- Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding by Alexis Shotwell
University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011, 208pp.
In Lisa Guenther’s 2013 review, “How Alexis Shotwell Changed My Life,” she praises Knowing Otherwise for renewing her faith in what philosophy can do: “not just as a solitary theoretical meditation, nor as a praxis opposed to theory, but as a practice of sensuous knowledge and action in concert with others” (250). I begin with reference to Guenther for the spirit of her words as well as her discernment of what is special and exciting in Shotwell’s work: a synthesis of academia and activism that not only insists upon but enacts the continuing relevance of philosophy for unsettling an unjust status quo. After a brief overview of Knowing Otherwise, I have two related aims: to defend Shotwell’s appraisal of “white shame” against its critics, and to develop the relevance of this account of white shame for critically engaging recent tragedies of police brutality. With Shotwell, we might say that this violence—obscured and further entrenched by the rhetoric of “post-racial” equality—demands attention to the non-propositional, sensuous, and affective means of its persistence, through forms of knowing that Shotwell names and enumerates as “implicit understanding.”
Knowing Otherwise begins from the observation that we lack an adequate epistemology of the implicit, and that such an epistemology could help us to transform structures of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and other forms of [End Page 137] oppression. Epistemology is already political, and the grounds for political transformation are epistemological matters of changing how and what we know: “The epistemic salience of the implicit becomes particularly clear . . . when we examine racial and gender formation with an eye toward the epistemic work involved in stabilizing them as political categories” (xv). Distinguishing 1) skilled knowledge, 2) embodied knowledge, 3) common sense, and 4) affective experience as forms of knowing, Shotwell refines, differentiates, and enriches our means of speaking about implicit understanding with reference to, for instance, Pierre Bourdieu’s embodied habitus, Charles Mills’s epistemologies of ignorance, Avery Gordon’s sensuous knowledge of history in the present, Herbert Marcuse’s liberatory estrangement of the aesthetic, and Audre Lorde’s uses of anger and the erotic.
I focus on Shotwell’s treatment of affect, the fourth form of implicit knowledge. As an illustrative example, Shotwell describes the “affective shock” of guest lecturing in a class on whiteness, in which one student’s response might well have shut down conversation but, in this case, generated a productive sense of discomfort for the professor, students, and Shotwell herself: “Discursive situations that carry political content are always freighted with an affective, embodied, and unspoken charge. And implicit understanding of race and ethnicity, of disability, of class, of fatness, of gender variance, for example, often work against transformations of those categories” (xix–xx). Implicit understanding may silence such transformation, but critical ref lection on these moments of feeling badly—especially feeling shame—may affectively disrupt stuck habits in the sedimented background of the familiar.
Perhaps the most prominent objection to Shotwell’s argument for feeling badly has been Shannon Sullivan (2011, 2012, 2014), who disputes Shotwell’s account of “white shame” because she claims the guilt- or shame-filled white liberal is only better than the white supremacist by degree. Sullivan claims that negative affects paralyze antiracist action not, as critics of “white guilt” have argued, from a tendency to individualized structural phenomena, but from the disengaged passivity of negative affect: “Instead of being constituted by sad passions, even the seemingly preferable ones of guilt and shame, white people need to develop joyful passions toward race, especially to their own whiteness” (2011, 231). I argue that this critique arises from Sullivan’s and Shotwell’s distinctive conceptions of “affect,” and I defend the relevance of Shotwell’s view for engaging contemporary tragedies of police violence.
Differences arise following Sullivan’s explicit references to the therapy of affects in Spinoza and Nietzsche, for whom affect signifies our fundamental capacity to act and be acted upon, an expression of our power...