CHCI-ACLS Fellow Joel Alden Schlosser on the Politics of Refusal, Ancient Greek Philosophy, and the Language of Flourishing

By Denise Grollmus

On November 20, Joel Alden Schlosser will be giving a talk, “Politics is for the Dogs: Diogenes the Cynic and Political Refusal,” that emerges from his current work as a 2019-2020 CHCI-ACLS Visiting Fellow in Residence at the Simpson Center for the Humanities, where he is also a fellow in the Society of Scholars.

An Associate Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College, Schlosser has published numerous essays on ancient political thought, politics and American literature, and pedagogy. He is also the author of What Would Socrates Do? Self-examination, civic engagement, and the politics of philosophy (Cambridge, 2014) as well as the forthcoming Herodotus in the Anthropocene (Chicago, 2020).

In anticipation of his lecture, I sat down with Joel to discuss how his current work on the practice of refusal in ancient Greek philosophy compliments concepts of refusal that emerge out of Indigenous Studies and Black Studies by linking ethical concerns with the self to political concerns with the collective, as well as attending to the broader politics of flourishing.

Tell me a bit about the project you’re working on while a CHCI-ACLS fellow.

This project is, like my earlier work, asking: what is the practice of philosophy and the practice of inquiry? That is, how is political theory not just something you do in a tower that's apart from everything, but how is it an activity which is part of the practice of philosophy—which is also a central concern of Herodotus in the Anthropocene. There, I’m exploring Herodotus’s ways of thinking about ecologies and how he shows that reciprocal interaction can develop through conventions, laws, and cultural practices that would lead to Earthly flourishing—practices that must be rooted in practices of equality that extend beyond human beings to non-humans, too. My argument is that this whole sort of worldview works toward this concept of Earthly flourishing, which is inseparable from human flourishing, and the belief that these two things are mutually co-constitutive.

The difference is that now, I’m thinking about this notion of flourishing in terms of refusal. So, for example, I’m exploring how Diogenes the Cynic imagines refusal as a practice that is anti-political, but also political—anti-political because it’s opposing the political order and may not actually be trying to offer any political order as an alternative, but political insofar as that it’s politically really important. It has consequences. It has a political edge to it, even if it’s directed towards a different form of community or a different form of social organization.

What do you mean by “refusal?” And why has this become a generative term for you?

My interest is partly coming out of the work of Bonnie Honig, who’s a political theorist at Brown. She came to Bryn Mawr and gave a series of lectures on “Theaters of Refusal” and I taught a course alongside the series. At first, I thought I was invested in this concept for pedagogical reasons, but then, after many conversations with my students and Bonnie, and reading what my students wrote, I realized that this was a way of thinking about what Socrates was doing, as well as subsequent ancient philosophers who were engaged in contestations with politics. That's where the project began.

But I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading contemporary political theories of refusal, and I’ve been really excited by the work of three people, in particular. Two—Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson—introduce this concept of refusal, which is coming out of broader tradition in Indigenous Studies of refusing the recognition by the settler state and the granting of rights by the settler state because that then creates for the Indigenous community, a subordinate identity or a relational identity that is always subordinate in some way.

I think most people tend to think of refusal as a form “resistance.” But I’m guessing that, here, the distinction is important. So, how is refusal different from resistance and why is that difference important?

Refusal is contrasted to resistance because, in terms of resistance, you're still fighting under the terms of colonization. In the case of refusal, Simpson gives the example of the Mohawk nation saying “We are our own nation. We refuse to be recognized as foreign, or as dependent, or as Indigenous, or as First Nations, or any of these things. We're going to issue our own passports and we're going to use them even though you say we can't use them or can't do it—we're going to do it.” Coulthard describes it as a creative act of self-recognition. Refusal is this first step in doing that—refusing to be recognized by the other person as Indigenous, say—and creating one’s own subjectivity.

And then, Fred Moten is writing in the Black Studies tradition and he theorizes refusal as an act of creative flight from the terms of political order, towards some alternative freedom that's not secured by politics and rights. And in terms of refusal versus resistance, he offers a contrast between Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers. On the one hand, Martin Luther King Jr. is practicing civil disobedience and is resisting in various ways in order to fix the state and to get better laws. On the other hand, the Black Panthers are actually creating their own community. Yes, they're parasitic in some ways on the state and they're asserting some of their rights, but they are doing so strategically in order to have an alternative mode of order that's no longer, or—at least the way I talk about it—is no longer political in the way that politics is practiced.

How is your work, which is based in ancient Greek thought, building on or in conversation with these theories of refusal coming out of Indigenous Studies and Black Studies, then?

I'm not thinking about refusal in order to criticize or critique their concepts, but to add more possibilities of what the practice of refusal might look like. Both of those concepts of refusal that I described are very political forms of refusal. There's a “we” of, say, black people or Indigenous people. And I think that the kind of refusal that's being developed in antiquity is really focused on the transformation of the self in relationship to the “we,” in relationship to others. That self—that subjectivity—has to shift too, because it's been created by the dominant political order.

In antiquity, there’s the famous motif of Diogenes the Cynic—and I'll discuss this in my talk—defacing the currency. There are different ways of telling the story, but one way would be he was given the responsibility of stamping the currency—of creating coins—and rather than doing it in a way that his country or his polis did it, he defaced them to say, “I'm ruining this thing that you use to hold up your society, the substance of your economy.” That's sort of what he does in his life, too. Rather than making himself into a fungible, employable entity (in our terms today), he's refusing that entirely. He’s defacing it and living in public openly as opposed to having a private life and going into public to do his work.

I know that asceticism plays a key role in your thinking of refusal as a practice, which now makes sense since you’re thinking of refusal in terms of the self. Can you discuss how you see asceticism as key to a politics or practice of refusal?

Ha! I'm trying to decide if I want to make this a project about asceticism or refusal. Asceticism—some people mishear me and think I'm saying “aestheticism” or something. But the most literal version of asceticism—it comes from the Greek word askesis, which means to train or to work or to discipline. And originally it was used with regard to raw materials. So, in The Iliad, for instance, Homer describes a bow that's been worked out of horn and he uses the verb form of askesis. So, this working of a raw material gets translated to gymnastics and the physical training of the raw material of the body. And then the philosophers take it up and I think Diogenes the Cynic is the first source where he makes it very explicit that you have to train the self to endure all sorts of hardship, and that’s where this idea of training, askesis, becomes thematic throughout much of ancient Greek philosophy. But we hear asceticism today and we think of starving monks out in the desert. But they weren’t starving or out in the desert. They meant it in the sense of living your ideas in the most direct way possible. And they realized that you had to actually habituate yourself to live those ideas. It wasn't just a matter of waking up and saying, “okay, now I'm going to be a moderate person.” No, you had to test yourself. This idea of testing is really important to askesis.

And crucial to this is that you had to have certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of friends. You had to write letters and have people who would write you letters that would hold you accountable. And that’s where this ancient Greek concept of parrhesia comes in. It literally means “to say everything.” And that’s a part of askesis—you have to have people that you are in parrhesia with, people who will tell you the truth and the truth about yourself. And that’s an essential training. And it’s hard to withstand that, because we don’t want that, we want to live with delusions. Diogenes the Cynic is a central figure for what parrhesia involves.

So, what you’re saying is that the ancient Greeks, what they have to offer us in terms of the politics of refusal is this practice of working on the self that undergirds the larger project of political refusal. But how does the act of refusal figure into these self-care practices or how do these practices act as a form of refusal?  

Well, I'm thinking about it in terms of what I call creative refusal, which is actually the way that David Graeber describes culture, and anarchistic culture, in particular. Creative refusal is, initially, a dismissal, say, of social conventions. Defacing the currency. But in so doing, there's also this taking up of askesis, of ways of forming and shaping the self that are alternatives to the dominant forms of kinship or of labor or of hierarchy. And it’s a practice of replacing certain pleasures with other pleasures. Asceticism is often thought of as a denial of the self, but it's actually an affirmation of another self—and not a self that eventually in Stoic traditions becomes one that needs to live up to nature as this external standard. Initially, I think, this is just a healthier, more flourishing, more honest, more truthful self. A self that is not as constrained by conventions of politeness or civic decorum or normalization, to use a Foucauldian term. But refusal is essential, because there needs to be a pushing away of everything that is taken for granted. And one way of thinking about that is how Socrates is described in Plato's Meno as a sting ray that freezes everything—the idea that you're pausing or freezing the way things are so that you can actually see them and not just take them for granted. Making yourself articulate about the things that you have always just done. But the reason it's not merely skepticism is that it makes way for new habits through asceticism.

I'm curious about how you see these ancient formations of refusal as relevant to the current moment? What do these concepts and practices have to offer us or what do they make visible that we might otherwise take for granted?

One of the things that this project, I hope, does is offer a way of developing free emancipated subjects that aren't merely free in opposition to. I think a lot of the political movements that I find exciting are using the language of refusal. And, again, this is not a critique, it's just pointing to what I see as an absence, which is that these formations don't have accounts of what it would look like to flourish as a political community. And these thinkers— the Stoics and Epicureans in particular—are developing ideas about what a flourishing community looks like, and one that is premised on resisting the political order in certain ways. Therefore, it is able to incorporate this first move of refusal to a broader politics of flourishing. And I think this language of flourishing is something that is really missing today, but one that is deeply ingrained in ancient philosophy and thought.

Joel Alden Schlosser will be speaking on Wednesday, November 20, 4-5:30 pm in CMU 120. His talk is co-sponsored by Classics, Philosophy, and Political Science. Read more about his lecture here. 

Be Boundless for Washington | For the World