Noted, with comment

I’m slowly making my way through Lewis Gordon’s new book, Fear of Black Consciousness. It’s slow going, because Gordon keeps dropping in this little observations that make me stop and think.

Like this one:

“The expression ‘black bodies’ pops up often wherever antiblack racism raises its ugly, and at times polite, head. It is there on blogs, in news interviews, in editorials in major newspapers, in broadcast lectures, and in award-winning books ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me to Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist. It makes sense since racism involves a form of two-dimensional thinking in which black people supposedly lack inner lives. [Frantz] Fanon referred to this as ‘the epidermal schema.’ It refers to treating black people as mere surfaces, superficial physical beings without consciousness and thus a point of view — in short, only bodies. Yet in the midst of this attention to black bodies, many blacks are left wondering what happened to black people. How has it become acceptable — indeed, even preferable — for black people to refer to ourselves as ‘bodies’ instead of as ‘people’ or as ‘human beings’?” [pp. 31-32]

It is not for me, a white person, to tell black people how to refer to themselves. But I have been uncomfortable with the way it has become fashionable to refer to people, not just black people, as “bodies.” I suspect this comes from some kind of post-Foucauldian analysis, that is, an analysis that attempts to follow in the footsteps of philosopher Michel Foucault.

Foucault’s philosophy does place an emphasis on the body; his philosophy “aims to bring the body into the focus of history.” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article on Michel Foucault, section 3.4]. This move by Foucault was brilliant and necessary, to help us understand how modern society uses hierarchy and discipline to control and punish people. I don’t think Foucault’s intent was to reduce persons to bodies; however, some of his followers may have adopted Foucauldian discourse without adequately reflecting on the deeply humanistic purpose of that discourse.

Returning to Lewis Gordon’s argument — Gordon points out that the term “bodies” is now being used in a way that can indeed reduce black persons to something less than three dimensional beings — reduce them to less than human. Whether Gordon is also offering a critique of Foucault isn’t something I can comment on, since I’m not up on Foucault (I admire his work, but reading him is a chore that I don’t care to put myself through). It does look like Gordon is suggesting that Fanon would be a more useful thinker if we’re going to explore this topic.

At the same time, I don’t hear Gordon telling people to stop using the term “bodies.” Rather, as a philosopher should do, he’s pointing out where public discourse has gotten imprecise, sloppy. He’s suggesting that writers and speakers should think hard about what they really mean when they use the term “bodies.” Is “bodies” the more precise term, or are the more precise terms “people” or “human beings”? It’s fine to use “bodies if that’s what is really meant (if you’re doing Foucauldian analysis), but Gordon clearly favors the latter two terms. If you’re talking about people, says Gordon, then say “people”; if you’re talking about human beings, then say “human beings.”

You can see how reading this book is slow going for me. I had to go look Foucault. And now I’m going to have to dig into Fanon. But this is what books by philosophers should do — cause us to think hard about the way we’ve been thinking.

Creolizing schooling

In the Black Issues in Philosophy series on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Josue Ricardo Lopez, assistant professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, writes about creolizing schooling:

“The project of creolizing schooling underscores political education as the central project of schooling. It is based on what Jane Anna Gordon in Creolizing Political Theory [Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014)] argues are at least three principles of creolization: building from the commonalities across our differences, respecting the most salient of our differences, and recognizing that the political is always open to contestation and negotiation.”

I hear echoes of Paolo Friere, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene in what Lopez is saying. Lopez goes beyond Dewey’s concept of educating for democracy, by framing the issue in terms of decolonizing, by considering who American democracy was designed for. As for Friere, he addressed a specific kind of adult education, whereas Lopez is specifically looking at schooling for children and teens.

Also of importance: creolizing is different from multiculturalism. In multiculturalism, cultures exist side by side; creolizing means that cultures change through their interaction with one another. Multiculturalism in education can have the tendency to make non Euro-American cultures invisible; by contrast, creolization

I do have a minor quibble with Lopez’s essay. Lopez rightly points out that “distinct projects will call for different knowledges.” However, the vision of what different knowledges might offer is too narrow. As someone trained in the visual arts, I rolled my eyes when the best Lopez could come up with for the visual arts was “artistic knowledge becomes important for turning brick walls into a canvas for murals that reflects the beauty of the community.” Yet the essay incorporates two infographics that I’ve seen too many times and that actually distract from the main arguments of the essay; if Lopez had cooperated with someone with visual training, there could have been graphics that amplified, rather than distracted from, the essay. Of course, Lopez reflects the bias of the academy: the written word is always considered superior, and the arts are poorly understood and relegated to a minor supporting role. In today’s political struggles, we need digital photographs, videos, animations, infographics, memes, video game design, user interfaces — site-specific murals and other site-specific artworks can be important for local communities, but online media is where young people can make a much bigger impact. (Parenthetical note: when it comes to the arts and education, Maxine Greene’s legacy is worth remembering: she engaged seriously with hip hop and other musicians, artists, etc., and through this engagement acknowledged that music and the arts have something unique to offer in education.)

In spite of this minor quibble, Lopez’s essay is well worth reading. This passage really struck me:

“I worked in Connecticut with Caribbean and Latin American high school students who recently arrived in the United States. There were multiple cultures, languages, religions, and perspectives students brought with them. However, their unique insights, needs, and interests were considered secondary if at all by the school….”

How can the unique insights, needs, and interests become matters of primary importance? How can the school use those unique insights and interests to address real world political issues? John Dewey said, “I believe that education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” And Lopez is expanding that notion for a globalized and multicultural society to include the project of decolonizing.

Now I’m waiting for the book on creolizing schooling….