AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

THE ASA AT 75: DIVERSITY AND THE TIPPING POINT

The following is a guest post by Charles Peterson (Oberlin College).
This is one of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the first, by A.W. Eaton, and the second, by Paul C. Taylor. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.

The age of 75 can signify multiple indicators. At 75 years old, an ant would be ancient. At 75 years old a mountain would be considered infantile in its span and at 75 years old a human being, has lived to a ripe and healthy age. For an academic organization, 75 years is a perfect time to celebrate its longevity and take stock of its future. The American Society for Aesthetics is at this point in regards to the inclusion of diverse scholars and discourses in its proceedings.  The ASA stands at the threshold where its present efforts to open up, encourage and support the presence of women and members from previously underrepresented backgrounds can either move forward, grow and expand or retreat  into exclusivity and marginality.

As has been mentioned by Anne Eaton and Paul Taylor, the steps taken by the ASA at the organizational level, to increase and encourage diversity must be commended. I will not reiterate the efforts described by Eaton and Taylor but will focus on the need for the self-awareness necessary for these efforts to reap real reward.  Too often in these efforts there lay a gap between the programmatic endeavors designed to invite and support diverse populations scholars into mainstream institutions and the response of members of these institutions. These programmatic and organizational efforts are aimed to provide support and access to new members. They show an agency on the part of the organization to be clear about its goals regarding diversity. These efforts also are focused on the recipients of the programming but do not attend to the majority population of the organization. The presence of diverse members and perspectives does not reveal its full import if there is not a true relationship between all members on these issues. The failure for the entirety of the organization to undertake this effort, to in good faith, take up the responsibility of opening up the ASA as a space for true inclusion and intellectual expansion. This failure could lead to the exact opposite of the aforementioned efforts, as members from underrepresented groups make the principled choice to not participate in ASA. This choice is one based on the need to preserve ones health, dignity and integrity. To open up the ASA as a space of inclusivity, a real struggle must be waged. This struggle cannot be thrust exclusively on the shoulders of marginalized members and their allies and must be waged by all members of the organization. This is a programmatic struggle, a discursive struggle and it is an internal struggle that necessarily must be waged by the majority members. To paraphrase Claudia Jones, a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival in London, UK, it means that a struggle for inclusion must be boldly fought in every sphere of organizational interactions so that the open door of institutional membership doesn’t become a revolving door because of the failure to conduct this struggle.

This work, this struggle, must be of the most transformative type, wherein old organizational assumptions, behaviours and privileges must be examined and interrogated. At heart what academic organizations provide are community; for scholars of same or differing minds, for scholars that work in similar or contrasting areas, and for scholars that understand or are ignorant of each other’s, literal or metaphoric, languages. Despite these inconsistencies and divergences, these communities must be steeped in respect for all participants and what they contribute.  This respect, the foundation of community, can only be maintained when all members become self critical of the limits of their experience, understanding and knowledge. To function in the full privilege of the unexamined life, thought and action will only maintain walls between members that seal off the ASA from the rich complexity of difference. If these walls remain unbroken, they become the walls of a self -imposed prison.

It has been my belief that philosophy is a living thing, proactive and reactive, active and mindful, at heart an experience that is fully engaged with the world from which it rises and that it informs. Aesthetics among the sub fields of philosophy may be the most reflective of this belief. Art has long been a reflection of social change, a signifier for the world as it is, could, can and will be. The consideration of art, its forms and practices can do no less than open up to the ways of life. The world we live in, the world in which the ASA finds itself, is one where the old hierarchies, orders and practices are going the way of the mad man. The ASA as organization and its majority members must decide in what direction it will go. Will it embrace the realities of inclusion and diversity, wherein its members embrace and understand the importance of scholars that bring new and different ways of seeing, speaking and being and extend to them the respect they deserve? Or will it become like an object of contemplation, hanging on the walls of a long closed museum, decaying in its chosen irrelevance, atrophying in its unacknowledged limits.

This then is the tipping point, at 75 years the ASA and its membership can engage in an intense self reflection and consciously decide what will the organization be going forward, who will be welcomed and embraced in that future and how room can be made for those fellow travelers. The organization can take seriously the work necessary amongst the membership to craft a real and true community, wherein all feel and are truly welcomed. Or not. Conversely the ASA can look askance at those practices, which offend and insult women and persons of color. The ASA can remain silent on various forms of diversity, as Anne Eaton has noted, disability and class.  It can continue to work at the organizational level and not consider the community itself. These are not small questions, and there are no simple solutions but if the ASA is to take the first steps of the next 75 years as an inclusive and supportive body, its growth and expansion depend on its real ability to create and embody the community it hopes to be.

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

Notes on the Contributor
Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College and writes on film, political theory and fronts a cover band for spiritual nourishment. He is a co-editor of De-Colonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (Africa World Press, 2003) and author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral: The Margins of Elite Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007).

Image credit: Untitled Arch at Benbrack summit by Andy Goldsworthy, original photo by summonedbyfells via Flickr.