‘What, then, is the path?’ Grappling with resistance and complicity in the academy

Image courtesy of Right to the City Brisbane
Image courtesy of Right to the City Brisbane

With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Circular Ruins’

 

My second favourite moment of the ASCP conference happened very early on. Professor Lewis Gordon had just started his opening keynote. He paused before he started to take off his shoes, assuring us, as he did so, that it was no sign of disrespect – as if we could have had any doubt, after watching the careful way he stepped out of the shoes and nudged them aside in a neat pair with a small, practised movement of the left foot, and stepped forward in bare feet and gold nail polish onto the polished wooden floor. A woman with a small baby was at the conference: she had managed the whole day before on her own, with the baby asleep in the wrap on her chest during sessions, and mugged – much to my chagrin – by admirers who actually knew the mother during breaks; missing my own babies, I had been hoping for a cuddle. The baby had let out only a couple of small peeps, but it was right at the start of the talk, such a distinguished guest, and the sound carried in the silent auditorium – whatever the reason, the young mother quietly started to make for the door. But Gordon noticed her start to get up and stopped in his speech to call her back. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to leave. I have four children of my own, that sound is music to me.’

At explicitly feminist conferences, with organisers and speakers all mothers themselves, women have received less welcome than this.

Less enjoyable was my own clumsy response after Bryan Mukandi’s untitled paper, a searing, lyrical exploration of place, presence and history. A first for academic papers I have attended, Mukandi’s paper was written specifically for the place in which it would be delivered – Tasmania, ‘the place where Jeff Malpas has thought and written about place;’ the site, also, of Australia’s most vicious and wide-ranging massacres. Mukandi reminded us of the ‘Black Line,’ the attempt in 1830 to assemble a line of armed settlers to traverse the island from end to end, murdering every First Nations inhabitant they encountered. This history stays with us, Mukandi argues, pace Paul Beatty: we cannot just turn the page and move the fuck on. But what does it mean, he asks, to stand on this place – the landmass so-called Australia in general, but especially at a conference in Tasmania – to be in this place and yet look to the continent, to practice Continental Philosophy so far away from its home? Why reach for Europe, and neglect the rich theoretical and theological traditions being developed, nurtured and recovered right here? Is this epistemic erasure analogous to the Black Line?

I first encountered Mukandi at a Philosophy of Difference seminar, where he and his co-presenters left me electrified and inspired: I had to hold myself severely in check to keep my write-up for the ACRAWSA blog under 2000 words. This paper was no deviation from that quality of art and thrust – nevertheless, I decided to ask an antagonistic question. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did it poorly. I accused him of making his plea for greater engagement with First Nations theoreticians without having used any himself in his paper. It was a sloppy appeal to identity categories – Indigenous and theoretician –  that I didn’t properly understand, hoping they would do my work for me. They didn’t. Mukandi simply pointed out the theoretical richness of artists Destiny Deacon and Ricky Maynard, on whose work he had built his framing of place, epistemology, history and future. My claim was not only empirically unfounded. It spoke of just the kind of parochial limitations in defining ‘theorist’ that Mukandi had sought to disconcert in the first place.

Ricky Maynard, 2005

Later, when I had done some thinking (and had some wine), I put it to him like this. To use the metaphor of the Black Line seems to posit continental philosophy as akin to pre-invasion Tasmania, when it is in fact more analogous to the warships in the harbour. That is, Continental Philosophy is not something that is stormed and spoilt by colonial violence – it is one of that violence’s tools. The forefathers (I use the gendered word advisedly) of this discipline are not men known for their willingness to critique colonial practices, nor the racism which intertwines with them. Martin Heidegger’s relationship with the German Nazi party is probably the most notorious example of Continental Philosophy’s less than uplifting history. Perhaps less well known are Kant and Hegel’s repugnant views, or Hannah Arendt’s racist renouncement of the civil rights movement (first made visible to me in Gordon’s work) – these are by no means comprehensive examples. As Walter Mignolo writes, colonialism and the modernity of which this tradition of thought forms a part are two sides of the same coin. How can we make a critique of its practices from within the master’s house, built with stolen resources on stolen land? All of us present at the conference, Gordon, Mukandi, and myself included – each one of us speaks in a language and a theoretical tradition that is very much not from here. (My facility with this language may be mainly aspirational, but for that it is no let complicit.) And yet it is that conversance that enables Mukandi to make his provocation: one that is powerful, generative, necessary.

Mukandi was invited to reflect on the conference for the APA blog, in a piece in which – while obviously much simplified for the sake of space – rehearses many of the arguments of the paper. (As if in illustration of the complexity of his position, he does so through appeals to Heidegger, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and Althusser). The now retired Chair of the ASCP, Simone Bignall, and Lewis Gordon wrote a response each. Despite Mukandi’s unmistakeable enthusiasm for what the 2017 conference had achieved, his criticisms are also resolute – unsurprisingly, Bignall felt impelled to address the latter more than the former. She responds in particular to the issue of the potential for a First Nations keynote to be invited to an ASCP conference, attending to Mukandi’s suggestion that distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson would be an enlivening possibility. ‘Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson is an undisputed leader in the field of critical race and whiteness studies,’ Bignall writes – her work, however:

… though philosophical in nature, does not engage deeply with Continental European thought and for this reason she has not so far been invited as an ASCP keynote. While I admire her work and reference it in my own scholarship, it is evident that she considers “Western thought” in its entirety as party to the colonial enterprise of individualist white possession.

Presumably Bignall is referring here to Moreton-Robinson’s substantial body of work on the interrelation between knowledge production and processes of colonisation, first made visible to me in her essay ‘Whiteness, Epistemology, and Indigenous Representation,’ which tracks the ‘silence, normativity and invisibility of whiteness’ alongside the relentless scrutiny, observation and (mis)representation of Indigenous subjectivity and place in the name of creating ‘knowledge.’ In The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, Moreton-Robinson writes of what it would take to make possible:

the proposition that White possession is more than a right and consider how it functions to reproduce procedures of subjugation that are tied to racialized and racializing knowledges produced by disciplines dedicated to the sciences of “man”. In particular, we could examine how academic disciplines such as history, political science, Aboriginal studies, Australian studies and anthropology have operated as normalizing modes of rationality that facilitate procedures of Indigenous subjugation and mask non-Indigenous investments in relations of patriarchal White sovereignty.

This is a bracing critique, and certainly one which would implicate Continental Philosophy. But in making it, does Moreton-Robinson completely remove herself from the sphere of her own criticism? The analysis in this chapter is reached through an intricate reading of Foucault’s Society Must be Defended – a critical one, to be sure, but with a depth of interest and care that does not suggest dismissal to me. Perhaps her facility is merely strategic; a way of demonstrating her scholarly chops (as if that were still necessary) in order to ensure her argument is taken seriously. There are certainly many, however, for whom the relationship is not merely expedient, who feel a deep and genuine pull to these texts, even as they might seek to dismantle the structures of power with which they entangle.

Although Mukandi spoke in both his blog posts and paper about the absence to date of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander keynote at an ASCP conference, what the pieces illuminates for me is a larger question about the relationship between Continental Philosophy and Indigenous thought in this place. This question is at once more pointed and more diffuse – not an accusation levelled directly at the ASCP, nor something that can be resolved simply. One keynote at one conference would not do it – not for me, anyway. I certainly cannot speak for Mukandi, only follow the trajectory of thought that he started for me.

There is not going to be a clear answer here – and certainly not from me – about where we go with our (conflicted) affections and our standpoint (on stolen land), and what we can do with whatever tools we have to hand. But maybe we might dream of another conference: one with more bare feet and more babies; one where provocations to foundations of the very thing that brings us together might be welcomed; one with less stiffness to the boundaries of what we understand as thought, as a philosopher; one where, for example, activists might be invited to deliver keynotes – First Nation Liberation’s Robbie Thorpe, as just one example, having taught me more about the relationship between subjectivity, gender and place than any textbook. A distant future? Yes. But I have been following Mukandi’s lead and taking up Kierkegaard, who has much to say on faith and hope: richer than all riches, more fragrant than the finest wine – ‘the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.’

But let me tell you about my favourite part. After his keynote, a woman asked Gordon about anger. He had spoken of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, originally titled On the disalienation of the negre. Fanon posits that anger arises because of injustice and political impotence, and that ‘actionality’ is the cure, what can bring the black subject back to the world. Gordon’s questioner, UQ doctoral candidate Hora Zabarjadi Sar, asked him to return to that point of the argument for a little longer. ‘Is there a way to be a healthy angry person?’ she asked. ‘Because I am not willing to let go of anger yet.’ Gordon took a number of questions from the floor without pausing and answered them all in succession. I felt that Zabarjadi Sar’s was rather lost in the mix, and, afterward, went to find her to say so. While we were talking, Gordon himself came up to thank her for the question: being there, I got to listen, as he and Zabarjadi Sar talked intensely for a few minutes, and after a while I had to run away to find my notebook to write down what they had said. How much is Gordon and how much Zabarjadi Sar I cannot say, and of course my own misapprehensions have crept in and coloured this, but what I did manage to record answers a question, I think, about standing in the master’s house and dreaming of something else.

… What, then, is the path? Toward a future we cannot imagine but are nevertheless co-constitutive of. We create things through our political commitments now, not through calling a future into being through imagination, since this is a task that is beyond us. Fighting now, with the commitments we have now, we may make kinds of lives possible that we could not now conceive of.

This ties into the idea of love as mimetic, or not. Frankenstein was rendered illegitimate through creating his monster, an act of creation outside of nature – neither God nor a woman, he ought not bring forth life. To cleanse this sin, both the monster and Frankenstein needed to be destroyed. But why could the monster himself not understand himself as a creator? Not in a mimetic sense, but in the sense of creating something different from himself. Then both creator and monster could be imagined as forming a chain of constitutive relations.[1]

Love need not be mimetic: God need not look just like us in order to have made us or to love us. This is a colonial modality of love and of creation. Our love for the future need neither be mimetic – we might hope for something beyond ourselves, Other from ourselves, and fight for its possibility.

 

 

[1] Gordon mentioned that he is writing a book on Frankenstein’s monster (and Shelley’s Frankenstein) – this listing of his paper abstract at a conference on Frankenstein in 2017 gives the clearest indication I was able to find of the direction that work will take.

 

 

 

Anastasia Kanjere is a white settler postgraduate student in the Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Her research interests include critical race and whiteness studies, critical border studies, continental philosophy, culture studies, motherhood, vulnerability and (in)security, and critical childhood studies.

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