Love & Theft of Wisdom: On the Gentrification of Underrepresented Areas in Philosophy

There’s some debate in the philosophy blogosphere right now about the ‘gentrification’ of underrepresented areas in the field–in particular, Latin American philosophy. Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia’s original post over at PhilPercs articulates the concern that

the mainstreamization of Latin American philosophy, if it ever happens, will not result in the substantial inclusion of Latin Americans into the American philosophical mainstream, but will result instead in the substantial inclusion of mainstream American philosophers (that is, mostly white and mostly male philosophers from American research universities) into the field of Latin American philosophy.

The Daily Nous calls this “gentrification”: once some property becomes a profitable investment, white people move in, displacing people who’ve lived there for decades and/or generations, and get all the wealth and benefits from flipping that formerly degraded property.

I think “love & theft”–Eric Lott’s term for the libidinal economy of blackface minstrelsy–is a more accurate explanation for what’s going on here. This was the subject of my 2013 Keynote address to the DePaul Philosophy Graduate Student Association Conference, and you can find the full text of that talk here. But let me give you a sample of the argument that the “love” in the “love of wisdom” has always, since Socrates’ time, been the same “love” in “love & theft” or in what Mariana Ortega calls “loving, knowing ignorance.”


A study of the white appropriation of black music in the 19th century US, Eric Lott’s Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class is a foundational text in popular music studies. “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. It is a specific type of cultural appropriation, one motivated by positive affect and desire–love–but whose effects are violent and asymmetrical–theft. 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.

I use this concept of love & theft to think through two interrelated problems in professional philosophy in the US: the problems of “diverse practitioners” and “diverse practices,” to use Kristie Dotson’s terms. Changing trends, values, and inter- and intra-disciplinary politics make the love and theft of wisdom a if not the central way that philosophy addresses issues of diversity and pluralism. 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. For example, tate 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. 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. 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 be part of a broader shift to “post-identity” politics, politics in which “diversity” discourse reinforces rather than disrupts white supremacist, cis/het patriarchal, and ableist hegemonies? How does the “love” in Macklemore’s 2012 pro-gay-marriage single “Same Love” manifest in discussions and practices of philosophical “pluralism”? How is the love of wisdom–that is, philosophy–a method and medium for theft?

In what follows, I will first argue that philosophy 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 and/or rational, to a society that is itself immoderate and/or irrational. I make that argument through a reading of Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue nominally about “love” (Eros), and more profoundly about the nature of philosophical practice–i.e., what it means to love wisdom. Focusing particularly the passages that compare Socrates, the best philosopher of all, to an aulos (a double-reeded wind instrument often misleadingly translated as “flute” or “pipe”), I show that Symposium defines philosophy as a harmony between discursive practice and medium. 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. The “love” involved in loving wisdom is a method for bringing ideas and body, intelligible and visible, into harmony–i.e., into proper proportion. In Symposium, Socrates accomplishes this harmonization between message and medium by playing Diotima’s tune on his flute, telling her tale with his mouth. Here, theft is fundamental to Socrates’ love of wisdom.

If love and theft is foundational to philosophical practice and to the discipline’s self-concept, how does theft transform subaltern knowledges into properly philosophical wisdom? How does the discursive appropriation of Others’ theories naturalize philosophy’s implicit knowledges as “philosophy”? In other words, 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, in the second part of the paper, to Kristie Dotson’s work on philosophy’s culture of justification. Examining the role of sonic terms like “univocality,” “dissonance,” and “congruence” in her development of the concept, 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. Plato’s notion of philosophy as harmonization between discursive practice and medium continues to inform contemporary professional philosophy.

Porportionality is not the only form such harmonization can take. In the last section, I argue that in philosophy as in Macklmore’s song, the avowed championing and inclusion of “different” styles of love as “same love” further reifies relations of hegemony within the discipline. Here, “loving” does not mean making proportionate, but exponentializing nominal diversity. Just as “feminism” or homonationalism can be a justification for and instrument of white supremacy and saviorism, the championing of “diverse practices and practitioners” can be justification for and instrument of the neoliberal university and all its white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist commitments.