Thoughts on SPEP 2012 Part 1

Such a good conference—many great panels, and I even liked Rochester…the brutalism, the grittiness, the downtown-Cincinnati-circa-1985 (ie pre-gentrification) feel. (Maybe I was the only person who was disappointed SPEP conflicted with MusicCon (AMS/SMT)?) I want to take some time to make choate some still relatively unformed, definitely incomplete and ongoing reflections on conversations and occurrences at the meeting. Most of my reflections concern themes or trends that run across specific panels. I’ll talk about individual panels (including my own) in a subsequent post.
What does it take for work on gender, race, and sexuality, to get legitimated in philosophical institutions, contexts, and conversations?
            This is actually a question my own paper raised, but it came up multiple times throughout the conference. It was definitely at the front of my mind in the session on Debra Bergoffen’s book. It was also something I was considering while listening to Claudia Card’s paper. 
1.    It seems to me that disciplinary institutions (conferences, journals) in philosophy reward rather conservative feminisms, i.e., ideas, problems, questions, and conversations that women’s and gender studies people worked through 15 years ago (I’m exaggerating a bit here, but the general point is that feminist philosophy lags, in some ways, behind philosophical work in feminism in other disciplines). Feminist philosophy is thus in a double bind: in order to pass muster in philosophy, it has to lean more conservatively (e.g., legitimate itself in dead white European guy terms/texts/etc.), but in so doing it cannot keep pace with the most interesting and cutting-edge advancements in feminist/queer/ trans/gender theory. This is probably why some (many?) feminist philosophers leave philosophy: they can’t do their best philosophicalwork in the disciplinary institutions of philosophy.
a.     Theoretical work in feminism and queer studies that happens outside philosophy tends to be more advanced than work that appears in philosophy institutions. So, feminist philosophers are, it seems, often playing catch-up, articulating in the terms of the discipline of philosophy what feminist/queer theorists have already said elsewhere. (In particular, I’m thinking of Card’s idea of “emotional echoing,” which to me sounds a lot like what affect theorists are talking about, e.g., with the idea of contagion and affective stickiness.) I can definitely understand the need to make these ideas and questions in terms that philosophy will understand. Philosophers need to deal with these issues in our own language, with our own methods; we have something to contribute to the overall project (hmm, here I sorta feel like Du Bois in Conservation: “Please don’t just do away with us, really we can make significant contributions!”). However, why is it that philosophers always seem to be lagging behind? Why is it so hard or problematic for feminist philosophers, working in explicitly philosophical contexts, to be in direct conversation with other disciplines, especially theoretical work in feminist and queer studies?
2.    Feminist philosophy, at least at SPEP, seems to need to legitimate itself as“continental” philosophy by referencing an accepted canonical figure—mainly white male philosophers, but there are a few French feminist philosophers (Beauvoir, the psychoanalysts of the 70s and 80s, maybe even more contemporary and non-French figures like Grosz, Cavarero, etc.). It’s interesting tha the textualgesture, and not the methodological gesture is what qualifies work as “continental philosophy.”
a.     This legitimation issue speaks to Maggie Labinski’s paper about the role of the canon in continental feminist philosophy.
b.    Perhaps problem/method orientation IS something to seriously consider re: legitimation of feminist philosophy as philosophy. Labinski shied away from methodology, focusing instead on scholarly identity, the “truth” of one’s identity as a scholar (What’s your take on feminist continental? Feminist? Textual?—to paraphrase Le Tigre a bit…). I would argue that feminism is a set of methods: e.g. attention to power, both in texts and in society/lived experience, theorizing from minoritarian subject positions, attention to multiple, assembled/intermeshed systems of privilege and oppression, etc.
c.     Hasn’t queer theory sufficiently problematized notions of “textual legitimacy”? For example, this idea of reproducing the canon faithfully and legitimately plays into ideals of linear genealogy, paternal transmission, legitimate (vs bastard) offspring, generational logic, etc. What would it mean to relate to the continental canon in queer ways, e.g., the way Dory the fish “forgets” her own past/genealogy in Finding Nemo? (Jack Halberstam talks a LOT about the queer implications of this in The Queer Art of Failure.)
                                                        i.     I’m definitely arguing for the value of bastard and queer readings of the continental canon. In fact, given these texts’ participation in patriarchy, white supremacy, and the like, I think those are the only ethical ones possible. I still think there are interesting things left to do with Plato or Kant, but you have to queer and bastardize them to work through their explicit racism and sexism. Doing illegitimate readings allows one to avoid ideals of innocence—no text is innocent, not text is perfect; we’ve just gotta work hard to make something responsible, interesting, and helpful.
XContinental Philosophy
I was happy to see that the XContinental Philosophy Collective circulated some flyers with their manifesto on it. I was also happy to see some of what they were talking about happen on the actual SPEP main program (and there was some other stuff on the group program, as well.) I was really struck by the fact that it was panels on race and sexuality that included the most “intertraditional” work on the program. Two Saturday panels—the heavy-hitter panel on race (Bernasconi, Mills, Shotwell) and the LGBTQ Advocacy Committee session—featured prominent “analytic” philosophers of race and gender/sexuality. Charles Mills gave an amazingpaper on white time, and Claudia Card gave a super paper on evil environments and gender/sexuality-based violence and resistance. And these papers and their authors participated seamlessly in the panel discussions. Mills & Bernasconi made a few gestures to their “analytic” and “continental” backgrounds, but there were many “continental” philosophers at these panels who were quite well-grounded in both Mills’s and Bernasconi’s work, Mills’s and Card’s work. I teach and write about Mills, and I have taught Card’s work. Bernasconi’s talk was written in really straightforward prose. Mills’s talk included close readings of historical texts, like Locke. Scholars of race, gender, and sexuality are clearly already doing intertraditional work and having intertraditional conversations. However, I worry that this work might be disadvantaged in mainstream contexts, which are largely traditional. I’m especially worried that SPEP, as the disciplinary minority here, often tends to be too sensitive to boundary-transgression, and discourages this intertraditional work in favor of preserving a more strict and conservative version of “continental philosophy.” This conservatism has the heaviest impact on junior scholars and students; senior scholars who’ve already proven their “continental cred” get more leeway here (e.g., I saw some people at Bernasconi’s paper that would probably otherwise never ever go to a panel on race). On the other hand, explicitly intertraditional institutions, like Hypatiaand the California Roundtable on Philosophy & Race, do foster intertraditional work like this, even and especially work by junior scholars and students.  
The Feminist Case For Not Feeding the Trolls
First: Linda Martin Alcoff is the ish; she’s a-maaa-haaa-zing, both intellectually and personally. I’m a total fangirl. Second: I’m really uncomfortable with the way she’s being put in the middle of male philosophers’ turf wars. (For context: Linda is the president of the APA, long-time SPEP member, and co-director of the Pluralist Guide.) Certain prominent philosophy bloggers have repeatedly targeted her professional competence and personal integrity. This targeting happens in such a way that one’s position for or against Linda is really a proxy for one’s stake in a certain way of framing the analytic/contentinal philosophy front of 90s theory wars, which are, sadly but unsurprisingly, still being fought by prominent scholars on both sides of the discipline, when the rest of the humanities/academy has moved on…) This sort of instrumentalizaiton of women is classic: Galye Rubin calls it the “Traffic in Women,” Guyatri Spivak talks about the logic of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” etc. There are other examples of this in the last few months of philosophy blogging: the controversy about the Gendered Conference Campaign petition(s) is a prominent one. Instead of instrumentalizing a specific female philosopher, concern for “women” in the abstract becomes the medium through which male philosophers stake their turf wars.
            I’M NOT SAYING THAT EVERYONE WHO CARES ABOUT LINDA, OR EVERYONE WHO CARES ABOUT THE GCC IS MISOGYNIST, OR MOTIVATED BY PETTY TURF-WAR CONCERNS. But, sadly, both of these issues have been hijacked, at least in (large) part, by concern-trolls using women and “women’s issues” to get at other male philosophers. So men get to benefit from supposed advocacy for women in the profession; this isn’t feminism, it’s patriarchy and paternalism. And women in philosophy DO NOT need or want more of that.
            So as a woman in philosophy, I ask us to carefully consider if, when, and how we feed the trolls. Don’t feed them women to chew up in their turf wars.