An interview with Amia Srinivasan
Amia Srinivasan is Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory. We spoke to Professor Srinivasan about her research, the 2020 rollercoaster, and forgotten feminist philosophy.
Welcome to the Department, Professor Srinivasan! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. How have you found your first academic year as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory?
Thank you! It has been both wonderful and strange: wonderful because of my fantastic colleagues and students in the DPIR, and strange because of the state of global politics. I took up the post in January, at a vexed and bleak political moment—right-wing nationalist parties dominating in the US, India, Brazil and elsewhere, a Conservative landslide election in the UK, and the climate crisis literally blazing its way across Australia. Then just a few months on we have a global pandemic that not only ravages many lives, but underscores pre-existing crises: of economic and racial inequality, of social and reproductive care, of the eroded welfare state, of leadership. In the last few weeks we have seen worldwide protests against anti-black racism and the carceral state. More than ever, it seems right to me that political theory must be a critical theory: that is, the sort of theory that seeks not only to understand the world, but to change it.
You’ve mentioned some of the global turmoil we’re in the middle of this year. Why is political philosophy important today?
I don’t think we can take it for granted that political philosophy is important, at least not in the sense of actually making a difference to the various political crises we face. That said, I think intellectual inquiry is valuable for its own sake. Some people want all philosophy to be directly oriented towards the practical. I understand why they think that—they are motivated by a genuine concern for oppression and injustice—but I think that perspective is mistaken. It is a perspective that inadvertently plays into an instrumentalist, neoliberal view of the university as a lever of the economy, rather than as an institution of free inquiry and learning that is intrinsically valuable. The situation with political philosophy—as opposed to, say, philosophy of physics—is more complicated, since political philosophy is in a sense parasitic on the realities of injustice. So we might think—or at least I tend to think—that political philosophers have an obligation to think of the real-world consequences of their theorising. In my experience, most political philosophers really do hope that their work will contribute to a more just world. However, the mistake that many of us make is thinking that injustice exists because people have false beliefs about what justice demands: that what is needed is simply a compelling argument that things should be different. That sort of political philosophy is one that does not begin with a real understanding of politics and how it works. Social and political change, when it happens, is rarely just a matter of changed beliefs or persuasive arguments. My hope is to theorise in a way that does not prescind from our non-ideal realities, and that is grounded in a recognition of how social and political change actually happens. I hope that this has a material pay-off, but I don’t assume it will. Theorists very often lag behind actual political practitioners—the organisers and activists—and it’s too easy to forget that. Meanwhile, I take comfort in teaching, which always has real, material effects, at an individual level.
Could you tell our readers a little bit more about your research and what you’re interested in?
My philosophical interests are ecumenical, though there are some recurring themes: the nature of knowledge and self-knowledge, the relationship between theory and practice, the limits of political deliberation and the importance of affect and action, the relationship between how we conceptualise the word and how the world is, the significance of history.
Recently, I’ve written about the role of anger in politics, debates about free speech and ‘no platforming’, sex discrimination law and the ethics of pedagogy, and the way in which our social position shapes our capacity to know.
What marks your approach to political philosophy as ‘different’—what shapes your choices about how you study and teach?
I’m not sure I have a ‘brand’—at least I’m not selling anything! The way I approach political philosophy is shaped by, and shared with, many philosophers and theorists who have come before me as well as many of my peers. I suppose my approach is one that emphasises the importance of rigour and care (virtues prized by analytic philosophy) while being intellectually open to diverse traditions and approaches, especially historical ones (a less common orientation among analytic philosophers). I don’t much like disciplinary gatekeeping. I think we spend too much time rebuilding wheels—‘discovering’ questions and issues that have been central concerns for theorists working outside mainstream philosophy or political theory for a long time. When I teach, I try to engender both these tendencies in my students: a habit of precision and care, together with an open-hearted sense of what is worth taking seriously.
You’re currently working on your new book, The Right to Sex. Can you tell us more about the book?
It’s a work of feminist theory that centres on the politics of sex. In it, I discuss the ethics of sexual desire, rape and rape culture, sexual harassment, male sexual entitlement, campus sex, pornography, sex work, and sex and state power. The book tries to offer a way of thinking about the moral and political complexities of sex that pushes beyond the categories of ‘consent’ and ‘pleasure’—categories that have come to dominate much recent feminism. To do so, I reach back to an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon, something squarely within the bounds of social critique. I do so in a way that is attentive to our situation in the early 21st century, taking seriously the complex relationship of sex to race, class, disability, nationality, caste, the internet, and the capitalist and carceral state.
The book was sparked by an essay for the London Review of Books on incels, individuals who view themselves as involuntarily celibate. You wrote about the two different responses to desire: empowerment and entitlement. Looking at the world today, do you feel that much has changed since you wrote your essay?
Not much. Since I wrote that LRB piece there have been a number of violent murders perpetrated by so-called ‘incels’. More generally, there have been increasingly visible displays of white male entitlement: not just to women, but also to guns (in the US), public space, and exceptional treatment by the law. Think about Dominic Cummings romping around the country while black boys in London are harassed by the police for getting some fresh air in parks. There is a deep connection between all these things: different expressions of the expectation that certain people are entitled to more and better. When that expectation is thwarted, violence often ensues. This is why so many right-wing terrorists are also domestic abusers.
Alongside The Right to Sex, you’re also working on a monograph about critical genealogy. What’s the book about?
The book, which is called The Contingent World: Genealogy, Epistemology, Politics, is about the way in which our beliefs, concepts and values are shaped by the contingencies of history, culture and evolution. It traces the history of what I call ‘genealogical anxiety’: the worry that revelations of such contingency somehow undermine, debunk or cast into doubt the legitimacy of our beliefs or values, from the pre-Socratics to contemporary debates about the evolution of morality. It asks: when, if ever, do genealogical revelations render our beliefs unjustified? In short: it’s complicated!
It offers a way of thinking about the political force of genealogy: genealogy as a guide to what I call ‘worldmaking’.
Put simply, I argue that history can reveal that our way of conceptualising the world is contingent—and thus open to change—and moreover can suggest to us how it is that we might refashion our concepts in order to change the world.
You've described feminism as ‘not a philosophy. It’s not a theory, it’s not a set of ideas. It’s a political struggle’. 2020 marks the 100 year anniversary of women matriculating at Oxford, as well as the centenary of the PPE undergraduate course. Today, where are we at in the political struggle for gender equality, and do you think this fight will ever end?
As the case of women’s admission to Oxford shows, feminism has borne fruit. It is not all bleak; progress has been made. However, even in the case of women at Oxford—who are overwhelmingly from wealthy backgrounds, privately educated, and white—there is much work yet to do. Feminism must concern itself with the worst-off women: the poor women, often brown and black women, who are the world’s labourers, in factories and fields and homes. Too often, including at Oxford, ‘gender equality’ means achieving parity within an elite group, leaving untouched the systems that make most women’s—and many men’s—lives a misery. To stay with the Oxford example: 100 years ago women first matriculated at Oxford. This is a milestone, to be remembered and celebrated. Yet today, the women who clean our colleges are rarely paid a living wage. Will feminism ever be unnecessary? I hope so, but not in my lifetime, that is for sure.
One last question! You mentioned in your interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in the Financial Times that you’d like to use your position as Chichele Professor to highlight ‘neglected’ philosophical ideas, particularly feminist theory. If you could encourage our audience to read one piece of work, what would it be and why?
A brutal question! There are many works of philosophy and theory that are important to me. A text that I particularly love, and that I find my students love, is Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. It is a spectacular work of feminist theory, bringing together history, psychoanalysis, empirical political science and first-personal narrative to examine the institution of motherhood—a deeply political institution, Rich shows, that shapes us all. It is at once unflinching in its diagnoses of the pathologies of gender, class and race, and deeply hopeful about what might be possible. It is also exquisitely written.
Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. Her new book, The Right to Sex, will be published in March 2021. You can preorder a copy now—with Bloomsbury in the UK or with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the USA.