Interview with Cressida Heyes

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Cressida Heyes is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Alberta, Canada. She is the author of a number of books and articles—most notably for philosophy of love and sex, Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies (Oxford University Press, 2007), and “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media” (Signs 41:2, 2016). Copies of most of her articles and more information can be found at: www.cressidaheyes.com

Q: What project are you working on now?

CH: Right now I am trying to finish a long-overdue book tentatively called Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience in its Absence, which is an eclectic bunch of essays about things that happen to us that somehow, and for different reasons, elude the designation “experience.” Given all the ways we rely on experience as a political category, this matters. The title comes from my mishearing of the phrase “an aesthetics of existence,” which Foucault used to describe a way of living life as art, and the centrality to that endeavour of a certain critical ethos, including in one’s relation to oneself. I worked a bit with that idea in my last book, Self-Transformations, and it had all started to seem a bit exhausting! I wondered what it would mean to refuse—whether self-consciously or tacitly—the kind of working on oneself and anxious agency that an aesthetics of existence demands. So: “anaesthetics of existence”—theorizing those parts of everyday life that involve checking out, or being absent to oneself, or being unable to encounter one’s own experience in ways we might rely on for politics.

I’ve published one chapter from the book, in Signs (January 2016), as “Dead to the World: Rape, Unconsciousness, and Social Media.” I argue that there is a distinctive phenomenological harm attaching to being raped while unconscious—an offence that, I’m afraid, people often think of as less serious than other contexts of sexual violence (partly because unconscious victims aren’t fully aware of what’s happening, but also because the typical cases involve consensual consumption of alcohol in situations where the perpetrator is known to the victim). I gave a version of that paper at a panel organized by SPSL at the Pacific APA in Vancouver and got terrific feedback—for which thank you Helga and Patricia!

Q: Is your work related to events in the news? Do you see your ideas as having practical implications?

CH: My work has always been very closely connected to practical political life and I believe very strongly in public philosophy. “Dead to the World” is a great example of that; it discusses the media representation of publicized cases of sexual violence including Steubenville, Audrie Pott in California, Rehteah Parsons in Nova Scotia, including analysis of why they are well-publicized when there are many other cases involving racialized, poor women that don’t garner the same media attention. I also tried to think through a phenomenology of information-sharing through communications technology—why having pictures of your unconscious, naked body circulated via your “friends’” cell-phones is particularly damaging to your intersubjective existence. These are pressing questions that a lot of popular commentary tends to fumble because there isn’t really any rich political-philosophical language for talking about this stuff.

I was also a co-investigator on a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant that focused on the experiences of queer women patients with primary health-care providers. I think philosophers should get involved in this kind of empirical work more often: I learned a lot about doing interviews and parsing what people say about their experience, and was able to take some of the fairly abstract thinking I’d done in queer phenomenology and in epistemology (on knowing-how versus knowing-that) to make sense of the transcript material. It’s a difficult intellectual juggling act to hold both qualitative results and theoretical frameworks closely in the work, but I had great collaborators and we produced a couple of articles outside my usual comfort zone.

My next project is called “Sleep Is the New Sex” and I have decided to really commit from the beginning to popularizing it. I’m going to try and podcast some of the work and also write a genuinely accessible book. I think sometimes philosophers despise these efforts to talk to people who aren’t other philosophers. It’s part of the same thinking that says that philosophy of sex (or feminist philosophy, or philosophy of race…) is “not real Philosophy”—creating a cabal of insiders who can have very superior conversations, and who think everyone outside the cabal is a little bit dumb. There are enough of us working from the inside now that this might change, but the enthusiasm of philosophers for talking to each other in technical language (and to hell with anyone who doesn’t get it) manifests, I think, a real disdain for intellectual (and even human) pluralism. It’s also a defensive move that is going to damage Philosophy greatly in the long run. In my more cynical moments I think that Philosophy’s insularity and conservatism has given it currency: even if English departments have given themselves over to the lunatic fringe of Cultural Studies, the thinking runs, at least Philosophy still teaches a canon of DWM. But we see such a neoliberalization of the academy, and a steady dropping-off of humanities majors across the disciplines, that any subject that doesn’t engage students is going to get its funding cut in short order, for purely instrumental reasons. Teaching philosophy as if it’s an insiders’ club just isn’t going to keep it alive.

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important and/or difficult to do well, in your view?

CH: Philosophy of gender and sexuality (which is my wheelhouse) is perennially popular and interesting and relevant, so you’d think more departments would want a really funky course (or professor!) or two that connects to real-life issues and has a politics behind it. “Philosophy of sex and love” as a category itself has a little bit of history to overcome in that regard: it’s been a while since I saw anyone teaching “is homosexuality morally wrong?” or “can sex outside marriage be justified?” as questions in ethics, but when I first started working in queer theory in the 1990s that was big part of what philosophers were doing. These were questions divorced from their social contexts and treated through analytic argument—of course in ways that encouraged a reproving kind of dialogue and turned off a lot of students (especially the queer ones). Now there is much more exciting and interdisciplinary scholarship on gender and sexuality that is also philosophically rich: shout-outs here to Talia Bettcher, Ann Cahill, Gayle Salamon, Johanna Oksala, Ladelle McWhorter… I shouldn’t have started that list because I’ll miss someone!

Q: Do you have any advice for young scholars interested in this area?

CH: I recently returned from the Trans* Studies conference in Arizona (“An International Transdisciplinary Conference On Gender, Embodiment, and Sexuality”). It was a very exciting event, packed with graduate students and young scholars wanting to work in queer studies in one way or another. But I really noticed that there was a terrible dearth of senior people—especially professors tenured at research universities that offer things like PhD programs, postdocs, or even occasionally decent jobs. Most of the networking that was going on was lateral—young scholars talking to each other. Many of the presentations were very creative and politically important, but also often a bit untutored. I could really feel the lack of mentoring for the next generation of scholars working on the topics that are near to my heart. I’d encourage young scholars who want to do work on gender and sexuality in the discipline of philosophy to reach out to senior scholars like me. We are still rare as hen’s teeth, and so might not always be able to offer lots of time or input, but who doesn’t want to be asked for their advice?! I have especially enjoyed corresponding with and getting to know graduate students and postdocs who’ve read my work and want to engage it.

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