Before she ever studied them as an academic, Rebecca Kukla was fascinated by cities. Growing up in the middle of Toronto, she spent her days walking the city and noticing the way people and place interact. That fascination stayed with her, and motion, embodiment, and place has become a subtle through line in both her professional philosophy and personal interests.
In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Today I am here with Rebecca Kukla, who is a professor of philosophy and a senior research scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown. She has formal academic training not only in philosophy, but also in geography, health policy, wine, classical ballet, and she competes as a nationally sanctioned amateur in power lifting and boxing.
Her two main books are first, Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies, and second, ‘Yo!’ and ‘Lo!’: The Pragmatic Topography of the Space of Reasons, coauthored with Mark Lance. She has a forthcoming book, City Living: How Urban Spaces and Urban Dwellers Make One Another, coming out from Oxford University Press.
And overall, her main areas of research expertise are social epistemology, philosophy of language, applied philosophy of science, bioethics, and feminist and anti-oppressive thought. Rebecca, welcome.
REBECCA KUKLA: Thank you for having me.
COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?
KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.
I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.
I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.
COWEN: And do you think there’s a rhetorical disadvantage that even most women or educated women would be unlikely to see?
KUKLA: You mean that they would be unlikely to see about themselves, right?
COWEN: Right. Correct.
KUKLA: Not just about other women.
KUKLA: I actually think that everything I just said holds just as much or almost as much for women as for men. I think we’re all trained up really early, regardless of our own gender. We’re all trained up extremely early on hearing male voices as authoritative and seeing masculine self-presentations as authoritative. So we don’t see them as authoritative in women either, whether or not we’re women. It was actually a real eye-opener for me.
A lot of times, women will get advice to do things like not uptalk, where you end your comment with what sounds like a question. That’s uptalking, and women do it more than men do. And we’re told that it sounds weak and open ended. Or we’re told not to talk in a high voice because high voices are coded as nonauthoritative and unserious.
And I sort of accepted all that advice until somebody pointed out to me one day that the prior question is, Why do we hear high as less serious than low? Right? Before we even get to that point, why do high voices sound unserious to us? And why does uptalking sound unserious to us?
I think, at a very basic, basic level that even women don’t generally question, just everything that’s coded as feminine comes off as less authoritative. And I really want to make sure to add on here or bring back in the point that plenty of women are not particularly feminine.
So it’s not like we can just avoid this by not coming off as feminine because if we don’t come off as feminine, then there are a whole other set of penalties that we’re subject to, that we come off as violating norms, or as hard to understand, or as — I don’t want to use a bad word on the air — but as meriting various gendered insults that get thrown our way a lot if we don’t uphold those norms.
COWEN: Let’s say it’s public discourse, and a woman is speaking or writing and leads with the words, “Speaking as a woman . . .” You as a philosopher — when is this a valid way to introduce a point? And when is it not?
KUKLA: That’s a great question. It’s a fantastic question, and there are so many levels of complexity in how to answer it, I am trying to choose. Is it okay if I sort of wind back and go back 20 years, and then make my way back to the question?
COWEN: It’s your answer.
KUKLA: I think that 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of feminist philosophers were just starting what’s now known as standpoint epistemology, which is a version of epistemology that, in its sophisticated form, I’m very sympathetic with.
But in its early, relatively unsophisticated form, the idea was that women, just in virtue of belonging to the group women, had a particular perspective coming out of their set of experiences that was not substitutable by somebody who hadn’t had that set of experiences. So it was very important to include women’s voice qua women, so they could represent this perspective and this set of experiences.
I think that over the years, the idea that there is a thing — no matter how much you pare back — that there is a thing that is women’s common experiences or women’s common perspective has become increasingly debunked, including among feminists. Almost nobody would stand up for that anymore.
Everybody understands that every woman is different, and that women’s experiences are inflected by their race, class, body shape, ability level, age, region of the country — just innumerable details that are going to intersect with and shape their experience. So there isn’t such a thing as the women’s perspective. You might think that means that there’s never a point to saying, “Speaking as a woman, blah, blah, blah,” because you can never speak for women. So why speak as a woman?
But I do think that there are times where a conversation is going on in a way that universalizes a male positioning. And it helps to intrude into that conversation and say, “Look, there are other people in the room who don’t have the position that you are presuming.”
That doesn’t mean that we all have the same position as one another. But it does mean that there’s a usefulness to reminding people rhetorically sometimes that what might seem like a universal position is not in fact a universal position. “Speaking as a woman” might just mean speaking as not the kind of man who all of you are right now presuming is the neutral case, or not even noticing that you’re taking as the neutral case.
COWEN: Kate Manne’s recent book, Down Girl — if I understand it properly, one argument is that misogyny is best thought of as a kind of enforcement structure for sexist norms. There are “good women” who follow certain norms and then “bad women” who don’t follow those norms and violate them. And the misogyny is a kind of punishment on the so-called bad women to strengthen the norm. Do you agree with that perspective or not?
KUKLA: In broad outlines, yes.
COWEN: Is it the best way of understanding misogyny? What percentage of misogyny is it explaining, to be an economist for a moment?
KUKLA: [laughs] That’s fair. Okay. To be both a philosopher and an economist for a moment, I think that, as a philosopher, what I’m going to say is that terms like misogyny, as they’re used in lay language, don’t have single meanings. People’s actual uses of them on the ground are messy and conflictual and so on.
When we say, “Is this the proper understanding of misogyny?” we always have to understand that as a kind of a normative or prescriptive project as much as a descriptive project. What we’re saying is, “Is this the most useful, productive way of understanding misogyny?” Understanding that there’s going to be lots of other things that people mean by it that don’t fall under this heading, and lots of other things that we could’ve called misogyny that aren’t going to fit, and so on. But is this a productive strategy?
And if that’s how I’m understanding the question, then I think, yes, I think it’s a very productive understanding of misogyny that’s going to go a long way towards making clear a lot of social phenomena. What I like most about it . . . I disagree with Kate Manne in some of the details, but what I really appreciate most about her account is that misogyny becomes about social structures and social norms rather than about particular men having particular icky ideas or intentions in their head.
In general, I think trying to figure out what’s going on inside people’s heads, or what they’re feeling, or what they’re intending, is kind of morally uninteresting and epistemologically impossible. We never know what’s going on in people’s heads. In fact, the empirical evidence shows that we don’t know what’s going on in our own heads very well either. You can prove that people don’t understand their own intentions or the contents of their own minds very well.
So I think understanding misogyny as hateful attitudes towards women, or ill intentions towards women, is a nonstarter. What I love about Professor Manne’s version is, what she wants to say is misogyny is a system of social norms that are embedded in our practices and in our environments, in our institutions that serve to punish women who step out of their proper gender roles and keep women in various ways in the primary role of serving men’s needs. And that part at that level of generality I think is extremely helpful.
COWEN: What are the systematic cognitive biases in the American understanding of pregnancy?
KUKLA: Okay, topic change.
COWEN: In a way, but not quite.
KUKLA: That’s fine. I was waiting for more misogyny. This is a kind of misogyny, I guess, yeah. This is what my first book, Mass Hysteria, was about. I think that we have a centuries-old way of conceiving of the pregnant body and the task of pregnancy that has led to some really profound distortions in how we understand pregnancy, and particularly how we understand what pregnant women should do, what their responsibilities are, and how we give advice to pregnant women.
One part of it is arguably just true, and not the part that I really pick on, which is that pregnant women are responsible with their bodies for creating the next generation of people, right? In some sense, the pregnant body has a kind of a civic responsibility, which is really distinctive.
Out of that pregnant body is going to come a person who is going to belong to the next generation. And there’s been this long-standing idea that goes back several hundred years that the pregnant body creates the body politic, so we all have a collective investment in how that process goes. So far, so good.
At the same time, though, pregnant women’s bodies have been seen as profoundly untrustworthy because women and women’s bodies have been seen as profoundly untrustworthy, right? Women have been seen as easily swayed by hormones and emotions, as fragile, as easy to tempt into various kinds of bad behaviors, as not really understanding science very well, so as not knowing how to regulate their bodies, as being undisciplined, and so on.
So we’ve developed this kind of double idea that women’s bodies are super risky but also have this incredibly important task. As a result, we’ve developed all kinds of science and norms and advice based around this idea that women have to be hyperdisciplined and hypercontrolled at all times, particularly when they’re pregnant, or things will go terribly, terribly awry.
We’ve developed this kind of double idea that women’s bodies are super risky but also have this incredibly important task. As a result, we’ve developed all kinds of science and norms and advice based around this idea that women have to be hyperdisciplined and hypercontrolled at all times, particularly when they’re pregnant, or things will go terribly, terribly awry.
This is my favorite example of this: If you go back a couple hundred years, there was this supposedly scientific concept of the maternal imagination. And the idea was that, if pregnant women saw things or felt things or encountered things during their pregnancy that got them all riled up, it would directly mark the body of the fetus.
If they really craved strawberries, their fetus would have a strawberry birthmark. Or the most hilarious one is, if they found themselves accidentally lusting after a black man, their baby would turn out black. There was this idea that we had to completely control women’s environments and keep them in a nice, calm, low-stimulation environment throughout their pregnancy so that they didn’t destroy their fetus because they were so weak and prone to these things.
I think — even though very few people would claim that directly anymore — that mentality continues now. There’s this idea that pregnant women can’t get too emotional or the stress will destroy their fetus. Or they can’t eat too much or they’re going to turn their fetus into a future obese person. There’s a whole other conversation. They’re supposed to regulate how much sex they have, when they have sex, what they eat, what they breathe, what they wear.
There’s this wonderful quote in a famous pregnancy book that says, “With every single bite that you put in your mouth, you should be asking yourself: Does this bite help my baby? Or am I just doing it for my own selfish end?” There’s this idea that literally each time you put a piece of food in you, you’re supposed to be self-regulating.
This has led to advice that’s not only unfollowable for women, but to get more directly back to your question, I think it leads people to see pregnant women as constantly involved in this high-risk project that requires intensive risk management. And this has led to all kinds of unfollowable advice and bad science.
COWEN: And just guilt. Right?
KUKLA: And enormous guilt because it’s impossible, because if you were to follow all these prescriptions at once, you would have to just not leave your room. And then you would be accused of not getting enough exercise and harming your baby that way.
You literally can’t do all the things that you’re supposed to do at the same time, so it leads to advice that is overdisciplinary and is punitive, but is also scientifically not grounded in the facts. It’s based in this mythology that women have this pure perfect being in them, but they’re likely to wreck that being at every moment. And their job is to bring risk down to zero, despite their dangerous bodies.
COWEN: The women who don’t breastfeed — why don’t they? And how rational a decision is that?
KUKLA: Well, it depends where they are and who they are, to a large extent. There’s a huge worldwide emphasis on trying to get women to, as they put it, exclusively breastfeed, as in no bottles, nothing other than breast milk. Sometimes the advice is a year. Sometimes the advice is two years.
If you live in a developed country with decent medical care and a clean water supply, there’s not really any interesting evidence that breastfeeding benefits your baby, certainly not after the first few weeks, but maybe not even after the first few days. There is pretty good evidence that those first few days of colostrum have a good immune effect, even on babies who are in otherwise privileged situations.
I think that women who manage to get a few days of breast milk into their baby — if they live in a developed country — have done everything from the point of view of helping their baby that they need to do. And after that, it should just be a matter of whatever works for their lifestyle.
Of course, on the other hand, if you’re in a developing country with a poor water supply, and formula that you make based on the water is going to be dangerous, and formula is expensive, and so forth, then compromising your ability to breastfeed by bottle supplementation may, in fact, be a really bad choice because if you stop being able to breastfeed, you’re going to be stuck doing this much more expensive, riskier thing that you might not be in a financial or physical position to do safely.
So there are good reasons to encourage breastfeeding and to fight back against the marketing of formula in precarious, developing world countries, but really no reason here.
As to why women here don’t breastfeed — when they don’t, it heavily tracks race. It heavily tracks class. To me, the most obvious overwhelming reason why women in the United States often don’t breastfeed is that we have six weeks of unpaid leave and no further maternity leave, so it’s literally physically hard to do. We’re getting better but aren’t that great at giving women safe spaces to breastfeed.
It’s wonderful that there’s been a movement to let women breastfeed in public. But honestly, a lot of women don’t want to breastfeed in public because it’s stressful, and it’s awkward, and they don’t want to do that. Giving women more spaces to do it, giving them more privacy, giving them more time off work would, I think, be the main things that would increase breastfeeding rates.
The really important point about breastfeeding in this American context is, every woman has already gotten the message over and over and over again that breastfeeding is better for their baby. They know that already, so trying to guilt them into it or give them that message over and over again is pointless and guilt inducing. If they’re not breastfeeding, it’s because there are other barriers that are making it hard for them to do.
The fact of the matter is, they’re harming their baby virtually zero by not breastfeeding. And in fact, if they breastfed a little at the beginning, they’re arguably harming their baby zero. Our approach should be the twin approach of supporting breastfeeding better, and then leaving women alone when they choose not to do it for whatever reason or can’t do it for whatever reason.
On philosophy as a field
COWEN: Let’s try a few questions about philosophy as a field. What’s most boring about philosophy as a field?
KUKLA: [laughs] So many things are boring about philosophy as a field. What’s most boring about philosophy as a field? Philosophy is changing really, really fast. But sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s not changing as fast as I think it is because I’m in something of a philosophy sub-bubble. I mostly talk to people who I find interesting and who find me interesting. And we all find each other interesting. So sometimes I have to remind myself that there’s a whole world of philosophy out there that isn’t changing as fast as it feels like it is.
Talking about the discipline as a whole, and not necessarily the parts of it that are changing, I think the most obviously boring thing is that philosophers have, for ages, not only have they not felt any pressure to deal with the real, messy, empirical world as they find it, and to take empirical data and empirical science into account, and to worry about what’s actually happening in messy reality, but on the contrary, it’s been prized to not get your hands dirty in that way.
The kind of philosophy that manages to maximally abstract away from anything recognizable as a messy, real-world, empirical situation has been the kind of philosophy that has been most lauded and received the most privilege in the field.
If you can find a way to talk about fundamental ethical questions or fundamental metaphysical questions in a way that translates it all into formal propositions and little toy thought experiments and never, ever gets its hands dirty with any of the complexities of everyday life, then traditionally you’re the one who’s doing philosophy in its purest form, the most a priori, the most formal, the cleanest kind of philosophy.
People who do that kind of philosophy congratulate themselves regularly about how clear they are. In fact, I think, to anybody except one another, they’re not clear at all. They’ve created this internal, jargonistic, abstract language, which is utterly impenetrable to anybody other than the few people who are using it, with tortured sentence structures. Their self-congratulatory clarity is a kind of an ideological myth.
If you can find a way to talk about fundamental ethical questions or fundamental metaphysical questions in a way that translates it all into formal propositions and little toy thought experiments and never, ever gets its hands dirty with any of the complexities of everyday life, then traditionally you’re the one who’s doing philosophy in its purest form, the most a priori, the most formal, the cleanest kind of philosophy. People who do that kind of philosophy congratulate themselves regularly about how clear they are. In fact, I think, to anybody except one another, they’re not clear at all. They’ve created this internal, jargonistic, abstract language, which is utterly impenetrable to anybody other than the few people who are using it, with tortured sentence structures. Their self-congratulatory clarity is a kind of an ideological myth.
On the other hand, I think this is changing enormously. I think that all kinds of parts of philosophy are becoming more and more vibrant and attracting more and more people, where the whole point is to start with the world and what it is that we can say about the world, and how we can intervene on that world, and to let ourselves get our hands dirty, and to take the responsibility of reading science and reading social science, making sure that what we’re saying is responsive to empirical reality.
To me, philosophy’s getting a lot less boring, as long as I stick to my friends.
COWEN: Should there be more cursing in philosophy? If Yo! and Lo! are meaningful expressions, what about curse words?
KUKLA: [laughs] I’m a bad person to ask. I was once giving a seminar at Penn State. It was a two-hour seminar, and I was an hour and a half into giving it. Because I thought that I wanted to be this very responsible person, I turned to the people in the room, and I said, “I don’t know what the norms are here; would it okay if I said the F word?” Except I didn’t say “the F word.” I actually said the F word.
COWEN: That’s almost not even a curse word anymore. That’s the funny thing.
KUKLA: Exactly. The room cracked up, and I didn’t understand why they were laughing. Finally somebody said, “You’ve already dropped it 12 times. You just didn’t notice.” I’m a bad person to ask about profanity because I use profanity so constantly and fluently and automatically, I often don’t notice when I’m using it.
However, to take your question more seriously, yes. Let me try to give you a more serious philosophy answer. One of my main interests, and one of my longest-standing research programs, as you hinted, is in speech act theory — in thinking about language not in terms of what particular words mean, not in terms of their semantics, but instead, thinking about what philosophers call the pragmatics of language, namely, what do particular acts of speaking actually do? How are they interventions on the world?
Simple examples of speech act theory is that assertions and imperatives do different things. If I assert something to you, I’ve now tried to transmit a piece of information. But if I issue an imperative, I’ve now tried to transmit to you an obligation. I’m trying to make you do something, which is just a different act. Or if I warn you, that’s a different kind of act again. If I name you, that’s a completely different kind of act.
I think that cursing and profanity is a whole domain of speech acts that has all kinds of interesting and subtle social effects that just can’t be substituted for by non–curse words. You can take the curse words out, but then you have lessened the performative and pragmatic power of our language. Different curse words, used in different ways, have really different kinds of effects. Those effects can be anything. Any kind of speech act can be misused or used well.
So yes, profanity can be used to harm or to pointlessly offend or to lessen a conversation. But it can also be used strategically to carry out all kinds of social functions and shifts in social space that we just can’t substitute with other words, even if those words have the same meaning. Because even if they have the same meaning, their pragmatic force isn’t the same.
Profanity can be used to harm or to pointlessly offend or to lessen a conversation. But it can also be used strategically to carry out all kinds of social functions and shifts in social space that we just can’t substitute with other words, even if those words have the same meaning.
To me, cursing is a rich toolbox. I try, with dubious success, not to overuse it. But it’s a toolbox that I’m not willing to give up. I think that more and more philosophers would probably agree with that. There’s more and more work on profanity, taking it as a serious philosophical topic, which I’m excited to see.
COWEN: Anecdotally, it’s often suggested that there’s more sexual harassment in philosophy than many other areas of academia. Do you agree? If so, what’s the sociological reason why this is the case?
KUKLA: I honestly would be really careful before saying whether I agree or not because I’m only in philosophy, and I don’t know how people are making those comparisons.
COWEN: I’m not in philosophy, and anecdotally, it seems true to me that there’s much more in philosophy than economics.
KUKLA: Anecdotally, we’ve certainly had more than our share of stories and scandals, right? It’s very hard to know if that’s because we have more sexual harassment, or if that’s because we’re more interested right now in reporting it, if our little MeToo movement started earlier than another field.
COWEN: There may be lower monetary rewards for good behavior.
COWEN: If you’re an economist and you stay out of scandal, you can perhaps earn more money than a philosopher could.
KUKLA: That’s actually a great point. The incentive structure has been very messed up about all of this. I don’t know if it’s that we have more of it, or it’s that the culture around reporting it and gossiping about it is more. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, right? Because we have a lot of it, which is really your point. So the comparative doesn’t matter. Why do we have a lot of it?
Philosophy is a dramatically less gender-balanced field than any of the other social sciences or humanities, and then most of the STEM fields. The numbers in philosophy are pretty dire. But what’s most interesting about them is that, as feminist philosophy has been on the rise, and as consciousness about gender issues in the academy has been on the rise, our numbers haven’t changed all that much, if you go back and look, like, 30 years, or 50 years even.
The percentage of women who make full professor, for instance, is not that different than it’s ever been. There are more female graduate students now, but how that translates into changing the discipline is unclear. I think part of it is just the very boring fact that it’s a male-dominated field, and male-dominated fields are likely to have more sexual harassment, it seems to me, because there’s more of that male culture that’s unchecked.
I want to say publicly that not all departments are like this, and my department at Georgetown is very much not like this. I don’t want this to be heard as about my department. But I do think, in many departments in philosophy, there’s a kind of a guru culture that goes on, where there are people at the top of the field, the big stars of the department, who are usually male, statistically — for the reasons I said — who have more power than they even understand that they have. Everybody feels a very deep need to please them and do what they say and so on. So the whole power setup is just ripe for exploitation.
There was just a case that I’m sure you heard about, that was not in philosophy — despite the fact that it keeps being reported as if it was in philosophy — where it was a woman who had that star status, Avital Ronell. She was the one who was grotesquely harassing her students and using her status as the kind of guru star of the department to do it. I don’t even think that it’s just men who exploit that position. But I do think that in philosophy, it’s mostly men who are in a position to do that, to start with.
Ultimately, I don’t have a really deep explanation for why we have so many scandals, but it is depressing. I’ve found out, again and again, that even departments that I thought were functional, when you really start talking to people — and especially when you really start talking to graduate students who are not men — you find out more and more depressing stories about just how willing people are to exploit their positions in the department.
In departments that have graduate students, it’s just a weird relationship already, right? It’s an adult supervising another adult. The second adult tends to be younger, but they’re an adult. The graduate students who are around for years — they’re in these intense working relationships with the professors.
It’s easy, if you’re a professor, to feel like that relationship is a socially equal one because you’re just hanging out with another adult who’s interested in your field, whereas the graduate student is hyperaware of the fact that you can make or break their lives and that it’s not an equal relationship. A lot of those power differentials get hidden from the person wielding the power.
I just think it’s an extremely easy position to exploit. We’ve got thousands of years of this idea of the wise old professor being this erotic figure that gets pulled into all of these dynamics. But it’s been a really toxic, difficult time over the last, I don’t know, 10 years in philosophy. I hope it’s getting better from all of this.
In departments that have graduate students, it’s just a weird relationship already, right? It’s an adult supervising another adult. The second adult tends to be younger, but they’re an adult. The graduate students who are around for years — they’re in these intense working relationships with the professors. It’s easy, if you’re a professor, to feel like that relationship is a socially equal one because you’re just hanging out with another adult who’s interested in your field, whereas the graduate student is hyperaware of the fact that you can make or break their lives and that it’s not an equal relationship. A lot of those power differentials get hidden from the person wielding the power.
On various thinkers and philosophers
COWEN: Let’s try an exercise. I’m going to call out the names of various philosophers or thinkers. Just give us your brief take on what’s interesting in them, or if you want, you can attack them. How’s that?
KUKLA: Okay. If I haven’t heard of them, should I admit that? [laughs]
COWEN: It’s up to you. Let’s start with Hegel. Have you heard of him?
KUKLA: Yes, I’ve heard of Hegel. Wait, let’s just go over the rules again.
COWEN: What’s interesting in Hegel?
KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?
I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.
That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.
COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?
KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.
COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?
KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?
KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.
Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.
The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.
I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.
That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.
COWEN: The reemergence of the Stoics into public discourse — most of all in Silicon Valley, but not only.
KUKLA: I don’t know that I have an opinion on that one. That one’s one that I know is out there, but that hasn’t penetrated actual professional philosophy much, I’ve got to say.
COWEN: Heidegger. I’ve looked at every page of Heidegger’s Being and Time. I’m not sure I can say I’ve read the book. What’s in there?
KUKLA: What’s in there? [laughs] Okay. I have an incredibly emotional and vexed relationship to Heidegger. I used to publish on Heidegger, and I don’t anymore. That was a conscious choice that I made. This is not yet a direct answer to your question, but I will answer your question.
We always knew Heidegger was a Nazi. Philosophers, for many years, had this line, which was that, “Oh, yeah, politically he was a Nazi because everybody was. But it has nothing to do with his philosophy.” I think that was just willful obtuseness on the part of people who wanted to read him and take him seriously.
I think that more and more has come out, showing just how deeply held his Nazi convictions were, and that it was not just him going along with the crowd. It was stuff that he deeply believed. In a lot of books that don’t get read as much, he explains in detail the ways in which Nazism shaped his ideas.
I think now that we have entered an era in which there are real, live Nazis crawling out of the woodwork and having a serious voice in public discourse, my intellectual labor is finite, and I’ve just decided I’m not willing to spend any more of it on a Nazi. That said, back in the day, I took Heidegger really seriously, and I found him a really important thinker.
I’m trying to think of what the acute little nugget of take-home summary of Being and Time might be.
COWEN: It’s like the Monty Python skits summarized Proust.
KUKLA: Right. Okay, any of my Heidegger friends who hear this are going to think this is a ridiculously oversimplified caricature. But I’m going to do it anyway. I think that the core idea of Being and Time is that to understand what something is, ontologically, is not a question that can be answered unless we understand the context in which we’re asking the question.
If what you’re trying to do is physics, then you’re going to break the world into the kind of objects that are useful for doing physics, independent objects that have the properties that physics needs them to have.
If what you’re trying to do is — to use a very Heideggerian example — build a chair, then you’re not going to break the world into the objects of physics. You’re going to break the world into the tools that would be useful for you to build a chair. You’re going to think of the world in terms of things like hammers and saws and nails. You’re not going to care that much what the physical structure of the hammer is. What you’re going to care about is that the hammer is a good thing to use for making a chair at this moment, for banging in a nail.
Thinking of things in terms of their tool-like functions versus thinking of them as physical objects. It’s not like one is more right, or one is more wrong. It’s also not some sort of spooky subjectivism. It’s just recognizing that our useful ontological categories are indexed to what we’re in the midst of trying to do.
Furthermore, thinking of other people is yet another category. So it’s not most useful to think of other people as physical objects or as tools. It’s most useful to think of other people as entities who are engaged in certain kinds of projects and self-reflections and so on. That’s a whole separate ontology, where it’s not really an interesting question to think about how that does or doesn’t reduce to a physicalist ontology or some other kind of ontology.
Was that at all comprehensible?
KUKLA: Oh, I have nothing but positive things to say about Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker. The question is, why is it important?
COWEN: Why is it important?
KUKLA: I feel like almost nobody but me understands how important it is. [laughs] Rousseau is probably my favorite writer from the entire history of philosophy. One of the things I most love about Rousseau and that has been really influential on me is that, for him, the style of writing and the mode of writing is not separable from the content of what he wants to convey.
He wrote dialogues. He wrote traditional philosophy works. He wrote books composed entirely of letters — epistolary novels. He wrote operas. He wrote autobiographies. He wrote in pretty much every genre. Each of those genres is designed to make certain kinds of philosophical points possible. They’re not separate from the content of what he has to say.
Reveries of a Solitary Walker — there’s more to say about it than I’m going to be able to say here. But the most notable thing about it is that it’s a special kind of autobiographical book that I don’t think anybody had written before, where he’s autobiographising, as it were, as he moves through space, as he walks. He’s reflecting on how his own relationship to what’s around him, and his own movement through space, shapes who he understands himself as being, what he can see, what he can’t see.
I think that this idea — that place and location and movement have a constitutive impact on what we can think, what we can see, how we can philosophize — is an incredibly deep and moving insight.
Just to see why this is important, compare it to somebody like Descartes, who starts his meditations famously by saying, “I want to do good philosophy, so what I’m going to do is, I’m going to lock myself in the room, and I’m going to close the windows, and I’m not going to move. I’m going to make sure I can’t see anybody else who’s going to distract me, and that I can’t hear anything. Because I just want a completely blank, solitary environment so I can think clearly.”
That’s a very specific kind of location. There’s all kinds of fascinating assumptions built into the idea that you do your best thinking when you’re sitting still in a blank room, not talking to anybody else. I think, for hundreds of years, most philosophers never even thought to question the basic shape of Descartes’ idea there — that, basically, philosophy was a thing you did when you weren’t distracted by the world or other people, and everything was staying the same so that you could just have your abstract thoughts.
There’s all kinds of fascinating assumptions built into the idea that you do your best thinking when you’re sitting still in a blank room, not talking to anybody else. Most philosophers never even thought to question the basic shape of Descartes’ idea there — that, basically, philosophy was a thing you did when you weren’t distracted by the world or other people, and everything was staying the same so that you could just have your abstract thoughts.
Rousseau comes along and very intentionally and explicitly inverts Descartes and says, “I can only do philosophy when I’m moving through the world and noticing things, like my feet hurt when I go up this hill. And that guy over there won’t talk to me because he thinks I’m weird. What’s that about?” [laughs]
This kind of responsiveness to the world around him, and to the other people around him, and to his motion as he travels, is integral to the philosophy he can do. It’s a much deeper inversion of the Cartesian solitary model of thinking than people notice.
COWEN: When you talk with your graduate students, do you sit down with them? Or do you go for walks with them?
KUKLA: Really, both. Great question. I do all kinds of very different things with my graduate students, depending on what we need to do. Sometimes we go out and meet in a busy coffee shop because I feel like that will be helpful. Sometimes we sit in my quiet office. Honestly, I’ve had graduate students who I’ve boxed with, pretty seriously. We’ve talked about dissertation work in between rounds in the boxing gym, as we’re punching each other, which is pretty embodied.
I think that’s a great question. I never really thought of it that way until you asked me the question. But I do go out of my way to change up the environment and the motion, depending on what kind of conversation I think it’s useful for us to have.
In particular, I find that what I have to talk about, philosophically, with my graduate students, other people, is dependent on what city I’m in, too. Just dependent on the entire physical environment around me and what kind of stimuli I’m experiencing.
COWEN: From a philosophical point of view, why is boxing good for you? And who’s the philosopher with the best theory of exercise?
KUKLA: From a philosophical point of view, why is boxing good for me? I don’t know if this is technically from a philosophical point of view, but here’s two things. One is, I think philosophers who only do philosophy and nothing else tend to be bad, boring philosophers. Closely related to everything I’ve already ended up saying today, and closely related to what I just said about Rousseau.
I have a new colleague this year at Georgetown, Femi Taiwo. He just finished his PhD at UCLA. Fantastic young philosopher. He gave an interview recently, and one thing he said really stuck out for me, which was that so many philosophers think that philosophy is about responding to other texts and other people, and they forget that it’s, first and foremost, about responding to the world.
And I think that if you just do philosophy, you literally don’t have material. You can read other people’s philosophy books and respond to them, but you don’t have any actual, rich, juicy material. So, for me, having a lot of other things in my life other than philosophy has always been where I’ve got . . .
Imagine if you were a stand-up comic, and all you did is sit there and try to write comedy all day long. You wouldn’t have any material. I don’t actually think it’s very different. Philosophers and comedians have almost the same job, which is to come up with sharp, penetrating, quirky insights about the world, so you need to be out there in the world.
Imagine if you were a stand-up comic, and all you did is sit there and try to write comedy all day long. You wouldn’t have any material. I don’t actually think it’s very different. Philosophers and comedians have almost the same job, which is to come up with sharp, penetrating, quirky insights about the world, so you need to be out there in the world.
So I’ve always had a lot of things that I’ve done, other than philosophy, that have mattered to me intrinsically for their own sake, but also instrumentally. I think they’ve made my philosophy better. Boxing falls under that general category.
The other thing is, though, I don’t regulate my emotions very well unless I can exhaust myself, honestly. And I just write better and work better and think better, and I’m a calmer and more level-headed and smarter person, if I have managed to get out my rather large amount of energy and aggression. So it’s extremely helpful for me to exhaust myself in the ring many times a week in order to do the rest of what I’m supposed to do.
On geography and travel
COWEN: This may, in fact, be a segue from Rousseau and boxing, but how is it you ended up working on urban geography? Is this the thick consistency of Rebecca Kukla that looks like a deviation from philosophy, but it’s actually the next logical step? You started walking with Rousseau. You got to a city, and you thought, “This is the place, here are my thoughts.” Or how did that go?
KUKLA: I think that, actually, there’s been a really skillful narrative behind this interview so far. You keep on engaging me on topics where I end up talking about the importance of place and motion. Long before it ever occurred to me to do a degree in geography, I was always just fascinated by the role of place.
It seemed to me that there was this turn going on in philosophy that has been going on since I was a graduate student and kind of started in the ’90s, where philosophers got really interested in embodiment. They suddenly remembered that we have bodies, so they started doing all this work, thinking about the role that being embodied plays in what it is to be a person, to be a thinker, how we think, what we perceive, and so on.
But those bodies were always still oddly displaced bodies. They were bodies that weren’t anywhere in particular. And philosophers’ examples were always things like opening a doorknob or something like that, [laughs] these very abstract, minimal interactions with the world.
Whereas to me, a key feature of being embodied is that you’re embodied somewhere, and the somewhere that you are is this endlessly complex, concrete space. And I think that has a huge impact on all of these questions to do with subjectivity, agency, free will, perception, how we perceive danger, how we perceive safety, and so on. I’ve always been interested in that.
Separately, I’ve kind of nonacademically always been obsessed with cities. I grew up smack in the middle of a giant city. I loved it. It gave me freedom. I started exploring it very young.
COWEN: This is Toronto, right?
KUKLA: Yes, this is Toronto. I grew up smack in the middle of Toronto, which was a very usable city for a young kid. Completely nonacademically, exploring cities, eating in cities, getting to know cities has been my favorite thing to do for as long as I can remember. Just walking for hours and hours and hours in cities, there’s really nothing that I would prefer to do than that.
A few years ago, I started working on what started out as this very traditional philosophy book, thinking about how material spaces and the people who live in those spaces constitute one another. I was thinking about using things like some ecological niche theory from philosophy of biology and some other material like that, some work from phenomenology, to talk about how we are inherently shaped by the places that we are in.
But that likewise, what people do is modify their spaces and their places and give them new meanings and change them in the ways they need to make them suit their needs. So there’s a kind of a symbiotic relationship, a niche-building relationship between places and people. And it seemed to me most interesting to think about how that worked in urban spaces, where you’ve got a whole lot of people in a really complex space bumping up against one another.
COWEN: You spent time working in Johannesburg, South Africa, right?
COWEN: What did you learn there?
KUKLA: What did I learn in South Africa? I’m trying to think how to boil it down to a single answer there.
COWEN: At the philosophical level. Obviously, you learned facts about South Africa, right?
KUKLA: Yeah. No, no, no, I understand. The reason I was studying South Africa in particular is because, through my geographic work, I’ve been studying what I call repurposed cities, which are cities that were very definitively built materially to support a particular social and economic and political regime that keeps people separated in various ways, and flowing in various ways, and so on.
And then my question is, well, when that regime ends kind of abruptly, and the city gets filled up with new people living in new ways that aren’t suited to that material form, how does that thing I was just talking about happen? How do they rejig and remake their space to make it suit them, and conversely, how does this old found space shape what they can do with it?
I was interested in Johannesburg as a post-apartheid city and trying to figure out . . . Johannesburg is mostly an immigrant city now. A very small percentage of the people who live there are South African. It’s flooded with all kinds of people from all over Africa, who are not who the city was built to house. And so it’s got to repurpose itself in this very rapid, dramatic way.
If I had to take a philosophical punch line out of that experience, it’s that apartheid was a system of top-down segregation and division and surveillance. And now the city doesn’t have that, but it has substituted it with all kinds of bottom-up strategies for self-enclaving and division and drawing lines and territories between groups and between people so that, in a lot of ways, the city is as divided and segregated as it ever was, but in new ways.
I think that one lesson to take out of it is that, when people repurpose space, they don’t necessarily repurpose it in the direction of inclusivity and harmony and so on. Sometimes they repurpose it in ways that are just going to introduce new kinds of divisions. That said, that sounds really negative, and I have to say I found Johannesburg this incredibly creative, vibrant, gorgeous, exciting city, and I really loved being there.
But at the same time, there’s just no denying it’s an incredibly fractured, troubled space. And it’s fascinating to see the way people are, of their own accord, fracturing it rather than healing it in a lot of cases.
COWEN: What was interesting about Medellin, Colombia?
KUKLA: I was actually in Bogota.
COWEN: Oh, Bogota. Okay.
KUKLA: Bogota was amazing. I didn’t know so much what to expect when I went to Bogota, but clearly, it’s a physically absolutely beautiful city. It may be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen in terms of combining nature and artifice. It’s got these spectacular soaring sky rises and this gorgeous colonialist architecture, all up against the backdrop of the Andes. And it’s lush, and it’s super dramatic and beautiful.
But what I was not expecting was just how functional that city seems to be. It’s just an incredibly easy city to walk around, to be in, to explore, to eat in. It was an extremely welcoming city. It had the largest and most vibrant gay neighborhood that I might have seen in almost any city.
The street art in Colombia was fantastic. They have a new mayor who has gone out of his way to encourage street art, to loosen up the graffiti laws, and also to bring in street artists. So the city is turning into this huge palette.
The main way that it surprised me was that I didn’t realize that I had stereotypes about South American cities, but I suppose I did, and I suppose I expected it to be a little bit dysfunctional and hard to manage and rough going. And it was just such a model of a well-run city at this point. It was really inspiring.
COWEN: Is Tampa, Florida, underrated?
KUKLA: Yes, it’s certainly underrated. Tampa’s another really complicated city. I lived there for several years. I think a lot of people go to Tampa, and they either go there for business and end up in the suburbs of these corporate business parks that are terrible, or they have retired relatives around there who are living in gated communities that are terrible, or they go to the beach, which is whatever it is. It’s the same as the beach everywhere in this country.
But if you actually go into the center of Tampa, into inner city Tampa, it’s an incredibly distinctive city. It has a long history as a center of labor activism. It’s incredibly racially diverse. It was a cigar city originally, and it’s filled with Cubans and Central Americans and Caribbeans and also Romanians and Jews and Italians and Spanish folks, and they all came together, and they all created this distinctive Tampa culture that actually really has its own food and its own music, which is just a mixture of all of these things.
And when you’re in the middle of Tampa you almost feel like you’re in a different country. It’s so lush, and it’s so weird, and it’s so not organized. There’s almost no city planning there whatsoever. So you’re in this city, and you’re in the middle of a business district, but there will be chickens walking by, and there will be water birds wandering across your path, and there will be geckos climbing up things.
It’s all very tropical and exotic and evocative, and at the same time it has this really vibrant culture on the ground that almost nobody knows about because when they think of Tampa, they just think of this sort of bland city that you get around the edges. I think not only is it underrated, but it’s really hidden and underexplored. It’s one of the few spots in the States that I feel has not really been mined yet compared to other urban areas.
COWEN: How do you figure out where to eat in Washington, DC, where you live?
KUKLA: How do I figure out where to eat here?
COWEN: What’s your model of the process of where good places are distributed?
KUKLA: I live right in the middle of DC, not in the suburbs, and I actually find DC proper a totally fine but not especially inspiring place to find food. There’s a lot of very medium food in DC. DC’s an interesting city because most of the interesting food is way out in the suburbs. I don’t drive, so for me to get out to the suburbs, it’s a whole project, but really, if I want good food, that’s what I need to do.
I think that in the city of DC itself, there is so much pressure to cater to the common denominator because mostly you have people having meetings, constantly having meetings, and they’re meetings where nobody wants to offend anybody else because they’re trying to make a political deal, or they’re trying to settle a case, or it’s whatever it is.
So they want the food to be adequate and respectable but intrude minimally into their experience. And if you want to find good food, you have to get away from all the meetings, and you have to get out into the smaller ethnic enclaves in the suburbs.
I’m not sure how much you want me to say about my process of finding food, but for me, it’s this really complicated balance of reading user reviews, knowing which user reviews . . . I have a good sense for which ones should be written off as ignorable and which ones are worthwhile. I find that places that have too many user reviews are usually bland, and places that have too few are not as good a bet.
So you want to maximize the right number of user reviews of the right kind, and you want to make sure that the food is appropriate to the ecology of the neighborhood it’s in, that it’s not an Ethiopian restaurant in a Thai neighborhood, or whatever it may be. Those are less likely to be good.
Yes, it’s a complicated calculus for me, but I find eating in DC itself just fine. But I get more excited when I get to eat in other places.
COWEN: Let’s try a question about game theory. How well would polyamory work if everyone did it? Would it work better or worse compared to now, where a relatively smaller number of people are doing it?
KUKLA: I know that as an economist, you don’t want me to introduce extra assumptions, but I feel like I need to.
COWEN: No, you can. So you’d have a thicker market, right? But you might have less informed or less well-specialized people doing it, and which of those is more important?
KUKLA: I think one of the reasons right now why polyamory works very well for a lot of the people who do it is — and this is directly addressing what I think you’re getting at — is because since it’s a small, nonstandard community, people really — in order to make it work — they have to do a lot of critical self-reflection and studying to figure out what the norm should be.
You can’t just fall into polyamory right now. If you’re going to do it, you have to explicitly sit there and think, “What am I trying to get out of this?” And then you have to explicitly negotiate with partners and future partners, “What are our shared norms? What are our expectations?” Nothing can just be taken for granted the way it can for traditional, heterosexual, monogamous, or purportedly monogamous, relationships.
I think that, for most straight, monogamous people, there’s very little thinking about what their fundamental relationship and sexual values and norms are and what their boundaries are. They just sort of go with the flow. Or to get back to your . . . Heidegger would say they just find themselves thrown. They just find themselves in the midst of the norms and carry on. So your question about scaling — it super depends on how it’s scaled.
If it became a thing that everybody did, and in the meantime, what had built up and become the unreflective norm were a bunch of crappy, misogynistic, exploitative practices, then it would be worse. If it scaled up, and it scaled up in such a way that the unreflective, widespread norms were better and thoughtful and more enlightened, then it would be better.
I don’t have an in-principle question to whether scaling would make it better or worse. To me it’s all about how those norms would end up developing organically and through reflection and discussion, and what kind of sexual ecology we would end up with.
I think the sexual ecology we have right now in the broader culture is pretty messed up in a lot of ways. We could end up with a better one, or we could end up with one that recreated a lot of those forms of being messed up and just turned out to be exploitative. It’s very hard to guess in advance.
COWEN: In some game theoretic models, having groups of three people is especially destabilizing. In four, five, six people, you can have more cooperative outcomes. Do you agree with that or not?
KUKLA: Yeah, intuitively that feels right to me. You mean with respect to relationships and little sexual ecologies?
KUKLA: Yeah, I think three is hard. This is my completely anecdotal, unscientific response. I think three is hard to make work, yes. Because you’ll always have an odd number, and each person is a third of the whole dynamic, so there’s nothing like major majorities that can be taken into account. Yeah, it’s tricky.
COWEN: Two last questions. First, what was it like having dinner with Bernie Sanders?
KUKLA: [laughs] It was a really long time ago, and I was really young, and it was really fun. This was when he was a congressman in Vermont, and he had this adorable series. He loved academics, and so he would have these dinners with academics where he just wanted people to come and have dinner and say interesting things near him. My overwhelming impression of him was, at that point — and this was 25 years ago — that he was just incredibly approachable and genuine.
He was doing this because he really liked the company of academics and didn’t get it very often. The dinners — they were political in the sense that we debated political issues, but I never felt like I was being used as a tool in the Bernie machine or anything like that.
It really felt like he wanted to talk to people, and I, as a very, very young, just-starting-out academic, felt incredibly excited and privileged to be among all of these enthusiastic and intellectual lefties, who were all yelling at one another and getting super excited about the rebirth of socialism or whatever it may be. It was really fun.
COWEN: And what was it like seeing a movie with David Cronenberg? And what, in fact, is his best film? For me it’s Dead Ringers, if you remember.
KUKLA: It wasn’t like seeing a movie with him. I was working in a movie theater, and the movie theater hosted a lot of premieres, especially Canadian premieres — this was in Canada. He was there, and I was young and excited that he was there, but there was no great take-home story about our interaction or anything.
I have a total soft spot for the David Cronenberg movies that were out-and-out over-the-top exploding stuff and high drama. I loved Scanners, and I loved Videodrome. I love all the ones where it’s gross stuff coming out of other stuff, and so on. I don’t have a highly theoretical reason for that. I like movies that are extreme, and I love that he was willing to be incredibly low-budget extreme in his imagery back in the day. That was what was most fun for me.
COWEN: Rebecca Kukla, thank you very much.
KUKLA: Thank you.