10 December 2012

Not Just a Trojan Horse, or Bieberians In tha House

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There is an article in today’s Inside Higher Ed that argues philosophy, as a discipline, needs to be less insular and more interdisciplinary. I totally and enthusiastically concur with that claim.

However, the article is framed in a way that obscures the interdisciplinarity that is already going on in philosophy. Riffing on the phrase, “barbarians at the gate,” the article’s title, “Bieberians at the Gate?” treats the study of teen pop idols (Justin Bieber) as philosophy’s (a) constitutive outside (i.e., the exclusion of X renders category Y coherent), and (b) something not already done within philosophy, by philosophers. The authors argue:

If there are indeed Bieberians at the gate, we say let them in — as long as they are willing to engage in dialogue, we philosophers should do all right.

This claim is framed in a way that makes it seem impossible for “Bieberian study” to be done from a philosophical perspective. Philosophers “engage in dialogue” with Bieberians, and vice versa. One is either a philosopher or a Bieberian; one cannot natively be both.

As someone with a Ph.D. and tenure in philosophy, and who has been studying and writing on pop music since the 1990s, this sure is news to me! (I even have a lecture on Biebes; video here.) I mean, I know it’s not common to be both a philosopher and a so-called “Bieberian,” but I didn’t realize it was logically impossible. But I’m being a bit snarky. Even Plato defines “real philosophy”  negatively against women/music/women’s music. In his Symposium, Plato marks the beginning and ending of the philosophical dialogue by kicking out and readmitting the “flute girls.”[i]


My actual point is this: how does framing philosophy’s “interdisciplinarity” as a matter of foreigners “at the gate” obscure the ongoing, established conversations philosophy has always had with its “others”? In what ways does the “at the gate” formulation reinforce conventional disciplinary boundaries? In other words, to say that someone is “at the gate” assumes that we know the location and contours of the gate, and that the gate is the only possible point of access to walls that are otherwise well-fortified.

The “at the gate” formulation also frames projects like mine as Trojan horses—foreigners who have somehow sneaked in the back door. But that’s actually an incorrect description, in my case in particular, and in the case of many philosophers whose work I know and admire. We came to “Bieberian”/barbarian studies from and through philosophy. These studies are not foreign to the practice of philosophy, even if the disciplinary mainstream can’t quite conceive of a world/discipline in which this would be a possibility. So we’re not foreign interlopers who smuggled contraband into the fortress; philosophy grew and raised its “others.”

And what if we do replace “Bieberian” with “barbarian”—with, say, the study of theoretical traditions by extra-canonical authors, authors who are often racially, culturally, economically, and gender/sexually “foreign” to the discipline’s Anglo-Saxon/Romance-language geography? Doesn’t this suggest that part of the fear of the “Beberian” is actually a fear of the “barbarian”—that is, of people whose life experiences do not constantly (and circularly) reaffirm the centrality of white heteromasculinity to disciplinary norms, methods, conventions, values, preferences, and so on? Admitting the Bieberians/barbarians will change philosophy. For example, nobody working in the philosophy of music talks about teen pop; most philosophers of music work in genres with more conventionally bourgeois adult fan bases—Western art musics (classical, post-tonal, jazz), blues, rock, even a little hip hop. Basically, philosophers of music can work in a world where they only have to think about or encounter musical works they are already familiar with, or even that they have some degree of active appreciation for. Mainstream philosophers of music can (and often do) limit their analyses to works already within the cultural horizons of mainstream academia, and the cultural backgrounds of privileged academics. And I do the same: I mainly write about music within my cultural milieu. It’s just that by virtue of who I am and how I live, by virtue of my relations to privilege, that the music in my cultural milieu is different than the subdisciplinary mainstream. Admitting “Bieberians” like me into the subdisciplinary mainstream would mean that philosophers of music would have to read and talk about music that is foreign to (many) privileged lives and their milieus.

The philosophers over at xcphilosophy.org have been discussing the issue of philosophy, interdisciplinarity, engagement, and relevance, but they’ve been doing it in a way that foregrounds the question of power and hegemony that gets lost when “barbarians” are euphemized as “Bieberians.” For example, LP argues:

But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled 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. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? As my mother likes to say when I’m looking for some physical object that is right there and yet I can’t find it: “If it was a snake it would bite you.”

The XCPhilosophers raise questions that are very similar to the ones raised in the IHE article. For example:

XContinentalPhilosophy”: “X” means both “trans-” and “extra-” continental (or perhaps even ‘mutant’ continental, after the X-Men…). We are a bunch of scholars trained in continental philosophy, but whose work speaks to and is motivated by questions and issues outside the tradition proper. We are trained in continental philosophy; we chose this training for a reason, and as much as we want to trouble this tradition, we identify with it and find value in it. However, we’re just as influenced by black, Caribbean, mestiza, PoCo, and transnational theorists as we are by the European canon. We put continental philosophy to work in extra-European and sometimes extra-”philosophical” situations, and we’re less concerned with fidelity to the tradition than with producing rigorous analyses of the questions and phenomena that motivate our inquiries.

D. We refuse to prove our worthiness, rigor, value, or “philosophicalness” by demonstrating that we too can meet the standards set by the philosophical mainstream, analytic or continental. We want to critique these standards, because they reinforce the very relations of privilege we’re trying to attack more generally (racism, sexism, Eurocentrism, ableism, etc.). Often, for marginalized groups, it’s attractive to prove the hegemon wrong–you, too, can do it (e.g. black women’s club movement, first wave white feminism). We are more interested in critiquing these very standards as mechanisms by which hegemony is maintained.

E. We want to use our training in continental philosophy to say something about matters outside continental philosophy proper–things like politics, history, economics, current events, policy-making, pop culture, the arts, etc.– and we want bring these matters to bear on continental philosophy proper. We eschew the dead figureism that often pervades continental circles. We question the notions of “philosophical rigor” that really just limit continental philosophy to an in-group of specialists (who have needed a lot of privilege to get the training necessary to participate in that in-group). Work can be both rigorous and accessible, rigorous and applicable to, you know, life, the universe, and everything.

So what the XCPhilosophers point out is that the question of “Bieberians”—of relevance, of the survival of philosophy—can’t be divorced from the question of “barbarians,” flute-girls, and other questions of power and privilege. Yes, of course philosophy will need to change in order to survive the neoliberal restructuring of the university. But it can change in ways that either reinforce privilege and hegemony, or it can change in ways that trouble privilege and hegemony. I’m not so naïve to think that philosophy can save us from hegemony, that it can be an innocent, pure space free from complicity. But I do want to make sure that whatever philosophy becomes, that it’s not just an apologia for neoliberal corporate/state hegemony. Because we philosophers are OG gadflies, right? I would hate for us to loose our sting. We maybe just need to admit this sting can come from a Queen Bee type figure, and that one can be both a queen bee and a philosopher.


[i] “I next propose that the flute-girl who came in just now be dismissed: let her pipe to herself or, if she likes, to the women-folk within, but let us seek our entertainment today in conversation” (176e); “After Socrates had thus spoken…suddenly there was a knocking at the outer door, which had a noisy sound like that of the revelers, and they heard the notes of a flute girl…[Alcibiades] was brought into the company by the flute girl…” (212c-d).

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