This piece was originally performed as part of a panel on risk-taking in academic writing at CCCC’s 2019.
Hello, I’m Kate, and I’m here to talk a bit about writing and risk taking in the disciplines. For my entire academic life I’ve been having an identity crisis. I’m a philosopher who likes logic, rules, abstraction, and whose version of word play is seeking maximal precision.
Simultaneously I’m a teacher of writing who has been interested in practical applications of philosophy, not just theory, and deeply committed to understanding rhetoric, persuasion, audience and purpose.
These aspects of my identity often seem in tension and have led me today to explore the risks of interdisciplinary writing and pedagogy. I’ll also spend some time addressing the risks that are inherent in writing and teaching in and around disciplines that, like philosophy, are still strongly identified with and largely controlled by white men.
The kind of performer I am is specifically analytic philosopher. We have some shortcomings, but I hope to convince you there’s plenty of good, too.
I think I can demonstrate this partly by sharing with you that part of what makes me an analytic philosopher is that I like questions such as “what’s the fundamental nature of the universe,” “what is goodness,” and “is it possible for classical logic to account for the puzzles of the material conditional?” [slide] Responding to the universe question, it’s fun to consider that the basic metaphysical reality might be a wave function oscillating in infinitely dimensional space, or maybe the Christian God is real and sorted all this out. Yet another option is that Jain ideology is correct and we exist in a human shaped cosmos where souls that make it past the confines of matter through the cycle of death and rebirth float to the nexus of the four infinities. There are all sorts of possibilities.
My interest in possibilities, and lack of desire to seriously rule any of them out, manifests itself in my life personally as well as professionally. Here’s a personal example: I once dated a woman who I met just after she moved back in with her parents to reconnect with God and quit being gay. We used to run together while having long talks about her struggle to square aspects of her identity with her conservative church. We would simultaneously discuss my deeply committed agnosticism and also my ability to tolerate apparent intellectual or ideological tensions. That is to say I think that incompatible ideas/lifestyles/people should all be able to sit side-by-side and get along just fine anyway. I guess that’s why I didn’t see any problem in dating a woman who was trying not to be gay.
Here are a couple of stories from my professional life: Once, at a conference I attended, a philosopher admired by many for his intellect, gave one of the keynote addresses—it was about tolerance. The speaker’s tolerance does not include acceptance of gay marriage or recognition of transgender people. Such people must be tolerated but we need not and should not, according to the speaker, coerce others into accepting them. It’s strange to share space with other philosophers I have such deep disagreements with, but I’m mostly convinced I don’t mind doing it. Someone’s got to help them see the errors in their reasoning. Another interesting profession experience was illicitly drinking bourbon in a seminary basement with a friar while we watched Beyonce’s recently released visual album Lemonade.
A few days later we had an epic discussion of Catholicism and sexuality that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. It reminded me of running with my ex-girlfriend who did eventually leave me to pursue heterosexuality. I hope all of this tells you a bit about where I come from as a writer and intellectual. Maybe a bit about what kind of performer I am.
As a teacher of writing but also a philosopher, naturally the first question I asked when I was reading the CFP for this conference was, “what is performance rhetoric?” Heather Carver writes that her students often start by asking the same question but that that’s the wrong question. The right question is “how” performance rhetoric is (Carver 2007, p. 2). When I’m being totally honest, I’ll tell you I find that question a little annoying, but also I think I’m just annoyed because I don’t really understand it. Of course, it’s also hard to see my favorite question – what is it? – so casually dismissed. Disciplinary boundaries may be fuzzy, but they’re vulnerable places. That said, and to return to my personal life for a moment, I eventually married a cultural theorist so I’ve gotten more comfortable exploring those edges. My wife may not bring the weight of evangelical Christianity to our relationship, but in the beginning we had plenty of really serious and unpleasant arguments about the nature of truth. A few years later we came to understand that perhaps we were never really so far apart as it had seemed.
Back to Carver, here’s something she said after I bristled when she told us to ask how and not what: “Performance can make the raw self real to an audience, with a vulnerability that exists in the very moment of expression. Performance is a simultaneous method of inquiry and discovery in the very moment that the performer and audience share air, space, and time together” (Carver 2007, p. 7-8).
This raises a different kind of question for me than the how or the what—it raises the question of who. Philosophy is a discipline that has at once been mine since I was 15 years old reading Plato’s Apology and thinking “Socrates is right! – why should we fear death?!” and has also never been mine as I was reminded when I was the only woman in my graduate program. I was reminded again when one of my philosophical heroes talked derisively about the “feminization” of philosophy at a conference that I attended early in my graduate years. When I asked him about it he told me I’m the asshole—can you believe it?
A Google image search shows me it’s not mine. I’m reminded a lot in many different ways. Performance lets us think about who as well as how.
Thinking about who a little more deeply—philosophers are sometimes criticized for acting like we’re disembodied, extremely powerful minds that can approach a sort of god’s eye view. Here’s an example of how many people see us:
initially inspired by my friend Rachel O’Donnell
and then confirmed by her, which I say lovingly:
And it’s true, some of us are jerks. But of course in reality, philosophers are people with particular histories and identities that shape what we bring even to our most abstract thinking. We share space, air, and time. The denial of this truth sometimes seems responsible for the homogeneity.
Probably unsurprisingly I *do* think it matters who we are, where we came from, what we have done. *Who we are* makes a difference in how we think, write, speak and engage others, no matter how abstractly. And despite our methods I think *a lot* of philosophers agree, perhaps especially those of us who are aware we have identities. Who we are shapes what we think, what we care to think about, and the work we do no matter how abstract.
The performative nature of philosophy can be seen in how particular philosophers have helped shape conversations in philosophy by taking risks and expanding the conversation. Our stories shape our conceptual analysis minimally by shaping which concepts we choose to analyze and perhaps also which concepts we have access to. Concepts like misogyny, oppression, epistemic injustice and so on. A number of black feminist philosophers have made this point particularly well. In her wonderful 2010 paper “How is This Paper Philosophy?”, Kristie Dotson responds to a challenge that Anita Allen posed to academic philosophy itself to justify the participation of black women in the face of their vanishingly small numbers. To give that challenge some more context, just last year Allen said in an interview: “Among the A.P.A.’s estimated 10,000 Ph.D-trained philosophers in the United States today, an estimated 125 are black, 38 are black women” (Yancy 2018). Dotson’s 2010 work starts with a story of a guidance counselor at a historically black college who tells her sister “[p]hilosophy is not for black women. That’s a white man’s game” (Dotson 2012, 3). Dotson’s reaction to hearing this advice is both to be appalled and relieved. In her paper she goes on to argue that rebuilding philosophy as a culture of praxis that is pluralistic with respect to methodology rather than merely adhering to some set of traditional norms could help us overcome a variety of our blindspots. But working and writing within the discipline of philosophy is risky, as Michelle Moody-Adams makes clear in a paper she gave at CUNY the same day that I originally presented this piece:
Too often this reconstruction work is wrongly seen as not philosophy at all—this seems to me to be the point of Dotson’s title “How is this paper philosophy.” But performing along the edges of disciplines enriches them by raising new questions, unearthing new or ignored conceptual frameworks, creating a larger conversation and building bridges between related areas of knowledge. I take these risks because something about my teenage self knew I was drawn to questions and possibilities. I take them, because I somewhat regularly wonder what the tip of the universe might be like while simultaneously completely failing to understand how the universe could have boundaries at all. I risk engaging in philosophy because it’s who I am and also because if enough of us take this risk, we can change philosophy itself.
Throughout this discussion I’ve focused on how notions of performance can enhance philosophy in a tradition that follows in the footsteps of groundbreaking philosophers such as Anita Allen and Kristie Dotson. I want to end by touching on a suggestions for how I also think this discussion of philosophy can help us better understand performance rhetoric. While it’s not unusual that it’s philosophers themselves who make me feel left out, there is also work to be done outside philosophy in encouraging new performers. I suppose I want those who are skeptical of philosophical methods to take a risk, too, in inviting us to the show. Accepting our tools of abstraction as having a place on the wider stage benefits not just philosophy but *philosophers.* It especially benefits those of us who have been marginalized for so long and who often face pressure from both within and without to disengage as we saw from the guidance counselor earlier. I hope I might help to remind everyone that philosophy is a much larger community than that guy who needs to shut the fuck up. Perhaps I hope that thinking about philosophy and performance can help us better see the fluidity of disciplines and the possibilities of writing within and between them. Thank you.
Carver, Heather M. 2007. “Methodology of the Heart”: A performative writing response. Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 3 (1).
Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “How is this Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy: An International Journal of Constructive Engagement of Distinct Approaches Toward World Philosophy 3 (1).
Yancy, George. 2018. “The Pain and Promise of Black Women in Philosophy.” New York Times, June 18, 2018.