Thursday, September 4, 2014

The burden of canons & the freedom of philistines: Undoing Eurocentric civilization

"Go out upon the street; choose ten white men and ten colored men. Which can carry on and preserve American civilization?"
The whites.
"Well, then."
You evidently consider that a compliment.
-- W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: Toward An Autobiography of a Race Concept, p. 146.  

I am teaching two sections of Intro to Philosophy this semester. I recently sat and figured out that half of the days I am teaching material written by women and/or philosophers of color. I was kinda proud of myself. But, you know, it is not like white men make up anything close to 50 percent of the global population, nor have they produced half of the world's philosophy. The only way one could feel proud of producing a syllabus with 50% non-white men is by adopting the worse standards of what should be included. That is to say, the standards of including what everyone else includes, which got us here in the first place. And yet, I will admit, it was kinda hard to get to even 50%. I feel constrained by what I feel I should be teaching my students, and feeling like everyone expects them to have read things that other people will recognize as important texts in intro. I feel sometimes like I would be letting down my students if they left my class, and couldn't at least talk about some of the stuff everyone would expect them to have read. They should be able to have at least something in common with everyone else in philosophy. At least a few things--a little Plato and a little Descartes, spiced with Nietzsche.

As a matter of fact, it becomes really hard to imagine a course that reduces white men (and white people in general, and men in general) to something resembling demographics of the world. Or perhaps harder still, it is hard to imagine the sort of person who would design such a course. What person could get rid of all the beautiful texts that inform the culture around us?

* * *

I have increasing become interested in what could be called negative conceptual personas. These are ways of understanding the world that consist of figures and attitudes that have normally been abjected; seen as beings who must be repressed, resisted, and preferably destroyed. To cite at least a few examples there is the clown of Adorno, the idiot of Deleuze and Guattari and furthered in Isabelle Stengers, the concept of stupidity in Avital Ronell and furthered in Jacques Derrida. These are figures that can serve to slow everything down, that can ask questions whose answers everyone knows and that goes without saying. The idiot, for example, might be resistant to the urgent syllogism of the national security state. You know the one, "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done."  But there is more that such negative conceptual personas might allow.

Often, when I am telling colleagues that we need to include less eurocentric work in our introduction to philosophy classes, and undergraduate classes in general, I am often told things like, "No one here knows how to teach outside of the Western tradition." Or I am told things like, "It is great that you are bringing in all of those different traditions, but I am not trained in that." They say it like it is destiny, like a law of nature. They say these excuses like there is no way to change. I am not asking them to do scholarship in those areas (though, it would be nice), or to provide graduate courses on these areas (though, again). All I am saying is to incorporate diverse thinkers and texts in your undergraduate courses. But I realize that for many of these people, what they are afraid of is transforming from the sage on the stage into the fool on the hill. That is, they are not just saying they don't really think those areas and thinkers matter, and that they are unwilling to spend even a little bit of extra time to make a more pluralistic syllabus. They are also deeply afraid of appearing stupid in front of their students. Sometimes things don't change without a bit of a stupidity and an army of fools.

One of the works that I have been obsessed with since it came out, is Malcolm Bull's Anti-Nietzsche. This is a book in which the main protagonists are all negative conceptual personas. The heroes of the book are the losers. Indeed, Bull challenges us to read like losers. He explains, "In order to read like a loser, you have to accept the argument, but to turn its consequences against yourself. So, rather than thinking of ourselves as dynamite, or questioning Nietzsche’s extravagant claim, we will immediately think (as we might if someone said this to us in real life) that there may be an explosion; that we might get hurt; that we are too close to someone who could harm us. Reading like losers will make us feel powerless and vulnerable" (p. 36). Another hero of Bull's book is the philistine. As Bull reminds us, the anarchist and atheist were originally created by others as terms to attack their enemies. Originally, no one self-styled themselves anarchists or atheists. "In the sixteenth century, therefore, atheism, like philistinism today, was everywhere condemned but nowhere to be found. Yet by denouncing atheism, theologians mapped out an intellectual position for their phantom adversaries that was eventually filled by people who actually espoused the arguments the theologians had given them" (p. 8). The philistine, for those of you who remember your Nietzsche, "is the antithesis of a son of the muses, of the artist, of the man of genuine culture" (Untimely Meditations).   But I want to follow up the question that Bull asks later (though our answers will be different from his), "Could something as inherently unpromising as philistinism be an opening to anything at all? And if so, where are philistinism's new seas?" (p. 26).

* * *

Back in February (I know in blogging time that is the dark ages), Jon Cogburn at NewApps asked for reading suggestions for trying to get analytically trained philosophers to understand some of the stakes of what is going on in continental philosophy. Here is the original thread, and here is the follow-up thread.  A somewhat sad and predictable pattern occurs at first, with almost exclusively male and white names being suggested for being read. However, this changes as Robin James, Peter Gratton, Ed Kazarian, and whole host of excellent anonymous commentators suggest a variety of readings, and make a strong case for prioritizing diversity in readings, rather than reducing the analytic and continental divide as the only one in philosophy, and a debate that is principally between white dudes. Jon Cogburn explains that he is "Let me reiterate that in the extended sense of 'pluralist' I think that a pluralist reading group would not be nearly as helpful. Since we're all busy, we don't have time to study everything under the sun. Given these strong constraints it makes sense to read books that will help analytics best understand the maximum number of talks at SPEP that they would otherwise not understand given their poor training in so many important areas of philosophy. Philosophy of race, Africana philosophy, American Pragmatism, feminism, or the new pluralist philosophy of mind (all things suggested above) in general would be poor subject matters with a group with this as an end-goal. German Idealism and Phenomenology are very good subject matters for this end-goal." I know, right? But, at the same time, I recognize here the very same arguments that constrain my own syllabus designs. The desire to create philosophical commons, the belief that teaching too much stuff outside of the canon is to do a disservice to your students (or colleagues). It is to open up your students to ridicule for not really understanding the stakes of most philosophical discussions. This is why I wanted to include a discussion of the very possibility of syllabuses for Ferguson.

There were many smart responses to this, and I suggest reading the comments. However, here is part of one of my comments from those threads: "This goes back to the post here on New APPS about citation practices, as well. The names that we immediately think of, and think of as important, are bound up with a whole history that ignores why we cite some names instead of others. I agree with Robin James, sometimes we got to knock 'em down and rebuild. [...] And maybe Fanon or Arendt or whomever are not as canonical (maybe?), but how cool would it be if your reading group just pretended they were? What if one of the analytic folks were talking to a SPEPer one day and said, "Well, I haven't really read Husserl, but I read this great book on Fanon, and I was wondering...", or "you mention Derrida on play and difference, and I haven't read him, but Maria Lugones argues..." that would be a better philosophical world. And if the SPEPer hadn't read seriously Fanon or Lugones as important intellectual figures, it would be a great kick in the rear." It is a bit of a utopian impulse, but it is also one that requires a type of philistinism. It requires someone who honestly does not understand what the culture is suppose to be, what is normally counted as great, or foundational, or enduring. In the mixed up world of the philistine, the ephemeral becomes the lasting and the marginal becomes the central. The philistine designing her syllabus is not interested in preserving and carrying on the civilization around. Perhaps because she knows that is not a compliment.