Today’s New APPS interview is with Ladelle McWhorter, James Thomas Professor in Philosophy at the University of Richmond. Her most recent book is Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Indiana, 2009).
Thanks so much for doing this interview with us today, Del. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
One of the pains of philosophy for me is actually finding the time to work. As you know, I teach at a small, private liberal arts university. My teaching load is 3/2. I always have two preps, often not squarely in my area of scholarship, and I frequently develop new courses or thoroughly revise old ones. I spend many hours each week preparing, grading, and meeting with undergraduates. In addition to that, I’m expected to do a lot of committee work, and, at mid-career, I usually have a leadership role. These activities can be very rewarding, but much of the time they work against writing. This is the reason why it takes me close to a decade to write a book.
But they are excellent books! I’ve learned so much from both of them. What about the daily practice of writing; who do you bounce your ideas off of?
In a small department with a primarily analytic focus, I also don’t have a lot of opportunity for philosophical discussion with colleagues. Most of my work has gone on in virtual isolation. Nobody saw any of the text of Bodies and Pleasures until I had five of the seven chapters finished. In many respects that was a very personal text; I was very hesitant to share it until it had been developed enough to sort of justify its approach.
On the other hand, I saw several conference papers whose content ended up in your second book.
Yes, working on Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America was different in that respect. Once I figured out the form it would take, I called on friends like Ellen Armour and Todd May to read it as I wrote. But these friendships are, unfortunately, long-distance.
For the last two years technology has come to my rescue. Todd May and I now have a virtual reading group over OOVOO and Skype. We meet about twice a month and discuss neoliberalism and economic history and theory. My partner bought us the equipment after Todd visited once and she saw how happy I was engaging in those long philosophical talks.
What do you do when you have time to write?
When I do have time to write (which is the pleasure), my preferred practice is to wake up and think about what I’m doing that day while still half asleep lying in bed. (This feels luxurious.) Then I get up and write till I’m exhausted. I need big blocks of time, solitude, quiet, and space to roam around in. I pace a lot and sometimes do mindless household chores while I think. I alternate between a keyboard and a clipboard of scrap paper. When I don’t have time to write, I try to write anyway. I divide up my project into small tasks and keep a list so I can fit them into hectic days. I always wish I had more time. I really love writing, and even more I love re-writing. It’s always learning.
Let’s continue with everyday practice (as befits a couple of Foucaultians talking to each other!) In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
I can no longer separate philosophy from many other activities. I don’t know that they enhance my philosophical work exactly, but I take them up as a philosopher. In some sense they become philosophical work. Gardening has been very important over the years. As a gardener I live the connections and processes that I think about. If I were a pre-Socratic philosopher, I would be convinced that the arche is dirt and that knowing is tactile.
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I have not been very successful at this. I rarely teach anything I write about. I try to choose works to read with my students that will serve as background to my writing sometimes; that’s one reason I so often revise my courses. But really most often the integration occurs unexpectedly. For example, a few years back I had to teach the first-year core course in which we had to read Darwin. As a result of that, my thinking went in new directions. I published a paper on Bataille that reflects that serendipitous experience. Teaching environmental ethics over the last several years has moved me in some very new directions too. I expect that will be reflected in my next book.
Before we discuss your research, let me ask how you came to study philosophy? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born in 1960 in north Alabama in an industrial town of about 25,000. My father was a laborer, and my mother was a seamstress. Neither of them went to college, but as a WWII combat veteran my father was entitled to a low-interest housing loan and other benefits, which meant they were able to build some savings and aspire to send all four children to college.
Did you move around a lot, or mostly live in the same place? What sort of town(s) did you live in?
We were very tied to that place, for good and ill. My father’s family had been there since the 1840s, and my mother’s for as long as anybody could remember. She believed (probably for good reason) that her family had once been Cherokee, and my sister has since traced the maternal line back to Franklin County, Tennessee, which is the heart of the Cherokee nation. My last name is very uncommon almost everywhere, including in Scotland and Ireland, but in that little region of Alabama it was very common, as were a great many other “Mc” names. Being a McWhorter meant something there; people who were more or less indigenous to the region recognized it and expected a certain kind of disposition and conduct. McWhorters were intelligent, hardworking, responsible, and reliable. I believe that I am, in fact, the epitome of a McWhorter, despite how estranged from that place and most of those people I now am. When I wrote about dirt in Bodies and Pleasures, that was the dirt I was thinking of.
Those are great passages; I’m also thinking about what you write about gardening. Let’s go back to your childhood. Were you bookish, artsy, athletic as a child?
I was a queer child in every sense of that word. I did not fit in well with others. I had a lot of phobias and strange anxieties, some of which may have been connected to the level of racist violence we were exposed to in the early 1960s but most of which was probably just me.
How about school?
On the whole I hated school, but I loved books. My paternal grandparents, neither of whom even graduated from high school, encouraged this in me. They both read constantly, and their house was full of dusty old books, mostly histories and biographies. I still have some of them—like a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. My parents were also pleased that I liked to read, but my mother became more and more concerned about it as I got older. She often scolded or gently ridiculed me for having my nose in a book all the time. Eventually she blamed the books for my deepening adolescent depression, which I knew had a lot more to do with my homosexuality and small-town life prospects than my reading habits. But I don’t think that was possible for her to think in the 1970s. It was Alabama, after all.
What we can think, what we can see, what we can say …
What I remember most about childhood was the sense that so many things had to go unspoken—because speaking them might destroy our world or because there just weren’t any words to speak them with. I know that one thing that drove me to philosophy was the deep need to find ways to speak, which involved critiquing how the world was put together so as to preclude speaking so much of what I half-perceived and felt. I had to find my way out of that world in order to survive.
What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I knew philosophy existed, and I knew I wanted to study it. One of the few adults I knew who had gone to college was our minister, who had majored in philosophy. My family was very religious, and I hasten to add that this was before the advent of the Moral Majority, much less the Teabaggers.
Though those people are in some sense a rebranding of the John Birchers. But that’s a discussion for another time. Tell us about your minister if you would.
We were Methodists, and the Methodist Church in those days was very liberal on issues like race and the ordination of women. I encountered feminism first of all at church. I really liked and respected this minister, and so I thought philosophy was probably pretty cool. I was also obviously searching for something in life, something beyond what was expected of me—which was to live in that little town all my life, to be a secretary (yes, I took vocational classes for this), and to marry and have children. My queerness distanced me from that future in ways I didn’t know how to discuss with anyone. It seemed so empty to me, and I wanted desperately to find some alternative that wouldn’t feel empty.
Where did you go to university?
I only applied to one college, Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. Although my parents wanted me to go to college, they did not see any reason why I should go far away. I got no help with the application process at school. I never saw a guidance counselor or talked to any teacher about college. Nobody really expected many of the kids in my high school to go to college. All my classmates really admired this one kid who got a job as a welder straight after graduation making $12 an hour. It was that kind of public school, you know? We were not encouraged.
Some of my high school classmates got good union factory jobs, but I doubt those jobs lasted. But that was hard to foresee in 1973. In any case, you went to Birmingham-Southern.
Our minister and my older brother had gone to BSC, so I wanted to go there. I drove down to Birmingham in December of 1977 to compete for a scholarship. I was by myself, and it was a bitter 14 degrees, and my tire blew out on the interstate. In the days before cell phones, it took me quite a while at 7:30 on a Saturday morning to get it fixed, but I got to the competition and managed to win one of the full-tuition merit scholarships.
Something for which your colleagues can be grateful!
I hope so! I am surely grateful to the boy who fixed it. He was a year or so older than I was and heading to work very early at a Stuckey’s on Interstate 65. I have always wished I had gotten his name. In some way I feel I owe him my life.
So, anyway, I enrolled at BSC. I loved it there. I took philosophy every semester from the beginning. There were only two philosophy professors, Paul Franke and O.C. Weaver. I took just about everything they taught. Classes were small. I fell in with a group of philosophy, political science, and arts majors, a group of people who are still some of my dearest friends. It was a wonderful time in life, and I have always been very, very grateful for it.
It does sound like a great time and place for you.
I started out as a political science major, though, because I was very concerned about justice. How could I not be? I grew up in Alabama during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. I was politicized by the time I was four years old. In Alabama, there was no such thing as political neutrality. If you didn’t support the racist, sexist status quo, then every minute of every day was a potential political confrontation. My mother, in particular, wanted us to stand up against racism, and she coached us to call people out for racist speech and jokes, in full awareness that we ran real risks. So those big questions of social justice were foremost for me as a young adult.
How did you find that concern translated into poli sci?
It didn’t! Within two years I realized that most of political science was not about justice but just about things like party identification and punch cards. So my minor became my major. Political theory was where the action was, I thought.
OK, so you ended up with the BA in philosophy. What next?
I never decided to make philosophy a career, though. I was estranged from my parents while I was in college, and with my scholarship and various part-time jobs I was financially independent of them—poor, but free. So I could study what I wanted without question (not that they would have questioned it anyway, since they thought a college education was the ticket regardless of the major field). And the US economy was falling apart at the time. I graduated in 1982, which until 2008 was the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The Volcker deliberately-induced recession. This needs much more public awareness as part of the Reagan offensive.
Yes. Nobody was getting jobs, no matter what they majored in. So who cared? I lived very much in the moment. I wanted to study philosophy; I had no thought about the future. I applied to grad school kind of randomly. When I got an offer from Vanderbilt, I actually compared the stipend to my wages as a typesetter and figured it was six of one, half dozen of the other, so why not go?
So you’re at Vanderbilt at this time.
Yes, in Nashville. I studied primarily with Charles Scott. I started out with him my first semester in a seminar on Heidegger’s Being and Time. He absolutely blew my mind. My friend David Gruber and I used to go out and drink scotch on Wednesday nights every week just to try to stop our heads from reeling. It was Scott who introduced me to Michel Foucault that first semester. I think he just recommended some essays, which I read over Thanksgiving. Then I took a class team-taught by him and John Compton on Kuhn, Gadamer, and Foucault’s Order of Things. Wow. I can’t begin to describe how great that was. Then I took Scott’s Nietzsche seminar. I took it twice, because I loved it so much.
I have great respect for Charles Scott as well. He was an external member of my dissertation committee. I’m not going to say he appeared to me as Parmenides appeared to the young Socrates, but it wasn't far away from that!
I adored all of Scott’s seminars and really enjoyed many other teachers at Vanderbilt, but overall I hated graduate school.
First of all, I hated it because it was not like my wonderful undergraduate experience. People were competitive. They were career oriented, whereas my friends at college were really just interested in conversation and exploration. It was also a very male environment, which in retrospect I realize was hard for me too. I was very lonely. Nashville was still the South, after all, and so I was still stuck in the same religious milieu where homosexuality was condemned. I was really struggling with my sexual identity then. My suicidal depression at the end of high school and my hospitalization (which I recount in Bodies and Pleasures) had left me feeling very frightened of what would happen to me if I ever came out (or was dragged out; I didn’t know anyone who came out voluntarily). And my one bad experience in college was with an older woman whose mistreatment of me made me very afraid to try to make contact with any lesbians in Nashville. So it was a very hard time for me.
I’m sorry to hear all that, but thank you for describing it to us. All professions need their young members to hear about the experiences of their predecessors.
Another student got a feminist reading group together, and that was very good for me. I decided to do my dissertation on Foucault and feminist theory. The focus was subjectivity; I argued that subjectivity should not be the basis of feminist practice or analysis. I didn’t think it through as carefully as I would now. I remember thinking when the dissertation was done that I finally knew enough to start writing it.
Actually, that’s not a bad formula for what the end of a good dissertation writing experience should be. We too often think of the dissertation as a product and don’t think of how the process changes us. After the dissertation, what was your early professional life like?
Actually, I went on the job market in 1985 while ABD, thinking it was a practice run. But I got three job offers. I accelerated my dissertation work in order to defend in the spring of 1986, and I accepted a job at what was then Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, MO. (It’s now Truman State.) I took that job over two offers from private liberal arts schools. One was Catholic, and I was afraid of that environment. The other was in the Deep South and offered no travel money, and I was afraid too many doors would close for me if I went there.
What was your time at Truman like?
I liked teaching at Truman very much. I had a 4/4 load with three preps every semester, so I did nothing but work. But there was nothing else to do in Kirksville. We all worked all the time, except when we hung out in bars and talked about work. I made great friends there. I still go back and visit when I can. I loved my rural students, too, and my returning students. So many of them were first-generation college students experiencing a broad, open world for the first time. I could relate to that.
How about your first publications?
My first publication was co-authored with an anthropologist friend at Truman. It was on feminism and psychoanalysis (of all things!).
Anthropology and psychoanalysis: sort of the Alpha and the Omega of the human sciences. Not the sort of thing you might expect from a Foucault specialist!
It was a great experience, though, because my friend Bob Graber was an experienced author and, probably without realizing he was doing it, he sort of socialized me into the process of writing, re-writing, dealing with editors and referees, etc.
All kidding aside, that sort of co-authorship is an excellent learning experience. We had a nice discussion about that here on the blog back in August.
I got very involved with the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in those years, and three of my papers were published in SPEP volumes. I also edited a book based on a conference I hosted on Heidegger, wrote some stuff on Bataille, and published an article in Journal of Philosophy after I organized a Foucault panel for the APA with David Gruber and Judith Butler. And I published something in the now defunct Praxis International. Looking back on it, I guess I wrote a lot in those days, despite my heavy teaching load. Like I said, there was nothing much to do in Kirksville but work.
What did you do in the SPEP papers?
Those first SPEP publications were on topics that were in my dissertation, but I was really re-thinking them. My dissertation quickly became obsolete for me. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to revise it for publication, but finally I just ditched it.
OK, then, what next? What about tenure?
I got tenure on a short track, after three years. (Rural universities do whatever they can to retain people.) Promotion to associate was not granted at that time. That came two years later. So I was a tenured associate when Gary Shapiro approached me about applying for a position at the University of Richmond. I had never heard of the school before, but it sounded interesting, so I did. I was in my sixth year at Truman. I was 31 years old, and I had already taught 22 sections of Introduction to Ethics.
I really needed a change. I also really needed to come out of the closet, and I knew I could never do it in Kirksville. So I gave up tenure to take the Richmond job and went through another three-year tenure track. I failed to negotiate for a sabbatical, so I had my first sabbatical after having taught full time for twelve years.
Is there one early paper that stands out for you as important for your career?
I guess my “break-through” paper was one that I gave at SPEP in 1992 and published in the Bulletin de la Societé Americaine de Philosophie de Langue Française entitled "Foucault's Genealogy of Homosexuality.” It was the first time I ever discussed homosexuality in my scholarship.
So it was a philosophical coming out, if you will?
I don’t know that the paper was so important, but the decision to present and publish it was. I realized I just couldn’t write anymore—couldn’t do philosophy anymore—if I didn’t touch issues that were not “safe.”
This must have had a part in the genesis of Bodies and Pleasures, right?
Bodies and Pleasures. I wrote the introduction to that book in the voice that became the voice of the book as a whole in 1993, I think, and I carried it around with me for about two years before continuing with the book. That was my voice, and I knew it, but I was afraid. And then finally I just didn’t care anymore. If I couldn’t do philosophy in my own voice, I wouldn’t do it anymore. It stopped seeming risky then. It was go forward on that path or find a completely different path.
It just felt right is what you’re saying. But you didn’t do it all alone.
Fortunately I eventually found support for the project, which was well underway by 1996. Liz Grosz was visiting professor at Richmond that year, and she read the first five chapters of the manuscript and encouraged me. The press (Indiana) was hesitant because the personal material had the potential to discredit me as an author, I think, and they were not sure how to market it. I got lucky in that a young associate editor named Dee Mortensen championed the book, and a third reader was called in. And, anyway, the thing was finally published with some revisions in October of 1999. It’s still in print, and every now and then I get a nice email from a graduate student saying how important it is to them. I keep all of those emails.
As well you should. I hope you kept my email, and I think I was an Asst Prof by then. Let’s move on. This is something I ask everyone: how do you negotiate what has often been called the continental-analytic divide?
For many people, the divide hardly exists anymore. Many of us read both analytic and continental work and use it in our scholarship. Feminists certainly bridge the divide. Many philosophers of language and political philosophers do so. What persists is an institutional bias in departments where some entrenched faculty members trained in analytic philosophy still refuse to read any continental work and condemn it as poetry. That still happens with great regularity.
Yes, we can’t be Pollyannish about our brave new post-divide world (to wildly mix my metaphors!) Though to be fair, there’s purism among some of our continental colleagues too.
In my own department over the years I have had a terrible time convincing colleagues that Foucault’s work can be read as political philosophy and that the work I do is political philosophy. That’s not a philosophical difference; it’s a just refusal to entertain new ideas. I am afraid that Max Planck is right, that things won’t change in that respect until a couple more generations die.
Yeah, “science advances one obituary at a time.”
Unfortunately in the meantime professional resources are locked up in departments like that. But there is movement. I think the diversification of the profession—which is a big issue for the APA right now as evidenced by their funding of the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI, which I directed from 2009 to 2011) and other such initiatives—will go some way toward breaking down that barrier. Students and young professors with interests in philosophy of race and gender and feminist theory are more likely to disregard what their elders see as a major divide. They have questions they want to address, and they will use whatever they can to address them.
Can you tell us a little more about PIKSI?
Yes, it’s a week-long summer program for students who are interested in applying for grad school in philosophy and who are members of groups under-represented in the profession. It consists of a series of very intense seminars, lectures, and workshops that give these students a taste of graduate school and practical support and encouragement to go on. Most of the money comes from the APA and the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. It has become quite competitive. We take 13 students, Iris Marion Young Fellows, and in 2011 we had over 70 applications for those 13 (fully funded) slots. These are absolutely first rate students who are a joy to teach and get to know. Your readers should check out the program at http://rockethics.psu.edu/education/piksi/. There are opportunities for graduate assistants and for institutions to recruit these fine students to their programs.
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now with regard to research?
I have stuck with Foucault, but my reading of Foucault’s work has changed, sometimes rapidly, over the years. When I began my dissertation, Foucault was still alive and writing, and there was very little secondary scholarship on his work. Over the course of my career, tons more of Foucault’s own writings have become available, and the secondary literature has exploded. So there has been a lot to learn.
I’ll say. I teach Foucault now and again, but haven’t published too much on him. But just keeping up with the Collège de France lectures is hard work, to say nothing of the secondary lit! Where are you going with your Foucault work?
Early on, I was most interested in genealogy and disciplinary normalization. That stuff really informs my 2009 book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy. After finishing that book in 2008, I have been more interested in biopolitics and population management—which has led me to do a lot of background reading in twentieth-century history of biology and genetics and then neoliberalism and the history of economic theory.
There are really important criss-crosses to explore there. Milton Friedman once invoked a sort of natural selection argument regarding competitive markets and profit-maximization in firms, but beyond that there’s an enormous morass of half-thought-out stuff in evolutionary psychology about “competition” and what have you that needs critical examination.
But I shouldn’t rant like that. Let’s keep the focus on you. What would you say is the most was the most frustrating experience for you?
Frustrations really are just all the things that keep me from writing—too many demands, like committee work, and the fragmentation of my time on an ordinary day, my intellectual isolation over the years, and injustice in the profession. But not philosophy. Philosophy is hard, sometimes painful, but never frustrating. It’s NOT doing philosophy that is frustrating.
The most rewarding aspect then is just doing philosophy?
It is very hard to isolate one rewarding experience. It’s all been rewarding. The publication of Bodies and Pleasures was a high point, and the thinking I did while writing Racism and Sexuality was absolutely life-changing in some ways. But looking back, I love all of it—every paper I’ve written, every new seminar I’ve taught. I love the feeling of moving intellectually, of changing and seeing from new angles. Many aspects of my work give me that.
Let’s conclude by looking forward. What are your short and long-term projects?
I’m doing a lot of papers now on neoliberalism, biopolitics, and population. I am not sure yet exactly where that’s all going. I have started a new book project, but I can only describe it in very vague terms so far. The way I work is rather dream-like. Energy and images gradually come together, like clouds colliding, until something takes shape.
Sounds quite Deleuzean really. Everything is a lightning bolt: there’s a field of differences and then at a threshold: crack!
This process may take years. The writing usually takes much less time than the dreaming. I wrote most of Racism and Sexual Oppression in about 18 months, but the whole process took nearly a decade. I know that the next project will deal with globalization and environmental issues, but two years after the last book, I am still in the clouds.
All in good time, but we’ll hear the thunder soon I think!
Del, let me thank you again for this interview. It’s been a real pleasure.