Saturday, April 30, 2022

Towards a Pedagogy of Listening: An Interview with Elisabeth Paquette & Gideon Strauss (Pt. I)

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by Elisabeth Paquette, Gideon Strauss, Héctor Acero Ferrer, and Andrew Tebbutt

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.

On February 28, 2022, Andrew Tebbutt and Héctor Acero Ferrer, conducted the following interview with Dr. Elisabeth Paquette and Dr. Gideon Strauss on behalf of the Philosophy Otherwise team. This interview will be published in two instalments. In Part I, the interviewees frame the conversation through a series of reflections on the Philosophy Otherwise colloquium—which took place in ICS between November and December of 2021. In Part II, they delve more directly into Dr. Paquette’s philosophical work and its bearings on a potential decolonization of pedagogical practices. We present to you Part I of the interview.
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Gideon, I'm wondering if you could briefly describe your impressions of the Philosophy Otherwise colloquium that we organized at ICS last fall (November-December 2021). In particular, how has it shaped your thinking about the practice of philosophy?

Before I answer your question, I want to mention two of my own commitments in participating in the colloquium. One was to collaborate in ICS’s consideration of the white supremacist habits that are embedded in our own tradition of scholarly practice. I think part of the intention of the colloquium was to recognize as a school that we have continuing habits of scholarly practice that were shaped—acknowledged or unacknowledged, intentional or unintentional—in a context of white supremacy. Coming to terms with that legacy, I think, was part of the intention of the colloquium, and it was also one of my own commitments.

Another commitment that I brought to the colloquium was my investment in land acknowledgements. My hope was to learn from the conversations in the colloquium series about ways to integrate an acknowledgement of the histories of human presence in the regions that I inhabit and traverse. And “inhabit” and “traverse” are important words for me, because I inhabit two regions. I inhabit the ecologies around a town called Stellenbosch, in South Africa, which is an agricultural, university town, and I also inhabit Toronto. I traverse these spaces nomadically, in a kind of  annual migration, residing mostly in Toronto, but spending significant time in Stellenbosch. And to think about how to acknowledge the colonial histories of these places was also an intention of mine. All of this raised some questions which I'm far from answering. What is it to “acknowledge”? What is even acknowledged? Whose histories do I attend to and how do I attend to those histories, taking into account my own situatedness as a settler twice over? I’m a 10th generation settler stock in South Africa, and by the privileges of my appearance, I’m grafted into the settler aspect of presence in Canada. And so, whose histories do I attend to, and how do I attend to those histories when it comes to acknowledging?

This commitment to land acknowledgements translates into a query about the integration of land acknowledgements into my own practice. Here, there were three practices that I was concerned with specifically. The first is my practice as a scholar. The second is my practice as a citizen. And the third is my practice as a member and participant in the life of a particular local faith community. I was also concerned with how these practices interact with each other. 

So those were the commitments and questions with which I came into the colloquium. Turning to my experience of the colloquium itself, I would say three things stood out to me. Perhaps the big one was the need to cultivate listening practices. I remember a particular conversation that we had with Colombian philosopher María del Rosario Acosta, who emphasized both a posture of listening and practices of listening as ways of doing philosophy that need attention. That resonates with me as someone who tries to do philosophy phenomenologically, but in a way that's informed by ethnography. But a question pressed itself on me: what does it mean to adopt a posture of listening? What does this look like? I especially appreciated the claim that there’s a tactfulness to listening, that listening requires an attentiveness, not just to context, but to shifts in context and to micro-contexts. This question also came up for me when we had a conversation with Lori-Anne Dolloff, a scholar from the University of Toronto, about Choral Practice and about a composition that included Inuit song. What stood out to me was how choirs along the hundredth kilometer from the US border engaged with Inuit song, and how this relationship to song has shifted over generations, so that a previous generation of Inuit had a certain response to the song while a current generation of Inuit have a different response to it. And so listening practices, in an ethnographically-informed philosophical practice, require listening, and then listening again, and then listening again…

I also felt challenged by some of the conversations in the colloquium about the need to act in the face of the risk of doing wrong. And specifically, the question of how to negotiate the risk of offering offense, of doing damage, while at the same time needing to act—here considering scholarship as an act (or at least as a practice with a series of actions). This led me to think also about pedagogy and our institutional presence in the world, both in relation to other academic institutions, but also other communities and institutions, in terms of how we institutionally must act, while probably doing damage or causing offense, as we do so. How do you negotiate that risk? And how do you nurture a disposition institutionally, but also personally, that resists the temptations of cynicism and apathy in the face of difficulties like these?

Lastly, I take away from the colloquium series as a whole an awareness of the immensity of these tasks,  and of the immensity of the forces involved, specifically in relation to the smallness of our school and the relatively negligible effect of my own scholarship. Against the backdrop of what I've said above, I’m made aware of the need to cultivate both modesty and perseverance as parts of my disposition, but also parts of our institution’s disposition in the world. In terms of the effect of this in my practice of philosophy, I would say that it brings about an intensification of my awareness of the need to embed philosophical practice ethnographically, and to pay attention to what might constitute practices of listening, philosophically speaking, in these various dispositions, of modesty and perseverance in riskiness. 

Thank you, Gideon. What you’ve shared provides some very helpful context for the conversation that we had in our colloquium, especially given that it was “in-house,” so to speak. I have just one further question, before we move on to your dialogue with Elisabeth. What stood out to you in particular about Elisabeth’s presentation in the session in which she joined us, especially in terms of the relationship between questions about philosophy and questions about pedagogy?

A few things stood out to me. The first one has to do with a question that I’m going to ask Elisabeth later on, and it concerns the “tectonics” of the encounter in Elisabeth’s work between the bodies of work of Alain Badiou and Sylvia Wynter, and how they press up against each other in Elisabeth's reading. And I have to say, as a caveat, that I’m not a Badiou or a Wynter scholar, so I’m coming at this question with the posture of a beginner. What stands out to me at this point is Badiou’s commitment to the emancipation of all, versus Wynter’s commitment to considering Indigeneity and race in particular (not to exclude the gender aspect of her work, which is there, but is not what jumped out to me in the context of our colloquium). The way in which those differing approaches to emancipation press up against each other and create fissures, fractures, and saliances is interesting in Elisabeth's work. 

Also, in her dialogue with ICS Junior Member Abbi Hofstede, Elisabeth said: “One thing I try to think of when I think about the academy is what counts as knowledge in academic spaces, and who counts as knowledge keepers in these spaces as well.” And so those questions—what counts as knowledge and who counts as knowledge keepers—really stood out to me, as well as the implications of thinking through these questions. Elisabeth also said: “This should be a live question for us as philosophers always: ‘what counts as knowledge?’” I’m intrigued by that. 

Also in the conversation with Abbi, Elisabeth talked about the importance of humility and the importance of unlearning and relearning over the course of one’s career. This connected with my concern for nurturing a kind of a modest resilience (or resilient modesty) in our scholarly practices, and for what the implications of this would be in the pedagogical relationships between newer and older scholars in their trajectories (especially taking into account your concern about hierarchies of knowledge keeping).

Lastly—and this didn’t stand out that much in our conversation, but Elisabeth did mention it, and I found further reference to it in her online presence —I was intrigued by her concern for monuments, which has me thinking about the texturing of space by means of memorialization. In any case, the notion of texturing spaces by means of memorialization, by means of monuments, is very interesting to me. But then I also wondered about the other means by which we texture spaces in ways that memorialize, as well as the mnemonic effects of the texturing of learning spaces and what those effects are on the scholarly practice. And so I’d be intrigued to hear what Elisabeth might be able to take from her study of the public effect of monuments on the texturing of space, and what insights she might have for the structuring of pedagogical spaces, mnemonically. 

Thank you, Gideon. Now we’re going to go over some introductory questions for you, Elisabeth. We want to get your thoughts about the experience you had with us in November, and ask you to point us to what you found interesting. The colloquium was an experiment for us at ICS, a way to create a space where spontaneous-yet-structured conversations and scholarship could be produced. But also so much work went on behind the scenes to create a space that was safe enough and open enough so that people could have conversations in which they could bring—in ICS language—their “whole selves” to the table, and have their own stories be part of what was discussed and interacted with. That was a way for us to foreground questions of racial identity and marginalization, and to incorporate those concerns into our dialogue—because you can’t incorporate stories without incorporating concerns about how different people interact in that space academically. And so, we want to ask you if you see value in that approach to doing communal scholarship. Do you think there are other alternatives we should explore in order to effectively incorporate the types of concerns that we want to address with this experiment? We know you do a lot of this work in your own context, so is there anything from your own learnings that can be incorporated in what we do here with this project?

First of all, thank you for inviting me back. I do value the kinds of things that you are doing, because in philosophy spaces in particular, there isn’t a lot of time spent on conversation, collective learning, and skill-sharing, and I think that this is something that you all have brought to this philosophical space, and I think it’s extremely valuable. So I enjoyed participating in the colloquium, and I got a lot out of it because I don’t often get to have these kinds of conversations and be in these kinds of spaces.

I also think it’s wonderful that you have faculty and students who are doing this together, and that faculty show up for these initiatives. Often there is a kind of distance between faculty and students in which faculty feel like they ought not to be learning alongside students. But it’s really valuable to be able to learn from your students simultaneously, and this is something that flies in the face of a lot of how we think about academia. I often reflect on how we as faculty think of ourselves and of what we “ought” to do, as well as how we think about knowledge (in particular, the difference between thinking of oneself as a “holder” of knowledge versus understanding knowledge as something that’s produced between us and in community). I think these conversations are really valuable, and so you all are doing a lot of great work. I know that from the organizing I do with the “Feminist and Decolonial Politics” workshop that I do every year; these conversations take a lot of work behind the scenes. This work requires constantly shifting, navigating, getting feedback and then reshifting again, and having ongoing conversations about how best to implement things, how to change things, and whether to change things. 

From my own experience, I think it's always important to remember that there is no one way to do things, and that it is really important to create many spaces in which these kinds of conversations can happen. Creating these open dialogues about pedagogy and content is really important, as is having spaces where you read texts that you might not otherwise be introduced to. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that no one space is going to do everything nor should one space do everything. I often get comments in response to the workshop in which people say, “Oh, can’t we do this thing…?”, and I think to myself, well, you could do anything, in theory, but in reality you can't do everything. The workshop, as an example, can only do certain finite things. And so the more people are doing things, the better. The more we’re encouraging and empowering people to do these kinds of things collectively, the better. And the more we show up for other people doing these kinds of things, the better. Because no one space can do all things. And so I think this is related to the humility that Gideon brought up before, that you need to recognize that you can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t think that you could do everything.

I think that the insights you offer about space—that no space can do everything, that we need to be present to support others’ work, that we should recognize the limits of the spaces we create—are true “takeaways” for us. And our second question, which is more general, is along similar lines. Are you hopeful about these types of exercises? That is, are you hopeful about efforts to consider issues of oppression and marginalization in academic contexts? Are these conversations gaining momentum? Are they gaining momentum pedagogically? Or do you think this is something that we’re doing now, but once the urgency is gone, we will go back to things as they were before?

I hear this question as asking whether I’m hopeful for the field of philosophy. I think this is a great question, because I think hope is really important, but is often felt to be lacking in the era that we’re in right now. So I think it’s something to really hold on to. I have a “yes/no,” or  “both/and,” answer to this question. I’m hopeful in the sense that I think that the field of philosophy is changing. I think that there are more and more spaces that are opening up, more and more students and faculty being trained in areas that are distinct from the canonical conception of philosophy that I was trained in. So this is changing, and I think there are more spaces to do that kind of non-canonical study. I think that there is more attention paid to, and more funding for, this kind of work. And these are all things that I think are structurally important for changing the field of philosophy, in addition to people doing the content work, which really matters. There have always been wonderful scholars doing content work in non-canonical fields, but I think it’s also growing in various ways in terms of institutional support.

So I'm hopeful in those ways. But I am also not hopeful that university is going to become decolonial in any sense. I think that this would require that the university look extremely different from the way that it looks right now, and I’m not sure what this would look like. It’s not a matter of saying that we ought not do this work. I think that doing the work is really important, but I also know that the institution of the university has huge structures of white supremacy and settler coloniality behind it. For example, the fact that institutions are on Indigenous lands is not something that’s going to change overnight. So there’s definitely a “both/and” to my thinking about hope: I think that we should continue to do the work as though it’s possible while also recognizing that there is a horizon of possibility that we may never get to, certainly not in my lifetime.

Actually, before we continue with my prepared questions, I want to ask Elisabeth to elaborate on your last comment, where you point to the need of holding on to hope even if we don’t see the results in our lifetimes. Over the weekend I listened to an episode of the CBC radio program Ideas, from December, that featured a lecture given by a science fiction author named Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson is trained in literary Marxism at the University of San Diego. He’s written twenty or so volumes of science fiction, and last year (or late in the year before) he published a 700-page book called The Ministry for the Future, a work of climate fiction. In the lecture, Robinson made a distinction between utopia and what he calls "Optopia," and argued that both are necessary, that it’s necessary to imagine good places that are difficult to imagine achieving from where we are now. Robinson argued for the social importance of utopias, even though we can’t get there or can’t tell how we might get there. By contrast, Optopia, which is what Robinson describes in The Ministry for the Future, is defined as the best possible future outcome we can imagine, knowing what we know to be the case now. In his book, Robinson tells a story about climate change that focuses on what we must do, we have to do to avoid extinction, given the limited period that we have. So, given the system of nation-states and the reality of capitalism (and he’s an anti-capitalist, and is opposed to the nation-state), Robinson wanted to offer an imaginary that took into account what we’re going to have to work with while we are addressing the climate crisis. And he calls this an Optopia. And I wonder, when you look at the prospect of decolonization of the university, what is your Optopia? What is achievable for you, imaginably achievable within, say, your lifetime, with regard to decolonizing the academy?

That's a great question. I do some work in and across the university and with various caucuses to push for change around various communities. First of all, there are the easy things. For example, for the first time in the university’s history, we’re going to have a Native American woman teaching Introduction to Native American Studies. She was a student at UNC Charlotte, she’s also staff, and she’s adjuncting for the position, so she’s paid (although adjuncts in the southern US in particular do not get paid very much). Beyond this, having full-time tenured faculty who are Native American women teaching Native American studies, and also other topics that they would choose to teach, would be a great thing to see at the university. Additionally, having a full professor who is an African American woman would be a great thing to see at our university, which doesn’t exist right now. So there are small things like this that I can point to about our institution in particular in terms of what things should look like. But I don’t know if that’s what you’re asking about or not. Because in my dream world, I imagine having representation at the university that is consistent with the population of Charlotte in particular, in terms of the demographics of the university, staff positions versus faculty positions, race, gender and ethnicity.
Also, there’s the issue of ensuring that university is affordable for more folks. This seems like a really far-off dream, but it would be amazing if this were possible, given the kinds of structural inequalities in Charlotte, North Carolina (which does not cost as much as it does cost to live as Toronto, I realize). However, the degree of poverty and the inability to move between socioeconomic status in Charlotte is ranked very low for the United States generally. Again, I don’t know if this answers your question, but if I were to write a list of the things I want to see implemented right now, these things would be on it.

You did. You’ve given us some wonderful glimpses into your thinking here.

[Part II of this interview coming soon.]

Friday, April 01, 2022

The Prosaic, the Exotic, and the Logic of “Othering”: A Medieval Account of the Nature of Things

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This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.

"I am betting that here, in Thomas’ Liber de natura rerum, we witness a depth of expectation about the world that is operative in the scourge of colonialism and racism, marking the modern history and everyday life of European societies and the many colonies they founded. I am wondering whether it is a logic we should watch for in our subsequent examinations?"

Thomas of Cantimpré (c.1200–c.1270) wrote a sprawling encyclopedic work, the Liber de natura rerum, on what he called the nature of things. In it he surveyed the physical, plant, and animal life to be found below the circle of the moon. His approach was hermeneutical; he sought to understand the meaning of life and existence, both on and below the physical surface of things. For him, understanding involved penetrating distinctions. As our senses told us, “this” was not “that,” which allowed us to point at one thing as opposed to another. Moreover, each separate thing had a meaning to it that was both patent (available already to our physical senses) and hidden (demanding not merely conceptual thought, but insight into the moral horizon that contextualizes the whole nature of things, grounding their integrity, and setting them in relation to the Maker). Toward that end, Thomas relied on a variety of sources: works of geology that described the virtues as well as the appearance of minerals and gems; bestiaries and medical works that described animals and plants; and astronomical works that addressed the supra-lunary spheres (charting the influence of the moon, other planets, and the stars in the heavens on life and existence below). This conceptual work involved distinction-making followed by definition of the things so distinguished, whereby each thing could be understood as something internally one and at the same time other than everything else. 

In his view there was a logic to life and existence, a logic available to us human beings by which we could make our way sure-footedly in the world. It was a logic that traded upon differences, irreducible differences that nevertheless were brought together in one unity or another via a harmony or equilibrium by which opposites were forged into composites that were themselves opposites to other composites. These composites could continue to be harmonized into greater compositions until one arrived at the first opposition: that between the divine Creator and the Creator’s creation.

Thomas’ view was a very complex play of sameness and difference, of unity and diversity, opposition and composition, generation and corruption, all integrated via principles of harmony into an eye-popping weave of equilibria at ever so many levels and of ever so many sorts. Thomas’ way into this complexity, as said, was hermeneutical: the world was a text that could be read. Moreover, the meaning of the text was itself multiple: it could be read on a literal level, an allegorical level, a moral level, and a mystical or eschatological level, much like the Scriptures of the Christian Church of the day. The world-as-text could be preached, and indeed, Thomas (who was a member of the Order of Friars Preachers), wrote this encyclopedic work to help preachers find material for their sermons.

What makes this text interesting in the present context is the logic of the world as Thomas describes it. It is a two-term or binary logic of distinctions in which a world of primary differences is yet understood to be a world with an underlying unity by which different things are composed into equilibrial wholes by the power of harmonization—opposites brought into compositions holding the opposites together at least for a time. This simplest of patterns was reproduced fractal-like across the whole expanse of the world from the hidden subterranean realms below land and sea to the highest reaches of deep space. In short, the world was a union of opposites for Thomas. Each unity has an opposite that contrasts to it as its contrary.

Thomas' experienced world was the Northern and Western quadrants of the world as he knew it. The North and West then had the South and East as its opposite. Persons, states, animals, plants, and minerals were fairly pedestrian in the Northern and Western quadrants of his experience and he describes them as such. And that meant that these same things would be opposite in the Southern and Eastern quadrants of the world. They would be exotic, marvels with strange and unaccountable properties. They would look strange and act strange, and be redolent with occult features unheard-of in the parts of the world that Thomas knew, even if his world was full of miracles and wonders by our contemporary standards and expectations. The North and West was wet and cold. The South and East was hot and dry. Life in the North and West was hard, with most eking out a bare existence against the looming spectre of starvation and death. Life in the South and East was soft. Cities were made of gold; people from the highest to the lowest lived effortless lives of torpid ease. People in the North and West were fair skinned, people in the South and East were swarthy. People in the North and West were morally striving. People in the South and East were morally indolent. You get the picture.

There is a logic to the world that guides Thomas of Cantimpré’s pen. It is a logic that is far older than him, and would far outlive him. It can be seen in the ancient Greek travellers’ reports that so interested Heroditus and in the soldiers' reports that interested the later Roman historian Tacitus. It is the logic at work in the early modern travellers’ reports to the Far East that set the European imagination alight in the 16th through the 18th centuries that Donald Lasch chronicled in the multivolume Asia in the Making of Europe. These were of course the centuries when Europe and its offspring forged a colonial logic that had room for the institution of slavery ironically (or perhaps not) just when the natively [Western] European species of unfreedom were disappearing. 

I am betting that here, in Thomas’s Liber de natura rerum, we witness a depth of expectation about the world that is operative in the scourge of colonialism and racism, marking the modern history and everyday life of European societies and the many colonies they founded. I am wondering whether it is a logic we should watch for in our subsequent examinations? I am wondering if we should ask whether this logic is a peculiarly Western logic or whether it can be found at play in other civilizations of the globe? These are a few questions that thinking about Thomas of Cantimpré’s Liber de natura rerum for the first time in years has left me with. I think of them as interesting, even worthwhile, and so I leave them with you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Towards a Philosophy beyond Racism - Series Conclusion

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by Andrew Tebbutt and Héctor Acero Ferrer, Series Editors

This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Over the past 18 months, we at ICS have been reflecting on the reality of systemic oppression and its impact on our institution and community. To bring focus to these reflections, we chose to begin our work with an exploration of the ways in which systemic oppression is weaved into our religious and scholarly tradition, attempting to identify how such tradition can speak to today’s world anew. One of the venues in which this conversation has taken place is Ground Motive, through this “Uprooting Racism” series. We invited members of our community to document their own reflections and conversations, certain that our internal discussions would be enriched through a broader, society-wide dialogue. We are grateful to the individuals who contributed to this series, as they provided a number of insights and responses that continue to nourish our community in its journey forward. In bringing this series to a close, we would like to highlight some key learnings from these contributions, so that they might continue to speak to us in our ongoing efforts to uproot systemic oppression in our context.

In her contribution to this series, Junior Member Abbi Hofstede describes systemic racism as one of the “pervasive weeds” that infects the soil on which ICS has founded itself. One of the striking aspects of this metaphor is the way it conveys the hidden and deeply-entrenched nature of systemic racism, which operates, as Abbi notes, less at the level of overt opinions and attitudes and more at the level of institutional habits and social structures—in “the roots,” so to speak, of the worlds in which we live and move. Together, the posts that make up our series “Uprooting Racism” reflect on this deeply rooted nature of racism, each grappling from a distinct vantage point with the past and present of ICS as an institution committed to the realization of divine justice in the world, while not immune to complicity with systemic injustice. In his contribution, ICS alumnus Dean Dettloff draws our attention to the willful blindness to racial injustice cultivated by—even progressive, justice-oriented—forms of Christianity, and we have been challenged to reflect soberly on how our Christian worlds often perpetuate oppressive and colonialist orders. Abbi points to the difficulty of recognizing the manifestations of racism and white supremacy, which all too often operate through socially accepted codes of conduct, and whose “uprooting” falls specifically to the responsibility of white people. In his post, CPRSE Research Associate Andrew Tebbutt attempts to navigate some of the subtle pitfalls whereby efforts in antiracism end up re-centralizing whiteness, and ICS founding Senior Member Henk Hart (whose insights we have been blessed to publish in this series as well as in the series “From Henk's Archives,” prior to his passing in March 2021) encouraged us hold our focus on the full breadth of discrimination, and to attend to the intersection of anti-black racism with discrimination toward other peoples of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

We originally envisioned including more than four contributions to this series. That we are “ending” the series here, however, is by no means a result of the conversation about institutional racism and ICS fizzling out. On the contrary, as a community we have seen this conversation evolve, spilling beyond the context of Ground Motive to a number of exciting and encouraging venues. For example, the conversations represented by “Uprooting Racism” also led to renewed efforts to incorporate topics related to race and racism in the ICS curriculum, as reflected in courses such as “Pragmatism, Race, and Religion,” “Colonization, Racial Identity, and What it Means to be Human,” and “Cultivating Learning Communities of Grace.” Additionally, in the fall of 2021, members of the ICS community participated in a colloquium series entitled “Philosophy Otherwise: Relearning the Philosophical Craft,” which invited guest scholars from around the globe to dialogue with us not only about institutional racism but also about the demands facing philosophy (and theology) in light of struggles for gender equality, justice for Indigenous communities, and the colonialist undertones of Western thought.

In wrapping up “Uprooting Racism,” then, we intend to signal this broadened scope of our reflections on our institutional practice, and to focus more directly on their implications for philosophy. As many of the contexts listed above have urged, the institutional roots of racial injustice are intertwined with—if not identical to—certain conceptual roots, placing a special burden on institutions of higher learning such as ICS centred on engagement with ideas. Briefly put, thinking philosophically about systemic injustice, oppression, and marginalization may not reach the full depth of these issues, to the extent that part of the problem is philosophy itself. Consider the following statements from philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff:

If we say that race is not an ontological category, and that it is a mere artificial overlay on top of more basic and more real categories, we risk losing sight of how significant the effects of racial identities have been, and how those effects have permeated every philosophical idea. Ontology itself might then be able to avoid a needed self-critique. Metaphysics and epistemology could proceed with their habitual disregard for issues of race, and political philosophy could continue to introduce racial topics only in the stages of applied theory. *

These remarks appear in the overall context of Alcoff’s challenge to the view that the “socially constructed, historically evolving and culturally variegated” nature of racial categories entails that “race” is ultimately not real. Denying race the status of an “ontological category,” she argues, “exacerbates racism” by “conceal[ing] the myriad effects that racializing practices have had and continue to have on social life, including philosophy.” Reasoning along with Alcoff here, our goal in moving beyond this series is to deepen and raise the stakes of our “self-critique,” exploring the relationship not only of our institutional life but of our very philosophical practice to the struggle to dismantle racism. 

In launching our next Ground Motive series, “Philosophy Otherwise: Knowledge Reconsidered, Learning Reimagined,” we look forward to continuing the efforts initiated here to lament our complicity in structural injustice, to listen to silenced and marginalized voices, and to imagine new futures for Christian thought and education beyond racism.

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* See Alcoff, Linda Martín, “Philosophy and Racial Identity,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies Today, 32–33, 2013.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

About Us but Not For Us: Phenomenology and the Decentring of Whiteness

by Andrew Tebbutt
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I had a number of reactions after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. It was of course horrifying to see a Black man restrained and suffocated in broad daylight, but over time I found myself increasingly disturbed by the subtle naturalization of police violence in certain responses to Floyd’s death. When a New York police officer declared: “I am not Derek Chauvin. [My fellow officers] are not him. He killed someone. We didn’t. We all restrained,” I wondered whether it was really up to us as regular citizens to draw this distinction, whether the tarnished reputation of police is really our problem when Black people are asked to accept a heightened possibility that they will be killed in encounters with police. I thought also about the destruction of property in many of the protests that Floyd’s killing inspired, and I found ironic that a nation, having established itself on the enslavement, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Black and Indigenous people, would now complain that parts of this establishment are being destroyed. These were the issues that stood out to me when I began thinking about how I could contribute to this Ground Motive series, and I was eager to speak out.

Soon, though, I began to notice many of the ways that Black voices had already addressed police violence, the destruction of property, and other issues related to systemic racism. Although I was angered by the violation and marginalization of Black and Indigenous lives, both in Canada and the U.S., I started to wonder whether anything I would say would in the end just be about me and, like Abbi, I began to feel as though I shouldn’t say anything at all. 

But then I realized that, as someone who hopes to make a profession out of teaching philosophy, it was not so easy to let myself off the hook. Perhaps I did not have some brilliant new insight to offer to the conversation about systemic racism; still, my role as an educator made it necessary for me to engage with this aspect of our society and its history, if only by educating myself about the ways that I as a white man can make a difference in the struggle against systemic racism and white supremacy. Emboldened by this line of thinking, I bought books, watched YouTube videos, and had conversations with friends and colleagues about race and racism. I thought about how I would integrate the topic of racism into my winter 2021 ICS course, following bell hooks’ advice that the choice to include Black authors on your syllabus means that you should actually talk about race in your class (rather than simply profit off of the perceived “diversity” of your reading list). As an educator, neither silence nor passivity was an option for me, and if I wasn’t yet prepared to be a spokesperson for anti-racism, I could nevertheless do everything possible to educate myself on the issue.

This, basically, was my mindset when I was stopped in my tracks by some lines from an interview with author and Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman:

What we see now is a translation of Black suffering into white pedagogy. In this extreme moment, the casual violence that can result in a loss of life—a police officer literally killing a Black man with the weight of his knees on the other’s neck—becomes a flash point for a certain kind of white liberal conscience, like: “Oh my god! We’re living in a racist order! How can I find out more about this?” That question is a symptom of the structure that produces Floyd’s death.

I was familiar with the oft-repeated dictum that it is not the responsibility of Black people to educate white people about systemic racism and the struggles against it. Not only is it my job as a white person to educate myself about these issues (the resources for this self-education already exist in the countless Black voices that have been speaking out for centuries), but Hartman’s words seemed to elevate the burden, and to turn it around. Somehow, my very efforts to educate myself about systemic racism were symptomatic of systemic racism itself. How?

I have provided this brief walk-through of my own thinking over the last few months because I suspect that I am not the only white person to experience an eagerness to make things better while finding it difficult to locate a place for himself in the struggle against racism. And I think this is precisely the point that many persons of colour want us white people to notice—that, as white people, we do not immediately have a place in this struggle. Or, more specifically, one of the central obstacles for people of colour is the fact that our place in the struggle is as yet too much at the centre, given the extent to which whiteness defines the landscape of our social order. Thus, another reason why we as white people don’t need Black people to educate us about racism is that we are already at the centre of it. As white people, we are essentially involved (as beneficiaries) in structures of racism and white supremacy, the destruction of which, however, is not for us. As a white person, one might say, the struggle against racism and white supremacy is about me but not for me, requiring first and foremost the destabilization of my comfortable place at the centre of the social order.

Consequently, the effort to dismantle racism will be disorienting for white people, given how much of the world is “for us” in ways that we typically do not notice. In her essay “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” feminist theorist Sara Ahmed discusses race and institutional racism using the theme of orientation, and develops an account of whiteness, not as a matter of skin colour or any other such visible trait, but as a function of the mutual shaping of our bodies and the spaces in which they move and act. 

Ahmed begins with the well-established phenomenological insight that our own body is in the first place not the assemblage of head, torso, limbs, etc., that we observe in the bodies of other people, but rather is our point of orientation in the world, our point of contact with the world, which for the most part recedes into the background of whatever action currently occupies and engages us. Of course, I have fingers, and I can turn my attention to them in the same way that a doctor can inspect my body as an object, but my way of living my fingers—for example, in typing this sentence right now—in fact pushes “my fingers” as explicit objects or body parts into the background of my engagement with the world. The lived body, phenomenology shows, is in fact not an object at all, but is rather a kind of mutuality between my activity (as a subject) and the world that supports it.

The problem, Ahmed points out, is that this mutuality does not function in the same way for all bodies. The world we inhabit reflects the history of this mutuality, each of us inheriting a particular world in which to orient ourselves. As Ahmed explains, we can see—or rather, we do not always see, but should—the mutual shaping of body and world at work in the way that white bodies in particular mark the point of orientation for most of our everyday environments and institutional spaces. “Spaces acquire the ‘skin’ of the bodies that inhabit them,” she writes; they “take shape by being oriented around some bodies, more than others.” Ahmed’s point is that our bodies orient us in space—are enabled as the site of our worldly activity—insofar as that space is oriented around our bodies, and that this mutual orientation is in place for some bodies more than others. Here, Ahmed speaks of the “whiteness of space,” the way that white bodies are granted the privilege of receding into the background of the social world, of “sinking” into their environment and going unnoticed in a public space that is set up precisely to support and accommodate them. Not to notice your body, accordingly, is to live in a world in which the mutuality of body and world is comfortably coherent—which is to say, to live in a white (and, typically, “able”-bodied, male, cisgender) world. In such a world, other bodies are destined precisely to be noticed, not to fit in, and thus to be denied the comfort and capacity provided to those bodies whose shape the environment has adopted.

Reading Ahmed’s piece led me to reflect on the “spatial whiteness” of the environments in which I grew up. The fact that as a kid I was hardly ever confronted with the reality of racial difference is evidence, not of the absence of race, but of the thoroughgoing whiteness of the spaces in which I moved. Not that I didn’t encounter people of colour growing up in the Niagara region (I did), but the relevant fact here is the way in which they were noticeable for me—the way in which, if I wasn’t easily able to categorize their otherness (“Oh, she’s a migrant worker”), they appeared out of place (“Oh, I wonder where they’re from—because it surely isn’t here”). 

I mention this personal detail because I think the disorientation of whiteness applies even to those of us who claim—sincerely—not to harbour racist ideas or opinions. For, as Hartman and Ahmed are suggesting, the struggle against systemic racism isn’t primarily about ideas, but rather is about space—that is, the spatial and material context of the world we have in common. We should, of course, be committed to the idea of antiracism, but what these and other voices are saying is that intellectual debates will have no traction if they are not premised on a spatial and material reorientation of our world. Here’s Hartman again:

The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning “how to be more antiracist.” It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.

It is natural to ask here: so what can we do? What I am hearing from many Black voices is that we will overlook the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy if we look too hastily for clear solutions and action steps, treating these realities as issues “over there” that involve Black people only and about which we might simply educate ourselves. The root of the problem, rather, is the way that whiteness forms the point of orientation for our social world, and so the struggle against racism must begin with a rigorous reflection on whiteness, lest we pursue “practical solutions” that serve only to perpetuate spatial and institutional whiteness. As Ahmed writes,

We… need to describe how it is that the world of whiteness coheres as a world… A phenomenology of whiteness helps us to notice institutional habits; it brings what is behind, what does not get seen as the background to social action, to the surface in a certain way. It does not teach us how to change those habits and that is partly the point. In not being promising, in refusing to promise anything, such an approach to whiteness can allow us to keep open the force of the critique. It is by showing how we are stuck, by attending to what is habitual and routine in "the what" of the world, that we can keep open the possibility of habit changes, without using that possibility to displace our attention to the present, and without simply wishing for new tricks.

In this effort to make habitual whiteness more noticeable, I think Ahmed’s caution against “wishing for new tricks” is important at two levels. First, it can help us reject those demands for clear solutions that are nothing other than veiled dismissals of the critique of whiteness—e.g., “Until you give me clear practical solutions, I’m not going to hear you.” The demand that Black voices articulate themselves reasonably, consistently, and with applicable actions steps—is this not actually a refusal to really hear what these voices are saying, a reluctance to be unsettled and disoriented in the ways that an uprooting of racism really requires? We may not be this overtly cynical, but the disingenuous nature—conscious or not—of some demands for clear practical advice has led to a reluctance on the part of persons of colour to translate the struggle against racism and white supremacy into simple ‘how tos.’

At a second level, though, Ahmed’s caution offers a challenge to those of us white people who earnestly want to know how to help, by shifting the conversation away from what “we” as white people can do to change things. Indeed, Ahmed reserves her most piercing criticism for the question: What can white people do? 
“The sheer solipsism of this response must be challenged,” she writes, for the ways that it “re-position[s] the white subject as somewhere other than implicated in the critique.” In other words, the question What can white people do? centres the agency of white bodies as the source of change, rather than as already deeply implicated in the problem of racism. Ahmed is thus asking us to notice how the orientation of this question—“How can I, as a white person, contribute to the resistance, to your struggle”—denies the reality that white people are already at the centre of the struggle, comfortably involved in (if not altogether dependent on) the very structures that the struggle against racism aims to dismantle.

In this way, Ahmed is shifting our attention away from the practical question of resistance, and toward our desire for resistance and for the clear action steps toward achieving it. “What does it mean,” Ahmed asks rhetorically, to “assume that critiques have to leave room for resistance?”

This desire to make room is understandable—if the work of critique does not show that its object can be undone, or promise to undo its object, then what is the point of the critique? But this desire can also become an object for us to investigate. The desire for signs of resistance can also be a form for resistance to hearing about racism. If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.

Now, Ahmed is not saying that we should avoid identifying action steps or pursuing real changes. But she is encouraging us first to become aware of the ways that racism, as rooted in the very spaces we inhabit, persists even where there is a genuine desire to eliminate it. Her worry is that if we press for change too quickly—too superficially, too comfortably—we will fail to hear the critique of Black voices in full, and we will simply reassert the centrality of whiteness. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should do the work of identifying practical changes that we can make as individuals and as members of communities and institutions. But we should not think of these as “ten clear steps to eradicate racism,” but rather as steps toward the unravelling of the centrality of whiteness. As white people, we must recognize our responsibility, not simply contribute to efforts to resist racism, but to expose ourselves to disorientation and to commit to the divestment of our place in the social order.

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks makes the point that predominantly white communities can participate in the struggle against racism by reflecting on and studying whiteness, “so that everyone learns that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of colour are present.” As an historically—though certainly not exclusively—white community, we at ICS are poised to engage in the dismantling of racism and white supremacy, here and now, by reflecting on whiteness, by making it noticeable in our world and the world at large, and by noticing the damage that it has done and does. At ICS we are set up to reflect on whiteness in our writing, classrooms, and casual conversation, regardless of whether our work deals with race explicitly, and regardless of how new we are to the conversation. For reflections on whiteness, doing a “phenomenology of whiteness” is the first step towards witnessing the true depth and breadth of racism and the stakes of the struggle against it.
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Monday, September 21, 2020

Confession of a Dying Man

This piece is later addition to the existing Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives. Here, Henk reflects on his experience of dying.

by Henk Hart

I am embarrassed, ashamed at times, and I feel quite powerless. Many people reach out to me in my end time. Family and friends. People from church or my work community. Children. Strangers sometimes. I am deeply touched by this and the touch is healing. At times I am able to show my appreciation, my gratitude. Yes, I am truly grateful. To all. But I do not always or to everyone make that visible. That’s because I have begun to struggle with mail: email, letters in the mail, cards. Part of my new reality is that responding to mail takes time and energy that I now no longer have. I try. But it doesn’t happen. So I feel ashamed. I know that most people understand. I am grateful for that. But I am still embarrassed. And sad.

For the longest time I have not experienced death and dying as a burden. They are part of living. For many people they are sad, painful, beyond bearing. For me they were not. Bit by bit I gave up parts of what it means to be alive. Food, a hobby, an activity, a bodily function. I have seen death coming and expected it for a long time. Even now that my medical team says it’s coming closer faster I feel that in many ways I am ready and it’s ok. But the last few weeks I have become aware of my unanswered mail as a part of dying for which I am not ready. And I think I know why. It breaks lines of communication, it ends part of what it means to be alive. And to be the offender is sad and shameful to me. Suddenly dying is no longer what it has been so far. 

So I confess: as I am dying, I am part of death’s ruptures in living. Not just for myself. I bring the pains of dying into the lives of others. And I confess: I do it especially to those who reach out to me. I am sorry. 

Though confessing helps living with the shame, it does not stop the dying. Life goes on, also the life of which dying is part. And that life, for me at least, is also full of blessing that surrounds the pain. Shame is not the whole story of my dying. In our electronic world I can share my story with my work community, my confessional community, and my community of family and friends. In that way my world of dying could be life giving to others. That gives me joy.