In this interview Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting--were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…
Where did you grow up?
I grew up primarily in Toronto, although I spent many years of my childhood in Volcano, Hawai’i - a small village clinging to the side of Kilauea Crater. But my parents were deeply nomadic and restless, and we rarely stayed in one place for more than eight months or so at a stretch. They rented places month by month and we were always ready to move on. They frequently pulled me and my brother out of school, and we ended up living in Morocco, Spain, France, British Columbia, and countless other places for brief stints. For a while we lived out of the back of one of those 1970s VW vans.
My parents were mostly absent and distracted, and I was left to my own devices from a really early age, I think of myself as having been raised by the city of Toronto itself, for the most part. Cities have always functioned in my life as companions, as concrete communicative beings with whom I have complex and rich relationships. (I am now pursuing a graduate degree in Urban Geography, but we can get back to that later.) Toronto in the 1980s was amazing and special. The city was safe and well-organized, with an excellent public transportation system, and urban Canadians have long had a less risk-averse attitude towards children than their American and suburban counterparts. So kids and teens really had the run of the city. From the age of nine on, I moved freely and constantly through the various ethnic neighborhoods, through the gay village, through the hipster enclaves, through downtown and the University of Toronto campus, exploring and learning.
Toronto seems rad.
Not only was Toronto a radically international, cosmopolitan, diverse city where dozens of languages were spoken on the streets, but ‘everyone’ in central Toronto in the 1980s was queer. It was a time of massive, explosive flowering of gender identities and sexual orientations. Playing with gender and sex was just the norm. It never occurred to me to be straight - only the drab, unpopular kids in my high school were straight. I started identifying as bisexual when I was 11 and never experienced a moment of conflict about it or an instant of homophobia. Labels have gotten finer-grained over time, and my sense of self has sharpened and evolved, and now I identify as pansexual and genderqueer.
Was your family religious?
We were a proudly atheist family; when I was five I asked my father what it meant that we were Jewish and he explained that it meant we were Marxists and atheists. My grandfather, a concentration camp survivor, was fiercely dismissive of anyone’s willingness to believe in God after the Holocaust, and he associated any kind of religious tradition or identity with tribalism, us-them thinking, and danger. Despite our atheist commitments, I did have chaotic exposure to religion. My father, who was also a Holocaust survivor, was fascinated by Buddhism, and we lived for a while at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Hawai’i run by Nechung Rimpoche. He also stayed frequently at Zen centers and talked to us about what he learned there. Both my parents briefly got interested in some Sikh spin-off cult, and for a fleeting time we stayed at some facility where they woke us up at 3:00 AM each day. My mother discovered her own brand of appropriative fake-Hinduism with a dose of random goddess worship around the time I stopped living with them, and became a self-styled yoga guru with disciples.
Interesting. What did your dad do for a living?
My father was a philosopher of science, André Kukla. He was a child prodigy. He spoke countless languages and went to Cal Tech at 14 with his tuition paid by a Westinghouse Science Award (which he won the same year Kripke won it - they were the two winners whose submissions were conceptual rather than empirical). He transferred to UCLA because he didn’t want to be at an all-male school, and found himself in the midst of the post-war high logical positivist scene, taking classes from Carnap, Montague, Church, and the like, as well as the heyday of 60s California psychedelia, hanging out with Leary and Hoffman and protesting the Vietnam War. When my brother and I were little, he would explain philosophy arguments to us at bedtime in lieu of traditional stories; this was how we learned about both problems of induction, Descartes’ dream argument, Cantor’s diagonal proof, and so forth.
What does your brother do?
Elliot eventually became the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi. He is also works with geriatric and hospice patients, doing end-of-life counseling, and he publishes lectures on disability and gender issues.
Awesome! So, what were your teenage years like?
When I was fourteen, my parents left for Bali and Indonesia for a trip of indeterminate length. Tired of bouncing in and out of school, I decided to stay. This was the era before cell phones or email, and I had no way to contact them and they didn’t contact me. By the time they returned many months later I had already established myself on my own. I got my own apartment in Toronto, supporting myself by working as a barista at the sadly now-defunct Bloor Cinema and supplementing with various transient part-time jobs, and I’ve been self-supporting ever since. Elliot lasted a few more years but also moved out in their teens.
I mean, I think a lot of parents would freak out at the idea of leaving their kids to fend for themselves (not mine, but still). When they got back, were y’all in touch at all?
I ended up staying with my parents here and there for a few months at a time over the course of the following four years. But I stopped taking any financial support from them. They really didn’t notice much. My parents were unreconstructed hippies and were always on some sort of journey to find themselves, and usually stoned. My father was tossed around between countries and caregivers during the Holocaust and for years afterwards, and didn’t really have any parenting models or much parental identity, although he was really fun and inspiring to talk to. My mother was self-centered, abusive, and neglectful.
To be fair, I think I was also more or less unparentable. I couldn’t stand the idea of materially or emotionally depending on anyone, especially if there was risk involved. So I basically just let them wander off. I kept sporadic contact with them during most of the rest of my life, but now I have more or less lost touch with them.
I am a strong believer in chosen family. I have a strong sense of community and rootedness in relationships. I just don’t think of biological or legal bonds as any kind of measure of who I am supposed to keep in my inner circle. As it happens, I am very close with my brother, so he is both biological and chosen family to me. And I am very close with and committed to my biological son, and I hope that will be true for my whole life. Other than that, the people I consider family are not legally or biologically related to me.
I hear you. Did you like high school?
I didn’t go very often or for very long. I went to an odd, very small public alternative school, mostly run by a handful of draft dodgers. I skipped several grades and only tended to show up when I was interested in something in particular or had a test. I finished very young, but I liked high school fine!
Did you start think about what you wanted to do with your life?
At age fourteen, I was more or less done with high school, and briefly tried to make a career for myself in ballet, enrolling in the dance program at George Brown College. After a near-fatal round of anorexia that brought me down to 58 pounds and the realization that I was never going to be femme enough or dainty enough to survive as a dancer, I quit ballet cold turkey.
Jesus. How did things get that bad? Was recovery difficult?
I will say that the entire culture of dance strongly encourages, even valorizes disordered eating and obsessive thinking. I don’t have so much I want to say about “recovery.” It’s a life-long thing. I used to get really annoyed at people who assumed that people with eating disorders are always in a kind of battle rather than simply being “recovered,” but now I realize that that’s entirely true for most of us, including for those of us lucky enough to be at a physically healthy weight.
So, what was the plan?
At fifteen, I applied to University of Toronto, because it was the school I had grown up near; most Canadians did not go through a drawn-out process of choosing a University the way middle-class Americans tend to – we generally just go to our local school. I began that fall as a math major. In the fall of my second year, I took Philosophy of Math with James Brown, and that was my conversion moment, despite my resolution not to follow too closely in my father’s footsteps.
From then on I was certain I wanted to be an academic philosopher. University of Toronto has a huge and excellent philosophy department that has always taken special interest in its undergraduate program. Those of us who were interested in going on in philosophy were professionalized and mentored very early and effectively. By the time I was applying to grad school I had a co-authored publication in Analysis and a single-authored publication forthcoming in British Journal for the Philosophy of Science that I could include in my dossier. I attribute this at least as much to the kind of guidance I got from my undergraduate professors, and their enthusiastic and energetic belief in my abilities, as to any kind of native special talent.
You co-authored that Analysis piece with your dad. Fun?
Yes, it was fun. By then I hadn’t lived with my father for years, and our big way of connecting was through philosophy. This remained true until Parkinson’s Disease made him basically noncommunicative, about a decade ago I guess. It was definitely how we spent quality time together. I learned a lot of my sense of humor, my writing style, and my way of approaching philosophical problems from my dad.
Outside of your parents, did you receive any supervision or guidance from adults?
There were always adults in my life who were important to me and supported me in various ways. My Grade 13 chemistry teacher invited me to stay with her for a while when she found out I was between homes and couch surfing. I deeply admired one of my ballet teachers, and she gave me an enormous tuition break once she found out I was paying for my own classes. Once I got to University of Toronto, I formed close connections to several of my professors.
But - and again I think that I am partly to blame for this - I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.
So how the heck did you afford college?
University in Canada is relatively very cheap, and I had reduced tuition because my father taught at U of T, even though I was not living with him or financially associated with him at that point. So affording tuition was not a financial burden. The university also gave me a bunch of small scholarships as I went along. But I did work 30 to 35 hours a week all the way through to afford rent and living expenses. I could perhaps have worked fewer hours by finding a higher-paying job, but my minimum wage job at the now-defunct Bloor Cinema was easy and fun and comfortable, and I had an important circle of friends there, and I could do homework while the movie was showing.
The Bloor Cinema was an important theater in the early days of the now-legendary Toronto Film Festival, and as part of my job I often ended up meeting cool people from the film industry. I hung out with David Cronenberg one night, and I dropped coffee and a whole register drawer of change on myself when I (literally) ran into John Waters in the staff lounge we hung out in.
So I wasn’t eager to change jobs. But frankly I have never worked as hard at any other time of my life as I did when I was an undergraduate. I had a carrel in the library, and I would basically get there at eight or so, do academic work in it all day with breaks to go to class, then go to my job at seven, work until midnight, then go out with friends for an hour or two, and then start the cycle again the next day, seven days a week. I don’t think I could possibly manage to keep up anything like that schedule now.
Where did you apply to grad school?
I applied to Pittsburgh, Princeton, Berkeley, and UCLA. By the time I was in my third year, I had read enough and received enough advice to know that the University of Pittsburgh was my first choice for graduate school.
So, you had to move to the states. Any unique obstacles?
Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, when I was 19, I married my then-boyfriend, largely so as to make it easier for him to move to the States with me when I moved for grad school. He was a brilliant and kind young man, a philosophy student, a near master-level chess player, and an accomplished pianist who had gotten a full music scholarship to university after Grade 11. He also was struck with a massive auto-immune disorder that gave him completely debilitating environmental sensitivities right after we got married. A huge amount of my money, time, and emotional energy over the next seven years went into trying to get him a proper diagnosis and any kind of treatment or mitigation that worked, and trying to accommodate his needs and keep him alive. When he had a reaction, he’d lose chunks of hair on the spot, go temporarily blind, break out in flaming hives, lose his breath, and any other number of symptoms that were objectively terrifying, especially perhaps to people as young as we were. So, much of my path through graduate school was shaped by being a caretaker to very disabled, dramatically underinsured loved one.
It's really amazing you did that. Any other challenges?
Since childhood, I have dealt with extreme, sometimes debilitating anxiety, as well as a form of clinical depression that some doctors have called ‘aggravated depression;’ when I am depressed I don’t become lethargic or withdrawn, like most people do, but rather angry and volatile, and unmanageably frustrated. I also have a host of sensory processing problems that often make normal activities intolerable and overwhelming and enraging for me. I have extreme misophonia, for example: some sounds trigger an extreme fight-or-flight reaction in me. I have had to leave events I cared about because someone was chewing gum or something. When I was a kid, I had problems with violence and impulse control, triggered by sensory overloads and irritants of this sort.
So, how did things go when you arrived at Pitt?
When I arrived at Pitt, I was one of the few women in the program, several years younger than everyone else, and with less economic privilege than almost everyone else. Everyone was brilliant and cosmopolitan and worldly, and knew so much about everything. I came down with the most crushing case of impostor syndrome that you can imagine. I was just tortured by the idea that I did not have a right to be there. And this triggered one of the three most massive depression and anxiety cycles of my life. Just as I was descending into this cycle, my husband’s health problems were escalating at a dizzying rate, and I felt totally in over my head in terms of coping with his needs. And as all that was happening - and I can barely stand to type this - someone shot my kitten. I found him as he was dying, paralyzed and riddled with infection.
Fuck. I’m so sorry!
That pushed me over the edge, and I had to take a leave from the program and go back to Toronto for a term, where I did almost nothing but try to keep myself and my husband alive and to somehow bootstrap myself out of my mental health crisis. I made it back to graduate school the following year, but the impostor syndrome has never left me, nor have my various mental health challenges. How debilitating these challenges are varies from month to month.
So, when you settled in at Pitt, what was trending in the department?
Pitt in the 90s was a fantastically exciting place, intellectually speaking. Bob Brandom was writing Making it Explicit when I was there, John McDowell was writing Mind and World, and John Haugeland was writing Having Thought. It was incredibly exciting, and we grad students felt like we were in the midst of a deeply important philosophical moment, which we were. I quickly lost my interest in super-formal work and got interested in pragmatic approaches to mind and language, because that’s where so much of the local energy was.
Furthermore, especially under John Haugeland’s and Bob Brandom’s influence, we were taught to take it as obvious that the continental/analytic distinction was a historically specific and damaging methodological anachronism. It was really quite a surprise to me, post graduate school, to discover that many philosophers were still invested in that distinction and had all sorts of identity issues and resentments around which side they were on, and enjoyed boundary policing.
Pitt took the history of philosophy deeply seriously as a matter of fundamental pride. We all had to do six historical seminars to graduate. And just across the hall, literally, was the History and Philosophy of Science department, where philosophers cared about how real science actually worked and about interdisciplinary and historical approaches to problems, so that was another form of boundary-crossing or boundary-dissolution that I was exposed to. A few floors down, the Cultural Studies program was offering cutting-edge courses in cultural and social theory, and I took a bunch of those, which also rounded out my familiarity with the important figures in so-called continental philosophy. This was where I first read Althusser, who has been important to my work ever since. The graduate students at Pittsburgh were jaw-droppingly brilliant and came from all over the world, so they brought a global perspective to everything we talked about. I never got initiated into the seemingly prevalent idea that contemporary philosophy fundamentally belongs to Anglophones.
Was feminism a big thing at Pitt?
Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting were all leading the way in treating feminist philosophy as a dead serious, rigorous, respect-worthy part of philosophy, although they didn’t get much uptake from the men in the department for it. But having three amazingly brilliant women doing feminist philosophy in a top department in the early 90s was simply incredible. And Iris Young, who became my external reader and a crucial person on my committee, was in the School of Public and International Affairs. So feminist philosophy was an important intellectual force in the department, even if it wasn’t as well-integrated into the department culture as a whole as were history, pragmatism, philosophy of science, and the like.
How did your attitudes toward feminism evolve?
Honestly, my attitudes towards feminism before grad school were deeply immature. I thought of it as a kind of dreary and backwards-looking thing to worry about. Graduate school truly transformed me. On the one hand, there were all these amazing feminist scholars, as well as a bunch of brilliant grad students who were fired up about feminist theory, so it became intellectually exciting territory for me. On the other, I was taken aback by the deep gendering of the culture in the department, which I hadn’t really experienced (or at least noticed) before. The department was organized around an intense cult of genius, with Bob Brandom and John McDowell as its ‘superstars,’ even though the women in the department were incredibly successful, exciting philosophers. We were constantly told that if we prioritized anything other than philosophy - what city we lived in, partners, kids, etc. - then we were not real, serious philosophers. My concerns for my husband’s health and the pressures it put on where we could realistically live were treated as trivial, and as signs of weakness on my part. Our placement director, Richard Gale, was a well-known constant serial sexual harasser and everyone just thought it was funny. For instance, when I gave my mock job talk, he took me into his office afterwards for my debriefing, which was supposed to be for feedback and advice. He grabbed me by the scarf around my neck, playfully semi-choked me with it, and said “That was a real fuck-me talk. And this is a fuck-me scarf. You should wear it whenever you give talks.” And that was the end of the meeting. I was incredibly embarrassed and frustrated, but everyone I told about the encounter thought it was hilarious. So both intellectual exposure to theory and personal experiences on the ground quickly turned me into a serious feminist.
That’s really ridiculous. Terrible.
So, who was your dissertation advisor? What did you write on?
I wrote a dissertation under John Haugeland (with Iris Young as a very involved external reader) on the ontology and epistemology of social identity – roughly, what it means for identities to be socially constituted in part by the groups we belong to, especially in light of the complex intersectionality of those identities. I think all the breadth and boundary-crossing I was exposed to in grad school propelled me towards the idea that I should write about those dimensions of the actual, practical world that I care about most passionately, and I should use whatever tools I can find to do so, regardless of what discipline or subdiscipline they supposedly belong to. I just can’t do philosophy unless it is about something that I independently care about in the concrete world. The only way I can stay engaged is by getting fascinated by new experiences and events around me, and then writing about them. I'm certain that if I kept writing about the same thing or stuck to abstract philosophical debates, I’d be intolerably bored and depressed within a year or two, and quit.
Any other major philosophical influences?
Well, Jim Brown at Toronto, for sure, and Dan Dennett (who I started corresponding with as a fan-girl undergraduate), and my father - all three gave me a deep love of and commitment to clear and beautiful prose. Like them, I take writing as a craft, and accessible clarity as one of the guiding ideals of philosophical writing. Writing clearly and grippingly about concrete things that I care about has always mattered to me much more than identifying with some particular philosophical tradition, school, set of texts, or toolbox. As my career has gone on, this has served me well. It’s kept me interested in philosophy, and given me what I hope is a distinctive voice as a writer.
Why’d you contact Dennett? He’s a nice guy!
I don’t know why I had the chutzpa to write to Dennett, but I contacted him when I was an undergraduate because I loved his work. I sent him a paper of mine and asked if there were ways to work with him at Tufts, given that they had no PhD program. He sent me back comments and encouragement, and told me to go start my PhD first and then talk to him about coming to do a postdoc or a year during graduate school. I never ended up doing it, but I was incredibly moved that he bothered to respond to me so thoughtfully. Decades ago, he read a paper of mine on Rousseau and ‘Freedom,’ except that I had mistyped it ‘freeedom’ in three places. He sent me back a brilliant and gut-splittingly funny 6-page analysis entitled “Kukla on ‘freedom’ vs. ‘freeedom’” in which he came up with some systematic interpretation of my accidental distinction; that pretty much sums up Dennett for me. We have stayed in sporadic contact over the years, and he has continued to be kind and encouraging to me throughout my career; he remains one of my philosophical and personal idols. I actually just published a paper in the festschrift for him that Bryce Huebner edited for him - it came out from Oxford this year. Reading his response to my paper teared me up.
Amazing! When did you go on the job market?
I ended up going on the academic job market ridiculously early, in my third year, before I had even defended my prospectus. I just couldn’t afford to keep being a graduate student, because the financial realities of supporting a disabled husband in a country that had no guaranteed health insurance kept bearing down. I figured the chances of getting an academic job were very slim. If I got a job I could stay in philosophy, which would be great, but if I didn’t, I’d just go do something else. I never felt like I was entitled to a job in philosophy, or that I could count on one, and I have always been oddly uninterested in planning for the long-term future. I was hoping for a job, but I was really ok with the idea that I’d find something else interesting to do if not. Either way, I had to make more than $12,000 a year, which was what my fellowship paid. To my delight and surprise, I ended up getting a job at Middlebury College, so that was my first faculty position, and I ended up writing my whole dissertation from there. That job was a huge, life-course-determining gift from the universe.
Nice. What was Middlebury like?
Middlebury was a cozy, adorable, perfect place to start my career. The department and the college were warm and supportive, and the students were smart and kind, and Vermont is a gentle state. I actually ended up going to political dinners with Bernie Sanders, back when he was a congressman. Writing my dissertation while teaching full-time at a teaching-intensive school was challenging, but I had no grad students and very little service, and wonderful colleagues. My best friend at Middlebury lived across the street from my office, and she used to show up at my office door at midnight with a bottle of bourbon and two glasses, to give me a little social break before sending me back to work for another 2-3 hours. And so it got done. Lovely as Middlebury was, I could never have survived in the long run in a town that small. I am a metropolis person. I crave concrete and crowds and being surrounded by multiple languages and ways of living.
Next stop, big city?
No, from Middlebury I went to Eugene, Oregon, which is hardly a metropolis, but my husband needed an unpolluted environment and it was the best compromise between his needs and mine among the offers I had. After about a year in Oregon, I finally split from him. Without any question, this is the thing I feel most guilty about in my past. I still feel sick when I think about it - leaving someone who was that dependent; letting his needs and limitations corrode our relationship to the point where it was not sustainable. I wish I had been stronger. I continued to take care of his living arrangements, both financially and in terms of doing the legwork to make sure he had what he needed, for about twelve years after that. But emotionally I was just completely burned out. Leaving my marriage freed me up in terms of what jobs I could take. And I needed to get out of Oregon, which was a hostile cesspool of a department, riddled by sexual harassment scandals, fractured by ideological battles, bitterly resentful of anything they counted as ‘mainstream’ philosophy, and marked by mean-girl pissing contests over what counted as ‘proper’ feminism. It was awful.
It sounds like you did what you could, you know. Did you escape Eugene?
Soon enough I fell in love with and married someone else - another philosopher - and we ended up with jobs together at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was thrilled to be back in Canada, and in a much larger city, and thrilled to have solved the academic two-body problem. Ottawa is a lovely and fun city. We lived in the Byward Market district, which is mostly Francophone and very lively. The jobs at Carleton were not taxing - we were well-paid, by academic standards, and the teaching load was low, the terms were short, and the research expectations were quite manageable. It was an extremely comfortable job, and I loved being back in Canada. The only downside, and it was a serious one in the end, is that I had always suffered from seasonal affective disorder, and it became much worse around my thirtieth birthday. The short days of winter in Ottawa were super rough on me. A couple of years later, I got tenure early, and shortly after that I gave birth to my son, Eli.
Nice! When was this, roughly? What was going on in the world?
Eli was three months old on September 11, 2001, and no one saw him roll over for the first time, because he did so just as the second of the Twin Towers came down. Watching the second airplane crash into the tower and watching both towers come down, and seeing people jumping from the upper floors in real time were visual events that will haunt me forever. I am deeply place-oriented; I spend a great deal of my time thinking about and exploring urban materiality, and my emotional life is organized around place and urban form. I don’t mean to sound callous, as if buildings matter more than people, but I was directly emotionally engaged in that event by way of the power of watching the buildings fall - the architecture of the event enabled me to feel the momentousness.
I got tenure three years early. I became extremely bored with philosophy. My boredom was made more visible by the fact that it was relatively easy to meet all the expectations at work. For the first time in my life I had extra time on my hands. I had a young child, but oddly, I’ve never found parenthood very time consuming. Eli was an intense but happy baby, and always game for coming along for whatever the adults wanted to do; I was also not at all stressed out about leaving him with friends or sitters if I needed kid-free time, and his dad did half the child care. So having a baby didn’t really change my lifestyle or schedule very much, and it still left me with free time.
What did you do with your free time?
I took up various hobbies with a passion: I enrolled in Algonquin College, in a college program on wine, leading up to getting my International Sommelier Certification (which I eventually did in 2007). I threw a lot of time into activities with my two Shiba Inu dogs, Tobiko Nori and Toro Temaki: I trained Tobiko as a service dog and trained Toro in agility. But I was reaching the point where philosophy was just not sustaining me any more.
How’d you deal?
In 2002 I had a sabbatical and I decided that I had reached a fork in the road. I was seriously toying with the idea of quitting philosophy and becoming a wine importer, but that seemed unlikely to existentially sustain me in the long run either. I decided to use my sabbatical to figure out if I could rekindle my love of philosophy in a real way. I arranged to take the sabbatical at Georgetown University, because I had friends there doing work that I found really exciting and challenging. I also liked the department’s emphasis on practically engaged philosophy, because much of my boredom and depression around philosophy focused on how abstracted from the world it felt to me, how little it felt like any of it made a difference to anything. I decided that I would use the year to be in a more intellectually challenging and intense environment, talking to maximally interesting people. If that reinvigorated my love of the field, great, but if at the end of the year I was still bored with philosophy, I’d quit.
It was the most successful experiment ever. Mark Lance and I conceived of and began writing ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons that year. Also, talking to bioethicists and medical humanities people at Georgetown and at Johns Hopkins gave me the tools to turn my many reflections on just how weird and fascinating the culture of pregnancy and early motherhood is into my first book, Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies. Unexpectedly, I also loved and felt very at home in DC, which, based on my very limited and distorted knowledge of the city as a Canadian, I expected to hate.
I finished the year having fallen completely back in love with philosophy (and I actually ended up staying in the area for two more years, on leave from Carleton, doing a bioethics and health policy postdoc and retooling myself). But I also knew that I could never again work on abstract topics that didn’t directly engage real-world issues that I cared about. Tenure had given me the freedom to write on whatever I wanted, however unconventionally, and I planned to take it. I also came to the decision that I needed to be at a more demanding institution with colleagues who would push me if I was going to keep my philosophical energy alive. We eventually went back to Ottawa, but with the plan of leaving. I still had a two-body problem, so job options, especially as a senior person, were pretty limited.
A few years later my husband and I got joint senior offers from the University of South Florida. Although I was trepidatious about leaving Canada for the American South, and especially about raising a child there, it seemed like Florida would be an amazing cure for my seasonal affective disorder (it was!) and that the department was a better fit for me intellectually. So we moved there in 2007.
Could you tell me a bit more about the inspiration for Mass Hysteria? How does being a parent inform your philosophy?
I think almost all of my writing grows pretty directly out of life experiences that puzzle or interest or frustrate me. I found being pregnant so very weird. There was this sudden, massive, large-scale social interest in my body, and in this new person it was producing. I was suddenly bombarded with very specific, often pseudo-quantitative, rules for how I was supposed to eat, move, feel, look, listen, sleep, have sex - no domain of my life was immune from regulation and demands for self-discipline and self-surveillance. I was expected to count kicks, write down what I ate, show up for various screens and tests providing images and reports on the inside of my body, show up on a regular schedule at the doctor’s office, the birth “class”, the ultrasound clinic. Strangers were suddenly touching me, commenting on what I ate and drank, and so on … I was a perfectly healthy 30-year-old woman and abruptly I felt like my body was unrecognizable, like it was not mine but this kind of very dangerous and important public property. Moreover, it was clear to me that there was no science behind most of these rules, or the science was so distorted by ideology as to be unusable, so I started getting really interested in what we think of as risky and why, and how we communicate and impose risk judgments.
So on my maternity leave, and during my sabbatical after that, I wrote a book about it. At first it was supposed to be just a diary, then a novel, then it morphed into nonfiction, but I was not at first conceiving of it as a scholarly book. But I am so deeply trained as a philosopher and a scholar that I guess that’s just how I work through things in writing. It’s a quirky, very interdisciplinary book that bears the marks of having started as a personal diary. One thing that I am proud of is that many women, both academics and non-academics, have contacted me to tell me that Mass Hysteria helped them a great deal during their pregnancies; it helped them manage socially imposed fear, and their sense of being overwhelmed, invaded, and alienated from their bodies.
Awesome! Have you considered revisiting these issues? How does philosophy inform your parenting?
I am now the mother of a 17-year-old who is an undergraduate and almost an adult, and I have started to toy with writing a sequel. The policing of the bodies and activities of children and teenagers, as well as the demands we place on mothers, and our bizarre cultural belief that somehow mothers have this magical, nearly absolute power to produce “good” or “bad” people through our mothering choices, is interestingly continuous with but different from our regulation of pregnant women and mothers of infants. I’ve violated so many socially enforced “rules” of mothering, and I’ve given my kid so much more freedom than is “acceptable,” because I’ve never seen any convincing evidence for most of the prescriptions we are all supposed to follow. I’ve gotten interested lately in just how willing we are to impose restrictions on the agency and mobility of children and teens without any real evidence or any justification other than vague ideological sound bites. I’ve followed something like a “least restrictive environment” principle in parenting my kid, imposing rules and following parenting norms and traditions only if I could find evidence that convinced me there was a serious risk in doing otherwise, and always taking seriously the idea that neither I nor anyone else has the right to thwart my son’s agency and autonomy unless doing so is manifestly important for protecting his well-being and safety.
My kid has been going to the APA since he was in a stroller. His father is also a philosopher, as is his grandfather, and his uncle is a rabbi. I believe in fully including children in one’s community. So, Eli has grown up from the start surrounded by the constant stream of philosophy professors and graduate students, as well as queer, feminist, and anti-racist activists, artists, novelists and other such thoughtful and passionate folks who make up my community and my family. I don’t think he even understands how thoroughly he has been shaped by philosophy and by ideas. When he was four, he told me that he didn’t think that people should use “really” and “actually” to mean the same thing because dinosaurs are real but not actual, while dragons are neither real nor actual. It’s basically gone like that since then.
Ha! Florida is an odd place culturally. People talk a lot of trash about it. Does it deserve the reputation, you think? What do the haters not understand? What do they get right?
I loved living in Tampa, actually. Florida gets a bad rap because people either go to the racist, bland suburbs dominated by gated communities filled with retirees and golfers, or they go to the beach when it’s covered with drunk spring break kids. You can find just about every kind of person and politics in Florida, but inner-city Tampa is quirky and unique, as well as a pretty solid stronghold for reasonably progressive politics. It was originally dominated by the cigar industry and was a bastion of leftist labor politics, with several neighborhoods that were havens for multiracial families back when the South was extremely segregated. Because of its long-standing mix of Cubans, Caribbeans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Central Americans, Italians, Romanians, and Jews, it has its very own architecture, cuisine and musical traditions that have evolved over time as these have cultures have blended and fed one another. Materially speaking, the city is deeply alien and compelling; you step over gekkos to get to your front door and wake up to tropical birds marching across your lawn. Nothing ever stops growing. You can hear Haitian religious ceremonies coming out of small, brightly-colored houses in the residential neighborhoods, and sometimes in the middle of the city you need to brake for chickens or turtles. When you walk your dog near water, you need to watch for alligators. People throw cans at you when you ride a bike on the street, which is less than ideal. The boxing scene down there is vibrant and very fun. Lots of serious boxers come out of Florida, and Tampa is dotted with old-school gyms. Elderly Black folks dress to the nines in outrageous outfits to go to matches. I never felt at home in Florida; it was fundamentally uncanny. But I loved it, and I thrived in the sun and on the access to the ocean.
So how did you end up at Georgetown?
I moved to Georgetown when my second husband - Eli’s father - and I split up. Being in a smallish department with him (and his new girlfriend) was intensely uncomfortable, but at least as importantly, for the first time in my career I had the freedom to take a job that suited me, without being tightly controlled by spousal constraints. I had wanted to be at Georgetown specifically ever since spending my sabbatical there. No other department was as filled with fantastically vibrant, interesting philosophers, and no other department seemed to me to be as congenial and collaborative and supportive as the Georgetown department. And DC is an amazingly exciting, interesting, politically intense, lovable city. The place has lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I don’t know any other place like it. The fundamental intellectual ethos of the department is to support quirky and practically engaged philosophy, while remaining rigorous and in conversation with “mainstream” philosophy. We have every kind of philosopher here, of every methodological stripe and with every kind of interest, and everyone gets along, and collaborates, and learns from one another. Everyone is philosophically active but also has a rich life outside of philosophy, and everyone cultivates the ties between their research and their real life and daily passions rather than barricading them off from one another. The grad students are the most interesting and the intellectually bravest that I know. The school is humane and fundamentally supportive of the faculty, including our right to express ourselves and to embroil ourselves in controversies. I am just so honored and happy to be there. I am also delighted that I have gotten to raise my son in a city as exciting and progressive as DC, where he has so much mobility and independence. I still can’t get over how lucky I am that they had a job opening right after I had the need and the freedom to leave USF, and that they offered it to me. I will always miss the sun and the ocean and the sheer haunting weirdness of Florida though.
You're working on a MA in geography, is that correct? What is that all about?
Yes!! It’s incredibly fun! I am doing an MA in urban geography at CUNY, through Hunter College, advised by Marianna Pavlovskaya, who is one of the towering figures in feminist urban geography and in “critical GIS studies”, which is roughly the critical study of the digital production of representations of spatial information. I started working on a book on urban spaces, which will be coming out from Oxford University Press at the end of next year: City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another. It’s a totally interdisciplinary book, drawing on phenomenology and philosophy of place and the body, geography, ethnography, urban planning, and cultural studies, at a minimum. I really wanted it to be philosophically rich but also firmly planted in concrete urban reality and in empirical work on cities. I started reading a bunch of urban geography and urban theory on my own. It was really fun, but the more I read, the more I realized that no matter how ‘smart’ you are, trying to figure out the lay of the land in a discipline that is not your own without guidance is really disorienting. You can’t tell where what you are reading is situated in the larger literature, what debates it has in the background, etc. I also got more and more interested in the empirical side of things the more I read. So I decided it would be maximally fun and intellectually efficient, and good for the book, to just do the MA. Georgetown has been supportive; they pay part of my tuition and the department has been great about letting me schedule teaching around my classes and the like.
You sound busy! Stressful?
At the moment I am commuting back and forth between DC and New York, functioning as a full time professor as well as an almost-full-time student, along with being a single mom, running a journal, training in two sports, etc. It’s chaos, but I am really happy.
You’ve been traveling a lot lately!
I spent the whole summer doing fieldwork for my MA thesis. I am writing on “repurposed cities.” These are cities that were materially built for one very specific social and political order, and designed to allow and enforce the separation, flow, and surveillance of various groups, but which went through an abrupt regime change, and are now being used by different people in new ways. My question is, how does the leftover material form of the city shape these new forms of life, and, equally, how do people find ways to repurpose these spaces for new uses? Berlin and Johannesburg were the two starkest instances of such cities I could think of. They also make for a nice comparison, because they were legally divided up in exactly the same year - 1948 - and their divisive orders ended quite abruptly at almost exactly the same time - the early 90s. Both cities are now filled with different people living in different ways than the cities were built to accommodate. Also, if you’re around my age, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Apartheid are two of the most iconic events that formed our political consciousness. So, I have spent my summer exploring Berlin and Johannesburg, and how urban space gets repurposed each. My son came with me and received school credit for being my research assistant! He did all the communicating in German, Arabic, and Zulu, as he is gifted at languages, and he helped me with data collection and archival research, It was an amazing summer and I could not be more excited about this project!
How’s your mental health nowadays?
I now recognize retroactively that when I was a child and teenager, ballet was my self-medication; I used it to exhaust myself and thereby regulate my emotions. I’ve slowly learned that the one and only way that I can effectively manage my depression and regulate my emotions is by physically exhausting my body every day. And it takes a lot to exhaust me! So I am extremely physically active. I commute by bike, and I walk miles a day. I usually run every other day as well, and I try to include one long (10+ mile) run a week. I am just mediumly good at it. I am not built to be a runner, physically or temperamentally, but I plug away at it regardless. I compete in powerlifting and boxing. Over the summer I was lifting almost every day, because it was less convenient to box. Normally, I also box almost every day. Training for a physically demanding sport like boxing constitutes necessary mental health care for me.
Nice. How’d you get into boxing?
It was totally serendipitous. About five years ago, a good friend, Cassie Herbert, noticed that there was an atmospheric-looking old-school boxing gym in a desolate alley behind her street. (It was desolate at the time; it’s now been gentrified beyond all recognition and the gym has been forced out. Such are the economic politics of DC.) She asked me if I’d be up for trying it with her, probably because she knew that in general I am up for trying almost anything. We went on a whim, and I fell immediately in love with the sport, and I’ve been boxing ever since. I long since left that gym behind and I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to be coached by a variety of amazing boxers, including three women world champions. I’ve had four proper fights so far, and hope to have at least one more next year. I’m completely in love with the aesthetic and the culture of boxing, and the physical rigor of the sport is totally healing for me and keeps me in fantastic shape.
The aggression and physical intensity of boxing has been transformative, from a mental health point of view. Everyone who has known me long-term, without fail, thinks that I am a noticeably nicer, more regulated, more stable, happier person since I started boxing. Also, taking punches regularly demystifies violence, in a way that is really empowering. I do not walk through the world afraid of violence, not because I am silly enough to think I could fight off an attack successfully at my size (since attackers are rarely willing to follow the rules of boxing), but because even though being hurt in a fight sucks, I am aware it is not magically worse than other things.
I boxed a little bit. You are right about it demystifying violence. Still, I hated being punched in the head. Do you worry, like I did, about your brain, being a philosopher?
I try to take reasonable precautions against concussions and to be alert to them, but not really. I fight in the 106-pound weight class. There’s really only so hard someone that small is going to hit me; knockouts and tkos in my weight class are quite rare. I try to be super evidence-based in all my risk assessments. I don’t drive a car or play football, both of which are much more dangerous than boxing.
Right. What else do you do to unwind?
Until very recently, I spent a ton of time playing with my corgi, Quinn, but she passed away from an abrupt heart attack this summer, when she was only three years old. I am still grieving and can’t quite believe that this is no longer a thing I do to unwind. I’ve always had dogs, and hope to again as soon as I can manage it.
So sorry to hear that. I’d die. Anything else?
I also love going to hear live music, and I am a huge food enthusiast. I spend a ridiculous amount of time finding quirky places to eat and tracking down deliciousness. I have more epistemic confidence in my ability to find good food and to tell good from bad food than I have about any other dimension of my life, including philosophy.
If you could go back in time, and give yourself advice back when you were a teenager living in Toronto, what would it be? What would that person make of who you have become and what you have accomplished?
Perhaps because I began worrying about the daily mechanics of life so early, I’ve really never had much by way of a vision or a plan for the future. I have trouble planning for or imagining more than a couple of years in the future at most. I know this is unusual for someone in my socioeconomic demographic. I danced because I enjoyed it, and then I did philosophy because I enjoyed it. There was never a long-term plan. Becoming an academic seemed the most sensible and appealing option, given what I was doing, but I never especially assumed or expected that I would land a tenure-track job. I figured I’d give it a try and then try something else if that didn’t work. Also, I am extremely attached to place, so the only thing I was always certain of was that I was committed to living in a city I loved. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t ended up with a philosophy job - I might have tried my hand at fiction writing, or gotten a degree in architecture, or who knows. I have simply never felt like I was aiming at building a specific future or that I was entitled to any expectations about how the future would go. So, as to your question: I guess my past self would think my present self is pretty cool, but my past self would not have been especially surprised or unsurprised at who I’ve become because she had no idea what to expect. The one thing that totally surprises me is that I am reasonably financially secure and well-off at this point. I can travel when I want, and pay for things my son wants to do, and slowly save a bit, and generally not be stressed about money. That’s just bizarre to me. I never even imagined that as a possibility, and it still confuses and disorients me.
I value the fact that I am not afraid of being poor. I was poor for years and it’s stressful and unpleasant but it doesn’t scare me, and it’s not some magical precipice that I am afraid of falling over, because it’s familiar. That frees me a great deal, in ways that really matter. Similarly, I value that I am not especially afraid of violence or physical pain, as I mentioned above. In general, I am not risk-averse and I am not afraid of complexity, and this has made my life immeasurably better. My teenage self would definitely be relieved to know that I have not changed in this way.
You helped start a non-monogamy Facebook group. What would you say to somebody who suggests non-monogamous relationships become exploitative? That we don’t have the cultural tools to manage those relationships?
Exploitative compared to what? We have a very, very long history of fundamentally exploitative and even violent purporting-to-be-monogamous relationships, no? The tools we are given by the culture to navigate mono relationships are pretty deeply corrupt and crappy, in my view, and - maybe even more importantly - the norms for negotiating monogamous relationships are typically absorbed implicitly and uncritically and in a scattershot fashion, because they are just the water we swim in as a culture. In my experience, people who are trying to build ethical non-monogamous relationships are exceptionally thoughtful and explicit about all aspects of these relationships - consent, communication, respect, boundaries, etc. We have to be, because there aren’t default norms in place. And there are plenty of tools out there. People in intentional, cultivated non-monogamous relationships tend to go to seminars, workshops, camps and conferences with other like-minded folks, and so forth. So actually we are typically getting much more sex and relationship education than most people, who generally just fall into socially normative forms of relationships.
Touché! Great answer…
I can’t make big general statements, of course, and I am sure, given the dazzling spread of human variety, that there are plenty of exploitative non-monogamous relationships out there (including of course authoritarian polygynous relationships in the context of strict religions and the like, but that’s a completely separate thing from ethical non-monogamy). But I’ve been dramatically more exploited in my presumptively-monogamous relationships than in my non-monogamous relationships. The only exploitation I’ve experienced with respect to non-monogamy has been the sexualization, objectification, indirect threats, and insults I’ve received from anonymous trolls on philosophy blogs.
What's the difference, if any, between science and philosophy? If there is no difference, and one is a naturalist, why not just do science? What unique things do philosophers bring to the table?
In general, I try to resist all gatekeeping and border policing in philosophy, and I don’t believe in pithy or theoretically unified answers to questions about the difference between philosophy and other things. I think of philosophy as a loosely connected and loosely bounded grab bag of conceptual and argumentative tools, helpful technical concepts and distinctions, theoretical lenses, texts and textual traditions, and approaches to finding and thinking about problems. Together, this grab-bag makes us particularly good at questioning basic assumptions that may not be justified, drawing distinctions that are being conflated, and giving subtle readings of the discursively shaped world around us. Trained philosophers tend to share a bunch of these tools and skills with one another, but the boundaries are completely porous and hopefully expanding. I don’t see any sharp distinctions between philosophy and science, but scientists in general have better skills than we do at collecting and analyzing empirical data, and we generally have better skills than they do at making clean conceptual distinctions and questioning presuppositions. Good epistemic practices, in my view, are always fundamentally social and collaborative, and we need all these skills and all the people who have them to be in conversation with one another and building upon one another in order to figure out things worth figuring out. That’s about as systematic an answer as you’ll get out of me!
I really don’t have the attention span or the ability to sit still for long enough to watch TV. However, BoJack Horseman is the most brilliant show I have ever seen. It’s an endlessly deep, clever, and beautiful look at mental illness, the diversity of life, and the complexity of power relations. I think it’s the closest thing to a truly existentialist show that has ever been made. I’ve actually just proposed teaching an introduction to philosophy entirely through BoJack. When I put together the list of topics we would discuss – free will and responsibility, existentialism and purposelessness, the ethics of apology and forgiveness, the role of friendship in flourishing, the ethics of complicity, how to die well, sexual identity, disability and the conception of a ‘normal’ body, the nature of mental illness and its epistemological effects, and so much more – I was just blown away by how much the show packs in, and how deeply and powerfully it engages with these issues. We will see if Georgetown lets it fly.
Check out Rick and Morty! Music?
My music rotation right now is generally dominated by Janelle Monae, Kendrick Lamar, and Serpentswithfeet. When I was in Johannesburg, I was listening to a lot of local music, which really helps me understand where I am - lots of 80s Apartheid-era leftist punk and a bunch of contemporary and 90s Kwaito music. When I was in Berlin, I was mostly listening to the various punk bands that were passing through and playing in underground venues.
Love Kendrik! Have you heard of Die Antwoord?
Yes! I saw them live in DC a few years back, and it was a great show. I got entranced by them almost 10 years ago, although I think they’ve slid in recent years.
Fair assessment. What was election night 2016 like?
I was with my boyfriend and my son, at a show, and as we realized he was winning we had to leave. I threw up on the side of the road on the walk home, and dry heaved repeatedly through the night. So did my boyfriend. I smoked the only cigarette I’ve smoked in many years, for lack of any better ideas about what to do with myself.
Boyfriend? How did you guys meet?
In 2013, we both went to the same Superbowl party, even though we both actively hated football. I was there because I was in a dysfunctional, on-again off-again relationship with the host. Dan Steinberg and I were the only two people there who weren’t remotely interested in watching the game, but luckily, we had no trouble at all talking to one another all night. By fifteen minutes in, I had decided that Dan was way more fun and cuter and smarter than the host. However it took six weeks of Facebook flirting and increasingly ham-fisted hints from me before he finally realized I was trying to date him. He really made me work! But he’s the love of my life, and worth the work.
What does he do? Do you talk philosophy?
Do you think Trump is going to be reelected?
What’s amazing is that he is in all respects worse than my worst fears that night, and yes, I expect he will be reelected.
How should we respond to Trump, you think?
I will keep going to protests, trying to resist, giving money to leftist causes, and using whatever small public platform I have to speak truth to power, but I have little to no optimism about this country. I was walking around Berlin this summer, looking at all the very public signs saying “Fuck neoliberalism,” “All cops are bastards,” “No national flags of any kind welcome here,” and so forth, and realizing the extent to which the idea that the United States is a bastion of free speech is a joke. We freak out about football players kneeling. Even the most progressive public dialogue is so mild and so concessive, so terrified of the wrath of the right - we can’t even have serious critical public conversations here.
Queen of the world, first move?
I absolutely hate having any leadership responsibilities. I’ve designed so much of my life around not having to formally lead anything. So basically I’d abdicate as soon as possible. First I would dismantle monarchy, I guess, and then abdicate.