Hypatia – Jennifer McWeeny Interview (11/15/2013)

Miranda Pilipchuk: Tell us about yourself.

Jennifer McWeeny: Well I’m an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I live in Boston. And I did my graduate work first at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa studying comparative philosophy and then I received my Ph.D. from the University of Oregon.

MP: How do you define feminism?

JM: I think feminism is resistance against all forms of oppression—whether that’s sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, speciesism. And I really think the defining question of our time is: are we going to ignore or accommodate all the oppression that’s around us, or are we going to resist it? And I think feminists are people who say that we need to take a stand against that oppression. I know that there are some young women, whom I have in my classes, who resist the label “feminism” because, I think, of the way that the meaning of feminism gets misinterpreted as “man-hating” or something like that, and I would really encourage those students to go to the feminist texts themselves, and use their own minds to figure out what feminism is and what feminists believe, and not just take anyone’s words for it, but look at the feminist sources themselves.

MP: What initially drew you to feminist theory?

JM: Actually, I remember the moment really well when I first identified myself as a feminist. It was between high school and college—it was the summer between high school and college, and I was sitting out in my parents’ driveway reading Marilyn French’s novel, The Women’s Room. And when I first started reading the book I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist, but after I finished the last page, I’ve called myself a feminist ever since. And I think what it was in that book is that what Marilyn French does is she shows us all these little aspects of women’s lives, from simple things from being dismissed at school as sort of the only woman in her graduate program, to spending long hours taking care of children while her husband goes off and does creative work, to abuse and assault. And sort of when I saw all of those pieces together, I started to see harm to women as a structural issue, rather than just as an individual harm to this individual woman. And I think once I started to see the structure that oppresses women in society, and others, I—after that I couldn’t but help to call myself a feminist. And so I continue to be attracted to feminist theory because I think it gives us, gives me, a sense of hope for change, and also, I like the companionship of working with other people against oppression as well.

MP: Your work often has a pluralistic focus. Can you tell us a bit about pluralist philosophy?

JM: There are many names for this kind of theorizing that combines two or more distinct intellectual traditions. Some call it comparative philosophy, some call it pluralistic philosophy, cross-cultural philosophy, even inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary types of theorizing. And for me, what that kind of thinking does is, first of all I think it can bring more rigor to the philosophical enterprise because you’re not just limited with one range of sources or one methodology but you can move between all these different sources and different methodologies. And what I think that does is it brings out certain assumptions so you’re able to see the assumptions that come from your disciplinary training and decide whether you want to employ them or not. So, for example, feminists have long criticized the tradition in Western philosophy of mind-body dualism, and separating out the mind from the body and thinking of those as two distinct substances. But if you look to, for example, Asian philosophical traditions like Buddhism, they have—Buddhism has a long tradition of theorizing non-duality and explaining non-duality. And so if you limit yourself to just what you were trained in, in the academy of the United States for example, you’re really missing out on all these rich philosophical resources from other traditions. So whenever I theorize, I make a self-conscious effort to not just go to what I’m expected to go to by my disciplinary training, but who is actually talking about this issue, and bringing them together for what I think is a richer and more creative philosophical project.

MP: Can you explain to us the general idea behind your article “Topographies of Flesh”?

JM: So in this piece, I’m trying to answer the age old question of what brings oppressed people together to resist oppression? What are the similarities between oppressed people? More specifically, how would we define the group “women”? Right? How would we define that group? And in the history of feminist theory, I think there have been many unsatisfactory answers to that question. From the obvious essentialist answer, that says well, all women—something that says all women have a uterus, or all women have the capacity to bear children, and therefore that’s why we’re connected. Well first of all, those statements are always untrue; there are exceptions to those. Not all women have a uterus, not all women can bear children. And second of all, I’m not really sure that that those biological aspects are really what would drive a connection for political resistance. Other answers have said, okay it’s not what’s in our biological bodies, but it’s the fact that we’re all oppressed by the same system. And I find that answer unsatisfactory because it puts all the focus on the oppressor and the oppressive system. And where are the oppressed, resistant people in this system? Where are they in terms of having the possibility of forging their own connections with each other? There’s also a third unsatisfactory answer which I think is: well nothing really connects us, we just choose, in a very self-conscious way, to be connected with each other. But I think that that answer really misses the fact that we are in bodily relationships with each other. And we get a lot of our interrelational meaning from those bodily relationships. And so what I try to do in this paper is answer the question of why are the oppressed connected to each other, without falling into the essentialist answer or without denying the body altogether. So I want to say there’s something about our embodiment that makes us have the possibility for connection with each other. And if we deny that, because we want to avoid essentialism, we’re actually going to miss out on the very impetus for feminist action, which is bodily connection and difference. And so that’s what I try to do in this paper is describe a theory of connection between oppressed being that is not essentialist, does not center the oppressor in the narrative, and that also can make sense of privileges and oppression amongst the oppressed because we’re not all similarly situated in the same place. So that’s my project in this piece.

MP: The concept of topography plays an important role in your article. Can explain what topography is, and what motivated you to focus on this concept?

JM: So, when I was a—I took a break between my masters and my Ph.D. in philosophy and took a year off. And I went up to Alaska and was guiding in the wilderness there. And one of my favorite activities in the whole world is to do backpacking, where you put a tent and a stove and everything you need to survive on your back and then you just disappear for ten days out into the wilderness and engage with the world. And so, when I would do that, up in Alaska, there aren’t any trails, you just set off into the tundra and you have to navigate your way, using a compass perhaps, but what I really relied on were these topographic maps that show—. And, and what a topographic map does is it shows the three dimensions of a landscape in two dimensions. So it’s a flat map, but once you learn how to read it, it shows where all the mountains and valleys are on a landscape, so the closer that the lines are together, the steeper the grade. So once you get it by keying in the map to your bodily experience, you can really see the depth and complexity of a landscape in the topographic map. So, fast forward to the present when I’m trying to theorize the complexity of social relations and, I’m trying to respond to a call for depth and thickness that comes out of the phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, and also, Latina feminists like María Lugones, and ask us to really take into account how complex and thick and deep the social is. So I thought, what we really need as theorists is a type of map that can show us all the complexity and depth of the social just like a topographic map shows us all the complexity and depth of a physical landscape. And so that’s how I really got the imagery of what we need is something that will allow us to visual the complexity of the social. Now, I think that—I’m well aware that maps and cartography are related to colonialism and conquest and therefore it’s problematic to use this notion. But I also think that a topographic map undermines a lot of the things that are problematic about cartography. For example, María Lugones criticizes mapping from looking from above, and not really understanding a social landscape from within that landscape, and not being able to get all the nuances of that landscape. So I think when we take into account another dimension in our mapping of the social, we can frustrate some of the colonialist legacies of this notion of mapping and use a new creative project to give ourselves a tool to really think about the landscape of the social.

MP: Your article argues for a return to ontological projects. Can you describe the problem of ontology? What inspired you to rethink ontology?

JM: I think the most basic way that I think of ontology is in terms of categories and groups and classes of things. And probably the most basic distinction that we have—ontological distinction that we have, is the human-animal distinction. And we separate out humans from other animals and then often times relationships of power get mapped onto that categorization, and hierarchies get mapped onto that categorization. And so, I think the question of ontology is: does the categories that we have—or do the categories that we have, like human, animal, woman, man, homosexual, do they actually map onto reality itself? Do they actually represent reality? Nietzsche famously said that all concepts, and all words, are in some sense a lie because they render general and abstract what is actually radically particular. This is another—you see this is also in Buddhist philosophy, that the world, reality, is made up of these unique particulars, these moments, and these unique entities, and then we actually lie to ourselves or trick ourselves or put ourselves in an illusion by calling these a name and trying to render them permanent so that we can manipulate them. And so, I’m very influenced by that line of thinking—that when we look at ontology, we have to look at the particularity of people and see if the category actually matches that, and if it doesn’t then revise the category. And so, that’s really what I’m trying to do in this project—is say, okay, just because we’re all called women, does that mean that we necessarily connect with each other? Or just because we’re all called human, does that mean that we connect with each other more than a human connects with a nonhuman animal? And my answer to those is no, not necessarily. The category doesn’t make the connection. What makes the connection is bodily proximity, and the opportunity to be in relation with each other, and to affect each other. That’s what makes the opportunity for connection. So I think that feminism since the 70s, feminist theory in particular, has really sort of shied away from these ontological questions, because there are real risks to dealing with them. One is the risk of essentialism, that if you say anything is alike about two bodies then you risk being an essentialist, which I think we all see the—or many of us see the problems in that. The other is that if you start giving an account of, say, what a woman is from your perspective, you risk centering your own perspective or a privileged perspective and ignoring or not hearing all of the other diverse perspectives that are included in that grouping. And so you risk homogenizing the experience of being a woman. So I think because of these fears, feminism has sort of sidestepped these ontological questions, and I think that’s really to our detriment, because as I said before, the real impetus for connection with each other are our face-to-face, body-to-body relationships. And if we don’t theorize those, then I think we’re really missing out on the impetus for feminist activism.

MP: You draw on three different areas of philosophy to make your argument: phenomenology, ecofeminism, and postcolonial theory. What inspired you to bring these three together? 

JM: I first came up with the question of wanting to look at the ontology of the human-nonhuman animal connection, or how those two categories are related. And so, I just looked at what are the schools of thought that are where this question is at the forefront? Ecofeminism is an obvious candidate, where ecofeminism is trying to theorize, or is theorizing the connections between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature, and in so doing, also needs to theorize what kinds of beings are being oppressed, and what the relationships are between them. So ecofeminism was an obvious place to look. Also, post-colonial, or what I would call decolonial, theory, especially in the works of, say, María Lugones and her modern colonial gender system, is really trying to think through the category—the categories of human and animal. And she says that that category is the most important hierarchy in colonial modernity, the human-animal division and that’s how beings get divided and beings who get mapped onto the animal side of that hierarchy get devalued in several ways. So, again that was an obvious place to look. And then, I’m very drawn to phenomenology in general, because—especially, Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir—because they’re thinkers of ambiguity. And so they want to hold the tensions inherent and experienced together at the same time. So a person is both a subject for themselves who acts in a world, and a person is also an object for others who has things done to them. And rather than choose one side or the other, what I really like about these philosophers of ambiguity is that they hold that tension together in experience, and try to theorize how someone can be both subject and object, active and passive, mind and body, free and determined, at the same time. And so, again I thought when I’m trying to think through the relationships between humans and nonhuman animals, that this kind of complexity, especially complexity in terms of theorizing a body, as what Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty call “flesh”—so, not just a body that can have things done to it, but as a flesh that is animated, so both material and also spiritual, mental, intellectual at the same time. So, I saw that complexity present in phenomenology as a ready resource to engage with these other traditions of ecofeminism and decolonial theory. And I think that bringing those three together gives us a very different kind of insight than had we just looked at this question from a phenomenological approach or a decolonial approach or an ecofeminist approach. And, so, in a way, bringing those three traditions together is forming coalitions—not just an intellectual coalition, but a political coalition. It’s not just people on the margins who are theorizing these kinds of things, there’s actually several people on the margins theorizing that, and if we can bring them together, we can have both an intellectual and political coalition.

MP: One of the central themes in your article is the link between women and animals. Why is this link significant?

JM: One of the main points that, that I’m trying to convey in the article is that we are always in a position to harm other beings. We often deny that, we often pretend that’s not the case, but we—I think we always are in—given the complexity of our contemporary world and the way that economic systems work in our contemporary world—that we are always in a position to harm someone else, if not actively harming another person. I think nonhuman animals are an obvious example—that even vegans and people who abstain from using animal products cannot avoid using animal products completely in our world. And so, I think all of us have a relationship with nonhuman animals where we harm them. And so, here’s a ready example for us to think about what that means. And we get a lot of benefits from harming animals: through our food, through clothes we wear, through medical research, all of these kinds of things. And so, what does it mean to be in that position of privilege vis-à-vis the harm of another being? And so I think it’s a paradigm case for feminism that might be, that might allow us to see some of the intricacies of feminist issues better than when we’re talking about how one woman harms another. So it’s a different lens with which to look at this problem. I think there’s another, there’s another connection that I’ve seen, especially in terms of—I’ve worked in activism with survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse—and what I’ve seen in that activism is, I often see survivors of abuse who were abused as children have really deep connections with nonhuman animals. And I haven’t seen any empirical studies about that connection, but, speculating, my sense is I think that there’s something about being harmed when you don’t have the voice to express yourself, when you don’t have sort of intricately developed consciousness that can rationalize or make sense of the abuse. That would connect a child who was abused with an animal who was being harmed. And so I—that was in the back of my mind when I was writing this paper, with my work with survivors of abuse, and seeing how there can be this deep connection between these two very different—seemingly different—types of beings, a coalition even, made in the recognition of perhaps a shared type of bodily experience. And so, that’s another reason why I turned to look at this connection.

MP: You mention that you became a vegan after reading Beloved. What inspired you to make this change?

JM: So there’s also a—personal questions that I was wrestling with that I worked out over the course of this paper. And I wanted—I became a vegan at a young age after reading Beloved and specifically this scene, that I discuss in the article, where Sethe is pushed down behind the barn when she’s pregnant and she’s assaulted by the boys on the plantation, and they take her milk from her lactating breasts as she’s pregnant. And there was just something about that, the way that Morrison describes that scene that—I don’t think it was all of a sudden because I had been thinking, questioning my relationship to animals before that, but I do think there was something about that scene that shifted my perception radically, and shifted my perception of ontological categories. Before I witnessed that scene as a reader, I thought of animals—nonhuman animals—as very different from me: ontologically different from humans, worthy of different kind of treatment, not as worthy of the ethical treatment that I would provide other humans. Then I witnessed this scene in Morrison’s novel and my perception of nonhuman animals was completely changed. I saw them immediately on the same level as humans, in the same category. So when I had once saw two categories before I now saw one. So all the ethical consideration that I would need to give to other humans, with this shift in perception, I suddenly realized that I needed to afford that to nonhuman animals as well. I couldn’t anymore retain the idea that they were a separate category. And so I’m really grateful for the way that different theorists and writers can engage one another and show each other,—describe the particularity of experience in a way that allows someone to shift their perception like that. And that’s something that I aim for in my own work, is to really get into the particularity of an experience and see what that does for other people.

MP: Your article states that feminism can be a creative project. What kind of possibilities can a creative feminism lead to?

JM: I think that feminism must be a creative rather than a critical project. I think—I’ve seen a lot of feminist literature, including some of my own work, that criticizes mainstream power structures, mainstream ways of theorizing, mainstream ways of categorizing the world, or conventional understandings. And I think those criticisms are well-founded, but I think that what a critical feminism does is it still centers the ontology of the oppressor, or the ontology of the oppressive structure. And what we need to do as feminist is we really need to create, create and express, new ontological visions, or our own ontological visions—visions that come from the lives of the oppressed and the resistant. It’s one thing to criticize dualism, for example, it’s an entirely different thing to envision what non-dualism looks like or what a non—,ethics grounded in non-duality looks like. We don’t have to start from scratch; as I said there are all—other traditions that address things in different ways. But it is a creative project to be able to move among all that difference and produce a type of positive vision. So rather, I think that feminists move forward best when, rather than criticizing others, we sit down together, in a coalition, and create our own visions, and create visions that accord with reality, that are really describing the reality that the oppressed-resistant experience, and also visions that can move us forward, create imaginative visions that haven’t happened yet or seem impossible, visions that we need for activism. So that’s something that I’m striving for in my own feminist theorizing, is trying to really do the detail work of creating a vision, even though it’s risky, because other people might criticize it, and also, because, you know, it might not actually fit, or it might be wrong. But I think that risk is necessary for feminism to really take hold of our imaginations.

MP: What is the most important point you hope your readers will take away from your article?

JM: The most important point for me is that I want readers to realize that often times we approach questions of ethics and oppression and harm by assuming our own innocence and then being defensive if we’re implicated in oppression. And I think that’s the—exactly the wrong place to start when it comes to theorizing oppression and harm. I think we need to start with the recognition that in a globalized society, we are all harming other beings all of the time. And that much of the—much of what enables that harm is the fact that we deny it or mask it or try to pretend that we’re not harming other beings. Right?! This is why slaughterhouses are not in the middle of a city where people can see them; most people have never seen a slaughterhouse in their life. Right, so, I think that we engage in a lot of practices to diminish the harm that,—or diminish our recognition of the harm that we do to others. And I don’t think we should bring that practice into our theorizing. I think we can produce a much richer feminism and provide a much more solid ground for ethics if we start with the belief that we are harming others. So let’s figure out who we’re harming, what the extent of that harming—that harm is, and what the possibility for change is. How do we stop participating in these harmful cycles? What do we do when we gain privilege from another’s oppression or another’s harm? Those are the questions that I think feminism needs to address, that we should start with the, with the recognition that we are all connected to each other in lines of privilege and exploitation and oppression. And now, what do we do with that landscape? And so that’s part of what I’m trying to do in the paper is to really expose those types of landscapes that we are so invested in denying and pretending that they’re not there. And once we expose that, then I have a lot of hope that we can develop an ethics or a political theory that will be really fruitful and move us ahead towards a better world, and a more liberatory future.

MP: Do you have any advice for the next generation of feminist scholars?

JM: My advice is that in the 21st century I think it’s so easy to avoid or escape face-to-face relationships with one another. We can turn to technology, we can be so busy with our work, we can recede to the isolation or solitude of theorizing and abstraction. And I would really encourage the next generation of feminists to begin their theorizing in face-to-face, body-to-body encounters. That is where the—that is where the work of feminism takes place, that is where the vision of feminism takes place. I always say to myself when I’m writing, you can’t be a phenomenologist if you don’t have any experiences. Right?! You can’t theorizes experience if you never go out into the world and have experience. So, I think part of being a philosopher is to really get the most out of life in terms of experience. And even the difficult, uncertain, confusing parts of life, go out and seek those face-to-face encounters, then theorize about them, you know. But make that theory begin in the face-to-face encounter because I think that is really—that’s where ethical action lies, that’s where political actions lies, and that is where we can find connection with each other. We also have the possibility to harm each other in those face-to-face encounters but that’s why we have to go out and, and explore them and, and learn how to participate in them in ways that is truly going to support collective liberation of all of us.

Transcribed by Bailey LePage