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Carnal ethics

Ann Cahill interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Ann Cahill is a funky feminist po-mo philosophical fabadabadoo who steps up to the groove to think about intersubjectivity in all its guises.She defends big words, considers the astoundingly deep inability of US culture to understand the emotions of miscarriage, finds continental philosophy condusive, considers Foucault’s wrong about rape, settles more in Irigaray’s camp than Butlers’, (but doesn’t want to stereotype them), insists on the embodiment of humans, finds there’s still a lot to do about sexism in philosophy even though it’s getting better, has things to say about beautification and self defence and has thoughts about ways of overcoming objectification through a carnal ethics. All in all this makes her a feminosophical blast.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Ann Cahill: I was fortunate enough to discover philosophy in high school, which is fairly unusual in the US (I went to a small, private high school). I can still remember that shocking feeling of recognition, as if I had suddenly stumbled into a conversation where everyone was talking about the stuff I cared about in a language that I understood. It was only a semester-long course, but I left it knowing that I would major in philosophy in college. My undergraduate studies gave me the confidence that I had some capacity for it, but it wasn’t until spring of my senior year that I decided to pursue my doctorate. I think the prospect of graduating from college made me realise that I should always, always, always be in school! My primary motivation for pursuing graduate studies in philosophy was that I loved the discipline and wanted to learn more; I wasn’t thinking too much about career possibilities (probably a good thing, as the job market was dismal then and only got worse). But as my graduate studies continued, and I discovered how much I really enjoyed teaching as well as writing philosophy, I identified more and more as a philosopher and started to hope that I might be able to find a way to make my living doing this work. I’ve been crazily lucky in being able to do just that.

3:AM: You say: “Intersubjectivity says the relation is first and constitutes the being of the parties involved in it, and the parties involved constitute the relationship… As humans we can not come into existence without someone caring for us. Our very being as existence is being with another. … Existence is intersubjective.” Does all your work rely on a notion of intersubjectivity? Is this connected to notions of postmodernity in that it decentres identity: are you a postmodernist philosopher?

AC: Yes, intersubjectivity is a strong thread that runs through virtually all of my work. It’s absolutely connected to postmodern theories that challenge the modern notion of the self as autonomous, self-contained, and ideally free from the demands of the other. I do identify as a postmodernist philosopher, and tend to work from and with postmodern thinkers such as Foucault, Butler, Irigaray, etc. But I don’t think the concept of intersubjectivity is contrary to identity, unless you understand identity as necessarily innate and stable. Focusing on intersubjectivity has led me to understand identity more as location. Just as one can’t have a location without reference to other entities, one can’t have an identity exception in relation to other beings. Which is not to say that one’s identity is reducible to those relations, or that one could predict aspects of a person’s identity simply by extrapolating from those relations; such assumptions would deny the dynamism of intersubjectivity. Identity and relations are co-constituting: who I am (at this moment, at this place, keeping in mind that identity is always a process) affects the kind and quality of relations I engage in, just as those relations simultaneously affect my identity. I should emphasise that I’m thinking here of the location of a being who can move, not the location of a static or fixed object (if such a thing even exists).

3:AM: You say that intersubjectivity is a ‘big word’, and by that you don’t just mean they are large but that they are unfamiliar. You defend them don’t you?

AC: Ah, I do defend them. I love big words. I understand the critique of accessibility, that is, that big words can serve to alienate and intimidate readers, and I certainly believe that philosophy (especially feminist philosophy) has a responsibility to be accountable and relevant to the real lives of human and other-than-human beings. When using big words gets in the way of that responsibility, we need to be careful. But big words also have the capacity to break through the fog of dominant assumptions, to do the hard work of substantially reframing familiar problems or questions so that we can gain new and better leverage. They can be the cold water thrown on our intellectual face, and as long as the (with luck, temporary) confusion that they cause leads to better insights and deeper understanding, I think they’re well worth it.

3:AM: I think you argue that pregnancy is best thought of in terms of intersubjectivity and that it changes the identity of the woman, don’t you? By looking at miscarriage, you interrogate the nature of this identity shift and you argue that the three dominant responses to miscarriage are too blunt to properly grasp the subtle reality of the identity and therefore the nature of a miscarriage don’t you? Can you explain your position here?

AC: My work on miscarriage is still very young (i.e., not even close to being publishable yet), so I have a lot more thinking to do on it. And there’s a lot of thinking to be done on the topic in general, because there is almost no feminist theory on the phenomenon, despite the fact that it’s an incredibly common experience among women. Early drafts of a paper I’m writing do identify three culturally permitted emotional responses to an experience of miscarriage: 1) Emotional devastation equal and identical to the loss of a born child (frequently allowed in miscarriage support groups, not widely recognised beyond those parameters); 2) Temporary sadness, because, after all, you can always have another child; and 3) In the cases of an unplanned pregnancy, the relief that accompanies a dodged bullet. And really, I’m being generous here: contemporary US culture just has an astoundingly deep inability to understand the emotional, psychological, and physical ramifications that can accompany a miscarriage, so women who experience them, and their partners, are rarely met with any kind of emotional recognition of what they’re going through. Blank stares, stammering, and a quick change of topic are much more likely responses. But to the extent that the three emotional responses that I list above do exist, they are still far too limited to represent the lived experiences of miscarriage. One of the things that is missing in our understanding of miscarriage (including the very few approaches that have been developed by feminist philosophers such as Carolyn MacLeod and Kate Parsons, whose work I very much admire even as I critique it) is a sufficiently deep understanding of the intersubjectivity of the phenomenon of pregnancy. By “intersubjectivity,” I mean something somewhat more robust than the notion of “relationality” that is mentioned in MacLeod and Parson’s work. It’s not just that the pregnant woman and the fetus are engaged in a relation, but that that relation constitutes each of them in meaningful ways. In emphasising the intersubjectivity of pregnancy, I hope to trouble the idea that the pregnant woman can take up a stance that separates herself from the pregnancy, or that establishes the pregnancy as somehow separate from herself, so that it can be an object of her decision-making. To me, this model cannot explain sufficiently what’s going on in miscarriage (or, as it turns out, abortion; my work in this area is leading me to notice that although our culture makes a strict distinction between the experience of abortion and that of miscarriage, there are similarities between the two that deserve consideration). Part of the disorientation that can accompany a miscarriage, I argue, is due to the fact that the sheer existence of the fetus (or, perhaps more precisely, the knowledge of the existence of the fetus) brings to potentiality a variety of identities, subject-positions, roles, etc. that the pregnant woman does now or might in the future inhabit. The fetus, in other words, is an intersubjective other that necessarily shapes the pregnant woman’s identity. That the fetus shapes the identity of the pregnant person is necessary; how that identity-shaping occurs is specific to the pregnant person’s political, social, economic, etc., location. Moreover, I should emphasise here that there are lots of entities that have a similar effect, so I’m not imbuing the fetus with any kind of unique status here, nor am I endowing the fetus with the status of a person (all sorts of entities, persons and non-persons alike, can have profound effects on identity). When a miscarriage occurs, whether that pregnancy was welcome or dreaded, those potential identities, roles, and subject-positions that the knowledge of the fetus’ existence brought into being are suddenly absent. I compare it to the experience of a boxer who throws a punch that doesn’t land, that finds only air rather than the flesh of the other. The missing other forecloses certain possibilities, and leaves the person who has experienced the miscarriage to once again recalibrate her identity. This model of miscarriage, I hope, will help us understand the experience without raising the familiar, and from my perspective, not very helpful questions about whether what has been lost has the status of a person or not.

3:AM: Does the name ‘continental feminism’ deliberately invoke a contrast with an analytic feminism mirroring the analytic/continental philosophy divide? If so, is the contrast mainly critiquing liberalism? Can you say something about this? And what do you say to those who worry that the continental/analytic divide is rather too vague to capture anything genuine?

AC: There is no doubt that the analytic/continental divide that once dominated the landscape of contemporary Western philosophy no longer has the same force. In conferences, I see more and more young scholars who refuse to be pigeon-holed into one of two camps, and who feel free to draw insight from scholars on both sides of the divide. This, I think, is a good and healthy development. Moreover, it’s similarly obvious that the line between the two traditions is neither bright nor fixed. Neither of these insights, however, should serve to eradicate the distinction entirely. The continental and analytic traditions do embody different philosophical commitments, utilise different conceptual tools, and produce conversations different in tone, style, and substance. These differences persist when it comes to feminist philosophy, so, yes, continental feminism (particularly, I think, in its interest in psychoanalytic theory) is quite distinct from analytic feminism. But I think that feminist philosophers in general are become more interested in being able to speak both languages, so that they can generate insights informed by the offerings of both traditions. Although I myself find the continental tradition most conducive to the kinds of questions I want to explore, and so do most of my reading in that tradition, I would find it a bit claustrophobic to stay entirely within those parameters. Plus, I want to be able to converse with lots of feminist philosophers, so I’m committed to doing philosophy in a mode that keeps those avenues open.

3:AM: In ‘Foucault, Rape and the Construction of the feminine body’ you challenge his definition of rape as being merely an act of violence. You argue that rape is instrumental in the construction of the distinctly feminine body, don’t you? Your book on rape attempts to show what rape is, so how should we think about it?

AC: Rethinking Rape was an attempt to break a philosophical stalemate that had developed along the Brownmiller/MacKinnon divide, which can be oversimplified by defining rape either primarily as violence and therefore not sex (that’s the Susan Brownmiller position, which in some ways has permeated mainstream culture) or primarily as sex, that is, the logical extension of phallocentric and compulsory heterosexuality (the MacKinnon position). In my book, I tried to show that both of these approaches were beholden to mistaken ideas about both power and the body, and that by approaching the self as necessarily embodied and intersubjective, we could come to a richer understanding of the effects not only of rape but of the threat of rape. For one thing, starting from a model of embodied intersubjectivity allows us to remain alert to the ways in which differences among subjects produce different meanings of sexual violence (that is, there is not one universal set of meanings that is attached to sexual violence; rather, its meanings are contextualised by many factors, including political context, age, physical ability, and on and on). Also, such an approach (informed primarily by the thinking of continental feminists) encourages a healthy distrust of dichotomies such as violence/sex, in favor of an exploration of how the alleged difference between the two elements often is revealed as a dynamic of co-constitution. In terms of rape, that allows me to focus on how important sexuality is to the violence of rape, and how important violence is to its sexual meanings. Finally, yes, I argue that the threat of rape has an important role to play in the development of a distinctly feminine bodily comportment, which is one way in which I disagree with Foucault’s (fairly parenthetical, it must be admitted) dismissal of rape as merely another form of violence.

3:AM: Although in that last question you challenge Foucault, Foucault is very important for feminism isn’t he?

AC: Well, sure. There are many aspects of Foucault’s theory that feminist philosophers have found productive and insightful. It’s kind of amazing, really, that Foucault could write about the Panopticon without making the connection to gender inequality, given the traditionally disproportionate emphasis placed on women’s rather than men’s appearance. In the best tradition of feminist thought, feminist philosophers have interrogated Foucault’s work with an eye toward claiming that which is helpful, and then making good use of it, and naming that which is harmful, and rejecting it.

3:AM: How do you conceive of sexual difference? Do you go for Butler or Irigaray, a synthesis, or elsewhere? And isn’t there a problem that by emphasising difference sexism gets amplified?

AC: I tend to fall into the Irigaray camp when it comes to sexual difference, although I’m fully aware of the dangers that categorisation represents! What I like about Irigaray’s approach is its insistent rejection of neutrality or universality, the way that it clearly and emphatically names difference as a starting point, a condition of possibility of exchange rather than a problem to be resolved or transcended. And I even like the way she grounds her recognition of ontological difference in the body, by noticing that there is no singular, human body, and that the sexedness of the human body constitutes a challenge to the metaphysical tyranny of oneness, unity, and sameness. What I don’t like about Irigaray, of course, is how she easily forgets that the category of sex is not exhausted by the male/female, masculine/feminine, man/woman dichotomies, or how breezily she dismisses homosexuality as a rejection of the generative power of difference. Not only are such moves damaging and oppressive, in my mind, they are contrary to Irigaray’s own fundamental philosophical commitments. To claim heterosexuality as natural or preferable, for example, seems to me to necessarily entail a complementary view of the sexes (such that the limitations or particularities of each sex “match up” with each other), which is precisely what Irigaray is arguing against. Moreover, the ability to recognise a wide variety of gender/sex identities as truly different from each other, such that, for example, we need not make transfolk analogous to cisfolk in order to render them worthy of dignity and respect, seems a more promising path than the we’re-really-all-the-same approach. Of course, Butler is not arguing that we’re really all the same! But there is a way in which her approach tends to explain away difference rather than, as Irigaray does, embrace it as the foundation of ethical interaction. I should hasten to add that I do find Butler’s work incredibly insightful and thought-provoking, and that the Butler/Irigaray divide often serves to reduce both of the thinkers to stereotypes in unhelpful ways, a tendency that I fear my comments here may have exacerbated. To return to your final question: actually, I don’t think that emphasising difference necessarily or even consistently amplifies sexism, as long as you’re utilising a robust notion of difference, that is, one that rejects the possibility of a universal standard of measurement. If you’re talking about difference as “having less of” or “being better at,” you’re in a comparative mode, which necessitates an allegedly gender-neutral standard of measurement. A more robust notion of difference entails adopting a stance of wonder, curiosity, and humility, a stance that allows you to consider the possibility that the experience and perspective of the other isn’t comparable to yours at all, but is qualitatively different. Just imagine how current political discourse concerning women’s health and reproductive autonomy would be transformed if men were seen as limited, as not capable of adopting an authoritative stance on the realities of pregnancy and birth control, and women were seen as having knowledge and experience that necessarily exceeded the understandings that men had of such phenomena. I think such an approach would lead to less gender inequality, not more.

3:AM: Feminists talk about the ‘embodied subject.’ It’s a term of art – how do you play it out? Is your paper on getting your fighting weight and chocolate cookie recipes a way of understanding your position?

AC: My paper on getting to my fighting weight is not a bad place to start. When I speak of the embodied subject, I’m trying to get at an understanding that embodiment is central to human experience. It’s not, as so much of Western philosophy seems to assume, a layer that can be stripped away to get to what’s more real, or more important, or more authentic. Human beings don’t own their bodies, they live them, and bodies play crucial roles in (inter)subjective experiences. The remarkably persistent somatophobia that has marked Western philosophy means that there are lots and lots of philosophical conversations that need to be revisited with model of the embodied subject in mind. If we think of human beings as necessarily embodied, for example, what does justice look like? How do we understand disability? Does the question of the mind/body distinction even make sense any more? New kinds of conversations become possible, too: for example, traditional Western philosophy, it seems to me, has been relatively uninterested in philosophical questions concerning bodily transformations. And they’re not that interesting if the self is defined primarily by virtue of the presence of a disembodied soul, or the cognitive capacity of reason, or whatever. But if the body is central to the self, then bodily transformations become really interesting. Is there a difference between the effects of intentional and nonintentional bodily transformations? Given that bodies are in constant states of becoming, why are certain transformations seen as more profound than others? Why are some kinds of bodily transformations conceptually coherent (such as changing one’s weight or sex), while others appear to be strange or even impossible (such as changing one’s ethnicity or age)?

3:AM: Zizek is sometimes accused of being sexist. Is psychoanalysis a patriarchal attempt to control women’s sexuality?

AC: With your permission, I’ll refrain from speaking directly about whether or not Zizek is sexist, as I’m not sufficiently familiar with the details of his work to speak to it. And I’m tempted to sidestep the question about psychoanalysis as well, only because it’s so broad. Certainly there’s no doubt that both psychoanalytic theory and practice can be infused with troubling assumptions about gender and gender identity (just think about all that mother-blaming, and how much unnecessary suffering it created, or the frequent association of heterosexuality with emotional and psychological maturity). Yet it’s also the case that feminist philosophers such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Teresa de Lauretis, Kelly Oliver, Tina Chanter, and lots of others have engaged with psychoanalytic theory in ways both critical and productive. Although I haven’t engaged with psychoanalytic theory extensively in my own work, the work of thinkers such as Jessica Benjamin have been really helpful to me as I grapple with the notion of alterity. Feminist philosophers can’t possibly limit themselves to thinkers or subfields that aren’t marked in some way by sexism – we’d run out of interlocutors pretty quickly if we did that!

3:AM: So when we look at philosophy departments we find women having problems, more so than in any other academic subject. How do you explain this, are things getting better and what further needs to be happening?

AC: Philosophy is certainly late to the game in terms of grappling substantively with all forms of inequality, including sexism and racism. There are lots of possible explanations for this – the privileging of rationality paired with the assumption that white, straight men had more of it certainly did no good. A masculinist culture of combative argumentation, the arrogance that accompanies a discipline mired in the belief that it could transcend political, social, and historical particularities, a metaphysical tradition that overvalued individuality, autonomy, and all things disembodied – really, you can take your pick. The deck was stacked pretty seriously against women, and people of colour, and queer folk, and disabled folk (I think you should not be allowed to call yourself one of the disciplines of the humanities if you manage to exclude such wide swaths of, well, humanity). Are things getting better? To a certain degree, yes, particularly for those philosophers whose research interests align with their identifications: that is, as a feminist philosopher, I have access to far more conferences and journals than I would have a quarter century ago, so there now exist intellectual sites where I can explore with others my interests in gender and sexual equality. The same goes for philosophers interested in queer theory and, to a lesser degree, I think, in critical race theory. Surely there are far more philosophers who identify as women, and as queer, than there used to be (as a profession, we’re still not doing at all well, as far as I can tell, with racial and ethnic diversity). But too many philosophers who don’t fit the mold of the white, male, heterosexual, (temporarily) physical able person find themselves isolated in departments unwilling to address their own biases and prejudices, and that isolation, I think, can be exacerbated if their research interests don’t map neatly on to their identifications. The disabled philosopher who works primarily in, say, Aristotelian metaphysics is going to have, I would guess, a more difficult time finding accessible conferences than if s/he were working in disability theory. More to the point, the profession now understands, at least to a limited degree, the phenomena of women philosophers doing feminist theory, gay philosophers doing queer theory, black philosophers doing race theory, and so on. But we still don’t enjoy the kind of boundary-crossing that we’d need to transform the profession in a substantive and holistic way. So in answer to your question: insofar as the discipline of philosophy promises to address the most profound and fundamental questions regarding human beings and human existence, it must be committed to a radical inclusivity. The Gendered Conference Campaign, which aims to encourage the inclusion of women in all philosophy conferences, is a small but important step in the right direction. Assuming that a small minority of the beings recognised as human could produce wisdom about the whole is not only sexist, racist, ableist, ageist, heterosexist, transphobic, and the lot: it’s also profoundly unphilosophical.

3:AM: Theory strikes many as being very esoteric and exclusive. Isn’t there a problem with this, that it encourages a vaguardism and elitism that runs counter to feminst aims? In a way, isn’t it exactly the kind of approach to feminism sexists would encourage – really smart people constructing ever more inaccessible ideas that can’t but fail to have a large popular platform? And isn’t that another problem, that much of this stuff is apolitical in the sense that it is unconcerned about speaking to everyone and changing things?

AC: This, of course, is a familiar set of tensions. And there are times, I admit, when the concrete political realities seem so dismal that I’m tempted to throw down my books, jump right into the fray, and encourage as many people as possible to do the same. I certainly didn’t think that in 2012 I’d have to be witnessing a panel of male religious leaders arguing for their right, as employers, to deny birth control to women (even, in some cases, birth control pills that serve as medication for other health conditions). But here’s the thing: moving towards justice of all sorts demands deep understanding, conceptual reframing, and other forms of intellectual work just as much as grassroots organising, lobbying, protesting, and other forms of activism. Without a notion of gender fluidity, for example, it would be tough to agitate for the rights of transfolk; certainly the notion of the social construction of disability has had profound effects on the disability rights movement. Theory is always at work, after all – human political actors are always working with ideas about justice, beings, and the world, whether those ideas are getting explicit attention or not. Why wouldn’t we want some people working on those ideas, teasing out their assumptions and implications, and developing alternatives to the ones that are proving to be too limited or downright oppressive? It is true that the practical results of such work are sometimes unpredictable, and almost always take a fair amount of time to realise. One of my graduate school mentors said to me once that “we write for our granddaughters’ granddaughters.” And when the rights and the well-being of the living are under attack, as I think they are now, that delayed effect can seem to be a luxury that we can’t afford. But it’s not. Our granddaughters’ granddaughters need us too. And one of the things that they need us to do is to develop contrary theories, theories that may well be inaccessible now precisely because they run counter to so many ingrained beliefs. I’m with Judith Butler on this point: to write and think against the grain is to produce work that is hard to understand, and in some ways, that’s the point. But then the theorist has to hang in there, and think with others, and do the hard work of rendering those strange and troubling new ideas more coherent to more people. Not an easy task, but I’m not willing to give it up, even in these hard times.

3:AM: Women’s beautification is ubiquitous these days. Some women see it as empowering them but you doubt it can be anything but disempowering in a sexist context. Can you explain your thinking here? Isn’t it a rather pessimistic perspective and also one that makes women’s autonomy and identity rely on male attitudes and perspectives?

AC: My article on beautification distinguished between the process of feminine beautification and the how the product of that process is taken up and perceived in a patriarchal culture. I argued there, and I still believe, that there are aspects of common practices of feminine beautification have the potential to enhance women’s subjectivity and flourishing. I am particularly intrigued by the ways in which these processes provide women with an opportunity to care for each other’s bodies, to share expertise and insight, to honour and pay attention not only to their own embodiment, but to their intercorporeality, that is, to the ways in which their embodied selves intersect with and enhance each other. And although this phenomenon of shared or communal beautification is most clearly associated with women in contemporary US culture – think of high school girls getting ready for a prom, or, as I described in that article, sisters preparing for a black-tie wedding – similar experiences can occur with folks of all genders. The problem, as I see it, is that almost all of those aspects of that process that I find to be enhancing of one’s embodied intersubjectivity pretty much disappear once the beautified woman walks onto the public stage. Now her beauty is seen not as the admirable result of some communal aesthetic process, one that requires judgment and creativity and care, but rather as a kind of gendered duty that gains its primary meaning from how it positions her in the heterosexual marketplace. And because I view that marketplace as not centered on or committed to women’s best interests, I tend to reject the claim that success there constitutes a valuable form of power. Certainly, women who fulfill heteronormative standards of beauty can derive benefits from that particular kind of success, but the price they pay is awfully high (alienation from their own body, fear of the inevitable day when they will fail to meet that standard, constant self-surveillance), and in the end, I think it’s a pretty rotten deal.

3:AM: Why is it not okay to do the beauty thing but it is okay to do self-defence? I’d have thought that in a sexist society the same argument would apply to both but you don’t, do you?

AC: In my view, beautification and self-defense both constitute bodily practices that have potential for increasing human flourishing and for limiting it. They are also practices that have radically different social and political meanings. When it comes to the kinds of feminine beautification not only encouraged but sometimes downright required in contemporary US society, there’s little doubt in my mind that we have to keep the critiques of, say, Sandra Lee Bartky and Susan Bordo in mind. Teaching girls and women that their bodies are deficient as they stand, that they require constant ornamentation and maintenance to be rendered not only beautiful, but acceptable, is damaging and dangerous. And, in my view, that’s the dominant cultural message that girls and women get. But the dominance of that message doesn’t exhaust the meanings that beautification can hold, and as I argued above, I think that practices of beautification also provide opportunities for interactions that enhance women’s sense of bodily well-being. Self-defense has a similarly complex set of possible meanings. Depending on how and why it’s taught, self-defense can communicate a variety of meanings both feminist and antifeminist. Done poorly, it can send the message that women’s bodies bear the burden of preventing violence, particularly sexual violence, a message that normalises the threat of sexual violence and fails to address the actual perpetrators of such violence, who are overwhelmingly male. Burdening women with the responsibility of being constantly in a defensive posture, in a heightened state of self-protectiveness, is an elaborate form of blaming the victim. But feminist self-defense classes explicitly reject the normalising approach to sexual violence, and name it as a social and political phenomenon that is not necessary, not natural, and worthy of women’s anger and resistance. Moreover, such classes tackle head-on the kind of bodily training that is associated with femininity, training that encourages women to understand their bodies as incapable of fighting back, of yelling, of demanding the respect that is their due. I see feminist self-defense classes as a form of embodied ethics, a way for women to teach their muscles and their vocal chords and their knuckles that they are part and parcel of an embodied subject deserving of dignity and self-worth. In a culture where 20% of women who graduate college will experience some form of sexual violence, this seems to be to be an admirable goal, and one that undermines rather than reifies a rape culture.

3:AM: Your book Overcoming Objectification discusses many of the issues you’ve talked about here. But you call for a ‘carnal ethics.’ This is to be understood in the rejection of a Kantian notion of personhood. So perhaps as a summary of where your thoughts are, could you say what you are proposing? What does a carnal ethics look like?

AC: A carnal ethics approaches the body as central to both identity and existence, and that views embodied interactions not primarily as ethical problems but as experiences that are central to human flourishing. This is not to say that such interactions can’t give rise to ethical questions and difficulties, but that it’s a mistake to approach such interactions as problems that need to be solved or justified in some awkward way. That’s where a Kantian focus on autonomy ends up: if moral dignity is to be found in autonomy, in the ability to act independently from another, then sexuality becomes a real problem, one that Kant couldn’t, from my perspective, solve convincingly. But if we start from an entirely different set of assumptions, and take the human being as both always embodied and always in relation, then sexuality becomes one of the many modes of interactions that human beings undertake. And like many interactions among human subjects, it entails both vulnerability (because our embodied selves are open to being affected on a variety of levels by other embodied beings) and the possibility, maybe even the necessity, of transformation. Interactions, and sexual interactions, can take many, many forms, and can have many, many effects: but the one option that we do not have, as embodied beings, is the option of not engaging in interactions. Nor do we have the option of understanding the body as self-contained, autonomous, or independent. As embodied beings, we’re already always marked by the other. So the questions that emanate from a carnal ethics are not as concerned with maintaining independence; rather, they focus on how to distinguish practices interactions that enhance an embodied flourishing from those that don’t.

3:AM: And finally, for all the feminists here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) to take us further into your world?

AC: Right now, I’d recommend Rosalyn DiProse’s Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas (2001, SUNY); Gail Weiss’ Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality (1999, Routledge); Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006, Duke); Cressida Heyes’ Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies (2007, Oxford); and Gayle Salomon’s Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (2010, Columbia).


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013.