Featured Philosopher: Mariana Ortega

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Mariana Ortega will be joining the Philosophy Department and Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities at Penn State in January 2018. Her main areas of research and interest are Women of Color Feminisms, in particular Latina Feminisms, 20th Continental Philosophy, Phenomenology (Heidegger), Philosophy of Race, and Aesthetics.  Her research focuses on questions of self, identity, and sociality, as well as visual representations of race, gender, and sexuality.  She is co-editor with Linda Martín-Alcoff of the anthology Constructing the Nation:  A Race and Nationalism Reader (SUNY, 2009) and author of  In-Between:  Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self  (SUNY, 2016).   She is the founder and director of the Roundtable on Latina feminism, a forum dedicated to discussions of Latina and Latin American feminisms.

Aesthetic Injustice, Practices of Othering, and Ignorance​

Mariana Ortega

Thank you Meena for inviting me to contribute to this important blog. I would like to share some thoughts on what I term “aesthetic injustice.” They were in part a response to José Medina’s work on insurrectionist epistemology as presented in an APA panel on contemporary critical race theory. These thoughts on aesthetic injustice were also generative for my new book project that analyzes issues at the intersection of visuality, practices of othering in connection to race and sexuality, and the production of ignorance.

At a time of wide-ranging injustice against those who are marginalized, those whose race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, ability, and nationality transforms them into the unwanted, the already criminal, the disposable, the ugly, we can hear or ignore the call for critical assessment of how our aesthetic practices are subtly or jarringly linked to oppression and to the production of ignorance. I think of Toni Morrison’s words in her moving commentary “No place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear,”

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art. [1]

We cannot forget how these bruises, bleeding, and malevolence that Morrison mentions are connected not only to political and economic events but also to practices that promote ignorance. Recently, philosophers have been attuned to the ways in which our epistemic practices foment and even cultivate ignorance, for example Charles Mills’ indictment of the flawed practices of Western liberalism; Miranda Fricker’s account of testimonial and hermeneutic injustice; Kristie Dotson’s analysis of the silencing of oppressed groups; and José Medina’s elaboration of an epistemology of resistance [2].

Medina’s and Dotson’s analyses direct me to the crucial, yet sometimes ignored relationship between the epistemic and the aesthetic. I would like to think (to see, touch, feel, hear) with Dotson and Medina as their views inspire me to take into account all the different spaces and practices where ignorance resides, all the ways in which we conveniently cover up “truths” dripping with racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and other sticky, treacherous isms.

The aesthetic is itself a site permeated by practices that promote and cultivate ignorance. Monique Roelofs says it best in when she states in her recent text, The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic, that “the aesthetic constitutes an uncannily resonant point of interest for a critical encounter with ignorance [3]. We thus need to think further about aesthetic injustice or the use of aesthetic registers in order to do violence to others and to relegate them to the world of the unwanted because of their race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, nationality, etc., hence undermining their particular cultures, contexts, narratives, or horizons and thus creating aesthetic ignorance. Here I hold on to the intricate intertwining between the epistemic and the aesthetic such that for me to ask a question of epistemic ignorance and violence is also to be reminded of the way in which ways of knowing and ignorance are connected to ways of seeing, looking, hearing, and feeling.

Inspired by Leonard Harris’s challenge to pragmatism, Medina calls for epistemic insurrectionary practices in order to disrupt patterns of silencing and erasure arising from epistemic injustice and to cultivate and mobilize what he calls an insurrectionist imagination, a counter imagination that will make visible patterns of ignorance and invisibility and will forge new representations of the social imaginary [4]. He calls for an insurrectionist epistemology that includes aesthetic, political, religious, and pedagogical practices that can create beneficial epistemic friction. Such epistemology needs to take into consideration everyday relational attitudes, social practices, interpretative frameworks, material conditions, as well as artistic and media representations that problematize the current distorted racial imaginary.

For her part, Dotson proposes an important account of contributory injustice that, contrary to influential analyses such as Fricker’s, includes multiple hermeneutical frameworks and calls for a solution that requires third order interventions or embodied engagements that extend beyond conversation and dialogue, thus in my view opening an important critical space for engagement with the aesthetic [5]. According to Dotson, contributory injustice happens because there are different hermeneutical resources that can be used by a perceiver and, yet, the perceiver willfully refuses to recognize or acquire requisite alternative hermeneutical resources [6]. To counter this injustice she recommends third order changes or changes that demand fluency in various sets of hermeneutic resources and the ability to shift such resources appropriately. They require world-traveling that includes appreciating of genuine differences, assessment of one’s motives, relations with an epistemic community, and a relationship of trust in order to alleviate epistemic oppression. Dotson’s analysis is revealing. Since third order changes go beyond cognitive modes, we may thus be able to appreciate the importance of the connection between contributory and other injustices and the aesthetic by highlighting the various aesthetic processes that are at work in maintaining prejudiced hermeneutical resources. The aesthetic, then, becomes a crucial site for the interrogation of practices of ignorance.

While traditionally the notion of disinterestedness has been considered the mark of the aesthetic, contemporary philosophers such as Roelofs propose a complex understanding of the aesthetic that precludes the possibility of hiding racist, colonialist views behind pretenses of a neutral aesthetic. For Roelofs the aesthetic comprises various sensory modalities intertwined in a vast web of relationships of being-in-the-world that make our world livable, enjoyable, and pleasurable—or deadly, miserable and painful. It is a multimodal vision of an aesthetic connected to promises and threats. To illustrate her view, Roelofs analyzes Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Spoon”:

And so the coming

of the new life

that,

fighting and singing,

we preach,

will be a coming of soup bowls,

a perfect panoply

of spoons.

An ocean of steam rising from pots

in a world

without hunger,

and a total mobilization of spoons,

will shed light where once was darkness

shining on plates spread all over the table

like contented flowers [7].

In the poem Roelofs finds a series of quotidian intersubjective connections that open up a number of patterns of address between people and objects. Such a web of interconnectedness points to shared culture and hence to the cultural promise of the aesthetic. Yet there are not only promises, as we need to consider not just the objects but who makes them, who gets to have them—not all of us will get a spoon and get to sit at the table. In the giving and taking away that is present in Neruda’s ode, Roelofs grapples with what I think is one of the crucial questions in her text, what is to be made of the promise of the aesthetic in the face of social difference [8]?

I am moved by this crucial question that harbors within it the link between the aesthetic and injustice. I am brought to what so many who study the history of aesthetics wish to forget, that our wonderful theories are deeply connected to the production of violence in both ontological and epistemic realms. In the very midst of the so-called disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment, there may lurk a certain brutality brought about by homogenization, standardization, racism, sexism, classism—the mark of the Western white male of taste or cultural critic, who, while claiming neutrality is thoroughly interested in elevating his own, race, gender, class, and country. Here we can simply consider the role of photography in assisting the new 19th-century “sciences” in creating, as Barthes would say, “desirable” or “detestable” bodies as well as “knowledge,” or better yet, ignorance, of these bodies [9]. Aesthetic conditions allow for the possibility of our understanding certain races, sexualities, classes in specific ways, providing the context through which we see these identities as beautiful or ugly, promising or threatening, civilized or uncivilized.

With Dotson, Medina and Roelofs, I see epistemology and aesthetics in need of attunement to the way in which ignorance resides when sound, vision, touch, or taste are prevented from going in certain directions or orientations as Sarah Ahmed would say [10]. The aesthetic is not disinterested and the epistemic cannot be completely separated from the aesthetic. We need to look more closely at the workings of what I am here calling aesthetic injustice and the aesthetic ignorance that it produces. Such ignorance is multidirectional and affects our understanding as well as attunement to those whose social identities are not our own. It also structures the way in which we see, hear, smell, touch certain “other” bodies and take up their aesthetic productions. A person’s willful ignorance, the person’s unwillingness to engage with other hermeneutical frameworks which consequently relegates another person’s view as unimportant in the realm of knowledge and of taste, may be created and sustained by the aesthetic. It is no wonder that, as Morrison reminds us in, “No place for Self Pity, No Room for Fear,” “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.”

In her famous analysis of photography, Susan Sontag alerts us about the dual power of the photograph both to generate documents and to create works of visual art. [11]. Given this duality, or rather, what I see as a multiplicity of power in the photograph, we can investigate the ways in which this medium may serve to create and perpetuate a hermeneutical framework that creates ignorance or one that offers a visuality that effects what Roelofs calls an epistemic unsettlement, or what Medina calls an insurrectionist epistemic practice. We can also investigate further how the photograph as well as other artistic media is connected to the third order change that Dotson takes as necessary to alleviate contributory injustice, a change that entails an affective turn, an embodied engagement that goes beyond the cognitive and beyond conversation, dialogue, and rational deliberation. The aesthetic is thus in a unique position, as Roelofs states, “to counteract the hierarchical and differentiating functioning of the relevant dualities” [12]. In other words, aesthetic experience occupies a middle ground between traditional enlightenment dichotomies such as mind/body, reason/affect, public/private and general/particular. The aesthetic opens a liminal space, an in-between space in which it is possible, as Gloria Anzaldúa would say, to see from various shores at once [13].

[1] Morrison, Toni. 2015. “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear, In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.” The Nation, March 23.

[2] See Mills, Charles. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press;

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice, Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing. Hypatia, Vo. 26, No. 2; and Medina, José. 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance, Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Roelofs, Monique. 2014. The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic. London: Bloomsbury, 108.

[4] Medina, José. “No Justice, No Peace: Racial Violence, Epistemic Death, and Insurrection.” Presented at the 2016 Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Parts of this presentation are forthcoming in Medina, José. 2017. “Epistemic Justice and Epistemologies of Ignorance.” In Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race, eds. Linda Martín Alcoff, Luvell Anderson, and Paul Taylor. New York: Routledge.

[5] Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale, On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, 35.

[6] Dotson, “A Cautionary Tale,” 32.

[7] Quoted in Roelofs , The Cultural Promise, 14-15.

[8] Roelofs, The Cultural Promise, 11.

[9] Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 18.

[10] Ahmed, Sarah. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

[11] Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 76.

[12] Roelofs, The Cultural Promise, p. 146.

[13] Anzaldúa Gloria. 1987. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

 

 

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