The Salvaging: American Academic Philosophy Implodes

May 20, 2017

This brushfire engulfing Hypatia (the feminist journal of philosophy) is so intriguing. The article (“In Defense of Transracialism“) itself is fascinating, with its argument for imagining race as flexibly as we have begun to imagine gender. But no more fascinating than the response to the article (let’s call it an article-da-fe), particularly this “open” (although perhaps better viewed as “closed”) letter to the journal, which urges the Hypatia editors to assume the fetal position, yank the article, and submit to all manner of degrading apologies and corrective re-education steps.

The Article

There is nothing particularly upsetting about the bio/onto/logical premise of the Rebecca Tuvel essay: that the fluidity of gender might apply to race. I’ve puzzled this matter a lot, although more generally with regard to the spectrum of skin tones, body types, hair styles, and facial features that loosely organize themselves around categories of “racial identity.” We discuss and assume the reasonableness of exploding the gender binary, a division between males and females which actually has a genetic, and a procreative, basis. The argument for blowing up the racial duality (or trinity, or quaternity, or what have you) is prima facie even more compelling, precisely because there is no comparably genetic basis for determining race. Honestly, one would have expected a spirited conversation on this irony to have taken root in the academy years ago.

The politics of gender and racial fluidity argue with equally compelling force for accepting this logic. Racial discrimination and gender discrimination both subsist upon what are essentially culturally embedded phylogenetic assumptions. Anyone who accepts the concept of implicit bias (as well as many who don’t) would have to agree that we all live with, encounter, engage, react to, and judge other humans through the use of heuristics that require virtually instantaneous, blunt-force clumping – into static, value-laden groups – of complex, diverse individuals, each of whom possesses their own unique intersectionality (a term that absolutely doesn’t require merely a negative construction, and in the context of the Tuvel transracial argument, assumes an unfortunate dependence on only oppressive and discriminatory experiences of identity that is incredibly self-defeating for whatever goals we might impute to philosophies of feminism, race, and intersectionality).

The Response

The open letter to the Hypatia editors, with signatures from nearly 1,000 academically and independently affiliated scholars (and from quite a few interested bystanders) is both chilling and comical.

Chilling because the letter discloses so clearly the paranoid, oxygen-deprived misery of the academic world. The lack of air for curious, playful inquiry. The absence of humor. And irony. The terminal fear that exists within an environment that is way too cloistered and self-referential and contingent. In which professional and financial security is so tenuous that literally every spoken or written word assumes a life-or-death meaning. In which “harm” and “danger” are omnipresent. In which no speech utterance can be taken on its own terms and allowed to find its way without subjection to the most tedious and depressing inquisitorial prosecution. When I read this letter, why did I keep thinking of The Name of the Rose (or, more poignantly, The Handmaid’s Tale)?

Comical (although sadly so) because the letter instantly memorializes itself as a Chaucer-worthy parody of feminist and intersectional rhetoric and so presents itself to the world as a rite of self-immolation. WHY Why why is this necessary? I now study, virtually full-time, the philosophical and organizational machinations of the white male overlords (among whom I suppose I count myself) who one might reasonably view as the true enemy, and clear target for the wrath, of feminist and intersectionalist scholars and activists. Do the authors and signators of this letter appreciate the catastrophic World Cup dimensions of their rhetorical own goal? Why should Charles Koch and Robert Mercer pour money into the coffers of war-on-women right-wing think tanks and lobbying organizations when incredibly self-centered and self-maligning academics will do their work for them?

The Blind Spot

I acknowledge that my interest in the debate about how we construct and build beliefs and institutions around gender and racial identity is extrinsic. Which probably accounts for my blind spot. I focus on and appreciate the liberating and healthy effects on human society and human existence, as a whole, of release from the influence and effects of rigidly defined identity categories. I love the idea that we are all, as individuals, marvelously intersectional, in a good way. That each one of us is related across uncountable dimensions to others among us in the world, but also absolutely unique and irreplaceable.

My blind spot was my failure to realize the logic of academic discourse in an insecure, unsupportive, fear-driven climate is the logic of defeat, in which one cannot even trust one’s friends and allies (poor Rebecca Tuvel who has been crucified, despite contorting the argument of her transracial defense to anticipate and accommodate the concerns and objections of her colleagues – seriously, we’re really not allowed to remember that for most of her life, Caitlyn Jenner was known as Bruce Jenner?). In this climate, truly exciting ideas about identity fluidity and intersectionality only lead to an endless regress of parcelization and enclosure of what we might ideally view as a cultural commons. We build fences (and fences within the fences) to secure and affirm our identities, only to discover how each fence summons a new set of enemies and a new set of grievances, while the identities we fortify dissolve and recede and slip from our view.