Philosophy and Orality/Diverse Practices & Diverse Practitioners

So it’s kind of surprising (not surprising) to me that this 2013 talk of mine is pertinent two different times this week. It relates to two separate discussions of philosophy, diverse philosophical practices, and diverse philosophy practitioners. I already talked about the first one. But here I want to point to Justin E H Smith’s new aeon article about philosophy’s rejection of orality and oral cultures. Smith discusses how the materiality of writing as a technology overdetermines the what, how, and who that constitutes Western academic philosophy. That 2013 DePaul keynote talk of mine also has a lot to say about philosophy as a material practice, and how this overdetermines the what, how, and who of philosophy. Here’s the full talk again, and below is the full section on materiality. The tl;dr is this: When talking about the materiality of philosophy, writing is a red herring. The materiality that matters is a male, citizen/white/non-foreign body.

In the same way that white appropriation of black music decontextualizes affect (e.g., the blues) from the implicit knowledges that give that affect its full significance and political/aesthetic functionality, philosophical love and theft takes discursive content, separates it from its medium, and plays this content on philosophical media. Making something “philosophical” strips it of its “incongruent” registers of implicit knowledge. “Loving” wisdom means smoothing out the implicit knowledges concretized in one medium so the tune can be played in another medium with different material properties, and hence different implicit epistemic properties. The vibrating matter matters–its concrete specificites affect the precise balance of overtones and harmonics that vibrate with the primary tone. Likewise, in philosophy, diverse practitioners contain, in their material experience practicing in, on, and with ‘diverse’ media, a trove of implicit knowledge that gets lost in even (and especially) the most ‘loving’ transposition.

On this point about media-specific implicit knowledge, I want to bring pseudonymous blogger Lesbian Phallusosophy (LP) in conversation with Dotson. LP argues that philosophy’s borders aren’t drawn 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” to a philosophical topic or method. LP identifies two ways questions emerge in philosophical practice: through identifiably philosophical methods and topics, and through extra-philosophical bodies of literature and experience. This second type of practice includes what Dotson describes as “philosophy based on experiences and lives of African-descended people” (Dotson 9), that is, theorizing based on one’s lived experience as black, and the reading of Afro-diasporic cultural texts. To adequately appreciate and work competently with this “diverse practice,” you need to be familiar with the material-historical context in which that practice is immanent (i.e., in which it’s not “diverse”). In other words, you need access to the implicit knowledges gained by living and participating in Afro-diasporic culture as black. These implicit knowledges are not something generally imparted by doctoral training in philosophy in the North America, especially if you, your instructors, and/or the texts you study aren’t black. Studying most styles of philosophy, you don’t work with the media/materials that would allow you to practice and hone the implicit knowledges necessary to hear and manipulate the full spectrum of frequencies–the overtones, if you will–of “diverse practices.” In order to get closer to these “diverse” practices and texts, to more fully understand the implicit knowledges they engage, you might need to make your body incongruent with conventional philosophical comportments (e.g., you might need to have a deep understanding of what it is to live in patriarchy as a woman). Knowing “diverse practices” as fully and rigorously as mainstream philosophers know mainstream philosophy requires the one to perform diverse material and corporeal practices. That is, you might need to make yourself incongruent with philosophical norms, comportments, and orientations. And, as both Socrates’ example in Symposium and Elvis’s, Clapton’s, Jagger & Richards, Eminem’s, and countless other white musicians’ examples show us, that incongruence is more valued when emanating from otherwise (racially, gendered) congruent bodies, and punished when emanating from otherwise incongruent bodies: only when it is stolen can such incongruence be lovable, respectable. Diverse practices are more valued when they’re performed by non-diverse practitioners.

At the same time, even when “diverse practitioners” sing respectably philosophical tunes, their mastery will often be challenged because of the perceived incongruence between their bodies and the words that come out of them (see, for example, the discussion of the Asian-American philosophy teacher near the end of Linda Martin Alcoff’s Visible Identities). If we take seriously the idea that the “methods and topics” of philosophy are designed to be played on specific types of bodies (of people, of text), then playing them on differently-materialized bodies–the bodies of “diverse practitioners”–means that these same tunes will produce dissonant, “un-loving” sounds. If a flautist and a clarinetist play the same sheet music, as written, the sound won’t be “univocal”–because flutes are C instruments and clarinets are in Bb. To play in unison with the flute the clarinetist will have to transpose down a step. Similarly, whereas tuning a lyre means making it visually proportional (adjusting the length of the strings so they reflect a specific series of geometric proportions), tuning an aulos to play at the system that’s ‘natural’ to the lyre means making it visually disproportional. What if, in order to demonstrate the “properly” philosophical attunements of, say, critique, analysis, even justification, non-whites, women, people with disabilities, what if we have to make our bodies, our material practices, outwardly disproportional (“unprofessional”)? Because of the way patriarchy, white supremacy, etc., shape our bodies, bringing them in congruence with philosophical attunements means apportioning ourselves in ways that, from the perspective of the white, male philosopher, seem disproportional and immoderate. And of course the tuning system immanent to our specific material construction is just going to seem totally irrational when compared to properly philosophical temperament. Just as Greek harmony was developed by experimenting with a monochord, Western philosophy was developed by experimenting with white, male, able-bodied bodies. The materiality that grounds your tuning system sets the lines/frequencies/proportions–that proportionality is a function of the material you worked with; other types of material suggest other attunements.

When a vibrant idea sounds or feels unphilosophical, that’s because the overtones or sympathetic vibrations (i.e., the implicit knowledges) are incongruent or out of phase with properly philosophical vibes. There are implicit knowledges embedded in and taught by conventionally philosophical media (like the close reading of texts, the French or English language). 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, patriarchial 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. Or, it allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking that the material practice of philosophy overlaps with the material practices of patriarchy, misogyny, and rape culture, and can eventually be disarticulated from them. But, following the argument I’ve made in this article, the material practices of philosophy are tied to the material practices of whiteness, patriarchy, and rape culture–not in an ahistorically (i.e., universally, abstractly) necessary way, but in a historically, materially necessary way. Philosophy was designed to be played on a very specific instrument, one that’s attuned to whiteness and patriarchy.

Materiality is central to the question of philosophy’s difficulty with diverse practices and practitioners, so it is deeply troubling that discussions of diverse practices and practitioners frequently ignore it. When we talk about philosophy’s diversity problems, we often focus on philosophy as either (a) a discourse–the content of specific ideas, or (b) a set of professional practices that are not necessarily related to the content of the discourse (e.g., the composition of panels, extracurricular socialization/”networking”). But what my reading of Plato and Dotson shows is that philosophy harmonizes the medium (b) with the message (a): the most definitively philosophical work, the “loving” of wisdom, brings ideas in tune with material practices and media. If this is true, then the material, historical, social, cultural, and other apparently extra-philosophical reasons or motivations for philosophers’ self-policing are actually philosophical reasons. In fact, they’re the most philosophical reasons, the ones most directly related to the practice of loving wisdom (if by “loving” you mean making proportional the idea and the material).