Philosophy as Medium & Material Practice

This past weekend at the American Philosophies Forum, I argued that philosophy is a medium and material practice, and that philosophers needs to (for reasons both philosophical and ethical/professional) engage transmedial practices. Basically, my argument was this: If philosophers are interested in engaging with philosophy’s various constitutive outsides–what is ‘ineffable’ to philosophy, things like “voice” or, uh, “the subaltern,” or “the subaltern’s voice”–we must do more than just “philosophy”. Our intellectual practice must include more than just the medium of conventionally philosophical inquiry, analysis, and argumentation. We must be trans-medial. I tried to do some of that in my own presentation, using, for example, animated gifs to evoke time-based (4D) processes and affects.

In the post-panel discussion, Jessica Wahman and Anne O’Byrne asked a few really important questions, which didn’t get much sustained discussion, probably because they’re not readily discussable in “polite” philosophical company. Wahman asked why philosophy, as a discipline, seemed so exceptionally concerned with policing its own boundaries, and O’Byrne asked if there were philosophical (not just psychological or historical reasons) for this. O’Byrne’s question is right on, but I want to complicate it further.

If philosophy is a material practice–a specific medium with material limits, orientations (I’m thinking of Sara Ahmed’s work here), and possibilities–then the material, historical, social, cultural, and other apparently extra-philosophical reasons or motivations for philosophers’ self-policing are actually philosophical reasons. Two bloggers from the xcphilosophy collective have already argued this point in various but convincing ways:

But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled by the methods or topics of continental philosophy so much as they are by the other reading we do and the other lives we lead. That it is these other lives we lead that allow for certain questions to emerge as immanent. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? (pseudonymous blogger lesbian phallusosophy).

i guess what i’m thinking is that, like alcoff, i think that philosophy’s “demographic problem” is inseparable from philosophy’s “civil wars,” and that, without an attempt to account for the complex operations of power implicit in philosophical discourse, without grappling with the ways in which philosophy has been constituted by race, by gender & sex, by nationality, by sexuality, by ability, by class – any attempt at ‘pluralism’ will be at worst a recapitulation of current conditions (pseudonymous blogger educated ice).

It’s not that material practice is alienated from or ineffable to philosophy; it’s that philosophy normalizes specific privileged types of daily material practices, which then dissolve into “philosophy” and disappear as material practices/everyday extra-philosophical life. We are deceiving ourselves if we think we can separate out the practice of philosophy from the other material practices in our everyday lives. We might want to attempt such a separation because it allows, say, white supremacy, to be a contingent and not necessary feature of the discipline as we now know it. It allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s just that a lot of philosophers happen to be white, not that the material practice of philosophy overlaps with [or resonates with, echoes, harmonizes, induces, etc.] the material practices of whiteness. (And, I should clarify that I’m using whiteness here and not patriarchy because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m critiquing from some pure/innocent outsider position. I’m complicit in this shit, whether I like it or not, whether I work against it or not.) But the material practices of philosophy ARE tied to the material practices of whiteness–not in an ahistorically (i.e., universally) necessary way, but in a historically necessary way. So to treat them as separable requires the same material practice of self-deception that facilitates (white) privilege generally (I’m thinking of C Mills’s discussion of white self-deception in TRC, for example). This self-deception is appealing for whites because it allows both us and philosophy to appear more innocent than we are. It also allows us to think that we can subtract the racism from philosophy without too much disruption or inconvenience–that post-racist philosophy will be more or less what philosophy is like now, just minus the racism.

Subtracting the racist, cis-sexist, hetero/homonormative, ableist hegemonic practices from philosophy means significantly altering the discipline’s material practices. It means doing philosophy in ways that don’t always reinforce and maintain practices of white supremacy, cis-patriarchy, and so on. But changing philosophy’s material practices, changing philosophical media, means changing our everyday material practices, the same practices with which we perform our social identities and access the privileges that do or do not come with them. And that is going to be
very disorienting for philosophers whose professional, personal, social, and interior/psychic lives are attuned to these conventions. De-centering philosophy as medium means disorienting ourselves, contorting ourselves… “distort your body and twist your soul,” as James Chance says: