Featured Philosopher: Devonya Havis

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Devonya N. Havis, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. She has taught courses in Ethics, Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Black Women’s thought at Boston College, Harvard University, and Virginia Union University. Her writings include “Blackness Beyond Witness” in Philosophy and Social Criticism and “Discipline” in the Cambridge Foucault Lexicon.She has a longstanding concern with utilizing philosophy to enhance awareness and promote counter-oppressive practices. Her chapter, “‘Seeing Black’ through Michel Foucault’s Eyes: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws as an Anchorage Point for State-Sponsored Racism,” is included in, Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics.

Discursive Sites of Improvisation – some ruminations

Devonya N. Havis

In this post my aim is to engage a brief consideration of what is at stake if one moves beyond sight to sound. It is part of longer meditations on the ways that Black ancestral discourses are generative sites for transgressions and interventions that promote social justice. These longer meditations take up the Foucauldian challenge to “conceive power without the king” which involves an analytics of power as “positive,” not merely prohibitive. My work has been influenced by this account of power because the account provides a supplemental, complementary theoretical apparatus for exploring the reasons that racialized injustices remain so intransigent – an observation that has long been acknowledged in Black ancestral discourses. An effect of these persistent injustices is the way ocular frames function to mark racialized bodies and spaces as dangerous, ugly, exotic, or undesirable.

Given this normalizing gaze, is it possible to re-configure ocular frames? As bell hooks asks, seeking a counter-oppressive way of seeing, “…what process of looking allows us to counter the seduction of images that threaten to dehumanize and colonize?” Hooks asserts that a counter-oppressive look “…is that way of seeing which makes possible an integrity of being that can subvert the power of the colonizing image.” [1] But is there such a way of looking? Looking, even if one returns the gaze, does not necessarily subvert the gaze. Instead, the gaze – looking — inscribes and re-inscribes systems of privilege and violent hierarchies.

For example, this evening I went to the apartment of a friend for a meeting of a Feminist theory group. It is a fancy condominium complex that requires one to be let in via buzzer. As I stood in the foyer searching the brass name plates for her unit buzzer, an older white man came out of the building. He saw me standing there with my backpack, Dunkin Donuts coffee, and articles. He approached the door to the foyer to exit, averted his eyes, apparently refusing to make direct eye contact. Nonetheless, he watched me carefully – perhaps assessing my proximity to the building’s entrance. He squeezed himself out of the door leaving only enough space to exit. Once out, he paused and deliberately checked the door to make sure it was fully closed. The implication was that he was insuring that I could not gain entry where I, so obviously, did not belong. Over the last two years, I have made frequent visits to the building, been granted entry by the building supervisor, and have been greeted in the foyer by exiting residents. So, what did this man see? He offered no oral address or assistance with finding the buzzer for the person I had come to visit. He was clearly rushing to avoid an encounter with the Black body that he saw. How might an auditory encounter have disrupted the man’s normative gaze?

Contemplating the extent to which his self-described ugliness and strangeness were impediments, James Baldwin writes, “I had discovered that my infirmity might not be my doom: My infirmity or infirmities might be forged into weapons.”[2] One might regard Baldwin’s “weapon” as his writing and speaking. These can be considered a form of parrhesia[3] — a verbal encounter by which someone reproaches the powerful and may compel recognition of the offense committed. [O]ne in a profoundly unequal situation can do one thing: She can ‘speak” – engage in a discursive act that calls attention to the offense, that exposes injustice.”[4] By engaging the auditory, Baldwin opens up possibilities for strategically refiguring seeming limitations.

My assertion is that Black ancestral discourses, such as Baldwin’s, often disrupt the primacy of the ocular. My longer meditations involve using auditory elements — like oral narratives, Jazz, Blues, and Gospel — to perform improvisatory interventions. These auditory moments often render structural critiques. They allow those who are in less powerful positions to strategically exercise “the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability.”[5]

So, perhaps, the encounter with the silent old white man might have been altered by a verbal address.

[1] bell hooks, Black Looks, p. 6.

[2] James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (New York: Dial Press, 1976), 7.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983 (Macmillan, 2011), 133–34.

[4] Devonya N. Havis, “The Parrhesiastic Enterprise of Black Philosophy,” Black Scholar 43, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 55.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth (Semiotex, 2nd ed. (Semiotext(e), 2007), 32.

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