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.


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.

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”

Derrida, Eurocentrism, decolonization

While I am not the biggest advocate of Aimé Césaire’s work, I’ve always been taken in – in ways that would take more words than I write below to explain – by his comment at the beginning of Discourse on Colonialism that European culture is sick. That bit from Césaire came to mind when I came across this short piece by Simon Glendinning the other day, which discusses Jacques Derrida’s work on Europe, Eurocentrism, and deconstructive critique. Continue reading “Derrida, Eurocentrism, decolonization”

Decolonizing the colonizer: three aspects

What does it mean to decolonize the colonizer? In a previous post, I asked the question – which has largely been suppressed in white European thought – of what would it mean to decolonize the colonizer. First, there is the question of why this hasn’t been asked of the colonizer, but only of the colonized. My sense is that this question has only been for the colonized because at every level whiteness works as invisibility, in that it is never seen as whiteness in discourse about knowing and being, and also because the colonized are always framed (for better or worse) in terms of violence, whereas white people (the colonizers) are somehow located outside the very frame their (our) imperialism produced.

Continue reading “Decolonizing the colonizer: three aspects”

On decolonizing the colonizer

One of the central questions of my Levinas and the Postcolonial is why we haven’t asked what should be a very basic, wholly necessary question: if the colonized have been tasked with decolonizing themselves – at every level – why haven’t the colonizers been tasked with the same? I tried to sketch what that looks like, that decolonization, by examining a single thinker (Levinas). The big question comes from a very basic insight and claim, and yet it’s proven to be controversial.

Continue reading “On decolonizing the colonizer”

Introducing Naipaul and Fanon

This is the draft introduction to my essay “Martinique Between Naipaul and Fanon,” which I have written about in a number of posts over the past week.

Antillean society is a neurotic society, a comparison society. Hence we are referred back from the individual to the social structure. If there is a flaw, it lies not in the ‘soul’ of the individual, but in his environment.

Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

At first glance, they are two very different, if not outright opposed, thinkers. Continue reading “Introducing Naipaul and Fanon”