Meet Philosopher Dr. Bryan Mukandi, a faculty member at the University of Queensland in Australia who will be a visiting scholar in Carleton’s Institute of African Studies this coming academic year.
Dr. Mukandi carries out exciting work on medicine, public health, marginalization, and more, using the work of continental European philosophers, Africana philosophers, and Black thought broadly speaking. Dr. Mukandi will also be providing one of the Philosophy department’s regular Colloquium talks in October. We thought we’d take the chance to get to know him and his work more closely before meeting him in person!
Thank you for chatting with us, Dr. Mukandi. You’re fairly new to the Carleton community, and we are so pleased to have you! To start, what is it that brought you to Carleton? Is it something especially interesting about our programs, the Canadian context, and/or the city of Ottawa?
Dr. Bryan Mukandi: Thanks very much. As with most things in my life, I’ve ended up at Carleton by virtue of relationships – in this case, two good friends. The first, scholar and author of Dread Poetry and Freedom as well as Fear of a Black Nation, David Austin, I met three years ago when I was visiting Montreal. Thanks to David, I met Adrian Harewood of Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communications, and formerly the CBC, who kindly put me in touch with the Philosophy Department, and here we are.
Which of your diverse and exciting research areas do you plan to focus on while here in Ottawa? Could you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment?
BM: I’ll be working on two projects: a book on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and an Australian Research Council funded project titled ‘Seeing the Black Child’. The former is an attempt to weave together a political philosophy from Ngũgĩ’s oeuvre, which is made up of novels, plays and critical texts. Besides contemporary African philosophy, I have also specialised in continental European philosophy, and the task I’ve given myself with respect to Ngũgĩ is similar to some of the work that philosophers have undertaken with Derrida or Kierkegaard, to cite two other thinkers I’ve worked on in the past. Ngũgĩ is mostly known today for his critical work, Decolonising the Mind, or his novels, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, and The Wizard of the Crow being some of his best-known works. But in the same way that a familiarity with Derrida that doesn’t extend beyond an association with ‘deconstruction’, or a Kierkegaard reduced to Fear and Trembling misses out on a wealth of philosophical riches, the relative inattention of figures like Ngũgĩ by contemporary philosophers in Western academic institutions impoverishes all of us in those institutions.
‘Seeing the Black Child’ is a work of social epistemology. I’m interested in processes of meaning making and I want to think about what goes into judgements around and then interactions with actual Black children, Indigenous children, and children belonging to other marginalised groups. Part of my approach is to talk with scholars across a variety of disciplines, and to try to draw from empirical work deeper insights into what happens when a practitioner or policy maker sets out to serve a Black child.
Now, you’ve worked and studied in a lot of contexts and places, from working in healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa, to studying in Zimbabwe, Ireland, and Australia. How has living and working in such a variety of cultures impacted your approach to research? And what interests you in particular about conducting research in Canada?
BM: Absolutely. I take dialectical materialism seriously. Or maybe less provocatively (for some), as the US-based Kenyan philosopher, Omedi Ochieng, puts it in his wonderful book, The Intellectual Imagination, thought emerges in and from particular contexts. I think too often we take a marketing brochure approach to diversity, where it’s just ‘nice’ to see difference. I’m much more interested in the ways in which different contexts allow for different kinds of insights, as well as the cognitive and creative possibilities that dialogue affords. Zimbabwe, Ireland and Australia all offered me different resources and opportunities to think and make sense of the world and my place in it. All offered me, for example, very different insights into colonialism and its aftermath. Canada offers something different from all three, and that’s enriching.
Thank you for that. You’ve talked and written about the phenomenological experience of Black scholars in academia in different cultural contexts (and also about the way that philosophy in lands with colonial histories should treat Indigenous peoples and philosophies of the lands in which it is practiced, e.g., in your fantastic 2021 paper in Theoria). Is there anything to which you would like to draw our attention regarding the experience of being a Black scholar in the Canadian cultural context? Or anything with regards to relevant directions philosophy as a profession in Canada could take?
BM: My knowledge and understanding of the Canadian academic context is limited, so I would refer readers to the edited collection Nuances of Blackness in the Canadian Academy. I especially recommend Tamari Kitossa’s ‘Certain Uncertainty: Phenomenology of an African Canadian Professor’. That said, in 2019, I spent three months in Montreal as Visiting Professor in a philosophy department, and to be honest, my experience there was similar to that in Australia, which informs the paper you kindly cited. It boils down to this: generally, work that falls outside the established Western philosophical canon and the conventional ways of engaging that canon is treated at best as valued ornamentation (to borrow from Australian scholar, Cai Fong) or it is politely ignored. In my medical practice, I saw how people responded to life preserving medication. Some serious philosophers have a similar disposition towards the figures and subjects they study, but I have very rarely seen white philosophers, in Australia or in Canada, approach black and brown thinkers that way. That’s not to say that by virtue of being Black, I necessarily bring something worthwhile in each talk or publication. However, there is a world of difference between waiting to see if this particular Black philosopher has a valuable contribution to make, especially if that contribution is cast in different terms or draws on different literature, and the assumption that what falls beyond the realm of the familiar is necessarily inferior, uninteresting, or unrelated to ‘philosophy proper’.
While I imagine that most philosophers in academic philosophy departments pride themselves in their openness and curiosity, the fact that I am only aware of two Black philosophers in Canadian philosophy departments suggests to me that institutional philosophy in this country, as in Australia, has yet to adequately address the Eurocentrism and racism at the discipline’s core. The response of Black (potential) faculty is therefore unsurprising. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon says that it ought not be the case that the Black is confronted with the dilemma: ‘turn white or disappear’. That means that there is great opportunity here. As academic philosophy departments turn outwards, and take seriously the prospects of finding insights, solutions and better questions from traditions other than their own, those departments are more likely to attract a wider array of philosophers, similarly invested in finding common cause. Relinquishing an imagined superiority for greater participation in and deeper belonging to the world seems a bargain to me.
You have published in a wide array of forums and are truly a public philosopher. What does it mean for you to carry out philosophy in public? How do you think we can work to break down the barriers for the public to access and benefit from university research?
BM: Cornel West has said that the idea of a public philosopher is an oxymoron, and I agree. Most scholars are employed in public institutions, which means that the working poor subsidize our incomes. I think it’s up to each of us to determine what obligations arise from that fact, but I’m sure most of us will agree that one obligation we share is to ensure that our work is of benefit to a wider audience than the students who can afford to sit in our classes or those with the means to obtain our written publications. That said, I remember reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue years ago, and being struck by the figures he thought were emblematic of the Western world in the 1980s – the therapist, the manager… and I forget the third. Anyway, I think we have now established the figure of the ‘public intellectual’, and honestly, I’m ambivalent about it and its emergence. In an era of Netflix and HBO and so many streaming services, I’m not sure that the public intellectual isn’t ‘consumed’ as entertainment rather than regarded as an opportunity to stop and think. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the person who attempts to get others to shift their gaze from shadows on the wall to the actual world is killed by the crowd, not applauded, ‘liked’ or ‘followed’. So I don’t know. I think we have an obligation to engage the community seriously, to be in dialogue with the community and to serve it. If that’s what you mean by public philosopher, that’s what I aspire to and would like to become. I’m fortunate to have friends who are that, and I learn from them. But I’m also conscious of the fact that it didn’t end well for Plato’s Socrates.
In your writing on the pandemic, you discussed the roles played by privilege and the status quo in the righteous positions taken by some groups towards vaccination on both sides of the spectrum. Unlike last year, vaccination is no longer a requirement to be on campus here at Carleton. How do you think injustice in society relates to the shifting attitudes towards covid-19 and vaccination today?
BM: I think injustice lulls us into satisfying ourselves with the fact that those who would have been on campus prior to the pandemic will now be able to return, without thinking about those who, had COVID-19 never emerged, would have still been unable to access the university. My overarching point around the vaccine debates is that they make us miss the person dancing around in a gorilla suit by focusing our attention on a relatively ‘minor’ detail. Don’t get me wrong, pharmacological factors are important, as are questions of distributive justice. Yet prior to the question of who gets access to vaccines, and what degrees of compulsion are justifiable in the name of the public good, are questions of the structure and organization of society. COVID-19 is not primarily a medical emergency but a social and philosophical one. That’s my view as someone who saw the devastating impacts of HIV/AIDS on a population that for the most part did not have access to antiretroviral medication. I worry that today, as then, preoccupation with the pharmacological is an evasion of consideration of the social, economic, cultural and political.
Could you perhaps tell us a bit about the colloquium talk you’ll be doing for the Carleton Philosophy Department in October? What is its main thesis?
BM: It basically boils down to the claim that philosophy really does matter, followed by the question of what philosophizing looks like, or what philosophy entails. My investment in conceptual clarity around the activity of philosophy is motivated by the desire to ensure that no one is unjustly excluded from participation, and that’s because I think philosophy matters so much.
If students or faculty wanted to talk to you further about your research, is there somewhere they could come have a friendly chat with you? We’d love to get to know you better as a member of the Carleton community!
BM: I don’t have regular office hours set up, but I’d love to talk and just hang out with anyone who wants to. I’m available via email, and if you can make it to the talk, please come up and say hello. We might even be able to organize a time to meet.
Wonderful, thank you Dr. Mukandi! To close, is there anything you’re especially looking forward to doing or participating in here at Carleton, including any interesting classes you’re teaching or events you’d like to attend?
BM: I’m really looking forward to thinking with you all, and to being a part of this community. I’m looking forward to learning from you and walking alongside you. Thank you for your warm welcome.
Thanks Dr. Mukandi for answering our questions. You can find more about Dr. Mukandi and his research on his blog on his Twitter, his PhilPeople page, and on his page on the University of Queensland website. Keep an eye out for our next Spotlight in November 2022!
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