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A Woman and a Philosopher: An Interview with Amia Srinivasan


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Photo: Tereza Červeňová/Morgenbladet

When Amia Srinivasan published her essay “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” in the London Review of Books in early 2018, several months into the public discussions surrounding #MeToo, it provoked many strong feelings—not to mention gave the world the sentence: “Sex is not a sandwich.” Opening with a reading of the incel manifesto written by the perpetrator of the Isla Vista killings, it became a far-reaching meditation on the ideological, political, and public dimensions of sexual desire and how we might begin to think more critically about them.

Srinivasan trained as a philosopher at Yale and then Oxford, where she has since established herself at the heart of the old boys’ club that is analytic philosophy. In 2019, she was given the Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory once occupied by Isaiah Berlin; she is the first woman, the first person of color, and the youngest person ever to take up her post. Most readers, however, will know her for her rich and entertaining pieces in magazines like The New Yorker and the London Review, including my favorite, a 2017 paean to octopuses—“the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.”

Srinivasan’s new book, The Right to Sex, is a collection of bold yet subtle essays, equally distinguished by their capaciousness and economy, full of sharp turns and trapdoors. It offers a formidable account of the workings of race, class, and institutional power within our sexual politics. “The Conspiracy against Men” swiftly dismantles many common misconceptions about false rape accusations, Title IX, and cancel culture, some of which have grown invisible through repetition. There’s a piece on the fierce and profound engagement of Srinivasan’s students with once derided antiporn figures like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, whose arguments have a new force for those who feel that online porn has meaningfully structured their own consciousness and sexualities, and another on the increasing coziness with state and corporate interests that has marked mainstream UK and U.S. feminism over the past few decades. “On Not Sleeping with Your Students” upends a cherished Ivy League defense of professor-student romances, making the case that people who initiate students into new ways of thinking might well (and arguably should) inspire feelings of excitement and attraction—yet their responsibility is precisely to direct those feelings to advance the student’s learning, not to gratify the professor’s vanity or lust. That essay, Srinivasan told me recently on Zoom, “is the one that I’ve had women most consistently write to me about.”

INTERVIEWER

When did you become a feminist?

SRINIVASAN

I had no relationship to feminism growing up. I remember distinctly a French teacher in school—I guess I was in sixth form—asking which of us identified as feminists. And we looked at her as if she was asking, Which of you identify as Levelers? Right? Some historical category that just seemed completely inappropriate and also deeply unsexy. And then, when I was an undergraduate, I’m horrified to say that among the mainstream humanities students, feminism wasn’t seen as something very intellectually serious.

So, feminism was an entirely extracurricular thing that I came to as a graduate student at Oxford. Literally what happened was that one summer, my best friend, who was then a grad student in philosophy at NYU, handed me a copy of The Second Sex, and I think she had a copy of The Feminine Mystique. And she just said, Look, I think it’s about time that we read these.

And then a little later on, I ran a reading group in feminist philosophy. What was great was that it brought out of the woodwork lots of students who you would have thought wouldn’t be interested in this stuff. We were all writing dissertations on epistemology and metaphysics and philosophy of language. People who seemed like very mainstream analytic philosophers turned out to be having these subterranean, dissenting inclinations and desires.

INTERVIEWER

So this was partly a rebellion against the institutional experience you were having?

SRINIVASAN

It was an expression, I think, of a certain kind of intellectual frustration I was experiencing from working in a very narrow analytic mode. On one hand, I found the emphasis on clarity and precision important, and I’m grateful for it. On the other, I found it stifling, and I was worried that the parts of my brain that I valued the most—the parts that engaged with literature and poetry and history—were being pruned away. So, it was a reaction to the analytic philosophy training I was getting. And also a reaction in another way, which is just that philosophy is a very male-dominated discipline, and that has all the results you would expect, plus some that are harder to articulate unless you’re in that kind of environment. Michèle Le Dœuff has this great line in Hipparchia’s Choice. I’m going to butcher it, but it goes something like, When you’re a woman and a philosopher, it’s useful to have feminism to be able to understand what is happening to you.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of your nonacademic writing as connected to what you publish as a philosopher? And how do you see the relationship between philosophy and politics?

SRINIVASAN

We should have a much broader understanding of what counts as philosophy and what counts as political theory. A lot of the great feminist texts are profitably read as both, and that’s something I try to get across with my students. Reading The Dialectic of Sex is a lot like reading the Republic, for example. They’re both thrilling, weird, carnivalesque, problematic, very cool, imaginative texts that bear deep engagement.

I don’t spend much time thinking about whether what I do is philosophy or not. I just write about what I’m interested in. Unlike some people who are philosophers by profession and interested in social and political issues—especially the imperfect social and political realities with which we are faced—I have a vast amount of time for totally pointless things. I was supervised by two philosophers who work in very abstract epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language and logic, and I would absolutely hate the idea that they would have to show the political relevance of what they do. While the arts and the humanities more broadly have an important social and political function, their justification should never rely on that function. And so, I’m very worried about an impetus to make the humanities politically relevant. I don’t think their political importance lies in their relevance. When they are relevant, that’s a lovely thing, because it would be a tragedy to leave politics to the politicians or the social scientists.

I think the truth is, if I had a different set of skills, if I could choose, I would much rather be an artist than a philosopher. I mean, what better thing is there to be able to do than create something absolutely beautiful?

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of beauty, in the book you quote this wild, vertiginous passage from Beauvoir about what sex might be like if the sexes were equal.

SRINIVASAN

Right, exactly. That is also something I wanted to bring out from these classic feminist texts that people often misread or just misremember or misconceive as being resolutely dour and pessimistic and boringly political. You see this in someone like Shulamith Firestone, who ends by talking about being freer to love. You see it in Valerie Solanas talking about the emancipation of the imagination. The emancipation of the imagination, of course, is central to Andrea Dworkin, this person we think of as being so relentlessly negative about human and social life. But she’s got this vision. She just wants more! That’s the thing I would like people to know about a lot of feminist texts, is that they’re just not satisfied. It’s not negativity. It is a deep desire to bring about other kinds of imaginative possibilities, and a dissatisfaction with the constraints on imagination, on women’s imaginations in particular, that they viscerally feel.

INTERVIEWER

So, in thinking about our desires as political, as social—not individual, in some sense—is there a tension there when we consider what to do about them? What would be a collective way of addressing the politics of desire?

SRINIVASAN

When I first wrote what is now the title essay of the book, I was trying to point out a largely unremarked upon tension between the commitment to consent-centric sex positivity and intersectionality. If you’re going to really think about the relationship between, say, racial domination and patriarchy, then you’ve got to think about the racial formation of desire. This isn’t a particularly new thought. Angela Davis takes Shulamith Firestone to task for failing to do precisely this.

In the book, I stress that I’m not trying to suggest a project in which every individual sits around thinking about whether their desires conform to their political commitments, much less proposing some sort of Maoist sessions where we all sit around and tell each other whether that’s true or not. Mostly because I just think that’s bad politics. We can look at the history of the U.S. women’s liberation movement to see what happens when a group of people committed to radical social change start to embrace an obsessive concern with the putative mismatch between individual lives and political commitments. At the same time, we need some of that, right? Because that is what distinguishes the New Left from the old Left.

I want us to have an ambivalent relationship to questions of what it means to render the personal political. What I’m really proposing is something that queer people for a long time have been proposing, which is just to think more imaginatively and creatively about what your desires might actually be. And this brings us to psychoanalysis, because one thing that tradition teaches us is that we’re in the constant business of repressing all sorts of things about ourselves and our sexualities and our affinities. At least some of those forms of repression—maybe not all of them—stop us from living freer lives. So, I’d like to see this project as a liberatory one rather than a disciplinary one. I’m not telling the person who is fixedly straight—whatever that means, but let’s just suppose there are such people—that you have to be queer. But I am saying, Let’s all be a bit more attuned to those instances where we are not listening to desire, but listening to a political force that tells us what we shouldn’t desire. I take that to be in keeping with a broader queer tradition.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve had the experience before of being objectified by journalists—the “hot philosopher” who “gives good interviews,” et cetera. That’s obviously annoying. At the same time, we’re all embodied creatures. You and I both, for example, appear in the world as quite femme. It seems to me that our experiences of that must structure what we then feel and write about a subject like sexual desire. Is that something you think about?

SRINIVASAN

I have so much to say. How much am I going to say on the record? I have nothing close to a reconciled relationship to my own embodiment. Not only in the deep philosophical sense of not having overcome my own mind-body problem—the fact that I have this finite, vulnerable, embodied existence—but I have nothing like a reconciled relationship to my own legibility as a female subject, as a woman. As a young person, my intense fantasy was to be disembodied entirely. I started feeling that when I was probably five or six, but that fantasy stayed with me throughout my teenage years and into college. It wasn’t that I simply didn’t like looking a particular way. I didn’t want to look any way.

The other fantasy I had very intensely was about adopting the life of the figure of the sannyasi. Sanyas is the Sanskrit word for renunciation. The sannyasi is someone who has renounced everything—their name, their family relations, all property, all civic status. And they have no possessions. They wear an ochre robe and they go out in the world surviving as a mendicant. And it seemed so plainly obvious to me that this was the correct way of being in the world. Refusing to take up or dress in accordance with any kind of social role, an utter refusal of any form of gaze, any form of legibility, any form of relationality, which then, in my young view, would set my mind free. I still find it a very powerful vision of existence. And I still find it deeply painful that we aren’t total authors of ourselves, that we can’t just wake up and be something completely new.

But when it comes to dressing, I do tend to dress in a relatively feminine way. Part of it is just what makes it easier to go through the world or what feels like a form of armor that one can put on—which isn’t to say I don’t love clothes. I was very happy to appear in Vogue, for example. Hilariously, the person who notified me when that piece came out was Jacqueline Rose, on day one. Which I had so much respect for. I remember once Jacqueline walking into the British Library reading room—I didn’t know her then, although of course I admired her—in head-to-toe Chanel. And she sat down across from me, and I sat looking at her in wonder, and I realized I was going to get no work done. So I just picked up my stuff and left.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned psychoanalysis earlier, and you seem committed to the idea that there are considerable constraints on how much we can know about ourselves. That idea has implications for the politics of desire and of identity, and for politics in general. And it feels in some ways like quite an unfashionable idea now.

SRINIVASAN

It is unfashionable. To think of the self as being obscure to oneself. I think you’re right to point to the phenomenon of identity politics as having something to do with this. It’s very important as people pursue the politics of recognition, to think of themselves as having a sovereign inalienable right to declare themselves to be something, to know themselves, and for their declarations of knowledge to be taken as dispositive.

And yet there are places where we risk overstating our ability to know ourselves. So if we think about something like trans politics, it’s very familiar to us that if you want a liberatory, trans-inclusive feminism, you need to take trans people at their word when they tell you who they are. But it’s important to notice that a kind of epistemic overconfidence is often in play when you’re thinking about trans-exclusionary feminism. This is a point I take from Jacqueline Rose, who says the question to ask of trans-exclusionary feminists is, Who do you think you are? How is it that you think you have such a reconciled relationship to your sexed body and your assigned gender and the way you are socially read? Her point is that all the ways in which we repress our discomfort and dissidence against the gender system haunt us in our dreams and our fantasies, where we are not stably always women or men. That’s a profound insight. And then the political question becomes, Whose ways of accommodating themselves to the oppressive system that is gender become socially sanctioned, and whose ways aren’t?

There’s a related issue with the way we sometimes talk about men, as if all men have a reconciled relationship to their manhood. As if it’s an easy thing, the demands of a certain kind of masculine performance, for both those men who fit it and don’t fit it. The idea that there’s no drama there, no anxiety there, I think is descriptively wrong and politically not particularly useful.

The right to be able to tell stories about ourselves is very important. It’s also very important that we have the right to change the stories we tell about ourselves. And that the stories we tell about ourselves are stories we tell in communion with other people. So much of what I say about myself is formed through what I’ve learned from other people who’ve helped me make sense of myself.

INTERVIEWER

The book covers a lot of tricky, fiercely contested ground. Do you worry about being misinterpreted?

SRINIVASAN

Are we going to write in a way where we could not possibly be misread? That kind of writing is bad writing. I was struck by this wonderful short review of my book in the Irish Times by Naoise Dolan, when she said something like, “Srinivasan isn’t worried about being misread. She’s not writing in a way that stops her from being viciously misread by her enemies.” I wasn’t trying to deliberately leave myself open for misreading. It just never occurred to me to write in a different way. But now I see that writing that wants to fearlessly engage with complexity is always going to be open to misreading. That’s true of so many great feminist texts, texts that open themselves up in those ways that I think continue to pay dividends.

INTERVIEWER

That’s why you teach people like Dworkin or Firestone?

SRINIVASAN

Everyone remembers Firestone’s line about shitting a pumpkin, which of course is not even her line—she’s quoting a friend. But what people forget, for example, is that extraordinary chapter “Down with Childhood,” on the oppression of children, which I love teaching my students because for so many of them it just feels like this disclosure of something they’ve wanted to say for so long about, for them, pretty recent experiences of being thwarted and infantilized and undermined and controlled as children.

Then she gets into freeing children’s sexuality, and pedophilia, and we’re in very murky and difficult territory. But there are certain feminists in this #MeToo moment who basically think we shouldn’t be reading Firestone for that reason. And it strikes me as profoundly anti-intellectual, but also as totally lacking what my colleague Rachel Fraser here at Oxford has called the carnivalesque in feminism. The importance of wackiness and weirdness and strangeness and audacity. I think it would be very sad if we lost that.

INTERVIEWER

You see that as an important quality for feminism specifically, or any movement?

SRINIVASAN

It’s important in any radical political tradition. It’s no surprise that utopian writing always has these wacky ideas. I mean, think about More’s Utopia, full of these strange possibilities, because the same political imagination that leads to the disclosure of new possible social arrangements also sometimes generates some crazy shit. The broadening of the sense of what’s possible, but also of what’s delightful and interesting about human life, has got to be central to a radical politics.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting, your attachment to that kind of unruliness. Because you yourself have come up within these institutions and been so successful—you seem the ultimate A student, in a way.

SRINIVASAN

I had a profile come out when I got the Chichele, and an old friend wrote to me to say that he thought it hadn’t captured my wackiness and sense of play and fun. I said to him that I don’t think that was the interviewer’s failing. I didn’t show that because I made a concerted decision to try and be taken seriously. There’s plenty of unruliness in my life. But it is undeniably true that I am the A student and in many ways the good Indian daughter who would bring home a 97, and my father would half-jokingly ask me where the three points were. Of course, it’s playing into a stereotype of Indian fathers, which he was knowingly doing. But it also comes from somewhere.

INTERVIEWER

It’s striking to me, actually, that in this book, which engages with sex, violence—things that can feel so deeply personal—you reveal very little about yourself. Is that in some sense a political choice?

SRINIVASAN

These essays are not personal essays in the contemporary mode. I’ve never written personal essays in that sense. At the same time, the essays feel very personal to me. I also have a habit of reading all philosophy as somehow betraying the self. I think that’s true of everything I write, not just these essays, but more abstract and technical pieces of epistemology. I feel myself haunting those pieces in, to me, quite obvious ways.

One thing is that I’m just instinctively private and want to be left alone. And I’m scared. I’m afraid of the internet and I’m afraid of the indelibility of it, the way that revelations of the self can never be undone. And then you’re always read through those revelations.

I’m also suspicious of biography as a genre, even as I have this biographical tendency when I read philosophy, which is supposed to be antithetical to biographical readings. But there are eruptions of the personal in the book. I have that moment where I make a joke about friends saying about me that I’m practically white—I thought a lot about whether I should keep that in or not. Sometimes what happens in essays is, I have more personal things and then I strip them out. But I decided to keep that. It felt like one of the most personal moments in the book, but for me, that’s always to take a position of intense vulnerability. I think part of the reason I like philosophy is because it… Nothing ever makes one truly invulnerable, but it gives one some immunity, at least some critical distance, some pretense of invulnerability. There’s also a question here about how much of political interest one can learn from my personal experience. I’m very aware of the limits of my own case. I mean, yes, I’m a woman. I’m a woman of color. I’m also just an extraordinarily privileged person and I don’t find my own story terribly interesting, is the truth.

INTERVIEWER

I’m suddenly thinking of that line in your octopus piece about the zoo and the aquarium—certain creatures being on display in captivity for the good of the species as a whole. That’s probably a very inappropriate connection to make.

SRINIVASAN

No, but see, those are the moments for me where I feel like I am… That to me is like a style of personal writing. I don’t write personal essays, but I feel like I’m constantly talking about myself. That octopus essay certainly feels like that. I mean, the dynamics of distance and proximity, knowability and unfathomability, are extremely personal preoccupations of mine, and I just find lots of ways of writing about them. I can be talking about octopuses. I can be talking about technical arguments in epistemology. I think I’m always just working out my own problems with other minds, though—my own mind and the other minds of actual other people I know and love. So maybe that’s a way of writing about the personal, in secret.

 

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Lidija Haas is the senior editor of The Paris Review.

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