, in some sense, is a tour of ruins and remains – and also insistent on a peculiar and enigmatic temporality: the future as obstinate, not just a projection of a looping past. A particular scene struck me, one in which the director stops to ask directions, and the man turns to help. The man is carrying a toilet seat.

I remember watching the film alone and stopping it right there, pulling out my writing notebook, and free-writing a response to this mini-scene. I wish I still had that notebook, for the sake of remembering the moment, but the words I wrote out don’t matter now. In a very serious sense, what I had to write is what I’ve had to think ever since then: perhaps our most profound sense of human temporality lies in the obstinacy of the future, how it comes and goes just because life goes on. Not because we have transformative projections of another kind of life (though that is possible), but because the mundane of life – from the toilet seat to the wedding, both of which figure among Kiarostami’s documentation of the ruins – persists and insists. In-sists in the sense that our very being derives its subsistence from that mundane, not in opposition to the profound, but as a condition of it, a companion to it.

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I mentioned just this in closing an essay on subjectivity, loss, and the abyss from a collection on Levinas and Nietzsche, writing:

At this point, however, I’m drawn back to a pair of scenes from Abbas Kiarostami’s 1991 semi-documentary Life and Nothing More. In this film, the second in his Earthquake Trilogy, Kiarostami explores the aftereffects of a catastrophic earthquake in rural Iran. The lead character, a filmmaker, travels a devastated series of highways and side roads through equally devastated towns. In other words, it is a film about traumatic pain and its aftermath, in this case the traumatic pain of natural catastrophe. We might expect Kiarostami’s lead character to meet townspeople telling tales of the unspeakable experience of mass destruction. Indeed, the fixed, lingering shots that structure of the film suggest just such trauma. The trauma is there, without a doubt. But what is not there is the gravity of thought in response to such devastation. Rather, the filmmaker meets and talks first with a man carrying a toilet seat. Then an extended conversation with a young man who was just married in the ruins – quite literally on top of the rubble – of his community. What are we to make of Kiarostami’s witnesses to catastrophe? Are they inauthentically attuned to what has happened and how nothing can be the same afterward? Or do we theorists (of which Kiarostami may have been one) infuse such catastrophes with a gravity of thought that eclipses the mundanity of life when like not only does go on, but must go on? After all, the evacuation of one’s home and place does not mean one is also alleviated of the need to sit comfortably, in privacy, and, well, “to evacuate” oneself – or marry one’s beloved and begin the mundane domestic life the young male character embodies.

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What kind of space of conversation might this mundanity of life open when life goes on? How are we to register the gravity of thinking after the abyss in that mundanity? How, indeed, are we to begin accounting for a conversation between the one who clings to the toilet seat and the one who proclaims the Overman or the ethical? This is an important conversation, for both the mundanity and the gravity of thinking after disaster belong to the same community of those who have nothing. And both belong to beginning’s abyss.

Every now and then someone asks me what my work is all about. The temptation is to say something about traditions and debates and the like, but I always come back to that phrase. My work is about how life goes on. Thinking from very small places and how those places are the meaning of all big places and big visions, really.

And so when I think about what my own work is all about, I think back to Kiarostami and seeing Ad Life Goes On and how it changed my thinking. I was never going to become a specialist in Iranian film. But I drew everything from this Iranian filmmaker, whose vision lingers in the camera and on the small place of life we really too often forget when we wonder about life itself. There is always life and nothing more, because life goes on.

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami. You leave everything for us to think. Thank you for that.

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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.)

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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.

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Diversity, “Neutrality,” Philosophy

I was really happy to read a new opinion piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden in The New York Times, reflecting on the state of philosophy as a discipline. Though I now identify professionally as an area studies person (Black or Africana studies), my disciplinary orientation is broadly philosophical. That orientation is not a limit. It is the frame with which I read texts in the Black intellectual tradition. So, when Garfield and Van Norden propose to rename philosophy departments as Departments of European-American Philosophy, I was pleased and drawn in. I’ve been saying these sorts of things for years. Good to have it spelled out by folks inside the discipline.

Garfield and Van Norden make a nice, concise, and for me a pretty airtight argument. They point out the nature of what we call, out of habit, the canon (and not a canon). They point out the “diversity problem” (it could also be called a crisis of justice) in the discipline, even as the student bodies we teach are more and more diverse. And that is mismatched with what we think of when we think of – or what we see when we look at – philosophy departments. Their’s is a call to do better and make different departments. I think the renaming of philosophy departments is supposed to be (and should be) a kind of shaming moment: once you see what’s going on, you know things need to be different and hopefully folks change.

At the same time, the opinion piece raised some serious questions for me, in terms of the kind of critical intervention this “diversity” approach can do. I like diversity as a crass strategy for getting what you want. The fact is, critical approaches – decolonization, historical justice, deconstruction – don’t get you new positions. Administrators hear “diversity” and you have a chance. But that’s not thinking. Garfield and Van Norden ask a question that calls for some thinking.

A thought about it all.

I teach a course every couple of years called “Black Existentialism.” Around halfway through, I stop the seminar and ask “why don’t philosophy departments call their courses ‘White Existentialism,’ since they pretty much just teach white thinkers? I mean, I call this ‘Black Existentialism,’ right?” I extend to courses that a no longer with us colleague used to teach called “Black Political Theory” and “Black Marxism.” Why not attach “white” to those titles in the Political Science department? Since that’s what they are, white theorists debating white worlds.

This question gets three distinct responses. First, those who know what I mean and laugh a critical laugh of “yeah, right, as if whiteness could ever be made visible in this kind of world.” Second, those who laugh nervously because they hadn’t put this together, the racialization of syllabi and the like, but are doing it now. Third, those who laugh because naming whiteness in a Black Studies classroom seems like something you should laugh at. The second and the third quickly become the first, however, as we talk. Conversation unfolds the same way each time.

That laugh at the absurdity of visibility cuts to the heart of what we do in that particular course and classroom: whiteness doesn’t just hide from visibility, it is in fact defined by its insistence on being invisible – what Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks calls the colonial measure.

In some ways, what Garfield and Van Norden do in the opinion piece points in this direction. By naming departments racially and nationally, I think the aim is to underscore and make visible whiteness. I would argue with the national characterization in that, however; it is premised on a problematic, if not plainly racially naive, interpretation of U.S. history as white history. Black people aren’t marginal in that history. Black people are completely central. And the Caribbean is the Americas, as is Latin America – all three regions are in fact Western, not non-Western or non-American. But that’s another argument. One that’s as much about taking the visibility of whiteness thing to its logical conclusion as it is about breaking with habits that conflate “Western” and “America” with white people. I’d revise this part of their piece and call it what it is: Department of White Western Philosophy. (There are problems with this too, as not all practitioners are white, etc., but I think if we’re naming traditions, let’s name the tradition as it should be: nationally and racially, because not all nations are racially homogeneous.)

What I find problematic about their piece is rooted in this moment. If we think of this dominant tradition, which is as imperial as it is omnipresent, as a racial and not just geographical project, then we have a very different conception of – even imperative for – how to read that tradition. Garfield and Van Norden write in summary of their position:

This is not to disparage the value of the works in the contemporary philosophical canon: Clearly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with philosophy written by males of European descent; but philosophy has always become richer as it becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic.

Great argument to a Dean for new positions (don’t get me wrong, we all need positions). As an argument about what’s going on in philosophy and philosophical texts, I’d call it critically (and crucially) naive. What happens in those canonical texts is more than just pursuits of truth and the like. They are also texts that reproduce base ideological forms – or revolutionize them – that are key to reproducing certain kinds of societies. In the case of white Western societies, this means slaving, conquering, and subjugating societies. This is why Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc. all had theories of race, nation, genesis of human difference, and justifications for all sorts of slavery, conquest, and domination. In the contemporary academy, most of this part of the white Western Tradition has been forgotten. It’s been relegated to tertiary or boutique concern. But it is not, actually, in terms of the kinds of intellectuals white Western thinkers have always been and wanted to be: genius people who had something to say about the central concerns of their era. Kant’s conception of race is central to his ethics and politics, same with Locke and slavery and conquest, and Hegel’s conception of history has no accidental relation to his depiction of Africa. (I always find it odd that the same people who want to excise Heidegger from the discipline because of his antisemitism gloss over and shrug off the awful stuff in the history of white Western philosophy.) One could make similar arguments for the place of women in so much of the white Western philosophical tradition, where whole societies are built on the subordination of women and the feminine (thinking here of Philosophy of Right and especially Irigaray’s critique via the figure of Antigone).

If those text reproduce ideology, and therefore reproduce empire’s projects of conquest, enslavement, and colonialism, then we can’t just say “nothing is intrinsically wrong.” We in fact have to be open to the notion that these texts are entangled in the most violent, destructive ideas in world history. That they are rooted in whiteness and what whiteness meant in those moments: the right to murder and steal and subjugate.

On the one hand, this is a radical notion. One rarely reads the White Western tradition in this register or with this frame. On the other hand, this is absolutely normal as a general principle of interpretation. When, say, we read Aimé Césaire, we read him as writing out of the struggle against colonial domination and in the name of the Black marvelous called Négritude. Fanon the same way, especially as he goes to Algeria and writes The Wretched of the Earth. Or Du Bois describing the nature of consciousness as doubled.

Why do we read them that way? Because we understand that philosophy, like all creative thought, comes from somewhere, from our sense of situatedness in the world. When it comes to philosophy written from the margins, it’s our habit of reading. We wonder about how they’re reflecting on their condition, their era, and how they imagine things differently in the future. I’m saying we should return that habit to the colonizer. White philosophers have written from that same situatedness. It’s just been hidden because philosophers don’t pathologize the condition of being white. We don’t think about whiteness and white writing as a site of decolonization. Well, some of us do, but that’s not my point. My point is that if we’re to think more broadly about philosophy, diversity talk only gets us so far. The gaze needs to stop being so “neutral.” It needs to be deeply critical and decolonizing, not because I have an agenda, but because that’s the nature of texts and authors and ideas. We know that when we read texts at the margins. Let’s return that knowing to texts at the center. Even if what we find is profoundly disturbing and difficult, because the white West has been profoundly disturbing and violent and so is difficult to reckon with honestly. We can be honest readers. Even when it means reading with tears.

Note on Vijay Iyer

Here are the comments I made introducing Vijay Iyer at the 28 January 2016 Hutchins Center colloquium at Harvard, with links to text and examples.

Introducing Vijay Iyer

It is an immense pleasure and honor to introduce Vijay Iyer today, Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music. I know Vijay a bit, and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but before meeting him in person, I was like everyone floored by his music. It is vibrant, challenging, multi-sensory, intellectual, and just flat out beautiful. His honors and recognitions are well-known: Grammy nominee in 2011, Doris Duke Performing Artist in 2012, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and named by DownBeat magazine as pianist of the year in 2014, then artist of the year in 2015. Vijay’s albums have won similar honors Continue reading “Note on Vijay Iyer”

On Guenther’s Solitary Confinement

Here are my long-ish remarks on Lisa Guenther’s book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, for a book session at the 2014 American Philosophical Association.

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It is nothing surprising to say that Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives is a stunningly important work. Her topic – the meaning and significance of the practice of solitary confinement as a form of punishment – could not be more timely and urgent, whether we look to the recently released report on torture practices in the U.S. or to the increasing attention given to racialized practices of incarceration in this country.  Continue reading “On Guenther’s Solitary Confinement”

Privacy, coloniality, identity

Here are my remarks from the roundtable discussion on James Baldwin and Privacy at the American Studies Association meeting in Los Angeles. They are short (a 5-8 minute slot), but I try here to think about colonialism as hyper-visibility and publicity and how Baldwin’s conception of Black cultural formation in the United States operates with a sense of privacy that complicates, if not out rejects, the relation between coloniality and the social and political practice(s) of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Continue reading “Privacy, coloniality, identity”

Levinas and after

The following is my response to comments by Sonia Sikka and Kris Sealey at the 23 October book session on my Levinas and the Postcolonial. They commented extensively, raising questions of the future of Levinas studies, philosophical pluralism, and the legacies of colonialism in contemporary thought. This is what I have to say in reply… Continue reading “Levinas and after”