By Jennifer Scuro
The academy is risk-averse.
Joy James, philoSOPHIA 2018 keynote speaker
It might be too ambitious of me to imagine that, for those of us who identify as established or as professional philosophers, philoSOPHIA’s annual conference, a society for continental feminism, operates as a tempering event for much of the invisible labor in the demands and duties of our profession. While we do this labor, we are also navigating the difficulties of contextualizing ourselves against the larger and sometimes more problematic personal and political contexts in which we live. It is in this sense of being ambitious that these ‘notes’ to follow are limited and speculative while also for the sake of practical use.*
I read philoSOPHIA 2018 as a tempering event because it was an opportunity to commune about what it is that makes the work we do valuable, especially for those of us working in relative isolation when it comes to our interests or our research. This isolation that might also be tempered by how our work might be reflected in or by our students, our classrooms, the curriculum we take up, or in comparison with colleagues. If we are fortunate enough, of course, to be in supportive and habitable departments, programs or institutions, this condition might additionally mitigate the intense, often ‘un-assessable’ labor of our academic commitments. For those of us more isolated than others, this conference provides a chance for unique and rigorous interaction. It is also a chance for senior scholars to interact with those who cite and teach their work. By my observation and experience, the philoSOPHIA community has offered real-time experiences of solidarity-building amongst feminist and philosophical practitioners both at the margins and at the center of the academy.
More importantly, as much as it might temper the work of established practitioners, by my observation, philoSOPHIA has consistently (which is also not to say without its own difficulties) been a community that works intentionally for and creates space open to the places of marginality that academia frames, patrols, and governs for the sake of compulsory ablenormativity and heteronormativity. Presently and for what looks like the near future, the academy operates in what I’ve found to be quite harmful and dismembering ways (see here). Yet, in the context of this community, there is space made for alternative frameworking.
This is evident to me in the fact that space is given for the kind of qualitative critique offered by Shelley Tremain’s work, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2017), both this year and last (participating in the 2017 plenary panel, see here). Tremain is a feminist philosopher of disability who Melinda Hall, during Tremain’s book session, called one of the most important public intellectuals in philosophy today. I think this is a key example of how the philoSOPHIA society can provide a refuge for those marginally cast by the academy as well as provide a laboratory for graduate students and junior scholars who benefit from learning how to practice the work of philosophy as it can deviate from or operate critically against what they might learn from their institutionalized training.
Accessibility and attention to accommodation have also been an essential feature in recent years for the society. As thoroughly labor intensive, there is much risk in organizing a conference that sets to work maximum accessibility and inclusion. I have been privileged to witness this labor – its conflicts and its complexities – in how it might intend success, but also risk failure. Last year, I helped facilitate a brown bag discussion that fell short of its intention, and the concerns raised by these shortcomings I thought to be fair because they were also corrective and instructive to future efforts of access and inclusivity.
Those concerns –uncomfortable though fair–were not corrective because those most at risk were expected to reinstruct; rather, there was a corrective in furthering attention to the ease by which exclusion is possible, in part, because of the context by which these risks and failures were couched. Sara Ahmed’s keynote last year was a defense of the feminist killjoy, as she herself had just publicly and purposely left her post (here) having also just published Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017).
For me personally and professionally, her work provided nutrition and an emotional-intellectual reserve so that I could go ‘back to work.’ Ahmed’s narrative of the ‘snap’ resonated with me (in full here):
Think of how all her efforts to be heard, to get through that wall of silence, that wall of indifference, that wall of whiteness, come to nothing. Think of how all the frustration, that rage, can become a tipping point. It is only when you seem to lose it, when you shout, swear, spill, that you have their attention. And then you become a spectacle. … When we think of such moments of snap, those moments when you can’t take it anymore, when you just can’t take it anymore, we are thinking about worlds; how worlds are organised to enable some to breathe, how they leave less room for others. You have to leave because there is nothing left; when there is nothing left.
Feminism can be what happens in these moments, and by feminism here I am referring to black feminism and feminism of colour, when amidst the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, something is revealed to you about a world you had assumed as accommodating.
As I returned to philoSOPHIA this year, last year’s ‘feast’ continued to supply its resource in how many of Joy James’ assertions about the academy and the work of philosophy in her keynote, “The Captive Maternal and Political Trauma: A Testimonial for Erica Garner (1990-2017),” were complemented by Ahmed’s imagery and made much more impactful. James called for a better interrogation of our academic environment as it is reflective of the greater political context that ‘starves some, feeds others,’ delineating the site of the ‘captive maternal.’ James offered a description of the captive maternal so as to ‘steal it back,’ defending this as a practice of historical resistance by enslaved black communities.
James folded in a set of provocations outlining how in both public and private contexts reproductive labor in a captive state usurps generative powers. With a philosophical eulogy for Erica Garner (who refused to be a captive maternal), she outlined how capitalism has ‘fed’ and continues to feed on the maternal, along with a most valid accusation against the larger problem of the academy, an outright refusal to accept its feigned political neutrality. There was no lament for how the academic institutions we might find ourselves in and attached to expect us to be more ‘good than free.’ Instead she advocated for a ‘performative anti-racism.’ James’ demands were more strikingly juxtaposed with her lamentations for Erica Garner’s resistance to the captive maternal and the ‘stealing back of herself.’ As James argued it, ‘stability has a price.’
I find that the events surrounding my participation in this conference (and, more specifically, in this kind of conference) although seemingly ‘external’ to it take on a greater relevance, even if academic conferences tend to seem like an escape from the everyday. No, this was more of a retreat – reflective of Ahmed’s invocation of the ‘no’ (here) and in the spirit of what Devonya Havis discussed as the politics of refusal in her comments during Tremain’s book session. Havis, offering an ‘apparatus of refusal,’ and a ‘reflective intransigence’ most plainly asks, “When can we refuse?” When Havis asks about the ‘art of not being governed,’ this suggests to me that we need to better maintain a reflective practice on those possibilities of ‘revolutionizing or radicalizing the apparatus,’ possibilities most generously offered in these kinds of exchanges, in this kind of collective space. Havis, alongside Foucault and Tremain, suggests that the work of critique is akin to virtue.
Because I am usually well accommodated in academic spaces, I cannot suspend and fully bracket those externalities that undo and make hostile efforts toward decent academic inquiry, instead, I think I need to allow them to come into a more useful frame.
The events most pressing in my mind:
- There was no award granted for the Sanders Public Philosophy Award in 2017: James’ call and Tremain’s critique of how public philosophy should not just be about ‘making philosophers visible’ especially since the public image of ‘the philosopher’ harbors and is rife with old and familiar biases. More often than not, philosophers are better known in the context of scandal than for the complexity of good practice (some exceptions might include Myisha Cherry’s UnMute Podcast or Helen De Cruz’s discussion of ‘prestige bias’). James suggested in her keynote that we should not seek a balm or salve when there is a wounding in the collective work of philosophy, to which I add specifically feminist philosophy. Instead persistent discomfort might allow for a redistribution of accountability in who can be and what is made visible to a larger public (as in here and here), but that is to also say, interventions must be purposeful and effective so that wounds do not become infectious. Interventions must mark a record of a real transformative shift in the embodied practices of feminist authorship.
- The March for our Lives rally going on nationally at the same time as we communed in Richmond: what I find most notable is that it was prompted a significant and articulate youth movement (while still maintaining familiar exclusions to public discourse, here and here). I am always interested when I travel to conferences or give lectures in how best to reorganize my experience and knowledge into active philosophical pedagogy. So I ask, when students sit through our classes or as they are assigned work from the canon, have we done them any ‘favors’ or have we instructed them against their interests, particularly against the possibilities of their future philosophical and political contributions?
- The hemorrhaging of the academy when it comes to the disposal of philosophy as a program (as in the case of University of Wisconsin, Stephens Point plans to do, here), or as forfeiture of faculty-driven education, embodied in professional practice (in the laying off of tenured/tenure-track philosophers like Ephraim Das Janssen at Chicago State University, here). Do philosophers do enough to commit to a philosophical realism or do we continue to fantasize about the ‘good work’ of our ‘good conscience’? This question comes from what I think was another of James’ most important provocations: many trying to work or working in academia comport ourselves so that we will be perceived as ‘good citizens’ while at the same time sacrificing the greater political role we ought to play as ‘truth-tellers.’
Lydia Brown, a contributor to my book and participant in the other featured book session this year on Addressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies (Lexington Books, 2017), is an award-winning advocate [here, here, and here] yet also a ‘non-philosopher.’ They mentioned in my session the real, easily observed ‘echo-chamber’ effect of academic communities (as it is also the case sometimes in advocacy communities). I don’t think that – and this is mostly by my observations and experiences as well – the larger, more recognizable and established philosophical communities like SPEP and APA (which offer themselves as inclusive, accommodating, and accessible spaces) have properly ensured themselves from Brown’s well-described echo-chamber effect.
There is such a precious and intimate sociality that I am most grateful for in the context of philoSOPHIA, an opportunity to really commune with others. I am not performing the work of philosophy, not costuming myself in the cloak of academic legitimacy in this exercise of sociality. It is a retreat, as Havis suggests, per her reading of The I Ching: ‘retreat is a strategic possibility in acts of refusal – not abandoning the field but by engaging in small acts of resistance to prepare the field for one’s return.’ This was, for me, a revisiting and a rescuing from the slings and arrows of academic life with and among kindred, in kindred sociality – an enmembering against the dismemberments of an ableist and neoliberal polis. This concept of enmembering is a work in progress. At the end of Addressing Ableism, I state: “By enmemberment, I mean imagining—truly entertaining—ways in which we ought to make space, maybe ‘hold space,’ so each member otherwise dismembered, otherwise disposed, instead can have place and context for not just being, merely existing or ‘surviving,’ but rather prosthetically sustaining a generous persistent partiality of belonging in the world” (2017, 150).
My final thought is a reiteration of my first one: James’ naming of the academy as ‘risk-averse.’ Intellectual generosity as well as good faith practices are undermined in conditions of privatized, protectionist, individualistic, exploitive, and institutionalized modes of inquiry or enterprise. I go back to my institution fortified and partially immunized against the hazards of assumed neutrality in the apparatus of academic management and administration. After this retreat and the generous refuge for experimenting with the taking of real philosophical (and perhaps true existential) risk, I am grateful for the fortification against the nausea-inducing and pervasive threat of dismemberment often given to the business of academia.
[*] The author would like to thank to Joy James, Kelsey Borrowman, Joel Michael Reynolds, Devonya Havis, William Paris, Das Janssen, Lauren Guilmette, and Melinda Hall for their feedback in the drafting of this post as well as to Ladelle McWhorter and the philoSOPHIA 2018 executive committee for the organizing of this conference.
Jennifer Scuro is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The College of New Rochelle in New York. She is author of The Pregnancy ≠ Childbearing Project: A Phenomenology of Miscarriage (Rowman & Littlefield International, Feb 2017), a text that is part (autobio)graphic novel and part philosophical analysis, as well asAddressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies(Lexington Books, Oct 2017).