A Non-Zero-Sum Game: some thoughts on the politics of scholarship

In the Q&A at my Goldsmith’s talk, part of the conversation was about how to do more just and ethical scholarship. Given what I had discussed about Ashon Crawley’s critique of Philosophy-capital-P as a practice of enclosure [1], I was especially concerned with how not to reproduce logics of appropriation and enclosure that are really central to the structure of the academic discipline in general, and especially problematic in Philosophy-capital-P.

In my paper I talked about Crawley’s distinction between the categorical difference philosophy makes and the diacritical difference Nina Simone made btw her version and Billie Holiday’s version of Strange Fruit. In the former case, we take other people’s ideas, improve them with our Philosophical labor, and transform them into ours an the discipline’s private property. In the latter case, Simone understood her practice as marking a difference that recalls as it departs from Holiday’s original. The relationship to the original material does not treat it as nature in need of improving with Simone’s labor, but as a kind of kinship that works outside logics of private property transmission. The point is precisely to recall Holiday’s performance, and listeners’ knowledge and affection for that performance, within Simone’s own. The differences in Simone’s performance gesture toward Holiday’s original as a point of common feeling and knowledge (think Ranciere here). This creates community and connection rather than enclosure and distinction.

As Ranciere and WOC feminists like Sara Ahmed would point out, our choice of that thing that creates the point of common feeling and knowledge matters–whose knowledges and feelings are we centering as the grounding point of community? Every time we rehearse the “how is this paper philosophy?” question, we’re putting legibly “Philosophical” objects as the points of common feeling and knowledge. This question and the liturgy of its performance is not just an intellectual practice, it’s an aesthetic and affective one too (primarily?). So the challenge is both to (a) avoid the kind of laboring that transforms ideas into private property and instead relate to other/others’ ideas as things held in common, and (b) mark points of commonality that disobey the relations of domination and subordination that the “How is this paper philosophy?” question enforces.

In discussing this as a model for scholarly practice, I brought up Adrian Piper’s essay “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists,” where she emphasizes European aesthetics are grounded in the “conception of artistic success as the payoff of a zero-sum game” (279). Effectively, my success comes at the expense of others’ failure and/or obsolescence. Conventional Western understandings of things like “innovation” or “originality” are examples of this zero-sum thinking: to be successful, one must be original or innovative, which means surpassing your contemporaries and forerunners as lesser than or behind you. The Great Men narrative of art history is one example of this (especially the progression toward greater abstraction through Monet to Kandinsky to Pollock to minimalism): one name replaces the next as the most radical. Piper emphasizes that the “payoffs” of this zero-sum game are themselves “Euro-ethnic” (279) — that is, the payoffs are increased currency in a status game shaped by white cisheteropatriarchy.

There are tons of examples of zero-sum thinking or performance in contemporary philosophy. The whole anti-correlationalist/anti-representationalist turn (OOO, new materialism, etc.) is one. All these schools of thought begin by constructing a philosophical past from which they depart as a radical new line of flight. The past is something that must be surpassed by better, more radical, more ontologically fundamental methods. Though I haven’t thought as much about this, I am pretty confident that the whole “paranoid-vs-reparative reading” genre also treats past methods as something that must be surpassed. (I also think this move misrepresents what is ultimately a political problem–the zero-sum game stuff I’m pointing to here–as a technical problem, i.e., as a problem with the method of close reading and analysis one uses.) Zero-sum thinking encourages you to orient your project as a rejection of the status quo, but it also encourages you to look for new material in legibly prestigious if underappreciated areas of culture, scholarship, etc. For example, feminist new materialists like Grosz and Barad turn to Canonical White Dude figures (Darwin, Deleuze, Bohr) to reinvigorate Philosophy, because these intellectual investments bring greater returns (legibility, prestige, eligibility to apply for much more well-funded and accessible science-focused grants instead of just humanities money) than, say, thinking about Billie Holiday and Nina Simone…or even about Adrian Piper’s reading of Kant.


Piper proposes “a different kind of game,” a non-zero sum game,

in which the payoffs are not competitive but, rather, cooperative. In this kind of game, no one has to lose in order for someone else to win, because the payoffs—self-expression, personal and creative integrity, freedom, resourcefulness, friendship, trust, mutual appreciation, connectedness—are not scarce resources…Nor are the rules of this game—mutual support, honesty, dialogue, sharing of resources, receptivity, self-reflectiveness, acceptance—of such a kind as to butcher the self and cheapen one’s central commitments” (280).

Cooperative and dialogic, Piper’s non-zero-sum game sounds kinda similar to Crawley’s characterization of Simone’s relationship to Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” This non zero sum calculus is key to practicing scholarship in something like the way Simone practices music history. It would involve creating communities of knowing and feeling that are grounded in practices and histories that don’t transform that commons into private property, and all its racialized, gendered, colonialist effects. To do that means refusing to exclusively re-ground the communities we create in the knowledges and feelings institutionalized in academic disciplines as such, because these are institutions whose value and prestiges are measured in their ability to support existing relations of domination and subordination. It means giving up on traditional metrics of “success” and their zero-sum calculus. [2]


[1] You can read more about it in the paper, but effectively, the “How is this paper philosophy?”/justificatory move is a kind of enclosure, in the sense of transforming the commons into private property. Answering that question, the Philosopher mixes common sense ideas and the stuff of everyday life with their philosophical labor, thus transforming that stuff into their private property (the Gettier problem, the Hegelian dialectic, etc. etc.) and into the discipline’s private property.


[2] An effect of giving up traditional metrics of disciplinary/academic success is that we could stop caring about prestigious but predatory members of the profession. Giving up traditional metrics of success means you don’t have to care about the gatekeepers of those metrics, many of whom have proven again and again to be racist and misogynist, often in combination (just to get started, let’s think about known abusers like Pogge and McGinn).