AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

THE ASA AT 75: ‘SPLAINING AND SAFARIS

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What follows is a guest post by Paul C. Taylor (Penn State).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

By the time my father turned 75, he was freely exercising the wide-ranging license to offend that family elders often enjoy. He could say or do pretty much anything, and we would chalk it up to him being set in his ways. We would weigh the costs and benefits of contesting his frequently insensitive and sometimes just rude behavior, or of reminding him of all the considerations that militate against talking about women or Jews or whatever like that anymore. And we would usually decide that discretion was the better part of valour, and we would let him alone.

So on he lumbered, cluelessly, sometimes willfully, out of step with evolving social mores. The good news is that he was mostly harmless, having tucked himself away into a quiet retirement where he neither had nor wanted influence or authority over anyone other than himself.

The American Society for Aesthetics (ASA), 75 years old this year, reminds me of my father. It has an at best uneven relationship to shifting social mores, especially as these bear on behaviours that should be as distant and grating to us as the world of Mad Men. And much as my father assumed he could say whatever he wanted and continue to enjoy the respect and love of his children, some members of the ASA seem to think the organization can both live in the 1950s and win the loyalty of people today.

This matters because the ASA aspires not to a quiet retirement but to renewed importance in the community of professional philosophers. And it means to base this renewal in part on promoting diversity and inclusion. If the ASA’s recently concluded 75th annual meeting is any indication, we’re off to a rocky start. A couple of dispatches tell the tale:

  1. A woman of color, a senior colleague with all the same legitimating credentials as most of the rest of us (setting aside the question of how much that should matter), gave a paper on issues at the intersection of race theory and aesthetics. When she finished, a white male colleague, a senior figure and luminary in the aesthetics establishment, promptly – no, not promptly: languorously, as if every word he uttered came from holy writ – mansplained and whitesplained her, in a long, obtuse question that displayed not just near-total ignorance of the theoretical resources that animated the paper, but also nearer-total indifference to the possibility that his incomprehension might reflect his own misunderstanding rather than the author’s mistakes.

(Maybe you’re wondering how a question can also be an explanation, even the sort of funhouse mirror explanation that comes with whitemansplaining. Like this: the questioner began by badly summarizing the argument’s main thesis, which the speaker helpfully tried to correct out of the gates, whereupon the questioner ordered her to let him finish, and then insisted that the main thesis was not in fact what the speaker said it was. ’Splaining.)

  1. The Danto lecturer, a practicing artist, presented some thoughts on his recent work. He has of late been keen to depict young black men, men like himself but younger, engaging in a sartorial display – wearing sagging pants – that originated and remains common in poor and working class urban communities of color. Neither the topic nor the mode of presentation was ideal for the setting: the artist gave a fairly straightforward academic presentation, and focused on something like the sociological meaning of the activities depicted in the work rather than on any questions of aesthetic theory that arose from the work. And for whatever reason – perhaps because of the speaker’s limitations, more likely because of his sense of our limitations – his argument made only glancing contact with the deeper questions he could have taken up.

Even so, this wouldn’t have been so bad. But then the Q&A began. And there we were, chattering away in front of the Urban Negro exhibit at an old world’s fair, with question after question inviting the speaker to reveal the exotic mysteries behind what we were seeing. A few intrepid souls, Sherri Irvin among them, tried mightily to redirect the conversation in the direction of proper aesthetic inquiry. But their queries about the artist’s choice of materials in relation to the subject matter failed to turn the tide, and the chatter quickly resumed. What are those creatures doing? What might they have been thinking? (Nearly: Aren’t those darkies curious?)

Maybe the right metaphor for the second dispatch is not the colonial exhibition but an old safari adventure movie, with its standard native informant. Adolph Reed once captured an idea like this in an essay that famously, and unfairly (but hilariously), compared people like Cornel West to this character. Imagine, he wrote, a pith-helmeted white man hearing ominous sounds in the sweltering, leafy distance, then turning to his guide and asking, “Willie, what do the drums say?” And then notice how similar this is to the way white US elites turn to the same few African Americans (usually men) to interpret urban uprisings and the like. Replace “Willie” with “Booker” or “Al Sharpton,” he argued, and the effect is the same.

I’m thinking of the native informant metaphor because the last exchange in the Danto lecture Q&A explicitly invoked it. The questioner was another woman of color, one of the very few at the meeting, and she explicitly pointed out the “what do the drums say” feel of the conversation to that point. Then, thankfully, she closed the session by inviting the artist to discuss how the people from the communities he means to represent interact with his work. Then, later, she commiserated with me (and, I’m told, with the world via social media, though I’ve not seen it) over how unpleasant the whole affair had been.

I don’t expect this colleague to return to an ASA meeting – not anytime soon, at any rate. Nor do I expect a return visit from the scholar who was instructed as to the main thesis of her paper. Why would they come back? They were among the very few women of color at the meeting, they had been encouraged to attend by members who assured them that we had gotten serious about inclusion and diversity, and they were met with ’splaining and othering. Would you come back?

’Splaining and othering are, among much else, ways of making clear that only some people are full participants in exchanges that aim at edification. ’Splaining clearly signals not just that the ’splainee is mistaken, but that it takes the ’splainer, it takes the kind of person the ’splainer is, to get this stuff right. Othering signals that some kinds of people ask questions and entertain thoughts while others belong under glass, or in cages. One or two might escape the cage and join the rest of us on the other side. But by and large, it’s still aren’t they curious?

I repeat: Would you come back? For that?

If we have in fact driven away these colleagues, it will be a devastating loss. We will of course forfeit the contributions these fine scholars might have brought to the ASA as individuals. But we will also have squandered some of the so far meager gains of a multi-year effort to open the ASA up to people representing different interests and approaches and communities.

This inclusion effort ran variously through a diversity committee, through the Feminist Caucus, and through some of the bolder actions of the ASA leadership. But all of it proceeded from one basic realization: the future of the organization depends on us getting this right.

It is important to get this right in part for reasons that align neatly with the standard arguments for diversity. More diverse intellectual communities will ask new questions, and will ask the old questions better, and will more effectively reflect the wider communities in which they are embedded. They will, in addition, (presumably) have dealt responsibly with unjust barriers to participation, and will just be more darn interesting, and so on.

But one key consideration is more specific to the ASA’s current situation. We have a particularly dire case of the general precariousness that now afflicts all humanistic academic work. Our political leaders are often wary of the academy, some of our academic leaders join them in being particularly wary of philosophy, and the leading lights in philosophy, depending on what one thinks leading means, are largely indifferent to, if not wary of, aesthetics. So we are small and embattled. Heroic organizational overhauls in recent years have already removed some of the simpler obstacles to participation and growth. But with that low-hanging fruit already picked, we’ll have to reach people we aren’t currently reaching and have not historically reached if we want to make any real headway.

But what hope can we have of growing the ASA in a more diverse world, a world in which people of color play larger and more prominent roles in the communities of scholars and artists and critics and curators that form our context, if joining our conversations means assuming the risk of being othered or ’splained?

How can we do better? We can accept that diversity is not enough, that inclusion is pointless and painful without transformation. This transformation must be both personal and organizational. On the personal level, each of us, or some critical mass of us, must accept that the clever (white, preferably British) “philosophy boy” no longer represents the only model for intellectual engagement, and we must internalize and model the shift in norms that come with this recognition. On the organizational level, we have to go beyond the “add color and stir” model of inclusive institutional change. This model can lead to probing studies of previously ignored subjects, but that’s not much of a bargain for the people being probed.

My father died at 78. His life more or less spanned the normal human range, and it had a common human trajectory. He became who he was relatively early on, and beyond a certain point that just was who he was. Organizations have the luxury of refusing this trajectory. If the ASA adjusts responsibly to changing conditions, we can treat 75 as a rebirth, and as the beginning of 75 more years of renewal and reinvention.

This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

Notes on Contributor
Paul C. Taylor is Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, as well as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. He has written widely on aesthetics and philosophy of race. His books include Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics and Race: A Philosophical Introduction.

Image credit: “This Is Fine” meme

5 thoughts on “THE ASA AT 75: ‘SPLAINING AND SAFARIS

  1. We have read with great interest, but also considerable dismay, the posts on the AFB blog by Anne Eaton and Paul Taylor about the status of the ASA on its 75th anniversary. As Anne notes,the sexual harassment situation that she mentions was brought to the attention of ASA governance, and we are pleased that it was dealt with immediately by ASA officers. The ASA is trying to become a more diverse society, and we appreciate that both posts acknowledge the organization’s efforts in this direction.  The posts draw our attention, however, to how much room for improvement remains. We very much regret that some members’ behavior and remarks at the recent meeting were off-putting and insulting to newcomers, in ways that have been helpfully explained by both commentators.  These posts importantly encourage reflection on the many obstacles we must confront if we are to make the society more welcoming and inclusive.  We invite suggestions for better ways of achieving this goal.

    Kathleen Higgins, President

    Cynthia Freeland, Past President

    Susan Feagin, Vice-President

    Julie Van Camp, Secretary-Treasurer

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    • I don’t know if this suggestion will help the organization become “more welcoming and inclusive” but perhaps it may avoid some of the embarrassment experienced by some of the members as a consequence of the Q& A during the Arthur Danto Keynote lecture by Fahama Pecou. Maybe, there could be, in the future, a small break between the keynote address and the Q& A where the chair of the session collects questions that have been written out on index cards distributed in advance to the audience– perhaps there should even be the requirement that all submitted questions are signed. The chair and the invited speaker could take a couple of minutes to review the questions and place them in the order that the guest speaker would like to address them. Hence, the speaker would read the question aloud from the card (which will help folks with hearing disabilities because the speaker is frequently miked) while reading the question aloud the speaker could clarifying any misunderstandings in the premises of the question, and the speaker could answer the question as the artist sees fit. This possible solution would afford more agency to the chair and speaker as they have some authority over the content of the questions that rise to the top which are asked first, and it gives the speaker a moment to collect one’s thoughts on the matter. Please be clear that I am not suggesting a panacea, and I do predict that there will be unintended consequences nor do I think this completely addresses the phenomena of ‘splaining and othering, but rather I hope this is a suggestion will jump start a discussion about possible policy.

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  2. I also read Paul & Anne’s essays with interest and dismay. I was not present at the incidents they describe, but I have certainly seen similar behavior in past years at the ASA and at other philosophical conferences. In my view, the behavior stems from the culture of academic philosophy, which encourages participants to look “clever” at the expense of others, rather to have genuine engagement with ideas. These patterns of behavior perpetuate themselves when younger scholars (consciously or not) model themselves on older colleagues. Hence I have seen this behavior in men and women, recent phd’s and senior scholars. I do not deny that racism and sexism can add another element, and I do not want to minimize the discomfort felt by scholars who are new to ASA meetings or who look around and don’t see many people like themselves.

    I think it is also important to acknowledge what the ASA is getting right (as Anne and Paul both do.) I saw several examples of members (younger and older, men and women) making thoughtful, incisive, critical comments and asking genuine questions, in way that was respectful, engaged with ideas, nd not self-aggrandizing. Let’s model ourselves on people like that.

    I was a grad student when the essay “Philosophy as Blood Sport” [https://www.sfu.ca/~swartz/blood_sport.htm] was published. At that time, I thought we were getting better. I’m still optimistic, but a little less so.

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  3. Pingback: Harassment and 'Splaining at the American Society of Aesthetics - Daily Nous

  4. I greatly appreciate both this post and Anne Eaton’s. I arrived late at the Danto lecture, missing part of the guest artist’s presentation, but I sat through the entire Q&A with a growing sense of unease. The ASA regularly invites artists to come and speak about their work. But, in past years, when these artists (mostly, though not always, white artists) were asked questions, the questions were nearly always about the work itself, the techniques they used, or their artistic aims — not about the appearance of the people or the clothing represented in the work. The difference this year was alarming. Thanks for articulating what went wrong in this case.

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