My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

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.

Here is one bit:

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.

Here is another segment:

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.

Definitely recommended.


You missed a fastball right down the middle. The problem is in the positioning oneself.

I know lots of smart capable women. They don't position themselves. They become competent at what they are doing.

Foucault rots the brain.

Plus, Kukla's invocation of Hegel raises the question whether "feminism" in its contemporary iterations constitutes a formal "antithesis" of traditional/conventional "philosophy".

The many women flocking today (plus those having flocked) to Departments of Philosophy, keen to demonstrate that they think themselves capable of thought, do help show up the cognitive pretensions of conventional and traditional philosophy and philosophers.

If Foucauldianism merits "thesis" status, what lethal "antithesis" might lurk within--dubious historiological methodology alone? (Some theses do merit rejection outright: the French seem equipped today to do without Foucault, whose "guru" status in the American academy seems not yet to've been seriously challenged to hear the continuing babble from all our orthodox Foucauldians.)

Is contemporary feminism turning into "maternalism"?

Exactly right, Derek. This woman is clueless, and always will be, because all she cares about is how she is perceived -- not how competent she is.

>"I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts."

How dense do you have to be to utter that sentence? I know many women who are experts and are living full, happy lives as such.

This woman will never have that problem.

Imagine, a social species that meta-thinks about power and perception.

Exactly. She's FOS. The way to sound like an expert is to become an expert.

I follow many women on Twitter, read their blogs, and search for their YouTube videos because they are experts. I am interested in the context.

How disappointing.

Intersectionality, feminism, postmodernism, ... are all overated and overexposed.

" ... I am interested in the content ..."

">"I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts."

Agreed, this is a ridiculous, reality denying statement.

She was responding to a question about rhetoric. *Of course* her answer was about perceptions. Mine would be too

The responses above are worse than clueless.

I think it is a stupid mistake for women to always claim that their gender works against them. People In the real world are quite aware that in fact it is the opposite and their gender gives them advantages. Whining doesn't look good for a man or a woman. It is almost as bad as Hillary blaming everything and everyone other than herself for losing the election. I also suspect it is a ploy to simply seek even greater advantage because of their gender, kind of a "poor me" plea.

Feels like an overactive superego always fixated on "society" telling them what to do, and its always such a strawman.

I can only hope that one day upper middle class women will finally be able to have their cake and eat it too, so we might move on to less pressing concerns.

All this meaningless word association posing as profundity has melted my brain.

There is a charming Brian Eno song about the day you hope for. Upper middle class women try on feminist tropes for a lark. Because feminism is a proletarian ethos essentially, they get bored and move on.

'Cindy Tells Me' off the wonderful Here Come the Warm Jets .

" 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."

She needs to hang around a better class of women. Feminists are funny. Always trying to fight 1950, but never wanting to let it go.

She's making a disguised demand for deference, and giving procedural cover for any substantive deficiencies in her thinking.

" 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."

Kukla should reread Plato's Gorgias, which contrasts rhetoric (how to have the appearance of authority and expertise) versus actually having authority and expertise.

You should've asked the question on "How well has it held up?... empirically" on Hegelian Dialectic!

I mean, social movements clearly do not show tendencies to reduce contradictions, nor does the exposure of contradictions spur movements to simplify or improve their thought.

It seems then, that this mostly leads to the idea that seeking and exposing contradictions, inconsistencies, hypocrisies that undermine given social movement can be a substitute for actual thought ("what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive"). That's there's less concern between actually training people how to thing and using ordered processes to generate better thought (that is, more elegant and more generalized models), and more trust put on the idea that progress is inevitable and will be faster the more attentive and self critical we are to our own contradictions.

Hegelian dialectic has become just another way to cry to mommy. I know I am oversimplifying but overall that is true. I really don't think that all these "social movements" who love to call out problems in everything are helping at all. If anything, they might just be making us all miserable by confounding human limitations with "social issues". At the end of the day, this is a direct consequence of the failure of Marxism. These people have substitute their fantasies of utopia with constant complaining. I guess that's progress, but not by much.

"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."

Dole Office Clerk : Occupation?

Comicus : Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk : What?

Comicus : Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk : Oh, a *bullshit* artist!

Comicus : *Grumble*...

Dole Office Clerk : Did you bullshit last week?

Comicus : No.

Dole Office Clerk : Did you *try* to bullshit last week?

Comicus : Yes!

Outstanding reference, +1


so did alexa say something killing nonbiological parents because that's what we think we heard
and so you economists are just gonna talk about china instead of why alexa wants to kill the stepparents?

And Comicus looked alot like Mel Brooks

If this Kukla chick is such a talented thinker and philosopher, why does she repeat the same brainless chliches, such as "there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body." I work in finance and have met plenty of women who are talented leaders and know how to create an aura of authority around themselves. Further, why does the interviewer ask her about feminism as opposed to, say, monarchism or humanism? Who cares what one more affirmative action bimbo thinks about feminism?

I also work in finance, and both the CFO and COO of my current employer are women (as well as many senior VPs). They certainly seem to know how to project authority.

And while we're at it: Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher, ...

Uh, forget those foreign Eurodevils. How about Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Now those ladies project authority.

Yeah, this whole convo gets a hard pass from me. The podcasting ecosystem is crowded and cant is hardly a scarce commodity, even when its excreted by someone at a once proud institution like Georgetown.

Would anyone claiming here today that female speech is neutrally accepted, as with the male, claim on other days that there are evolutionary and socio-biological foundations to sex difference?

You can't have it both ways. It is not an integrated philosophy. If you want the sex differences, you have to acknowledge an associated difference in perception.

Conversely if you want a "neutral ear" you need to start with a "blank slate."

No one's speech is neutrally accepted. Not mine, not yours either. If anyone listens to me it is because of my experience and knowledge, sprinkled with the ability to communicate at the required level. I seek out people who know, and find it in both men and women.

The moment someone spouts some trope, I stop listening.

I know and respect a very large number of men and women who aren't some blank slate bullshit but have built a life and expertise with what they are as a person. I don't listen with a neutral ear because I'm dealing with individuals, not cookie cutter clones.

Maybe it is more about the old trope of academic disputes being vicious because the stakes are so low. If it doesn't matter, really doesn't matter at all, then all you have is grandstanding and positioning. Maybe that is what Philosophy as a field has come to.

I think the point being made is that at the lizard-brain level we perceive male and female authority differently, and that it's harder to navigate as a female. I don't think that's particularly controversial.

You might personally be good at ignoring that and judging every speaker by just the content of their speech, but most people have ingrained bias.

I'd say you're right, but that wasn't the claim. It may be harder for a woman to be accepted as an authority, but there are a crap load of examples that prove Kukla's claim wrong. Really wrong.

I’d prefer it if she DID put it in lizard brain discourse, which I suppose these days is Ev Psych, because that would be more honest than an admixture of Foucault and Hegel. (I actythknk she gets Hegel massively wrong because he was very much an Enlightenment figure who had a place for reason and not a cynical master of suspicion, which is what Foucault was.)

My lizard brain recognizes that it is a man or woman, and i will act differently, like not swear or similar. But smart women will use that to accomplish what they need to do. The women i know don't act like men to exercise authority. If they tried i would lose respect for them.

Authority is getting people to do things you want them to. I worked with a woman who got the most miserable men doing her bidding while they thought she was doing theirs. It was remarkable. Likely what you are referring to is some bullshit study where they asked people some question about who had the most authority.

I agree that women wouldn't do well in male sexual status games. Men wouldn't do well in female sexual status games either.

I think this is a fair observation. We can note that there is a bias or a prejudice against the authority of female speakers without agreeing to the claim that there is 'almost no correct way'. Part of the problem is simply that power and authority are exclusive possessions people strive for competitively and most will fall short of their ambition, man or woman. At the same time, I agree with other comments here that women have other advantages. Not sure I agree that overall they are better off or not. It really depends on any given individual's strengths and personal goals so is hard to judge on a society wide basis.

Philosophy: a muscular exercise of throat, jaw, tongue, and brain.

Often in that order.


That sounds more like Bierce than Pierce.

I’ll go along with the first three, with “brain” being occasionally optional.

Ancient Greek Philosophy: an exercise in sodomy of young boys.
No wonder the west is f*cked. It was always there since the beginning.

Suppose a board said that they can't hire a woman CEO because women can't communicate effectively: they either sound too feminine or not feminine enough. They recognize that it's totally unfair to women but, until society as whole changes its attitudes towards women, hiring a woman CEO would put the firm at too much of a disadvantage to other competitors. To me that sounds like complete bunk, which means I must believe that women can, in fact, "sound as experts" in our society. What would Kukla think about this firm's evaluation of women executives' communication abilities?

This is the best comment of many that have made similar points. It's an excellent hypothetical, maintains a neutral tone, and deserves a response from Kukla.

I'd expect a philosopher to be careful with words. She's not. "There's almost no correct way..." is rubbish, sloppy thinking, and propaganda. I don't disagree that presenting one-self with tattoos, 5 ft nothing, 100 lbs, reduces a person's physical impression, (the haircut probably doesn't help either). But if a female has to rely on physical impression, she's already dug herself into a hole. Note her language, "embodied".
Did her first answer really include praise for TC's "fascinating" question? ROFL! And she can't understand why she's not "empowered". Here's my question, that TC being another abuse fanatic (as any boxing fan must be) naturally missed, is: Isn't there an obvious problem with meeting your students while you get physical with them? Isn't that by definition an abuse of power? Oh, hey Jack/Jill, let's go a few rounds while I review your latest work...

On Hegel, if we are to take the politically correct, humanitarian argument that flew into the liberal establishment in the 1990's of "words are violence," we find a deeply tangled root. What are words? Spoken, written, in law? You can go point counter point on infinitum.

"Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman": a heretofore little observed phenomenon.

By the way there is clearly a nest of secret misogynists at the BBC. They have taken to having women giving commentaries on football matches (soccer). But the women chosen all screech alarmingly at moments of excitement.

Devious bastards, eh?

I didn't know there were moments of excitement in football.

Good summary: Saved me the time of listening to this rhetorical BS.

She is redefining words like Power into meaningless nonsense. Unlike social sciences, in real fields (STEM) competence is relevant. She is probably incompetent in huge relevant areas of life so she blames her lack of understanding of how her car works on power relationships when she gets taken advantage of by a mechanic.

This victim identity excuse for incompetence is just plain sick. Does she actually believe her nonsense much like young-earth creationists believe they are no primates?

She also discussed, or acknowledged, that power is not top down but an interplay of bodies and spaces.

Aren't those desks a perfect example of that?

They are clearly put there to establish order and hierarchy, but I think every one of us kids who ever sat there thought, "sure I can sit in this row and turn in my quiz but you're not the boss of me."

Don't get hung on perspectives being the whole.

mulp, is that you?

Sorry that only makes sense to people who actually listened. (And didn't have an internal and louder "no, no, no" going on.)

I'm sorry, but your comment comes across as a random word salad. And your reply didn't clarify anything.

But, maybe all the other readers understood you perfectly and it was just my poor reading comprehension to blame.

Badieu's reconceptualization of Hegel along set theoretical lines, and his take on Paul in the Bible, is worth exploring.

Contrary to some of the other comments, I enjoyed this discussion thoroughly. Her conversation about the difficulty positioning oneself as a woman was the least novel part of it, but it led into deeper and more interesting conversations. I also thought her summaries of various philosophers and philosophical works were clear--something many philosophers usually don't try to be.

One tension I found interesting was her assertion that misogyny was best described as an enforcement structure for sexist norms, because defining it as certain attitudes or beliefs towards women wasn't useful, as others' attitudes or beliefs aren't knowable (and rarely are our own). And, on the other hand, choosing not to engage Heidegger because he was a Nazi 'and he really believed it.' It seems to me there's work to be done on how to deal with beliefs and attitudes in philosophy.

I had to cut it off at Heidegger. Such a frank confession of preferring religious purity to intellectual pursuit, with the bizarre comment that actual Nazis are coming out of the woodwork. In America? Theres no way that's defensible unless you are a rube who believes everything they read and have been reading tripe or have redefined Nazi into meaninglessness.

How dare this unskilled harridan even suggest women face greater hurdles in communication, shriek the comments.

"Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on."
Sure, if you make up the definition of a word to mean everything then it is really going to be "right" to define everything!
Now what's the practical use of such word? None. Zero. Actually, it provides a disservice since it then can be used to mask your real ideology as something else.

What I found most interesting was the claim that breastfeeding has pretty much no benefit after the first few weeks. Aren’t there antibodies in mothers milk that need to be supplemented in formula? At least that’s what my textbooks have all told me.

the sociology dept claims are actually bolder than breastfeeding
they have concluded that parenting and education mostly dont matter because they bought that alexa which reminds us
about that glitch
- if you possibly are not the biological parents we are gonna need you to unplugna the alexana before sundown and throw it under the snowplows driving efficiently along the main streets of the city.

The breastfeeding conversation was interesting in that just prior to this Kukla complained about pre-natal advice revolving around historical anecdotal evidence about what was good or not good for the fetus with little interest in the needs of the mother. When questioned about breastfeeding, she cited some justifications that the practice probably is of limited benefit to the infant, so whatever choice the mother makes is probably fine. It says something about her incompleteness of thought in this area that whether breastfeeding has any biological, emotional, or cultural utility to the mother is not worth mentioning.

I am now stupidder for having read this post.

mebbe the Toronto police have a point
why kill the stepparents

I am pleased to say I found this (listening rather than reading) largely unsurprising and unobjectionable. I take that to mean it stuck to common sense and simple truths.

Anyone who gets angry with it might just be revealing themselves as unable to deal, in one way or another.

.. wwith the single exception that one does not build a proper chair with hammer or nails. A mallet and pegs possibly. The chair must survive a life of torsion. Wood on wood joints go with the flow, nut and bolt are strong enough to stand against it. But not nails, they just pull loose.

The blame here is on the poor choice of excerpts from Professor Cowan. The entire interview was quite interesting and the comments from the peanut gallery above do not reflect what was said. It might be better just steer people to 'Conversations with Tyler' rather than post provocative statements from the interview with the tag, "Definitely Recommended." Most of the blog readers won't invest the time regardless of the recommendation.

Agreed. The interview spends very little time on subjects the comments seem to find objectionable.

On the other hand she has the usual leftist tendency to attribute everything to environment even when there are very obvious e alternatives.

For example it seems plausible that humans are hard wired to attribute higher credibly to low tones given that they often come from larger and more threatening sources. It doesn't have to be the sole product of culture.

Boxing? Power lifting? Shaved head? Purple hair?

She's trying too hard.

Imagine students pay 70K+ a year to imbibe this twaddle.

" 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 know quite a few women--some of whom have worked for me--who have done just fine in important managerial roles...and were able to project all the authority and expertise that they need to.

I think many academics fail to understand how leadership in business organizations actually works; they often seem to think in terms of J R Ewing snarling at people in old 'Dallas' reruns.

"I was waiting for more misogyny. This is a kind of misogyny, I guess, yeah. "

Tyler didn't bat an eye as Kukla said he was being misogynist for switching topics. You can't make this stuff up...

That's a willful misreading. Tyler's questions at that point were about misogyny. Kukla was saying that she was expecting another question on the topic, but then graciously acknowledged that the next question, on societal assertions of interest in women's pregnant bodies, could in fact be viewed as a question related to misogyny.

Is this why 'we can contribute to Conversations with Tyler'?

Too transgressive for Koch Family Values?

Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore used to spar in the Cambridge gym. Most philosophers boxed as an exercise for their minds. Moore had an uppercut that gave Russell fits. Little known fact.

You need to tell the whole story.

The "Russell body slam" wasn't created in a vacuum.

I found the interview thoughtful and interesting. Made me think about a lot of assumptions. I do agree that the bits Tyler pulled out did not capture the totality of the interview, but then there was enough here that it perhaps denied summary. The comments are a bit disturbing and pretty thin. Referring to someone as that "Kukla chick" pretty much defeats your argument if you are attacking claims of misogyny.

People make a mistake thinking that Foucault's histories were even intended to be accurate. Like other postmodernists probably starting with Heidegger in his later work, such things were treated like interpreting poems -- or more accurately, interpreting scripture (hermeneutics). The history of punishment was more of a jumping off point for understanding philosophically and culturally how we understand the subject matter. Just like a feminist interpretation of a pop song can be useful in understanding the place of women in the world. The only problem arises when people start thinking those interpretations actually say something definitive or especially accurate about the object in question, such as the history of punishment or "Baby It's Cold Outside", rather than just being a useful tool for getting one thinking about a problem.

Every last comment is on the first five minutes of the interview. Every last comment rejects any possibility that this woman speaks with any knowledge or authority. And every last comment indicates that no one read or listened past the first question.

You all missed the parts where she talked about Hegel, Rousseau, how cities shape perception, the economics of polygamy, the fallacies of pregnancy, boxing, the hidden joys of Tampa, how to find great food in the suburbs, and how Johannesburg has been repurposed post-apartheid.

So you'll pardon me if I remain skeptical of any claims to be free from the social ills of gender bias.

The early parts on feminism were mostly standard stuff, but the discussion of philosophers and place were interesting.

Discussion of feminism seems to have boiled down to either one buys it or they don’t, where the highest quality speakers on it are little more convincing than lower quality ones. As such, it may be better to take a roundabout approach to it - as in, talk to this clearly interesting person for a while and then see if there’s an opening for gender issues within the context of an already interesting conversation, rather than diving straight into the feminist handbook.

Tyler didn’t really challenge Rebecca on any of her positions. Does that mean that he agrees with her on her foundational view of the world, or is she a guest because he likes to expose himself to the best version of the opposing argument? We may never know.

Here, the school district decided to get rid of the serviceable old desks, their seats worn comfily concave, and replace them with some Ikea-like, plastic chairs-with-trays that roll around. So the kids can learn from one another and collaborate. They might have just moved their desks around before, or themselves, but that would require energy, and we don't want them to use their bodies, because we know now that physical exertion is bad. Since probably 80% of the benighted taxpayers probably would have said this was a waste of money, anyway, despite the cutting edge stuff we know now about learning from friends and about physical exertion - this too was an expression of power, but in a different way than she means, I guess.

Always surprised by how eager some commenters are to be critical of women on this blog....But fuck this was a great interview. I love when you talk with other academics who aren't necessarily well known outside of their field. They always seem to be much more interested in the actual interview--maybe because they just don't get interviewed as often. Callard, Henrich, and Kukla were all great for that. Kahneman was a perfect example of the opposite. He seemed so grumpy and unwilling to really engage and so ready to give short, stock answers.

heuristic: the least famous is the interviewee, the better the conversation is. I agree with you on Kahneman.

Great interview. She was very engaging and the questions seemed very well suited to her--she even acknowledges this in the interview. Your prior research seems to really pay off here, as does her willingness to openly respond to these questions.

Spooky when the "conversation Tyler wants to have" and the "conversation I want Tyler to have" overlap.

Foucault's normalizing force and Baudrillard's simulacra are difficult to counteract. I appreciate the effort.

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