Today’s New APPS interview is with Cressida Heyes, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta.
Thanks for doing this interview with us, Cressida. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
I’m an introvert by nature, so although I enjoy others’ company often enough, I also need to spend periods of time each day alone, thinking my own thoughts, recharging. Doing philosophy seriously for a long time means that one’s mental landscape only gets more and more complex and interesting, so I suspect there’s a self-reinforcing dynamic here. I like working things out in my head.
Well, my introversion is not much indulged! Between my students, reading groups, conferences, workshops, political events, and so on, it feels like I’m always in intersubjective spaces. But writing alone is vital for my psychic life—and delicious. That said, when I have done collaborative written work it’s been with lovely people, people who are very curious, open, and share my perspective on what constitutes a philosophical problem. So that is a very refreshing counterpoint to solitary writing, and I could stand to do more of it.
How about your day-by-day schedule?
Now that I have a young child my scholarly practice is very different, and I've had a hard time trying to have philosophical ideas on a very constrained schedule. I used to set up retreat-like periods for intensive reading and writing; now it's more a matter of doing the daycare drop-off and then racing to my office for some compulsory philosophizing in the windows between meetings and teaching, while avoiding the temptation to check e-mail, and acting grouchy if someone knocks on my door.
I wish I could avoid the temptation to check email! Sometimes I’ll just turn off the program while I write, and while I really like that, I never seem to make it a daily practice. In any event, we all have our email demons to struggle with. Let’s continue with your daily practice a little longer. In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life into your philosophy?
There's a lot of my life in my philosophy. My politics is front and centre, of course--I'm probably as much a political theorist as I am a philosopher.
What about your yoga practice, which we’ve talked about briefly?
I came to phenomenology late in my philosophical career, and came to it because of my own experience of physical alienation, which I'd mitigated through yoga over some years. Phenomenologists have such a clever lingo for talking about embodied experience (at least some do), and I was able to write about doing yoga, giving birth, and all sorts of other parts of my somatic life because of reading phenomenology--although I try to relate my experience to larger political structures in ways that phenomenology doesn't always facilitate.
Yes, that’s the key, integrating the personal and the political, the somatic and the social. It’s the most difficult yet most important thing of all, if you ask me. What about the spiritual side of things?
My spiritual life has also profoundly affected my thinking about the self. I was just reading the great new anthology Self, No Self? (Oxford, 2011) which contrasts essays on self and self-reflexivity in analytic, phenomenological and Indian philosophies, and feeling relieved that there are modes of expression for some pretty hard-to-grasp forms of mystical knowledge about attachment and ego.
I’m sadly deficient in sustained reflection on these issues, so I hope I can tackle that book some time. Can you tell us a little now you came to study philosophy? How did you end up as a feminist philosopher of embodied politics, if I can put it like that?
I came to philosophy via politics. I read PPE at Oxford. I come from a political family, and had been exposed to Marxism, leftist politics in the UK, union organizing, feminism, and the practices of liberal democracy (election campaigning, having people set their dogs on us while we were leafletting, and so on) from a very early age. In the late 1980’s PPE still occupied an almost unique position as the degree of choice for aspiring politicos and public intellectuals, so it wasn’t Philosophy per se that drew me in.
Yes, I don’t think there’s anything like that PPE dominance in the States. For better or worse!
It’s a gruelling degree as Oxford organizes it, and doesn’t exactly teach any canon so much as it teaches good intellectual survival skills. I didn’t really work hard enough at Oxford, and although I got a very good degree, I didn’t get a First. I had a job offer from the UK civil service to work in Whitehall. But I didn’t feel quite done with university, so I accepted a one-year scholarship to study in Canada, at McGill, where Charles Taylor and James Tully had a great group of graduate students in political theory.
The bureaucracy’s loss was philosophy’s gain, then.
And mine. My Oxford tutor in philosophy of social science, the Canadian philosopher of science Bill Newton-Smith, encouraged me to apply to McGill, and I really liked the idea of living in Montreal (still do).
Bah oui, c’est normal qu’on aime Montréal!
And I loved it for all sorts of reasons. I was a much better graduate student than I had been an undergrad, and in doing an MA in Political Theory I realised I wasn’t done at all with higher education. There was in-fighting at McGill, and Taylor and Tully transferred to Philosophy. I followed for the PhD. My dissertation was a Wittgensteinian intervention into the essentialism debates in feminist political philosophy.
Have you published on that topic? I’m always interested in the fate of dissertations.
Sure. My first monograph was a revised version of my dissertation, published as Line Drawings: Defining Women through Feminist Practice (Cornell 2000). My dissertation work also inspired me to edit my first volume, which came out as The Grammar of Politics: Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy. (I had great contributors for that collection; it went really smoothly and gave me a totally misleading impression of how easy and fun it is to be an editor.) I even return to Wittgenstein in the first chapter of my later book Self-Transformations, showing how there’s an interesting comparison with Foucault when it comes to thinking about how our form of life renders us unfree. Really my dissertation has never left me.
What was your early professional life like?
My first position was a tenure-track job at Michigan State. That department is radically different now than it was in 1997. Let’s just say I was very isolated, and I spent two years thinking that my career choice had been a very big mistake. I was a very young PhD, my training was interdisciplinary, I was a political outsider, and I had never lived in the US.
Does not sound like a good recipe for success, much less happiness.
One of my colleagues told me once (not unkindly) that I was a Young Turk, but I felt more like the Invisible Man. I was very lucky that the University of Alberta offered me a job in 1999 and I was able to move back to Canada, which I found more politically congenial and livable.
You won’t be surprised at how many American academics hope that what you say is indeed true. The idea that somewhere is better than here is very comforting.
The university system here is also a little kinder, at least for tenure-track faculty (shorter semesters, more research funding, a less cutthroat environment).
Yes, of course, we can’t pretend that precarious academic labor doesn’t exist in Canada.
Despite the northern blandishments, the academic labour system here is getting worse and worse, as it is everywhere. My own career has been privileged, in many respects. I got a tenure-track job straight out of graduate school, got early tenure at a different institution, and then was awarded a research chair and promotion to Full Professor in fairly short order. That last promotion happened when I was pregnant with my son (he's now two), and there are very few women who can get through the career quickly enough to have that much seniority and job security prior to having a child.
Indeed, we would see a different profession if career structures were adapted to pregnancy and child care.
I had tenure, a big salary and top-notch benefits, a partner with the same, and little to lose professionally when I decided to have a child, and it has still felt almost impossible at times. I think a secure academic career has some almost unique pros for parents (the flexible schedule is the biggest) but academia is also anti-parent, anti-child, and anti-women in many ways. These latter dynamics have pressed me to work fiendishly hard toward job security, which has felt very important to me; I've developed a bit of a bunker mentality about Philosophy in particular.
To survive doing feminist scholarship, I believe, one needs to be savvier, smarter, to work harder and be endlessly more productive, just to be able to keep at bay the indifference or hostility (those tend to be the choices) that many people in the discipline feel towards feminist work and toward political critique of Philosophy's own status and practices.
Who was it that said “it can be very hard to convince someone of something if their paycheck depends on believing the contrary”?
It’s true that there are a lot of material investments in maintaining a status quo in institutionalized Philosophy. But there are a lot of psychic investments, too. I try to keep myself pressing on with what’s intellectually revitalizing, otherwise ressentiment can eclipse all the good things about the job, and consume more time than I really have.
But you have been productive, despite the obstacles. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
I've always been interested in processes of inclusion and exclusion: what or who counts as belonging to which group and who doesn't. This question is always both metaphysical and political, and it's that overlap that continues to engage me. I'm also profoundly interested in what makes a certain kind of self, and how selves change over time--indeed, what makes it possible to change oneself, which always has that paradoxical quality that the thing doing the changing is also being changed. I don't see this question as separate from larger questions of social change, and so my work has also consistently moved between the registers of the social-structural and the subjective.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I'm involved with a very practical medical research project across three Canadian universities that has entailed interviewing queer women about their experiences of primary health care, as well as some health-care providers about how they engage their queer patients. It’s fascinating, methodologically speaking, trying to get philosophical mileage out of very mundane interview material.
How to find the politics and philosophy of everyday life, if you will.
I’ve always been interested in that gap between commonsense stories about everyday life and counter-cultural, philosophically developed accounts of how we are living. I don’t know how to analyse these interviews without doing a kind of violence to them, in a way. But the research model in the health sciences is to pound out short, descriptive articles to justify the granting and to prove results; that is perhaps equally violent. Philosophers risk being seen as picky, critical, and plodding in comparison. So I’m gnawing on that bone, trying to work out how to produce some writing.
This is an excellent description of this challenge to anyone trying to do philosophy that connects with everyday life. How to be critical and thoughtful but still respectful of the stories people tell.
Thanks. It’s a problem all feminist philosophers struggle with all the time, I think, and it’s provoked some of my ongoing writing on “experience” (whatever that might be!). I am very slowly chipping away at a book project that will systematically do this work of relating first-personal accounts of embodied self to larger political theoretical questions about autonomy, freedom, and justice. So far my essays address themes of pain, sleep, physical decline, and the compression of time. If it really is my “involuntary and unconscious memoir” then I’m in trouble!
Lying down in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart takes courage. Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.