I want to share my thoughts about the Hypatia controversy. But, I want to be clear that this controversy comes at a time of deep personal crisis on the home-front. This has meant that I have not had the time to process the Hypatia controversy as quickly as I would have liked. It also means that it has been considerably less important to me.
When I signed off on the letter to Hypatia, I didn’t agree with every point that was made. But I agreed with the spirit. For me, the chief concern (aside from the gratuitous “deadnaming” which should have been caught) is the following. It’s not merely that the article does not engage sufficiently with the relevant literature. It’s that while it explores both transness and blackness, it fails to adopt a framework that would centralize transness and blackness as loci of oppression and resistance. And it fails to provide any evidence that the author reflected upon her subject position. When non-trans people do trans philosophy, for example, they need to ask questions about their subject position – who are they are relation to oppression? What are their motivations in writing about the trans-related topics? What do they hope to gain? For me, the problem with the article is that there was no evidence of any interrogated subject position, largely because there is no real centralization of transness and blackness as modalities of oppression and resistance in analysis which would require such an interrogation. (If there were, I believe that results of the analysis would have been different). Simply consider the fact that the author felt it completely appropriate to consider whether Dolezel could call herself black without asking questions about who she was and how she was positioned in asking such questions.
One way to put this is to say, evoking Stryker’s distinction, that while the article examines trans phenomena, it does not rise to the level of trans studies. After all, trans people have long been the objects of investigation. But to do trans studies (and trans philosophy) is to centralize the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a starting point. It is to recognize that trans people have long been curious objects, puzzles, tropes, and discursive levers on the way to somebody else’s agenda. It is to take seriously the idea that trans people can theorize their own experience while negotiating dangerous terrain. To take part in such a project, as a non-trans person, requires careful reflection upon one’s own political power, one’s own epistemic limitations, and one’s stakes. To ignore all of this and to simply examine trans people on that way to securing some sort of agenda, is of course, to engage in a scholarship that leaves out the voices and the stakes of trans people.
But let’s be clear. This is hardly new. And I think it is important to place the Tuvel’s work within this broader context so that she is not selectively targeted. So many articles in feminist philosophy have been published that, on the whole, simply ignore the existence of trans oppression/resistance in ways that would have mattered. Definitions of ‘womanhood,’ for example, are laid down that implicitly exclude trans women or that take up the issue in ways that are deeply problematic from a trans political perspective. And those articles that do discuss trans issues in depth often fail to embrace the existence of trans oppression/resistance as a central organizing principle – as a core part of the analytic lens. If they had been held to the standard that we are asking for now, they would have never been published at all. This isn’t about Tuvel’s work, then. Her approach to trans issues is not new. This is clearly about feminist philosophy in general.
What is new is the fact that trans philosophy has come into its own.
I’m an old-timer. I was a graduate student when trans studies first began back in the nineties. I have been trying to do trans philosophy within and without professional philosophy for quite some time. When I first began publishing in trans studies there were very few trans people doing work in trans philosophy at all. It was a different time. I was speaking to an old sociologist friend of mine the other day about the controversy. She expressed some discomfort with the intense reaction to the publication of Tuvel’s article. It’s not as if this was J. Michael Bailey, she said! (We had worked together on a response to Bailey’s presentation of his work at UCLA many, many years ago). And it’s true. This is simply not comparable to hostile scholarship of that type.
As I worked, I also saw that some of the work being produced by non-trans people on trans issues were “off.” In part because I felt so isolated, I simply decided, either rightly or wrongly, to do my own work rather than engaging. If I didn’t do this work, who would? By now it’s clear, however, that trans philosophy has come of age. Trans philosophy is happening. And that means that it is imperative for (non-trans) feminist philosophers to ask themselves to what degree they recognize the existence of trans oppression/resistance in their analyses at all and to what degree they understand themselves within that framework. Is it okay to philosophize about trans people without doing trans philosophy? If it’s not, then what does that mean not only for Hypatia, but for feminist philosophy in general?
While this controversy may mark the coming of age of trans philosophy, it is also a bitter reminder of the continuous failure of many white feminist philosophers to centralize racist oppression in their analyses of not only gender, but race itself. After all, critical race theory/philosophy has been around since at least the eighties. These points have been made time and again by feminists of color and yet the changes in (white) feminist philosophy have been breathtaking in their meagerness. Not getting the point by getting lost in the theory. Dear Trans* People (especially we white ones): If you think there’s going to be some huge change now, please prepare for disappointment.
All of this said, I care about Hypatia and I care about feminist philosophy. No doubt, different people have had different experiences with Hypatia. But mine have been positive. At time that I wrote “Evil Deceivers,” I doubt that there was any other venue in philosophy for publishing this type of work all. But Hypatia provided me with thoughtful and constructive feedback for improving the paper. And they provided me with this venue. They even went on to do a special issue on trans feminism. Because of this, my shift from my work in modern philosophy into trans philosophy became possible. Hypatia’s support of my work even played an important role in my getting tenure.
There are not many journals like Hypatia in philosophy. And I’m glad that it exists. And if (it’s a BIG if) we’re at all interested in doing work in professional philosophy, then we need journals like Hypatia. But this also means that we need Hypatia to hold itself to standards that are different from mainstream philosophy, standards that mainstream philosophers may not even understand. This puts Hypatia in a highly fraught position. On the one hand, it needs to be the kind of journal that secures reputability within the profession of philosophy. This is crucial in helping junior professors who do work at the margins be taken seriously. On the other hand, it can’t merely replicate the standards of reputability with the profession without annihilating its reason for existence. Of course, this is precisely the dilemma that all of us who work at the margins face. It’s one of the many double-binds that characterize work at the margins.
All of this is underwritten by the deep intermeshing of oppressions. A journal that expressly takes up a single isssue (feminism) is going to be compromised from the get-go. While work may be done to include other forms of oppression and to embrace an intersectional perspective, the very starting point inevitably yields a kind of distortion. Again, as anyone who tries to think intersectionally knows, their work will invariably have this same distortion. This is something that we work against. But it is also something that we, to some degree or other, fail at achieving. It’s the nature of the beast.
I don’t say any of this to excuse Hypatia for what happened. But I do think it is important to frame the issue within the larger context of a shared struggle in “doing philosophy” at the margins and to recognize the treacherous ground on which we attempt to work.
There needs to be accountability. We need to hear something from the Editor of Hypatia. And there needs to be the real work of finding a way to improve the review process that both holds to the appropriate standards without burdening trans people and people of color. This work needs to begin soon. But I do think that there are larger issues at stake.
This has been a painful time. Sea-changes of the type often are. And the fact that most of the discussion has occurred on social media has only made matters worse. I’m not a fan. I wonder if there’s a way to have a real conversation, face-to-face. I don’t even know whether that would be productive. But it would be better than what’s happening. The issues here are important. The changes here are important. And there needs to be something more than blogging and FB updates. Could there be an organized event/discussion to come out of this? And if so, what would that look like?