Spotlight on Faculty: James Garrison, Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies

James Garrison portrait

This fall, four new tenure-track faculty members joined the College, plus visiting assistant professor James Garrison, a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Fellow in the Intercollegiate Department of Africana Studies. His appointment was to Scripps, his home campus.

Garrison received his BA in philosophy from Whitman College in 2004 and his MA in philosophy from the University of HawaiÊ»i at Mānoa in 2007. After research stints at Peking University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Garrison earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Vienna in 2015, holding a teaching fellowship with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bristol the following year. Garrison’s research interests include intercultural philosophy, philosophy of race, philosophy of gender, aesthetics, ethics, and political philosophy, with specialties in the German- and Chinese-language traditions.

Scripps College: Some of the courses you are teaching at Scripps the other Claremont Colleges include Philosophy of Race and Africana Philosophy. In spring, you will introduce a course entitled Black Lives Matter. What can students who are interested in these topics expect in your classes?

James Garrison: I began this semester with a Philosophy of Race class that explores the conceit, initially developed in Hegel’s influential master-slave narrative, that self-consciousness occurs as one sees oneself through the eyes of another. We look at how this plays out in black philosophical thought, art, and literature through sources like Alex Haley’s Roots, W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, and bell hooks’s recent work on postmodern blackness and intersections between feminist, queer, and black identity. In spring, I will be teaching Africana Philosophy, which will examine a survey of indigenous philosophical traditions and more recent postcolonial perspectives within Africa. I will also be teaching a course on Black Lives Matter, which will look at a mix of historical sources on the violent history of blacks in America, philosophical sources on policing and prisons, and more recent commentary from leading figures associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and its critics. I’m hoping that students taking these courses will learn to appreciate black philosophical thinkers in relation to their lived experience in contemporary society and in relation to the world’s philosophical traditions more generally.

SC: Your current book project, Black Bodies That Matter, deals with philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s influential text Bodies That Matter, using her writings on mourning, melancholia, and bodily violence to wrestle with the issues posed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you tell us more about this work?  

JG: Through my research and dissertation, I looked at the possibility for self-cultivation within the ritual dimensions of everyday life (e.g., walking a certain way, talking a certain way, greeting and acknowledging others in regulated, repetitive encounters). This means looking at how ritualistic bodily practices, through their aesthetic dimension and the promotion of bodily grace and beauty, can serve to counter the ways in which everyday bodily life and normative identity is imposed and programmed. Following Freud and more contemporary psychoanalytic theory, much of this notion of ritual identity has to do with loss and the ways in which we fail to come to terms with lost possibilities for social life, developing ritualistic ways of covering over the loss as a way of getting by in the world.

That framework, and its implications for the formation of social identity in general, has led me to reflect on the politics of mourning and rituals and the formation of black identity. I would also like to use my background in philosophy to respond to tragedies affecting the black community by bringing together what is happening with the Black Lives Matter Movement with the framework initially developed by Butler. I would use Butler’s work to investigate the ways—historical and contemporary—in which black people fail to matter as they should until it is too late, particularly in terms of how the structural features of social power preempt proper grief, prevent complete mourning, and preclude the full experience of loss. Research on the topic of Black Lives Matter stands, by its very nature, at the intersection of race, class, and gender. In this regard, the material can be both timely and of lasting influence in addressing persisting issues within critical theory.

SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?

JG: If you name a place in Europe or East Asia, there’s a good chance that I am familiar with local food/drink customs.