Featured Philosop-her: Andrea Pitts

 

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Andrea J. Pitts is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Their research interests include social epistemology, philosophy of race and gender, Latin American and U.S. Latina/o philosophy, and philosophy of medicine. Their publications appear in Hypatia (forthcoming), the Radical Philosophy Review, and the Inter-American Journal of Philosophy. Andrea is also currently co-editing two forthcoming volumes: one on the reception of the work of Henri Bergson in decolonial thought, feminism, and critical race studies, and a volume on contemporary scholarship in U.S. Latina and Latin American feminist philosophy.

Mil gracias to Meena for inviting me to contribute to Philosop-her. I am honored by the invitation and delighted to be among such wonderful philosophical company. In what follows, I’ll mention a little about myself and then explain a bit about one of the avenues of research that I’m currently pursuing.

A little about me: I am a U.S.-born genderqueer/non-binary Latina philosopher. My mother is a first-generation immigrant from Panamá with cultural ties to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Miami, FL, and my father is Anglo-American from the U.S. South with cultural ties to rural Virginia. Being raised by divorced parents from different cultural and class backgrounds meant that a lot of my experiences seemed to span separate worlds of meaning, and I considered myself somewhat of an atravesada or border-crosser.[1] I also recall feeling frustrated and confused by the ways in which these differing worlds would collide almost casually, and bring in their wake a number of disagreements, injuries, and seemingly compulsive patterns of behavior. Through such choques, I became acquainted with poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic and sexual violence, racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia at various moments throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Yet, due in large measure, I imagine, to my light skin and ethnoracial presentation, and in part to the fierce love and determination of my family and mentors, I was more often than not an indirect observer and faithful witness to these forms of ignorance, hatred, fear, and abuse. As a result, these experiences continue to provide the backdrop for many of the issues that I address in my scholarly, pedagogical, and activist work today; and even now as a university professor, I still find myself traversing variegated worlds of class, racial, and gender difference in which I am often left frustrated and full of questions.

Stemming in part from these motivations, my current research focuses on three areas of analysis: 1) the epistemic and hermeneutical intersections of criminalization, health, and race; 2) twentieth-century Mexican social/political philosophy and aesthetics; and 3) questions regarding the manner in which speech and other forms of linguistic communication impact processes of racialization and structural racism. While I’m currently pursuing research projects in each of these areas, I’ve also been designing my graduate seminars to thematically address veins of my research. In this latter respect, I am immensely grateful to the graduate students that I have been working with on texts related to these issues.

Regarding speech and race, I’m currently developing some work on what I call insurrectionist speech acts. My concerns with insurrectionist speech stem from a long-held interest in the way music, poetry, fiction, and autobiography can provide hermeneutic resources for responding to the gaps and fissures in meaning caused by forms of social oppression. In this sense, I’m currently taking up the work of several contemporary philosophers whose work negotiates one or both of the following difficult questions: a) what constitutes an insurrectionist/resistant act? and b) what constitutes a linguistic/speech act?

I emphasize these questions to highlight how the notion of insurrectionist speech acts can be explained via two strands of theorizing. The first half of the analysis aims to clarify what is meant by an insurrectionist act by elaborating Kristie Dotson’s augmentation of Leonard Harris’ conception of an insurrectionist ethics. In short, Dotson adds an additional criterion to Harris’ standards for an insurrectionist ethics. Specifically, she adds to his fourth standard “that any moral theory that does not include an epistemic demand to identify the situated oppression to which insurrectionist acts are likely responding will not have an adequate conception of the range of morally relevant insurrectionist acts” (Dotson 2013, 88). Through an examination of the case of Margaret Garner, Dotson argues that an insurrectionist ethics must also have “Standard 5: The ability to provoke when necessary the epistemic demand to situate oppression so as to better approximate the bonds of oppression and the range of oppressors one faces” (Ibid., 89).[2] Following Dotson’s analysis, a remaining question is: under what philosophical interpretation would speech acts provoke epistemic demands to better situate forms of oppression? In the larger project, I turn to the work of María Pía Lara (1998) and María Lugones (2003) to elaborate questions about linguistic agency and speech; however, for this post, I’ll point instead to a brief example of the kind of speech act that I have in mind.

I would like to briefly examine here the recent case in which Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender woman from Mexico, interrupted President Obama during his speech at the LGBT Pride Month Reception in June of 2015. I highlight this public series of speech acts by Gutiérrez to point to the continued need to understand violence against Latinas/os and the multiple axes of oppression faced by transgender women of color in particular. Namely, while Harris’ insurrectionist ethics focuses on racial slavery as a paradigmatic case by which to hold philosophical theories accountable, Dotson’s scope is broader, and appears to understand “insurrectionist ethics” as focusing on various forms of oppression in addition to racial violence. Here, departing from Harris’ original case, we can thereby rephrase his initial articulation of an insurrectionist ethics by stating: ‘A philosophy that offers moral intuitions, reasoning strategies, motivations, and examples of just moral actions but falls short of requiring that we have a moral duty to support or engage in insurrections against the violence against and criminalization of immigrants and transwomen of color is defective.’ This meta-philosophical claim, I propose, offers an opening for the function of insurrection within classic speech act theory.

To elaborate, the context of Gutiérrez’ act was a presidential address that was focused on the accomplishments of the U.S. in terms of LGBTQ rights. During Obama’s opening remarks, Gutiérrez began to call out to the president. After calling his name several times, she then stated “I am a trans woman. I’m tired of the abuse. I’m tired of the violence … President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations … No more deportations!” While Gutiérrez is speaking, other members of the audience are shushing her, booing her, telling her “Enough! Enough. This is not for you. This is for all of us.” and “Shame on you!” (Yu-Hsi Lee 2015). This last statement was repeated by the President: “No, no, no, shame on you. You shouldn’t be doing this.” Gutiérrez is then escorted out by security while the president makes a joke about how people should behave when they are ‘in his house.’ While this example is contextually quite complicated, one important facet of Gutiérrez’s act is the manner in which it provokes the demand to track oppression. Namely, it points to the silencing of trans women of color within LGBTQ communities, and the unacknowledged abuse and incarceration that immigrants face under Obama’s administration. Gutiérrez writes of the event:

“I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored. Immigrant trans women are 12 times more likely to face discrimination because of our gender identity. If we add our immigration status to the equation, the discrimination increases. Transgender immigrants make up one out of every 500 people in detention, but we account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in ICE custody” (Gutiérrez 2015).

The reason Gutiérrez’s call to the president is significant for my account of insurrectionist speech is because it meets the demands of Harris’ criteria for an insurrectionist act. Namely, following Harris’ account, Gutiérrez’s act appears aimed at the “destruction of her oppressor and the bonds of her oppressor” (Harris 2002, 204). Consider the bonds of her oppressor to include, in this case, the president’s authoritative claims about the achievements of the Obama administration regarding LGBTQ rights. That is, the process of hearing the speech while obtaining discordant knowledge that transgender women of color are routinely harassed, assaulted, and denied medical care while detained under the same administration’s immigration and customs enforcement policy would appear to many advocates for immigration rights as a painful instance of hypocrisy and neglect.

Her call to the president, however, was not just a hail to him and the members of that audience. Gutiérrez’s speech act was also indirectly hailing others to track both the deep tensions within LGBTQ organizing that neglects the criminalization of people of color, and the lack of attention by many immigration rights advocates to the violence faced by trans women of color. Focusing on speech in this sense allows us to further examine the fifth condition proposed by Dotson for an insurrectionist ethics: “The ability to provoke when necessary the epistemic demand to situate oppression so as to better approximate the bonds of oppression and the range of oppressors one faces.” Gutiérrez’s actions at this event thereby demonstrate an example of a position that I would like to describe as insurrectionist, however, the consequences of this approach are vast. Namely, what I defend (and this is where my work returns to Dotson’s and Harris’ meta-philosophical claims) is the claim that theorizing—when understood as action—can be insurrectionist. In this vein, I hope to continue to carve space for resisting patterns of silence, marginalization, harm, and distortion resulting from social oppressions in the very discursive fields of academic knowledge production that many professional philosophers inhabit.

 

References

Dotson, Kristie. 2013. “Querying Leonard Harris’ Insurrectionist Standards.” ​Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 49 (1):7492.

Gutiérrez, Jennicet. 2015. “I interrupted Obama because we need to be heard.” Washington Blade, June 25, 2015. http://www.washingtonblade.com/2015/06/25/exclusive-i-interrupted-obama-because-we-need-to-be-heard/.

Harris, Leonard. 2002. “Insurrectionist ethics: Advocacy, moral psychology, and pragmatism.” In Ethical Issues for a New Millennium, edited by J. Howie. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lara, María Pía. 1998. ​Moral textures: Feminist narratives in the public space. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lugones, María. 2003. ​Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Ortega, Mariana. 2016. In-Between: Latina feminist phenomenology, multiplicity, and the self. Albany: SUNY Press.

Yu-His Lee, Esther. 2015. “The Truth about the Heckler at the White House Pride Reception Last Night.” Immigration at ThinkProgress.org. http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/06/25/3673860/jennicet-gutierrez-white-house-transgender-detention/.

[1] Building on the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Martin Heidegger, and María Lugones, Mariana Ortega’s new book In-Between (2016) provides an excellent phenomenological framing for these kinds of experiences.

[2] I should note here that I do not propose the example below of Jennicet Gutiérrez as a point of direct comparison to Dotson’s examination of the brutal conditions of racial slavery or the patterns of violence enacted against Garner and other Black women under conditions of racial slavery. My primary reason for drawing on Dotson’s and Harris’ work on insurrection is to further elaborate forms of resistance against contemporary iterations of state-supported violence. These are, of course, not limited to speech acts against harms experienced by undocumented transgender women of color, and would also include forms of resistance by many other Black and Latina/o persons who are acting against the criminalization, hyperincarceration, sexual violence, and unjust labor conditions that characterize the U.S. carceral system today.

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