The 2017 ASCP conference in Hobart was brilliant. I regret that in my blog post on 26 December 2017, I didn’t highlight the fact that the conference organizers, led by Hannah Stark and Timothy Laurie, both invited Lewis Gordon, and then worked incredibly hard to create and hold a particular kind of space. It was one that centered discussion of coloniality and decolonizing our practice in what, to my mind, was a radical departure from previous conferences.
I also regret making a factual error. I had asked some senior academics who have been involved with the ASCP since its inception if they could remember another keynote who wasn’t white, and they couldn’t. That’s no excuse for getting the facts wrong, and the fact remains that Gordon is the second person of color to keynote at the ASCP, not the first. That said, he’s the second person in about 20 years. I realize that he isn’t the second to be asked, but I recall not too long ago, there was an event with an all male lineup of speakers. I believe an organizer explained that although invitations to speak had been extended to some women, those invitations had been declined. The consensus, at least among those with whom I discussed the incident, was that the matter of invitations being declined doesn’t justify the eventual lineup.
The question of who is available and the expertise of speakers vis-à-vis the expertise and expectations of the audience is the more significant one. Underpinning it, in my opinion, is the question, ‘What is Continental Philosophy in Australia?’ I don’t think the answer is (necessarily or exclusively), ‘The study of works written by European thinkers/writers/philosophers.’
At one of the panels at the conference, Max Deutscher, one of our philosophical “elders,” made the comment that there was a time when the question of what Continental Philosophy in Australia ought to be was a pressing one among some philosophers. Max went on to say that he doesn’t think Continental Philosophy here should be a European “thing,” and that perhaps it’s time to make the question front and center. But even if it was decided that Continental Philosophy here is the study of Continental European Philosophy in Australia, rather than the study and “production” of Continental Australian/Australasian Philosophy, whatever that is or may be, there remains a hermeneutic question. On what basis, and on whose grounds, are those texts to be studied? The study of “canonical” European texts, using interpretive frameworks derived from European thinkers, even when “inclusive” in terms of who is invited to participate in the project, remains to my mind a colonial project nonetheless.
I don’t know yet what my position is in regard to Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work and ideas. But I do think every philosopher who studies in Australia ought to grapple with her work during the course of their studies. I think her “I Still Call Australia Home,” for example, should be a canonical text here, given that it is as philosophically rich and troubling and thought-provoking a work on sovereignty as is Thomas Hobbes’s, Jacques Derrida’s, V.Y. Mudimbe’s, and Achille Mbembe’s—other thinkers who inform my own thinking on the subject. Moreover, I think Moreton-Robinson points to a philosophical practice that is less closely fettered to European antecedents and more closely tied to “what calls for thinking” here, now, than the aforementioned.
Regarding the issue of ‘the participation of Black or Indigenous speakers’ more broadly, the individual who seamlessly traverses various philosophical traditions is exceptional. When selecting invited speakers, our approach should not only be for a high standard but also mindful to the dangers of “the exception.” The exceptional shouldn’t be the standard imposed on philosophers of color when that clearly isn’t the standard imposed on white philosophers. There have been plenty of white keynotes who present work that is at best unremarkable. I’m sure we can all also recall keynotes where we had to endure someone speaking about something that few in the audience understood or could follow. I am willing to sit through esoteric, uninteresting, and poorly delivered keynotes given my understanding of the rationale behind a keynote address:
- To honor a speaker and in so doing commend their work as being of great importance to the body hosting the conference
- To provide the audience an opportunity to learn, and again, to learn something deemed by the organizers as being of great importance.
If that’s the case, then there are several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander thinkers, and philosophers of color more broadly who would make excellent keynotes at future ASCP conferences, depending of course, on how the question of what constitutes continental philosophy here is answered.