grumble theory and praxis are the same mumble mumble
June 20, 2016
I feel like I’ve written about this but it might’ve just been short posts on tumblr/twitter. But, again, I want ppl to reconsider the false distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘praxis’. Over and over again I hear, “what about praxis? it can’t all be theory?” as if this is a really meaningful question or framework. Look. I’m a philosopher, theory is my praxis. It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally comfortable and good with this. Now I feel like I contribute and do enough. Trying to do community organizing burned me out and I just don’t like it. But I don’t have to do that because I’m already doing something: philosophy (re: theory).
Philosophy isn’t for everyone. Engaging in what often is dense, inaccessible theory/discourse isn’t fun for a lot of people. But going beyond engaging, creating this stuff definitely isn’t everyone’s idea of awesome.
This is fine.
I’d rather go to the dentist than organize another conference1. Instead of volunteering at another gay org, I’d prefer someone just punch me in the face. Weirdly enough, I happen to be really good at facilitating discussions and group shit, but I’d prefer dealing with american airport security.
These things are usually what people mean by ‘praxis’. Its doing ‘tangible’ things. Its being ‘active’ or whatever in teh community (or doing the community building itself). Beyond the fact that this is outright ableism, this actually erases and devalues a lot of labour that various people engage in. Labour that is just as important but isn’t generally considered to be ‘praxis’.
Example: Emotional labour. All the stuff above is great and all, but a lot of ppl engage in emotional labour outside of formal settings. They reach out to people in need, give them a kind ear, support them in some way, etc. While one might just chalk this up to ‘making friends’, this shit is crucial to community building. Showing up and actually engaging people – as people – really is work. It is praxis. And it can even get better, by privileged people seeing this labour and performing it for the people who are usually involuntarily conscripted into it (eg, men actively seeking to provide emotional labour for women).
There’s that saying, “everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to do the dishes” (I wish I knew the source, googling doesn’t pull up anything obvious and I’m too lazy to dig deeper atm). One of the things that this saying makes visible is all the kinds of invisible labour that tends to go unnoticed by a lot of people. Washing the dishes vs organizing a conference isn’t glamourous. Definitely nothing you can put on your resume/CV. But, again, this is praxis. More so if the relatively privileged make a point of doing this kind of labour instead of expected (usually) women of colour to do it.
One of the reasons why I hate the way most people us ‘praxis’ is that it ends up being a fancy way of talking about internet ‘slacktivists’. You know, the people who just tweet about social justice but never go to a protest or whatever? Most people deploy ‘praxis’ with a fairly concrete set of ideas about what praxis is like and how it takes shape. Praxis is citing only women in your research but befriending those women isn’t. Praxis is protesting in the streets but not tweeting about it from your couch.
Above all: praxis isn’t theory. Theory isn’t praxis.
Except when it is.
Again, I’m a philosopher. What I do is philosophy. How I go about it and the act of doing it is my praxis. But it is also theory at the same time, since I’m engaging in a larger discourse. I’m one of those people tweeting and blogging from home but never going to protests or doing any kind of organizing.
I find it weird how we can recognize the ways that words can influence and inspire people while also asserting that it isn’t as important as ‘doing’ Real Things. The fact that I’ve made significant contributions to a few different discourses – contributions which have changed the direction of the discourse – pales in comparison to organzing the AMC twoc gathering two years ago.
Its only been recently that I, myself, have come to realize that what I do is actually enough. My philosophical work as embodied by my writing on this blog, on twitter, on tumblr, in my books, my essays, this is actual work. This is my praxis. Theory is my praxis. And this is a ‘good enough’ contribution regardless if I ever organize (or even go to) another conference again.
Is this true for everyone? No. I truly understand why people get frustrating with the perception that all ‘we’ do is sit around discussing stuff and never ‘doing’ anything substantive. Like, we know that prisons should be abolished, so why aren’t we demolishing one and freeing all the prisoners? Praxis, not just theory. What even was the point of the AMC twoc gathering when ‘nothing’ came of it? We just sat around and talked to each other. And it all came to nothing. (right?)
On the other hand, though, there is also the super weird expectation that everyone ought to engage theory in some way. That people should read it, at the very least. That part of the price of admission to the Club is knowing the Names. Its pretty common to hear people articulate a level of guilt that they haven’t read the Canon. That, idk, they have a life and shit to do and, tbh, don’t actually want to sit and read a theory book? That they’d rather be doing something (praxis) substantive.
This all gets easier when you realize that theory and praxis aren’t actually distinct things. They can be one and the same. It isn’t a mutually excluding dichotomy. It also means that there’s no real obligation to engage in the one that you don’t like (or doesn’t suit you or is hard or whatever).
Someone putting the effort into organizing a protest shouldn’t feel bad that this doesn’t leave time to read some Canonical book. Likewise, someone who is writing that book should feel bad that they aren’t at a protest. Both are, to the best of their abilities, attempting to act and live according to their values and principles. This is praxis.
And, of course, there are a whole lot of people who enjoy some mixture of the both. Or, at least, some who will do both and, essentially, be the place where ‘theory’ and ‘praxis’ converge so that each is always in constant dialogue with the other2.
(Although, to be clear, I’ve been arguing that there is no real, meaningful difference between theory and praxis, I’m using the distinction here so I can articulate my point in a coherent way.)
In conclusion: its time to stop pretending like theory and praxis are distinct things. They are not. And maintaining a distinction simply ends up erasing certain kinds of labour in favour of other kinds. It also creates an environment of shame for ppl who haven’t (or don’t want to) engage theory. Its a distinction that creates more harm than good.
Which, to be fair, isn’t a great example for me since I actually really like going to the dentist but I know a lot of people don’t, so I’m using it as a literary device, ok? ↩
Suddenly realizing that this kind of also means that the general critique that academics tend to be disconnected from communities and blah blah isn’t quite apt. Bc if they aren’t directly engaging, there usually is someone within the community who’ll be engaging their theory and trying to live it in some way. Kind of like the difference between pure and applied math. ↩