Some Thoughts on Reading and Engaging Academic Works Critically

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A picture I took in Cape Town

Someone recently expressed their sentiments regarding my interest in the thought of Foucault, Heidegger, Arendt, and Agamben, saying, “I get all I need from reading Black feminists, thank you very much.” In my humble opinion, anyone who calls themselves a scholar should read widely and well. That means reading beyond the canon that one is studying. Intellectual debates do not occur in a bubble. There is always a context, and there are always interlocutors and specific subjective experiences that inform the authors’ viewpoints. No, I’m not saying we follow what Quentin Skinner proposes in “The Practice of History and the Cult of the Fact” and “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas”, and study the discourse that was contemporaneous to the authors and their works, but it can’t hurt.

In a conversation with a professor I hold in great esteem, we discussed this topic. He suggested that his generation actually read and critiqued the dead white men (no offense intended :) ) who comprise what is, in Western thought, the Canon of political thought. “Many of your counterparts know the critiques but not the original… You can’t fully appreciate Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly if you haven’t read Daly.” I agree wholeheartedly. It is one thing to read a critique, and it is another matter entirely to read the work that is being critiqued and have a fuller grasp of the debates that the interlocutors (I like that word) are engaged in.

I think that’s why genealogical critique appeals to me so much. Even as I do political theory, I do intellectual historiography. We cannot claim to know or understand if we haven’t grasped the roots. Just as I read Foucault, I read Nietzsche, Heidegger, Arendt, Kant, Deleuze, Locke, Rousseau, and so on. Additionally, I am working with the works of Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe. I read who they critiqued and drew from just as I read who critiques and draws from them.

And we most certainly cannot claim to be critical readers, let alone deconstructionists, if we do not go beyond the oppositional binaries and dialectic logic. It is not simply Lorde versus Daly, Foucault versus Habermas, DuBois versus Washington and so forth. There are many elements in a discourse. Some can be connected in a coherent way (but does that coherence make it true?), and others are disparate, and their interactions reveal much more than a simple binary ever could have.

“We should keep in mind that heterogeneity is never a principle of exclusion; it never prevents coexistence, conjunction of connection. And it is precisely in this case, in this kind of analysis, that we emphasize, and must emphasize a non-dialectical logic if we want to avoid being simplistic. Dialectical logic puts to work contradictory terms within the homogeneous. I suggest replacing this logic with what I would call a strategic logic. A logic of strategy does not stress contradictory terms within a homogeneity that promises their resolution in a unity. The function of strategic logic is to establish the possible connections between disparate terms which remain disparate. The logic of strategy is the logic of connections between the heterogeneous, and not the logic of the homogenization of the contradictory.” – Michel Foucault, transcribed lecture at the College de France (17 January 1979). [Michel Foucault. (2004) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79. Eds. Michel Senellart, Francois Ewald, and Alessandro Fontana. London: Palgrave McMillan. pp. 42]

My take on this: Strategic logic, not dialectic logic, gets us closer to understanding questions of power. Dialectics posit oppositional pairs in a homogeneous field and seeks a truth in their unity, where strategic logic studies the networks between disparate objects in a heterogeneous field.  The latter does not require binaries, rather, it tends to eschew them. In fact, strategic logic, defined this way, makes it apparent that discreet binaries are constructions or discursive formations. Dialectic logic is vulnerable to what could be termed “omitted variable bias.” It is important to ask “how was this field in which the oppositional pairs operate made homogeneous? What is left out?” That’s not to say that strategic logic is not subject to the same bias. It most certainly is, but there are more “checks” against it.

I’ll give an example, too. Let’s say that I decide to write about my experiences, my subjectification as a Black woman with a disability who is also a beneficiary of class privilege, and a litany of other seemingly discreet ‘privileges.’ I could say that I occupy a space that is at once liminal and privileged. But, this seeming paradox is not at all a paradox. It is only a paradox when you focus on what could be deemed ‘oppositional pairs.’ The dialectics of power/oppression, privilege/oppression, oppressed/oppressor make it a paradox, while irradiating the context of our relational and contingent subjectivication within power relations that inscribe upon our bodies and mark difference along the lines of constructed categories such as race, sex, gender, dis/ability, and so on. Beyond a study of the effects of power, we need to seek out the working of power itself. If we simply study the effects, we’ll never grasp the root.

The truth of the matter is that intersectionality is a useful tool for understanding our subjectification, subject positions, and their resultant materiality. But we cannot mistake the tool for analysis itself. Intersectionality is not, and never was, a tool to label ‘discreet’ privileges (“thin privilege” “class privilege” “cis privilege” “male privilege” “white privilege” and so on). Labeling privileges are useful in conceptualizing how their intersections and overlap shape our subjectivities, but they ought not be an end unto themselves. “You have ____ privilege” once again irradiates the context. It’s all connected. It’s not about an individual. It’s not The (hetero, white, rich, able-bodied, etc) Man who is keeping you down. “The Man” could more properly understood as a locus of power, not as an individual who “possesses” or “seizes” power.

Moving beyond binaries not an impossible task, but it is a demanding one. Even Amilcar Cabral, Marxist post-colonial revolutionary leader in Guinea, grasped this: ” Tell no lies, Claim no easy victories.” The world we inhabit does not conform to simple binaries. It just doesn’t. Why should we, thinkers, theorists, and doers, confine our critical engagement to binaries? What good is the knowledge we produce if it is not applicable to the “real world?”

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