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How Ideas Circulate. Online. In Philosophy: Remarks and Suggestions for the APA Blog Session

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general polities’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. –Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power / Knowledge, 131

Any conversation about the circulation of ideas online has to understand the material power at work in how ideas circulate, whose ideas circulate without obstacles and whose ideas encounter obstacles. Moreover, this conversation has to recognize that the circulation of ideas involves material questions about who holds what positions where and who is able to set the agenda for what areas of philosophy should be covered in departments and who should be considered worthy for filling those lines, who should be read, who should be cited, who should be appointed editor of prestigious journals, which journals should be considered prestigious, and so on.

A little more than five years ago there was a robust conversation online about how the philosoblogosphere had influenced the material circumstances of what is considered good philosophy in the United States. Ben Alpers the historian of ideas gathers some of the reflections on the sociology of philosophy, concentrating on the way that online voices and rankings amplified particular views of what philosophy is in a way that influenced what kind of philosophy was considered more or less rigorous. In particular, I’m thinking about how continental philosophy programs were excluded from early rankings and how those rankings centered analytic philosophy and analytic approaches to the history of philosophy, but also the way that feminist philosophies and post-colonial philosophies and critical philosophies of race were sidelined.

Counter-voices to the mainstream discourse on rankings included the Feminist Philosophers blog, began in 2006 as Jenny Saul recounts; NewAPPS, begun by Eric Schliesser, Mark Norris Lance, John Protevi, and Jon Cogburn in fall 2010; and DailyNous run by Justin Weinberg, which began in early 2014. (Protevi gathered some of the central critiques of the initial rankings, making the case for a broader critique than the exclusion of continental philosophy.)

I don’t want to beat a dead horse. Many people myself included are tired of this conversation, but I think we cannot ignore the entanglement of power and truth in the history of how ideas in philosophy came to be on the internet, and the continued material effects that has on the field and on how ideas circulate online.

The Women in Philosophy series of the APA blog has been host to specific treatments of online practices on a number of occasions. Cassie Herbert has written for the Women in Philosophy series about how misogyny shapes the circulation of ideas online through trolling and harassment, which sadly are not anathema to philosophy. Saba Fatima takes Herbert’s case further in a post which Julinna Oxley edited for the Women in Philosophy series. Fatima lists the scripts that online academics take on and the demand for a kind of performativity from folks pushing for social justice, especially in the demand that people confess or report on their own experience in a way that exhausts the person making the push for justice. Fatima points to a second problem of clout and visibility. Social media has removed boundaries of entry for historically marginalized folks to enter the conversation – sometimes to the great distress of folks who previously did not have to address the pushback of those who were harmed by their ideas. But issues of clout and visibility, Fatima argues, are not eliminated by the easier access social media makes possible.

Online presence is a function of social capital, social networks, the ranking of the poster’s institution, performativity, conferences they have presented at, and / or how well published they might be in traditional forms like research monographs and journal articles.

Fatima commented on Facebook (she has given me permission to quote her here) in light of publishing her post about the circulation of ideas online, “It is only befitting that my blog on not mastering online performativity and on lack of following, not get much uptake!” 

I’ve long been saying that just as social media needs to be treated like a public utility, the APA blog needs to become more of a public utility for the field, and that more of the blogging in the field should be coming out of a collective effort like the APA blog rather than private blogs, so that they might actively consider themselves serving the whole rather than whoever runs the blog. I caution though against a liberal approach that assumes that everyone and all ideas should be treated equally, a logic with a pretense of inclusion that in practice asserts the hegemony of those in power. As Stuart Hall describes the history of such an approach, “Gradually, the well-intentioned, post-Enlightenment, liberal discourse of assimilation came to reveal its dark side: that we could all belong to one “family of man” provided you became more like us.” The sense of universalism I advocate follows from the Marxist tradition, in my own thinking I follow Alain Badiou’s sense of a universal formed from the places of exclusion in such a way that the project of belonging becomes possible by focusing on forming a political world from the position of those most excluded. Enzo Rossi and Olúfémi O. Táíwò recently wrote in Spectre Journal about what a universalist approach that addresses racist history could look like. Such a universalism counters the liberal approach of positing the property-owning cis white man and then developing criteria for belonging that most apply to those people in such a way that foregrounds their concerns. By contrast, they recommend, in the context of a wider public which I think can apply to the world of philosophy:

we can embed antiracist policy within a universalist materialist politics. We should view antiracism as constitutive of universalism, not as an add-on. At the same time, because of this constitutive relation, we should abandon the politics of mere representation in favor of a form of joined-up materialist universalist antiracism, which we call responsive universalism.

I think we should take that thinking to the APA blog: it should serve everyone, but it should actively adopt an antiracist and antisexist approach that aims to undo the damage that the field has done. What would the circulation of ideas that took that seriously look like?

As long as neoliberalism, which lives and breathes rankings, shapes our academic behavior, this will be difficult. I offer several suggestions, however:

  • Divest from prestige and ‘good investments’ and seek after work you find interesting without concern for what will benefit you from sharing it. This includes centering, circulating, and citing the work of folks who do not have other outlets.
  • Reconsider your notion of what counts as (good) philosophy.
  • Consider not only diverse representation but also the relation of the idea to the project of justice. Ask: How does the circulation of the content of this idea serve this project of justice as I described it? Representation of diverse voices without the concern for the content of the ideas and their effect in circulation falls short of a universalism that addresses the exclusionary and oppressive history not only of the history of philosophy but in the circulation of ideas.
  • Actively solicit contributions and seek out the work of non-philosophers including sociologists, political theorists, literary critics, pedagogy specialists, and myriad other academic workers, to inform and engage philosophical work.
  • Actively solicit reflections on the political economy of higher education in the United States and worldwide. Who gets to go to college, under what debt loads? Who teaches them and in what conditions? How do the conditions shape what gets taught? How do the conditions shape how ideas circulate?
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