University of Liverpool, 19 – 21 June 2023

Topics like ideology, propaganda, persuasion and epistemic injustice, previously largely the domain of continental political theory, have relatively recently emerged as central themes within Anglophone philosophy. Gathered around the field of “political epistemology”, these approaches acknowledge the role played by contingent cultural influences in political reasoning, knowledge formation and emancipation. This conference was organised with the view that the philosophical study of such phenomena can be enhanced through a conversation with work in aesthetics and philosophy of art.

The conference opened with Paul C. Taylor (UCLA) offering a close reading of John Houston’s classic film In Our Life (1942). Starting with Stanley Cavell’s readings of Hollywood comedies of remarriage as an exemplar of how philosophical material can be teased out from Hollywood’s golden age, Taylor’s reading of key scenes from Houston’s film offered an enriched understanding of racialised epistemic injustice. Political scientist Gemma Bird (Liverpool) shared her fieldwork in Athens, where she investigates the graffiti left by evicted squatter and activist communities. In the Q&A, we explored links between her fieldwork and philosophical concerns, such as the work of Quill Kukla on city living. A talk by C. Thi Nguyen (Utah) concluded the first day; he spoke on how overly clear statements of (ethical) values encourage close-mindedness. Making values explicit can narrow our attention to only some aspects of an activity; aesthetic experience may represent a counterpoint to that flawed approach.

The second day started with Rachel Fraser’s (Oxford) talk on narrative activism: political engagement centred on personal narratives. Exploring both the limits and advantages of first-person narrative, Fraser emphasised the role these can play in the emergence of shared knowledge, especially in relation to the history of women’s emancipation. The theme of narrative continued into the talk by Emilia L. Wilson (St Andrews), which showed how narratives of eroticised refusal by women create harmful social scripts. Wilson’s close reading of a scene from Goldfinger, like Taylor’s talk, showed how political epistemology can be enhanced through close analysis of artworks. Just Serrano-Zamora (Málaga) presented a paper co-authored with Lisa Herzog (Groningen) on democratic practices of the oppressed. Tying in with Fraser’s concerns, but arriving at them from Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, the paper explored how such aesthetic activities as dancing flashmobs can overcome obstacles that oppressed groups face in learning from each other. The final paper, by Lauren Ware (Royal Horticultural Society), was a foray into philosophy from a gardening perspective, exploring how curious plants like the ginkgo can inspire us to question gender binaries.

The third day began with Allan Hazlett (Washington University in St Louis), who discussed different forms of knowledge-what-it-is-like, and to what extent such knowledge can be obtained from imagination. The Q&A connected his talk to philosophy of literature, where knowledge-what-it-is-like is a central concern, while Hazlett also emphasised how such knowledge can motivate knowers to bring about a better political situation. Alice Harberd (UCL) spoke on the aesthetic causes of epistemic injustice. While most discussants foregrounded the power of art or imagination in improving understanding, Habrerd argued that aesthetic properties can also bring about forms of (epistemic) oppression. Alexandra Plakias (Hamilton) spoke on awkwardness, which according to her arises in situations when somebody breaks a social script. Awkwardness therefore becomes important for co-ordinating behaviour, which has both aesthetic and social implications. Finally, Sarah Fine (Cambridge) concluded the conference with a talk that blurred the genre boundaries between art and philosophy. Staging a talk with lighting, music cues, and metafiction, hers was so far the only performance lecture that I’ve seen in a philosophy context: and it got me thinking about the kind of epistemic obstacles that only performance can overcome.

We’re also grateful to curator James Harper from Liverpool Biennial, who gave us a tour of this year’s exhibition on the second day. Curated by Khanyisile Mbongwa, this year’s edition artistically reimagined narratives of transatlantic slave trade, matching the conference theme very well. The conference dinner was held at The Reader restaurant on Mount Pleasant, a social enterprise that supports the homeless in Liverpool. The food was excellent, so check them out if you find yourself in Liverpool.

Leading on from the conference, the Panpsycast podcast are conducting two episodes on our themes, interviewing C. Thi Nguyen and Rachel Fraser. Have a listen here.

Conference report by Vid Simoniti
Organisers: Katherine Furman, Robin McKenna, Vid Simoniti