Keynote Lecture for 2014 DePaul Philosophy Graduate Association Conference

I am absolutely thrilled to be presenting the keynote talk at this year’s DePaul Philosophy Graduate Student Association Conference, “Philosophy on Trial: Philosophy & Its Others.”

My talk is at 4pm this Saturday the 15th in the Levan Center on DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus.

A full version of my talk is available here. Here is the handout for the talk.

And here’s the introduction: 

Eric Lott’s Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class is a foundational text in popular music studies. It analyzes the white appropriation of black music in the 19th century US. “Love and theft” refers to a racial, gendered, political-economic, and affective dynamic that, established in the 19th century, continues on through the 20th and, with some modifications, 21st centuries. Briefly, “love and theft” is the kind of cultural appropriation that is motivated by positive affect and desire–LOVE–but whose effects are violent and asymmetrical. White guys’ love of black music is precisely what facilitates the transfer of black cultural, epistemic, and economic wealth to whites. It’s similar to what philosopher Mariana Ortega calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” that is, “an ignorance of the thought and experience of women of color that is accompanied by both alleged love for and alleged knowledge about them” (57). Love is both the method and medium for theft.

How is the “love” in philosophy implicated in practices of “love & theft”? How is the love of wisdom the method and medium for theft? That’s the question I want to ask today. I’m not sure I’ll come up with anything more than further questions (hey, what’s more philosophical than that?). But, the reason I’m framing my discussion of philosophy’s others as an issue of “love & theft” is this: Changing trends, values, and inter- and intra-disciplinary politics make the love and theft of wisdom a if not the central way that philosophy now relates to its others. In response to neoliberal reforms in the culture, the academy, and the discipline itself, philosophy is renegotiating its relationships to its “others.” In neoliberalism, difference isn’t a threat to be abjected or excluded, but a resource to be mined for surplus value. State feminism becomes a tool for the racial oppression of Muslims (French veiling laws, “saving Afghan women” as apologia for the War on Terror, etc.), quirky “manic pixie dream girls” replace blond Barbies as bourgeois feminine ideal, and “crooked smiles” are cuter and sexier than perfectly straightened, whitened, and bedazzled teeth (see J Cole). This revaluation of difference is evident in mainstream (and non-mainstream) US philosophy: from the Gendered Conference Campaign to various claims toovercome” or otherwise narrow the analytic/continental divide, philosophers are all about demonstrating their inclusivity, pluralism–that is, their progressive rejection of old, cold-war borders…while often re-marking these very same borders when defending philosophy’s “rightful” place in a humanities-phobic institutional and intellectual climate. (See, for example, here.) Philosophy currently holds its others close, but it’s also pretty anxious about this intimacy.

This situation is reminiscent of the antebellum racial politics that gave rise to blackface minstrelsy. “An affair of dollars and desire, theft and love,” blackface minstrelsy was a method of addressing increasingly unstable racial boundaries and the “the affective consequences of that proximity” between black and white bodies. Lott teaches us to ask how the inclusion/appropriation of “others” functions economically and affectively. So, at a time when philosophy “loves” its others at least as much as it fears them, at a time when “diversity,” “pluralism,” and “overcoming the analytic/continental divide” are increasingly trendy, how might this “love” of others’ wisdom/othered wisdoms function both economically and affectively? Put differently, how is the straight white male saviorism of Macklemore’s “Same Love” manifest in discussions and practices of philosophical “pluralism”?

In what follows, I will first argue that philosophy, the love of wisdom, has long understood itself as a way of appropriating the subversive unruliness of immoderate, disharmonious bodies, using that dissonance to critique and oppose oneself, as moderate, to a society that is itself immoderate. I make that argument through a reading of Plato’s Symposium, particularly the passages that compare Socrates, the best philosopher of all, to an aulos–a double-reeded wind instrument often mistranslated as “flute” or “pipe.” The “love” involved in loving wisdom is a method for bringing body and ideas, visible and intelligible, into harmony–i.e., into proper proportion.

I’m reading Plato through then-contemporary music theory because understanding what an aulos is, how it works, and what Plato thinks of it clarifies the centrality of medium and embodied materiality to philosophy as such. Harmony, for the ancient Greeks, isn’t found only in the song–the most harmonious music is that in which the song and the instrument that plays it are themselves in harmony. So what does it mean to think about philosophy as a harmony or consonance between discursive practice and medium? How does the discursive appropriation of Others’ theories (love & theft) naturalize “philosophy”’s implicit knowledges as “philosophy”? How does theft transform subaltern knowledges into properly philosophical wisdom? How does a commitment to and practice of inclusion at the discursive/theoretical level effectively reify existing hierarchies and disciplinary boundaries at the level of implicit knowledge, medium, and, above all embodied identity? And, how might the naturalization of implicit knowledge, affect, medium, and bodily difference be the most philosophical of all kinds of love?

To address those questions, I turn to Kristie Dotson’s work on philosophy’s culture of justification. 

Examining the role of sonic terms like “univocality,” “dissonance,” and “congruence,” I argue that 
philosophy’s “culture of justification” is a form of philosophical love and theft–i.e., of making “diverse practices and practitioners” proportionate to and harmonious with properly-loved wisdom. Finally, I consider the role of “diversity and diverse practitioners” in the neoliberalized profession. Using Macklemore’s 2012 pro-gay-marriage single “Same Love,” I ask: How does the neoliberalized discipline traffic in “diversity”? Where and how does white/straight/male saviorist-y Macklemore-ism manifest in the discipline of philosophy? How does the avowed championing and inclusion of “different” styles of love as “same love” further reify relations of hegemony within the discipline?

[I mean, from one perspective I’m just talking about double reeded wind instruments and feminism, which, you know, is about as stereotypically Robin a paper as it gets…]